Ian Fleming didn't expect to create a phenomenon.
Indeed the former Naval intelligence officer harboured serious doubts the short thriller entitled Casino Royale was even deserving of publication. A friend convinced him of its merits and the rest is history – both literary and of course cinematic.
Almost 70 years have passed since the success of Casino Royale secured Fleming a three-book publishing deal (Jonathan Cape sold out three print runs, although American sales were poor), and the name James Bond is now recognised all over the world. Yet while you'll struggle to find somebody who hasn't seen a Bond film, the books have become overshadowed by their big screen adaptations. We thought it time to remedy that. To offer a crash-course in Fleming's Bond, and encourage people to pick up one of the novels – all of which are harder, darker and quite simply weirder than your average Roger Moore flick.
Of course every course needs a good tutor, and we found the perfect one in the form of Anthony Horowitz. The celebrated author has written two continuation Bond novels – Trigger Mortis and Forever And A Day – and knows Fleming quite literarily inside out. As well as possessing the passion of the fan, Horowitz has been under the hood; he understands what makes these novels work and also what makes them loved.
Take a deep dive into the most influential thrillers in literary history. And be warned: look out for sharks!
Simple question to begin: why should people read the James Bond novels?
They'll be surprised at how wonderful the books are. The films are so phenomenally good and well known that people have forgotten the books that are behind them. But the books are in their own way small masterpieces full of the most amazing scenes. They are brilliantly written, wonderful descriptions, great characters.
The best action writing in the business is Ian Fleming's, and because the plots are so different from the films, you won't know what's going to happen. Some of them are less good than others. But the five at the beginning of the series, then Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service are just wonderful, wonderful books.
What’s the biggest difference between books and films?
I think people would be surprised at how well written they are. Fleming's prose style is so enjoyable. I've read these books something like 10 times, so I know them backwards. There's always a sentence that will make you smile.
The opening paragraph of Casino Royale is just a wonderful piece of writing. And it's interesting, if you check it out on the Internet, you'll see there are three versions of it. He wrote it three times, chiselling and sculpting away, and got the paragraph exactly right. It's a wonderful example of a writer learning his craft, developing his craft.
If you go to some of the set pieces, I love the bridge game in Moonraker or the golf game in Goldfinger, the sleigh chase in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the centipede in Dr. No that nearly kills Bond. The writing is sweaty, tense and brilliant. It is really, really enjoyable. And whereas the Bond films for a time became very jokey and very extreme, the books have a sort of a seriousness about them and a sort of a solidity that is just extremely enjoyable.
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The novels are way more varied than one might imagine. Much of Moonraker involves a bridge game. Diamonds Are Forever concerns a smuggling ring in Las Vegas. The Spy Who Loved Me is written from the Bond girl’s perspective. You’re not reading the same story over and over…
The Spy Who Loved Me was a catastrophe of the first order, which Ian Fleming actually had to apologise for after it was published. And it is certainly a horribly misguided novel in every respect. There's a character called Horowitz, quite curiously, one of the two bad guys. But you're right about the other ones.
Moonraker might be my absolute favourite Bond. It's one of the few Bond novels set entirely in England, in Kent. It has this extraordinary localised feel to it. And it's got a wonderful female protagonist in Gala Brand, who is sort of an undercover policewoman. And her relationship with Bond is very interesting, much more interesting than you normally expect a Bond relationship to be with the woman. They don't even go to bed together. And the bridge game is extraordinary.
I can't think of anything more boring in the world than bridge. It is something I've always sworn I will never play if I live to be 100. And yet that chapter with the trick that Bond pulls when he's playing Hugo Drax at a bridge, a trick Ian Fleming stole from a famous bridge game, it's written so persuasively and it's so suspenseful and exciting and so enjoyable as well. The whole business of Blades and M and the drug that Bond adds to his own champagne to keep his wit sharp. It's just a wonderfully enjoyable piece of writing.
Is there such a thing as the quintessential Bond novel? If so, which ones might stake a claim to the title?
If you're going to read any one James Bond novel... I'd probably go for Dr No, it's got everything in there. It's got the exotic locations, the extraordinary villain, it's got such a lovely, quirky approach. The whole plot begins because a bird is breeding on an island where Dr No wishes to have his nefarious schemes, and that's the entry to the book. Only Fleming could come up with that sort of twist: a supervillain being undermined by a seabird.
Failing that? Moonraker. People reading Moonraker will be surprised that it is a Bond novel. The movie of Moonraker is one of the Bonds that I prefer not to talk about, because although I have enormous admiration for them, Moonraker was trying to get on the back of Star Wars so it's got a satellite and lasers and all the rest of it. I think it's one of the less appealing of the Bond films for that. It's a little bit cynical.
There's a part of me that wishes that EON Productions would remake those early books as they were written. They'd make wonderful films.
The first book Casino Royale is very short but it’s almost perfect...
Casino Royle is a very, very unusual James Bond novel. The villain of the piece is killed two thirds of the way through. It's not the climax. There's a huge section of non-action, of Bond's relationship with Vesper. And then the final, ice-cold twist at the end of the book.
It also has one of the only times in the whole canon, as I recall, where Bond doesn't want to be a spy, where he goes on about how he doesn't really enjoy it and wants to think of something else to do. The film version made with Daniel Craig was first rate, absolutely nailed it in terms of wedding the Bond film franchise to the success of the books.
Yeah, I love that book. It's atmospheric and it's extraordinary. And the fact Fleming sat down without a great deal of thought and just wrote it is incredible, really; making literary history and making billions and billions of pounds for assorted people, sadly, not me.
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The second book Live and Let Die is another classic, but one painfully dated in its attitudes and language...
Live and Let Die is more problematic these days. It has got a very 1950s' view of black America, which these days some people might find offensive. There are elements of the novels, of course, that have not aged well.
I like it too, very much. Mr Big himself is an absolutely wonderful character. And again, he's got a superb, exciting nail-biting climax, with the reef and the sharks and everything else. And the death of Mr Big is really memorable.
Torn apart by sharks. He tries to lift his arm up and it's just stump...
Yes, that's absolutely right. It stayed on my mind when I was very young. It's wonderful writing.
Both your Bond novels modernise the Bond girl – how do you strike the balance between homage and reinvention?
Listen, when I write the Bond novels, I don't have any real nervousness about being true to Ian Fleming. My books are set in the 1950s and some of the attitudes in the books are therefore 1950s attitudes. That said, I'm writing now for an audience, for a society, which is very easily and often correctly offended by certain attitudes. And it is not my desire ever in my writing to be contentious.
I'm writing stories, I'm an entertainer, an adventurer, I'm an escapist. These are what my books are about. And therefore, to write a particular character as a woman who goes weak in the knees the first moment she sees Bond and is in bed with him ten pages later, would I think offend people and correctly so.
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Bond exists in a world where governments are essentially good and competent. There’s a reassurance in systems and country that’s dated yet also probably a large part of the books’ popularity...
My favourite scenes in the James Bond films when I was growing up were always scenes with Bond and M, and when I'm writing the books, the scenes that I most enjoy are the scenes with Bond and M. I adored Bernard Lee when he played the part for the Sean Connery and most of the Roger Moore films. I thought Judi Dench was fantastic too.
But that absolute patriotism, the father-son relationship, the headmaster and boy relationship, I always thought was very, very endearing. And I think that the books live and thrive on that sense of trust. But when I came to write the Alex Rider books, the world had already changed. This is the time of the war on Iraq where the secret services are effectively lying to us and nobody can trust anybody anymore.
So the head of the MI6 in the Alex Rider books is a guy called Alan Blunt, Blunt being the name to one of the biggest traitors in British espionage – Sir Anthony Blunt, who was the keeper of the queen's pictures – and it's no accident that I chose that name for him. And it's also no accident Alex doesn't trust the government at all and doesn't want to work for them and constantly says how unpleasant they all are.
Over the course of the series, the plots become increasingly lurid. We go from Bond attempting to win a game of baccarat [Casino Royale] to Blofeld undergoing plastic surgery and brainwashing women to commit biological warfare [On Her Majesty's Secret Service]. Which do you prefer – grounded (ish) or goofy?
I've never been that fond of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It's a book with lots of good things in it. But I always thought that plot was very baffling: it seemed so peculiar to brainwash women into dropping biological weapons into farms, when really you could just pay somebody to do it. And it always struck me as a slightly weird scheme.
Fleming did struggle for his plots towards the end. You Only Live Twice is a wonderful book, and it's got a brilliant idea at the core of it – the poison garden – but the book itself is very lacking in action, lacking in anything much happening until finally Bone gets to the garden at the end. So I think Fleming was struggling a little bit, but then he wrote seven or eight masterpieces so he had every right to be worn out after that.
Blofeld calls himself Dr Shatterhand and opens a suicide garden – not the most inconspicuous of disguises. There’s also a gambling scene of rock, paper, scissors, which I’d love to see the films attempt...
That’s between Bond and Tiger Tanaka. Tanaka is fantastic, a great character. I think he was based on one of Fleming's friends and he really springs off the page. You Only Live Twice is very high on my favourite James Bond films – screenplay by Roald Dahl, amazingly. The fantastical story about rockets being swallowed, the volcano with a sliding lake... That's what my childhood is made of.
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Yes, if Bond hadn’t embraced the more lurid, OTT plots, he probably wouldn’t be the phenomenon he is today...
Trying to think up the bad guy's plots is one of the hardest aspects of writing a Bond novel for me. Do you go for the absolute megalomaniac plot to take over the world, which is what the film did, or do you go more grounded, like Diamonds Are Forever, which is really just about diamond smuggling. There's an expectation, I think, for audiences that they want to make a bit larger than life. And so that is what I do, but it is tempting, if I were to do a third, to go smaller.
How much do you try to replicate Fleming's style?
I do try to replicate it and I try to write like him, which is not easy because I'm not as good a writer as he is. I try to do some of his mannerisms, his staccato sentences.
You may notice in action sequences, the sentences get shorter and shorter: the jumping point of view where you're inside Bond, the camera is inside his head, then it's on a mountainside looking down from afar, then it's right in his lap and then it's out the window again. So you keep cut, cut, cut, cut.
My favourite sentence that I wrote is something like "the rain rushed into London like an unhappy bride." That's my favourite 'trying to be Ian Fleming' sentence
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Blofeld and SPECTRE are obviously hugely influential. Even today, we seem to like the notion of shadowy organisations manipulating world events…
I was very tempted to do a SPECTRE story, or to invent a new one. And I shied away from it because I was worried that Austin Powers has slightly undermined it. It is very, very easy to slip into parody of the guy in the wheelchair with the cat. For me, it's more fun to have a single bad guy.
But SPECTRE is a wonderful invention. In Thunderball, I've always loved the first meeting they have in a conference room where Blofeld makes one person stand up as a diversion and then electrocutes somebody else at the table. And nobody around the table really comments when this guy gets a thousand volts pulsing through him and crumbles into a little heap. I do love all that stuff.
How much of writing a Bond novel is an exercise in ticking boxes? Is that frustrating or a helpful framework?
You've got to be careful. If you just tick the boxes so you've done the scene with May, you've done the scene with M, you've done the scene where he drives his car, you've done a scene where he loves his gun… Having done that twice, if I ever did write a third, I probably wouldn't do any of it. I think I would just take that for granted now and just move on. Otherwise it would become a little bit tiresome.
So much of Bond the character is filtered through Fleming the man – for better and for worse. Is it possible for a modern writer to capture that world view?
I'm not sure Fleming was an entirely easy man to like. He was quite a difficult human being. A lot of his attitudes and his experience are in the character of Bond and a lot of the snobbery is there, too.
But I think it is perfectly possible to capture some of his world view. What he called 'acidie'. It's a wonderful word for world tiredness. But I'm trying to replicate it is one of the hardest things to do.
Sitting here in 2021, I can buy books and I can go on the internet. I can find out what shall we say somebody would order for lunch in New York in 197. But to work out if it was the right thing to order or whether a snob would look down on that order or who were the restaurant clientele? That's much, much harder to do.
Acidie is a wonderful word. His view of the Bond often has a sense of tiredness, looking at the world from the sidelines and not being part of the action. Hardest thing in the books to capture, really.
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Yet the literary Bond tends to give the impression that he loves his job...
Bond comes out of the secret services, which Fleming was in – he was in naval intelligence. And there's absolutely no doubt that Fleming enjoyed himself there.
It was the making of him: the war saved him from a career as the world's worst stockbroker, as he calls himself in various interviews. He was a good journalist, but a fairly middle of the road journalist. So the war helped him discover himself and discover Bond.
When writing a Bond novel, how do you detach your Bond from films?
I didn't think about the Bond films at all when I wrote those two books, because I was absolutely grounded in the world of the books. The world of the films is a totally different world to what I am dealing with.
So, no, I have no temptation to try and rival what they've been doing in the films. I'm very happy just to live on the other side with the family, the estate who hired me for the books and to just continue writing in the style of Ian Fleming.
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Quickfire round. Best villain in the books?
Tricky. Rosa Klebb. [From Russia with Love.]
Best Bond girl?
Gala Brand. No, no, I can't. Pussy Galore. [Moonraker; Goldfinger.]
“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” Although that’s only in the film of Goldfinger. I could say ‘the bitch is dead’ [Casino Royale] or ‘hell is here’. That's a great line and it's a great moment in a book. And it's very quintessential Fleming. [Bond misreads an advertising billboard that proclaims ‘Shell Is Here.’]
Probably the centipede in Dr No.