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Licenced to Kill!

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24.11.2011

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Enjoyable nonsense

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These books are terribly dated

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How does it compare to similar books?Quite good

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The James Bond Collection contains the fourteen books written by bounder, seducer and caddish bon vivant Ian Fleming between 1953 and 1966. You get spiffy new retro covers and a big sturdy Bond Girl embossed cardboard box to store them. Born in London on May 28th, 1908, Fleming attended Eton and Sandhurst and failed the Foreign Office exams, eventually turning to journalism and joining Reuters in 1931. On assignment in Moscow, he developed a taste for vodka and caviar and established contacts with British intelligence. The seeds of James Bond were sown. When war broke out Fleming joined the Naval Intelligence Division as an SIS operator and although his activities were often duller than anything 007 endured he loved this world of intrigue and espionage. In 1952 he drew on his experiences and began writing a spy novel called Casino Royale about a British secret agent named James Bond - the 'ordinary' name taken from the author of the book Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. On a bottle of gin a day at his GoldenEye retreat in Jamaica, where Noel Coward was his neighbour, Fleming rattled out the Bond books on his typewriter, their exotic mix of sex and sadism in far flung locales soon attracting readers looking for escapist fare in an era of drab austerity. Fleming became bored with the process of writing the novels in the end (leading to some experimentation and occasional lapses and inconsistencies in continuity and specific character traits) but the appeal of the stories was enormous and enduring. We should bear in mind though that James Bond and Ian Fleming would not be nearly as famous as they are today were it not for Albert R Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Fleming is in the spirit of pulp and wasn't the serious writer he considered himself to be. I think the Sherlock Holmes and Phillip Marlowe books are better but Fleming did create a truly great fictional character and provides an enjoyably anachronistic and escapist window into an ever changing and long vanished world.

Casino Royale was the first James Bond novel and published in 1953. The story concerns a Communist agent in France named Le Chiffre. Le Chiffre is connected to SMERSH (ruthless organisation similar to the KGB) and has used their money to take over a number of brothels. Le Chiffre's problem is that a new French law has banned this lucrative sideline and he must replace the money he has hived off before SMERSH find out and kill him. He decides to make up his losses at baccarat in the casino of Royale-les-Eaux. The British want to eliminate Le Chiffre to negate covert Soviet influence in France but they know it would be used for propaganda if they assassinated him. They decide instead to deploy MI6 agent James Bond 007 - famed as the best gambler in the service - to play Le Chiffre at the gaming tables. If Bond wins then Le Chiffre will be ruined and murdered by SMERSH. Casino Royale is more restrained than many of the books that followed and Bond comes across as a jaded but urbane Cold War warrior. He is a 'blunt instrument' used by the British government to protect their interests. A mysterious and sophisticated loner with the darkly handsome looks of a film star. He is a man of many vices who has cultivated expensive tastes. Despite the charm he can project in the appropriate circumstances, Bond is an assassin. He became a 'double-O' with two kills on missions during World War 2. 'I've got the corpses of a Japanese cipher expert in New York and a Norwegian double agent in Stockholm to thank for being a Double-O. Probably quite decent people. They just got caught up in the gale of the world.'

The actual plot of Casino Royale doesn't bear close inspection but it's fun to enter this world even you don't know your Taittinger 45 from your Blanc de Blance Brut 43. The book captures the paranoid atmosphere of the Cold War where everyone is looking over their shoulder. Fleming is a descriptive writer, especially on things he loves like gambling and food. If James Bond sits down to dinner Fleming will tell you what he's having with the fastidious relish of a restaurant critic. 'You must forgive me,' Bond says to Vesper. 'I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink.' Bond's attitude to life is that every single day might be his last. He's teamed with another British agent named Vesper Lynd although he isn't very happy to be working with a woman ('Do they think this is a bloody picnic?'). Vesper sets the template for many of the women that Fleming would write about in his books. Gamine, beautiful, messed up. Felix Leiter, an American working for NATO, is used as a metaphor for the Atlantic Alliance and the ties between Britain and the US. The romantic elements imbue James Bond with an introspective quality. He is often gazing out to sea or questioning his life. This makes the character more human and enigmatic than the cinematic version. Although a short book with a simple plot, Casino Royale is structured around some vivid set-pieces that provide twists and suspense and the baccarat showdown in particular is relished by Fleming. Casino Royale serves as a stylish introduction to the most enduring hero of all and remains an important book in popular culture.

Live and Let Die was published in 1954. Gold coins from seventeenth century pirate Henry Morgan have turned up in the United States and are being sold to fund a Soviet spy network. The operation is masterminded by SMERSH operative 'Mr Big', mysterious and feared boss of the black underworld. James Bond is dispatched to New York by M to investigate where he teams up with old friend Felix Leiter - now working as a FBI/CIA liaison officer - and is soon up to his neck in danger in locations as diverse as Harlem, St Petersburg and Jamaica. Fleming's second Bond book is faster paced and larger in scope than Casino Royale. We get the first sense of Bond as an international globetrotter and Mr Big is a sinister character so we often feel an element of danger. Big exploits voodoo superstition and keeps fortune teller Solitaire close by. Although the voodoo elements are hokey it injects an air of the exotic. In pedantic Fleming fashion we get a lot of information about voodoo ('The next step is the invocation of evil denizens of the Voodoo pantheon...') and the history of Henry Morgan. The story is exciting though and there are plenty of tense moments like a duel with a robber in a warehouse and an atmospheric night swim to a Caribbean island by Bond where he is literally swimming with the sharks. The author's tendency to 'recap' is a tad unnecessary at times but he creates a vivid fifties atmosphere and the scenes in Harlem are always interesting. Live and Let Die though is dated and patronising at times in its depiction of black people and some moments are jarring for the modern reader - especially Fleming's attempts at black 'slang'.

One thing I quite like about the books - which they avoid in the films - is they reference real people. An example here the legendary boxer Sugar Ray Robinson who gets a mention during the Harlem sections. 'Let's hope we both know when to stop when the time comes,' says Leiter to Bond. We learn more about Bond here. He takes Benzedrine tablets for strength and on missions where he is required to act the part of a rich man 'takes refuge in good living to efface the memory of danger and the shadow of death.' His friendship with Leiter is more fleshed out and there are some nice little scene-setting character moments when Bond is alone.'Far below the streets were rivers of neon lighting, crimson, blue, green. The wind sighed sadly outside in the velvet dusk, lending his room still more warmth and security and luxury. He thought of the bitter weather in London streets.' Mr Big makes a grand villain and like any Bond baddie worth his salt has his own private island. He's described as having grey skin from heart disease and has a 'great football of a head' with no hair - including eyebrows. He's a villain who projects menace, especially in a passage when he asks henchman Tee Hee to break one of Bond's fingers. In a nice touch, Big suffers from 'accidie', a word the 'early Christians' had for boredom, 'the deadly lethargy that envelops those who are sated, those who have no desires.' Solitaire is an alluring Bond girl although not as complex as Vesper Lynd. 'Her face was pale, with the pallor of white families that have lived long in the tropics.' Despite dated elements Live and Let Die is an entertaining book that builds to a suspenseful finale.

Moonraker was published in 1955. The story revolves around a mysterious tycoon named Sir Hugo Drax. Drax, in a move regarded as an altruistic gesture to the British Government, is the driving force behind a nuclear missile project named Moonraker which he is developing in Kent near the coast. The revolutionary missile contains top secret elements that only Drax controls. It will safeguard the security of Britain in an unstable and uncertain era. When M discovers that Drax may be cheating at Bridge - in M's club Blades of all places - he asks James Bond to go and confirm his suspicions by gambling with Drax. Bond lays a trap and discovers that Drax is indeed cheating. But why? He's a millionaire building a secret weapon for the government. Can he be trusted? When a government official assigned to Drax's Moonraker project is killed, M decides that James Bond must travel to the Kent coast and unravel the mystery of Hugo Drax. Moonraker is James Bond in the rocket age and one of my favourites. The first half contains one of Fleming's most famous and effortless set pieces - Bond pits his wits against Drax at the gaming tables. 'Benzedrine,' said James Bond. 'It's what I shall need if I'm going to keep my wits about me tonight. It's apt to make one a bit overconfident, but that'll help too.' Fleming loved to create colourful villains who play cat and mouse with Bond in refined surroundings before the nefarious masterplan is revealed. Another nice thing about Moonraker is how the M/Bond relationship is fleshed out. At the start Bond is investigating Drax as a favour for his boss. A sort of after hours casual assignment. 'M lifted his yes from his pipe and cleared his throat. "Got anything particular on at the moment, James?" he asked in a neutral voice. James. That was unusual. It was rare for M to use a Christian name in this room.'

Bond is developed more in Moonraker. His office, target practice on the shooting range, his Bentley. We meet his beloved Scottish housekeeper May and get an insight in his home life. Bond has a comfortable flat on the King's Road and he likes to spend money because he wants to leave nothing when he dies. Double-O agents retire at 45 but Bond does not expect to reach that age in his profession. Bond is 37 and earns £1,500 a year. One of the interesting things about the book is the British (not far flung) location, principally Kent. Very charming. Moonraker picks up the pace when Bond travels to Romney Marsh to investigate the Moonraker Project and meets Gala Brand. Brand is investigating Drax for Scotland Yard. She's not the best female Fleming ever wrote but plays a big part in the story. There is some good cloak and dagger stuff with car crashes and punch-ups. Fleming also injects his usual quota of sadism into Moonraker with a few passages that will have the reader wincing - including a brutal interrogation scene. The author, you suspect, has great fun writing about missiles and rockets and secret defence projects. The notion of Britain developing a super missile that was beyond anything the Soviets had must have appealed to him. The author is gloriously at home in the Blades Club and clearly enjoyed painting a portrait of locations closer to home than usual. It gives the reader a sense of Bond's country and patriotism. Of what Bond is ultimately there to safeguard.

From Russia With Love was published in 1957. The basic synopsis has the Russians coming up with a cunning plan to eliminate James Bond with the use of beautiful

Pictures of James Bond 007 Centennary Collection - Ian Fleming
James Bond 007 Centennary Collection - Ian Fleming James Bond 007 Centennary Collection
Ian Fleming takes aim
agent Tatiana Romanova. She is duped into posing as a cipher clerk who wants to defect with a code machine (the SPEKTOR) and Bond, as usual, is chosen for the mission. He is sent by MI6 to make contact with her and see if she really does have a secret code machine to hand over. The dastardly intention of the Russians though is to film Bond and Tatiana in a compromising position with a hidden camera and then have SMERSH assassin Donovan 'Red' Grant do away with both of them. The tape will then be released with the story that a crazed Bond killed Tatiana and then himself after some sordid affair. From Russia With Love has one of the greatest and most dangerous Bond villains ever in Red Grant and plenty of suspense and intrigue. The first part has Bond absent and is devoted to SMERSH and their new masterplan, absorbingly introducing us to Red Grant, Rosa Klebb and Tatiana Romanova. It's an effective ploy from Fleming who begins the book with the unemotional Grant receiving a massage in an elaborate private garden. 'He was the Chief Executioner of SMERSH. The murder apparat of the MGB.' The passages dealing with SMERSH and their clandestine discussions are enjoyable here because Bond's exploits in earlier books are mentioned. He has become a slightly figure in these murky but powerful circles and the SMERSH bigwigs remind each other that he is a great danger and irritant who has already terminated the activities of Le Chiffre (Casino Royale) and foiled the schemes of Hugo Drax (Moonraker) and Mr Big (Live and Let Die).

Some great characters, especially Darko Kerim, the SIS Station Head in Turkey, who becomes a father figure to Bond and has a periscope which rises into a corner of the Soviet Consulate planning room. There is a nice atmospheric set-piece in a gyspy camp and Bond witnesses a fight and some cold blooded behaviour which makes him reflect on his own attitudes and experiences. 'These Russians are great chess players,' advises Kerim. 'When they wish to execute a plot, they execute it brilliantly. The game is planned minutely, the gambits of the enemy are provided for.' Tatiana Romanova is memorable and said to look like Greta Garbo. 'Fine dark silken hair brushed straight back from a tall brow and falling heavily down to the shoulders, there to curl up slightly at the ends.' Red Grant is asexual and becomes more murderous with the onset of a full moon. He is one of the most dangerous people Bond is ever likely to tangle with. We gain a little more insight into Bond again. He feels bored when we first meet him, the only vice he truly condemns. He is over six foot tall and speaks fluent French and German, began working for the Secret Service in 1938 and in his teens climbed the Aguilles Rouges in Switzerland. For the purposes of his mission here he is given a briefcase containing ammunition, throwing knives, a silencer in a tube of palmolive, and a cyanide pill. From Russia With Love consistently proves one of the stronger Bond novels. Criticisms? Fleming, as he was prone to now and again, contradicts himself here - and the events of Casino Royale - by stating Bond has never killed in cold blood. There are a few dated elements again too. "I though we all agreed homosexuals were about the worst security risk there is," says a character! Still one of the better novels in the enduring series though.

Doctor No was published in 1958. The story starts with 007 recovering from the events of From Russia with Love and his poisoning at the hands of Rosa Klebb. M discovers that Bond has been given tetrodotoxin - a poison that derives from a Japanese fish. Bond's friend Rene Mathis and a doctor well versed in poisons manage to save our hero. M then decides to give 007 a 'rest cure' - in other words an easy assignment. He asks Bond to investigate the disappearance of the SIS Head of Station Jamaica, Jack Strangways. Strangways is believed to have run away with his secretary but Bond isn't terribly convinced by this theory. His attention is drawn to Dr Julius No, a reclusive and wealthy Chinese-German bird-dung merchant with a heavily guarded and mysterious private island known as Crab Key. Though rich in wildlife, ornithologists tend to go missing if they venture to this island which - legend has it - is guarded by a dragon. Bond and his old friend Quarrel pay a secret visit to Crab Key and meet the beautiful Honeychile Ryder - there searching for rare seashells. Their presence is detected leading to a nightmarish battle for survival. Doctor No finds Ian Fleming on top form with lashings of sex and sadism and some enjoyably daft pulp elements. One could argue this might be the most violent and sadistic of all of the James Bond books with all manner of strangeness and mayhem. Bond is rather annoyed at first to be given what seems to be a dull and routine mission and there is tension between him and M because of this apparent slight. 'Bond looked across into M's eyes. For the first time in his life he hated the man. He knew perfectly well why M was being tough and mean. It was deferred punishment for having nearly got killed on his last job. In a way Bond felt sure he was being sent on this cushy assignment to humiliate him. The old bastard.'

There is some great stuff here when attempts are made on Bond's life, especially a classic piece of Fleming where a deadly centipede (replaced with a Tarantula in the 1962 film) is placed in 007's bed while he is asleep. Dr No is a suitably unhinged opponent for 007. Based on Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, he is tall and bald with no eyelashes and mechanical claws for hands. He has a sadistic fascination with pain and the endurance of the human body. 'You are right, Mr Bond. That is just what I am, a maniac. All the greatest men are maniacs!' No's strange tropical island - based on Inagua in the Bahamas - contains spiders, giant squids, hundreds of crabs and a very nasty obstacle course designed for Bond. It gives Doctor No a ludicrously bonkers but entertaining quality. Honeychile Rider makes for a vivid and resourceful Bond heroine and 007's first introduction to her is as striking as the enduringly iconic moment in the film adaption when Ursula Andress first walks out of the sea. 'It was a naked girl, with her back to him. She was not quite naked. She wore a broad leather belt round her waist with a hunting knife in a leather sheath at her right hip.' Honeychile to Bond is Botticelli's Venus seen from behind. As ever with Fleming there are some dated elements, such as the employees of Dr No, of black and Chinese extraction, being termed 'Chigroes' for some reason. One thing that is enjoyable about the novel though is the way certain (now familiar) traits and characters are starting to be firmly established in James Bond's orbit - such as Service Armourer Major Boothroyd (Q) and 007's request for 'a medium Vodka dry martini with a slice of lemon peel. Doctor No is very enjoyable and more fantastical and far out than other Bond novels.

Goldfinger was published in 1959. Goldfinger begins with Bond on his way back from a mission in Mexico. He was there to infiltrate and break up a very nasty heroin ring. Mission accomplished and our dashing but flawed hero stops off in sun drenched Miami where he books himself into an opulent hotel by the beach and takes a rest. A chance meeting with old friend Junius Du Pont (from Casino Royale) though has Bond matching wits for the first time with the supervillain of the story - enigmatic gazillionaire Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in Britain. Goldfinger is cheating Du Pont at Canasta, a most unusual activity for one so outrageously wealthy but then Goldfinger doesn't like to lose at anything. Bond, who lest we forget famously saw off Le Chiffre at the gaming tables of Royale-les-Eaux, investigates and easily unravels Goldfinger's card scam, making him look very foolish. Back in London, Bond is informed by M that incredible quantities of gold are vanishing from the market and they suspect Goldfinger. The economy of Britain will be affected and this matter must be investigated. Goldfinger has an ingenious and incredible scheme planned and James Bond will have to draw on all of his resourcefulness and experience to stop him. With locations as varied as London, Miami, New York, Switzerland, Kentucky and, of course, Fort Knox, Goldfinger is inventive but not top table Fleming. One problem is the film version of Goldfinger is so iconic. Goldfinger's grand scheme makes less sense here too. The book is still fun and gives Bond two memorable adversaries in Goldfinger and his Korean personal bodyguard/manservant Oddjob. Auric Goldfinger is another in the line of grotesque foreign villains. He takes a million dollars in gold around with him (that must be heavy!) and has a particular kink that involves painting women in gold paint. Goldfinger has a real air of menace at times and is aided by his karate trained bodyguard Oddjob who who uses his steel-enforced bowler hat like a lethal boomerang.

One slight problem with the book is that the pacing is perhaps a tad slow up until the third act. Goldfinger's ultimate caper and the climax of the book is fun though with a chemical weapon and some of America's most notorious gangsters - not to mention the high-cheekboned and vivacious Pussy Galore. The book tries to get inside Bond's head a little more. At times this gives Goldfinger more of a detective novel feel as we are allowed to read Bond's thoughts although it doesn't always seem natural. It's fun again to learn more about Bond with each book. Bond - surprisingly for such a British icon - dislikes tea ("Mud") and also killing. "It was part of his profession to kill people. He had never liked doing it and when he had to kill he did it as well as he knew how and forgot about it. As a secret agent who held the rare double-O prefix - the licence to kill in the Secret Service - it was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon. If it happened, it happened. Regret was unprofessional - worse, it was death-watch beetle in the soul." Bond also dislikes short people for some reason! Some of Fleming's Bond musings (on gay people for example) are rather dated elsewhere. Goldfinger is an enjoyable addition to the Bond series although not quite classic Fleming. The pacing is rather slow at times but there is much to enjoy. A solid spy thriller with great villains and some nice set-pieces.

For Your Eyes Only is a collection of five short stories published in 1960. Fleming wrote the stories for a proposed series of Bond television adventures to be broadcast by CBS but that never transpired. Two of the stories were first published by Cosmopolitan and Playboy respectively. For You Eyes Only is not regarded to be one of the best examples of Fleming's work. The first story is called From A View To A Kill and is set in and around Paris. Bond has to investigate the death of a motorcycle intelligence dispatch rider who was found in undergrowth with important papers and documents missing. Bond decides to stake-out the area and discovers Soviet agents are operating from an underground base. Although a rather short story, this takes a while to get going but Bond's investigation becomes more intriguing as it develops, especially when he uses camouflage to snoop. This is nothing special despite Fleming's descriptive prose and a fun motorbike chase. At 37 pages there is precious little time to flesh characters out or turn it into anything memorable. The second story is For Your Eyes Only. When Colonel Havelock and his wife are murdered, M, who was a guest at their wedding, sends James Bond to kill the culprits - who are led by former Nazi war criminal von Hammerstein (he did it to get hold of the Havelock's property). Bond is sent on an ultra secret mission to Canada to complete his task but finds out that the Havelock's daughter, Judy Havelock, is out for revenge too. For Your Eyes Only is not bad with a range of far flung locations, a great scene between Bond and M (where M has a crisis of conscience over whether or not to have the assassins of the Havelocks killed) and an interesting political angle that was very topical when this collection was published. Hammerstein works for Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista - who was deposed around this time. Hammerstein knows a big change is coming in Cuba and this has profound consequences for his choice of action. One could argue perhaps that Hammerstein is a little underdeveloped but his henchman Gonzales is rather nasty.

The third story is Quantum of Solace. This has nothing to do with the abysmal 2008 film of the same name and finds Bond enduring a dull dinner with the Governor of the Bahamas and guests in Nassau after his mission in Cuba. The Governor tells Bond a tale about a governmental employee's relationship with an airline attendant, a dark and interesting story about human relationships that Bond finds fascinating. 'I've seen flagrant infidelities patched up,' says the Governor. 'I've seen crimes and even murder foreign by the other party, let alone bankruptcy and other forms of social crime. Incurable disease, blindness, disaster - all of these can be overcome. But never the death of common humanity in one of the partners. I've thought about this and I've invented a rather high-sounding title for this basic factor in human relations. I have called it the law of the Quantum of Solace.' This is a real departure with the story of infidelity and intrigue in Bermuda's British community always interesting - as too are Bond's reflections and thoughts. 'I should say you're absolutely right. Quantum of Solace - the amount of comfort. Yes, I suppose you can say that all love and friendship is based in the end on that. The fourth story is Risico and finds Bond traveling to various locations in Rome and Venice to investigate a drugs smuggling ring. This is a decentish short story with intrigue and double crosses and a couple of strong characters - Kristatos and Columbo - for Bond to match wits with. Lisl Baum makes a memorable Bond woman and there is an exciting raid on a warehouse that makes for a good action set-piece. Risico perhaps takes a while to get going but Fleming's descriptions of the locales are enjoyable as usual although his attempts at regional lingo - 'In this piznizz is much risico' - don't always work terribly well.

The final story is called The Hildebrand Rarity. While on holiday in the Seychelles, Bond falls in with dubious millionaire Milton Krest and is persuaded to join a search for a rare spiked fish known as The Hildebrand Rarity which Krest must find as part of a tax dodge. Krest beats his wife with a whip and poisons countless fish looking for The Hildebrand Rarity and the millionaire will be lucky to survive the boat trip without getting his comeuppance. The most accomplished story on offer here, The Hildebrand Rarity has a rich exotic atmosphere that makes you feel as if you are on the boat yourself in these languid and sun-drenched Indian Ocean waters. There are great descriptions of the locations and the underwater search too. The Hildebrand Rarity is not the most exciting Bond adventure to make it into print but it works nicely as a reverse murder mystery and certainly has a memorable method of death for one character. Not bad at all with an interesting character in Milton Krest - who later turned up in the 1989 Bond film Licence To Kill. For Your Eyes Only is an interesting collection but contains a couple of so-so stories.

Thunderball was published 1961. The plot revolves around 'the Big Affair' - the theft of two atomic bombs - masterminded by SPECTRE 'No.1' Emilio Largo - from NATO by Blofeld. A ransom is sent to the British and American governments warning that if one hundred million dollars is not paid in a week then a 'major' piece of property will be destroyed, followed by a famous city. James Bond is sent to the Bahamas to investigate. Thunderball is an interesting entry with locations stretching from London to Sussex to Paris to the Bahamas and is notable for the introduction of Blofeld and SPECTRE (SMERSH has been dismantled by Krushchev). The book begins with Bond sent to Sussex health farm Shrublands after being deemed unfit by a medical. 'How much stone-ground whole wheat do you eat?' asks M. 'How much yoghurt? Uncooked vegetables, nuts, fresh fruit?' 'Practically none,' replies Bond. Bond's stay at Shrublands is fun ('Bond walked thoughtfully down the trim narrow drive and smelled the musty smell of the laurels and laburnums. Could he stand it?') and sadistic encounters with Count Lippe - a shady character who Bond becomes intrigued by when he notices a strange tattoo which is linked to a criminal society in Hong Kong. Thunderball has trademark Fleming sadism scattered through the book with electrocutions, burns, barracudas, and assorted deaths. The book is at its best working on the level of an old fashioned adventure with a hijacked Villiers Vindicator Bomber, double-dealing and murder between criminals, Largo's hydrofoil the 'Disco Volante', scuba-diving, frogmen and sharks. The sense of location gives Thunderball a sultry atmosphere. Fleming's penchant for factual information (presumably from a textbook he had to hand at the time) is forced ('Saliva contains ptyalin. Thorough mastication creates ptyalin...') at times and Thunderball is dated in places. There is a passage where Bond threatens to give Miss Moneypenny such a 'spanking' she'll have to do her typing 'off a block of Dunlopillo.'

We learn more about James Bond here again. He jumped from the Arlberg Express around the time of the Hungarian uprising and dislikes it when M sends him to the Bahamas because he feels like he'll be away from the action. We get some nice descriptions in the book. 'The girl looked him up and down. He had dark, rather cruel good looks. Despite the heat, he looked cool and clean.' As a British Agent Bond feels like the war never ended. 'Berlin, Cyprus, Kenya, Suez, let alone these jobs with people like SMERSH that I used to get tangled up in.' Largo is an interesting villain and has a classic game of chemin de fer game with Bond at Nassau. His outward mask slips when Bond makes a comment about a 'spectre on his shoulder' in a great moment. We get a sense of these two confident men sparring for weaknesses and information. Largo has the 'ruthlessness of a Himmler' and is the 'epitome of the gentleman crook - a man of the world, a great womanizer, a high liver, with the entree to cafe society in four continents.' Dominetta 'Domino' Vitali (who isn't actually in an awful lot of the novel) is not a classic Bond girl but she does have a dramatic entrance. 'A soft, muddled Brigette Bardot haircut that had escaped from under the straw hat in endearing disarray, and two deeply cut but soft dimples which could only have been etched by a sweet if rather ironic smile that Bond had not yet seen.' Blofeld remains a shadowy presence in the book and is painted as fat and asexual with an effective way of suppressing dissent at board meetings! He places a violet-scented 'cachou' in his mouth to sweeten his breath before he does something unpleasant - like kill people. Thunderball fizzles out at the end but the best parts of the book like the Bahamas and Shrublands sections are fun. In a way the Thunderball highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of Fleming.

The Spy Who Loved Me was published in 1962. The book is a an experimental Bond novel that didn't go down well. Fleming abandons his usual third-person narrative and instead the story is told first person by the central female character Vivienne Michel. Another strange thing about the book is that James Bond himself is mostly absent until the third act. At the time Fleming was tired of the Bond books and critical barbs and decided to try something new. It's the shortest of the Bond novels and Fleming gave strict instructions that only the title and not the story was to be used by the film series. Despite the strangeness of the book (and Fleming's own attempts to distance himself), it's an interesting entry and relatively gripping story. The story has Vivienne, a young French-Canadian, closing down a lonely empty motel in the mountainous Adirondacks while she awaits the owner. The telephone is out and a storm rages as Vivienne dwells on her complex past - happy enough to be solitary for a while. But things take a nasty turn when two repellent and sadistic criminals - Sol 'Horror' Horowitz and Sluggsy Morant - arrive with plans to torch the motel on the orders of their employer Mr Sanguinetti for insurance purposes. Vivienne is taken prisoner and beaten. We fear the worst for her with these two immoral and violent professional killers but - in Vivienne's bleakest hour - a tall, dark, mysterious stranger with a flat tyre turns up at the motel. His name is James Bond.

The fact that this is not your typical Bond novel is emphasised by the first sixty or so pages of The Spy Who Loved Me - which are introspective and even melodramatic as Vivienne reflects on her life, romantic failures, sexual history, sad things, buying a Vespa scooter even. James Bond is more enigmatic here and presenting him through someone else makes him more mythic. While not a complete success (the villains border on film noir caricatures), Fleming at least deserves credit for trying something new. Bond is more tender in this book and you get caught up in the plight of Vivienne. Sol and Sluggsy are creepy and frightening and have the usual grotesque Fleming villain touches like bloodshot eyes and (in Sluggsy's case) a complete absence of hair anywhere. Sol 'Horror' also has steel-capped teeth - which was one thing that made it into the film in the form of the character 'Jaws'. The pair beat Vivienne and in terms of sadism this book perhaps goes further than other Bond entries. 'Slowly, almost caressingly, he began to hit me, now with his open hand, now with the fist, choosing his targets with refined, erotic cruelty.' As ever with Fleming, some parts of the book - attempted gangster lingo and lines like 'All women love semi-rape' - are sometimes jarring to the modern reader. Although James Bond himself enters the narrative surprisingly late the situation is a tense and gripping one and his arrival is somewhat reminiscent in mythic terms of Sherlock Holmes returning to the story in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

'Hey, limey. What's your name?'

'Bond... James Bond.'

This is a wonderful and very satisfying moment because these two hoodlums have no idea who they are dealing with. I think The Spy Who Loved Me is somewhat underrated and eventually turns into a good page-turner but those seeking more traditional Bond literary thrills might find this a strange experience.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service was published in 1963. It begins with James Bond on leave in Royale-les-Eaux and increasingly weary of his job and so far fruitless search for Blofeld. He makes a first draft of a letter of resignation to M and meets and falls in love with Contessa Teresa (Tracey) di Vicenzo after bailing her out at the Casino in Monte Carlo and preventing her from taking her own life. Bond is then taken captive by Tracey's father Marc-Ange Draco, head of a crime organisation called The Union Corse. 'More deadly and perhaps even older than the Unione Siciliano, the Mafia... it controlled most organized crime throughout metropolitan France and her colonies.' Draco fears for his unstable daughter and offers Bond a million pounds if he will marry her. Bond declines but he agrees to continue to see Tracey and watch over her if Draco will help him locate Blofeld.

A more human Bond here on an adventure from France to the Swiss Alps with some excellent snowy chase sequences. A classic adventure that pits Bond against Blofeld with the high stakes a potential biological threat to Great Britain - to be delivered in a very novel way. On Her Majesty's Secret Service also has a shocking twist (or two) in the colourful life of James Bond. Fleming's knack for vividly taking you to exotic places immediately draws you in as Bond ambles around sunny France with bronzed girls drinking coffee in outdoor cafés and a gentle breeze in the air. It captures Bond confused and depressed as he drafts a letter of resignation (which we can read in the book) and questioning his life and duty. He becomes intrigued by Tracey after she overtakes him on a stretch of road. 'If there was one thing that set James Bond really moving, it was being passed at speed by a pretty girl.' Tracey ('Teresa was a Saint. I am not a Saint!') is one of the most complex and memorable of Fleming's Bond girls with crucial role in the story and indeed James Bond's life. Great locations here like M's country residence Quarterdeck and Piz Gloria, Blofeld's mountain retreat.' Below, the ground was mostly in darkness, but ahead giant peaks were still golden in the dying sun.' Blofeld has a weird mountain sanatorium where he is treating young women suffering from allergies and Bond goes undercover there posing as Sir Hilary Bray from the Royal College of Arms. The battle of wits between Blofeld (who has undergone plastic surgery) and Bond is very absorbing and there are great action passages in this spectacular alpine location. Another memorable character too here in Irma Blunt, Blofeld's factotum/assistant. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a highly entertaining story with some dark twists.

You Only Live Twice was the last book to be published (1964) while Fleming was alive. The novel follows on from the shocking events of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. James Bond is broken and M decides to send him on an apparently impossible mission to either waken his senses or end his career. Bond is asked to secure access to Magic 44, a Japanese project that reveals the transmissions of secret Soviet radio broadcasts. After tracking down Tiger Tanaka, head of Japan's version of SIS, Bond discovers the Japanese already have Blue Route - a secret Chinese system which Bond had hoped to trade for Magic 44. Bond is shown some elements of Magic 44 which are vitally important to British security and offered more access if he undertakes a mission for Tanaka and the Japanese. A mysterious and dangerous 'Swiss botanist' known as Dr Shatterhand has opened a deadly 'garden of death' in an old Japanese castle stocked with poisonous specimens of plants and animals. 007 must visit this lethal location and kill Dr Shatterhand.

This is more of a character driven piece with a surreal and vivid atmosphere. Bond is falling to pieces and faces one of his most macabre missions. The plot is rather contrived but it does set up an epic final battle of wills. The destiny of two men. You Only Live Twice is very travelogue at times and you are immersed in Japanese culture with Fleming's descriptions of architecture, ninjutsu, food ('James Bond wrestled with his chopsticks and slivers of raw octopus and a mound of rice...') and simple Japanese village life giving the book a rich exotic atmosphere. Strengths of the book include Bond's touching relationship with Kissy Suzuki and Bond living a simple life in a serene Japanese village, disguised as 'coalminer' Taro Todoroki as he trains and prepares for his visit to Dr Shatterhand's deadly garden. It's daft the notion that Bond could realistically turn himself into a convincing Japanese but then this is a James Bond adventure. The beautiful Kissy, who was a Hollywood star before choosing a life as a fisherwoman, is a strong Bond girl who comes across as independent and free of the anguished past and neurotic inclinations of some of Fleming's other female heroines. There are some nice passages where Bond and Kissy dive for sea shells and, amusingly, Kissy reveals that the only man who was truly kind to her was the actor David Niven (one of Fleming's suggestions to play Bond). Fleming was not immune from contradicting himself and does so here again (Bond now hates beef here but lives on it in other books!) The book also benefits from strong characters like Bond's Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese Secret Service. 'For the time being,' says Tiger. 'We are being subjected to what I can best describe as the "Scuola di Coca-Cola". Baseball, amusement arcades, hot dogs, hideously large bosoms, neon lighting - these are part of our payment for defeat in battle.' The book moves towards a haunting climax in the castle featuring the 'Question Room', a swordfight and further shocking developments. You Only Live Twice has a real air of madness and melancholia at times and is a great entry in the series.

The Man with the Golden Gun was published posthumously in 1965. The book begins with Bond suffering from amnesia and turning up in London and for an audience with M. However, during the meeting, Bond begins to rabidly extol the benefits and superiority of Communism and then attempts to murder M with a stream of liquid cyanide. He is foiled and apprehended and it transpires that 007 had been brainwashed by the Russians in Vladivostok - a place he had gone to seeking to unlock something about his past. Bond is deprogrammed and restored to something resembling his old self by electroshock therapy. Retirement seems the most likely option but M decides instead to give Bond a new - and quite possibly last - mission. Bond is asked to travel to the Caribbean to terminate Francisco "Pistols" Scaramanga, a legendary killer known as 'The Man with the Golden Gun' for his chosen instrument of choice, a gold-plated Colt 45. The feared Scaramanga is backed by Cuba and is known to be responsible for the deaths of several British agents. If Bond succeeds he can perhaps be of use to Queen and Country again. If he fails he will become Scaramanga's latest and most famous victim. The Man With the Golden Gun has a somewhat unfinished air, as if it was printed before the final conclusive draft. Apparently Kingsley Amis, who penned the excellent Bond continuation novel Colonel Sun, gave the book a quick polish after Fleming died, leading to enduring speculation about how much of The Man With the Golden Gun Fleming did or did not write. One salient problem many had with the novel was the way that, brainwashed Bond angle swiftly dispensed with, it returns to business as usual and gives Bond an adventure that seems anti-climatic after the epic and surreal events of You Only Live Twice.

Bond's travels here take him to Kingston, Jamaica, where he poses as a security expert and tracks down Scaramanga - who unwittingly hires him to look after his yet to be completed Thunderbird Hotel. When Scaramanga hosts a meeting of investors, Bond secretly listens in and quickly discovers there is much more to his target than he suspected. The businessmen here are members of "The Group", an organisation made up of Cuban secret police, American gangsters and Soviet intelligence operatives. This shady collection of characters is in the business of drug-smuggling and industrial-sabotage and seeks to undermine the West and help Cuban-owned sugar plantations to corner the world market. Scaramanga is best known for Christopher Lee's polished film interpretation but the Scaramanga of the novel is a thuggish villain who has no major ingenious scheme. Although the novel is less detailed than Fleming's usual fare it still contains his obsession with food. Dining with secretary and assistant Mary Goodnight at Morgan's Harbour, Bond requests lobsters and 'a pot of that ridiculously expensive foie gras of yours' with champagne on ice. At Blades, 'a grilled Dover sole followed by the ripest spoonful he could gouge from the club Stilton' is Bond's standard lunch. There are one or two head-scratching moments for contemporary readers, such as when we read - 'There is a popular theory that a man who cannot whistle has homosexual tendencies.' One interesting undercurrent is that Bond is starting to feel old and moments of bittersweet nostalgia begin to enter his thoughts. In the sultry heat of Jamaica on the trail of Scaramanga, he thinks of Honeychile Wilder, his old flame from Doctor No. The Man with the Golden Gun is readable with some nice touches but feels like a slight addition. If Fleming had lived to complete the novel to his satisfaction it could have been much more.

Octopussy and The Living Daylights is the fourteenth and (phew!) final book and was published in 1966. There are four stories in this slim volume. The first story is Octopussy. A murder victim named Hans Oberhauser is found frozen in an Austrian glacier and James Bond is sent to Jamaica to talk to the last man to see the victim before his death - Major Dexter Smythe. Bond is personally involved in the case as Oberhauser was a mentor to him in his younger days after the death of his parents. 'It just happened that Oberhauser was a friend of mine. He taught me to ski before the war, when I was in my teens. He was a wonderful man. He was something of a father to me at a time when I happened to need one.' Bond suspects Smythe had something to do with the murder but Smythe is also a former Royal Marine with a distinguished service record. Can 007 get to the truth of what happened all those years ago? Octopussy is a modestly interesting story with a plot involving a cache of Nazi gold and some typically Flemingesque descriptions of rare fish and undersea creatures. 'The octopus explored his right hand with its buccal orifice...' The main problem with Octopussy though is that Bond is rather incidental to the story and only appears briefly, the story told by Dexter Smythe as a flashback. There are a few good flourishes here though even if this isn't terribly inspiring. The second story is called The Property of a Lady. A commications clerk with British Intelligence named Maria Freudenstein is a double agent working for the Soviets. M is on to Freudenstein and feeds her false information but he is curious to see what her reward from the Russians will be as she doesn't seem to have much in the bank beyond her clerk's salary. When Freudenstein suspiciously 'inherits' a Fabergé egg to auction at Sotheby's, Bond points out that a major KGB figure will have to be secretly present to bid for it and therefore push the price up to cover her services to them. Bond duly attends the auction to look for the KGB representative. A decent story but nothing special.

The third story is called The Living Daylights. A British agent known as '272' is heading back to the West through Berlin and the Soviets are sending their top assassin - codenamed 'Trigger' - to shoot him as he makes his way across no-man's land. M sends James Bond to kill the KGB assassin and 007 hunkers down in a safe house with his sniper rifle waiting for a shot at his target, watching what appears to be a female orchestra go in and out of the building he is keeping watch on. The Living Daylights is the strongest story here. It revolves around Bond's distaste for killing - despite it being his job. This story presents us with a weary, tired Bond who is questioning his profession and the things he does in the name of Queen and Country. The final short story is called 007 in New York and is by far the shortest. The story first appeared in US editions of Fleming's non-fiction book Thrilling Cities which collected travel pieces he had written for the Sunday Times. James Bond is sent to New York to tell a former MI6 secretary that the man she lives with is a KGB agent. This secret trip by 007 is a courtesy afforded to her by M for her loyal service in the past. Bond arranges to meet her at Central Park Zoo and thinks about a woman called Solange who he will see later. 007 in New York is a mildly interesting trifle that consists of Bond's general musings about New York and also a lot about food and where he will go to eat. Martinis at the Plaza and dinner at Grand Central's Oyster Bar. This story is most enjoyable perhaps for including Bond's theory on perfect scrambled eggs. Octopussy and The Living Daylights is not a tremendously memorable collection of stories and far from the best example of Ian Fleming's work. The Living Daylights is a solid entry though and there is just enough to keep Bond fans relatively entertained.

All the James Bond books by Ian Fleming. Still sun drenched and sadistic fun but rather dated of course. At the time of writing this collection with its own special cardboard Bond themed box (the holes form the 007 logo and the books are numbered so you read them in the right order) is a preposterous price new but you can buy it used for £46. There have been good deals on this new in the past and if you shop around or are patient one may surface again in the near future.


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Comments about this review »

Ailran 11.01.2012 12:45

I read these a long long time ago now, enjoyed them but never kept them. Am now working my way through volume two of the collections of the newspaper strips of the James Bond stories published in the 60's... brilliant stuff

jonathanb 04.01.2012 10:54

Excellent review, as ever. I read some of the books years ago but now want to revisit them and also read the rest. You've reminded me too of how little the films had to do with the books beyond the filching of titles and character names. There's still potential there though - if Quantam Of Solace caused much head-scratching when announced as a film title, imagine the furore if the Broccoli dynasty decided to call one of them The Hildebrand Rarity.

doriee.jay 02.01.2012 23:18

good review

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Author Ian Fleming
EAN 9780140911497
ISBN 0140911499

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