Ian Fleming,
Casino Royale
(Jonathan Cape, 1953;
Macmillan, 1954;
Penguin, 2002)

I've been a James Bond fan for nearly (ohmigod) 40 years now. I was in junior high when the Bond craze hit in 1962, and I gobbled up all the books (then Signet paperbacks) and went to all the movies as they were released, often sitting through them twice. I had not, however, reread the books since those first readings, and when Penguin recently brought out three titles (with more to come) in retro trade-paperback editions, I was ready to be won over again. I selected the first in the series, Casino Royale, since I recalled it as being very tough, almost noir. And was I disappointed? After all, so many of my boyhood favorites had let me down when I tried to reread them years hence, like Edgar Rice Burroughs and (I blush to confess) Tolkien's The Hobbit. How would Fleming's Bond hold up?

Superbly. I roared through the brief 180 pages of Casino Royale determined to read more Fleming. This novel should come as a revelation to fans of the film Bond. No gadgets here, no cars that turn into boats or villains' lairs built into volcanoes or plots to conquer the world. This is a spare, stark, Cold War spy thriller in which Bond's goal is to wipe out the financial resources of Le Chiffre, with the hopes that his Soviet masters will then remove him with extreme prejudice. The CIA agent, Felix Leiter, makes his first appearance here, and there is a "Bond girl" extraordinaire in the person of Vesper Lynd, with whom Bond actually falls in love.

The book is filled with grand set pieces, such as the Baccarat game between Bond and Le Chiffre, and a scene in which Bond gets tortured that will have every red-blooded male wincing in sympathy. The casino-setting climax comes rather early on in the book, leaving the rest for Le Chiffre's attempted revenge and the development of the Vesper-Bond relationship. The ending is brutal, cold and searing, and even today gives the reader a chill.

The book is also very much of its time. Vesper says of Bond, "He reminds me rather of Hoagy Carmichael, but there is something cold and ruthless...." (And if you want to see what Hoagy looks like, look here.) The "tall, bony" Felix Leiter's suit hangs on him "like the clothes of Frank Sinatra." This is still the skinny Sinatra, mind you. There are many other signs of times past. We learn that Bond bought his 4-litre Bentley in 1933(!), and smokes between 60 and 70 cigarettes a day (Leiter chainsmokes Chesterfields). But, after all, we don't read James Bond novels in search of a healthy role model, and these signs of age only make the book that much more charming.

Casino Royale is a vintage delight, and since there was no real film version of the book (the 1967 film was nothing but a parody, and the half-hour '50s TV version was bare bones -- with Barry Morse, of all people, as Bond), the Bond fan can come to it totally fresh and unbiased, and discover what the real James Bond was all about.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 7 December 2002

Buy it from Amazon.com.