James Bond is now so much more than a slightly misogynistic secret agent. He has become an icon. A legend. The film series made him popular in the mainstream but it is the series of novels by Ian Fleming that truly created this perfect character and made him what he is today.
Built on a fairly formulaic plotline and filled with unbelievable characters, the Bond novels have a lot in common with many genres of Crime Fiction, and it was the sharp wit, exciting scenes and far-flung adventures that got me hooked. Like Crime Fiction as a genre, there is literally no good reason why the Bond novels should be as universally popular as they are: however the series remains among the most popular in the world, and the character himself has become a cultural idol.
Here I select my five top picks for anyone looking to immerse themselves in Bond or just find out what all the fuss is about.
- Moonraker: Although the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, is pretty dire, the second and third well make up for it in flare, style and wit. Beginning with a seemingly simple mission to discover if a man is cheating at cards, it quickly descends into much more, with a plot that spans across countries and involves a great deal of Second World War conspiracy. The characters are memorable, the plot believable enough and also clever enough to convince the reader without completely confusing them, or being purely nonsensical, as is the case with many spy novels.
- You Only Live Twice: The last Bond novel published in Fleming’s lifetime, You Only Live Twice begins with the protagonist on his uppers following a personal tragedy, the novel becomes much messier than some of the others; however, it still retains the classic twists and fascinating insights which make it a good all round Bond novel.
- Goldfinger: Constructed into three parts, this novel is much more ingenious that some, and makes for an interesting read. In places you can see where modern writers such as John Le Carré take their inspiration; the novel is truly thrilling and the plot deliciously twisted, with a spectacular ending.
- Diamonds Are Forever: Any novel featuring the phrase ‘Spangled Mob’ deserves a mention, and the fascinating world of diamond smuggling is an interesting space for the ever versatile James Bond to navigate. But the action isn’t limited to a little precious stone smuggling: rigged horse races, shady gangs and gruesome murders all follow as Fleming reinvents the fairly predictable plotline to produce an interesting and engaging novel.
- Live and Let Die: The second Bond novel introduces the truly diabolical Mr Big, one of the greatest villains Fleming ever wrote, in my humble opinion. The Bond ‘girl’ is Solitaire, who has some really snappy dialogue, and the plot is just convoluted enough without being overly ridiculous. This is the perfect combination and makes for the ideal spy novel, making up for the abysmal first novel and showcasing Bond at his finest.