I have been reading (or listening to — but I’m going to call it ‘reading’) Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels in the order they were published and it has been an interesting experience. I have listened to quite a few narrators but most of the books were narrated by Rufus Sewell, who sounds right for the part and would have made a very good movie James Bond in my opinion.
For some reason I always made the assumption that the sequence of the James Bond movies was somehow canonical, starting with the best of the stories and gradually moving to scrape the barrel with later film titles such as Moonraker, Octopussy and Quantum of Solace fabricated from lesser works and even just titles. So what have I learned from reading them in the order they were published?
My prejudiced assessment of Moonraker’s merits were formed from the Roger Moore era movie adaptation. It actually comes very early in the book sequence and is a fascinating story, starting from Bond doing mundane office work, with no exotic travel (unless you call Kent exotic). These stories are well-written spy stories that are far more domestic than the films.
The stories featuring Ernst Stavro Blofeld are a proper trilogy with all the classic elements of the genre — Bond triumphs in act I (Thunderball), is defeated and crushed in act II (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)¹ before triumphing in act III (You Only Live Twice). Think Star Wars episodes IV-VI and you have the right idea…
Goldfinger marks a turning point. Stories after this become more global in scale and it’s the story where some of the movie tropes first appear — Bond beds multiple women and ‘turns’ a lesbian with the sheer power of his manliness
“I never met a man before.”
It’s also after this point we first encounter periscopes and radio antennas disguised as roses!
There’s one area where the books are now really dated and that’s the casual sexism that runs through the whole series. My daughter, listening with me, found the frequent references to “the girl” infuriating. Women are generally portrayed as simple creatures, their looks matter, along with getting a good husband but little else. Thunderball is particularly sexist although prescient in its opening scenes condemning white bread, refined sugar and over-cooked vegetables in favour of fresh food, wholewheat bread and yogurt! As a plot (and like many of the books) it relies too much on coincidence to be really credible.
There are some very strange stories within this body of work and some, such The Hildebrand Rarity, barely feature James Bond. These are the short stories such as Octopussy, Quantum of Solace and The Living Daylights that may involve very little spying but are interesting studies of the dark side of people and Bond. We’ll not talk about The Spy Who Loved Me — honestly, it’s what Ian Fleming would have wanted.
I really enjoyed these books, they are very well-written and it was fascinating to see James Bond evolve somewhat from the blunt instrument of the state in Casino Royale to a more nuanced character in Living Daylights.
 OHMSS brings out the humanity of Bond and has a genuinely affecting final scene.↑