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 Somme along the French coast, where a lavish Casino sits. It 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 is women and ceaselessly sucks on an inhaler. Presently, he is on the brink of a financial crisis after poorly investing certain monies granted to him by his communist-controlled trade union –funds which he has carelessly dumped into a string of French brothels, all of which went bankrupt immediately following new moralistic legislation passed in France —“fate rebuked him with terrifying swiftness” (9). In total, Le Chiffre lost about 50 million francs in the failed investment, 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 would surely commit suicide, therefore he has turned to gambling in the hopes of regaining his lost investment to preserve his station. However, Le Chiffre is is connected to a potential sleeper cell of communists called the “fifth column” (or Leningrad Section III controlled by the USSR) which, if activated, 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 of course 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). SMERSH is rumored to have murdered Trotsky in Mexico and during Hitler’s attack on Russia in World War II, SMERSH struck again seeking out double agents during the Soviet retreat in 1941. As of the time period in the novel, Western intelligence believes SMERSH has only a few high quality agents to hunt down 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 more 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 globe-trotting ventures found in the 2006 film). The novel is far more simple and 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. Who is James Bond? He is a hard-drinking, cold-blooded assassin. Bond says he previously killed two people in the line of duty –a Japanese cipher expert cracking codes from Rockefeller Center in New York (Bond and a fellow agent sniped the cipher from a nearby rooftop), and a Norwegian in Stockholm who was doubling for the Germans (Bond chose to kill him slowly with a knife in his flat, and disturbingly the man did not die very quickly). For these kills Bond was awarded a “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. I was delighted to read the carefully crafted intelligence reports which were no doubt meticulously devised by Ian Fleming in the opening chapters, 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 is 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 by gambling in a casino. Nevertheless, Casino Royale is not as ridiculous as some of the latter day Bond films –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 him by the British government, so Bond is then bailed out by the Americans (in particular through Marshall Aid provided by Felix Leiter even though Mr. Leiter does not actually play at the table in the book as 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 he 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 testicles while he is strapped nude to a seatless chair (in the book the location of Bond’s infamous torture overlooks 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 to only murder Le Chiffre and his henchmen so he leaves a barely conscious Bond alive –thus our protagonist is saved (in the film he is rescued by the rival criminal named Mr. White). However, before the assailant departs he carves the shape of a Cyrillic “M” into Bond’s outer hand to identify Bond as a spy. 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 merely as a game of “Red Indians” as Le Chiffre once said). When he recovers, Bond travels away with Vesper as 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 a double agent all along working for the Russians against Bond (in the film she somewhat deliberately drowns herself while entrapped in an elevator in Venice). She had a lover in Poland but she quickly fell in love with Bond and noticed she was being tracked by SMERSH. She knew she had to end her life. However both the film and book end with Bond merely pausing and coldly contacting M, his boss at MI6, to report that “…the bitch is dead” (178). It is a chilling conclusion and a terrific start to the James Bond saga. There are other distinctions between the book and the film –such as Le Chiffre being a Soviet communist in the book but a global terrorist in the movie, or René Mathis being a friend in the book versus a suspected traitor in the film– but all in all I found the book to be captivating as well as shocking, an essential piece of Cold War literature. Even in the pre-Jason Bourne era, James Bond was not an invincible hero with limitless confidence in himself while staring down absurd villains with global ambitions. His obstacles are more believable and concise in Casino Royale. I was careful to note his ambivalence about his own employment, something we rarely see in the pre-Daniel Craig James Bond films: “Be faithful, spy well, or you die. Inevitably and without question, you will be hunted down and killed” (178).
Fleming, Ian. Casino Royale. Thomas & Mercer in Las Vegas, NV c/o Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. 1953 (republished in 2012). Paperback edition.