“History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”
Although it was the 21st movie in the series of Bond films, Casino Royale was the very first Bond novel written by Ian Fleming. Appropriately enough, its film adaptation was essentially a reboot of the Bond series with Daniel Craig (you can find a full comparison of the book and movie here), so both versions serve as a sort of introduction to Britain’s suavest, deadliest superspy.
007 is sent to bankrupt Le Chiffre, a criminal money man who is on the brink of disaster. You see, he played fast and loose with funds from SMERSH (a Russian criminal organization whose name is a short version of the Russian words for “death to spies”) in a scheme to make more money for himself. When the scheme went south, Le Chiffre found himself broke and in debt to an organization you do not want to piss off. Now Le Chiffre has hightailed it to a casino in Royale-les-Eaux to earn SMERSH’s money back in a high-stakes baccarat game. If Bond can bankrupt Le Chiffre at the casino, it could force Le Chiffre to help them out as an informant in exchange for protection. 007 is assisted in this mission by Rene Mathis, Felix Leiter, and the devastatingly beautiful Vesper Lynd, who manages to get underneath 007’s armor and worm her way into his heart. The stakes only get higher after the dust settles on their high-stakes game as Bond is drawn into a showdown with Le Chiffre and a betrayal from one of his allies comes to light.
Although a card game is the central set piece of Casino Royale, the game itself takes up less than thirty pages of the novel (including 007’s helpful explanation of how baccarat works). The rest is jam-packed with action. Leading up to the big game, 007 has to elude the thugs and goons who have marked him as an MI6 agent and want to kill him before he can meet Le Chiffre at the baccarat table. There’s even an attempt on his life during the game itself. And while the schemes are a touch overly elaborate, the result is that Casino Royale is a thrilling read. It’s a surprisingly solid, suspenseful introduction to James Bond and his world.
On paper Bond is a cold, calculating man whose life is defined by his job. You get to know him far better than any of the other characters in the novel, but even he remains an enigma. You never really get into his head, but in the end it doesn’t matter. Sean Connery and Daniel Craig play the character the closest to how he actually appears on the page: a cold-hearted loner who is deadly efficient and ruthlessly pragmatic. He is not very friendly to women, so be prepared for some seriously dated attitudes there. There is, however, an interesting debate on the nature of good and evil and whether or not it is possible to fight evil.
You might think it would be dated, but outside of the technology at his disposal and some deeply misogynist comments (at one point 007 excitedly thinks that sex with Vesper would carry “the tang of rape,” which is unsettling to say the least). The characters are paper thin but the action and the detailed descriptions of food, clothing, and cars make Casino Royale a thrilling read. It helps that it’s also short enough to read in one sitting if you were so inclined.