Casino Royale is Ian Fleming’s first novel and the book that introduced James Bond to the world. In it Fleming also introduced Bond’s taste for high living – and his vices – in a vivid writing style that led to accusations of “sex, sadism and snobbery”.
Author: Ian Fleming
Publication date: 13th April 1953
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Cover artist: Kenneth Lewis
Search for first edition copies on Abebooks
Set during the Cold War, M sends agent 007 on a mission to beat the head of a French trade union at baccarat. The head of the union, Le Chiffre, had lost a significant amount of funds provided by his Russian paymasters through an unauthorised personal investment. His plan was to win it back at the gambling tables of Royale-les-Eaux.
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The operation was designed to discredit Le Chiffre, believing he would be killed as a traitor by the Russians and wipe their carefully built up French network.
It is one of the more polished of the books and the scenes in the casino are vividly painted. Although the plot is on the whole straightforward, almost mundane, it has enough of a spark of originality and daring to pull the reader into the story and finishes with a bitter twist in its tail. The book is peppered with information about Bond’s habits and vices, such as his preference for his drink to be “shaken, not stirred” (not the simple Vodka Martini of the films, but a concoction of his own design) and custom made cigarettes with three gold bands on the filter.
However, Fleming seems to get out of his depth as a writer when Bond is talking to the head of French intelligence about the philosophy of good and evil, which comes across as childishly naïve and seems completely out of place in the novel.
Overall, Casino Royale remains one of the best of the series. It has a freshness and readability that make it hard to put down, vivid descriptions of the card game and should grace the bookshelf of any serious fan of James Bond.
Fleming saw the big screen possibilities for 007 from the beginning and an option on the film and television rights were sold separately. In 1954 came Bond’s screen debut in the CBS television film of Casino Royale, with Bond played as an American agent. The title was later produced as a comedy starring David Niven after the official series of films, produced by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, had raised public interest in Bond. It has little, if anything, to do with the plot of the novel.
First editions of all the books are highly sought after by collectors and as a result prices are high. However, old copies of the paperbacks are good value and the covers are better that the rather sterile covers of some more recent editions.
What we say
Casino Royale introduces many of the elements we have come to expect from James Bond; brand names, high living, cars, sex, food, drink, violence and exotic locations.
Ian Fleming’s first book was inspired by an experience he had in Estoril during the Second World War that he later heavily embellished. We first meet James Bond while at the casino in Royale-les-Eaux where he has been sent to beat a Russian agent at baccarat.
The novel is extremely short, especially by the standards of the twenty-first century, and structurally is almost two separate but intertwined stories.
The first deals with his mission to beat Le Chiffre at the card tables, while the second is a love story as Bond recovers from a vicious beating. But rather than a happy ending this love story ends with a bitter twist. In the last few pages the stories dramatically collide.
The first edition of 4,728 copies was quickly followed by a second and then third printing. Both critically and commercially James Bond was a success from the start. But no one could have predicted just how successful 007 would become.
Friends & foes
In Casino Royale, James Bond encounters a variety of friends and foes who shape the course of his mission. These are French agent René Mathis, CIA contact Felix Leiter, and assistant Vesper Lynd pitted against Le Chiffre, an overweight and heavy-smoking agent of the USSR.
René Mathis works for France’s Deuxième Bureau and reappears several times throughout the course of Ian Fleming’s books and continuation novels. In Casino Royale he poses as a radio salesman while assisting 007 and it is Mathis who introduces Bond to Vesper Lynd.
Mathis is depicted as a charming and capable agent who is trusted by Bond. He provides support and assistance to Bond throughout the novel, using his knowledge of the local area and his contacts in the French intelligence community to help Bond stay one step ahead of his enemies. One notable aspect of Mathis’ character in the novel is his loyalty to Bond as he helps him achieve his objectives and is a staunch ally throughout the story.
Felix Leiter is Bond’s CIA contact in Royale. A former marine, Leiter is a tall, thin, fair-haired Texan of about 35 years old. The laid-back CIA man shares Bond’s love of gambling and fine food and drink.
Leiter provides valuable support to Bond in his mission to bankrupt Soviet agent Le Chiffre, serving as a foil to Bond’s ruthlessness and highlighting the moral ambiguity of the spy genre. Overall, Leiter is a memorable and important character who adds depth and complexity to the novel.
Vesper Lynd is assistant to the head of section S and sent to Royale to help Bond in the field. He resents having a woman in the field and initially finds her frosty towards him.
Later she is revealed to be a competent and resourceful agent committed to her work. Despite her initial frostiness towards Bond, their relationship deepens throughout the novel, revealing Vesper’s emotional depth and tragic backstory. The relationship between the two characters is a poignant aspect of the novel, showcasing Fleming’s writing skills in creating complex and compelling characters.
Le Chiffre is something of an unknown. His name means “The Number”. He runs a French trade union while acting as paymaster for the KGB in France. Overweight, he is a heavy smoker and frequently uses a Benzedrine inhaler and described as “A formidable and dangerous agent of the USSR”.
After investing some of the Russian money in a chain of brothels shortly before France banned them he needs to win back a large chunk of change to ensure they don’t send a hit man after him.
Le Chiffre is known to be a skilled and ruthless gambler, with a penchant for baccarat. In order to win back the money he lost, he sets up a high-stakes game at the casino in Royale-les-Eaux, where he hopes to bankrupt Bond and secure the funds he needs. Despite his formidable reputation, Le Chiffre proves to be vulnerable, both financially and physically, and his ultimate fate serves as a reminder of the dangers that lurk in the world of espionage and international intrigue.
The entire story is set in and around the fictional town of Royale-les-Eaux. Described by Fleming as being “just north of Dieppe” and lying “near the mouth of the Somme before the flat coastline soars up from the beaches of southern Picardy to the Brittany cliffs which run on to Le Havre”.
We have a few clues as to where we can find Royale-les-Eaux and it is not until On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that we learn a few more details, although these are slightly contradictory.
Also see: Royale-les-Eaux
The first drink James Bond ever orders isn’t a Vesper or a vodka martini. Instead it’s an Americano, an Italian cocktail made with Campari, Cinzano, and soda water. Bond orders this at the Hermitage Hotel bar when he meets Vesper Lynd for the first time.
Also see: Casino Royale: the food and drinks from the novel
Later in the book, Bond invents the cocktail that he eventually names the Vesper. The martini variant is made with three measures of Gordon’s gin, a measure of vodka, and half a measure of Kina Lillet. Bond orders the drink at the casino bar, and he asks the barman to shake it until ice-cold before serving it in a deep champagne goblet with a large slice of lemon peel.
Champagne is also a recurring theme in the book. Bond is shown drinking both Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot. When dining with Vesper before facing Le Chiffre, Bond ask for the Taittinger ’45. On the sommelier’s advice he orders the 1943 Taittinger Brut Blanc de Blanc instead. During his baccarat game with Le Chiffre, Bond finds a half bottle of Veuve Clicquot has appeared beside him. He fills his glass and drinks in two long draughts. Later Bond and Vesper celebrate their success at the Roi Galant nightclub, where they order two bottles of Veuve Clicquot.
Aside from these specific drinks, there are other cocktails and spirits that are mentioned throughout the book. For example, Bond enjoys a whisky on the rocks with his lunch of foie gras and cold rock lobster. He also shares a carafe of vodka with Vesper to accompany their meal at the Hotel Splendide. Bond and Vesper also share a brandy and coffee after dinner on one occasion.
Fleming possessed a journalist’s eye for detail and often used brand names to add authenticity to the story. From Bond’s favoured cigarette brand to his preferred champagne, Fleming wove in real-world products to bring the story to life.
This use of branded products not only gave the novel a sense of realism, but it also helped to establish James Bond’s refined tastes and luxurious lifestyle. Additionally, the inclusion of specific brands helped to evoke a sense of time and place, making the story feel more rooted in the post-World War II era in which it was written.
Morland – James Bond smoked exactly the same cigarettes as Ian Fleming, hand made by Morland. A blend of Balkan and Turkish tobacco, the cigarettes were filterless with three gold rings that signified the rank of commander.
Ronson – In Casino Royale Bond’s lighter is simply described as an oxidised Ronson.
Bentley – Bond drives the first of his Bentleys in Casino Royale, a 4½ litre model with Amherst Villiers supercharger.
Beretta – Fleming mentions Bond’s .25 Beretta with a skeleton grip.
Colt – Bond has a a long-barrelled Colt Army Special .45 concealed in his Bentley.
Gordon’s gin – Bond specifies Gordon’s gin in his Vesper cocktail. Today’s Gordon’s is weaker than in Fleming’s day. You therefore need to use either Gordon’s Export, which is stronger, or substitute Gordon’s with another gin.
Kina Lillet – Kina Lillet was a wine-based tonic flavoured with quinine and a blend of fruit liqueurs first created towards the end of nineteenth century.
The product name was changed to plain Lillet, later Lillet Blanc, but crucially the product was reformulated in the 1980s. This reduced bitterness by dropping the quinine content.
Taittinger – While its origins can be traced back to 1734, making it one of the oldest Champagne houses, the Taittinger name dates from 1931.
Veuve Clicquot – The widow of François Clicquot (veuve means widow in French) is credited with creating the first modern Champagne in 1810.
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