Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Introducing 007
The first novel in the James Bond series by Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, was originally published in 1953. Though it is the first published adventure of the consummate secret agent, it is not an origin story per se. The book opens in mid-mission, with Bond already an established operative of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. With two previous kills under his belt, he’s already earned his double-0 code name and a license to use lethal force at will.

For those used to the nefarious plots of world domination so common in Bond’s adventures, the plot of Casino Royale will seem small in scope by comparison. A communist agent named Le Chiffre (the Cipher) has a weakness for gambling. Having risked and lost some of his operating expenses he finds himself in debt to his bosses at the Soviet agency SMERSH. Le Chiffre journeys to the French coastal town of Royale-les-Eaux in hopes that some luck at the casino’s baccarat tables will replenish his accounts and save his skin. Bond, who enjoys a reputation as a skilled card player, is sent by the British Secret Service to defeat Le Chiffre at baccarat, thereby bankrupting him, taking him out of commission, and depriving SMERSH of an established agent and millions of dollars.

Aiding Bond in this endeavor are René Mathis of the French intelligence agency le Deuxième Bureau; Felix Leiter, an American CIA agent who will go on to make frequent appearances in Bond novels; and Vesper Lynd, a gorgeous British agent for whom Bond immediately develops an intense attraction. In his interaction with this supporting cast, 007 reveals a friendlier and more sensitive side than we are used to seeing in the Bond films. The Bond that shows up in Casino Royale is far closer to Sean Connery or even George Lazenby than the laconic killing machine portrayed by Daniel Craig in the later films. Although Fleming’s novels are written in the third person, the reader gets frequent glimpses into the inner thoughts and feelings that lie behind Bond’s polished facade, revealing the vulnerability behind the steel. In one memorable torture scene, for example, we discover that despite his apparent personal strength he is not immune to fear, regret, or despair. Over the course of the novel—amid all the cards, cars, and guns—the reader witnesses the gradual evolution of Bond from a relatively idealistic and dutiful agent to a cynical, hardened veteran.

The Bond stories have a reputation for defying realism, and that’s certainly true here. In the gambling scenes, for instance, Lady Luck is clearly on our hero’s side. In his encounters with the enemy, Bond definitely has nine lives, and a fortuitous rescue is always forthcoming whenever he ends up in a life-threatening jam. A little sensationalism is welcome in this genre, however. It’s what makes Fleming’s work more lively and entertaining than the more procedurally realistic espionage thrillers of his contemporary John Le Carré. Thankfully, the Bond of Casino Royale does not exhibit superhuman prowess in all his endeavors, as we too often see in the movies. I’m not a huge fan of the Bond films, for just that reason, but I did enjoy this book. I can’t say I’m ready to rush out and buy the next installment in the series, but I’m sure this isn’t the last time Special Agent 007 will cross this reader’s path.

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