In 1952, Ian Fleming fled London’s winter chill for Goldeneye, his home in Jamaica, with the aim of writing ‘the spy story to end all spy stories’. The result was Casino Royale (1953), and the birth of the most enduring fictional icon the world has ever seen. Dispatched to France to bankrupt Soviet agent le Chiffre at the baccarat table, where the latter is aiming to recover funds he has embezzled before his Soviet paymasters find out, James Bond is launched into an adventure that combines glamour and violence in equal measure. It’s a combination which has since become familiar, in large part thanks to the series of Bond movies which began in 1962 with Dr No. Without the books, however, there would have been no film franchise. No Casino Royale, no James Bond. For that reason alone, this is an important book.
But how does Casino Royale stand up as a novel in its own right? Fleming has a reputation as a weak writer, lacking the literary style and depth of a Greene or a le Carré. Such claims are unfair; from the opening lines of Casino Royale – “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning” – through the description of “the hidden metronome of the Casino, ticking up its little treasure of one-per-cents”, to Bond’s eager anticipation of a week’s rest and recuperation with Vesper Lynd which has him “finger[ing] the necklace of the days to come”, Fleming continually demonstrates himself to be a fine writer with an eye for a striking image. He excels at action sequences, although this is perhaps better demonstrated in later Bond novels; his eye for detail keeps the reader hooked – witness Bond’s fastidious attention to his meals in Casino Royale, or the lengthy chapter which explains the rules of baccarat without once losing the reader’s attention.
The importance of the Bond novels, however, goes beyond the quality of the writing. Published between 1953 and 1966, these novels coincide with a period in which Britain lost an empire and, with it, her place as a world power. The novels can be read in one respect as escapist fantasies, allowing the reader to cling on to the illusion that, still, nobody does it better than a Brit when it comes to saving the world. Further escapism comes in the form of the conspicuous consumption the novels depict. To a reader in the grip of post-war austerity, the impossibly glamorous lifestyle of this British agent who smokes “a Balkan and Turkish mixture made for him by Morlands of Grosvenor Street”, gambles for high stakes in the line of duty, and seduces the ravishing, glamorous Vesper Lynd, must have represented a thrilling escape from the mundane realities of everyday life.
And yet, the escapism is ultimately undermined by the realities of the world in which Casino Royale was written. Vesper becomes the first of many women to scar Bond’s heart (setting him apart from his movie incarnation who rarely lets the girls get under his skin). And at the card table, Bond is cleaned out and able to defeat le Chiffre thanks only to CIA agent Felix Leiter, who hands him an envelope of “Marshall Aid. Thirty-two million francs. With the compliments of the USA”. Uncle Sam to the rescue, Britain merely a proxy in the emerging superpower struggle between the USA and the Soviet Union. Casino Royale and the books which follow provide a snapshot of a time of transition, a time when all the old certainties of what it meant to be British were being swept away by a new world order. That Fleming is able to entertain and thrill us along the way is testament to his skills as a writer and storyteller. Did he succeed in writing ‘the spy story to end all spy stories’? Probably not. But in the process, he might just have come up with the spy to end all spies. I