1. Literary 007 Reviewed: Ian Fleming's 'Casino Royale' (Part II)

    By Devin Zydel on 2008-01-15
    Ian Fleming

    Ian Fleming

    This is Part II of a new review series. Click here for Part I.

    With 2008 celebrating the centenary of Ian Fleming, it seemed as good a time as any to launch the newest review series: Literary 007 Reviewed.

    As several CBn Forum members are already aware, every two months a James Bond adventure is chosen for members of the Blades Library Book Club to read. Proceeding in chronological order, the club began with Fleming’s Casino Royale back in March 2003 and we are now progressing through the John Gardner Bond adventures.

    Ian Fleming's 'Casino Royale'

    Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale

    It therefore seems logical to start this new series at the beginning with Casino Royale. What follows are selected reviews from the Book Club Forum members. For further details on the club or to post your own review of Casino Royale, simply click here.

    Literary 007 Reviewed: Casino Royale

    ‘Casino Royale’ reviewed by… sharpshooter

    In Sydney for a holiday some seven years back ago, I visited a bookstore. Havent had read the Fleming books, I searched and found the Coronet series editions, I purchased Casino Royale – mostly on the great cover artwork. I recall why Casino Royale is my favourite James Bond novel. Even if novel surpassed it, Casino Royale – Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel typed in 1953, ignited it all.

    In the rather slender read, we have Agent 007 as a fallible human being who learns from his experiences, notably the infamous carpet beating. Bond is a believable human being the reader relates to, who happens to be a secret agent. Bond does not always win his battles at first. To quote Bond #4 Timothy Dalton, who is regarded as Fleming’s Bond, “You can’t relate to a superhero, to a superman, but you can identify with a real man who in times of crisis draws forth some extraordinary quality from within himself and triumphs but only after a struggle. Real courage is knowing what faces you and knowing how to face it.”

    The basis for Bond’s character is all made here. It is a dark and complex book. After all he endures, he is ready to get up and go for it again. His mood when it comes to women, which he claims are for recreation, his taste for heavy living comprising of alcohol and heavy smoking, the cars, the cards, and the internal thoughts of his distaste for killing, yet it is his job. The novel is a step back into a bygone era, yet it remains the timeless definitve take on agent.

    The book is a espionage thriller. Bond is the underdog. He encounters Le Chiffre, essentially his maker – the ultimate villain. He has Bond tortured, yet Bond does not kill him. He makes Bond consider resignation, early on in his career. Bond in deep thought considers who is good and evil, concluding Le Chiffre served a devine purpose in his motivation to hunt down people like him. Bond must get serious in this spy game.

    The cold hearted blunt government’s motives for this are re-enforced when he is betrayed by Vesper Lynd. The following events that follow the card game can be labelled boring and uneventful by some. It is essential to create Bond’s sense of suspicion and distrust of people.

    Fleming’s descriptive, journalistic style serves him well. He enjoyed the finer things in life, therefore he creates quality and craftsmanship so Bond is equipped with the best in the field. It creates a gloss on the story. It also creates the feeling of a travelling loner, with enough spare time to know what he wants. This continued for the duration of his books, but had to begin somewhere. The first appearance of such a style considered snobbery by some.

    The novel is the blueprint of the series and the man himself.

    ‘Casino Royale’ reviewed by… MHazard

    One of my favorites of the series from the beginning “the smell of a casino…is nauseating” to the end “yes, I said was, the bitch is dead”. Also essential reading to fully understand On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and how the character has grown in the interim. Personally, I don’t think Fleming writes a Bond novel as good until he hits From Russia With Love.

    ‘Casino Royale’ reviewed by… Nicolas Suszczyk

    There’s about 40 Bond novels written by Ian Fleming and other autors, but you can’t beat the first James Bond novel.

    Casino Royale introduces us to the world of James Bond, an MI6 agent recently promoted to the 00 status, with the codename 007. His mission is far different from the film adventures and posterior novels: there, he doesn’t needs to use his famed 00 code, which gives him a licence to kill. Bond’s mission is to run Le Chiffre down. Le Chiffre is a SMERSH (acronym for Smiert Shpionom, “Death to Spies”) treasury, who has been gambling to baccarat with the organization’s funds. M’s mission for Bond is quite simple, and everything depends of luck: He has to bet against Le Chiffre in a baccarat game at the Casino Royale in Royale-Les-Eaux. But Le Chiffre is previously informed of Bond’s activities, and attempts to kill him every time.

    007 survives the numerous attacks of Le Chiffre, and is assisted by Deuxième Bureau agent Rene Mathis, CIA agent Felix Leiter, and agent Vesper Lynd. James Bond defeats Le Chiffre and dines with Vesper, but both are captured. Bond survives an horrendous torture before two SMERSH hitmen kill Le Chiffre for his betrayal. Thay don’t kill Bond, but they carve a cyrilic letter in his hand with a knife to identify him as an enemy agent, causing Bond to fall unconscious. Bond recovers in an hospital and decides to spend the rest of his life with Vesper, who hides a deep secret: one day, she commits suicide with an overdose of pills and leaves a note revealing that SMERSH captured her lover and force her to work for them.

    Of the novels I’ve read of Bond, Casino Royale is the quintessential book, as we learn some tips of Bond’s past. Particulary good is one of the chapters called “The Nature of Evil”, in wich Bond tells Mathis when he first killed a man to obtain his 00 code. Vesper is a superbly written character, although the film version is even better. We know that for Bond there will be many girls, but Vesper is his first real love, even more important, I think, that Tracy Di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. We can really see how emotionally touched is 007 when he discovers her dead body. “The bitch is dead”, he comments after realizing her betrayal, altough the spy will visit her grave in future novels, showing us that he really can love and has a very big heart.

    The villian Le Chiffre is not very menacing or frightening, but his torture methods are really cruel. It’s so deep in him the intensity of this first mission that he will ask himself if it really worth saving the world, only to be animatd by Mathis, a great character who will also return in another novel: From Russia, With Love.

    What Bond did I saw while I read it? I really imagined Pierce Brosnan because he’s my favourite Bond, altough when I re-read some parragraphs of the novel recently I truly imagined Daniel Craig as Bond and Eva Green as Vesper, and that shows how good was the effect of the 2006 film version.

    On the last thing, the novel lacks of all the exotic locations of futures adventures, but it has a truly grat description of the atmosphere of a french casino in the opening sentence: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning…”

    Casino Royale is an outstanding Bond novel, and you will not be dissapointed. Absolutely amazing.

    Rating: 10/10

    ‘Casino Royale’ reviewed by… Double-0-Seven

    Note: This review was written before the release of the 2006 James Bond film starring Daniel Craig.

    Yesterday while at my local Chapters book store I decided to have a look for some Bond books. Of Ian Fleming’s novels they only had Casino Royale and From Russia With Love in stock. I was originally going to wait and buy the movie tie-in edition of Casino Royale and read it while counting down the final few weeks until the films release, but it was only eleven dollars so I decided I might as well pick it up. I would have also picked up From Russia With Love, except it was twenty dollars and I thought that was a little expensive for a paperback, but I’ll probably pick it up next time I’m there.

    Anyway, I started reading Casino Royale as soon as I got home, and I couldn’t put it down. I read the first half of the book before deciding to take a break from reading, and then finished the other half tonight. Usually I never finish books this fast, as I usually only read a few chapters of a book a day, but this book was just too good to stop after only a few chapters.

    I found the whole book enjoyable, and each page kept making me want to read more and more. The whole card scene was fantastic. The torture scene was very brutal and well written, and I had heard about how much Vesper meant to Bond, but never realized how much she really meant to him until actually reading it for myself.

    Overall, I think this is definately my new favorite Bond book. I’m also a lot more excited for the film now than I already was, and can’t wait to see how close the second half of the film is to the book.

    I’ll definately be reading it again before the movie comes out.

    ‘Casino Royale’ reviewed by… Double-O Eleven

    Note: This review was written before the release of the 2006 James Bond film starring Daniel Craig.

    This most recent re-reading was, of course, in preparation for the upcoming movie, but I think I’ve re-read this book right before every Bond film came out as a way of grounding myself in a time period before James Bond was a household name and before Fleming had even established him as a continuing character. Casino Royale was not the first Bond novel I read. I started off with Goldfinger, Doctor No, Live and Let Die, and The Man with the Golden Gun before I located a copy of Fleming’s premiere novel in a bookstore. The year was 1986, and Fleming’s books were thankfully then in print in the U.S., right before the start of a mysterious dark age. Although I was already a Bond fan based on reading those four books (I even liked The Man with the Golden Gun at that time, which I now consider Fleming’s least), my experience with Bond’s first literary outing sold me forever on Ian Fleming as one of the greatest popular writers in the English language.

    Of all the Fleming Bond novels, Casino Royale is the one I’ve re-read the most often. This isn’t because it’s my personal favorite. That honor belongs to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s because 1) it’s short and easy to leap into and polish off in two days or less, and 2) it is Genesis and a reminder of where it all started, and what it was like “in the beginning” when there were no expectations and no points for comparison.

    And what a strange beginning it is! There isn’t any novel in the Fleming canon like it. Only You Only Live Twice seems close in moody and style. Compare, say, the style of the very next book, Live and Let Die: fast-paced adventure and action moving quickly from location to location. Now look at the static and somber nature of Casino Royale. Although short and brisk, it is a heavy book where the atmosphere speaks much more than the story. From the famous first paragraph until the famous end line, the prose of Casino Royale is one of heavy sensation: taste, smell, sight. You can almost choke on it.

    But this is also a stark novel. Fleming embellishes his writing with sophisticated and intoxicating prose, but the book nonetheless feels as if it is stripped bare. Emotions are subdued, almost nullified. Business is carried out with lethal seriousness. The meals are sumptuous, the decor glistens, but the game played here is not for shilly-shallying about or plot padding. The story cuts right to the bond and exposes the nerves. The characterization is minimalist in design, especially that of Bond. This is primarily where Fleming’s first novel stands so far away from the others, where Bond turns into a more vivid and fascinating character. The supporting cast is also stonier than in later novels, with the exception of Felix Leiter, who add a nice touch of levity to an otherwise stone-faced serious story.

    And who is this man, James Bond, Agent 007, licensed to kill? Looking at Casino Royale isolated from everything else that followed it, and trying to imagine reading the book in 1953, I find that a tricky question to answer. He’s cold and brutally efficient. He has inner feelings, warming up eventually to Vesper, but believes that survival depends on shutting them out… turning back into a ruthless machine. He is Her Majesty’s hired killer. And his sexism is a touch shocking, although it leads to the most memorable closing line of the books as Bond once again becomes the cold, professional device in the service of the government. There are some intriguing back story details revealed about Bond, such as the two assignments which got him is Double-O designation. I especially found the killing of the Japanese cipher clerk in the RCA building fascinating; Fleming could have crafted a short story all on its own about this incident. In fact, the short story “The Living Daylights” seems to have aspects of it. Bond comes most to life not in his scenes with Vesper, but in his talk with Rene Mathis in the hospital. Here is where I can most clearly see the characterizations to come in Fleming’s later work as Bond ruminates on his job… only to have Mathis sum up Bond’s philosophy for him: the punishment of the wicked. Fleming had the unusual ability as an espionage writer to include both the moral confusions of the spy’s world with the good vs. evil excitement of the heroic thriller.

    Considering the importance placed on the villains in the subsequent books and films, the featured villain of Casino Royale is a non-entity. Le Chiffre is, like his name, nothing more than a number, a cipher. He exists as a silent opponent across the green felt of a baccarat table, a pair of stubby pink hands that deal cards, and a mind that deals death if anything gets in its way. Even with the now-obligatory speech scene, the only scene Le Chiffre gets to dominate, the character appears essentially secondary to the story, a villain plot device along with the shadowy assassins of SMERSH. The real adversary of the story is luck itself, as personified in the baccarat game, one of Fleming’s signature sequences. Although he would pen more Bond vs. Villain confrontations using a game (bridge, golf, canasta), this is the quintessential one and the best handled. I am amazed every time I read it of Fleming’s deft handling of the building of tension as the stakes raise higher and higher, and the way he can encapsulate so much power into the speaking of simple words like “banco” and “suivi.” Even to somewhere unaware of the baccarat rule (good thing Bond gives a brief primer to Vesper beforehand), it’s easy to follow what is going on and what is at stake.

    The torture scene is another Fleming trope that he would never quite duplicate with the same savagery–perhaps something for which we should be thankful! The masochism of this scene is nearly unbearable, and Fleming achieves it without using explict words for what is happening. Quite a feat.

    Structurally, Casino Royale is a bizarre book. The finale takes places two-thirds of the way in. The villain is dead, his scheme stopped. What is there left to do? the reader might wonder. I certainly asked that when I first read it. And this lengthy coda with Bond and Vesper’s romance and it tragic close does seem to go on a bit longer than it should. But the shock of the finale and Bond’s sudden cruelty to Vesper’s memory (does he believe it, or is he protecting himself?) tends to erase gripes about the sudden shift in pacing. It does leave the book on an unforgettable note. It isn’t “the spy story to end all spy stories” as Fleming thought (hell, it was just the beginning!), but it is one of the most moody and strange one ever written. Wherever one might stand on its quality regarding the other books in the series, this is a novel that leaves a startling impression.

    Keep your eyes on the CBn main page for further reviews of Ian Fleming’s James Bond adventures in the upcoming months.