Happy 60th anniversary, Mr. Bond

Casino Royale's original cover

Casino Royale’s original cover

Sixty years ago, readers sampled the start of a novel by a new author. “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning,” it began. The world hasn’t been quite the same since.

The novel, of course, was Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, published April 13, 1953. About 5,000 copies of its first edition were printed and it sold out quickly. Fleming combined the skills and experiences of two lives: his work as an intelligence officer during World War II and his experience as a journalist in spotting the right, and telling detail.

Casino Royale was a short novel. But it had an impact on readers. The story’s hero, British secret agent James Bond, first loses and then wins a high-stake game of cards with Le Chiffre, the story’s villain. Later, Bond is helpless, the victim of torture by Le Chiffre. But before Le Chiffre can finish the torture, he is dispatched by an operative of Smersh for being “a fool and a thief a traitor.” The Smersh operative has no orders to kill Bond, so he doesn’t. But he carves up the back of Bond’s right hand. “It would be well that should be known as a spy,” the killer says.

What seems to be novel’s climax happens less than three-quarters of the way through the story. But the new author had some other ideas to keep readers turning the pages until the real resolution. Bond is betrayed Vesper, a woman he had fallen deeply in love with. She commits suicide by taking a bottle of sleeping pills.

Bond, after all this, doesn’t collapse. He emerges more resolute, determined to “attack the arm that held the whip and the gun…He would go after the threat behind the spies, the threat that made them spy.”

Writer Jeremy Duns in an essay PUBLISHED IN 2005 argued “there’s a strong case to be made for it being the first great spy thriller of the Cold War.” Toward the end of his article, Duns writes, “Before Casino Royale, the hero always saved the damsel in distress moments before she was brutally ravaged and tortured by the villain; Fleming gave us a story in which nobody is saved, and it is the hero who is abused, drawn there by the damsel.”

For Fleming, Casino Royle was just the start. More novels and short stories followed. He lived to see two of his novels, Dr. No and From Russia With Love, turned into movies in 1962 and 1963 (following a CBS adaptation of Casino Royale in 1954). The author visited the set of the third film, Goldfinger, but died in August 1964, just before 007 became a phenomenon, spurring a spy craze.

Six decades later, the 23 movies of the Eon Production series (plus a couple of non-Eon films) are what most people think of when the name James Bond is mentioned. 2012’s Skyfall had worldwide ticket sales of $1.1 billion.

Oh, the Fleming books remain in print. Ian Fleming Publication hires a continuation novel author now and then. Periodically, there’s a new book about some aspect about the film series.

Fans can fuss and debate about Bond (and do all the time). But there is one certainty: without Casino Royale’s publication six decades ago, none of that would be possible.

EARLIER POST: CLICK HERE to read a March 17 post about events at the University of Illinois to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the publication of Casino Royale.

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