It took a while to return to Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale. Back in late May when I published a cursory review, I had ideas of re-reading the novel again and possibly writing a supplemental review in the near future. Here we are in early August already. Tempus Fugit.
For that matter, I haven’t even read the book again. Instead, I revisited a particular passage that had always struck me as somewhat odd in the grander scheme of the novel’s plotting. In the twentieth chapter, ‘’The Nature of Evil’’, Bond arrives at a significant decision whilst recovering from the savage beating withstood at the hands of Le Chiffre. His dramatic experience has pushed him to quit the secret service. His friend and ally Mathis of the Deuxième Bureau is incredulous, but allows Bond to speak his mind and share his reasoning.
007 warms up his argument by theorizing that in the modern age (circa 1953) the line between right and wrong has become too opaque. When kids, discerning between the heroes and villains was, well, child’s play. As an adult, with shifting alliances and so many covert operations, the distinction is not as clear, thus encouraging Bond to view his own profession and the late Le Chiffre’s precarious position in different light. The protagonist elaborates even more by delving into concepts of good and evil, specifically how the evil has never benefitted from a clear cut definition (he alludes to the Good Book in reference to there not being an Evil Book). Consequently, those that live on the side of right and virtue also have the advantage of defining what evil is from their point of view. Bond, as he admits, has always had a thing for the underdogs of this world, of which clearly the side of right is not.
It’s all rather heady material, particularly for a Bond novel. Then again, it is the first novel, at which time the character had not been sufficiently well defined apart from his likes and dislikes in food and women. Fleming probably felt the need to award his creation added gravitas, or at least some sense of psychological and emotional depth which the character had lacked up until then. All of 007’s inner thinking up until this chapter provides the reader with a decent enough idea of how he operates in the field, less so who he is as an individual. Chapter 20, therefore, serves as a platform to demonstrate that Bond is more than just a machine that enjoys gambling, smoking, eating and imagining what Vesper Lynd looks and feels like in the nude.
It took some time for Fleming’s efforts to really sink in. Certainly on the first couple of readings the chapter had come across as too laborious for its own good. To put it bluntly, I actually thought Fleming was being rather pretentious when he should remain firmly in his playhouse of cocky heroes and dastardly villains. It was only during the reading in May and in the last day or two that the chapter has begun to ring true with me. By rearranging some terms and substituting some words to provide the dialogue a more nefarious connotation, it could read like something a Bond villain would say to 007 himself to explain the motivation behind his or her villainy. Perhaps, on a subconscious level anyways, that was partly what prevented me from fully appreciating the passage.
There is also the matter of the final few pages, after Vesper has committed suicide, leaving Bond in a state of fury and pain. He looks down on his hand at the W the SMERSH agent carved into his skin when dispatching Le Chiffre. 007 then vows to continue the fight against the infamous Soviet spy assassination branch and smash them once and for all. It’s an intriguing way for Fleming the finish off the novel. Keeping in mind that Casino Royale is the very first literary Bond adventure, the author had no way of knowing how successful it would become. This might have been a way for the author to hedge his bets. If the book failed commercially, then so be it. On the flip side, if sales were good and the publisher asked for more material, then he had left the door ajar for more confrontations against SMERSH and its decidedly colourful rogues gallery. Rather strategic, which should come as no surprise from someone who made a military career in part by planning secretive intelligence missions.
All in all, a bloody good introduction to the character of Bond and the universe he lives in. Trust no one, always keep your guard, prepare to travel to beautiful settings, and enjoy the restaurant menu to the fullest! I wouldn’t call CR my favourite of the novels, but it’s very solid and definitely makes one hungry for more, sort of like the first film, DN.
For the record, this summer’s reading of Casino Royale shall not be the only time the story is visited in book form in 2017. Barely a couple of months from now, Dynamite Entertainment shall release a single volume graphic novel on October 17. While I’d prefer it if the comics were fully dedicated to pushing Bond further into the future, I shan’t deny that a level of curiosity has me looking forward to the comic. Released barely a few days after my birthday. Fancy that.