With the release of Bond’s latest incarnation, Spectre, now is the best time to delve into where it all started for the man with one of the most recognised names in history. Written by Ian Fleming, who may or may not have been a real-life James Bond character, the first Bond book was Casino Royale in 1953 which was a resounding success and was soon followed by fifteen sequels. Fleming, following an illustrious career in the navy, later found success as a journalist and an author. Fleming also wrote children’s classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but we’re going to focus on his most famous collection and count down the best 007 novels.
Their implausible plots, their Cold War attitudes, and of course, the 00 at the centre of them all, Fleming’s novel have stood the test of time, and like Bond’s film adaptation, are still being printed, purchased and read today – over sixty years since he published his first novel. I listed my top five Bond novels here – what do you think?
5. Goldfinger (#7), 1959
Though arguably Goldfinger has some shortcomings, namely its ridiculously implausible plot and the fact that it lacks a leading lady, there’s still quite a few redeeming qualities about the seventh Fleming novel. Auric Goldfinger, the billionaire villain, is one of the most eccentric villains Fleming has ever created. He’s strangely charismatic, likeable, and capable. At one point, he and Bond even play golf together – all the while there’s the plot that Goldfinger is working with SMERSH, the Soviet bad guy group, to steal the US government’s gold reserves from Fort Knox.
Originally titled The Richest Man in the World, it took Fleming two months to write and introduces a more complex analysis of the world’s greatest spy, more so than the previous six novels, particularly the exploration of a Bond linked to the image of Saint George, the patron saint of England, with ideals of chivalry, protection and patriotism interwoven in a story about a single British agent saving the world on US soil.
4. The Spy Who Loved Me (#10), 1962
Controversial to say in the least. When The Spy Who Loved Me was published, it was the lowest selling novel of the collection. People absolutely hated it. They felt ripped off. That’s because it’s not told from the point-of-view of Bond, but instead by Vivienne “Viv” Michel, a twenty-something woman from Canada. This was hugely controversial in 1962. Not only did a woman narrate a story that was ‘supposed’ to be for men but Fleming also wrote about issues such as abortion, casual sex and female independence. As Viv narrates her own tragic backstory, we’re taken to a place rarely seen or explored by white male writers of the 1950s – social commentary on women’s issues as expertly crafted as any other Bond dialogue. Viv, now on a self-discovery trip through America, takes up work at a roadside inn and meets James Bond after the antagonist he’s chasing hides out in the inn.
The Spy Who Loved Me was a game changer for Fleming’s collection. Not only did it feature female narration, Viv is one of the few women Bond has sex with to which he has no ulterior motives. Though not a traditional Bond novel, this is one of my very favourites and a must-read to really get a good grasp on Fleming’s talented writing style.
3. From Russia With Love, (#5), 1957
Known as one of the best spy thrillers of all time, President Kennedy named From Russia With Love as one of his top ten favourite books. After the events of Casino Royale, Bond is still fresh in the mind of SMERSH, a Soviet organisation that promotes Death to All Spies. Their intention is to kill James Bond in a compromising position (casual sex is western decadence at its finest, apparently!), which will no doubt shame the British Secret Service.
Okay sure, the plot doesn’t sound amazing on paper, but between the scheming, the seduction and the chase, it’s all action. Not only is it fantastically written, clean and crisp and full of intrigue, it features some of the best villains Fleming has ever written, including Rosa Klebb, a Lady MacBeth type who is slyly pulling the strings from behind the (iron) curtain, to Red Grant, a psychotic assassin. It’s one of the most famous honeypot thrillers, and with good reason – he’s the spy who’s very happy to come in from the cold, save there’s some company in the bedroom.
2. Casino Royale (#1), 1953
The novel that started it all. Fleming claimed it only took him four months to write Casino Royale, a novella that opens with the character Le Chiffre, a communist-sympathiser trade union boss who is looking to win a game of baccarat to compensate losses after his chain of brothels are shut down by the government. M, the head of MI6, is onto him and sends out his best gambler, 007.
It’s filled with complex baccarat scenes, car cases, and torture, has twists at every turn, but Casino Royale, at its core, is more than a spy thriller. It’s a fantastic insight into the social and political views of upper-class white European society in the 1953, of gender roles and feminism – in a fantastic passage, James Bond urges women, namely his co-worker, Vesper, to stay to their “pots and pans” and leave espionage to those who can do it properly: men. It’s a sharply, cleanly written thriller that, like Bond himself, doesn’t stay for very long but leaves a lasting impression.
1. Moonraker, (#4) 1955
This is my absolute favourite Bond book. The novel has everything a good Bond book should have. But don’t be put off by the film adaptation – this book is a true spy genre masterpiece, not the spacejunk the film industry made it into. Here’s why it’s so great:
- An ex-Nazi rocket scientist as the antagonist Hugo Drax, who has a fantastic evil name and an equally fantastic evil agenda.
- A classic Cold War, West versus East and good versus bad nuclear weapons plot.
- A Bond girl whom Bond actually respects, Gala Brand, who is a special branch police officer working deep undercover as Drax’s personal assistant. She may also be the only one who as a slightly passable name in real life.
- A fantastic card game opener – this time bridge – as a nostalgic nod to Casino Royale.
These all make for an amazing ride. Fleming’s writing, as usual, is fantastic. His credit as a writer is how he’s able to hook someone in with a game of bridge; something I associate with my Nan on a Sunday afternoon, and not the start of a daring espionage thriller. Known as the other other James Bond classic behind Casino Royale and From Russia with Love, Moonraker didn’t get the film adaptation it deserved but will live on with fans of Fleming as one of his best written Bond stories.
Did I get it right? What’s your favourite Bond novel and why?