When the question of the original James Bond novels comes up, most seem to mention Live and Let Die (1954), From Russia With Love (1957) or On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963) as the best. All of these are regarded as robust action-adventures in which Fleming worked relatively fresh territory. Live and Let Die, for instance, offered the first of Fleming's famously theatrical villains, and the first of his underwater action sequences, both of which won him high praise from even so sardonic a critic as Simon Winder, who compares Fleming to Jacques Cousteau in his bringing a sense of the world beneath the sea to a wider audience. (He also praises the shootout in the tropical fish warehouse as "one of the most delirious set pieces in all the books, and proof of why Fleming was so often far, far more than a hack.")
Three years later, From Russia With Love opened with the interesting device of devoting its first third to the dramatization of the emergence of the Soviets' plot to get Bond within SMERSH itself, during which 007 is just a name and a picture in a file. The idiosyncracy of the plot, so obviously a trap into which the Service and Bond knowingly step, is an intriguingly Ambler-like idea, which leads to an action-packed visit to Istanbul and trip through southern Europe on the Orient Express, and a cliffhanger of an ending that could really have spelled the end of the line for Bond.
By contrast, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is remembered as the novel where Bond gets married. However, it is also worth recalling that the action in the last part of the story is strong enough that the makers of the 1969 film did not need to add very much to make it memorable on screen.
Familiar as these three books are to purveyors of lists of Fleming's best, it is equally customary to find The Man With the Golden Gun (1965) numbered as the worst. Not only is it the case that Francisco Scaramanga is a far cry from the great villains of previous novels, or that the image of Bond at rock bottom is a bit much for many a reader to stomach. This slender book consists mainly of weak repetitions of elements from earlier and better Fleming novels (the Jamaican setting from Live and Let Die and 1958's Dr. No, the American gangsters and miniature train from 1956's Diamonds Are Forever, itself usually numbered among the weaker Bond adventures), in the most anemic prose any of the Bond stories have to offer.
Of course, many a critic regards that book's weaknesses as partly a function of Fleming's ailing health (not unreasonably, given that the book felt to me underedited), or as simply the worst of the conventional adventures, with The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) the worst of Fleming's books overall. That book, narrated from the "girl"'s point of view, offers a mix of confession and hard-boiled crime (the one-chapter retelling of Bond's mission to stop a minor SPECTRE operation in Toronto aside). Fleming's handling of the female viewpoint struck many as ridiculous, offensive or both, while the noirish plot (involving a pair of low-rent hoods trying to burn down a motel in upstate New York so their boss could get the insurance money) was a big step down from the accustomed stuff of Bond's adventures. Even Fleming was displeased with the result, enough so that he forbade a paperback issue in his lifetime (though it is of course available in that format now).
The other novels are less often talked about in these ways, but among the remainder, it semes to me that Dr. No and Thunderball (1961) rate honorable mentions for crystallizing the version of the series we see in the films. Dr. No brought the idea of the freakish, theatrical villain using high technology in a still higher geopolitical game (already fully developed by 1955's Moonraker) together with an exotic setting and fast-moving action-adventure (the mix that made Live and Let Die work, and which also happened to be absent from the awkwardly structured and comparatively dull and drab Moonraker). Thunderball followed the same pattern, but also gave the world SPECTRE. The result was that it was a comparatively short leap from the page to the screen in their cases (in part, I suppose, because they began as screen projects, Dr. No in plans for a TV show, Thunderball in a screen treatment). Much the same can be said for Goldfinger (1959), a less groundbreaking and efficient tale which nonetheless gave the screen what is for many the definitive Bond film.
By contrast You Only Live Twice (1964) is a stand-out for its sheer strangeness, given the image of a shattered Bond at the start, his dispatch by M on a mission expected to be psychologically therapeutic as well as useful to the Service, the strange circumstances that lead to his even stranger final confrontation with Ernst Stavro Blofeld, his loss of his memory, the consequences of that event at the end. And of course, Casino Royale (1953) has a special place as the very first of the books, even though it was to prove uncharacteristic of the series as a whole in its structure and treatment of Bond's adventure.
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