Naval intelligence officer turned novelist, Ian Fleming gained literary acclaim for being the father of James Bond. Fleming wrote “thrillers designed to be read as literature” and, in the process of publishing more than a dozen books, cracked open a world of exotic adventure, ultimate babes, gadgets, and gear, shaping the spy genre as we know it today.
While Fleming and his writing come with its fair share of negative draws (Don’t know what we’re talking about? Here’s an overview.), there’s no denying the impact of his world and characters. Here are Ian Fleming’s best James Bond books and what makes them live and let die.
Best James Bond Books
9. Live and Let Die (1954)
The second book in the James Bond series, Fleming absolutely tortures Bond in this novel and it’s gripping to imagine the effortless and unstoppable secret agent crumble, then equally as hoorah-worthy when he bounces back. Bond babe and fortune-teller Solitaire is ensnarled with the Voodoo Baron of Death, Mr. Big, who sits atop SMERSH (aka a fictional Russian intelligence agency) and leads Bond down a dark and dangerous journey through the Everglades, Harlem, and other moody haunts. Be forewarned: 1) the settings are somewhat drab and 2) this book’s major — major — flaw is its racist language. However, I wouldn’t suggest a reprint with this language removed; much like Huck Finn, it’s eye-opening to see the cultural climate the author was writing in.
8. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963)
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is Fleming’s 11th Bond novel and a surprisingly tender turn for the traditionally lust-filled secret agent. Bond’s guard is let down and we get a true sense of the man grieving behind the Beretta. It’s a twist in itself to see Fleming write about love and loss, but in turn, we miss out on some elements beloved to these books: i.e. sex, action, and intrigue.
7. You Only Live Twice (1964)
After Bond’s wife is killed at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, we’re due for a climactic bang between the broken-down 007 and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, one of the most iconic villains in the James Bond series. Book 12 delivers a dénouement, nearly closing up the SPECTRE trilogy as Bond gets to kill the man who killed his wife. This final fight scene is wicked cool and set in a Japanese castle. Then again, it’s not worth owning a $25,000 first edition.
6. For Your Eyes Only (1960)
Book eight in the 007 catalog, For Your Eyes Only is really a collection of short stories including “Quantum of Solace,” “Risico,” and “The Hildebrand Rarity.” Expect wild romps, from assassinations to heroin rings, and plenty of sinister women. The 007 books are fairly short anyway, but if you don’t have time for a full spy novel, these shorts are extremely satisfying and complete. Not much to complain about here, but also not as beefy as one fully formed book. A plus? You don’t have to know the acronyms and backgrounds of any Bond baddies to understand what’s going on.
5. Dr. No (1958)
Dr. No, one of Fleming’s most vivid novels, sweeps you away to the humid island of Jamaica and carries you along for the clandestine ride as 007 investigates the suspicious Dr. Julius No. Instead of exotic globe-trotting, this story is localized and intimate (a success probably due to Fleming writing the novel at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica). The book also features an unforgettable torture obstacle course that Dr. No subjects Bond to, including electric shocks and wrestling a giant octopus. It’s plain, good fun to read — one of the sexier books that was initially hated on in the United Kingdom. Two words: Honey. Rider.
4. Thunderball (1961)
Fleming served in the Navy and this knowledge-set came in clutch when writing the aquatic spy tale, Thunderball. This engaging and high-octane adventure makes for one of Fleming’s best works. Bond babe Domino is killer, headstrong and driven by revenge to kill Largo (who killed her brother). She ends up harpooning him. Thunderball also introduced the aforementioned iconic Bond villain, Ernst Blofeld, who returns in two more novels. The writing itself is sharp and piercing, and the Bahamas setting jumps off the page.
3. From Russia With Love (1957)
Move over Fifty Shades of Grey, because Fleming is in the sheets. From Russia With Love is a sexy, sexy Bond book, so expect to feel flushed with Tatiana Romanov first meets James. The format is also fresh and inventive — a complete jump for Fleming, who had written four 007 novels before this. Bond doesn’t appear in the first third of the book as Fleming sets the stage and plan of the Soviet Union plot. It was a mature and risky move that signaled a refreshing pivot from the status quo. Fleming also captures our attention with believable and strong characters and his exotic imagination, taking Bond from to Istanbul to Paris.
2. Moonraker (1955)
Third time’s the charm, because Fleming hit his 007 stride with Moonraker. Considered the origin of the spy novel genre, this Bond book is based around an atomic bomb threat. Bond is coupled with one of the best heroines of Fleming’s writing, officer Brand, who works for Scotland Yard and never falls for James’ charms and seduction. Many will argue it’s the only good 007 book Fleming ever wrote and the only one you need to read.
1. Casino Royale (1953)
The world was introduced to James Bond upon the release of Casino Royale, launching one of the most iconic and successful spy series in history. I can’t logically recommend starting your 007 reading list with any novel other than Casino Royale, where Fleming paints the world and man down to every detail. The pages are dense and rich with detail; you can tell Fleming put his blood, sweat, and time into this novel. He built a formula that most of the following novels would adopt, so it’s exciting to see it unfold with fresh eyes. I’m going to assume you saw the 2006 Daniel Craig movie (which in my opinion was the best Bond movie ever made) so I won’t go into the plot. Just order the book and get your martini shaker ready.
Other Books by Ian Fleming
The Diamond Smugglers (1957)
The Diamond Smugglers is non-fiction mirror to Diamonds Are Forever. Fleming interviews a member of the International Diamond Security Organization (IDSO) about the corruption and crime he witnessed in the diamond trade. And it’s messed up. De Beers even threatened legal action after the book was released, so you know Fleming got something right. Despite its revelatory aces, the read is distasteful for its colonialist attitudes that are downright racist. Stick to fiction, old boy.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1964)
Yep, you read that right. The author of the James Bond books also wrote a children’s novel about a magical car. Is it our favorite of his books? Hell no. Is it a good kids book? Hell yeah. The premise: A magical car takes the Pott family on epic adventures to capture robbers. Consider it entry level James Bond preparation for babies.