First published 1953, 192 pages.
Introducing James Bond: charming, sophisticated, handsome, chillingly ruthless, and licensed to kill. This, the first of Ian Fleming's tales of secret agent 007, finds Bond on a mission to neutralize a lethal, high-rolling Russian operative called "Le Chiffre" by ruining him at the Baccarat table, forcing his Soviet spymasters to "retire" him.
It seems that lady luck has sided with 007 when Le Chiffre hits a losing streak. But some people just refuse to play by the rules, and Bond's attraction to a beautiful female agent leads him to disaster...and to an unexpected savior.
James Bond is one of my guilty pleasures. By today's standards (hell, even by 1950s standards), the Bond stories are full of rabid misogyny and racism and a faint whiff of imperialism (though after WWII it's Democracy vs. the Commies), but they're cracking good stories if you can squint sideways at lines like "Bond had found that all of the Asiatic races lacked courage" and Bond's constant griping about how useless women are except when he needs something to decorate the end of his dick.
Ian Fleming is unapologetically writing for men who want to be James Bond. That said, I've read criticisms of his writing accusing him of all manner of bad writing sins, and I disagree with most of them. He writes in terse, compact sentences and most of the Bond stories are short, quick reads that pack a lot of plot into a few pages. He's making no effort to be "literary," but he's not writing crap either; he describes every character in crisp detail, sometimes going into their backstories, and if there is a certain sameness to his villains, and an inevitable sameness to his women, he does differentiate between them enough that they are distinct characters each with their own motives. And if you like descriptive detail, Fleming draws a vivid picture of cars, clothing, drinks, food, cigarettes, seaside towns, and French casinos. In Casino Royale, he even gives the reader baccarat and roulette lessons. All that in his first and one of his shortest Bond novels.
The plot is quite simple, the story brief. "Le Chiffre" is ostensibly the head of a communist-controlled trade union in France, and actually a minion of SMERSH, the dreaded spy-killing agency of the USSR. Le Chiffre was given a chunk of money by SMERSH to finance his operations, and he went and invested it in French brothels, just before France passed blue laws against pornography and prostitution. Suddenly out several million francs, Le Chiffre needs to make that money back fast, before SMERSH finds out. Being a gambler, he gets the bright idea of going to the Royale-Les-Eaux casino to play high-stakes baccarat.
MI6 finds out about Le Chiffre's little problem. They'd love to see him not only "cashiered" by his Soviet paymasters, but publicly disgraced so as to discredit the commie-run trade union he's been running. So they send James Bond to Royale-Les-Eaux with a bunch of francs to play against Le Chiffre. Bond's job is not to kill Le Chiffre, but to beat him at the baccarat table.
This is the sort of scenario, and spy mission, that could only happen in a James Bond novel, but Fleming keeps the story moving so briskly that it almost makes sense. Bond is aided in his mission by French intelligence agent Rene Mathis, CIA agent Felix Leiter, who is a recurring character in the Bond books and films, and of course, the beautiful Vesper Lynd.
Bond vs. Le Chiffre at the baccarat table actually manages to be more tense and suspenseful than any of the violent encounters that precede and follow. But of course the end of the game is not the end of the novel. When Bond breaks Le Chiffre's bank, Le Chiffre must get his money back somehow, and he does so by kidnapping Vesper and Bond. What follows is quite a gut-clenching torture scene, a quick reversal, a betrayal, and Bond coldly going forth in Her Majesty's service to wreak vengeance against SMERSH.
The literary Bond is not the movie Bond
Daniel Craig makes a great Bond, and 2006's Casino Royale was one of the best Bond films in years (and unusually faithful to the book). In many respects, the movie is better. It's got more action. The parkour roof-hopping in the beginning and the chase through abandoned buildings and elevators in the end are all Hollywood embellishments. The movie also adds a lot of extra complexity to both Le Chiffre and Vesper Lynd's motives that weren't in the book.
However, none of the movies have ever really captured Fleming's Bond in all his ambiguity -- he's not just an old-fashioned sexist, but appallingly misogynistic. (Some of his charming lines in the book include "The sweet tang of rape" and "The bitch is dead.") And yet, he also feels genuine tenderness for the same women about whom he has such appallingly misogynistic thoughts. Fleming writes Bond as a man who tries to present that hard, unemotional British facade, but deep inside he's got a soft, gooey center... and deeper inside, he's still a misogynistic twit.
When Bond is in danger, he's not the smirking man of steel that Daniel Craig is in the movies. Likewise, he does not kill easily or casually, as he does in the movies -- in Casino Royale, he's earned his "007" designator by having killed precisely two men prior to the book, and he's not proud of either kill.
Verdict: If you've seen the movie, none of the plot twists in the book will surprise you, but reading Casino Royale is still a different experience than watching it on film. James Bond is what he is - a big, swinging dick - but Fleming's got a knack for stylish storytelling, so if writing that is about as politically incorrect as you can get without being John Norman doesn't turn you off, I'll cheerfully recommend the Bond novels as spy thrillers that don't bear too much thinking about.
Also by Ian Fleming: My reviews of Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories and From Russia with Love.
Casino Royale is on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (most likely for its cultural significance rather than its literary value). If you found my review too positive, dorian_mauve gave it a delightfully snarky, scathing review for books1001.