Moonraker by Ian Fleming (1955)
For most people, if you mention Moonraker they will immediately think of the 1979 film adaptation that is widely regarded as the worst of the entire Eon Productions Bond series. This is a pity because first, I think that it was only the second worst of the series (Octopussy was flat-out boring) and second, the original novel is widely thought the best of Fleming's Bond books.
Moonraker tells a very straightforward tale about how Bond becomes involved in the case of Hugo Drax; an industrialist who is paying out of his own pocket for the construction of a nuclear missile called Moonraker that he plans to hand over to the British government. A former British soldier who was badly wounded during the war, Drax went from being a horribly scarred amnesiac to one of the great successes of 1950s Britain. To the public, he is a flamboyant, larger than life character who shows that anyone can succeed if they have a bit of drive. To the government, he's the potential savior of the nation. To 007's boss M, there's something fishy about Drax. Why? Because he cheats at cards.
So begins Bond's adventure that starts with his uncovering Drax's card sharping at a posh London club and ends up at the Moonraker test site where the security chief was apparently murdered over a girl a few days before the first test launch. The fact that the man and the girl were both Special Branch undercover agents and that the murderer shouted "Heil Hitler" before turning his gun on itself shows that there is more going on at the Moonraker project than meets the eye.
Despite its economical plot, Moonraker works because of Fleming's remarkable powers of description that can turn one of Bond's meals into fascinating glimpse into a world that few people could experience in his day and is largely lost in the 21st century. Then there is Fleming's his ability to draw vivid characters. The James Bond of the books is not the near self-parody of the films, but rather a complex character with his own doubts and powerful motives that both propel him forward and blind him to important clues. His relationship is far from the bed-them-and-leave-them encounters that his cinematic counterpart indulges in and there is even a bit of poignancy in the mix. Hugo Drax, on the other hand is a frightening character who is rather like sharing the stage with a time bomb. It's apparent from our first meeting with him that there is something repellent about the man, but he remains intriguing as Fleming piques our curiosity about what makes this creature tick.
The highlight of the book comes in the early part when Bond confronts Drax over a game of bridge. I know nothing about the game and when I first read the book as a teenager I was tempted to skip over the chapter, but I soon discovered Fleming's way of making something as commonplace as a parlour game into something as serious as a duel with pistols. What begins as an attempt by Bond to figure out whether or not Drax is a cheat rapidly evolves under Fleming's hand into a personal battle between two powerful personalities who have staked their manhood and a small fortune on the outcome. It is certainly one of the most remarkable passages ever to grace the thriller genre. Small wonder that it ends with a defeated Drax hissing "I should spend the money quickly, Commander Bond."
High living, beautiful women, a plot involving a nuclear missile and a thoroughly nasty villain; what more could one ask of a Bond novel?