Book Review: Casino Royale (1953) by Ian Fleming

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Ian Fleming’s inaugural James Bond novel (Casino Royale, 1953) beautifully introduces us to the fictional town of Royale-les-Eaux located near the mouth of the Somme along the French coast, where a lavish casino sits. The casino is a vast opulent, victorian baroque edifice which has been tenderly restored to its former glory from the Belle Epoch. There we meet a portly Soviet operative who goes by the name Le Chiffre (among other aliases like “the Number” “Herr Nummer” “Herr Ziffer” etc). He has a peculiar licentious taste for all things masochistic and depraved –his chief weakness being women– and he ceaselessly sucks on an inhaler. Presently, he is on the brink of a financial crisis after a poor investment goes sideways. Using funds granted to him by his communist-controlled trade union, Le Chiffre rather carelessly invested in a string of French brothels, all of which went bankrupt immediately following the enactment of new moralistic legislation passed in France —“fate rebuked him with terrifying swiftness” (9). In total, Le Chiffre lost about 50 million francs in the scheme, though the fearsome Soviet agency SMERSH has apparently not yet caught onto his misdeed. Had Le Chiffre perceived that SMERSH was on his tail, he surely would have committed suicide. Therefore, he has now turned to gambling in the hopes of regaining his lost investment and to preserve his station within the communist party. However, Le Chiffre is connected to a potential sleeper cell of communists called the “fifth column” (or Leningrad Section III which is controlled by the USSR). If activated, it could claim large swaths of Northern France in a hot war.

Pausing for a moment, I offer a brief note about SMERSH. What is it? SMERSH is a conjunction of two Russian words meaning roughly “death to spies” (in the Bond movies the name was changed to SPECTRE). “It’s task is the elimination of all forms of treachery and back-sliding within the various branches of the Soviet Secret Service and Secret Police at home and abroad. It is the most powerful and feared organization in the USSR and is popularly believed never to have failed in a mission of vengeance” (15). In James Bond’s world, SMERSH is rumored to have murdered Trotsky in Mexico and during Hitler’s attack on Russia in World War II, it struck again and sought out double agents during the Soviet retreat in 1941. In this Cold War era novel, Western intelligence believes SMERSH has only a few high quality agents left who can hunt down Soviet traitors. We are told MI6 once captured an agent of SMERSH in 1948 but the agent quickly consumed a cyanide pill disguised as a button on his coat and with his suicide went any hope of discovering further information about the agency.

At any rate, this is the setting in which we find ourselves in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (a far cry from the many globe-trotting ventures found in the 2006 film). The novel is far more concise which is a welcome change of pace in my view. The opening chapters introduce us to MI6’s chain-smoking British agent James Bond who is sent on assignment to hopefully bankrupt and demoralize Le Chiffre at the baccarat tables in France. From the outset, who is James Bond? We are told he is a hard-drinking, cold-blooded assassin. Bond says he previously killed two people in the line of duty –the first was a Japanese cipher and expert code-cracker from Rockefeller Center in New York (Bond and a fellow agent sniped the cipher from a nearby rooftop), and his other kill was a Norwegian in Stockholm who was doubling for the Germans (Bond chose to kill him slowly with a knife while inside his flat, and disturbingly, the man did not die very quickly). For these kills, Bond has been awarded the elite “Double O” agent status, a title which means “you’ve had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of some job” (131). For the present mission in France, Bond is joined by agents from France (René Mathis of the Deuxième Bureau), the United States (Felix Leiter of the CIA), and a beautiful young woman sent from MI6 named Vesper Lynd. More about her later. I was delighted to read the carefully crafted intelligence reports which were meticulously devised by Ian Fleming in the opening chapters of Casino Royale, offering us the sense that we are truly on the ground in this paranoid Cold War tale of espionage and intrigue. Is the story a bit far-fetched? Yes indeed –it seems extremely unlikely that British, American, and French secret service operations would all invest so much time, money, and manpower into merely bankrupting a Soviet agent via a gambling scheme. Nevertheless, Casino Royale is not as ridiculous as some of the latter day Bond stories –it forces us to believe this little narrative in quite a captivating way.

As in the film, Bond battles Le Chiffre in baccarat but he tragically loses all the funds granted to him by the British government, so Bond is then bailed out by the Americans (in particular through Marshall Aid funds provided by Felix Leiter, even though Mr. Leiter does not actually play at the table in the novel the way he does in the film). With a new infusion of cash, Bond defeats Le Chiffre in a high stakes, sweat-inducing bet –narrowly dodging an assassination attempt– but his MI6 counterpart, Vesper Lynd, is soon captured which leads Bond on a wild car chase ultimately ending in his tires being blown out by spikes (in the film, Bond swerves off the road when he sees Vesper bound and gagged in the middle of the road). Suddenly, Bond is now captured by Le Chiffre’s crew and he is hideously tortured by Le Chiffre, who viciously brutalizes Bond’s most sensitive organ, he whips Bond’s genitals while he is strapped nude to a seatless chair (in the book, the location of Bond’s infamous torture sequence overlooks the ocean in a coastal French villa; but in the film, Bond is tortured in an underground sewer of sorts). Despite the excruciating pain, Bond does not reveal the location of his money. After about an hour, Bond is surprisingly rescued by an unknown masked assailant from SMERSH who claims his orders are only to murder Le Chiffre and his henchmen, so he leaves a barely conscious Bond alive –thus our protagonist is rescued by a mere accident (in the film, he is actually rescued by a rival criminal named Mr. White). However, before the SMERSH assailant departs he carves the shape of a Cyrillic “M” into Bond’s outer hand in order to mark Bond as a spy for the rest of his life. Bond spends the rest of the story recovering from his brutal injuries in a French hospital (even bitterly contemplating retiring from MI6 because he now sees it all as merely a game of “Red Indians” as Le Chiffre once said). When he recovers, Bond travels away with Vesper and they fall in love. However in an epilogue of sorts, Vesper is found dead one morning with a suicide note addressed to Bond revealing that she was actually working as a double agent all along, feeding information to the Russians (in the film, she somewhat deliberately drowns herself while entrapped in an elevator in Venice). It is also revealed that she has a lover in Poland, but she quickly fell in love with Bond and intended to remain with him until she noticed that she was being tracked by SMERSH. Vesper knew she had to end her life at this point. However both the film and the book conclude with Bond merely pausing for a moment after learning of Vesper’s death, before coldly contacting M, his boss at MI6, to report that “…the bitch is dead” (178). It is a chilling end and a terrific start to the James Bond saga.

It’s worth mentioning that there are many other distinctions between the book and the film –such as Le Chiffre being a Soviet communist in the book versus a global terrorist in the movie, or René Mathis being a friend in the book versus a suspected traitor in the film– but all things considered, I found Casino Royale to be a captivating, at times shocking, piece of Cold War literature. Even in the pre-Jason Bourne era, James Bond was not an invincible hero with limitless confidence in himself, staring down megalomaniacal villains and rescuing helpless damsels. In Casino Royale, his obstacles are believable and concise –and Bond barely survives. I was careful to note his ambivalence about his own employment, something we rarely see in the pre-Daniel Craig James Bond era of films. Bond recognizes espionage as something of a racket: “Be faithful, spy well, or you die. Inevitably and without question, you will be hunted down and killed” (178).

Apparently, Ian Fleming began work on Casino Royale while splitting his time between London and Jamaica where he owned a stately bungalow dubbed “Goldeneye” (partly named after a 1941 Carson McCullers novel entitled Reflections in a Golden Eye, and also partly named after the “Goldeneye” WWII contingency plan developed by Fleming which sought to create a back-up plan in the event of a Nazi invasion of Gibraltar through Spain). At the time of writing, Fleming was set to marry the woman with whom he had been having an affair, Ann Rothermere (née Charteris). She had been previously wedded to Shane O’Neill, 3rd Baron O’Neill with whom she had two children, but he was tragically killed-in-action during WWII in 1944. She then married Esmond Harmsworth, 2nd Viscount Rothermere but the marriage ended in divorce when it was discovered that she was having an affair with Ian Fleming. Once the divorce was settled, she and Fleming quickly got married while she was pregnant with Fleming’s only child, Caspar, was born. In later life, he tragically committed suicide by overdosing on narcotics in 1975. At any rate, Fleming claimed he wrote Casino Royale as a distraction from the stress of his upcoming nuptials and the arrival of his son. At any rate, the publication of Casino Royale marks the first appearance of many classic James Bond motifs like the smoke-filled casino, the Bond girl with a dark past, and even Bond’s personal secretary Miss Moneypenny appears (though her name in Casino Royale is listed as “Miss ‘Petty’ Pettaval” which was borrowed from Kathleen Pettigrew, the personal secretary to the longtime head of MI6 Stewart Menzies).

Fleming, Ian. Casino Royale. Thomas & Mercer in Las Vegas, NV c/o Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. 1953 (republished in 2012). Paperback edition.

Click here to read my review of the film Casino Royale (2006).

Click here to return to my survey of the James Bond saga.

1 thought on “Book Review: Casino Royale (1953) by Ian Fleming

  1. The differences between source material and visualized versions for the cinema can quite often be astonishing. Particularly in the case of James Bond. Thank you for this article.

    Liked by 2 people

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