Every three years or so I reread the original James Bond novels. Each time their world becomes more and more distant to ours. A world of casual racism where lesbianism could be cured by a strong man. A world where it was possible to smoke seventy a day and drink all night, yet remain physically fit. A world without mobile phones where only the rich used aeroplanes. Arguably the series offers more to the historian than the reader, but they remain popular.
This isn’t due to the films, many of which have no resemblance to the books, Fleming’s journalistic prose or his vivid descriptions of exotic places. No, it is because they are a series where the protagonist develops. Most other recurring characters in literature and television from the 1950s and 1960s are static, think Hercule Poirot, Inspector West and Harold Steptoe. Each featured in many adventures, but the focus was on the story, not them. It does not matter what order you read the Poirot novels in. He is the same character, with a few concessions to age. The Bond novels can be read in isolation but make more sense in sequence.
As the series progresses Bond changes from the man damaged by the girl who betrayed him to one who hunts down his wife’s killer. Each novel develops the character, telling his story. In today’s world of arcs, where narrative is often secondary to character, this is expected in both television and literature. Then it was unusual and explains why the Bond novels are still cherished in such a different world.