Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953)

For many people, the 2006 film adaptation of Casino Royale – starring Daniel Craig in his début as Ian Fleming’s infamous spy – heralded an immersion into the world of James Bond. Fleming’s original novel, however, published over 50 years earlier in 1953, wonderfully introduces us to the chain-smoking, misogynistic character that became a phenomenon – even if it does have its faults.

Bond – the highly-focused 007 of the “Secret Service” – is tasked with bringing about the downfall of La Chiffre: paymaster for the mysterious SMERSH outfit, who he has betrayed; notorious brothel-investor; and member of the Russian secret service. Provided with funds from the Treasury, Bond must partake in a high-stakes game of baccarat at the Royale-les-Eaux casino in northern France in order to bankrupt La Chiffre. As it soon transpires, this is more than a game for money: Bond is playing for his life and the lives of those close to him.

Fleming provides us with a cast now oh-so-familiar to generations of spy thrill-seekers: Felix Leiter, a CIA operative that helps out in Bond’s most crucial time of need; and René Mathis of the French Deuxième Bureau, who proves to be entertaining foil for Bond’s often-meandering thoughts – as well as a competent radio-seller and efficient agent.

It is Vesper Lynd, however, that is supposed to really grab the reader’s attention, from the moment she appears in Fleming’s pages describing herself as the personal assistant of to Head of section S and explaining she has been sent from London to assist Bond. He is frustrated, of course – but also a little intrigued. Initially, only because he wants to sleep with her, and at stages the frank misogyny and anti-feminist rants in Casino Royale grind the gears of the reader, even if you bear in mind that the book was written over 50 years ago:

“This was just what he had been afraid of. These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they just stay at home and mind their pots and pans and leave men’s work to the men. And now for this to happen to him, just when the job had come off so beautifully. For Vesper to fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched and probably held to ransom like some bloody heroine in a strip cartoon. The silly bitch.”

Harmless, some might suggest, but as the novel rushes towards its exciting dénouement – packed with your usual twists and betrayals – the rants are distinctly noticeable, off-putting, and in this writer’s opinion, they detract from an otherwise engaging narrative.

At just over 200 pages, however, Casino Royale does whip along at a rate of knots, as the high-stakes game at the Royale-les-Eaux drastically tips out of control. Bond has underestimated La Chiffre and could pay the ultimate price as the mysterious SMERSH watches from the shadows. As events move him closer to Vesper, his thoughts take a sudden turn, and we are treated to a James Bond often unseen: tender and loving, as opposed to cruel and uncaring.

Fleming quickly puts that idea right though, in a breathlessly fascinating finale that leaves the reader wanting more. Ne t’inquiètes pas, as the French would say: there’s another eleven novels, and 007 has plenty of adventures left yet.

★★★★☆

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