In 1953, Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale introduced one of the most popular literary characters ever: the secret agent with the blue eyes, black hair and “cruel mouth”, the persistent appetites (for women, food and that special “shaken, not stirred” martini) and the immortal line “Bond, James Bond”.
By the time Fleming, a former journalist and naval intelligence officer, died on 12 August 1964 at the age of 56, he had written 14 James Bond books and established the basis for his estate to manage the franchise. Fleming’s 007 prototype has proven, indestructible, surviving through 23 films and also 24 additional novels written by six successive authors (not including the movie novelisations).
The James Bond books have had their ups and downs. Fleming was a shrewd and perceptive chronicler of a Cold War world much more dangerous than ordinary citizens understood it to be. He created Bond as a blunt instrument wielded by his superiors to preserve and protect. Fleming fleshed out his 007 with a flair for clothes and cars, a powerful athleticism and a fondness for women paired with a tragic inability to maintain love. When Fleming’s Bond was caught, as he always was, the villain made him suffer. Readers knew that at some point, however, Bond would always prevail. Fleming’s work was noir with a safe landing at the end. He wrote with a rare combination of clarity, action, sensuous detail, wit and fantasy.
Kingsley Amis, author of the first post-Ian Fleming 007 novel and the first critical appraisal, The James Bond Dossier, coined the still useful term “The Fleming effect”, which he describes as “the imaginative use of information, whereby the pervading fantastic nature of Bond’s world, as well as the temporary, local, fantastic elements in the story, are bolted down in some sort of reality”. Some of Fleming’s successors come up short when it comes to the crucial balance between imagination, authenticity and believability. Many are influenced as much by the film versions as by Fleming himself. Some have replaced Fleming’s Cold War plots with alternative wartime scenarios, to varying degrees of success. A few have lost the daring and witty Fleming flavour altogether. The most successful maintain his taut action style while adding psychological depth and a contemporary sense of humour.
Here’s my ranking of the six authors to carry on Fleming’s literary legacy:
6. Raymond Benson
Benson, author of the reference book The James Bond Bedside Companion (1984), wrote six Bond books between 1996 and 2002. He had two directives, he notes in the introduction to Choice of Weapons, a compendium of three of his 007 novels: “Make the character of M a woman (to stay in synchronization with the Pierce Brosnan/Judi Dench films), and to somehow blend more contemporary elements (more action, gadgetry, humor).”
Zero Minus Ten, Benson’s first novel, was set just before the British handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. Bond ends up allied with the head of a Hong Kong triad in a race to keep the handover from becoming an explosive international disaster. Benson’s settings are effective, but he replaces Fleming’s pithy two-sentence backstories with pages of exposition that slow down the action. (Compare Benson’s 20-page scene covering the rules of Bond’s Macau mahjong game to Fleming’s four-page explanation of the game of baccarat in Casino Royale during a dinner followed by champagne, strawberries and avocado pear.) His Bond seems a hollow man, devoid of the animating sense of Bond’s actions that play such an important role in Fleming’s books.
5. Jeffrey Deaver
In Carte Blanche (2011), bestselling author Deaver, author of the bestselling series of thrillers featuring NYPD detective Lincoln Rhyme, takes Bond to Serbia, Dubai and South Africa to foil a “rag and bones” waste-disposal king with an unsavoury fascination for death and decay.
Deaver sets up his 21st Century Bond as a veteran of the Royal Naval Reserve in Afghanistan recruited to a new post-9/11 secret-agent role. Bond drinks craft bourbon (Baker’s, on ice, or the lighter Basil Hayden’s). His women are troubled. Deaver’s villain, the ghoulish Severan Hydt, relishes private moments with corpses from the killing fields he services (covering up genocide and murder through private recycling and waste removal). Creepy Hydt is a passive villain, hardly measuring up to Fleming’s ex-Nazi Hugo Drax, and the shape-shifting evil genius Ernst Stavro Blofeld, both of whom are entertaining baddies. Deaver’s is a dry read, thin in psychological and sensual texture, overloaded with acronyms that Deaver has to include a glossary.
4. John Gardner
Beginning with Licence Renewed in 1981, Gardner, a former Marine commando, espionage writer and author of a James Bond parody series about a cowardly British spy, wrote 14 James Bond novels. Gardner says he set out to "to transport 007 into the 1980s." He ,focussed mostly on nuclear threats and the machinations of SPECTRE (Fleming’s Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). Gardner introduces memorable American settings in For Special Services – a Louisiana bayou hideout guarded by giant pythons and a private Texas town where a resurrected SPECTRE’s top brass meet to plot destruction.
Gardner kept the thriller pace going. And he maintained Fleming’s approach and tone. But he lacked Fleming’s animating imagination and verbal panache. (A typical Gardner line: “James Bond was always amazed by New York.”) He gets extra points for endurance, though.
3. William Boyd
Literary star Boyd’s Solo, just out in paperback, is a well-crafted novel, set in 1969, with 007 on the front lines of a civil war between Zanzarim and Dahum, a semblance of Nigeria’s Biafran War of the late 1960s. Boyd’s villain – mercenary Kobus Breed, who treats his victims like fish, hooking them through the jaws and hanging them in trees – is suitably vile. And Boyd sketches in an authentically bumptious press corps. But the fictionalised African civil war seems a misstep. Bond’s directive, to intervene in favour of oil interests on behalf of the US and the UK, while plausible, lends 007’s mission a moral ambiguity that may be appropriate to the historic moment, but not to Bond as we have known him.
2. Kingsley Amis, writing as Robert Markham
Amis’s novel Colonel Sun, the first post-Fleming 007 book, finds M rendered powerless after being kidnapped by Colonel Sun of China’s People’s Liberation Army. Bond teams up with Ariadne, an alluring Greek communist, as he unravels a Chinese plot to deal a blow to Russia and lay the blame on Britain.
Amis set out to defy the “adolescent fantasy” of the Bond films. He dismissed the cinematic 007 as “that rakish non-entity who drops yobbo-style throwaways out of the corner of his mouth before or after escaping by personal jet-pack or submersible-car fitted with missile-launchers….” Amis’s Bond realises, grimly, “that the tools he basically had to depend on were invisible, intangible, inside himself”.
This is a somber Bond, with painful memories and a future clouded by the rise of new enemies in the sabotage game. Amis captures Fleming’s elegantly tight style, his carefully etched characters and panoramic views of Athens and the invented Aegean island of Vrakonisi. He gets the details right as Bond samples ouzo, retsina, crayfish and olives. He adds psychological depth by giving Bond complex reactions to fear, pain and killing, and threading a personal revenge motive through the narrative. Amis balances well the Fleming formula a reviewer identified in a 1958 review of Dr No: “sex, sadism, snobbery”.
1. Sebastian Faulks
Faulks’ Devil May Care was published in 2008 to honor the centenary of Fleming’s birth. Faulks, a well-respected literary author, maintains Fleming’s Cold War timeframe, setting the novel in the late 1960s in Paris, Rome, Tehran and Moscow. Bond is following Dr Julius Gorner, a pharmaceutical company head involved in global heroin distribution. Faulks brings a welcome fluidity to Bond’s thoughts and actions, and creates a strong, versatile character in Bond’s love interest, Scarlett Papava.
Faulks tops my list because he succeeded in his stated mission to stay faithful to three enduring elements of Fleming’s Bond books: “the sense of jeopardy Fleming creates about his solitary hero; a certain playfulness in the narrative details; and a crisp, journalistic style that hasn’t dated”. In keeping with Fleming’s Bond, Faulks creates a character, as Kingsley Amis put it, capable of “indignation, compunction, remorse, tenderness and a protective instinct towards defenseless creatures”. Devil May Care is the best Bond reboot to date.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.