Not long after my parents had relocated the family from the cold, damp and impressively windy Highlands of Scotland to the less cold, only marginally less damp, but no-doubt-about-it impressively windy island of Jersey, I was invited to a rich classmate's seventh birthday party. You could tell he was rich since on the way home from school in my parents' car we passed his house. This took a while.
The signature feature of this boy's party was something so unimaginably cool that I still think of it now with fondness and envy: a home cinema. Now this wasn't some tarted-up plasma screen under a ridiculous nom de guerre available on special offer at Curries. This was the mid-1970s. A home cinema meant a roll-up screen and stand, a 16mm projector, speakers and reels of film. In his house. My jaw drops still when I think about it.
Anyway, the home cinema treated us to an abridged twenty-minute version of Live and Let Die. Being six at the time, I loved every butchered minute of it. No matter that it was one sixth the length of the original, featured cartoon-Bond Roger Moore - yet to succumb to the claggy embrace of a safari suit - and clearly could not have made any sense whatsoever. At that age as long as some things got smashed up and people got hit in an entertaining way, what was not to like?
A few years later my mother gave me a book club edition that featured two James Bond novels, Dr No and From Russia with Love. On the cover was a poorly cutout bikini-clad Ursula Andress - from that still - emerging from the water pasted on top of a scarlet background. Being a book club edition it was a hardback. Being a book club edition every other expense had been spared. You could tell because they'd managed to place the novels out of order. This might not have mattered but for the fact that frequently in Fleming's Bond books one story leads directly onto the next. In this case, From Russia with Love ends with a cliffhanger putting the survival of Bond in doubt, while Dr No begins by recounting the agent's recovery. Or, if you were reading my book club version, at the beginning Bond gets better from the poisoning he will receive some 500 pages later. Such unconventional linearity gave Bond an unexpected modernist slant.
However, it is this sort of basic inattention to details that has often been all too obvious in past editions. For much of the forty-four years since his death his books have been treated by a succession of publishers rather like that bizarre home cinema experience: a fast, enjoyable thrill not to be taken too seriously or paid much attention to, and something that is certainly not for adults.
The centenary of Fleming's birth was clearly a good time to revisit the Bonds and cover them in a package that says, yes these are fun, but also makes it implicit that there's no reason not to take them seriously. Most importantly, they should look like books worth owning.
To that end Michael Gillette was commissioned to paint fourteen iconic covers. The books were numbered on their spines so it's not hard to read them in order (if you're traditionally minded). The blurbs, adapted from earlier Penguin editions, were themed around the new unified concept. Fourteen book biographies, one for each back flap, replaced the usual author biography (which is found on page one). A short extract from each book graces the back cover. They were made into demi-format hardbacks to be not so much collectible as bloody irresistible.
Having worked on the Bond novels on and off for eight years – and these are the fourth set Penguin have done in that time – I can attest to their enduring appeal. And you won't find a safari suit in sight.
The new Bond hardbacks are published on May 29th. More information available here.