Casino Royale is the first James Bond, written by Fleming over a period of two months in his favourite hideout in Jamaica. It is primarily inspired by Fleming's personal experience in the diplomatic circles -- and I would say this is what distinguishes this from other spy-novels.
It is a beautifully written book. The plot is nothing extraordinary, but the writing elevates the book to the great spy novel level, worthy of the name of Bond. Already in the beginning I enjoyed Bond's description:
"... Then he slept, and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold."
We also get to meet all the main characters of the Bond saga for the first time, and we are thus invited into the inner circe of the British Secret Service. I liked the fact that the novel is focused on the plot and the little details of the story that make it great, rather than Bond himself.
I liked the way Casino Royale is broken up into several little chapters, each covering one sub-plot theme. Fleming has a particular manner to write, so each chapter does not exactly come to a full circle - there's always that little extra he intends to say in the next chapter, so one must continue reading...
We get introduced to M, to the CIA, to the deuxieme bureau in France. We follow Bond as he's assigned to bring down Le Chiffre, a spy of the Russian Secret Service - and we are introduced to the game of baccarat. Having seen both the 2006 film adaptation and the 1954 TV adaptation, I can say the book is better than the two adaptations combined in tickling my imagination with the inside world of a casino. I can imagine that in 1953, this sense of an exotic world, a world where one can escape the daily grievance of post-WWII reality would be beautifully depicted with this part of the novel.
And then we get to the nasty bits - the kidnapping, the torture, the stalking, the suicide. All very gruesomely described yet I have to say (of course, already knowing the plot) on the slightly uneventful, flat side.
Only the end reveals the cynic character of Bond we'll come to know in detail: he's not to be brought down by a simple suicide of a woman he considered his soul mate. No, he's ice-cold and tough and he's going to show to the rest of the world:
"The bitch is dead now"
I suspect that in this first installment, Fleming was unaware of how big his star would become (indeed, Casino Royale was very slow to pick up in the beginning). He put all his energy in developing this involuntary hero and made him great - is this what makes this novel better than the others? did he become content that he was a household name, slightly bored, slightly under pressure to produce more that he became a cynic himself, ever so slightly disappointed with the huge success he enjoyed and just wrote from the old, standard, well-known box of plots? If I compare Casino Royale to On her Majesty's Secret Service, this is what I see: a man full of drive vs. a man who's seen seen it all, done it all and wants nothing more with the world. And so you know: I have to read a third Bond...