The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.

To my knowledge, I have seen every James Bond film ever made in the English language. It might surprise you, then, to know that I have only read one of Ian Fleming’s Bond books previously, despite my father having a complete collection of both hardbacks and paperbacks. This being the case, I thought it might be a bit of a lark to have a go at experiencing Bond in my own preferred format. And what better place to start than with Casino Royale (1953), the novel in which 007 made his debut?

While I have seen both film versions of Casino Royale, my previous experience with a Bond book told me not to expect book and film plots to marry up too closely. Boy was I wrong on that. The Daniel Craig reboot of Bond sticks pretty closely to the shape of the book and I could picture most of the key scenes effortlessly as a consequence. Long-time viewers of the Bond films will know that Casino Royale, while retaining some familiar features like Felix Leiter and the classic car chase, marked a paring back of the classic Bond tropes – no Moneypenny, silly gadgetry or Q, and a harder edge to the man and the story. The book is just the same.

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming book cover

The plot revolves around a high stakes game of Baccarat at a glamourous casino (Texas Hold ‘Em Poker in the film, I am reliably informed). Bond, being the best card player in the service, is sent by MI6 to defeat a known enemy at the baccarat table and thus bankrupt him. Le Chiffre is in bed with the USSR and the ominous SMERSH and, having lost monies not belonging to him, his only chance to save his own neck is to raise a profit of at least fifty million francs through high-end gambling. The scene is set, then, for a weekend of big-money betting, Bond backed by the Treasury, Le Chiffre by what remains of his ill-gotten funds.

Beside the game runs the entanglement between Bond and Vesper Lynd, a beautiful but cold woman also in the employ of MI6. Unsurprisingly, an attachment between the two develops and this new connection is pushed to the limit when Lynd is captured by Le Chiffre late in the piece and Bond is forced to sacrifice himself in the pursuit of her release.

The plot may sound fairly simplistic but this is a slim book that doesn’t attempt to be anything other than a piece of escapism for a British audience who were living in the rather dour atmosphere of post-war austerity. By comparison, the excitement and colour of the world described must have been infinitely seductive for those who dreamed of adventure in faraway lands. And what better world to engage people than that of espionage, so relevant in Cold War Europe? In the past, boys had dreamed of shipping off to an adventure with pirates in Treasure Island or to one of the colonies to meet with other civilisations, but in the 1950s what could be more thrilling than saving Queen and country while strutting around exotic locations, killing bad guys / suspicious foreigners, and sleeping with beautiful women? It is not difficult to see how James Bond became the great success he is today.

But being an icon of masculinity comes with a few downsides. It will not shock anybody for me to suggest that Bond’s attitude to women is not entirely chivalrous by modern standards. I had therefore expected passages like the following - in fact would just consider this part of Bond’s character, not a problem from the writer’s point of view per se:

These blithering women who thought they could do a man's work. Why the hell couldn't they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men's work to the men.

But even with that foreknowledge I was a bit taken aback when I ran across the following sentence, describing Bond’s tryst with Lynd:

And now he knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape.

You are all excused while you go and vomit into a handy receptacle. Yes, this was a different time but I very much suspect not everyone back then would have considered ‘the sweet tang of rape’ to be an acceptable way of talking about intimate relations with a loved one.

Bond is, undeniably, a dinosaur. I do not think you can read Fleming’s books without viewing him thus (unless, of course, you somewhat agree with his attitudes). As I read the book and started to catalogue Bond’s characteristics – a snobbish obsession with brands, a borderline criminal attitude to the “use” of women, a need to explain the finer points of his accoutrements, and a queasy enthusiasm for describing genitals being mutilated (okay, we can put this one on Fleming) – I was put in mind of a more modern character who is slightly less idolised: Patrick Bateman. Quite honestly, Bond felt like the sort of slick prick that could have become American Psycho’s monster had he been born thirty years later and transported to the heady atmosphere of 1980’s Wall Street. The annoying thing for all of that, is that I didn’t hate him. Even as I recognised his flaws as a supposedly likeable character, I went along with him on the absurd and intoxicating trip into the glamourous world of super spies who drop millions of Francs at the baccarat table of an evening. What a bastard I must be.

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Yet I suspect (and hope) that I would not be alone in this. Fleming’s writing is exhilarating, brash, and entirely draws you along with it. There is something powerfully seductive about a narrative that shamelessly carries itself to reckless extravagances and extremes of ignorant chauvinism (just look at the modern political landscape). Fleming doesn’t write with huge flourishes – his prose is bald and plain – but what he does do is place the reader right at the centre of the action. The tiny details that Bond relays about the luxury which surrounds him – how he takes his drink, how he reads a game of cards – draw the reader into his thrall, comfortable to be guided through their escapist fantasy by this confident, bold protagonist. The only time the mask slips is late in the novel when Bond is recovering from his injuries suffered at the hands of Le Chiffre and he begins to question the purpose of intelligence services and chest-thumping patriotism in a fairly basic passage of pseudo-philosophy. Were we not to know that he would still be going strong sixty years later, it would be easy to see Bond wandering off into the sunset, the scales fallen from his eyes, and into a life that would be far from the spy game.

In all, Bond seems fairly indifferent to his lot and to the idea of good and bad. Discussing his double-o status, he appears blasé about its significance: “It’s not difficult to get a double-o number if you’re prepared to kill people. That’s all the meaning it has. It’s nothing to be particularly proud of.” This strange apathy extends to Bond’s own agency as he finds himself acted upon more often than forcing his will on the situation. Indeed, baccarat, a game of luck more than skill, seems appropriate for this Bond who feels no divine right to come out the hero.

So, Casino Royale’s Bond smokes seventy cigarettes a day, has a scar running down the right side of his face, experiences an existential crisis of sorts, and enjoys the “sweet tang of rape.” Not quite the super spy from the big screen but not entirely removed from him either. I prefer Bond when he slows down – on screen or on the page – and we get set pieces like the baccarat game, just as we do here. Arguably Fleming’s bolt is shot too early when the card game concludes and the plot begins to meander but there is enough to pull the reader through. And, despite noticing Bond’s shortcomings, I cannot pretend I was outraged enough to cast Casino Royale off and leave it unfinished (appalled though I was), rather I found a murmuring of the exhilaration fans of Bond have experienced for years somewhere in me which got me through the book not unwillingly but rapidly, pulled on by Fleming’s crisp prose and Bond’s story.

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