‘First of all, and he inhaled a thick lungful of Caporal,’you will be pleased with your Number Two. She is very beautiful’-Bond frowned-‘very beautiful indeed.’ Satisfied with Bond’s reaction, Malthis continued: ‘ She has black hair, blue eyes, and splendid…er…protuberances. Back and front,’ he added.~Rene Malthis.
Ian Fleming may not have written the first spy novel, but the genre has been dominated by his presence ever since the publication of Casino Royale in 1953. James Bond has outlived his creator by 49 years so far, continuing to fight the enemies of Britain in the works of several “official” 007 authors such as John Gardner, Raymond Bensen, Sebastian Faulks and most recently, Jeffrey Deaver. With the advent of last year’s blockbuster Bond flick, Skyfall, it occurred to me that it was time to get back to basics, and with that in mind, re-read Casino Royale.
Reviewing a 60 year old novel about one of the world’s most recognizable pop culture icons might seem a bit redundant, but perhaps it’s time to take a look and remind everyone what originally drew people to the charming yet lethal “Mr. Bond,” and point out that the caricature he’s become (until the advent of Daniel Craig’s films) is not the man who originally endeared Fleming’s readers.
Casino Royale takes place in Royale-les-Eaux, a fictional resort town in France, home to the aforementioned casino. LeChiffre, an agent of the Soviet Union (in the 2006 movie, his affiliation is updated to the Quantum network to account for the end of the Cold War) responsible for infiltrating the French labour unions to create a fifth column, has gotten himself in a bit of a mess. As Union paymaster, he’s embezzled funds to buy a series of brothels, but after French authorities crack down on the prostitution industry, his venture falls apart. His only hope to escape the clutches of SMERSH (essentially a Soviet assassination squad) is to replace the money, and quickly. In a desperate bid to do just that, LeChiffre uses the last of his embezzled funds to enroll in a high stakes game of Baccarat at the Casino Royale. If he wins, he can replace the funds. If he loses, his life is forfeit, and the Soviet Union will have to eliminate an extremely influential (but thoroughly crooked) agent.
This is where a “00” agent by the name of James Bond factors into the equation. Funded by the British Secret Service and utilizing both his talents and those of a local French agent by the name of Malthis, Bond is to pose as a playboy with too much money and not enough common sense, play against LeChiffre, and bankrupt him. Assassination would be simpler and more appropriate (after all, 007 is licensed to kill), but the Brits want LeChiffre’s organization embarrassed, and thereby the Soviets. Bond is also allotted an MI6 contact in the form of Vesper Lynd, a beautiful yet cold agent to assist in his venture.
Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and Bond finds LeChiffre to be a more formidable opponent than he first believed. Between a failed bombing, being bankrupted at the tables (and thus enlisting the help of American CIA agent Felix Leiter to fund a second attempt), and later the kidnapping of Vesper and his own torture at the hands of LeChiffre, Bond proves himself to be a steely and resourceful character.
But–let’s not ruin the story for you.
Several things impressed themselves upon me during the course of reading Casino Royale, the first being a notable lack of traditionally Bond gadgets. Bond is a more realistic character (at least in this first novel) than in the movies. His tool bag consists mainly of his wits and a slim and easily concealed pistol. No laser watches or jetpacks. However, LeChiffre has several knives hidden on his person, and his car has a compartment that drops caltrops on the road at the push of a button. His henchmen also employ hidden weapons in the form of camera bombs and a pistol cane, so the gadget precedent is set.
Nor is Bond the shallow character portrayed in the films. Beneath a shallow exterior, Bond is revealed to be an introspective character, as evidenced in a conversation with Malthis during his convalescence. Discussing his torture at the hands of LeChiffre, Bond confides that he sometimes wonders about the difference between himself and those he hunts. Putting himself in LeChiffre’s shoes, he wonders if those he sees as evil see him in much the same manner. Not quite moral relativism (Bond is notoriously patriotic and believes he is in the right), but a deep contemplation of whether the evil of the world know they are evil, and how his actions could be perceived much the same by the opposing side.
The same holds true of his attitudes and behavior towards women. In film, Bond is reduced to a caricature of what Fleming created in Casino Royale, merely a male slut, bound and determined to bed any and every female that crosses his path. However, Fleming sketches a much deeper character, explaining what appears to be misogynistic behavior in a more nuanced manner than you can get on the big screen:
With most women his manner was a mixture of taciturnity and passion. The lengthy approaches to a seduction bored him almost as much as the subsequent mess of disentanglement. He found something grisly in the inevitability of the pattern of each affair. The conventional parabola – sentiment, the couch of the hand, the kiss, the passionate kiss, the feel of the body, the climax in the bed, then more bed, then less bed, then the boredom, the tears and the final bitterness was to him shameful and hypocritical. Even more he shunned the mise en scène for each of these acts in the play – the meeting at a party, the restaurant, the taxi, his flat, her flat, then the week-end by the sea, then the flats gain, then the furtive alibi’s and the final angry farewell on some doorstep in the rain.
Basically, Bond finds women a distraction in a game where distraction cannot be allowed.
Bond is an exercise in extremes, from his cool demeanor to the passion with which he greets life. After all, it’s a business for hard men, the type that can compartmentalize their feelings and get on with the mission. After Vesper’s suicide and his subsequent discovery that she was a double agent, how else could he say this of the woman he loved?
“This is 007 speaking. It’s an emergency…3030 was a double agent…Yes, dammit, I said ‘was.’ The Bitch is dead now.”
Casino Royale is a splendid example of the genre and gives real insight to a character we’ve all been exposed to over the years—but never really known.