Picture the scene: a high-stakes baccarat game at the casino. At the table sits our hero, who has come to the gambling resort to ruin his arch-enemy, who now faces him. The game is observed by the hero’s female companion, with whom he has fallen in love and to whom he has explains the rules of the game. The game proceeds, during which our hero wins several coups and his enemy limps off, a little wounded, after losing a lot of money and declining the challenge of our hero’s substantial bank.
Sound familiar? I could, of course, be describing events in the novel of Casino Royale (1953), but in fact this comes from the E Phillips Oppenheim novel, Prodigals of Monte Carlo, published in 1926. Monte Carlo provides the casino (obviously), Sir Hargrave Wendever is the protagonist, Violet is his beautiful companion, and his arch-enemy is called Andrea Trentino (or ‘Trentino – Andrea Trentino’, as Wendever tells Violet). As for their characters, we read that ‘Hargrave, if he lacked the other’s almost flamboyant insouciance, was nevertheless in his way emotionless.’
The novel itself is more romance than thriller, but it shares some of its elements – the contest across the baccarat table, the sophisticated location, the impassive hero, the captivating woman – with Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel. Oppenheim was among the authors whom Fleming admired and credited as providing inspiration for his Bond books.
The similarity of the gambling scene may be coincidental, but it provides a connection between the two books and, it could be argued, places Casino Royale at a point of transition in the evolution of the thriller, being a novel that is set in the world of Oppenheim and others, but one whose outlook and style, shaped by Fleming’s wartime experiences, was distinctly modern.