Over the past Summer, I read through the majority of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, most of them in order of publication. It was at once a familiar and yet new experience. Like most people I thought I knew the character inside out, thanks to the films and their endless repeats on TV. However, while there are similarities between the on-screen Bond and the spy as he is depicted on the page, there are also several differences. The main differences between the celluloid and paper versions, though, is in terms of the plots.
Before I go on to give a personal rating of each of the books that I read, I want to start with a few reflections on the series as a whole, of Ian Fleming as a writer, and of the rather odd place that he now occupies in British literary and wider culture.
I’ll start with the last point first, and I use the term ‘odd’ advisedly, for here is a man who has soon many millions of copies of his books. However, I had a bit of a job in getting hold of them. My interest in reading the books started quite by chance, when I saw a copy of one of his books availble second hand in a charity shop. I enjoy browsing for second hand books, but funnily enough I don’t often see many Ian Fleming novels. However, I took the plunge and bought Goldfinger. This was a good thing and a bad thing, in that it’s a fine thriller and piqued my interest enough to want to read much more by Fleming. However, it was a bittersweet read in that I personally think the book is the high water mark for Bond in fiction (just as it arguably is on the screen as well). When you go on to read the rest of the books, some come close to it in quality and consistency but more of them fall short. (See below for my rating of all of the Bond novels I have read to date.)
My interest piqued, I went off in search of more Bond books and visited several more charity shops and second hand bookshops. But there was no Bond to be found. I then went under duress to a few shops selling new books, but yet again there was a total absence of Bond. Perhaps there just isn’t the demand for these books from the new book buying public to justify giving them self space.
Of course major online retailers have the books, but again I only checked if they had them under duress once again, because I only wanted to read the books, and didn’t want to keep them. Charity shops are great for this. Buy a book for a couple of quid, read it and donate it back. When it comes to paying the best part of ten pounds for a paperback (and there are a few) you start to think twice.
So to my local library where there was (you guessed it) a total absence of Bond. At this rate it was proving easier to track down Ernst Stavro Blofeld than get hold of Ian Fleming. And so I had to delve into the furthermost reaches of my local library network’s archive store, where once in demand books go not to die, but to sit in limo, until perhaps called for to sit in the hands of the living. Interestingly, some titles were only held as large print editions. ‘Mainstream’ paperback copies weren’t in the local library catalogue, despite Penguin having republished them in the early noughties and Vintage paperbacks publishing them now. Libraries, like bookshops, can only carry so many titles, and it’s possible that Fleming isn’t in demand enough to keep all of his books on all of the selves all of the time. I think it’s fair to conclude that in modern Britain Fleming’s name is kept alive by the ongoing Bond cinema franchise, and that as a writer therefore he is someone who is far more likely to have been heard of by the average reader than to have been read. But to think you know Fleming’s Bond based on the films you’ve seen is a mistake.
And so to save you, dear reader, either the bother of reading his books, or perhaps to pique your own interest, here is my own totally subjective guide to most of the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming. All books are rated out of five stars.
Casino Royale (1953) Not bad, if a little low-key as a debut outing for a world famous superspy. Of course I’m writing this in hindsight. At the time of writing Fleming was not to know how big a cultural presence his creation was to become. If you’ve seen the Daniel Craig film version, however, I think you’ll like this book. It’s gritty, it’s no-nonsense and it keeps you hooked. Apparently Fleming’s publisher felt that it was a little light on action, but decided to take a punt on it anyway. He had a point. The main action is set in a casino and a tense game of cards after all. Hardly all-guns-blazing action, surely? But Fleming at his best could be at his most compelling by squeezing out every last drop of drama and tension from head-to-head confrontations between adversaries that were battles of skill and wills, and not literally battles like fist fights and the like (though he could do this too). We see early evidence of it here.
Verdict: Leaves you feeling reasonably stirred, but the torture scene most certainly will have the gents feeling shaken.
Rating: *** (3/5).
Live and Let Die (1954) With Casin Royale set in France, this next book sees things get more recongnisably Bond-like with our hero sent first to New york, and thence to Miami before a final showdown in Jamaica. Our main villain here is ‘Mr Big’, ostensibly a US underworld figure but also a main player for the violent Soviet counter-espionage organsiation SMERSH. The plot’s pretty good and rolls along but modern readers be warned: some of the attitudes towards race (and indeed the whole title of Chapter Two) will put some people off. Remember: this book was written in the early 50s.
Verdict: Not bad but no vintage. Fleming stetches out and proves he can string out a plot. Still not ‘classic’ Bond however.
Moonraker (1955) Firmly back on home soil here, for the only Bond novel set solely in the UK. And just as Fleming used one place of residence (Jamaica) for the setting of his books, so here he uses another (Kent) for the main backdrop of this classic. Forget the Roger Moore film of the 70s. The only things it shares with this book are the title and the name of the main adversary (Hugo Drax). After the lower key plotting of book one, and the ‘Bond as sort-of policeman’ investigation plot of book two, by this third novel Fleming has found his feet as a thriller writer and is in control of both his characters and what to do with them. By this stage, Fleming has devloped a taste for the larger than life character and highly dramtic plot. Drax is first encountered at a London club. Here Fleming takes another encounter over a card table (a game of bridge of all things) and makes it as exciting as any car chase could ever be. Then it’s down to the coast near Deal for high jinks involving a super weapon, and a man bent on extracting the ultimate in destruction all in the name of vengeance.
Verdict: Goes with a bang. Without John Buchan there’d be no modern thriller writing as we know it, and this is Fleming at his most Buchanesque. I love it. Quick paced, witty, overblown and starting to distill the essence of Bond.
Diamonds are Forever (1956): Bond goes undercover in this tale of diamond smuggling. This time his enemies are the Mob. Being set on US soil, Bond also encounters the nearest he ever gets to a sidekick, Felix Leiter of the CIA. Last seen in Live and Let Die half eaten by a shark, Leiter is back and proves he’s better than a foil for Bond and wasted as Shark food. After the high of Moonraker with its overblown but fun plot, Diamonds… is a bit more ‘realistic’ as Bond novels go, but holds the interest nonetheless. It’s also miles better than the film version and the villains are scarier.
Verdict: Sparkles (mostly).
From Russia with Love (1957): SMERSH smash back onto the scene with a vengeance in this intercontinental story of sex, espionage and attempted assassination. Determined to bring our man Bond down, those fiendish Soviets cook up a plot to get Bond to travel to Isatnbul to rescue a would-be defector, a beautiful young Russian agent who has supposedly fallen in love with him, and who wants to be taken to the west where she can live with Bond and bring a Soviet decoding device along with her. But of course, it’s not so simple as that…
In my opinion, one of Fleming’s faults as a novelist is that his books can be uneven. By this I mean that he can often take his eye off the plotline by introducing either extraneous material (early on in Live and Let Die for instance he quotes ad nauseam a passage from Patrick Leigh Fermor about voodoo), or by not sticking to the main thread and getting weighed down by description of place or character. Here, a lot of the first part of the book is taken up by what we’d now call the ‘backstory’ of Grant, the man sent by SMERSH to kill Bond. Luckily it’s quite an intersting backstory, and once the story really starts it’s a goodun.
Ends with a bit of a cliffhanger. Was Fleming tiring of Bond, or was he just indulging in a bit of mild torture of his creation?
Famously cited by JFK as one of his favourite books. While it’s not bad, I still think I’d choose JK Glbraith’s The Affluent Society over this…
Verdict: A good read for a long train journey.
Dr No (1958): Back to Jamaica for this routine tale featuring guns, girls and guano. I found this one rather uninspired and- that word again- uneven. Although Dr Julius No’s ambitions are rather grand and of the world-domination bent, it all feels rather uninspired and lacking in pep and grandeur. The plot here is one part routine detective work, one part undercover mission and one part battle action. This feels a bit like Bond by numbers, and given how much guano (i.e. poo- mainly from seabirds- used as fertiliser) features in this book, including in a rather gruesome end for one character buried alive by a mound of this useful but unsavoury stuff. I can’t help feeling that subconsiously (or otherwise) Fleming was providing some kind of commentary here. Honeychile Rider is my vote for the worst fictional ‘Bond Girl’ ever.
Verdict: Dr No? Bits of it are Gua-no, more like. Redeemed only by a rather engaging chase element once Bond and partner Quarrel make it to Dr No’s island.
Goldfinger (1959): From Guano to pure gold. Fleming gets his pep back and serves up the best Bond by far. If you love the film you’ll love this book and there’s nothing uneven about it this time. The plot is straightforward, suitably ambitious, always focussed on and never slackens. The locations are many and varied. The villain has the best name of any in the series. We get not one but two of Fleming’s trademark set pieces involving a card game/ sport. In the case of the latter, this is the justly famous part devoted to Bond’s encounter with Goldfinger on the golf course. In the film this encounter is great drama, and in the book it is a similar joy. Bond even drives as Aston Martin in this book. Also contains more off-colour sexual references and innuendo than the film manages to cram in.
Verdict: 24 carat Bond.
[For Your Eyes Only (1960) is next in the series, a collection of short stories that I haven’t read yet]
Thunderball (1961): With SMERSH disbanded, enter a new adversary for Bond in the form of Spectre. Spectre steals a nuclear warhead and tries to hold the world to ransom. Bond heads to the Bahamas to investigate (if in doubt, set a book on a warm island seems to be Fleming’s rule of thumb). Like the film, which sticks close to the book, this starts quite promisingly with Bond getting into scrapes at a health farm where he is supposedly recuperating. But once we head to warmer climes, I felt the action dragging and going cold rather than hotting up. Meanders in places where it should be sprightly.
Verdict: Run of the mill and dare I say rather dull for my tastes in places.
[The Spy who Loved Me (1962) is another one I haven’t read. Having found out about it, I simply haven’t the courage to try it. Here’s the problem. You have a mega-selling series of books on your hands, based around a compelling character. Okay, so they’re rather formulaic, and you might be tiring of the formula perhaps, but does that mean mixing it up wholesale? It seems that this book takes two of Fleming’s sins as a writer (taking his eye off the main plot, and playing around with the narrative structure) and magnifies them. Hence apparently this book features narration by a character (who isn’t Bond) rather than our typical ‘god-like’ thrid person narrator. To compound things Bond doesn’t show up until two thirds in. Even Fleming disowned this book. ‘Nuff said. Life’s too short to read something even the author didn’t like, and you only live once (despite what certain oriental sages supposedly said…]
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963): Back on familiar ground, this novel sees Bond going undercover at a remote Swiss research institute hot on Blofeld’s heals. Under the rather odd guise of an academic researcher into heraldry, our hero comes face to face with his nemesis. This book also sees Bond as a married man. Briefly.
Verdict: Solid (unlike Bond’s marriage).
You Only Live Twice (1964): Bond’s showdown with his SPECTRE nemesis Blofeld. Eventually. Did Ian Fleming ever visit Japan? This certainly reads like it, as we get a load of padding before we get to see said showdown. It’s hard to place this novel because it’s not an out and out stinker, but I found the pacing to be way off. The central premise of a showdown with Blofeld in a most macabre and unexpected location is pretty good. It’s just that the getting there (Bond in Japan supposedly to ask the Japanese to share certain intelligence: cue many, many, many scenes and set pieces where the difference between east and west is pointed out to us, as he gets to know and negotiate with Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese secret service) is so heavily laboured, with the showdown episode put in almost as an afterthought by comparison. When the film producers came to ‘adapt’ this book they clearly recognised all of this, which is why the film goes off in completely the opposite direction into overblown absurdity.
Ends with another sort of cliffhanger.
Verdict: No need to read this twice.
And that’s it. So far I haven’t read The Man With the Golden Gun or the Octopussy/ Living Daylights collection, but it’s probably a matter of time, so I’ll update this entry then.
Some final thoughts before I sign off. Firstly, it’s a commonplace these days to see Bond as a symbolic cultural creation, one that typifies a view (only really held by some Britons themselves) of post-war Britain as a plucky, punching-above-its-weight, independent nation able to fight against the odds to pull off astonishing coups against terrible odds. Or something like that. It’s certainly true that in all of his derring-do and saving the world antics, Bond does exemplify the feeling of many Britons that we are still able to play a big role on the world stage, despite the terrible humbling and the (often self-inflicted) wounds we have endured in the last hundred years.
Ultimately, however, Bond succeeds not because he is more intelligent, or has more panache and poise than any of his many adversaries. Indeed, he makes as many or possibly more mistakes than he gets things right over the course of these books. Instead, how he does get through is by being dogged and by enjoying spectacular good fortune. I think Fleming would have had us believe that Bond gets by because he is the right sort of chap: right social background; went to the right school (Eton) before being expelled; had a good war; dependable; all that stuff. In the end, however, Bond doesn’t get by because of breeding or because of his socially superior background. It’s because in the final analysis he’s bloody minded and shows grit and determination in a very British way (which is fine if you’ve backed the right course, and a complete diaster if you’ve backed the wrong one).
Dogged is also a word that applies to Bond’s author. Take a look at the above list: It’s been said before and is worth saying again, that Fleming had an enviable work ethic, producing a book a year. While he wrote a few duffers, none of them are completely without interest or readability, and the best of them are thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable novels. Indeed, some are classics of their kind, just as James Bond is a classic creation.