I recently finished reading the original James Bond books - a set of 14 novels and short story collections by Ian Fleming. Most people’s knowledge of the famous agent is based on the movies, which are certainly a fine testament to the timelessness of spy thrillers. But the novels offer something quite a bit more, and quite a bit different.
Ian Fleming wasn't by nature a "thriller" writer. Instead he was an ambitious journalist with a fascinating life who, later upon retirement, used his vast experiences to develop one of the greatest fictional characters of the 21st Century. In short, Ian Fleming is my literary hero.
The Bond novels also mark Fleming as, unexpectedly, one of the best travel writers of our time. Each novel generally takes place in two or three locations and, like any good secret agent, Bond is meticulous in learning the local culture. These descriptions of faraway lands and extraordinary people are strikingly vivid. Fleming writes with journalistic zest and clarity, and through Bond’s missions the reader meets unusual people, learns exotic customs, and sees breathtaking sites. I’ve been inspired to travel to locations I’d never even considered after reading one of Fleming’s stories, and even after seeing a spot for myself, it tends to forever exist in my mind under the first impression I was given by James Bond.
Fleming's life was every bit as interesting as Bond’s. He was part of the British Naval Intelligence during World War II, and afterward as the Cold War escalated, he stayed involved in current affairs by working in foreign bureaus of various newspapers. He eventually retired to the Caribbean, on an estate called Goldeneye in Jamaica, where he created James Bond along with other stories for adults and children alike. He died in 1964, two years after the first Bond movie Doctor No was produced.
True to journalistic form, Fleming's Bond novels tell a distinct story and are meant to be read in chronological order. We are introduced to James in Book 1: Casino Royale. World War II has just ended, and Bond is a tired soldier who suffers from a number of emotional stresses resulting from his combat experiences. He is asked by the British Secret Service to continue his career in the military by assisting in a mission to bring down a Soviet agent in Europe, and he reluctantly agrees.
As most remember from the 2006 Daniel Craig film, Bond falls in love with his partner Vesper Lynde, who tragically turns out to be a double agent. Her love for Bond is real, however, and in the end she'd rather commit suicide than work against him. Losing Vesper is what turns Bond into a cold, hard assassin. He pledges his loyalty to M and vows to spend his life avenging her death... and here we have the setup for 13 more tremendous Bond adventures.
Flemings history in the military are obvious in the novels. They are highly technical and detailed, outlining the many strategies and people involved in executing a mission. And they are written more or less in real time, with various footnotes that clarify certain events or background information for the reader. (The novels are similar to how the television show Law & Order was created – fictional characters and stories inserted into actual current events.)
While Truman Capote is credited with developing the genre of Creative Nonfiction, Ian Fleming's work on Bond is not far away. How many secret Naval Intelligence missions did Fleming witness that made their way into Bond's service record? What of Fleming's travels did he find the most exotic? or the most dangerous? These answers are revealed in the details of the life of a secret agent "who every man wants to be, and every woman wants between her sheets." So for those journalists who are looking to expand into something a bit more thrilling, like a work of fiction, pick up a 007 novel the next time you're in the bookstore. The stylish way that this journalist used his skills might just inspire your next writing project.