It is the fiftieth anniversary of the first Bond film, Doctor No, and the twenty-third installment, Skyfall, is out this month. Having spent a good fifteen years confidently saying that "of course, the books are much better than the films - grittier, harder...", a couple of years ago I decided to risk those schoolboy memories and re-read Fleming's James Bond novels.
The order of the books is different to the films - here's the chronology of Bond's fictive world given by John Griswold in his Ian Fleming's James Bond: Annotations and Chronologies for Ian Fleming's Bond Stories (2006), to which I've appended plot summaries:
- Casino Royale (written 1953) is the one with cards, Le Chiffre's carpet beater upon Bond's British rocks, and Vesper
- Live and Let Die (1954) is the one with tarot cards, Solitaire and Mr Big
- Moonraker (1955) is the one with more cards, gigantic meals, atomic rockets in Kent and Drax
- Diamonds Are Forever (1956) is the one with scorpions, gangsters and trains
- From Russia, With Love (1957) is the one with gipsy girls, trains and poison-tipped shoes
- Doctor No (1958) is the one with guano, claw hands, Honey Rider and Jamaica.
- Goldfinger (1959) is the one with golf, Oddjob and Pussy Galore
- "Risico" (1960 in For Your Eyes Only) is the one with drugs and double-crossing
- "Quantum of Solace" (1960, in FYEO) is the one with an object lesson in manners and revenge
- "The Hildebrand Rarity" (1960, in FYEO) is the cruel one with a sting-ray whip
- "From a View to a Kill" (1960, in FYEO) is the one with motorbike couriers and the world's smallest secret lair
- "For Your Eyes Only" (1960, in FYEO) is the one with murder and arrow-tipped revenge in Jamaica and Vermont
- Thunderball (1960) is the one with atom bombs and underwater fighting in the Caribbean
- "Octopussy" (1966, in Octopussy) is the one with spies and Nazi gold
- "The Living Daylights" (1966, in O) is the one in which a shaky Bond nearly botches an assassination
- "The Property of a Lady" (1967, in O) is the one at an auction
- Chapters 1-5 of The Spy Who Loved Me (1962), the terrible one with motels and gangsters
- Chapters 1-5 of On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963) is the one with allergies, heraldry, skiing and Blofeld
- Chapter 6 of The Spy Who Loved Me (1962)
- "Reflections in a Carey Cadillac" (1963, retitled by editors as "Agent 007 in New York" and later as "007 in New York" 2002) is the one in which Bond thinks about food constantly
- Chapters 7-15 of The Spy Who Loved Me (1962)
- Chapters 6-20 of On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963)
- You Only Live Twice (1964) is the one with sake, diving girls, suits of armour and death wishes
- The Man With the Golden Gun (1965) is the one with brainwashing, swamps and challenging property re-investment deals.
If you are short of time, read From Russia, With Love, Doctor No, and Goldfinger; avoid The Spy Who Loved Me and The Man With the Golden Gun.
There are a few interesting themes in the books: the broad nostalgic xenophobia, the (early?) aspirational use of branded consumer goods, the emphasis on looking and optics, Bond's fatalistic tendencies, and his incredible capacity for consumption. They draw a portrait of a figure rather different to the devil-may-care government pirate suavely wise-cracking his way through escapades and confidently hoovering up martinis and beauties that I'd mis-remembered.
Those first themes - nostalgia, xenophobia and impotent aspiration - are covered very well by Simon Winder's The Man Who Saved Britain (2006). He describes the post-war Britain into which the books were published in the Fifties and Sixties, and the role they played. In short, they offered relief and escapism to a hollowed-out, knackered Britain which yearned without relief for a confident Imperial past.
The books are obviously illiberal, misogynist and racist, though this settled, as my reading through the series progressed, into a more generalised xenophobic misanthropy. (That, or I just became re-programmed by the books. Not that my swarthy Italian readers will be able to tell, damn their inscrutable Japanese eyes. Etc.) And despite Fleming's obvious love of travel - you could easily imagine Bond as a columnist for Monocle, sampling the best Scandinavian cocktails and Austro-Haitian hollow-point ammunition - the books are fundamentally socio-politically isolationist and fearful. Whatever happened to our Great Britain?, they weakly thunder.
(Books cited by initial and page number in the UK paperback editions of 2002, eg YOLT101.)
- Winder, The Man Who Saved Britain (2006) - the amusing rant
- Griswold, Ian Fleming's James Bond: Annotations and Chronologies for Ian Fleming's Bond Stories (2006) - the concordance
- Lycett, Ian Fleming (1996) - the biography that other authors recommend
- My The name's Bourne, Jason, Bourne, Jason, Bond, James, Bourne - twin JBs locked into a Freudian cycle of hopeless repetition, and All that is solid melts into lair - on Bond and the disappearance and destruction of architecture
Next: Bond's optics.