Review | Casino Royale, Ian Fleming | 3.5 Stars

Casino Royale (James Bond) - Ian Fleming

This book surprised me in a number of ways. First, Fleming’s Bond isn’t quite the cold, calculating Bond we’ve come to expect. There certainly is an element of that detachment and remorselessness present, but it coexists with a curiously tender and affectionate side which chooses to manifest itself at the oddest of times (Fleming is clearly aware of this, as he remarks on it on page 140: “Like all harsh, cold men, he was easily tipped over into sentiment”). I did initially have some trouble reconciling these two apparently opposite sides of double-07, but upon finishing the book I realized that Casino, the first in the series, is likely seeking to give the reader a reason for Bond’s somewhat mechanical, emotionless nature, and without his having that incongruous vulnerability violated, there would be no viable explanation for his coldness. I’m planning to read the next one (Live and Let Die) and see if I’m right.


Secondly, this story is not at all the smash-and-grab spy frolic I was expecting. It has that Hollywood element, yes – but the text also presents a deep moral quandary about the definitions of good and evil as presented by those in power, which Bond expostulates on at length in Chapter Twenty (fittingly called The Nature of Evil). I wish we saw more of this contemplative side of Bond in the movies.


In terms of plot and structure, this book has one of the most peculiar narrative arcs I’ve ever seen, particularly in regard to the downward slope after the climactic event of Bond’s kidnapping. This is not to say that it’s ‘bad,’ it’s just extremely unusual. The story feels very tight and concise until page 122, when it adopts a very languid, relaxed pace – so unlike the frenetic action of the first two thirds of the book.


Where Fleming truly excels is in the category of style. He has a slick, effortless way of writing that relishes details, but only the most vital ones (a necessity if you’re going to write five chapters about a card game and keep it engaging). As a narrator, he is frank an unapologetic about the most shocking thoughts to dart through Bond’s mind (which have horrified many a feminist reader, but which I find refreshingly honest and frankly hilarious). He has his shortcomings, of course, such as the tendency to favor (i.e., repeat) particular words, but every time a gem of a sentence like “In his mind he fingered the necklace of the days to come,” (p. 150) jumps off the page, you feel inclined to forgive him.


All in all, I immensely enjoyed reading this book, as it satisfied the appetite for a glamorous bit of espionage, but surprised me with its depth and complexity at the same time. I look forward to reading more.