Ian Fleming is not only responsible for designating James Bond as “007,” but also for creating a mystique surrounding it.

His introduction of the character in Casino Royale (1953) is engaging, almost taunting. Bond is the first character introduced in the novel, his name leading the second paragraph of Chapter 1: “The Secret Agent.” We are told how he acts, some of what he feels, his thoughts. The chapter title tells us who and what he is, but nothing truly distinctive about the implicitly elite group of which he’s a part.

It’s not until Chapter 3, “Number 007,” that we’re given not just his designation — but also an indication that this is part of some larger, more exclusive cadre of field operatives. “One of the Double Os,” Fleming wrote. “He’s tough….”

Much later still, heroine Vesper Lynd further defines the reputation of these elites, and provides an opportunity for the author to reveal a bit more, now in Chapter 9.

‘The office was very jealous although they didn’t know what the job was. All they knew was that I was to work with a Double O. Of course you’re our heroes. I was enchanted.’

Bond frowned. ‘It’s not difficult to get a Double O number if you’re prepared to kill people,’ he said. ‘That’s all the meaning it has. It’s nothing to be particularly proud of. I’ve got the corpses of a Japanese cipher expert in New York and a Norwegian double agent in Stockholm to thank for being a Double O. Probably quite descent people. They just got caught up in the gale of the world like that Yugoslav that Tito bumped off. It’s a confusing business but if it’s one’s profession, one does what one’s told….’

As it turns out, not exactly that cut and dried, as Ian Fleming explains (through 007, to René Mathis of the Deuxième Bureau) in Chapter 20: “The Nature of Evil.”

‘Well, in the last few years I’ve killed two villains. The first was in New York — a Japanese cipher expert cracking our codes on the thirty-sixth floor of the RCA building in Rockefeller centre, where the Japs had their consulate. I took a room on the fortieth floor of the next-door scyscraper and I could look across the street into his room and see him working. Then I got a colleague from our organization in New York and a couple of Remington thirty-thirty’s with telescopic sights and silencers. We smuggled them up to my room and sat for days waiting for our chance. He shot at the man a second before me. His job was only to blast a hole through the windows so that I could shoot the Jap through it. They have tough windows at the Rockefeller centre to keep the noise out. It worked very well. As I expected, his bullet got deflected by the glass and went God knows where. But I shot immediately after him, through the whole he had made. I got the Jap in the mouth as he turned to gape at the broken window.’

Bond smoked for a minute.

‘It was a pretty sound job. Nice and clean too. Three hundred yards away. No personal contact. The next time in Stockholm wasn’t so pretty. I had to kill a Norwegian who was doubling against us for the Germans. He’d managed to get two of our men captured — probably bumped off for all I know. For various reasons it had to be an absolutely silent job. I chose the bedroom of his flat and a knife. And, well, he just didn’t die very quickly.

‘For those two jobs I was awarded a Double O number in the Service. Felt pretty clever and got a reputation for being good and tough. A Double O number in our service means you’ve had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of some job.’

For those who admire the reputed immersion in Fleming by actor Timothy Dalton throughout his own film tenure as 007, the attempt to kill Franz Sanchez in Licence to Kill (1989) is rather reminiscent of the first of the two assignments described above.