“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”
I know this book, so well, have read it so many times that I can write those words above from memory. They are the opening words from Ian Fleming’s 1953 debut novel, Casino Royale – the book that introduced James Bond 007 to the world. And here I am reading it yet again – in fact, I intend to re-read all of the Bond novels for this Archive series, “The Literary James Bond”, which kicks off here and will continue until.... well, whenever. Re-reading these books is not a chore by any means, Fleming’s work could never be boring – it was perhaps a little indifferent on times but was never ever boring. The series will also cover Kingley Amis, John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffrey Deaver. The Young Bond books won’t be covered – I just can’t face those. And I’m not doing the Moneypenny Diaries either – hey I’m not a girl, you know. Ian Fleming said he wrote the books for red-blooded, heterosexual males so let’s stick with the red blooded ones.
Raymond Benson noted, in his excellent James Bond Bedside Companion (1984) that Bond is entirely humourless in this first novel, and for the most part I would go along with that but I wouldn’t say the character was entirely without humour. There is much resigned wit over being partnered with a woman and Bond even laughs at his own pretentiousness when ordering dinner. And in the latter sections of the book Bond is overly romantic when falling in love with Vesper, but for the most part Bond is a stiff no-nonsense type, which perfectly suits the seriousness of the story. And it is a serious story – Fleming set out to write the best spy thriller possible – and there is no time for frivolity.
A highly ingenious plot sees Bond trying to out gamble Russian agent, Le Chiffre who is trying to win back the funds he has misappropriated from his paymasters in order to finance a string of failed brothels. It is felt that if Le Chiffre fails to recover the monies he has embezzled his ruination will bring about the collapse of a Communist controlled trade union in Alsace, something that would be highly desirable to the British, Americans and French governments.
Fleming’s introduction of Bond at the Casino is masterful and shows him to live the kind of high life that was out of the grasp of most people. During the time the book was written foreign travel was attainable to only the wealthiest and the degree of description the author gives to the locales would have seemed exotic to the average reader. And Fleming is heavy on detail – offering the minutiae of food, car engines, locations and weaponry. However the author manages to makes these passages exciting and interesting – he even fills several chapters explaining the rather complicated card game and yet the story moves like an express train. Fleming would pull off similar tricks several times in the series, most notably with the thrilling Golf duel in Goldfinger. Raymond Benson, again in his James Bond Bedside Companion, called this "the Fleming Sweep" and it is a term we will adopt for this series of reviews.
“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold and then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
Did Fleming consider a series of books when he wrote this one? I feel he did, several passages seem to suggest he is setting up character traits in Bond that will be used later. At one point Bond decides to resign from the service, telling Mathis while lying battered in a hospital bed: “History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”
To which Mathis replies, “Don’t let me down and become human yourself. We would loose such a wonderful machine.”
Bond, by the point, has had enough – his body has been beaten almost to destruction and his mind has taken a similar treatment. Le Chiffre is dead, killed by a SMERSH assassin, and it all seems to have been so useless to Bond. He contemplates marriage to Vesper and a normal life, the kind of life the average person leads. But all this is not to be and when Vesper is revealed to have been a double agent. His heart hardens and he weeps real tears as he informs his people that she was a traitor – “Yes, dammit, I said, ‘was’. The bitch is dead now.”
Casino Royale is one of the best in the series (personally it’s my favourite) and the book sets up the shadowy world in which James Bond operates. The novel details the first meeting between Bond and Felix Leiter and we are told that Bond uses a .38 Police Positive. With this book Fleming provided wish fulfilment for many people including a soon to be President Kennedy whom it later emerged was a huge fan of Mr Fleming.
Next: Live and Let Die
And if you find these reviews interesting be sure not to miss The Archive's James Bond Weekend this July - guest blogs, interviews, articles and features as well as reviews of both the films and books. There will also be a new original James Bond short story - that's fan fiction you know. It's for Archive reader's eyes only - this July.