Live And Let Die, by Ian Fleming
April, 1964 Signet Books
(Original UK edition 1954)
The second volume of Ian Fleming’s James Bond is worlds better than the first one, in my opinion. While I found Casino Royale a tepid bore, Live And Let Die offers everything one thinks of when one thinks “James Bond.” Everything is here, from the pulpish main villain with his assorted henchmen and deadly gadgets to the exotic babe Bond tangles with. And Bond himself comes off as the Bond we all know and love, less the dandified wuss of the previous book.
This is another Bond I’d never read, as I was never able to find a copy of it when I was a kid. I’d seen the movie many times, though, as it was one of the few I owned on VHS. Even then I somehow was aware that Live And Let Die the book was much different than the movie, in particular some nasty things that happen to Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter (things which didn’t occur until the ’89 Bond film License To Kill). Reading the novel for the first time, what most surprised me was how similar it was to what eventually became “the” Bond template, of our hero starting out in the “real world” of espionage before venturing further into adventure pulp. In many ways this novel is similar to the later Doctor No.
It’s early January, not too long after Casino Royale (the events of which are barely and only vaguely mentioned, as if Fleming too wanted to forget about them), and Bond has fully recovered from the injuries he endured, even getting skin grafted on the back of his scarred hand. He has a burning yearning to harm SMERSH; the stated reason is revenge for the operative who cut up the back of Bond’s hand, but one could figure it’s more so because Bond is still grieving over Vesper Lynn’s betrayal and wants to lash out at her employer. So M figures Bond will be thrilled at this latest case.
The Bond-M meeting, which is given a little more spotlight this time, sets the pace for future volumes, and these have always been some of my favorite moments of the series. I think O.F. Snelling in his 1964 book 007 James Bond: A Report was spot on when he said that M is “something like that hoary old martinet of an English gentleman created and played by C. Aubrey Smith in so many Hollywood films before and during the War.” I can easily picture M as looking like C. Aubrey Smith in my mind’s eye (and certainly I’ve never pictured him as a woman!), and I’ve always enjoyed the occasional father-son dynamic between him and Bond.
Anyway, this brings us to the villian of the piece, Mr. Big, who in the novel is more like Doctor No than the almost caricature of a villain we got in the Live And Let Die film. This Mr. Big is a giant with “gray-black” skin like “the face of a week-old corpse in the river.” M’s briefing has it that Big, who is “half Negro and half French,” got his start in the crime world in Harlem before working for the OSS in WWII. During these years he became friendly with a Russian operative, after which Big apparently spent five years in Moscow. Now – and this is the carrot M dangles in front of Bond – Big is apparently an operative of SMERSH. He’s also a self-styled voodoo leader of his superstitious followers, proclaiming himself as the zombie of voodoo god Baron Samedi.
The book is a bit longer than Casino Royale but moves a lot faster, save for the odd moments where Fleming lets his newspaperman past get the better of him, like when he shoehorns in a long excerpt from some travel book on voodoo. Thus M’s briefing is pretty concise, and goes that Big is financing Communist activities via ancient coins he’s pillaged from a pirate treasure possibly somewhere in Jamaica. Off Bond goes to New York, tracing the coin pipeline from where it first appeared in Harlem. He’s reunited with affable Texan CIA agent Felix Leiter, and Fleming again does a nice job of making the Americans seem like good guys; Bond clearly likes Leiter, and there’s none of the now-mandatory “America is the source of all evil” bullshit you’ll see in modern thrillers.
Black characters play a big role in Live And Let Die, from Mr. Big, who proclaims himself as “the first of the great Negro villains,” to a host of underlings and one-off service industry personnel. While modern reviewers might bitch that Fleming makes some of them come off as dumb with overdone “black dialect” dialog, it also must be said that Fleming doesn’t go out of his way to discriminate against them. Indeed, Felix Leiter proclaims to Bond that he’s “always liked” black people, and there are long bits of exposition from him about ‘40s and ‘50s jazz, including the intersting tidbit that Leiter wrote a series of articles about jazz music.
Fleming brings to life early ‘50s New York, also providing the info that it was only around this time that Harlem was becoming the crime-ridden district of later years; I found particularly interesting Leiter’s off-hand mention that in the pre-War years Harlem was a safe place to go hang out at night. Fleming also does a good job of catching American vernacular, but there are a few parts where he has Leiter say “shall” or other such Britishisms which don’t come off right. Leiter and Bond have a veritable Harlem nocturne on Bond’s first night in the city, checking out the sights and trying to root out Mr. Big from the superstitious and paranoid locals. It’s an extended setpiece that is the essence of the “reporter’s eye for detail” you’re always reading about Fleming.
In one of the few moments that made it into the film version, Bond and Leiter are caught via trap chairs in a Big-owned club; after watching a striptease act (where Fleming gets a bit more risque than anywhere in Casino Royale), the two find their chairs suddenly descending to a hidden bottom level. They’re accosted by Big’s henchmen and separated, and here Bond has the mandatory face-to-face with the villain. Big is a very cool villain at that, proclaiming that he’s bored with life and that he approaches his villainy with the air of an artiste. Here we also meet this volume’s Bond Girl: Solitaire, “one of the most beautiful women Bond had ever seen,” a raven-haired French girl of stupendous curves who is supposedly telepathic.
The goofy tarot cards of the movie are nowhere to be found as Solitaire monitors Bond for Big, using her gift to tell if he’s lying. However Solitaire, unseen by Big, keeps her eyes off Bond’s; later she will tell Bond that, as soon as she saw him, she knew he would be the man for her. While this sort of thing is snidely dismissed in today’s progressivised world – modern Bond continuation author Anthony Horowitz in fact claimed in interviews that he specifically set Trigger Mortis after Goldfinger so he could set to right Fleming’s “offensive” idea that Pussy Galore the lesbian was only waiting for a real man all along – I for one thought it was just another enjoyable indication of how Fleming’s Bond books are nothing more than “fairy tales for adults,” as Fleming himself once defended them.
Here, around 50 pages in (and this Signet edition by the way is deceptively slim, with the ultra-small print of these early ‘60s paperbacks), James Bond makes his first kills of the series. After getting his left pinky finger broken in a grueling sequence, Bond frees himself while he’s being dragged off – using his favored method, as displayed in Casino Royale; kicking at his opponent’s shins. But this time Bond’s wearing steel-toed shoes, and ends up bashing the hell out of Tee-Hee, the Big henchman who broke Bond’s finger. After Tee-Hee falls to his death, Bond appropriates his .38 and blows away two more goons (“Bond shot straight into the screaming mouth”) before escaping. Now this is more like it!
Whereas the Bond franchise is known for exotic locations, Live And Let Die plants Bond in the American southwest, as he travels by train with Solitaire, who has fled from Big. I found it humorous reading about James Bond eating in diners and truckstops. Solitaire proves to be a great Bond Girl, much more interesting than the film version; the expected chemistry between the two is slowly built, but when it leads to the expected shenanigans Fleming surprises us by having Bond incapable of doing the deed, due to his broken pinky finger. Despite the lack of sex Fleming still gets more risque than previously, with juicy detail on Solitaire’s “hard breasts” as Bond cops a feel while making out with her – and Bond even informs her, “You kiss better than any other girl I’ve known,” which is something I bet every woman would just love to hear.
When the action moves down to the Everglades of Florida, Live And Let Die loses its way for a bit. Suddenly the novel is comprised of extended rants about this or that: the bad food of American diners and how horrible American boiled eggs are (Bond), the gross “oldsters” of Florida and the young wolves who fleece them for their cash (Solitaire); how boring and impersonal American cars are (Bond again). In particular this ranting sounds strange coming from Solitiare, who previously was an enigmatic figure; when she’s suddenly going on and on about the “rackets” in Florida and how they take advantage of the seniors down there, it’s like a totally different character.
Things pick up when Solitaire is abducted right on cue by Big’s omnipresent henchmen. But here we get a reminder of the dandified wuss of Casino Royale. When Bond discovers Solitaire has been taken…he goes out for dinner and gets drunk. Whereas your average spy yarn hero would immediately go off in hot pursuit, chasing leads even if there were none, Bond does nothing – and in fact, it’s Felix Leiter who goes off looking for her. (That’s why America saved England’s ass in the war, I guess – we get things done!) This leads to one of the more memorable moments in the Bond novels – Leiter is caught and turned into shark bait.
“He disagreed with something that ate him,” goes the letter that accompanies Leiter’s bandage-covered body, which is deposited in Bond’s room the next day (a line that would also feature in License To Kill). Eventually we’ll learn that Leiter has lost “one of his arms” and the lower half of his left leg. This actually compels Bond to do something; off he goes to the headquarters of Big’s local rep, the shotgun-wielding Robber. A scene that brings to mind moments from the film franchise ensues as Bond engages the Robber in a shootout in a large aquarium stocked with exotic fish; Bond employs the .25 Beretta which in Doctor No would be branded “a woman’s gun.” This proves to be Bond’s third kill in the book (and series), as he makes the Robber fall prey to his own trap, tumbling into the same shark tank he earlier placed Leiter.
The final quarter continues in the more pulpy direction. Now in Jamaica, Bond meets up with local MI6 rep Strangways and native swimmer/fisherman Quarrel (both of whom would return in Doctor No). Mr. Big is on an island off Jamaica surrounded by the long stretch of Shark Bay; Bond has decided he will, alone, swim over there, take out Big, and save Solitaire. To do this he spends a week training with Quarrel, cutting his three-pack-a-day habit down to a few cigarettes a day and swimming a few miles each morning. By the end of the week his pinky finger is healed and he’s lean and mean, more like the Bond of the movies.
Future Bond continuation author Raymond Benson in his The James Bond Bedside Companion (revised edition, 1988) calls out Bond’s nighttime journey through Shark Bay as one of the highlights of Live And Let Die, and it certainly is, though as typical with Fleming it’s a bit digressive and overly poetic for a thriller. Bond, suited up in black frogman gear courtesy Q Branch and armed with a Champion harpoon gun, navigates the bizarre underworld of the sea as he makes his own commando raid on Big’s headquarters. There’s lots of wonderful aquatic description, but at the same time it sort of gets in the way of the suspense. However this is part of what makes Fleming appealing to so many readers.
Hopes for an underwater action scene are dashed; after planting a limpet mine beneath Big’s ship, Bond is attacked by a barracuda and then quickly abducted by two of Big’s frogmen, who spotted Bond’s scuba bubbles during a brief fight with an octopus. In a scene that reminded me of something Manning Lee Stokes would’ve delivered, a half-nude Bond finds himself in an cave, surrounded by Big and his army of “Negroes” while voodoo drums blare from a turntable. In a gripping finale that didn’t reach the film franchise until For Your Eyes Only, Bond and Solitaire are stripped, tied together, and pulled behind Big’s ship over the jagged corral reefs – but Bond’s mentally counting the seconds until that limpet mine explodes.
While Fleming provides a great sendoff for Big (Bond watches from the safety of a reef as “the Big Man” is torn apart by sharks), Solitaire sort of fades away; she’s developed as a great character and then removed from the narrative, only appearing again in the final few pages. M has granted Bond two weeks “passionate leave,” and Bond plans to spend it here in Jamaica with Solitaire – though curiously, he also declares that Quarrel will be staying with them, apparently as a cook.
Despite the periodic digressions and sometimes-overwhelming scenery decription, Fleming keeps Live And Let Die moving, and provides periodic bursts of action. Even when things don’t pan out the way the action enthusiast wants – ie Bond’s scuba raid on Big’s lair – Fleming still has a knack for expertly setting everything up and making the reader eager to see what happens. His novels are really odd when compared to the average thriller (they’re almost like Mike Hammer as written by Proust or something), yet at the same time they’re very engaging. It’s a strange magic, and no doubt the reason why none of the Bond continuation novels have ever been held in the same regard as Fleming’s originals.