Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming

5 minute read

Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large slice of lemon peel. Got it?
 — James Bond invents the Vesper cocktail.

I stumbled into The Book Bear bookstore in West Brookfield, after an abortive attempt to acquire Treehouse Beer in Western Massachusetts, and a successful visit to BT’s Smokehouse for some of the best barbecue in the Northeast. In the far back corner, hidden under a pile of other books I found an inexpensive copy of Casino Royale, the 1st James Bond book. The proprietor was perplexed the book hadn’t sold yet — I was amazed I’d even found it. Perspectives differ.

The movie version of Casino Royale is among the best (perhaps the best) of the James Bond movies, in my book (no pun intended!). I was anxious to give it a go. It’s a great read, with a great opening line:

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

— As Bond surreptitiously observes Le Chiffre, the bad guy he’s going to take down, in a casino.

Bond is on the trail of Le Chiffre, attempting to best him at baccarat (not poker, as in the movie), because Le Chiffre is over-extended, having lost money he was entrusted with. If Bond can beat him, he can be blackmailed and turned for the secret service against SMERSH.

The wit of the movies is in the books, albeit with a slightly darker, more ironic tone. Realizing he’s tired and about to make a mistake, Bond heads for his room. But he’s cautious, even paranoid, expecting someone to attack him in his room. He enters:

“Bond knew exactly here the switch was and it was with one flow of motion that he stood on the threshold with the door full open, the light on and a gun in his hand. The safe, empty room sneered back at him….. Then he lit his seventieth cigarette of the day”. (Note: seventieth is not a typo!).

Many great Bond lines from the movies appear in this book, but often spoken by different characters.

Bond’s friend Mathis: “What is more natural than that you should pick up a pretty girl here? As a Jamaican millionaire (Bond’s cover), he coughed respectfully, what with your hot blood and all, you would look naked without one. (This line was spoken by Sévérine in the movie Skyfall)

The Bond of the movies is a “blunt instrument”, to quote Dame Judi Densch’s M. The Bond of the books has a deep philosophical love of gambling, and smokes and ruminates often. His Ronson lighter and cigarettes make regular appearances; his lighter would be resurrected (and then killed) as the fellow agent Ronson who dies in the opening scenes of Skyfall (the movie).

Fleming can write quite muscularly, but can also become lyrical at odd times. After Bond has been tortured nearly to death, and his torturer killed by another spy, and both of them left behind, this:

it was enough to plunge him again into unconsciousness. The steps moved quietly away across the room. The door was softly closed.

In the silence, the cheerful small sounds of the summer’s day crept through the closed window. High on the left-hand wall hung two small patches of pink light. They were reflections cast upwards from the floor by the zebra stripes of June sunshine, cast upwards from two separate pools of blood a few feet apart. As the day progressed the pink patches marched slowly along the wall. And slowly they grew larger.

One of my favorite aspects of Fleming’s Bond, compared to the movie Bond, is that he’s much more human and questioning. (Yet there’s no doubt he’s even more sexist than the movie Bond). Consider, after his torture nearly kills him. In the movie, he pops back up and is quickly romancing Vesper. In the book, he speaks lines that Mathis speaks in the movie, and much earlier in the movie than in the book:

‘It’s a nuisance because M. will probably say I’ve got to go to hospital again when I get back to London and have new skin grafted over the whole of the back of my hand. It doesn’t matter much. I’ve decided to resign.’

Mathis looked at him with his mouth open.

‘Resign?’ he asked incredulously. ‘What the hell for?’ Bond looked away from Mathis. He studied his bandaged hands.

‘When I was being beaten up,’ he said, ‘I suddenly liked the idea of being alive. Before Le Chiffre began, he used a phrase which stuck in my mind “playing Red Indians” He said that’s what I had been doing. Well, I suddenly thought he might be right. ‘You see,’ he said, still looking down at his bandages, ‘when one’s young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong, but as one gets older it becomes more difficult. At school it’s easy to pick out one’s own villains and heroes and one grows up wanting to be a hero and kill the villains…. the heroes and the villains get all mixed up.’

Mathis: Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.

(an odd echo of E. M. Forster’s quote: If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”.

As The Sunday Times said: “From the first evocative words to the last savagely ironic sentence, this is a novel with its own flavor.