I was recently reminded by Folio Society, who publish beautiful editions of classic books, that it had been 69 years since James Bond’s first novel was published back in 1953. A few years ago, I did a marathon watching every single Bond movie ever made and I quite liked the mix of intrigue, romance and action. So, curiosity got the best of me and I decided to start a similar journey with Ian Fleming’s first book that started it all - Casino Royale.
The story is set in the Cold War after WW2 between the Western powers and USSR. Our suave secret agent is at a famous casino in the seaside town of Royale-les-Eaux in France. His mission is to defeat and ruin the villain Le Chiffre, who is the front through whom USSR is funding Communist activities in France. Le Chiffre has made some bad investments with Red money and their secretive SMERSH operatives will get him unless he wins back his losses at the multi-million high-stakes baccarat game. Aiding our hero are Felix Leiter (CIA), Mathis (UK) and a beautiful Vesper Lynd as his love interest.
Fleming beautifully sets up the lead to the baccarat game, even giving us an excellent introduction to how it is played. Bond twice escapes attempts on his life and defeats Le Chiffre in a truly nail biting contest of the nerves. Neither Le Chiffre nor SMERSH are happy with the result and this leads to some painful consequences for Bond and Lynd. Having gotten out of these predicaments, Bond is badly injured and recovers in a romantic seaside getaway with Lynd where he falls madly in love and decides to propose to her. However, love is not meant for our hero (as in a couple of his movies) and the final reveal seals the tragic climax for the pining reader.
The book is short, fast and hard to put down. It is a testament to Fleming’s quality of writing that it was this nail biting for me, despite having seen so many Bond movies. The Bond here is closer to the brute Daniel Craig, than to the smooth Sean Connery of the earlier movies. The action and language too do not hold back and are brutal and painful, just like the Craig movies. Even though this is just the first story, Bond already faces some huge emotional setbacks that scar him for life. Action, suspense, romance, fun, this book has it all and is a recommended read.