‘Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.’
He laughed. ‘But don’t let me down and become human, yourself. We would lose such a wonderful machine.’
I asked my dad about Ian Fleming’s novels when I was a kid. He raised his eyebrows as if to communicate a world of adult themes and dodginess far beyond my childlike understanding. Bear in mind this is the man who gave me The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to read when I was young, from which I don’t think I ever really recovered. I put aside any ambition to read the James Bond series until today.
I think I see dad’s point now.
The book opens with Bond singing the praises of casinos, the sights and smells that add to the sense of adrenaline when huge amounts of money are at stake. He has been assigned to embarrass and humiliate an enemy agent known as Le Chiffre in a game of baccarat. His opponent is known to have lost most of his money in a failed chain of brothels throughout France and this game, held at the Royale-les-Eaux casino, is his last desperate attempt to recover some of his lost capital. As the finest baccarat player in the British secret service Bond has been given the job of making sure that does not happen, in the hopes that Le Chiffre’s Soviet spy-masters will eliminate him once it is made clear he has squandered their funding.
Bond’s French contact Mathis is helping him maintain his cover as a Jamaican millionaire visiting the casino to play. A second British agent, Vesper Lynd, is also assigned to the case. As Mathis explains, how could a successful business man explain not having a beautiful woman on his arm at the casino? Finally, Bond is introduced to a CIA undercover operative named Felix Leitner, who assists him with the provision of additional monies when Le Chiffre has an unexpected run of good luck.
The majority of the book is occupied with the duelling games of chance between the two men. Aside from the scenes within the casino, Bond discovers that somehow his cover has been quickly blown. There is an attempt on his life by a team of Bulgarian bombers and a hidden gun is secreted onto the floor of the game itself when he becomes too much of a threat to Le Chiffre. A battle of wits ensues, with Bond attempting to outmanoeuvre the enemy both within and outside the casino.
Fleming’s prose oscillates rapidly between purplish excess and a dry, notational style more appropriate to an official document. Then there’s the waspish contempt for women that’s much in evidence, with Bond resenting Lynd’s assignment: On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. When she is kidnapped at one point by Le Chiffre’s goons he snarls that she is a ‘silly bitch’. Bond justifies himself by describing the life of a spy as an extravagant existence for the bachelor, hence his ornate drink’s orders and refined taste in food. He has spent a lot of time thinking about pleasure for himself. It is widely regarded that this was Fleming’s fantasy for the life he had left behind, as he wrote Casino Royale when he was soon to be married.
As a product of personal fantasy, the book is remarkably unusual. It depicts a Cold War being fought almost like a game in a gentleman’s club. The setting underlines this theme appropriately. Bond does not hate the men he kills. They simply lost to him. He dismisses the significance of his ‘00’, status by remarking it only required for him to kill two men. Even M admits to a peculiar admiration of Le Chiffre – a communist, embezzler and pornographer, lest we forget. Fleming’s villain is described as a concentration camp detainee – due to, it is implied, Jewish ancestry – who has taken his unusual moniker as he is ‘only a number on a passport’. The quote I chose above comes from an extended sequence when Bond and Mathis debate the morality of spy-work. He questions whether Le Chiffre is actually a villain (and this after having survived prolonged torture at his hands).
Casino Royale is almost neurotic in Fleming’s second guessing of his fantasy and an attempt at relativistic realism. It is a curious, unfathomable and perverse novel.