Casino Royale was published in 1953, the first of Ian Fleming’s classic James Bond series. At the time, Fleming was recently married, retired from the British secret service, and often took leave from his newspaper job at his estate in Jamaica, nicknamed “Goldeneye.” It was here that Bond was born, the result of Fleming finally getting around to writing his “little spy novel” that he felt nobody would want to read.
The first thing to understand when reading any of the Bond novels is that the books are a direct reflection of Fleming himself. He wrote what he knew and enjoyed. This meant fast cars, beautiful women, food, drink, gambling, weapons, and the intimate workings of the life of a secret agent. The second thing to keep in mind is that these novels, like their author, are products of their time, and all that implies. Fleming was a womanizer, and so too is Bond. As a man of the world, Fleming was largely not a racist, though he held a considerable mindset for British superiority and saw Americans as a worthy friend and ally in the global quest for liberation from Cold War era threats. That said, Fleming uses a number of words and phrases throughout his books that are considered racist today. In his time, this was simply how people spoke, and no offense was meant. As a man who worked in intelligence and later in journalism, Fleming had a keen eye for detail and observation. Many of those details and observations make it into his book, and most of them come across as stereotypical, but they are honest. Any exaggerations are dedicated for his villains. Fight against them however you like, for they will probably make you uncomfortable, but this is the world Fleming saw, and much of it is culturally accurate. For many of his readers, these books were their first encounters with other cultures, for the world wasn’t quite so open then as it is today.
To be clear, that doesn’t make any of it right, especially by today’s standards. I like to see it as a direct reflection of how far we’ve come.
Characterization was not Fleming’s strongest suit, and it tended to develop in spite of his best efforts to contain it. Bond got his name from ornithologist Dr. James Bond, who had written a compendium of birds that Fleming had in his collection. When searching for a name, Fleming is said to have searched for the dullest name he could find, and that fit the bill. To his mind, Bond was not an exciting personality. He was a boring man that had exciting things happen to him. When it comes right down to it, Bond is an empty vessel who becomes Fleming’s alter ego, allowing Fleming to relive the “glory years” at a more visceral level. The plot of a 007 novel is secondary. It’s there to move things along, but the sights, sounds, and sensory experiences are what was important to Fleming.
For myself, I started my explorations of 007 in the movies. My first experience was 1973’s Live and Let Die on commercial television, with 1987’s The Living Daylights as my first big screen experience. As such, I grew up with Connery, Moore, and Dalton, and I just took it for granted that Bond had a different face, different character traits, and different levels of brutality depending on his era. The first time I ever read a Fleming novel, it was Goldfinger, which was at the time my favorite of the films. When I realized Casino Royale was the first in a larger series, I eventually tracked it down, and it reshaped the way I saw Bond forever. I have a spot of nostalgia for this one, partly because I remember the scavenger hunt required to find it, going bookstore to bookstore in my little town. Ah, the days before the internet… It was a little weird getting to know Bond with a .9 mm Beretta and a Bentley vs. the familiar Walther PPK and Aston Martin, but with this starting point, I was able to appreciate how the character grew. It was the first time I really charted a long-standing character’s development, a skill that would come in handy as I learned about the different eras of Superman, Batman, and other favorites. To my mind, Casino Royale isn’t just a fun read, it’s the cornerstone of when I turned the corner from casual interest to real fandom.
Let’s talk about the book itself now, shall we? Casino Royale introduces us to the elements that would become staples of Bond’s world. We have Bond himself, his boss M, and M’s secretary Moneypenny. We have Bond’s new American counterpart from the CIA, Felix Leiter. We have the main villain, the target of Bond’s mission, in this case Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre is the paymaster for another element of the Bond novels, the super secret terrorist organization, SMERSH (short for SMERt’ SHpionam, “death to spies”). And we have the Bond girl, Vesper Lynd. More on her in a moment.
The basic plot of this book is that Le Chiffre has a string of brothels that have been losing money, and he’s using SMERSH’s money in the highest stakes Baccarat game in history to pad his coffers before returning the money to fund their terrorism. M sends Bond in to play against Le Chiffre in the hopes that in causing the paymaster’s loss, SMERSH will remove him themselves, lose their funding in the process, and cause a giant monkeywrench in their operations. Seeing as how many of Fleming’s ideas have some basis in reality, I’m forced to wonder if this is something world governments have done, and if so, how often. It’s fun to think about.
Vesper is not just another Bond girl. Bond’s signature martini — the one he almost never drinks, but everyone knows it anyway — is named for her. She is one of the two most important women who will enter Bond’s life, and as such, she is the one who first breaks and then drives him to return to his string of “love ’em and leave ’em” liaisons. We’ll meet the “other” woman later on in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
What I find most interesting about this novel is that it’s practically three different kinds of stories showcasing Bond in three very different styles. You’ve got the casino story, demonstrating Bond’s on-the-job skills and character traits. There’s the infamous torture sequence, wherein you see exactly what Bond is made of, mentally and physically. And then the last part of the book is a romance of sorts, or as close to it as Fleming ever gets. As serious as Bond gets with Vesper, the reader instantly knows it’ll end badly. It always does in pulp stories like this.
That’s exactly what Fleming’s 007 novels are: pulp novels. They’re a callback to adventure stories featuring characters like The Shadow or Sam Spade. It just happened that the book was popular enough to keep more coming until Hollywood called, opening the door to the spy genre craze of the 1960s. The threat of the Cold War was a very real threat when these books were new, and to have the kind of verisimilitude that somebody like Fleming could offer… Bond was the right hero at the right time, the man who could meet the threat head-on for a generation of readers who lived in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. It’s powerful stuff when you think about it. But it was light reading at the same time, the kind of tale you could devour in bite-sized chapters to escape the world on your coffee break. For me, revisiting this book is my idea of a fun afternoon.
Of all the Fleming novels, this is the one I’ve read the most often. Going back to the beginning helps me to appreciate where it’s gone since then. When you watch the films, each time a new actor takes the role, the scripts go back to basics and back to Fleming. Then they get a little more outlandish, then return to Fleming. It’s a well-established cycle. As outlandish as some things get in the Fleming books, there is always a grounded nature to it. It’s probably why I keep coming back to this novel in particular. I just find it to be a comfortable foundation.