Novel man

James Bond - William Cook on how Ian Fleming's 007 books are finally catching up with the films

When Ian Fleming died, 40 years ago this summer, only one of his James Bond stories had reached the big screen. Today the films have eclipsed his novels, and Bond has become a cinematic icon rather than a literary one. However, the books, not the movies, are where Fleming's real Bond resides, and this month Penguin has unveiled classy new editions of his 007 oeuvre. It's a timely accolade for a critically neglected author whose fiction reads as a metaphor for Britain's decorous decline and fall.

When Ian Lancaster Fleming was born, in 1908, the British empire seemed unassailable, and Fleming's background - Eton and Sandhurst, followed by stints at Reuters and the Foreign Office - reinforced the sense that Britain was God's kingdom, the world's greatest superpower, and its moral compass. During the Second World War, Fleming hobnobbed with admirals as deputy to the director of Naval Intelligence. "One should only call two men Sir," quipped Fleming. "God and the King."

However, after the war, Britain suffered a crisis of confidence, and so did Fleming. A desk job at the Sunday Times was fairly glamorous by normal standards, but his standards were hardly those of normal men. Even his distinguished wartime service couldn't temper this discreet mid-life crisis, which mimicked the post-imperial menopause of his beloved Britain. "He was the man behind the desk who sent younger men off to kill and be killed," wrote John Pearson in The Life of Ian Fleming, his fine biography, published in 1966 and recently republished by Aurum. "This troubled him and left him with the secret fear that, unlike those brave young men and his own heroic father, he lacked physical courage and the killer instinct."

Fleming had something else on his mind, too. Until his forties, he was a professional bachelor - "something more than a philanderer," as Pearson put it, "something less than a rake". Yet at the none-too-tender age of 43, he agreed to marry the love of his life, Lady Anne Rothermere (wife of the press baron), once her divorce came through. In 1952, as marriage loomed, Fleming retreated to his holiday home, Goldeneye in Jamaica, and wrote Casino Royale. Fleming wanted to dedicate his first book to his wife, but she wasn't keen. "Surely, Ian, it's not the sort of book one dedicates to anyone?" she said. Fleming's books have since sold 60 million copies. There is still no dedication on the flyleaf of Casino Royale.

James Bond is the culmination of an important but much-maligned tradition in English literature. As a boy, Fleming devoured the Bulldog Drummond tales of Lieutenant Colonel Herman Cyril McNeile (aka "Sapper") and the Richard Hannay stories of John Buchan. His genius was to repackage these antiquated adventures to fit the fashion of postwar Britain, at a time when the patriotic certainties championed in these Boys' Own romps were under fresh assault from a new liberal elite. In this respect, like all good writers, Fleming was innovative and conservative. Aptly, the Listener called him a supersonic Buchan. In Bond, he created a Bulldog Drummond for the jet age.

The Listener wasn't the only posh paper to praise Casino Royale. The TLS called it "exciting and extremely civilised". With his indifference to character and his casual fascination with cruelty, Fleming was arguably the first modern thriller writer - as revolutionary, in his own way, as Erskine Childers half a century before. No wonder it took him so long to sell the film rights. Fleming was old-fashioned, but Bond was avant-garde.

If Fleming was born when the British empire was at its apex, Bond was born just as its power began to wane. Bond pandered to Britain's inflated and increasingly insecure self-image, flattering us with the fantasy that Britannia could still punch above her weight. Bond may have been a one-man band, but as he toured the colonies that Britain had ceded to America, readers at home were reassured that at least we'd retained our sense of style. He epitomised the cosy fiction of the lopsided Anglo-American alliance. The Yanks might have become the masters, but only the Brits really knew how to behave.

Writers are always told to write about what they know, but readers often prefer to read about the unfamiliar and the exotic, and Fleming soon realised he'd acquired a readership utterly estranged from the life he wrote about. When his first Bond book was published, meat, coal and even butter were still rationed. "The combination of sex, violence, alcohol and - at intervals - good food and nice clothes is, to one who lives such a circumscribed life as I do, irresistible," wrote Hugh Gaitskell, thanking Fleming for an advance copy of Dr No. Even more than the films, the Bond books are about conspicuous consumption. It is their most contemporary feature. Brand names abound. The writer whom Flem-ing most resembles in this regard isn't Buchan but Bret Easton Ellis. Like the hero of American Psycho, Bond is more interested in things - especially expensive things - than he is in people.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Gaitskell. Malcolm Muggeridge and Evelyn Waugh both looked down on Bond, and Paul Johnson, writing in this magazine, decried the "sex, snobbery and sadism" of Dr No. The sex and snobbery were nothing new, but the sadism was. Bond's Britain could no longer afford to be chivalrous. Fleming was a bastion of the British establishment, but there's something alien and underhand about Bond. He is not quite a gentleman.

In most respects, however, Bond and Fleming had a lot in common. They were the same height. They wore the same clothes. They smoked the same cigarettes. They ate the same food. Fleming had no licence to kill, but he was an accomplished ladykiller, with a hard, seductive face like Bond's. Both men were half Scots, both lost their fathers early, and both of them had gone to Eton (though Bond left in a hurry after an incident with a maid). Both men rose to the rank of commander in the Royal Navy. The books were Fleming's secret autobiography. Bond was Hyde to his Jekyll, the picture in his attic, a portrait of the tougher, meaner man he might have been.

Nowadays it's impossible to separate Fleming's alter ego from the men who've played him in the movies. Fleming liked the idea of David Niven, James Stewart, Richard Burton or James Mason. Rex Harrison and Trevor Howard were also considered for the role. However, the part eventually went to a relative unknown called Sean Connery. And even though Connery hasn't played Bond for 20 years, he's still irrevocably associated with 007.

Niven played Bond once, in 1967, in Casino Royale - an uneven spoof with Woody Allen. There's no knowing what Fleming would have thought of it. By then, he'd already been dead for a few years. "Life failed to come up to the dream he had of it," said Noel Coward, but his life was better than most daydreams. Without the movies, he'd have sold fewer books, but he'd be taken far more seriously by the cognoscenti. Class-bound Britain rarely holds bestsellers in high regard, bestselling thrillers least of all.

Raymond Chandler called Fleming the most forceful thriller writer in England. It's high time he shared some of Chandler's highbrow acclaim.

The Bond books are republished this month in paperback by Penguin Modern Classics (£7.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 June 2004 issue of the New Statesman, A dangerous time to be a Jew