This novel may come as a surprise if you mostly know of James Bond from the movie series. First published in 1964 — the same year that its author, Ian Fleming, died — "You Only Live Twice" adds elegiac gloom to the spy-thriller formula.

You Only Live Twice, by Ian Fleming

160 pages.
Signet Books, Fiction.

After archvillain Blofeld murdered Bond's wife, 007 becomes a broken man who bungles his assignments. On a last-chance mission to Tokyo he is offered access to Japanese intelligence in exchange for completing a covert mission. Bond must assassinate Dr. Shatterhand, a mysterious botanist who has created a poisonous "Garden of Death" in a castle on the Fukuoka coast. The deadly garden attracts macabre tourists aiming to kill themselves, which doesn't stop Bond attempting to infiltrate it with pearl-diver bombshell Kissy Suzuki.

Fleming renders Japan in lavish, ethnocentric detail, leaving no cliche unexploited. "Bondo-san" meets sake-pouring geisha, a gaggle of ninja, and a boisterous Aussie expat — but also the memorable Tiger Tanaka, an Oxford-educated former kamikaze and now chief of the Japanese Secret Service. Tanaka, scornful of the American Occupation, seems to embody Japan's struggle to regain international relevance.

At times, Fleming seems keener here on travelogue anthropology than potboiler thrills. Still, we get one of his most gripping showdowns in the nightmarish Garden of Death, where Bond may yet get his revenge against Dr. Shatterhand — who is none other than Blofeld in disguise!

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