Casino Royale (1953)
The first and arguably the best Bond of all. 007 saves the world by playing cards with SMERSH agent Le Chiffre. Bond is dismayed when he's assigned the beautiful, but distinctly female, Vesper Lynd as a partner. As romance rises, so does the likelihood for betrayal. Sharply plotted, strong characters and written with pitiless clarity.
This list could easily include Thunderball or Dr No, but Goldfinger wins for its brace of villains, the titular Auric Goldfinger, modelled on architect Erno, and his ball-crushing henchman, Odd Job. There are also wondrous set pieces: confrontations over cards and golf. Add Pussy Galore and her lesbian burglars and what more could you want?
From Russia With Love (1957)
After the weakish Diamonds are Forever, Bond hits top form with another SMERSH face-off. Declared an enemy of Russia, 007 is sentenced to death and pursued by assassins Kronsteen and Rosa Kreb. A tale of satisfying double bluff, not least with Tatiana Romanova. The novel was a personal favourite of John F. Kennedy and Fleming himself.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963)
That oddest of all the Bond instalments: one that is emotionally moving as well as viscerally thrilling. The enemy is Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE group, the heroine is Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, or 'Tracy. The two collide in the finale, where the newly married Mrs Bond is gunned down by a wrathful Blofeld. Bond's final line, '... we've got all the time in the world' is enough to break even the hardest of hearts.
You Only Live Twice (1964)
The sequel to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and the final part of the Blofeld trilogy that began with Thunderball. Devastated following his wife's murder, Bond is offered a chance for redemption and revenge by Tiger Tanaka, of Japan's secret service. This leads to a confrontation with Dr Guntram Shatterhand, aka Ernst Blofeld. Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay.