It’s taken me six months, but I finally finished the entire Fleming era timeline of James Bond novels, including the 4 continuation novels set in the era and even the two released pages from Per Fine Ounce. So I thought I would create a ranking of all, short story volumes included.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Long has this one been my favorite James Bond novel. Everything from the plot, to the characters, to Bond’s characterization, and the locations work. Going from Bond meeting Tracy to investigation Blofeld, to his harrowing ski chase escape, to the finale at Piz Gloria and Bond’s marriage to Tracy and her subsequent death form to make the most engaging and heartwrenching Bond adventure.
This is the one where Fleming finally hit his stride. Despite lacking the travelogue aspect of most of Bond’s adventures, Moonraker succeeds with an exciting story and some of the most interesting characters in the Bond canon. Drax makes for one of the greatest villains and the bridge game that sets off Bond’s conflict with him is arguably the most suspenseful peace of literature Fleming ever produced.
Strange or not, I found myself having some of the most fun with these books while reading Doctor No. The story is very pulpy for Bond, but with a great villain, who is built up throughout the story until finally being revealed in the latter half with his death being one of the series’s strangest. Honeychile Ryder is a fine companion, but ultimately a forgettable one. The return of Quarrel and Strangways are nice touches from Bond’s previous sojourn to Jamaica. Overall, a fun novel and an easy read.
From Russia with Love
Probably the most well known Fleming novel and also the most pure spy novel of the bunch. It has an intriguing setup that mostly works. However, the fact that the plan is spoon-fed to us in the first third of the book, it makes it doubly weird that Bond and M are so naive about the plan when they learn of it, especially when they are essentially playing catch-up with the reader. However, the characters in the novel are great, especially Donovan Grant and Darko Kerim. A fun novel that ends with a surprising cliffhangar.
The original Bond story which is a fun and quick read. However, like the Dr. No film, it serves as a template for better and more fleshed out adventures to come. As it is, it introduces all the staples of the Bond series, the characters, the villains, the plot. However, the main villain being killed off early in the story does make the last few pages drag a bit. The Vesper twist still plays well today though. A great novel, but one that could’ve been better with an extra set piece as we got in the film version.
The first continuation novel on this list. Trigger Mortis is a fast-paced story that features unused Fleming material. Bond faces off against one of his most dangerous an interesting adversaries in Sin Jae-seong. The Bond girls aren’t the most interesting and Pussy Galore’s inclusion is unnecessary, but its still a fun adventure and one, I believe, Fleming would have been proud of.
You Only Live Twice
A Bond book that dared to do something different. I always wonder what it would have been like to read this one in 1964, when Japan still felt far more foreign today. It’s a different kind of story with interesting characters and an intriguing premise, that doesn’t include the uncomfortable racism that the film version does. However, Blofeld is easily at his most boring and tedious in this one. That said, I like the ending and the setup of Bond having amnesia and going to Russia is an interesting one. Too bad, it was mostly undone pretty quickly in the next one.
The first (published) continuation novel, I know we probably all still lament the fact that we’ll never get to read Per Fine Ounce. It has a great villain and a great leading lady. The greek setting is fantastic and definitely makes the book feel more exotic. However, very little happens for large sections of the book and Colonel Sun’s plan to frame the British for attacking a Russian conference just isn’t all that exciting. Nevertheless, it’s a fun read and likely the only continuation novel that will ever see its elements filmed.
Forever and a Day
Horowitz’s second book is a short, fun prequel to Casino Royale, detailing Bond’s first mission and how he came to the number 007. The book’s success largely hinges on the character of Joanne Brochet, aka, Madame Sixtine. She is easily one of the most realized Bond ladies in the entire series. One that would definitely not have existed the same had the book been written in the 1950s. As it is, the story is mostly standard Bond fare. The finale on the sinking boat is exciting. But after, three continuation novels (DMC, Solo, FAAD) and three films (LALD, FYEO, TLD) have now used heroin trafficking as a plot device, it’s growing a little stale.
Probably Fleming’s most, by-the-numbers Bond novel. It’s got a great villain, a tense golf game, and possibly the most outrageous plot of any of the Bond novels. The film corrects a number of it’s logic gaps. The book has a very workman feel about it. I think this is where Fleming started to get bored and began trying to find ways to move on, before reversing course and writing several more books.
A good, though not great novel. This is the only time we truly see SPECTRE’s machinations in motion and they are terrifying and, oddly, ethical. Blofeld is far more entertaining than the fairly mundane Largo (I prefer Adolpho Celi’s version) and the story is missing something without the inclusion of Fiona/Fatima. The story works mostly as the extortion premise is intriguing (or at least it was in 1961) and the Bahamas location is perfect for Bond. That said, it also suffers from the FRWL issue of the reader being told the villain’s entire plan at the beginning and having Bond play catch up.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed this book much better on my second read after having read all of the other 50s/60s set Bond stories. I think it has to do with it being quite different from most of the others. Bond is sent to Nigeria erm Zanzarim to end the civil war. After completing that mission and being shot and left for dead, he decides to “go solo” and get revenge on those who wronged him. None of the characters are terribly interesting and there is really no reason why Bond had to go solo, not to mention it feels very out of character for him (the literary version of him anyway). Still though, it’s an entertaining read and one that I definitely enjoy more now.
Devil May Care
Another one that I found myself enjoying far more than previously. However, IMO, this is the A View to a Kill of the novels. One that has a great villain, but aside from that, never tries to be anything more than another one. It has all the familiar tropes: Darius, the charismatic ally (Darko Kerim), Bond vs the cheating villain in a high-stakes game of tennis (golf, bridge), Bond captured and forced to work for Dr. Gorner (Goldfinger), Dr. Gorner is a rich, megalomaniac with a deformity (Doctor No), and the Bond girl, Scarlett, has a secret that is revealed to Bond in the very last pages (Gala Brand). It’s certainly a fun read, but plays itself too safe to stand out too much.
Octopussy and The Living Daylights
IMO, the better of the two short story compilations. And while I enjoy the short, quick reads that these stories present, I much prefer the full novels.
14. a. The Living Daylights
An exciting Cold War thriller of a story in which Bond is forced to protect a defecting Soviet from
a skilled sniper. Bond disobeys his orders and doesn’t kill her, showing there is more to Bond
than previously thought.
14. b. The Property of a Lady
A different kind of story that involves Bond identifying a Soviet agent bidding on a faberge egg.
Not sure why I enjoyed this story so much, but there it is.
14. c. Octopussy
An interesting story about a murder and stolen Nazi gold. The story was used as the backstory
for Octopussy’s father in the eponymous film.
14. d. 007 in New York
A short short story about 007’s thoughts on New York. I don’t think I would enjoy his eggs though.
For Your Eyes Only
The longer short story compilation, that is fun, but some of the stories either feel like they should have been shorter or could have been fleshed out into full novels.
15. a. Risico
The best story in the compilation detailing the war between Kristatos and Colombo. Not really
much more to say about it.
15. b. For Your Eyes Only
A fun little adventure in which Bond is sent by M on a revenge mission. It plays out similarly to
the film version of events, accept that the finale takes place by a lake in Vermont and lady
Havelock is named Judy instead of Melina.
15. c. The Hildebrand Rarity
A bizarre, but nevertheless entertaining story about Bond being recruited by a repulsive
millionaire to find a rare fish in the Seychelles. The story works as a result of Bond’s utter hatred
of Milton Krest and then his subsequent investigation into his death. It’s unclear who killed him,
but I’m leaning towards the wife. Liz Krest likely earned her new life free of her abuser.
15. d. From a View to a Kill
A strange story about Bond investigating the murder of a British agent and finding a strange
secret neo-Nazi base in France. It’s easily the weirdest Bond short story and one that I didn’t
15. e. Quantum of Solace
The lamest of all Bond stories, Quantum of Solace is nothing more than the Governor of Nassau
relating a story to Bond during a boring dinner party about a former employee and his adulterous
wife. The story has no real moral or conclusion other than the employee finally left his wife and
stuck her with the overdue bills for their house and car. Nothing about this story is Bondian.
Live and Let Die
The second Bond novel that has not aged well. It features an uncomfortable amount of racism, that may have been acceptable in in 1954, but is difficult to read through a modern lens. The story itself is really strange with Bond investigating embezzled sunken treasure. Mr. Big is interesting villain, but Solitaire is possibly the worst Bond girl. It does feature the grisly maiming of Felix Leiter, but other than that, it is a very forgettable story.
The Spy Who Loved Me
The most un-Bond Bond novel, one that Bond barely features in. It all takes place at the Dreamy Pines Motor Court in upstate New York and is told through the eyes of Vivian Michel. A young woman being stalked by two creepy hitmen until Bond randomly shows up to save her. She is a tortured woman who has had very unhealthy relationships with men, that Bond seems to somewhat heal.
The Man with the Golden Gun
A poor novel, but that isn’t necessarily it or Fleming’s fault. Having died before revisions could be finished it was always doomed. As it is, it has great elements: Bond’s brainwashing and attempted assassination of M and the train finale. However, Bond’s unbrainwashing seems too quick and Scaramanga is not nearly as interesting a character as the film version. If only we could have seen what the completed novel would have been.
Diamonds are Forever
This has always been my least favorite of the Fleming novels. Every previous time I would attempt to read of them in a row, this is the one that kills it for me. The plot is boring, the villains are boring, there’s only one exciting setpiece (the train sequence), even Bond seems to be bored throughout the whole story. The only redeeming quality is Tiffany Case, who may be, until Tracy, the most fleshed out woman in the Bond novels. IMO, this is the lowest of the low of the Fleming novels.