Title: Casino Royale
Author: Ian Fleming
Published: 1953
Publisher: Penguin
Audiobook Narrator: Dan Stevens

I am surely in the minority amongst film lovers in that I have never spent any time with a James Bond film. I’ve played the hell out of games with his namesake, all the way from the Game Boy to the Nintendo 64, and beyond. I’d still argue that Goldeneye is a superior game to Perfect Dark, and that Rogue Agent on the Xbox is better than either of them. Outside of the video game world, though, my knowledge of the infamous ladykiller is non-existent. So why in the world did I decide that my formal introduction of the character should come in the form of the original novel, which gets almost no fanfare compared to the films? Even while researching this, many Bond fanatics poopoo the novels in favor of the films. Still, with this knowledge in hand, I made the decision to begin my foray into the world of James Bond with the original source novel that inspired one of the longest-running franchises out there: Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale from 1953.

Casino Royale is interestingly broken down into three distinct parts. The first third of the novel is the major focus of Bond’s effort: he is to bankrupt Le Chiffre, who is a member of the Russian secret service, and the treasurer of a French union. The “Bond Girl” that is helping him out with this endeavor is Vesper Lynd, who, of course, sounds absolutely beautiful. Bond and Vesper work with two other agents, one a Frenchman and the other a Texan, to complete this admittedly mundane task. In this first part, there are a couple close calls and explosions – typical action set pieces – but it really didn’t pique my interest until the second half of this opening part. Reading how Bond handles his gambling is rather fascinating, even if it was a game I had never played before, Baccarat. I enjoyed the action sequences during this section of the novel as well.

From here, we enter into part two, which is basically a rescue mission. Bond sets out to save someone, but the tables are turned, and he is not sure if he will get out alive. There is a surprising amount of introspection here, and musings on why Bond is doing what he’s doing. Even calls of retirement, which is not at all what I expected from the little I know of the character. It was fascinating to see such a different side of the man, and how his mind works. The final distinct section of the novel is nothing short of a romantic love story. A lover’s getaway, if you will, and, again, unexpected when compared to the overly-masculine memes I have seen and heard of the James Bond character over the years.

These three parts came together quite well, and provided a different take on this character than what I ever enountered in the video game world. Bond is a character that, even without having seen any of the films, you just feel like you know because he is such a distinct cultural icon. Seeing the different sides of the original James Bond was refreshing, and quite interesting. Of course Bond is still as masculine as they come, and there are moments of sexism, unfortunately, but that is just par for the course when it comes to the era when this book was written. I didn’t find these moments so shocking or over-the-top that it turned me off at all, but I do hope the later films with Daniel Craig provide stronger female characters.

Dan Stevens narrated the audiobook – which is available as a free rental on Hoopla with a library card, by the way – and he did a fantastic job bringing this story to life. He navigated the French flawlessly (from what I could tell, as someone who cannot speak a single word of French), and is a whiz with accents. Each character sounded differently, and it all came off as effortless. From the Texan to Bond himself, every character was unique. I especially loved his interpretation of Le Chiffre. It reminded me of Snape from Harry Potter, and what’s not to love there? Stevens really did a fantastic job with his narration.

Casino Royale is a short, fast-paced espionage thriller that ignited an icon that would stand the test of time. Though this first novel doesn’t light the world on fire, it’s clear why this character became so popular: he is the definition of “cool”, and he defined what it meant to be masculine, at least during the time this was written. This may not be the most memorable story ever, seeing as Bond is simply trying to win a game of Baccarat, but the story elements surrounding it are a lot more fun, and why I would recommend Casino Royale to anyone that has an interest in James Bond.