When I was a young teenager, and my unrealized desire for fighting, guns, and explosions was at an all-time high, I was for perhaps 18 months a fan of Don Pendleton’s The Executioner, getting them five or six at a time from the library.
When a friend—an avid Bond enthusiast of the old-fashioned sort who owns all the old Fleming novels—dropped Casino Royale off in my cubicle just before Christmas, I was a little leery. I am a part-time Bond fan, having enjoyed Goldeneye (movie and N64 game) and loved the movie version of Casino Royale1. Looking over my friend’s vintage copy of Casino Royale, I was struck by how similar it seemed the the pulp action series I had consumed as a young lad. It even had the advertisements in the back for other series on the publisher’s imprint.
This is the very first Bond novel that Fleming ever wrote, I should point out. The character of James Bond was based on Fleming’s boozehound roommate at University who later became a spy. The book doesn’t necessarily seem as though it’s the beginning of the series, however; I constantly had to both reconcile the Bond that I knew with the Bond that Fleming wrote, as well as realize that any preconceptions I had about Bond, and any storyline I had known, needed to be forgotten.
At less than 200 pages, the book is maddeningly brief—especially after the careful pacing of its movie counterpart. It’s heavy on detail, however, flitting from memoranda to backstory to card game (baccarat, not poker), describing Bond’s eating habits and his high-falutin’ predilections which seem much less manly when described than when practiced by a butch guy like Daniel Craig.
Fleming’s novel is incredibly detailed—even poetic, sometimes—but at the same time it manages to be startlingly straightforward, with little in the way of subtext or subplots. It’s a simple laundry list of plot events, sprinkled with short paragraphs of Bond qua ponderer and occasional pretty description of nature, which is not exactly de rigeur for the kind of James Bond plot that I’ve become used to—but such, perhaps, is the price of viewing an original art through a cultural filter, morphing at each step along the way—from book to movie, from movie to cultural imagination, from cultural imagination to rebooted movie, and from all this in some amalgamated way to my brain.
Will reading Casino Royale make you appreciable more enamored of the series? Maybe. Will you still like the movie better? Very possibly. Is it the best book every written? Not even close. But for such a quick read, Casino Royale is probably worth your time if you’re curious about the books that started it all.
- Neat trivia: Goldeneye and Casino Royale, the best of the 90s/2000s Bond films, are both directed by Martin Campbell. Coincidence? I think not…[↩]