Friday, 13 January 2012

Review: Casino Royale

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953)

James Bond, secret agent on Her Majesty's Secret Service is in the past-its-prime northern French town of Royale-Les-Eaux playing baccarat at Casino Royale.  Though he is a professional gambler who uses his winnings to allow him to live in a style that his Secret Service pay can't afford, he's on other business now.  A Soviet paymaster, Le Chiffre, is running a baccarat game in hopes of recouping the money he embezzled and lost before his KGB masters realise what has happened and have him liquidated.  Bond's mission is to see that he doesn't succeed, thus eliminating a KGB agent and discrediting the Communist trade union that Le Chiffre supports.  Helping him is fellow agent Vesper Lynd, Deuxième Bureau official Mathus and CIA agent Felix Leiter.  None of this is enough because in the end it all rests on Bond's ability to ride the luck of the cards.  And even if he wins, the battle is just beginning.

The first of the James Bond novels, this is the one where we're introduced to 007–a number that today is steeped in romance, but which to Bond means that he merely killed two men in the line of duty.  This is certainly not the Bond of the film series,who is much more of a fantasy figure.  This Bond has many more doubts, is less insolent and even in the first book is so tired of the spy game that he's considering chucking it all in.  That being said, he's still Bond; resourceful, charming and brave.  He is also a much harder man than his cinematic counterpart and his sexual conquests are as likely to end in tears as passion.

But even from the start this is Bond is Bond.  Even though Ian Fleming only took three months to write Casino Royale, he had carefully thought out Bond as well as supporting characters like M and Leiter.  Bond  is a combination of various agents and characters that Fleming had known during his years with British Naval Intelligence mixed in with his own tastes and habits. It's telling that where Bond survives to this day, those habits did for Fleming at the age of 56.  It's also an interesting point that the plot of Casino Royale was based on a real life experience where Fleming tried bankrupt an enemy agent at baccarat, except in that case Fleming lost his shirt.

What is fascinating about this novel is how mundane all the high living seems. Casino Royale is a has been gambling spot trying to regain its glory and though Bond does wine and dine Vesper Lynd on caviare, one of the most exotic dishes he indulges in was an avocado.  It's easy to forget that this book was written almost sixty years ago in a world that was much poorer and in a Britain that was still living under rationing.  In those days, even for the upper middle class a holiday at a run down Normandy resort eating oily avocados and rubbing shoulders with bland gamblers would have seemed as exotic as the headiest jet-setting crowd of ten years later.

In the end, one comes away from this book with two important insights:  First, that the Vesper sounds good on paper,but tastes like lighter fluid in real life and second, if you are a man, you will never be able to look at a carpet beater in an antique shop again without wincing and crossing your legs.

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