Why the James Bond books should be your next reading mission

There may be No Time To Die, but there's plenty to immerse yourself in Ian Fleming's world of exotic locations, fast cars and a certain spy who is probably a more sensitive guy than you might think. Here, author and James Bond superfan Tom Ward picks his essential 007 reading list. 

Tom Ward
James Bond in Skyfall
Columbia Pictures

So, in the end it wasn’t Shatterhand, Eclipse or A Reason To Die announced as the title of Daniel Craig’s 007 swansong, but No Time To Die. The news this week was met with some amusement – conjuring as it does the thought of Bond in a hurry, case file in one hand and a soya latte in the other as he waves away a MI6 lackey – but excitement for the film is as high as ever.

Fans will bid Craig farewell with a heavy heart. Somehow, he has managed to combine the smirking panache of Connery, the sombre brutality of Dalton and added just a touch of humour without going full-Moore. In this, he has proven perhaps the closest iteration to Fleming’s original character – not to mention the most successful, with Skyfall alone making over $1bn worldwide – which makes it all the more surprising the original novels haven't found a wider modern audience.

Ian Fleming first put pen to paper in the early fifties, writing about his own experiences in naval intelligence during the Second World War. There was nothing ground-breaking about this: John le Carré and Len Deighton were doing the same to much acclaim. But what set Fleming’s novels apart was their sense of style. Where le Carré’s spymaster George Smiley spent his time in a grim post-war London flitting about in worn suits, Bond was galivanting around the world in a tuxedo, driving the best cars and staying in the best hotels. Fleming’s writing was a panacea to a Britain beset by economic strife. Today, as the threat of a Brexit-induced recession grows, Bond’s exotic adventures and devil-may-care approach to his troubles could be just the tonic we need once more.

And for the generation who have only ever known Craig’s version of the world’s most famous spy, Fleming’s 14 novels – and some of those published after his death – contain everything you need to know about where Bond came from, including lots of material that never made the transition to the cinema (which in some cases we should be thankful for). With their taut prose, bone-breaking action and plots to rival the best thrillers out there, this is as good a time as ever to reacquaint yourself with Her Majesty’s best.

Dr. No (1958)

As your dad smugly reminds you every Christmas, Dr. No might have been the first Bond adventure committed to celluloid but it was actually the sixth story set down by Fleming. It is, though, one of the best. Plot-wise, we’re on similar ground to the 1962 film: Commander Strangways, the head of MI6 station in Kingston, Jamaica, disappears and 007 is sent out to investigate. A trail of breadcrumbs leads to the reclusive Chinese-German Dr. Julius No, who’s up to all kinds of no good on an island known as Crab Key.

The book plays down the whole Ursula Andress in a bikini thing, and instead adds a giant squid and a plot involving industrial quantities of bird droppings which is far more gripping than it sounds. Interestingly, in Dr. No, Bond comes across as a fairly thoughtful and decent guy, especially when it comes to his treatment of women – something the films are still struggling to get right.

Casino Royale (1953)

Bond’s very first outing sees him sent to entrap SMERSH paymaster Le Chiffre in a high-stakes baccarat game in France. Like the film, the CIA’s Felix Leiter and treasury agent Vesper Lynd both play a vital part.

Much of the plot survived in the 2006 adaptation with only the occasional extra flourish serving to bring out the best in the source material. Lacking some of the more outlandish elements that would define his later works, Fleming’s first Bond novel was the perfect choice to reboot Bond. Just as Craig’s first outing depicted a tough, world-weary spy using his wits to get by, Fleming’s novel hammers home the idea of Bond as cold and calculating. 

Thunderball (1961)

The eighth full-length Bond novel sees 007 attempt to track down two atomic bombs stolen by the dastardly outfit SPECTRE. After some of the more outlandish meanderings of earlier books, Fleming pulled it back here to deliver another taut thriller that shoots first and asks questions later.

Thunderball is also notable for the introduction of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond nemesis extraordinaire, in the first of only three Fleming-penned appearances. The initial set-up, which sees Bond recuperate at a posh health spa, may be a little overly-long and the final underwater fight a little fanciful, but there’s more than enough here to demonstrate why Connery chose to star in two adaptations of this book, the 1965 offering of the same name and the unofficial 1983 remake Never Say Never Again

You Only Live Twice (1964)

The Roald Dahl-penned 1967 film of the same name has a very mixed legacy. While it contains some of the most memorable Bond tropes – think Blofeld’s white cat, his volcano lair, shark tanks and Little Nellie – it is also remembered as the film where James Bond fakes his own death then disguises himself as a Japanese man, a real low point for the franchise.

The book is a madcap affair, in which Bond is sent to kill Dr Guntram Shatterhand, a mysterious type who’s causing all sorts of bother for the Japanese government. In a plot that makes Die Another Day’s invisible car seem like a reasonable creative choice, Bond must infiltrate Shatterhand’s ancient Japanese castle, complete with its ‘Garden of Death’. Definitely one of the most out-there adventures in Fleming’s catalogue, it’s also one of the most enjoyable.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more