Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming

I have been wanting to read the 007 books ever since Daniel Craig was announced as the new James Bond, but I actually only finished the first one, Casino Royale, very recently. Also, I’ll be using the Vintage covers for these books because I love minimalism and goddammit they’re pretty as hell. I’m accepting donations to buy them all.

To summarize; this is actually the very first mission that we know about James Bond going on. The story is slightly different to the film but basically the same- the bad guy is called Le Chiffre, and he loses a ton of money which was not his to lose. Whoops.

In order to get it back before his bosses (a super secret spy Soviet counter-intelligence agency called SMERSH) kill him, he goes to a big casino and plays baccarat for really high stakes. Our hero is sent to go take his money and hopefully find out stuff about SMERSH. There’s also an American dude with the same idea (Felix Leiter), another MI6 guy (Rene Mathis) and an MI6 girl (Vesper Lynd- hello love interest).

I seriously enjoyed this book, which is really saying something because I had unreasonably high expectations of it. I mean, it’s James Bond. We’ve all seen the film. It had Daniel Craig in boxers. That’s very hard to top. But, I found it was easy to read it and differentiate between Craig!Bond and book!Bond, which was good because they are completely different characters- when comparing film adaptations then you’ve always got to consider that some things just won’t translate well onto the screen and the actors and directors and screenwriters are always going to put their own twist on it as well. Plot wise, I wasn’t that impressed. It seemed a bit like the typical rollercoaster of adventure novels; premise, things going well, things going badly, things going really well, things going really badly, things turning out okay, tragedy, end. It is a formula that works though, and Fleming really is a fantastic writer. His premise was well thought out and engaging- you know when authors have pages of back story and you get bored? Well, it was compiled as a slightly humorous official dossier which was kinda cool, and then we got the background to James himself. This is partly revealed by the narrator and also by James’ conversations with other people, and although we do get quite a lot of information on him, you always have that feeling that there is something important that has been missed. And one thing I really liked- nothing is really revealed about his personality. We know the facts; he likes his alcohol, his car, and women, and he’s killed for the service. The personality, we get that through his actions and words and we’re left to form our own ideas. Personally, I think that James Bond is manipulative, a womaniser, cold, obsessive and has very little morals. He remarks at one point, after Vesper has been kidnapped, that he would follow her trail for a bit, and if it turns up blank, he’ll just leave it. Let me get this straight- at this point you as the reader are about 80% sure that Bond has strong feelings for Vesper, but he says it, and you know that he would leave her in a heartbeat (also, like the day before he proposes, he admits he wants to have sex with her just so he’s sure that his dick works).

So I just kind of covered Bond and the general plot, so I’ll move onto the villain, Le Chiffre. A flat character if I ever saw one. All we know is he likes his women, drinks and gambling- which sounds uncannily like our hero. He’s desperate, his life is in danger and he’s merely trying to save his own skin. Bond just gets in the way, so I have a kind of problem with Le Chiffre as the main antagonist. Despite the man’s long and illustrious back story with brothels and bad decisions, I can only see him as pathetic. Even the whole torture scene with Bond- it reeks of hopelessness.

I’ll talk about our leading lady now, Vesper Lynd. She’s pretty awesome. Not only is she a female secret agent during the 1940/50s, (even the rest of the characters doubt her because she’s a woman) but she’s also a damn good double agent. Several parts of Vesper’s character really irritate me, but on the whole I think she’s absolutely fabulous. However. The way that Vesper just dismisses the boyfriend that the Soviets have in favour of James is pretty darn cold and also not really explained in the book. I think the guy gets about a paragraph and then he’s gone. I mean, he must have been pretty special to her, and then boom he’s… where? She also falls for Bond very quickly, but then Bond does do the exact same. Additionally, there are some inconsistencies. Vesper is a double agent for how long? And then she suddenly freaks out at the end in fear? She’s been living in fear for months- fear for herself and her boyfriend, so did Fleming just want a typical damsel-in-distress? Plot hole. Also, Vesper takes her own life because she betrayed Bond and the Soviets were after them both. I admire her courage and her morals -she thought she was doing what was right- but who can ever condone suicide? I can’t help thinking that she could have had a chance with James and MI6. But she was scared and young and she did the absolute best that she thought she could have done. She stayed by James’ bedside while he was ill and then thought “this isn’t doing him any good, I’m going to go get a suntan”. Four for you, Vesper. She knows that wallowing and moping isn’t going to do anything for James so she goes and does something. So yeah, I could talk for ages about how much I love Vesper Lynd, and I think she deserves a standing ovation, to be frank. Anyway.

The whole idea of a casino setting was a brilliant one- it’s nothing too mad for the first 007 book but it’s still punchy and exciting with plot twists, and it’s my own fault if I don’t know what baccarat is (I have come to the conclusion that its kinda like blackjack or 21, but infinitely more complicated). Plus, the entire casino itself and the resort has a wonderfully detailed backstory which makes the whole thing so much more realistic.

Overall, this book was brilliant, and I really enjoyed it- I don’t think anything modern is its equal- a good adult spy novel? (don’t talk to me about Bourne).  While our villian is depressingly 2D, we do have a fleshed out baddie organisation called SMERSH. Fleming could have picked a better name, although he probably couldn’t have predicted its similarity to smush. Fleming’s writing is superb, James is intriguing if not likeable and did I mention Vesper badass Lynd?

Edited 18/07/2016: I have since found out that SMERSH was an actual counter-intelligence agency formed by the Red Army in 1942. And that SMERSH is an acronym in Russian for ‘Death to Spies!’ which is very cool although does not translate that well. My bad.

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