After a worthwhile idea (exploring the effect on a normal person’s life when they come into contact with James Bond) that turned into the savagely crummy The Spy Who Loved Me, Ian Fleming had a lot to make up for. The trick for the author was finding something unique to do with the long-lived character of James Bond while still fulfilling the basic expectations of the Bond formula. Unfortunately for Fleming, as with many authors, musicians, and movie makers, when you strike upon a successful franchise you either make more or less the same thing over or over — variations upon a theme — and have people talk about how your work has become stale and formulaic or you make a radical change in the work and listen to people complain about how things changed and the author has turned his back on the essence of what made the series successful. After the dismal The Spy Who Loved Me, it would have been fair to write Fleming and Bond off as having dried up. No one could have expected that Fleming would bounce back with the best book in the series.
I hope whatever good will was generated for you (provided you liked the book as much as I did) by Thunderball is still fresh in your memory, because you’re going to need to lean heavily upon it if you ever want to make it to the end of Fleming’s next Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s tempting to just skip this one entirely and move immediately on to the next book, so bad is The Spy Who Loved Me and so well documented is the near universal dislike for the book from fans, critics, and Ian Fleming himself. At this point it seems like adding my opinion is just gratuitous piling on, because I’m not going to have all that much to say that’s different from what has previously been written about this book. If I’d read the book and found it to be the “best of the series,” then at least I’d have a more unique position which I could defend.
OK, now this is more like it. After muddling through a series of unsatisfying short stories — some of which were frustrating because they contained the unrealized kernel of a great story, others because they had next to nothing to do with James Bond — Ian Fleming returns to familiar territory with one of my favorite books in the entire series. Thunderball combines the breakneck action of Doctor No with the breezy travelogue spirit of Diamonds are Forever as Fleming proves once again that he is at the time of his game whenever he’s writing a Bond story set in the Caribbean. Thunderball also marks a major development in the series in that it features the debut of the shadowy international criminal organization SPECTRE and its mysterious mastermind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Goldfinger was a decent enough adventure for James Bond, but it also smacked of “going through the motions” and relying on remixing ingredients from previous novels: the card cheat angle from Moonraker, the SMERSH funding angle from Live and Let Die, and a couple other things here and there. The next book in the series is a break from the full-length novels. For Your Eyes Only is a collection of short stories of wildly varying tone and quality that possess ample ability to entertain yet do almost nothing to advance the world of James Bond. In fact, he’s hardly even in a couple of the stories. Nothing here fits into the larger Bond continuity as established by the novels (this disposability would not hold true for the second collection of short stories), and nothing stands out as spectacular. Still, if you are a Fleming completist you’re going to read this collection anyway, so let’s dig into it shall we?
Goldfinger is the James Bond film that set the standard for most of the Bond films that followed, to say nothing of the hundreds of cheap (and often enjoyable) knock-offs that came out during the 1960s. Although Doctor No and From Russia with Love were both big successes, it was Goldfinger that seemed to resonate most with copycat filmmakers around the world. Goldfinger the novel comes late enough in the series that it isn’t the historically important work that the movie was, except perhaps for being the source material for the movie that had to be made before people like me would ever be allowed to enjoy Kommissar X films or Lightning Bolt. And once again, we find out that the movie follows the book very closely, with the only major changes being an increased role in the movie for iconic Bond girl Pussy Galore (who, in the book, is overtly referred to as a lesbian, where as her sexual orientation is just barely hinted at in the movie) and a different death for main villain Auric Goldfinger and equally iconic henchman Odd Job.
I said in the review of From Russia with Love that the ending made it feel like this was the first time Ian Fleming had reconciled himself with the fact that the current Bond book wasn’t going to be the final Bond book, and so he decided to throw a juicy “to be continued” twist in at the last moment. James Bond is down! Poisoned by a crafty Russian agent! Is he dead? What will happen? Proceed with haste to the next book to find out! Unfortunately, the cliffhanger is always better than the resolution, and Doctor No picks up the thread by basically going, “Boy, that sure was close, but now James is all better,” and away we go to Jamaica without much bother.
Diamonds are Forever was a bit of a sightseeing vacation for our intrepid 007, a breather author Ian Fleming took in between more substantial books. From Russia with Love finds Bond and the Bond books back in top form for one of the best-loved stories in the entire franchise, films and books. From Russia with Love certainly deserves its lofty ranking, though to be honest, at the end of the adventure, we have another sightseeing excursion for Bond, who operates here as more of a supporting character along for the ride while everyone else does all the work.