First attempt: “Scent and smoke and sweat hit the taste buds with an acid thwack at three o’clock in the morning”
Second try: “Scent and smoke and sweat can suddenly combine together and hit the taste buds with an acid shock at three o’clock in the morning”
Finally (and satisfied): “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning”.
So began Casino Royale, the first adventure of James Bond, completed in March 1952 and published the following year. Ian Fleming was 43. Although he had experience of journalism, this was his first attempt at writing a book.
He sent it to his friend, the poet William Plomer, who in turn recommended it to publishersJonathan Cape. 4,750 copies were sold within a month, reviews were favourable, and a British cultural hero was born.
Fleming maintained his job at the Sunday Times, where he was foreign manager. He would ask the foreign correspondents, such as Anthony Terry in Berlin, for help with details about, for example, trains or local geography. He contributed a chapter on ‘Foreign News’ to the Kemsley Manual of Journalism. From 1953 – 6 he wrote the Atticus column in the Sunday Times, chronicling a range of obscure incidents, interesting facts and mild gossip.
Keeping true to his promise made at the end of the war, he did return to Jamaica, and he built a modest bungalow in a beautiful location on the North shore. He named it Goldeneye. Somehow, he persuaded his employers to allow him two months a year off to go to Jamaica, and so it was there, in January and February every year from 1952, that he wrote his novels.
…while I still do a certain amount of writing in the midst of my London life, it is on my annual visits to Jamaica that all my books have been written.
Ian Fleming, How To Write A Thriller
His fifth novel, From Russia with Love, published in 1957, is generally recognised as a turning point in Fleming’s literary career. With its authoritative glimpse into the world of Soviet espionage, and showing a more rounded James Bond, as well as being immensely exciting, it found favour with readers and with critics alike. The villain, Rosa Klebb, is gloriously described:
The tricoteuses of the French Revolution must have had faces like hers…The thinning orange hair scraped back to the tight, obscene bun; the shiny yellow-brown eyes that stared so coldly at General G. through the sharp-edged squares of glass; the wedge of thickly-powdered, large-pored nose; the wet trap of a mouth, that went on opening and shutting as if it was operated by wires under the chin.
From Russia With Love, 1957
Sales of the books rose steadily, but with Dr No, the critics turned and accused Ian of sadism and snobbery. At the same time, others were beginning to recognise what an extraordinary talent he possessed, and fellow novelist Raymond Chandler urged him to try his hand at something more ambitious. This, he claimed, he had no desire to do, being content to keep within his entertaining formula.
However, for whatever reason, his 10th novel, The Spy Who Loved Me, did mark an attempt to vary the formula. The story is told in the first person by a woman, Vivienne Michel, and James Bond does not enter the book until some considerable way through. The fans were upset, the book was not well received, and Fleming returned to his previous structure. It remains an unusual book within the canon, but reads well after 50 years.
There were two enormous boosts to the sales of the books and to Fleming’s fame. The first came in 1961, when President Kennedy included From Russia with Love in his top ten favourite books in Life Magazine. Sales rocketed. Then, in 1962, the first James Bond film, Dr No, was released, starring the unknown Sean Connery.
Sadly, Fleming was already ill with heart disease. He had his first major heart attack in 1962, and while convalescing from that, having been told not to work, he wrote by hand a story for his young son, Caspar. It told of the adventures of a family and their magical car. He named it Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Fleming only lived to see two Bond films – Dr No and From Russia with Love. He had seen some of the filming of Goldfinger in 1964.
Two books were published posthumously, making 14 Bond titles in all. In addition Fleming wrote two non-fiction books: Thrilling Cities was a collection of travel pieces that he had written for the Sunday Times; and The Diamond Smugglers was an account of the diamond trade.
The Bond novels and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang have remained in print ever since and have sold all over the world. Fleming has proved to be a master storyteller with a clear, elegant, writing style and strong descriptive powers, particularly when writing of lands and cities, and of cars and trains. Though often mocked in its day, his way of writing has proved extraordinarily influential.
In a 1962 article entitled How to Write a Thriller, Fleming wrote ‘There is only one recipe for a best seller. You have to get the reader to turn over the page.’ This he achieved.
He was one of the first writers to mention makes of watches, types of carburettor, marques of champagne, adding to the realism of his stories. His impact on thriller writing cannot be overstated.