This Year’s Best James Bond Adventure Wasn’t In a Movie

Outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the James Bond film franchise is arguably the most enduring blockbuster series of movie sequels, ever. And yet its source material, the original books by Ian Fleming, doesn’t command the same reputation as other heavily adapted authors like J.R.R. Tolkien or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As British literary exports go, Bond is unique insofar as Americans who love the movies seem deeply uncurious about the books. From 1953 to 1966, Ian Fleming wrote twelve James Bond novels and two short story collections. But when it comes to Thunderball or Moonraker, finding someone who says “the book was better” is nearly as unlikely as Bond getting through the day without a cocktail.

So the question is: if you’ve skipped the Bond books, should you read them? Maybe not! Although Fleming was a pioneer of espionage literature who essentially revolutionized the page-turner, it’s very hard to make a strong case that a contemporary reader (or casual Bond fan) will love reading the Fleming-Bond for one simple reason: many of the books are dated to the point of (sometimes) being offensive. While a case can be made for individual novels (again, Moonraker and Thunderball are great, as is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), others, like Live and Let Die (1954) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1962), can only be read with a bag over your head. To really enjoy yourself and feel good about the world at the same time, you really have to cherry-pick your vintage Bond books pretty carefully. But there’s a solution to this problem. If you’re looking for official James Bond books that are actually, legitimately great and not as problematic as their literary forebears, three much newer novels—all published between 2015 and 2022—are damn near perfect.

That’s right: in order to get the best book-Bond fix available right now, the curious reader may actually want to start their print 007 adventure with three wonderful books all written by Anthony Horowitz. These books are Trigger Mortis (2015), Forever and Day (2018), and the last of the Horowitz trio, With a Mind to Kill, which was published in May 2022.

Trigger Mortis

Trigger Mortis

Trigger Mortis

To be clear, Horowitz is in no way the first author anointed by the Fleming estate to continue the adventures of James Bond in book form. That tradition started in 1968 when Kingsley Amis wrote the 007 book Colonel Sun under the pen name “Robert Markham,” just four years after his friend’s death in 1964. But for Bond fans, all the “continuation” books are interesting, and the committed 007 completist will find strong entries like John Gardner’s License Renewed (1981) or William Boyd’s Solo (2013).

What makes the Horowitz books so compelling and unique is that they really feel like modern versions of Fleming’s texts. Horowitz is the only Bond continuation author who was able to use unpublished Ian Fleming material and weave it into wholly original adventures. In Trigger Mortis, this results in some actual Fleming prose lifted from a manuscript called “Hell on Wheels,” which gives one racecar sequence a heart-stopping zing. In Forever and a Day, some of Fleming’s travelogue prose is incorporated, as are some concepts from an unmade James Bond TV series. While these details give the Horowitz Bond novels an extra touch of legitimacy, you’d hardly notice which aspects came from Horowitz and which came from Fleming. The prose style of these books is perfect. If Horowitz were James Bond’s tailor, he’d be like Eva Green in the 2006 movie version of Casino Royale, able to size up Bond and create the perfect suit for him with just one glance.

Part of the reason Horowitz’s books serve as a kind of alternate introduction to Fleming-Bond is that each of his books takes place within the chronology of the original novel series, which means we’re usually in the late 1950s. His first book, Trigger Mortis, is all about Bond going undercover as a racecar driver at the French Grand Prix (really!) and is set just after the conclusion of Goldfinger. The second book, Forever and a Day, takes place prior to Casino Royale and focuses on Bond’s first pre00 agent mission, in which he’s investigating the murder of the last agent to carry the number “007.” Finally, the newest book, With a Mind to Kill, picks up the pieces from the last Bond novel Fleming wrote: the widely uneven The Man With the Golden Gun.

Forever and a Day

Forever and a Day

Forever and a Day

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Although Horowitz is a huge fan of the original Fleming books, his books subvert much of what Bond stood for in the 1950s and 1960s. He may not admit it, but Horowitz’s books are a true reassessment of how James Bond connects to UK colonialism, Cold War machismo, and outright sexism. The viewpoint of these books feels like a 21st-century lens, even though you’re reading historical fiction. And because the artifice of the books acknowledges that retrospective, an inherent critique of Bond runs through each novel.

Case-in-point: the latest book, With a Mind to Kill, has several Easter eggs that reference the books of John le Carré, a spy novelist who many, correctly, would consider the antithesis of Ian Fleming. In the spy universe of le Carré, a figure like James Bond couldn’t exist, because Bond’s flamboyance would be wildly impractical to getting any real spying done. And yet, in With a Mind to Kill, Horowitz takes the hard reality of le Carré’s masterpiece, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and imagines what it would be like for Bond. What if Bond did have to pretend like he was going to defect to the USSR for like an entire book? What would that feel like? Complete with close-calls at Berlin Wall checkpoints and moments where the reader isn’t quite sure what Bond is up to, it’s impossible for spy novel fans to read With a Mind to Kill and not imagine Fleming and le Carré getting drunk and just deciding to do a mash-up. But if you’ve also never read From Russian With Love (Fleming) or The Call for the Dead (le Carré), then With a Mind to Kill could be your gateway drug to both.

With his jolts of realism, it’s tempting to say that Horowitz has done for the new James Bond books what the Daniel Craig movies did for the film franchise. But it’s actually a little more interesting and nuanced than that. By merging Fleming’s propulsive sense of storytelling with the mind-puzzles of le Carré, Horowitz has created the James Bond books Fleming should have written. In Trigger Mortis, Horowitz briefly gives us a moment where Bond spares the life of a nameless henchman, mostly because Horowitz believes—as Fleming claimed—that Bond is not really a sadist. “It disturbs him to kill people,” Fleming told Playboy in 1964, a notion that Horowitz plays with in Forever and a Day when we first get that sense of Bond’s revealing numbness. After a particularly brutal killing, Horowitz tells us Bond “felt nothing,” which is another way of saying, Bond is really screwed up.

With a Mind to Kill

With a Mind to Kill

With a Mind to Kill

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In addition to the flashes of psychological realism, Horowitz’s Bond is also more politically progressive by default, mostly because this version of Bond doesn’t only encounter homosexual villains, but instead has cool gay friends like the agent Charles Henry Duggan, introduced in Trigger Mortis. As Duggan says to Bond, “The trouble with you, James, is you’re basically a prude.” It’s a smart inversion of our perception of the famous secret agent. It’s not that James Bond is this sex god, able to do whatever he wants. He’s actually kind of vanilla. This is why, at the end of Fleming’s Moonraker, Bond is super-sad that Gala Brand doesn’t want to be his girlfriend. In fact, the ending of Moonraker— “He touched her for the last time and then they turned away from each other and walked off into their different lives”—actually proves that Fleming nestled a sad version of Bond inside the more confident one we’re familiar with. But Horowitz is consistently better at making you believe that Bond is there; he removes the matryoshka doll lid more often, revealing the smaller Bond beneath. But not so often as to prevent the escapist adventure from happening.

Because Forever and Day is a prequel, we get a slightly more tender James Bond—this time, he falls for an older woman (with the awesome name of Sixtine) who he knows is bad for him. It’s a Mrs. Robinson trick that shouldn’t work, but it does anyway, partially because Horowitz is just as great at describing wine, food, and locales as Fleming was. In fact, the best scene in Forever and Day might be when Bond and Sixtine have some salad and wine at her villa. It’s sexy, down-to-earth, exciting, and relatable all at the same time. Although the films have a reputation for bombastic action set pieces, the allure of the novels can mostly be found in their exacting descriptions of everyday tasks. Bond controls every movement, from the exact arrangement of his morning eggs to his famously duplicitous showers—hot at first, but super cold at the last second. In short, what was great about Fleming wasn’t the fantasy that a secret agent can sleep around all the time or visit exotic locales, but instead, that person can control their daily routine to the smallest detail. Bond is the ultimate optimizer, something that maybe felt glamorous in the 1950s, but perhaps scans as a bit anal and inflexible now. In the ‘50s, Bond was cool for his quotidian obsession with minutiae. But now, it’s more of a quirk, and it’s in that quirk that Horowitz finds interesting gaps in his armor. While some could probably read a Bond novel in which things just kind of went well for 007 for 200 pages, it’s the things that upset Bond’s routines that are so compelling—and paradoxically, comforting.

In the 2021 movie No Time To Die, James Bond (Daniel Craig) lost so spectacularly that he actually died while saving the world, but Horowitz doesn’t go quite that far. The 007 of these novels still tends to win, but only just barely. And yet, there’s a sense of dread that hangs over all of Bond’s minor victories in these books. It’s like the clock is ticking until this kind of anti-hero is no longer able to get away with murder, which is exactly how the trick of truly great spy novels works. The reader thinks all things will be one way, until of course, they’re not that way at all. Many of the old Ian Fleming paperbacks had the words “A James Bond Thriller” running vertically down the front cover. We call them thrillers because we expect a thrill, but we’re not sure what the thrill will be. It’s in that moment of anticipation and surprise that the Horowitz Bond novels hit the target every time.

Ryan Britt is the author of the new book Phasers On Stun! How the Making and Remaking of Star Trek Changed the World, an editor at Fatherly, and a writer for Inverse and Den of Geek! 

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