Casino Royale by Ian Flemming is the first James Bond novel ever written, and apparently it made a big enough impression to spawn many more books (both by Flemming and by subsequent authors) and the longest running film series EVAR. Having seen many of the movies (including the adaptation of Casino Royale) but never having read one of the books, I decided to try this one out. Not bad.
The biggest thing that struck me about the book was that having been published in 1953 it’s definitely a product of its time. Sensibilities about the roles of men (grrr, grunt, punch) and the role of women (pout, seduce, swoon) seem kind of out of date, even in the context of a freaking James Bond story. And indeed, we expect some of that from superspy James Bond. He’s the alpha male, the personification of rugged masculinity, competence, strength, and male libido. If the hero doesn’t shoot the bad guys, out-debonair every other guy in the room, and bed every slinky minx in sight, you’re not experiencing a James Bond story.
EVEN STILL, this book seemed to step beyond that kind of territory straight into misogyny and chest thumping. The Bond in this story mutters “bitch…” under his breath when having to endure the company of women and he pretty vividly fantasizes about raping his female compatriot. So, for all the excessive masculinity and smoldering sex drive that modern day Bond has, it’s kind of surprising to learn that he’s actually mellowed quite a bit.
Even more surprising is that the Bond in this book still suffers from self-doubt and a crisis of conscience to the point of reconsidering his role in the the whole superspy game. He’s also vulnerable to the point of getting his clock cleaned, and most of his heroics are limited to a card game. Flemming seems to want to get into Bond’s head and present him as a bona fide badass –competent, strong, intelligent, and driven– but also human underneath it all. He does a fairly good job of it, exploring both Bond’s psychological and physical vulnerabilities. Even still, the pace of the book is surprisingly quick, with only one slow, introspective part towards the end. The rest is pretty much explosions, shootings, tests of physical endurance, sex, and high-stakes gambling. Pretty much the standard 007 formula, in other words.