Casino Royale is Ian Fleming’s first novel and introduces the character of James Bond and his tastes and vices in a style of vivid writing that led to the accusation of “sex, sadism and snobbery”.
It introduces us to many of the concepts that are to feature in the later books and in the films, and establishes the characteristics that are now so firmly associated with Bond; his appearance, the drinking, the smoking and the gambling. The book was first published in the US with the sex scenes toned down for the sensibilities of the American book buying public and was also released under the title You Asked For It.
Although the story is relatively straightforward, Fleming demonstrated a flair for writing in a style suited to his journalist’s eye that fleshed out the bones of the plot to make a riveting and exciting read, while introducing the reader to a view of a life that was both sophisticated and brutal.
First published in 1953, the book had been written the previous year, supposedly to take his mind off his imminent marriage. Set in a time of Cold War paranoia and using the period that he had spent in Naval Intelligence during the Second World War as an inspiration (a time in which he had built a reputation for conceiving imaginative, although sometimes impractical intelligence operations), Fleming had M send Bond on a mission to beat the head of a Russian financed trade union in France at Bacarrat. The head of the union, Le Chiffre, had managed to lose a significant amount of Russia’s funds through an unauthorised personal investment and was planning to win it back at the Casino in Royale-les-Eaux.
The operation was designed to discredit Le Chiffree with the Russians, who would assassinate him as a traitor, instantly wiping out the whole of their carefully built up French operation. Described by Fleming as being “just north of Dieppe” and lying “near the mouth of the Somme before the flat coastline soars up from the beaches of southern Picardy to the Brittany cliffs which run on to Le Havre”, we have few clues as to where we can find Royale-les-Eaux and it is not until On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that we learn a few more details.
Casino Royale was a great start for Fleming and its reception inspired him to go on to write 11 more novels and two books of short stories. It is also one of the most unfamiliar for many of today’s Bond fans who have been raised on the films, as the book has never been filmed as part of the official series.
The book is one of the most polished of the books and the scenes in the casino are vividly painted. Although the plot is on the whole straightforward, almost mundane, it has enough of a spark of originality and daring to pull the reader into the story and finishes with a bitter twist in its tail. The book is peppered with information about Bond’s habits and vices, such as his preference for his drink to be “shaken, not stirred” (not the simple Vodka Martini of the films, but a concoction of his own design) and custom made cigarettes with three gold bands on the filter.
The James Bond of the books was always very different to that of the films and in Casino Royale we are introduced to a brooding and at times rather introspective character, full of doubt and with a cynical view of his profession. These make the character much more believable, as it seems that his job has taken its toll on his life, which he solves through excessive drinking and smoking, always half expecting for the next moment to be his last. However, Fleming seems to get out of his depth as a writer when Bond is talking to the head of French intelligence about the philosophy of good and evil, which comes across as childishly naïve and seems completely out of place in the novel.
Overall, Casino Royale remains one of the best of the series. It has a freshness and readability that make it hard to put down, vivid descriptions of the card game and should grace the bookshelf of any serious fan of James Bond.
Fleming saw the big screen possibilities for 007 from the beginning and an option on the film and television rights were sold separately. In 1954 came Bond’s screen debut in the CBS television film of Casino Royale, with Bond played as an American agent. The title was later produced as a comedy starring David Niven after the official series of films, produced by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, had raised public interest in Bond. It has little, if anything, to do with the plot of the novel.
First editions of all the books are highly sought after by collectors and as a result prices are high. However, old copies of the paperbacks are good value and the covers are better that the rather sterile covers of more recent reprintings.