Pros: James Bond's introduction to the world
Cons: Very sexist attitudes, takes it for granted everyone understands French
The recent release of Die Another Day, the twentieth installment of the James Bond 007 movie series initially produced by Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli (and now the project of the latter's daughter), celebrates the 40th anniversary of the first one, Dr. No, being distributed in theatres. While the cinematic version has surpassed the success of the literary, Author Ian Fleming's irrepressible British spy marks the 50th anniversary his public debut in 2003. Casino Royale is the first Bond adventure the world was exposed to and is definitely a product of the 50s. Although most women may want to rip parts of it to shreds, it broke through social standards unlike any in the mainstream market before.
James Bond is an agent for the Section of M. in Her Majesty's Secret Service. Le Chiffre is a French communist and a paymaster for the Soviet murder organization, SMERSH. Unbeknownst to SMERSH, Le Chiffre has embezzled some of its monies to acquire some nefarious, self-promoting businesses, including brothels and casinos. When the businesses lose money, Le Chiffre is unable to sell them and is anxious to recoup the money to replenish SMERSH's coffers. Bond's assignment is to apply more pressure on Le Chiffre by gambling in his casino and either winning huge sums from the house or at least playing against him. Helping him out on the mission is a French-based operative, Mathis; a wireless expert from the Section of S., Vesper Lynd; and a CIA agent, Felix Leiter.
It's really hard to read Fleming's novels without comparing them to their cinematic counterparts. This adventure has simpler goals. While the glamour is present, the Bond in this story has fewer physical demands. Although Bond cites the two assassinations he completed to earn his double-O status, which denotes he has a license to kill, these are antecedent action and he kills no one in this story. The narrative obviously allows its readers to see Bond's thought processes, giving a much better insight into his character.
Whereas the movies are more of a satire on the "second oldest profession," the novels have some verisimilitude. Before becoming a foreign manager for The London Sunday Times, Fleming had worked for intelligence in the Royal Navy. He thought of the Bond novels as light reading, refusing to take them seriously toward the end of his life. His motive for developing the Bond series was earning money, as opposed to a burning need to write.
Today's readers need to keep in mind that this novel was published in 1953, when political correctness was unheard of and sexism was practiced without hesitation. Bond loathes having assistants foisted on him, and he particularly resents a woman--Lynd--being assigned to him. Considering how women today dominate the publishing trade as editors and readers, Bond never would be published during at the turn of the 21st century. Take, for instance, these thoughts running through Bond's mind as he's setting up his mission: The Russians had no stupid prejudices about murder. And then there was this pest of a girl. He sighed. Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them.
In 2003, big name publishing houses would be as thrilled to take on Bond as a new character as they would Osama bin Laden propaganda. It's rather curious when Bond expresses his misogynist-like views. He seems a little too worried about his machismo, making one wonder if he's hiding something. One thing that is made clear: he is a cold-hearted son of a gun.
However, without women Fleming would have been unable to tear down some of the social stigmas he does. In a decade when Fred Wertham was bewailing the evils of comic books, sex is frankly referred to in the Bond books. Fleming never goes into explicit detail, but he never skirts around the subject with subtext. For a writer whose primary interest was making money, it was a bold move at a time when the English-speaking world had so many hangups with this kind of openness. Although it is likely other novelists tackled sex before Fleming, it is impressive the public gave Casino Royale such a welcome reception.
Structurally speaking, those unfamiliar with French can easily lose some details of the action. Quite a few French words are used without providing some form of translation, which was a relatively common occurrence in trade publishing until the 60s or 70s. This brings an aura of realism to the European setting, but can go over the head of anyone unfamiliar with the language. It was around the 70s when American publishers began to accept that most of their market was monolingual and pushed their multitongued authors to accommodate their readers. Fortunately, the action around the foreign dialogue allows readers to keep up with the story.
Although this novel comes primarily from Bond's point of view, the narrative occasionally slips into those of the supporting cast. It disturbs the flow of the story, but only happens two or three short times. Bond's characterization is inconsistent when he spots the out-of-place behavior of thugs earlier in the novel, but thinks nothing of it when he sees it in someone closer to him. One could explain it as denial, but that is neither a trait that applies to James Bond nor indicated in the narrative. He simply is not at maximum capacity during this section of the novel.
There is also some disappointment in the plotline when Bond is at his major crisis point and someone else saves him. The resolution draws out a little too long, then deprives Bond of the character growth the story started. Any pole-to-pole growth in this series develops from the characters who come and go. If Bond isn't back to his status quo by the end of the story, it would be the end of his adventures. Lynd takes the credit for growth in this novel, such as it is.
Ironically, Casino Royale is the only one of Fleming's Bond book titles that Broccoli and his team never produced for the big screen. It had been scooped up by other producers before Sean Connery faced the camera for Dr. No. The screen version of the series has reflected society's changing attitudes, but anyone reading the books needs to suspend herself from today's mores and disassociate the satire of the movies to be able to accept this novel. Once the reader does that, she can appreciate the significance James Bond has had in the literary world.