Ian Fleming. Casino Royale. New York: Signet Books, 1953. 144 pages.
“JAMES BOND declares war on Le Chiffre, French Communist of paymaster of the Soviet murder organization SMERSH.
The battle begins for the ace secret agent in a fifty-million franc game of baccarat…gains momentum in his fiery love affair with a sensuous lady spy…and reaches a chilling climax with fiendish torture at the hands of a master sadist.”
—from the back cover
With all of the hype surrounding the recent release of Casino Royale, the major motion picture, I thought I’d review the original Ian Fleming novel, which launched the massive 007 franchise. I’m using the 1953 Signet paperback edition here. Given the tremendous response for my Barry Manilow concert review, I’m going to start doing more reviews, and this seemed like a natural.
As of now, I haven’t seen the new movie, but I did sit through about half of the 1967 movie version of Casino Royale. If you want a recap of that monstrosity, check this Agony Booth review. Interestingly, there was an earlier TV adaptation as well—check this mini-review (courtesy of the Agony Booth as well) right here.
All that said, let’s get down to business. The book opens brilliantly, and rings quite true:
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable, and the senses awake and revolt from it.
It’s hard to believe that Fleming wrote that fifteen years before Circus Circus opened. This is clearly a man who’s spent some serious time in casinos. You might think that the rest of the novel is going to be a polemic against gambling, but it’s not: Bond loves gambling, which is the reason he gets tabbed for the job in the Casino Royale. Fleming gives a neat sketch of the happy gambler on page 37:
Bond had always been a gambler. He loved the dry riffle of the cards and the constant unemphatic drama of the quiet figures around the green tables. He liked the solid, studied comfort of cardrooms and casinos, the well-padded arms of the chairs, the glass of champagne or whisky at the elbow, the quiet unhurried impartiality of the roulette ball and the playing cards—and their eternal bias.
It goes on for a while in that vein. It’s as if Fleming had to tell his readers, “yes, I know that gambling is really dreadful, but here’s why it’s so much fun, too.”
The fact that the book is larded with French words and phrases shows how much authors’ expectations of readers’ cultural literacy has dropped. The casino, for example, doesn’t have a main cage—it has a caisse. And the people who work there aren’t cashiers—they’re caissiers. It adds to the sense that the world Fleming is bringing to life is, a half-century later, a few steps removed. I think most books written today assume that the reader can barely understand English.
The plot isn’t that complicated: a Soviet-funded agent whose main gig is to serve secret financier of a French communist trade union, bought a chain of brothels with money Leningrad had sent him for his labor organizing. After the French government outlawed prostitution, his investment went south, so the agent, known only as Le Chiffre (the cipher), does what everyone facing bankruptcy should: he takes the twenty-five million francs remaining in the union treasury and heads for the casino.
Here’s an aside about the heavy: having seen enough of the 1967 Casino Royale, I couldn’t help but imagine the character as Orson Welles. And, reflecting perhaps my crass sense of humor, I couldn’t help but read his name as “Le Shittre.”
Truth-in-advertising nuts might want to give Signet Books a call, if they’re still taking correspondence for a 53-years old paperback edition. Contrary to the back cover, Le Shittre isn’t the paymaster of SMERSH, the Soviet secret agency whose name means “death to spies” (they’re sort of like KGB internal affairs on steroids, because they discover and liquidate traitorous Soviet agents), but of the union. The whole reason that he heads to the casino is to recoup his lost investment before SMERSH finds out and executes him.
Basically, British intelligence finds out what Le Shittre is up to and sends Bond down to the French seaside resort of Royale (whose casino Le Shittre has set up in) to beat him at baccarat.
Wait! I know what you’re thinking. Since baccarat is played against the house, what difference would it make whether a British secret agent plays at the same table as Le Shittre? In fact, it’s only in American casinos that baccarat became popular as a house-banked game—before that, it was banked by anyone who had the cash. You basically set up shop at a table, took on all comers, and paid a rake to the house for the courtesy. Fleming does a great job of explaining how the game works on page 52, and even name checks Nick Zographos and the Greek syndicate early in the novel. If you’ve read Roll the Bones, you’ll remember that Zographos and his group banked most of the baccarat action in France around the time the novel was written.
There’s not much to the story: Bond arrives at the casino, watches Le Shittre for a few days, plays him in the big game, then lives with the consequences. Another quibble with the back cover: the fiendish torture happens at around page 90 (of a 142-page book), and the love affair (which is lukewarm at best, with lots of awkward silence and miscommunication) happens a little later, so technically they got it backwards.
Having grown up with the James Bond movies, I’ve always thought that he was supposed to be the epitome of class and coolness, and particularly smooth with the ladies. But this Bond isn’t. On learning that he’s going to be paired with a woman, Bond laments that he’s being saddled with a “pest of a girl,” since all women do is get in the way and fog things up “with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage the carried around.” But it gets worse: for no reason, Bonds says “bitch” aloud, while musing about what a pain his female co-spy will be—even though he hasn’t met her yet. Of course, if he’s read even one noir novel, he’ll know that, in the context of the narrative, he’s right: the girl isn’t going to be anything but trouble. But how would the character intuit that?
And this Bond isn’t that perceptive, either. Anyone who’s been in a casino will probably be howling with laughter at this gem:
Bond’s experience told him that few of the Asiatic races were courageous gamblers, even the much-vaunted Chinese being inclined to lose heart if the going was bad. (p.57-8)
There’s some other weird racial stuff in the book. Le Shittre’s dossier includes runs down a physical description of the guy, including this line: “Ears small, with large lobes, indicating some Jewish blood.” ?!?!?! That’s a stereotype I’ve never heard before. Maybe he really was just an advance scout for the Ferengi Commerce Authority. That would explain the obsession with making a profit.
While I’m poking fun at the book’s dated ideas, there is a funny bit about a pothead hitman thug. Seriously. Here’s the description:
Bond guessed that he would kill without interest or concern for what he had killed, and that he would prefer strangling. He had something of Lennie in Of Mice and Men, but his inhumanity would not come from infantilism, but from drugs. Marihuana, decided Bond. (p. 63)
I didn’t know that the best hired guns were potheads, but I guess Bond knows what he’s talking about there. It would have been funny if, at a crucial juncture, the alleged thug just mellowed out on the couch and ate a bag of Doritos. Given that in the next paragraph, Bond fantasizes over whether the other thug’s hair covers his whole body (Bond thinks it does: “Naked, Bond supposed, he would be an obscene object” is how the paragraph ends), you can ask yourself how this novel became the template for one of the most successful franchises in movie history, or how Bond evolved into the smooth spy we all know.
During the climactic baccarat game, Le Shittre takes a few hits from a Benzedrine inhaler. I’ve never seen one, but I had a distinct mental image of Orson Welles going all Frank Booth in the baccarat pit. Maybe if Bond had just worn blue velvet, everything would have been alright.
Speaking of which, there’s the famous torture scene, where Le Shittre apparently blasts Bond in the package with a carpet beater. I say “apparently,” because it’s very delicately worded, and doesn’t describe exactly what’s going on–a little too much is left to the reader’s imagination. Maybe it’s because we’re used to more detailed, lurid prose now.
On a related note, I think that Ian Fleming may have invented the Agony Booth, or at least the idea of the agony booth. I know that continuity geeks are doing to say that it was really Phlox and Reed in the alternate universe, but consider Bond’s thoughts as he awaits the testicular carpet beater of anguish:
Bond closed his eyes and waited for the pain. He knew that the beginning of torture was the worst. There is a parabola of agony. A crescendo leading up to a peak, and then the nerves are blunted and react progressively less until unconsciousness and death. (p.94)
Compare this to Memory Alpha’s description of the agony booth:
The booth works by stimulating the pain center of virtually any humanoid, a synaptic scan calibrates it for each species. Traditional forms of punishment can overwhelm the nervous system, after a time the brain ceases to feel anything. However, the agony booth possesses sensors that continually shift the stimulation from one nerve cluster to another, keeping the subject in a constant state of agony, hence its name. (italics mine)
I think that Fleming’s got a far better literary style than Memory Alpha, but it sounds very close.
On the whole, the novel is a little disappointing. James Bond doesn’t actually kill anyone in it: two Bulgarians who try to assassinate him about a quarter-way through the book actually blow themselves up, in a scene that is straight out of Spy vs. Spy. And the cunning Le Shittre isn’t done in by Bond himself, but a dues ex machina that, if you think about it, renders the entire book superfluous. With a half-century of hype behind us, we’re probably a bit jaded, but Casino Royale, while well written and a decent thriller, isn’t really that exceptional, and the Bond of the book is a shadow of the movie Bond.
Now I think I know why, no disrespect to Ian Fleming intended, I’ve never heard anyone say that the Bond books were better than the Bond movies.
That said, you can have some real fun reading the book once and imagining David Niven as Bond, then starting from scratch with Peter Sellers, then moving on to Woody Allen. I could definitely see Sellers as Bond in the scene where the Bulgarians blow themselves up when trying to kill Bond. In fact, that might be where they got the idea for a half of the gags in The Pink Panther.
In summary, it’s a quick, fun read, and a really good look into the past, so if you want to laugh a little, give it a read. And it’s got one of the best literary descriptions I’ve seen of French-style baccarat, so you can read it for genuine historical detail, too.