Previously in The Mortal Bath… ‘Fasten your lap-strap’.
Casino Royale (CR), the first James Bond novel, was published in 1953. Here, from the lavish ianfleming.com website, is the original Jonathan Cape jacket blurb:
The dry riffle of the cards and the soft whirr of the roulette wheel, the sharp call of the croupiers and the feverish mutter of a crowded casino hide the thick voice at Bond’s ear which says, ‘I will count up to ten.’
Anyone who has ever gambled will find this tense and sometimes horrifying story of espionage and high gambling irresistible. So will readers who have never entered a casino. Connoisseurs of realistic fiction will particularly note the careful documentation of the Secret Service background, the chilling portrait of Le Chiffre, the authentic menace of SMERSH, and the sensual appeal of the girl in ‘soie sauvage’.
These bumphtious references to conoisseurs and raw silk barely begin to gently stroke the surface of the sensual appeal of the Bond books. Post-war gastronauts, label Mabels and petrolheads would also find much worthy of note within the pages of this landmark novel.* Bond’s reputation as a bon viveur is a significant aspect of the series as a whole, and it’s in CR that many of his predilections and prejudices first surface. He is, to put it bluntly, an aggressive snob in matters of what to eat, drink, drive, smoke, hump.
The cover of the Pan paperback captures the green baize excitement, the essential appeal of Bond, with the cashier’s cheque for an astronomical sum in francs panting continental exoticism, never mind the p’tite wink from the graphics department with the handwritten ‘soixante neuf’…
This consumption with relish of what must have been mostly unattainable pleasures for rationing book Britain appears throughout the Bond canon. Let us take the infamous Vesper cocktail, the ‘vodka martini, shaken, not stirred’ immortalised in the flicks. This bland order does no justice to the thing of alcoholic wonder, ordered with colonial vigour, in the book:
“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
Booze pedants will point out that Gordon’s has diluted its recipe since, and so on, that shaking ruins the drink, but Fleming is creating a man who is the measure of all things, knows what he wants and dam’ well gets it. Bond is comfortable adding an absurd proviso regarding grain over potato vodka, lessening the poncery with a ribald crack in the local lingo. He later names the drink after a girl, showing his romantic, perhaps even a sentimental side.
We shall return to Bond’s prodigious consumption in Thunderball, although it is worth noting now that as well as this cirrhotic excess, the gambling and the gorging, Bond smokes around 60 cigarettes a day. However, while there is a lot of this airplane magazine catalogue of ‘cool’ GQ How-To-Guide stuff in the books, Bond’s absurd intake highlights what JCG at Ten Minutes Hate refers to as ‘a… sometimes out-of-control human being.’ Bond is, without doubt, a vehicle for communicating Fleming’s fashionable tastes in the name of excitement and escapism, but he is also a complex character, a haunted one in many ways.
This makes perfect sense given Fleming’s intriguing life story (soon to be filmed again by super Duncan Jones, it says here at ScreenJabber) and the historical context of the book, released a few years after World War II with its own well-rehearsed litany of horrors. Bond is a soldier who, in the absence of a Great Cause, is really just a blunt instrument, a man apparently with a death wish being used to visit it on others, something deliberately worked with by Fleming throughout the novels.
As the first entry in the series, CR establishes some reasons for why this might be. There is the Freudian field day (Field Day is a good name for a Bond girl) start of the infamous series of “Bond babes”, with the dark, quixotic French waft of mystery that is Vesper Lynd. The lemony twist to the tale (such as it is) is of course that Bond’s sentimental attachment to Vesper nearly emasculates him, actually and figuratively. Again, this fallible Bond is far more brutal, and brutalised, than any of the films prior to the Craig reboots, or arguably Pierce Brosnan with a beard in North Korea, managed. The chilling carpet beater scene is convincing and terse.
It also introduces a first ‘new enemy’ for Bond, early Cold War political uncertainty represented in the wonky Cyrillic letter Щ carved into the back of his hand by a heavily-accented Soviet agent. (Check out the excellent Commander Bond website for some far more detailed research and exegesis.) This scene makes explicit Bond’s helplessness in the wider game of history, and the long coda to the novel, with Bond and Lynd’s doomed relationship playing out through convalescence, elaborate meals, empty sex and finally betrayal, is doubtless a metaphor for British involvement in wartime and post-war Europe in some way. The book begins and ends nihilistically; it is a damaged world, full of damaged people, including the protagonist. As Fleming perhaps saw it, life is about the way the cards fall, and how you play them… and the house usually wins.
It is a satisfyingly dark book. Bond has only some of the insouciance and confidence one associates with him, the Secret Agent Man, the suave and apparently indestructible force of justice. His uncertainties and flaws in CR are what make him such a compelling character for the rest of the series. That and the exciting drinks, card games and violence. As a scene setter, and as a standalone work, CR is indeed in many ways irresistible.
*Yes, it is a landmark novel.