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Wondering what Bond novel you should read? We picked out the five best

There are approximately 39 Bond books, not counting the spin-offs. Here are the only five you need to read

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Wondering what Bond novel you should read? We picked out the five best

With Spectre looming ominously, those whose only encounter with James Bond is via the most damnably persistent movie franchise in history may be wondering about Ian Fleming's original creation. Where did Bond come from? Why did Bond happen? Which (if any) of the books are worth reading?

James Bond was the creation of Ian Fleming, a journalist who'd been in British Naval Intelligence during WWII and who, after the war, longed for a way to keep the excitement going. Bond was named after the author of a book on West Indian birds because Fleming thought that his creation ought to be 'an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened', and James Bond was about the dullest name he could imagine.

The Bond of the book is in general less unflappable and more ambiguous than the movie version. Fleming was famous for lavishing more attention on things than on characterisation, and his Bond is a discriminating consumer: coffee brewed in a Chemex; eggs boiled for exactly 3 minutes 20 seconds (very soft indeed); a briefcase from Swaine and Adeney. Bond's favourite handgun is not the long-barrelled phallic symbols that have cropped up in the movies but a dinky little Beretta, which he only reluctantly gives up because it's unreliable.

Fleming's Bond also has a self-denying, puritanical streak, which most later writers fail to catch. In an amusing scene at the beginning of 1959's Goldfinger, an American businessman treats Bond to a lavish meal of crabs and champagne, after which 007 despises himself for his own gluttony.

Bond's career arc in the books is literally arc-shaped: in the last three novels his wife dies, he loses both his double-O status and his memory, and he's captured by the Russkies, brainwashed and sent back to Britain to assassinate M. The actual mission of the final book is a squalid little hit job which he's sent on in an attempt to partially redeem himself.

The Bond novels were conceived and written as glossy airport thrillers, but they become truly interesting when Fleming's obsessions and quirks led him to betray more than was strictly necessary. That's why nobody needs to read the non-Fleming novels, which at best are skilled pastiche and at worst workmanlike thrillers where the hero happens to be called James Bond. Having said that, two of the most celebrated Fleming books, From Russia, With Love and Goldfinger, are severely flawed; Tatiana Romanova in the former is flaky, dim-witted and an utterly unconvincing KGB agent, while Goldfinger suffers from plot holes you could fly a blimp through and its sexual politics are just skin-crawlingly wrong.

These five are the Bond books most worth a go:

1. Casino Royale (1953)
The first novel is the darkest and coldest. If you've seen the 2006 film then you pretty much know the plot: Bond goes to a casino to out-gamble enemy masterspy Le Chiffre, and gets brutally whacked in the nuts by a carpet beater for his trouble. (Trivia fact: Fleming and his wife Ann shared an interest in spanking.) The fate of Vesper, the first ever Bond girl, causes Bond to utter one of his most callous final lines.

2. Moonraker (1955)
In the only Bond novel set entirely in England, 007 investigates a shooting at a rocket site and uncovers a diabolical plot to blow up London. An early sequence set in M's club contains one of the most mouthwatering Bondian dinners, as well as a bridge game which is simultaneously nailbiting and incomprehensible. The heroine, a policewoman, is spunky, sensible and tough, and even though she and Bond lose all their clothes at one point, the UST remains refreshingly U throughout.

3. Dr. No (1958)
Dr. No was originally a screenplay, and it's got spectacular visual set-pieces such as Bond crawling along a tubular obstacle course. Also memorable for a classic moment of sexual ambiguity: on observing the heroine emerging from the sea, Bond can't help admiring the way her bottom resembles a boy's, which prompted Noel Coward to ask Fleming 'Really, old chap, what could you have been thinking of?'

4. For Your Eyes Only (1960)
This collection of short stories sees Fleming being experimental. 'From a View to a Kill' is a straightforward cold war tale, but 'For Your Eyes Only' and 'The Hildebrand Rarity' are about abused women seeking revenge, and 'Quantum of Solace' is a quietly brutal tale of a failed marriage, which is told to Bond at a party.

5. Thunderball (1961)
The funniest Bond book, this starts with an out-of-shape 007 packed off to a health farm, whereupon he drives his housekeeper off her nut with his new addiction to crispbread. It rapidly morphs into a very dark screwball comedy, with the ostensible nuclear-weapon-theft plot sidetracked in favour of Bond and the heroine giving each other plenty of Hawksian sass. Felix Leiter's sour amusement is very welcome and the abused Domino turns out to be a dab hand with a spear gun.

The latest Bond novel, Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis, is out now.

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