Earlier this year, I decided to reread all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. On this site, I’ve written many times about how much I love all of the James Bond films so I thought it would be interesting, especially since a few years have passed since I originally read them, to reread the original novels.
The first Bond novel was Casino Royale. First published in 1953, Casino Royale introduced the world to not only MI6’s James Bond but also to the CIA’s Felix Leiter, the sinister assassins of SMERSH, and the tragic Vesper Lynd.
The story starts with a deceptively simple mission. James Bond has been sent to the Casino Royale, with specific orders to play against and humiliate Le Chiffre, a union boss who works for the Russians. Bond succeeds at his mission but quickly discovers that Le Chiffre is not the type to accept the loss of eighty million francs gracefully. Bond ends up undergoing a truly horrific torture, one that is described in harrowing details by Fleming. While it’s not a spoiler to reveal that Bond survives (after all, Casino Royale was followed by 11 novels and 2 short story collections), it comes at the cost of a terrible scar and a terrible tragedy.
In his first appearance, Bond already possesses several of the traits for which he’s best known. He’s a meticulous eater, a frequent drinker, and a chain smoker. He’s ruthless and is described as being cruelly handsome. When Vesper Lynd first meets him, she exclaims that he looks like Hoagy Carmichael, the British musician who Fleming originally hoped would play Bond in the films.
At the same time, while rereading Casino Royale, I was surprised by how passive Bond was for the majority of the book. Beyond the scene where he plays baccarat with Le Chiffre, Bond really doesn’t take a very active role in his first novel. When he’s captured and tortured, he doesn’t escape through his wits. In fact, he doesn’t escape at all. He’s rescued by SMERSH, who have decided that they no longer need Le Chiffre to launder money for them. After being rescued, he decides to retire from intelligence work and marry Vesper Lynd. Vesper Lynd is a double agent but Bond never figures that out on his own. He only discovers this fact from Vesper’s suicide note.
(Which, of course, leads to the novel famous and bitter final line: “The bitch is dead.”)
In fact, there are times when Bond almost seems to be … well, dorky. Early on, we’re informed that he hopes to create and make a fortune off of a new drink. (Minutes after meeting Vesper, he announces that he’s going to name the drink after her.) When he’s in the hospital recovering from being beaten, he’s hardly the Bond we all know and love. Instead, he’s rather petulant. When he explains that he’s quitting the service, he comes across like an angry teenager announcing that he’s not going to go to school anymore.
As for the novel itself, it’s a quick read and, even after all these years, I can see why it caused a stir when it was originally released. It’s not just that Fleming was telling a spy story that was full of intrigue and deceit. It’s also the Fleming was giving readers a glimpse into a glamorous world that they probably would never have a chance to experience for themselves. Fleming describes the casino with such care and attention to detail that you literally feel like you’re there, watching Bond gamble.
For the record, here’s my favorite line from the book. It occurs shortly after Bond first meets Felix Leiter and discovers that Felix is from my homestate:
“Bond reflected that good Americans were fine people and that most of them seemed to come from Texas.”
And finally, here’s the ingredient for Bond’s drink, the Vesper:
“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel.”
(Apparently, some of these ingredients are out-of-date. I rarely drink so I have no idea.)
Casino Royale was followed by Live and Let Die, which I’ll review tomorrow.