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Book Review: Casino Royale

By David Mazzotta in Culture
Fri Apr 25, 2003 at 06:51:39 AM EST
Tags: Books (all tags)

Fifty years ago, Ian Fleming produced an unassuming espionage thriller without the slightest notion that he was spawning an unparalleled entertainment franchise and a mythology that continues to pervade popular culture half a century later.  What was it like in the beginning?

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Title: Casino Royale
Author: Ian Fleming
ISBN: 014200202X
Format: Paperback, 192pp
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated

The plot is straightforward Cold War cloak and dagger.  A despicable villain known as LeChiffre is in trouble.  He has used good deal of Soviet/Commie-backed Union money to satisfy his own grotesque personal needs and, because his brothel business has been legislated away, he turns to gambling to get the money required to make his re-payment. LeChiffre is desperate, knowing full well that should he fail to come up with the required cash, he will be dealt with by SMERSH, a Soviet Agency Far More Secret And Dangerous Than The KGB. The Good Guys - meaning British Intelligence with help from French and American allies - aim to destroy LeChiffre and scandalize the Soviet/Commie-backed Union by sending their best gambler, James Bond, to bankrupt him at the game of baccarat.

As the birthplace of Bond, Casino Royale can provide us with the definitive answers to some burning questions that have trouble mankind for many years.  Specifically: he does introduce himself as "Bond - James, Bond"; the car is not an Aston Martin or a BMW - it's a Bentley; and the drink is not a vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) - it is: three measures of Gordon's Gin, one of vodka, and half a measure of Kina Lillet (vermouth). Shake very well until it's ice-cold, serve in a deep champagne goblet, and garnish with a large thin slice of lemon-peel (a vile sounding concoction to the martini purist).

But what can we say of the novel Casino Royale once we divorce it of fifty years of cultural baggage?

The first thing that strikes you is the vast difference in the mores and manners expressed in the book compared to contemporary society.  That is not to suggest that Casino Royale is intended to be a realistic portrayal of the times, but the idealized milieu of the 1950s is quite different from what its contemporary counterpart would be.  Dress is overly formal.  Everyone smokes - all the time, everywhere.  They drink pretty much constantly, too; a behavior now generally confined to college campuses.

It will surprise no one that Bond is an unrepentant misogynist.  When finding himself paired with a female agent - the lust-inducing Vesper Lynd - he is disgusted in spite of his sexual attraction to her.  Bond firmly maintains that women are only "for recreation", and declares her to be a "stupid bitch" - although not to her face, gangsta rap having yet to make that fashionable.  Yet, as a chivalrous woman-hater, he is compelled to go on a dangerous pursuit when she is kidnapped by the Evil Villain.  This act of overt male heroism ends with Bond getting tortured by having his genitals beaten so badly that it takes him weeks in a hospital to recover.  Upon recovery, he is consumed with a desire to bed Vesper Lynd in an effort to prove he can still, ahem, perform as man.  Dwelling too long on the symbolism of this theme will make your head explode.

Otherwise, Bond comes off as a comparatively genuine and human.  For example, unlike in the movies, his peccadilloes are not the result of supercilious snobbery.  He is condescending as he gives detailed instructions to a waiter for the preparation of a meal, but subsequently explains to his dinner companion that he does that because he usually eats alone when he is working and it makes the meal more interesting.   Bond is cold and carries many distasteful personality traits, but he is not unsympathetic.

The supporting cast doesn't fare so well.  CIA agent Felix Leiter, perhaps reflecting British sentiment towards Americans, comes across as relatively useless but a good man to know if you ever need money. Vesper Lynd is said to be capable, but shows little skill beyond being attractive.  The villain LeChiffre is a cookie cutter creation.

Although Fleming occasionally spends a bit too much time dwelling on the minutiae of dress and décor, for the most part the novel is well-paced and tautly written, in contrast to your average Tom Clancy boat anchor.

The story can be cleanly divided into two parts.  The first section is the standard espionage fodder of bugged hotel rooms and assassination attempts, with the exception of an extended sequence on the fateful game of baccarat, both an overview of how the game is played and the description of the Bond/LeChiffre showdown.  This is a wonderfully written section - the card game is more exciting than the bombs and car chases.  It will make you want to play baccarat next time you're in Vegas.

The second part of the story follows Bond's recovery from the above mentioned torture and is oddly melodramatic and romantic; certainly not the sort of thing one expects from an action oriented genre. It is a difficult task for a novelist, to maintain reader interest through character development after spending the first half of the book portraying bombastic daring-do.  Fleming makes a solid attempt, but the senses are already overwhelmed and any delicacy and subtlety seem anti-climatic.  Eating steamed broccoli may be healthy, but it still tastes bad after a chocolate sundae.

Another shortcoming is the lack of humor or irony - there is no Q, no clever gadgets, and no witty repartee.  In fact, the only humor is unintentional.  When speculating what motivates a LeChiffre henchman to be a cold ruthless killer, Bond decides the answer is drugs - probably "Marihuana" (the 'h' is not a typo).  One wonders what prompted Fleming to eventually settle in Jamaica.

Fifty years on, Casino Royale is a passable espionage thriller.  A fair companion for a cross-country flight or for reading a chapter or two before you go to sleep.  Darker and more serious than pop-Bond, but not more entertaining.

Casino Royale is available at BN.com, but you can probably find a copy for a couple of bucks at your local used bookstore.

Special Bonus Movie Mini-Review:  Casino Royale, the movie [1967], has little in common with the book expect a few names.  It features fine performances from such luminaries as David Niven, Ursula Andress, Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, and the underside of Dalhia Lavi's breasts (don't ask). Unfortunately, the producers got the bright idea to let five directors each control a different section of the film, resulting in near incoherence.

Still, there's a fine, hip, bachelor pad soundtrack, and plenty of zany British-bad-teeth era antics. Probably not worth a rental, but check it out when it comes around on AMC or TCM for a taste of authentic Shagadelica.


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Book Review: Casino Royale | 34 comments (24 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
SMERSH was real (5.00 / 4) (#1)
by Kasreyn on Wed Apr 23, 2003 at 10:19:51 PM EST

"...he will be dealt with by SMERSH, a Soviet Agency Far More Secret And Dangerous Than The KGB."

You make it sound like SMERSH was invented by Fleming, but it was not. I have it on good authority (at least, what I consider good authority - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago") that SMERSH was a Red Army counterintelligence organization, involved in policing the army and rooting out dissidents (such as Solzhenitsyn, who spent a decade in a hard labor camp for poking fun at Stalin and doubting inevitable Russian victory in a few ill-advised letters to a friend). The word "SMERSH", he relates, was "manufactured from the initial syllables of the words for 'death to spies'."

As to your book review: excellent job. I don't agree with you on all points, but that's opinion; you did an excellent writeup. BTW I agree that Fleming was an apalling chauvinist and a definite Straight, but he wrote quite a few good chapters. If only he had put them all in the same book...

+1 Section forthcoming from me.


"Extenuating circumstance to be mentioned on Judgement Day:
We never asked to be born in the first place."

R.I.P. Kurt. You will be missed.
Oh gasp. (1.60 / 5) (#8)
by tkatchev on Thu Apr 24, 2003 at 04:06:21 AM EST

He was Straight? Send him to a labor camp!!

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

when you're talking in terms of that era... (5.00 / 2) (#22)
by joshsisk on Fri Apr 25, 2003 at 09:55:36 AM EST

...calling someone a "Straight" didn't mean they are hetero. It meant they are a dork, someone who just can't "get" it.
logjamming.com : web hosting for weblogs, NOT gay lumberjack porn
[ Parent ]
Oh I see. (none / 0) (#32)
by tkatchev on Sun Apr 27, 2003 at 09:51:23 AM EST

Oh OK. So that means labor camps suddenly become OK?

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

One has nothing to do with the other. (none / 0) (#34)
by joshsisk on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 12:06:58 PM EST

I was simply correcting your misinterpretation of the grandparent comment.
logjamming.com : web hosting for weblogs, NOT gay lumberjack porn
[ Parent ]
There's been some speculation... (5.00 / 1) (#28)
by leviramsey on Fri Apr 25, 2003 at 05:23:15 PM EST

That Fleming was toying with the idea of bringing James Bond out of the closet either in The Man with the Golden Gun or in one of the following novels. This is obviously controversial.

After vanquishing Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, Bond suffers amnesia and becomes a Japanese fisherman. One day, he decides to sail to Russia. The KGB discovers him, realizes that he knows nothing, and brainwashes him, after which they bring him to London to assassinate M. MI6 is suspicious and puts bulletproof glass between Bond and M's desk when they meet. They take Bond back after the attempt and try to un-brainwash him. M assigns him to deal with Scaramanga, a gangster in Jamaica.

Fleming died before finishing the book. His friend Kingsley Amis anonymously edited early drafts into the published form. This complicates study of the novel because no one is completely sure what Amis added, modified, or deleted.

Scaramanga was definitely gay. His dossier indicates that he is promiscously homosexual, though not flamboyant. However, there's no explicit reference in the plot to this, which makes some wonder if Fleming at least planned to make this a central character element. It does seem apparent, however, that Scaramanga hired Bond out of some type of sexual desire. Fleming hints in a couple places that Bond is not unwillingly the object of Scaramanga's desire. Fleming writes at one point that Bond and Scaramanga shared a look common to spies, thieves, and homosexuals. Bond is a spy. Scaramanga is a glorified thief. Why the homosexual reference?

Also, women are uncharacteristically absent from the bulk of the proceedings. Of course, there is the final paragraph of the novel:

He said it and meant it, "Goodnight. You?re an angel." At the same time, he knew, deep down, that love from Mary Goodnight, or from any other woman, was not enough for him. It would be like taking "a room with a view". For James Bond, the same view would always pall.

[ Parent ]
SMERSH Meaning (5.00 / 1) (#29)
by sikozu on Fri Apr 25, 2003 at 05:23:30 PM EST

If I remember my Russian, SMERSH is an acronym derived from SMIERT SZPIONIEM, which does mean "Death to Spies". sikozu

[ Parent ]
Cool. (none / 0) (#33)
by tkatchev on Sun Apr 27, 2003 at 11:05:01 AM EST

Are you Polish?

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

Baccarat (none / 0) (#6)
by Pseudonym on Thu Apr 24, 2003 at 12:29:42 AM EST

One thing I've never understood is how it's possible to affect the outcome of a baccarat game. There appears to be no skill involved.

Is it something to do with the way you bet?

sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
Baccarat (none / 0) (#10)
by angus on Thu Apr 24, 2003 at 08:57:08 AM EST

Well, the bet amounts were fixed. I think Bond was relying in his luck and a huge bag of money...

The book's depiction of the game, though, makes you think there's a lot of deduction in deciding whether to ask for another card or not.

[ Parent ]

Card counting (none / 0) (#17)
by rantweasel on Thu Apr 24, 2003 at 07:44:58 PM EST

I think card counting is the key.  If you know the odds for the next cards out of the dealers hand, then you have a statisical edge over your opponent.


[ Parent ]

Baccarat skill (5.00 / 2) (#19)
by evil roy on Fri Apr 25, 2003 at 12:01:59 AM EST

Baccarat as we see it in today's casinos has no skill at all. The rules dictate the outcomes. There is no difference bewteen mini-baccarat and the roped off game the high rollers indulge in. So why do the high-rollers do this? Who knows? From the little research I have done into baccarat it seems that a traditional form of the game was played in Europe where the banker/dealer did have decisions to make that could affect the outcome. Today's modern game, in both European and US casinos, has a built in house edge and fixed rules for all. If you have to play, bet on banker for the slight % edge over the dealer hand. The tie is a sucker bet. Come to think of it, baccarat is a sucker game, which leads back to the high roller question again.

[ Parent ]
Looks like Baccarat... (none / 0) (#25)
by faustus on Fri Apr 25, 2003 at 01:47:13 PM EST

...is a sucker game. The faq says:
Edward O. Thorp and others have determined that card counting is not effective in overcoming the house edge at the baccarat tables. Compared to blackjack, card counting is about 9 times less effective when used against baccarat. See Thorp's "The Mathematics of Gambling" for details.

That is really bad considering card counting in blackjack barely gives you an advantage in the first place.

[ Parent ]
baccarat is a coin toss, link to thorp (5.00 / 1) (#26)
by massivefubar on Fri Apr 25, 2003 at 04:54:10 PM EST

You have no power to change the outcome at baccarat. It is a fancy way of tossing a coin. There are fixed rules as to whether or not another card is drawn. I have not read Casino Royale but if it implied that Bond could make choices to affect the outcome of the game, then the description of the game was in error.

Because the player has no control over the game, and it gives the impression that the dealer(s) are the ones doing all the playing, then baccarat is extremely unpopular in the United States. I am not sure why it is so popular in Europe, but I have been told that it is because the gambling culture there is different. In America, people play to win, even when they are making bad choices that would cause this outcome to be unlikely (for instance, playing slots). In Europe, it is said that people gamble as a display of conspicuous consumption and that it is "tacky" to be concerned with winning, so the whole tedious rigamarole involved with playing big baccarat would cater to the willing loser/conspicuous consumption mentality. I have not played in Europe so you may take that analysis for what it is worth.

As Ed Thorp's research indicated, and as decades of experimentation have borne out, no one has successfully figured out a way to make card counting work at baccarat. Thorp has kindly provided for the entire text of The Mathematics of Gambling to be posted online here and I would urge anyone interested in these matters to review this book.

Some professionals have certainly succeeded at winning at baccarat through illegal means but they have generally needed inside help to do so. A large team traveled through the U.S. a few years winning half a million or more before they were caught but their scheme was so complicated that I can't remember it now.

[ Parent ]

Baccarat (none / 0) (#27)
by leviramsey on Fri Apr 25, 2003 at 05:05:21 PM EST

There are many variations of baccarat, some of which have more options for a player. For instance, in European Baccarat, the player does have the choice of standing or requesting another card if he has a 5. The banker always has the option to draw (though the rules of American baccarat will normally be followed for commonsense reasons).

[ Parent ]
A mystery? (4.75 / 4) (#7)
by 8ctavIan on Thu Apr 24, 2003 at 03:27:40 AM EST

Why it became one of the greatest entertainment franchises in history remains a mystery.

The fact that you'd ask this question proves that you know very little about Ian Fleming. Not that I think you necessarily have to know about him to write a book review, but it helps. I think though, that for this reason, the review suffers from lack of background. If it weren't for the references to the novel being 50 years old, I'd take you for one of these people who think they're 'novelizations' of the movies.

The mystery? There really isn't any. One big reason is that shortly after JFK was elected President of the US, he mentioned that one of his favorite books was From Russia With Love. That obviously did a lot for sales. Big book sales normally mean big movie contracts. But even before this, Fleming, who had been an member of British Naval Intelligence himself, was very well connected socially both in Britain and the US. If you believe in the 'trickle down' theory of how things become popular (more socially advantaged classes begin to consume something and word gets out...), then this would partially explain the popularity as well.

Another shortcoming is the lack of humor or irony - there is no Q, no clever gadgets, and no witty repartee.

You've committed a big mistake here for a reviewer. You don't understand the context of the book itself. Your frame of reference is the movies. Remember, this was his first Bond book. Ian Fleming didn't even know if his books would sell let alone that it would become the longest lasting Hollywood franchise. You'll find that Q is in the books, normally referred to by his real name, Major Boothroyd. These other things are largely Hollywood add-ons.

A fair companion for a cross-country flight or for reading a chapter or two before you go to sleep.

I agree with the first part, but I totaly disagree with the second. Ian Fleming was not William Falkner, but his talent for describing rather mundane scenes in a way that makes them interesting is quite well-known. They deserve a close read to be enjoyed. Also, as many have said, the books have a sort of momentum to them and you are "swept" into them, so this really can't happen if you flip through a few chapters when you're falling asleep. I think the books are enjoyed best when finished in one sitting. The fast pace may be another reason why they have become successful movies, (at least the 60s movies, which were fairly faithful to the books).

Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice. -- H.L. Mencken

Thanks for your comments. (none / 0) (#14)
by David Mazzotta on Thu Apr 24, 2003 at 01:31:14 PM EST

The fact that you'd ask this question proves that you know very little about Ian Fleming. Not that I think you necessarily have to know about him to write a book review, but it helps.

I disagree with you about the value of author background when evaluating a book, but you're right about it not being such a mystery. I changed that paragraph a bit.

You've committed a big mistake here for a reviewer. You don't understand the context of the book itself.

I don't think so. The fact of the matter is that there is no humor in the book whatsoever. That, in this reviewer's opinion, is a shortcoming regardless of context. The context is for the reader who may only have the perspective of the movies.

[ Parent ]
No prob (none / 0) (#16)
by 8ctavIan on Thu Apr 24, 2003 at 03:54:53 PM EST

Reading this 12 hours later, I think my comments come off as a bit harsh and I didn't mean for them to be that way. Also, I really liked the review an I see I forgot to say that.

Again, about the Q and tongue-in-cheek humor comments, maybe if you said something like: "Those expecting the Q gadgets and the tongue-in-cheek humor typical of the Bond movies are going to be disappointed or something to that effect, you'd get that perspective you mentioned.

Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice. -- H.L. Mencken
[ Parent ]

This is why (none / 0) (#18)
by spacejack on Thu Apr 24, 2003 at 09:44:13 PM EST

K5 is so great. Your review is a good read -- as good as I'd probably get if I stumbled across a similar article in some magazine. The previous comment makes some excellent counterpoints. Rock on!

+1 section once I get to vote.

[ Parent ]
Card games (none / 0) (#21)
by nevertheless on Fri Apr 25, 2003 at 09:36:55 AM EST

Fleming is extraordinary in his ability to describe a card game with an edge-of-your-seat sort of excitement. The bridge game in Moonraker is the same sort of thing. I mean, I don't play either baccarat or bridge, but the descriptions of both games was spellbinding.

This whole "being at work" thing just isn't doing it for me. -- Phil the Canuck

very nice review (none / 0) (#23)
by asad on Fri Apr 25, 2003 at 12:10:40 PM EST

the review itself regardless of the subject was well written. As for Ian I remember reading one of his books in high school and thinking it very cliche, years later I realize that the it was cliche because so many other spy movies were derived from it. It would have been interesting knowing what are some of the other eary writers of the spy genre.

There was another Casino Royale... (none / 0) (#24)
by jason on Fri Apr 25, 2003 at 12:18:23 PM EST

I'm amazed; it's missing from the IMDB. The other Casino Royale was a TV episode released in 1954. James Bond is American and totes a tommy gun. Check the alt.fan.james-bond faq.

I saw that one. (none / 0) (#30)
by Verminator on Fri Apr 25, 2003 at 05:27:51 PM EST

They called him Jimmy Bond I think. It was fairly hip.

If the whole country is gonna play 'Behind The Iron Curtain,' there better be some fine fucking state s
[ Parent ]

Vespers are yummy. The drink I mean (5.00 / 1) (#31)
by fnug on Fri Apr 25, 2003 at 07:35:28 PM EST

Small beef, I know, but Kina Lillet is not vermouth. Lillet is a French aperitif wine, Kina is the brand. Made as described, with a nice blonde Lillet and a good Russian vodka, the Vesper is one of the delishusest cocktails you'll never get in a bar, and it's nothing like a martini. Bond likes them shaken because it gets them cold.

Book Review: Casino Royale | 34 comments (24 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
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