James Bond has become a true cultural icon, surviving the decades near-unscathed. Even people who have never read Ian Fleming's classic books or seen even one of his many movies instantly recognize the name. His debonair 1940's male superiority manages somehow to be appealing even in this day of equality between the sexes, and his continued fame has led to a huge variety of spin-offs. The Man from UNCLE owes him a large debt, as does Austin Powers (the Korean handyman "Random Task" in the first Austin Powers film is a direct knock-off of Goldfinger's "Odd Job" just one possible example of many) and virtually every other fictional spy character.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first James Bond film, 1962's Doctor No, another is being released this year (Die Another Day) and several of the books are being re-released as well. Among them is Casino Royale, the first of Fleming's Bond series. Casino Royale pits 007 against the arch-villain Le Chiffre. Their duel takes place in large part at the gaming tables of the casino in the fashionable French resort town of Royale-les-Eaux (Bond's foes are always able to function in his milieu, the world of the mid-century gentleman).
Bond is out to cause Le Chiffre financial ruin, so that his bosses at SMERSH (Fleming's fictional KGB equivalent) will get rid of him. It seems that Le Chiffre has been dipping into the company pot to support his bad habits, and now that his bosses want the money, he must attempt to recoup his losses at the casino. Bond, a proficient cardplayer, has been sent to make sure that Le Chiffre does not win. To Bond's horror, he is assigned a sidekick for this case, a female. ("What the hell do they want to send a bloody woman for?" he said bitterly. "Do they think this is a bloody picnic?") Thus, the charming Vesper Lynd becomes the first of Bond's lovely and oddly named heroines.
It is hard to imagine that people really lived as described in the pages of Fleming's masterpieces. These are some hard-drinking, chain-smoking folks. Bond starts his day with a drink, sips his way through lunch, meets his buddies for cocktails, may polish off some champagne with the girl, and smokes like a chimney through it all ("Then he lit his seventieth cigarette of the day
") How he ever manages to play cards, drive, sail, swim, fight, shoot and all the other manly things he does, smashed out of his gourd and coughing as he must have been, is unfathomable. But he does. And although today he would be fined heavily and slapped in rehab quick as you please, his excesses seems to be taken as a given by his co-characters, who after all are all doing pretty much the same thing. You will find similar boozy passages in much of the literature of the time, including Hemingway. Amazing.
One reason Bond is a believable hero is because he often doesn't win the fights he gets into. Oh, of course in the end he always does, but he certainly doesn't come out without a scratch. He is beaten, tortured, car-wrecked, shot, and otherwise maimed over and over again throughout the series. But he always recovers, and is always willing and able to go another round.
Casino Royale has action, suspense, even romance yes, Bond falls for that "bloody woman" but most interesting and valuable, it provides a fascinating glimpse into a world long gone. It was a mostly Anglophile world, although you might spot the odd Yank, like Bond's CIA agent friend Felix Leiter, of whom "Bond reflected that good Americans were fine people and that most of them seemed to come from Texas." If you enjoyed Brideshead Revisited or are a fan of Bertie Wooster, read Casino Royale. It will be like a visit home.