Thursday, January 5, 2017

Live And Let Die (James Bond #2)

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.


Johny Malone said...

Great description of this book, which I still could not read.

Matthew said...

I've always found it odd when British people complain about American food.

Gary R. Peterson said...

Excellent review that stirred up many good memories. I read LIVE AND LET DIE a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, so was glad to read an enthusiastic review. I kept thinking as I read, "Oh, yeah, I remember that part!" I really want to read the book again. I'm currently enjoying late-1950's Edward S. Aarons, on the seventh of his ASSIGNMENT series. Thrillers of the time are distinctly literary--though I'd stop short of Proust!--and well-researched. I always learn something new and fascinating.

I quit watching Bond movies after Dalton's first and have become a grumpy old Connery-Moore purist (no lady M's for me either!). I really enjoy the much maligned LIVE AND LET DIE, which was actually my first "favorite Bond movie" back in the day when they ran on the ABC Movie of the Week "edited for television." What 12-year-old wouldn't love Paul McCartney singing over an exploding flaming skull? Good stuff.

Paperback Warrior said...

I have yet to try an Ian Fleming book. I enjoy the movies. Maybe I'll try to work a few in this year.

Unknown said...

"That’s why America saved England’s ass in the war, I guess – we get things done!"

Yes, Joe, I know that's a tongue-in-cheek aside, and I like the overall thoroughness of your review of a favorite Bond novel, but plenty of people in the country of my birth would consider your jokey comment not just inaccurate but insulting.

America entered the Second World War in December 1941. Previously it got nothing done, except maintaining its formal neutrality! The Battle of Britain was fought from July 1940 till (according to the Germans) June 1941. And to quote Wikipedia: "By preventing the Luftwaffe's air superiority over the UK, the British forced Adolf Hitler to postpone and eventually cancel Operation Sea Lion, a proposed amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain. However, Nazi Germany continued bombing operations on Britain, known as the Blitz [which ended in May 1941]. The failure to destroy Britain's air defences to force an armistice (or even outright surrender) is considered by historian Steven Bungay to be the Nazis' first major defeat in World War II, and a crucial turning point in the conflict."

Wikipedia also records that the belligerents, besides Britain and Germany, were Canada and Italy. Of the 595 non-British pilots involved on the British side, only seven were Americans. The rest were 145 Poles, 127 New Zealanders, 112 Canadians, 88 Czechoslovaks, 10 Irish, 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 French, 3 Southern Rhodesians, and one each from Jamaica and Mandatory Palestine.

A last sobering quote from Wikipedia: "The British victory in the Battle of Britain was achieved at a heavy cost. Total British civilian losses from July to December 1940 were 23,002 dead and 32,138 wounded, with one of the largest single raids on 19 December 1940, in which almost 3,000 civilians died. With the culmination of the concentrated daylight raids, Britain was able to rebuild its military forces and establish itself as an Allied stronghold, later serving as a base from which the Liberation of Western Europe was launched."

I'm sure American involvement in the liberation of Europe is still appreciated, but let's be clear it was Britain itself, with its earlier Commonwealth and European allies, who "saved England's ass" and prevented its civilian dead and wounded totals being even higher.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Gary, it's good to hear from a fellow "violent dinosaur" (to quote Mel Gibson in an old Simpsons episode). I too am a classic Bond franchise purist. I like them up through Dalton's two, but I haven't seen License To Kill since it came out. The Brosnans are passable, but at least they still "feel" like Bond movies, excluding of course the female M. It boggles my mind that people claim these Daniel Craig movies are "faithful" to Fleming's me they are revisionism at its worst, from the blonde beefcake Bond who looks like he'd be more at home on the cover of a gay magazine (and since when have the Bond movies been about the exploitation of the male body?) to the Miss Monneypenny who is not only black but is also a Hollywood-mandatory "tough chick." These last two things alone would be enough to bring Ian Fleming back from the dead so he could have another fatal heart attack. And yet I recall reading about this SJW movement in England the other year where all the social justice warriors were lobbying for a black actor to play Bond, making the argument that Fleming never outright stated that Bond was white(!). Even my man Roger Moore came under fire for having the audacity to say that this actor (Idris Elba or somesuch) wasn't "English" enough to play Bond. But at least Moore had the guts to say something. These are truly sad times.

If I had the rights to the Bond movies, I'd fire the current cast, take the franchise back to the '60s, hire John Noble to play M (the dude even sort of looks like Ian Fleming), and maybe do a sequel to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, using unfilmed elements from the novel You Only Live Twice, of Bond getting his revenge against Blofeld, aka "Shatterhand" (which would also make for a good title, so as to avoid confusion with the actual YOLT film). For Bond...I think Michael Fassbender would make for a good Bond. Maybe even Toby Stephens, who played the Bond-esque villain in Die Another Day, and more importantly does a great job voicing Bond in the recent BBC radio dramas.

Not that anyone's asked!

And Chap, thanks for all of that, but you were right with your first sentence -- I was just doing a Simpsons reference (which makes for two in one comment). It's from the classic episode "Lisa's Wedding," which takes place in the "future" and features Lisa marrying a British guy. Your response was supposed to be, "Yeah, but we saved yours in World War III!" (I was super-thrilled when I met a guy in London the other year who knew this line -- a classic moment for sure. He even said it back to me just like the Simpsons character.) Also, if you noticed, in the very next sentence I wrote that Felix (aka the American) was caught and turned into shark bait!!

Unknown said...

So why should your aside's credentials as a steal from a hugely popular TV show make it any more tasteful?

Sorry, Joe, people who actually lived through the Blitz, or spent their childhoods shadowed by its costs, would not want to share your latter-day London friend's mirth. Many of them are still alive today, and they would not subscribe to anyone's view, recognizably humorous or otherwise, that it was Americans who "saved their ass."

Kurt said...

I read all of the James Bond novels when I was in high school. I made the mistake of starting with The Man with the Golden Gun, which was just out at theaters at the time I started the novels. I had no idea it was Fleming's last novel. I remember Live and Let Die as being my favorite of the bunch because as a kid in Florida I enjoyed the Florida settings. I recently reread Casino Royale and have Live and Let Die also to reread. I missed much of the humor of these novels reading them as a kid. Looking forward to diving into them again.

Peter Collinson said...

Chap, it is my experience that people who lived through the the blitz have pretty thick skins. Joe's off hand, goofy comment might inspire a laugh, an eye roll, or maybe even a frown, but not a righteous wounded torrent of Wikipedia quotes. Your displeasure is noted, but go easy, Joe's a square guy and his blog is a place celebrating silly escapism. Nobody is being slandered here.

Unknown said...

I take your point, Peter (who cannot be aka Dashiell Hammett!). No doubt it will one day be OK, too, to rewrite the facts of September 11, 2001 for the sake of a laugh. Yes, most Brits do have thick skins, sometimes too thick. The "torrent" of history was for the benefit of younger, uninformed readers who might read the joke that "America saved England's ass" as a true synopsis.

Stephen Mertz said...

Oldest joke I remember hearing: "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" I doubt the joke was spoken the day after the assassination (at least not above the Mason-Dixon line. Don't worry, "Chap," they'll be making fun of 9/11 but mostly long after we're dead and gone. Thanks, Mr. Collinson (whether you're Dash Hammett or not) for striking the right note.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks a lot, Peter, for the kind words. I really appreciate it. And thanks too Stephen for the comment!