(Author’s Note: This is the February entry for the Progressive Book Club. I’ll be posting a review for a book I’m reading once a month for the PBC. If you’re interesting in taking part, head on over to the Guidelines and toss your hat into the ring.)
Published in 1953, Casino Royale marks the introduction of one of the most enduring pop culture characters of the past half-century (and, by the looks of it, this century as well), as well as the emergence of perhaps the finest author of the spy thriller, Ian Fleming.
Casino Royale takes us back to the height of the Cold War, when the counterintelligence agencies of Western and Soviet governments waged a nasty battle of one-upmanship against each other. Having been a survivor of the earliest skirmishes of the Cold War, Fleming does a masterful job of painting the scene, of parlaying the importance of giving the enemy false information, and being on a completely heightened state of awareness that danger always lurked around the corner. In creating James Bond, the Double O agent with a license to kill, Fleming sows the seeds of not just one of the great heroes of literature, but possibly one of its greatest anti-heroes: Bond is a charming sociopath, quick witted, refined, ruthless, callous, misogynistic, and ready to kill at a moment’s notice. It’s only when Bond survives the most gruesome torture that his hardened heart turns sentimental, and the callous misogynist learns to fall in love. Enter Vesper Lynd, of Section S, a gorgeous, raven-haired beauty sent by M to assist Bond in his mission to bring down “Le Chiffre,” a dangerous SMERSH (KGB counterintelligence) operative with a lust for violence and a weakness for gambling.
The novel centers around the ongoings at the title location, a ritzy hotel in Paris, where Le Chiffre holds court at Casino Royale, blowing millions of francs. MI6 (British Intelligence) and the CIA would love nothing more than to see Le Chiffre lose every penny, and have SMERSH put a bullet in him so as to spare them the embarrassment of a Soviet agent engaging in decadent excesses. James Bond, a master cardsharp at baccarat, is sent with a cache of millions to try his luck against Le Chiffre and bankrupt him.
But Bond’s enemies are on to him – Le Chiffre’s two goons have made him – and 007 survives a bomb blast by mere seconds. Worse yet, his luck at baccarat may be running out. Can Bond draw the right cards to bankrupt Le Chiffre, or lose millions and bankroll Le Chiffre’s counterintelligence activities?
The bulk of the novel takes place during the baccarat game, and while it’s not important to know how the card game is played, Fleming keeps the pace going at a brisk tempo with the right blend of exposition (he explains the rules of baccarat without slowing the story down) and tension (there’s an attempt made on 007’s life during the game that’s pulse-pounding).
At less that 200 pages, Casino Royale moves along very quickly, even when the novel falls into sentimentality, when Bond loses his hardened edge and falls madly for the vexing Vesper Lynd. The action is fast and furious, and while Casino Royale doesn’t contain a lot of the brutish violence that would later become a trademark of the Bond novels and films, there’s still enough action to satisfy the action junkie in everyone.
The triumph of Casino Royale is Ian Fleming’s prose, taut, yet sprinkled with passages that are both flowery and prosaic. Fleming balances the two worlds Bond lives in, the refined, elegant world of Bentleys and expensive champagne and Beluga caviar, and the gritty, savage world of being a government assassin with a possible short life span. Fleming’s Bond at first isn’t as assured as we’d come to expect, but the final page, when we begin to see Bond not as James Bond but as 007, suggests a man becoming comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, with the brutal nature of his nasty industry.