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The Birth of a Legend: Anthony Horowitz on Casino Royale

Posted on 1st June 2018 by Martha Greengrass

After an expert turn at the 007 wheel in Trigger Mortis, Anthony Horowitz's latest novel, Forever and a Day, goes back to Bond's roots in a thrilling prequel to Ian Fleming's original James Bond story, Casino Royale

Here, in a Waterstones online exclusive, Anthony Horowitz looks back at the creation of the most famous secret agent of all time.

What must it have been like, writing the first book in a series that would, to some extent, change the world? Sales of the James Bond adventures exceed one hundred million copies. Continuation novels have been created by writers including Kingsley Amis, Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver, William Boyd and myself. It has been said (though never proved) that half the population of the planet has seen a James Bond film. There have been twenty-four of those and they have taken around eight billion dollars at the box office.

Ian Fleming began Casino Royale on the morning of 15 January 1952 and finished the 62,000-word manuscript just eight weeks later on 18 March – though Andrew Lycett, Fleming’s biographer, suggests the time-frame may have been even shorter. It was written – as were all the Bond novels – at Goldeneye, the villa that Fleming had built on the north coast of Jamaica. It is quite possible that he felt under pressure to produce a money-spinner. He had talked about writing a thriller in the vein of Geoffrey Household or H.C. McNeile (Bulldog Drummond). But now he was about to get married. His wife-to-be, Ann Rothermere, was two months pregnant. His salary, as Foreign Manager of the Kemsley newspaper group, would surely not be enough for the lifestyle he had in mind.

Later on, Fleming would write dismissively of the genesis of James Bond. ‘I was on the edge of marrying and the prospect was so horrifying that I was in urgent need of some activity to take my mind off it. . .so I decided to write a book.’ And his thoughts when he had finished it? ‘I did nothing with the manuscript. I was too ashamed. No publisher would want it and if they did I would not have the face to see it in print. Even under a pseudonym, someone would leak the ghastly fact that it was I who had written this adolescent tripe.’

Actually, I’ve never been completely persuaded by Fleming’s seeming diffidence towards his writing. This is a man who took his work deadly seriously, immersing himself in every aspect of the publishing process, including sales tactics, reviews and distribution. He would even design the ‘nine of hearts’ cover of Casino Royale and was instrumental in the choice of the iconic artist, Richard Chopping, who illustrated the covers from From Russia, With Love onwards.

And take a look at the opening paragraph of Casino Royale:

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.

It’s a masterful piece of prose, written with the self-assurance and authority that characterises all the Bond novels, the sense that we are with someone who has been there and knows exactly what he’s talking about. I love the construction of ‘soul-erosion’ and the perfect use of ‘compost’: could the mixture of greed and fear be better described? This is not the work of a hack writer simply churning it out. In fact, it took Fleming three goes to get it right.

Scent and smoke and sweat hit the taste buds with an acid thwack at three o’clock in the morning.

This was the first attempt and it’s hard to believe that any Bond novel would succeed with the word ‘thwack’ so upfront. It was followed by:

Scent and smoke can suddenly combine together and hit the taste buds with an acid shock at three o’clock in the morning.

A touch boring? A little hesitant? At least the acid shock is an improvement on the acid thwack but what have taste buds got to do with anything? It’s a rare insight: the sculptor chiselling away at his block of marble until he gets it right. Perhaps Fleming surprised himself, discovering just how good a writer he was. After all, despite his involvement in the world of newspapers, he hadn’t actually published a single article for almost twenty years. It was his older brother, Peter, whose travel writing and fiction had made ‘Fleming’ a household name. I like to imagine a surge of confidence, once that first paragraph had been nailed, that propelled Fleming to finish the book with such speed – and to begin the next one, Live and Let Die, before Casino Royale was even published.

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