This is one of those questions always guaranteed to incite lively debate among thriller fans. I Googled the question and came up with the two most popular answers: “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” (1963) and “Bourne Identity” (1980). Both are great novels.
I, however, would like to make a case for a book seldom mentioned.
I like to think the first true modern thriller novel was crafted by a retired Englishman, sitting on a beach in Jamaica, a reluctant first-time writer, someone who believed his novel would never be published (and was in fact, fully ashamed of the result.) He pecked out about 35,000 words in just two months on a cranky manual typewriter; a writer who would subsequently craft the quintessential spy thriller.
The novel was “Casino Royale” by Ian Fleming, featuring the very first appearance of James Bond.
And the novel predates Le Carre’s best work by over a decade. Casino Royale was published in London, April of 1953.
Now in the interests of disclosure, I must confess to a personal bias. Reading Fleming’s books at the formative age of twelve was a heady experience. My parents were very liberal, but having those paperbacks handed down to me by my father (who was also a voracious reader) gave extra weight to the introduction. Casino Royale featured torture, sex, murder and fast cars. I was mesmerized.
If you go back to the book now, you will see that Fleming’s reluctance to write British fiction was evident. Nothing is forced or manufactured; this was not a literary exercise for him. The prose is modern in narrative style, compact, and punchy – with lots of casual violence. The protagonist faces impossible challenges, which are heaped on him in every chapter.
As hard as that is to imagine, could it be possible that Elmore Leonard owed some of his style to Fleming?
But there’s more. I was a voracious reader as a kid – I ate up history, biographies and the classics. But when the character of James Bond came into my life, he forever changed my view of what was possible in literature as well. Fleming inflamed my imagination and made me want to write.
What do you think? What writer influenced you? And what novel gets your vote for first thriller?
Theo Cage is a writer and artist who published BUZZWORM, SATAN’S ROAD and SPLICER in 2014.