Digging Double Oh Seven: Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

It took me far too long to come up with that Digging Double Oh Seven title and I’m still not really all that pleased with it. If you’ve got any suggestions for the title of a month-long James Bond daily review, I’d love to hear it. The more clever the better.

Anyway, I’ve been kicking around this idea of reviewing a James Bond novel or book a day. Originally I was going to start in January, but we were traveling, so that didn’t work. So, I decided on February for a few reasons. First off, it’s the shortest month and those few less days makes me slightly more confident I’ll actually pull this off. Second, with the baby coming in May and a lot of preparations needing to be made, I didn’t think I could put this off much longer and still actually get it done. So with that in mind, I put my James Bond DVD box set in chronological order, purchased a book on Amazon that includes Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, Casino Royale, Live And Let Die, Diamonds Are Forever, Dr. No and Goldfinger all in one volume and queued a few odds and ends up on Netflix. The cover itself isn’t all that interesting so I’ll be using the excellent art from the Penguin books for these posts.

But first a quick introduction to my love of James Bond. When I was a kid my dad introduced me to the Bond movies. We’d occasionally rent them and, if we were flipping around channels some weekend and one of the movies was on, we’d watch it. I still have trouble remembering what happens in which movie, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity a few Christmases back to buy the James Bond box set (complete up to Casino Royale) for both him and me. I’ve watched a few of the movies here and there, but haven’t really focused my attention on them lately, but that doesn’t mean they don’t resonate with me. My love of Bond translated into a love of Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury comics and an itch in my brain to write some spy material of my own. I love Bond from the gritty realism they seem to be aping off of the Bourne films nowadays to the more wild, gadget and girl filled adventures of year’s past, I’m a fan of it all. So, with that in mind, and the desire to really put my box set to use (that sounds dirtier than intended) I decided to watch all the movies and read as many of the original novels as possible. Hopefully I’ll at least get through this collection, but if not, I promise, I’m doing my best.

Taking all that into consideration I started at the very beginning with Ian Fleming’s very first James Bond novel Casino Royale which was first published in 1953. Going into the novel I only remembered a very few things about the movie of the same name starring Daniel Craig as James Bond: there was an awesome parkour scene in the beginning, bad things happened to Bond’s junk and the movie had WAY too many endings which really spoiled the movie in my mind. I was surprised to find that only one of those things were brought over from the original novel. The idea behind this novel is that James Bond, a war veteran who works for British intelligence and has earned the designation of 00 after killing two unarmed bad guys while on secret operations, has been tasked with taking down La Chiffre a commie with cash who’s been stealing from his government and is trying to make the money back in a high stakes game of baccarat. Instead of just killing La Chiffre, Bond is told to take all his money through gambling. He’s given aid by Frenchman Rene Mathis, an American by the name of Felix Leiter and a fellow Brit Vesper Lynd.

While reading, I was a bit worried that the novel’s age would separate me nearly completely from the action. I mean, who understands baccarat? But, luckily, Fleming must have known that not everyone gambled in France and explained the game to the point where I’m pretty sure I could play it myself right now. Aside from that, there was a bit of a worry that the story would be boring or tame and that most of the action would take place while sitting around playing cards instead of in the physical manner I’m used to from the films. Well, that wasn’t the case either, but I do have to admit that Fleming really drew me in to the card game, ringing it for all the tension it was worth. Bond not only had to play the game, but also worry about losing–he came pretty damn close–but also literally being shot in the back. Luckily, sort of, he wound up winning, but of course the story’s not over there.

Soon enough, Bond’s girl has been kidnapped and he’s tearing ass trying to catch up with the assailants, not really out of a care for her life, but to at least attempt to remove an asset form the enemy’s hand. He very coldly thinks that she’s not worth risking his life for in La Chiffre’s villa and only planned on trying to stop them on the road. If they got to the house, he figured he’d just turn around, collect his winnings and get the hell out of Dodge. Instead, the bad guys pull a fast one, cause Bond to crash and wind up with him in their clutches. You remember that scene in the movie where they cut the bottom out of Bond’s chair and hit him in the junk? Well, in the book, he’s stripped naked first and hit repeatedly. It’s pretty brutal to read. I actually felt a tension in my chest that I had trouble shaking until I left the bed–where I was reading–to come out to the living room and type this review.

Let’s call this SPOILER territory if you’re concerned about having a 58 year old novel ruined for you. In a strange and somewhat awkwardly written transition, Bond goes from being passed out from the pain of his ordeal to gaining just enough consciousness to see La Chiffre get murdered by a member of Russia’s anti-spy organization SMERSH. The only reason the agent doesn’t kill Bond as well is because he hasn’t been paid to (seems like kind of a cop out to me). From there, Bond finally gets found and taken to a hospital. This is when my memories of the labored and overwrought endings of the Craig movie version entered my head. I didn’t remember all the details, but I had a sneaking suspicion that it was ALL a hoax. Maybe La Chiffre wasn’t really killed and the whole thing was a set up to get Bond’s winnings back from Bond (he hid them very smartly in his hotel room, or rather on the door). Anyway, I kept suspecting everyone from that point from Mathis, who asked him where the money was to Vesper who was now pulling on Bond’s heart strings. The pair wind up at a nice cottage until things go sour, Vesper kills herself and reveals via letter that she was a double agent all along.

Okay, SPOILERS OVER. The novel surprised me for a few reasons. First off, I did not expect the brutal account of Bond’s naked torture. Now, I fully understand that being a male, I relate to this kind of scenario almost automatically and it’s not like the writing is graphic by any means, but I could feel the the stress in my chest. I was also a bit surprised that there’s no real gadgets in the movie. Bond uses some stealth of course and some classic spy moves, but he’s mostly relying on his wit and talent on this one. I didn’t think he’d be shooting anyone out of an ejector seat or shooting lazers out of his watch, but I figured they might play into at least slightly. I also didn’t expect Bond to fall for Vesper so easily. I’m used to the womanizing version I’ve seen on screen who occasionally falls in love and even got married in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which the novel matches and even makes a little creepier at times, but to see him fall in love and even think about proposing was a bit of a shock. This isn’t the hardened ultra version of the character I’ve come to expect, he’s a bit more gullible and less careful which really explains the whole Vesper thing at the end I already mentioned but don’t want to spoil again here. Finally, there was a discussion while Bond was in the hospital with Mathis about the nature of good and evil that I definitely was not expecting in the middle of a spy thriller. After going through all the craziness he survived, Bond’s not so sure if he’s always going to be sent after the bad guys, noting that good and bad are different depending on who you’re talking to. It’s a pretty poignant discussion, one that’s probably been had on hundred of college campuses nearly word for word with out intent to copy, but, like I said, surprising considering what I was reading.

Overall, I liked the book a lot, especially it’s shortness of page length. Heck, I think the ending of the movie version probably took me longer to watch that the end of the book took me to read (and I’m a SLOW reader). Now that I’ve read the book, I’m actually looking more forward to watching the movie than I have since, well, before I watched the movie. I’m really curious to see where Fleming takes Bond now that he’s got a vendetta against SMERSH and how–if at all–his philosophical side will play into further missions. On the docket for tomorrow? One of the three adaptations of this novel, can you guess which one?

OH, two quick notes before I post this. One, this is a picture of Hoagy Carmichael, the man who Vesper said Bond reminded her of. And two, I’m already trying to track down the ingredients to the cocktail Bond enjoys in the book and names after Vesper. It’s even got it’s own Wiki page. I just need to track down some orange bitters! If all goes as planned, I’ll be enjoying one on my birthday while watching the Steelers trounce the Packers.

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