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Choppy First 00 Outing
on September 7, 2003
This is where it all began, a very simple, unadorned tale of a British spy sent to destroy a Communist agent at the baccarat table. The first 007 story presents a nasty, misogynist, misanthropic Bond-a government assassin who is highly ambivalent about the role he plays in the Cold War. There's even one remarkable scene in which Bond asks what makes his government right, and what makes it moral for him to kill Britain's enemies. Unfortunately, his cynical self-examination is brushed under the table by his new CIA pal, Felix Leiter, and that's the last we hear of that! We learn that in the war, Bond killed a Japanese spy in New York (although the circumstances described strain credulity and common sense), and knifed a Dutch double-agent, earning him the 00 "Licensed to Kill" designation. Here, he's asked to break the bank of a French Soviet agent who has been gambling with his Moscow-provided bankroll.
Bond is sent to the fashionable French casino of the title to pose as a playboy gambler, and with the aid of beautiful British assistant Vesper Lynn, a French agent, and the CIA's Felix Leiter, ruin Le Chiffre at baccarat. Once you get over the sort of obvious question (if Le Chiffre is that dangerous an agent, why not just kill him yourself instead of going through this dangerous gambit of trying to bankrupt him, thereby forcing SMERSH to kill him?), the buildup and eventual battle on the green baize is quite gripping. Fortunately, the rules and strategy of baccarat are explained (it's a very very simple game), so that the reader can follow along, blow by blow. There's loads of atmosphere and tension, but the structure is a bit awkward and there are some rather bad flaws. One of these is that there's absolutely no reason for Vesper to be in the book other than to serve as a plot device and sex interest. All she does is get in Bond's way and distract him, and it's hard to imagine why she would ever really be given the assignment to back up Bond. It's also rather strange to find the Le Chiffre affair concluding 3/4 of the way through the book, with the last quarter devoted to the Bond/Vesper romance. And I won't even get into the lame "saved by the bell" device that occurs at the climax. All in all, the book exhibits the excellent eye for detail and atmosphere that characterize most of the Bond books, but Fleming is clearly just learning pacing and structure at this stage.
A final point of clarification, the Frenchman "Le Chiffre" is not an agent of SMERSH, as many reviewers seem to think. The fictional SMERSH, with its motto "death to spies", is an internal Soviet agency dedicated to counterespionage and making sure Soviet agents don't stray. As is explained early, Le Chiffre is forced to gamble because he's afraid that SMERSH will kill him if they discover he's blown his party funds on a bad business deal.