Book review: "The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning." And so begins the career of probably the world's most famous secret agent for those are the opening words of Casino Royale, the book that Ian Fleming wrote introducing Bond, James Bond to the world.
The plot seems simple enough and is well known. Bond is sent on a mission to bring down Le Chiffre whose investments have left him needing to make a lot of money. "Le Chiffre will endeavour to make a profit at baccarat of fifty million francs on a working capital of twenty-five million (and, incidentally, save his life)." That's because Le Chiffre is an agent of the USSR, and they know of his bad investments which he foolishly used "Leningrad Section III" monies for. Now they want it back and SMERSH, an organisation specialising in death to spies, are after him. Bond is to out-gamble Le Chiffre so that he can't repay his money. And it is HM Treasury who put up the money for him to do this. I can't imagine George Osborne doing that these days but this story wasn't written in these days.
Then the other part of the plot involves Bond meeting Vesper Lynd who is also assigned to the job, and trying to rescue her after getting herself kidnapped but instead getting caught and tortured.
The way the book is written is fantastic. Fleming is a great writer. You meet Bond already in the heart of the action at the glamorous casino. Then he introduces the mission and Le Chiffre via a dossier, an excellent tool to introduce the villain and his back-story, before returning to Royale, France. He also inserts the rules of baccarat into the novel seamlessly to allow non-casino goers like me understand what is going on (something I didn't understand from the films where it was assumed people would know, and I don't think Bond uses the Evelyn Tremble method in the book either, although he does explain his method in detail).
Bond the character is of his time. He smokes 70-a-day, loves his drinks, although a "vodka Martini, shaken not stirred", is not one of them, and is terribly sexist. "These blithering women who thought they could do a man's work. Why the hell couldn't they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men's work to the men." He is also very meticulous, which is probably what makes him such a good spy.
There are other bits in here too that are classic James Bond like the car chase, the narrow escapes and Felix Leiter.
But once the main thrilling part of the novel finished the story seemed to meander off course a bit with Bond recovering in a hospital bed, discussing "the nature of evil" with Mathis, before falling in love with Vesper rather too easily it seemed to me.
Still thanks to this book we have James Bond and we can all be grateful (or not as the case may be) for that.
Originally published: 13 April 1953