Thursday, April 5, 2018

Diamonds Are Forever (James Bond #4)

Diamonds Are Forever, by Ian Fleming
No month stated, 1965  Signet Books
(Original UK edition 1956)

The last of the early James Bond novels I never got to read as a kid, Diamonds Are Forver sort of melds the previous three books: it’s got the uneventful lassitude of Casino Royale and Moonraker in spots, but in other spots it’s a pulpy actioner along the lines of Live And Let Die. Unfortunately it’s saddled with way too much arbitrary travelogue sort of stuff, with page-filling detours about horse races and Vegas casinos and the like. But on the plus side, Bond himself has apparently taken a course in bad-assery, and you wonder where the hell this guy’s been.

It doesn’t appear to be too long after Moonraker; Bond has recently returned from a vacation, presumably the one he was headed for at the climax of that book. M calls him in for a new assignment, which again sees the Service dipping into affairs not normally its business: diamond smuggling. Bond is to pose as real criminal Peter Franks and infiltrate the global diamond-smuggling operation of the so-called “Spangled Mob,” apprently run by American brothers Serrafimo and Jack Spang. Even Bond is becoming annoyed that M keeps sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong, but of course he eagerly takes on the job despite M’s assistance how hard it will be, not to mention how dangerous the villains are.

This though turns out to be pretty humorous, as Bond constantly mocks the villains of Diamonds Are Forever, considering them small time stuff when compared to the foes he usually goes up against. The problem is, Fleming does little to contradict this opinion, meaning that we readers are left with the same sentiments as Bond. It’s never a good idea to flat-out gut the threat potential of your villain at the friggin’ start of the novel, folks. I mean Fleming could’ve spent just a little more time making his Spangled Mob slightly more sadistic and dangerous. Or maybe toned down on Bond’s frequent mockery of them.

Bond also banters a bit with his “friend” Bill Tanner, M’s Chief of Staff; even Tanner tries to convince Bond this will be a tough one. But as mentioned Bond has experienced a bit of an overhaul, and he’s prime for some action. Thus, Diamonds Are Forever contains more of the stuff you think of when you think of “James Bond,” ie shootouts and fistfights and even a car chase, but bear in mind you have to endure a lot of arbitrary travelogue and elaborate plot digressions to get there.

Fleming is one of “those” writers – you know, the ones who go on vacation or travel somewhere and basically just write about it verbatim and pass it off as fiction. Fleming prided himself on the accuracy of the location description in his novels, and that’s all well and good, but see, the thing is, stuff like that only matters if it advances the plot. In Fleming’s case, at least as demonstrated here, it does not. It comes off more like Fleming slummed around in America for a bit…did some gambling, watched a horse race, visited a mud bath…and just flat-out wrote about his experiences, replacing himself with Bond. In practically ever instance Bond just becomes a silent spectator of these events, and the narrative thrust stops cold.

I’m probably the only person in the world who would mention Manning Lee Stokes in the same sentence as Ian Fleming, but to me (and only me, no doubt) there’s a sort of similarity between their styles, and of the two I prefer Stokes. Sure he had a lot of padding, and couldn’t really do good climaxes, but he always seemed invested in his tales and he always featured at least a few memorably-bonkers parts. And Stokes too did books that featured a lot of globe-trotting, with local detail peppering the narrative, but in the case of Stokes I never get the impression he's been to any of the places he’s writing about. Indeed, I get the impression Stokes is in some book-lined study he seldom leaves, one that has a well-frequented dry bar over in the corner. And yet while his “country details” lacks the realism, the you-are-there of Fleming’s work…well, at least stuff happens in a Stokes novel. I’ll take excitement over travelogue any day.

The Bond books are of course most known for their escapism but Fleming’s prose shines just as much, if not more so, in the quiter, more introspective sections. There is a bravura bit here where Bond boards a BOAC bound for America – this being before the jet era, they make several stops along the way – and Fleming captures not only the elegant scene of that long-gone era (stewardesses with martini trays and caviar, anyone?) but also the poetic image of the cabin “bathed in blood” by the dawning sun. Interestingly, Bond’s own fear of flying, most notably displayed in Live And Let Die, is here transferred to another passenger, a portly businessman whom Bond watches and pities (“He is suffering the same fears he had as a small child – the fears of noise and the fear of falling”). The entire sequence could easily be cut, and no doubt would be in a thriller of today, so as to keep the action moving, but I for one am glad it’s there. There’s also a nicely-done reveal, late in the novel, of who this portly passenger actually is, but I won’t blow the surprise.

While probably not too many Bond fans would deem Diamonds Are Forever as their favorite book in the series, probably all of them would agree that it features one of the best Bondgirls. This is Tiffany Case, ruined in the film version, here a ballsy, sarcastic, hotstuff blonde babe whose bravado of course is a mask for the horrors she endured as a teenager. I liked her a lot, probably my favorite Bondgirl of the first four books, but I had a hard time picturing her as a blonde. The way Fleming brings her to life she seems more like a brassy redhead. But as everyone knows, Fleming preferred blondes, so a blonde she is – and, humorously, her first appearance is in the nude, right on cue with the “Bondgirl introduction” template Kingsley Amis defined in The James Bond Dossier. In fact, this scene – Bond coming in on Tiffany as she sits topless in front of a vanity mirror – is what artist Barye Phillips depicts on the cover of this Signet edition.

Curious editing alert: When Bond first meets Tiffany, he asks her if she minds if he smokes. “So long as it’s tobacco,” Tiffany retorts in this Signet edition, and apparently in all other US editions prior to the most recent reprints, in which her line is changed to, “If that’s the way you want to die.” They even used the “want to die” line in the BBC radio adaptation with Toby Stephens (and Stacy Keach!!) a few years ago. I initially assumed this was some bit of modern tinkering, but it turns out the “tobacco” line was an American edit to Fleming’s text; all others use the “want to die” line, which is how Fleming wrote it. Who knows what led to this edit in the old American editions, but truth be told I think this response makes more sense than Fleming’s original; Tiffany herself smokes cigarettes, as we see later in the book, so her saying “If that’s the way you want to die” is a bit hypocritical.

Tiffany is a vivacious character, particularly when compared to the Bondgirls who came before. She is usually referred to as “neurotic,” and she certainly is – going from happy to sad in a heartbeat, abruptly coming-on to Bond and just as abruptly giving him the cold shoulder. In other words she’s about as realistic a woman as you can get in the world of Bond. Again, I see her more as a brassy 1940s ballbuster along the lines of Lauren Bacall, but she’s supposed to be a young blonde babe – one who, granted, was raised by a mom who ran a whorehouse and who was gang-raped as a teen due to an infraction her mom made with the local mob. The only problem is, Tiffany disappears for quite a bit; she meets Bond, goes on a date with him later on (and kisses him – but that’s it), and then appears again until the climax.

Instead, much of Diamonds Are Forever is comprised of Bond going around America in some of the most belabored plot detours I’ve ever encountered. The Spangled Mob comes off as the most bungling, inept “crime organization” ever in the annals of fiction. They don’t just pay you off for a job – no, they have to come up with elaborate schemes to give you the dough you’ve earned. So for smuggling over some diamonds (hidden in golf balls), Bond’s payment is to be masked as the windfall from a horse race he gambles on – a race which itself is going to be fixed. Later on he’ll have to go to Vegas to earn more payment by “winning” on the tables (featuring yet another of Tiffany’s appearances, this time as a table dealer). It’s all really ridiculous, yet it’s contagious – there’s even a part where Bond himself pays off someone via convoluted scheme, doing so in a mud bath.

Even more damning, some of the Spangled Mobsters are more interesting than any of this stuff, yet Fleming basically ignores them. In particular there’s grouchy hunchback Shady Tree, who seems to be a prefigure of the superdeformed mobsters of James Dockery’s volumes of The Butcher. But he only appears once and that’s that – it’s on to the travelogue stuff. Fleming is a good writer, which makes his occasional missteps all the more apparent. In particular there’s a grating, arbitrary bit where Bond reads a newspaper clipping about Saratoga Springs, where the horse race Shady Tree has fixed for him is located; it’s the polar opposite of the plane trip sequence, just a pointless digression that fills pages and doesn’t amount to much. The same goes for an interminable sequence of horse racing. But we do get more scenes of Bond eating – he seems to eat a lot this time – with Fleming’s typical mouth-watering descriptions.

Also worth mentioning here is that Bond’s pal Felix Leiter appears again, pretty damn coincidentally this time. He’s now a Pinkerton’s detective, having been kicked back to desk duty in the CIA after losing some limbs in Live And Let Die. He bumps into Bond on the streets of New York and soon enough they’re out boozing and talking. Felix is himself sort of a prefigure of a later (real-world) character: handless private eye J.J. Armes; he even has his own trick car, a “Studillac,” which actually existed.  Unbelievably, Fleming does nothing with this car – though later he has a completely different character, cabdriver Ernie Cureo, take part in the high-speed chase we expected to see from Felix, given the intro of the Studillac.

After the Saratoga Springs stuff there follows the trip to the mud bath which again clearly seems to be shoehorned in because it’s something Fleming experienced while slumming around in America. But this part actually leads up to something happening; Bond, again following the belabored convolutions of the entire novel, is to smuggle some cash to a jockey who frequents these mud baths. A pair of hoods (in actual hoods!) crash in on the place, threaten the mud-covered jockey, and pour boiling mud on his face for fixing a race. This sequence sort of made it into the film version, at least so far to Blofeld’s fate in the pre-credits sequence. This sequence also again casts a glaring light on the differences between the movie Bond and the literary Bond. You know what the literary Bond does while the hoods torture the jockey? He lays there in his own mud bath and doesn’t do a damn thing. 

Speaking of the mud bath sequence, bad news for the progressivised revisionists of today who have been clamoring for Bond to be portrayed by a black actor in the films, claiming it could be done because “Fleming never outright stated that James Bond is white.” It’s right there on page 79 of this Signet edition, folks: “…Bond was loaded with hot mud. Only his face and an area round his heart were still white.” I love the smell of Napalmed revisionists in the morning.

It's always interesting how the literary Bond differs from his movie incarnation, which per some sources was mostly a creation of Sean Connery and original series director Terrence Young (not to mention the screenwriters, producers, and sundry others, no doubt). As just one example, whereas the cinematic Bond always has the right word for the right occasion, the Bond of the novels sometimes puts his foot in his mouth, as is the case with his date with Tiffany. Bond starts yapping about their employers in the Spangled Mob and Tiffany goes cold; Bond immediately senses he’s blown it, and of course he has. It’s funny because Fleming’s novels were derided in their time for their cheap exploitation and whatnot, yet in reality Bond rarely if ever gets laid, or at least doesn’t until soon after the book ends.

That being said, Bond has toughened up this time. He kills a total of six men in the course of Diamonds Are Forever, a record for the series so far, not to mention his first kills since Live And Let Die. The first two kills occur in the same sequence; Bond, now in Vegas as part of that elaborate Spangled Mob payoff scheming, finds himself in the taxi of Ernie Cureo, a colleague of Felix’s – and Ernie by the way was memorably portrayed by Stacy Keach in that BBC radio drama I keep mentioning. They’re on their way somewhere when they are suddenly shadowed by two cars. For once Fleming doesn’t pull the expected copout when Bond unholsters his Beretta. Cureo gets the drop on one car and Bond’s able to hop out and blast away at the two hoods inside; we don’t get any details but Bond appears to kill both of them, either by bullets or by causing the car to catch fire with them trapped inside.

This leads us to the climax – well, the first of three climaxes. Bond’s cover as Peter Franks has been blown, and the hoods have been sent by Seraffimo Spang, mega-wealthy owner of his own town outside Vegas, Spectreville. After being rounded up by the surviving two hoods – a bleeding Ernie left in his car in a drive-in movie lot! – Bond is escorted there, even delivering a few quips along the lines of his later film incarnation (“Nice car you had.”). Upon his arrival in Spectreville Bond kills one of the two thugs, blowing him away with the other thug’s gun, and then Bond thrashes the hell out of the thug he took the gun from. Again, where the hell has this guy been??

Seraffimo Spang is a letdown of a villain; there’s a reason why you seldom if ever see the Spang Brothers mentioned in any list of Bond’s most memorable villains. Fleming attempts to make him outlandish, per the series mandate – he’s rich, he collects actual Old West trains, he dresses in chaps and leather like a movie cowboy – but it’s all sort of lazily done. The BBC adaptation goes an unusual route and makes Seraffimo campishly gay, the cowboy gear more along the lines of Hopalong Cassidy or somesuch, and to tell the truth even that is better than what we get here. Also the Spangled Mob itself is presented as a little too low-budget for what’s supposed to be a global criminal empire; it seems like Seraffimo runs it himself from his little cowboy town, with just a handful of thugs at his disposal – in particular sadistic hoods Wint and Kidd, the “literal” hoods who showed up at the mud baths (and who themselves were given a camp gay treatment in the film version).

Bond gets beaten up (off-page) by these two; the “Brooklyn Stomping” treatment, per Seraffimo’s orders. When Tiffany rouses him back to consciousness, Bond is apparently having a dream about the climactic events of Live And Let Die. This leads us to the first of those three climaxes; Bond and Tiffany make a desperate escape on a rail car as Seraffimo chases them in his old train. It’s pretty goofy when you think about it, but at least Bond scores another kill – taking out Seraffimo with his Beretta (which Tiffany has collected for him, conveniently enough) as the cowboy villain speeds by in his train. As we’ll remember from Moonraker, Bond’s the best shot in the Service!

Now we come to Climax Two: Bond and Tiffany are aboard the Queen Mary, making their oceanbound voyage for London. Bond has so fallen for Tiffany that he plans for her to move in with him! This leads to the novel’s first and only bit of hanky-panky, as Tiffany gives herself to Bond after a night of wining and dining on the luxurious ship, but of course it happens off-page. When Bond wakes up, Tiffany’s gone, and he receives a cable at that moment alerting him to the fact that two of the Spang hoods were seen boarding the same ship: Wint and Kidd, of course. Bond grabs his Beretta, fashions a rope, and swings down to their room, conveniently right beneath his own, smashing into the place like a regular movie hero. Curiously, the BBC drama (last time I’ll mention it) leaves his execution of the two hoods “off-air,” or however you’d say off-page for a radio drama. But Fleming wisely lets us witness it all, and it’s a nice reminder of how our hero can be a merciless dispenser of justice.

Climax Three is curiously underwhelming, and the least thrilling of the three. Bond’s now in New Guinea, where the novel began, and he waits with a few soldiers as Jack Spang flies in to kill the dentist who has been smuggling out diamonds for him from the nearby mine. Spang intends to cut off the pipeline and start anew, and per hasty word from M we learn that he’s killed everyone but this dentist. Well, that happens, and then Spang’s taking off in his helicopter, and Bond blasts it out of the sky with a Bofors artillery cannon. Then Bond sits for a bit, reflects on all the kills he’s had to make on this caper (another difference between Literary and Cinematic Bond – this one actually regrets the killing), and then begins walking toward the burning helicopter. Fleming seems to imply that Bond’s about to snatch the diamonds from it.

Most all commentators agree that the series heads into a new area with the next novel, From Russia, With Love, which is universally considered one of the best. I enjoyed reading these first four Bond novels for the first time, but the only one I really liked was Live And Let Die. I’d rank Diamonds Are Forever as my second favorite of the first four, if only for the periodic action and thrills; otherwise the convoluted travelogue stuff was a total bummer.


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Another interesting, insightful and amazingly detailed review, Joe. By the way, the Signet editors didn't seem to care how small the cover art by Barye Phillips was, but it always bugged me even though it's not one of Barye's best. Here's a link to a page that shows the original painting ->

Johny Malone said...

Jill St. John's Tiffany Case is my favorite Bond girl. I did not like the novel, but it has good moments.

andydecker said...

Fleming prided himself on the accuracy of the location description in his novels, and that’s all well and good, but see, the thing is, stuff like that only matters if it advances the plot. In Fleming’s case, at least as demonstrated here, it does not."

Consider, in 1956 the stuff mattered for a lot of readers.

Fleming's audience wanted to read about foreign places they would never see for themselves, just like they couldn't get enough of the fantasy of the civil-servant who could blow more money than they ever earned in their lives on an evening at the gambling table. Or kill people. Without worrying about the consequences.

I also tend to skip the parts about traveling or meals in these old novels. It must have been nice to find such things interesting back then. :-)

English Teacher X said...

I also read that Ian Fleming also did a lot of travel writing, and actually was hoping he'd make his name and fortune doing that, but people preferred James Bond. There is certainly textual evidence that he disliked writing Bond books as several of them seem to end with Bond near death.

Now me, as a guy who travels quite a bit, enjoy his descriptions of the way things used to be, but dislike the extensive descriptions of cities in modern writers like Barry Eisler.

egan said...

Interesting, though I would note your suggestion that revisionists primarily argue that Bond could be played by a black actor because he was never described as white is false. A few argue this, but people who suggest Bond can be played by a black actor primarily feel two things: it's fiction, so why not? And two: it happened in reverse countless times, so why not? The latter is a very good argument. The act of cinematic adaptation is revisionism by definition. This is not the exception, but the rule. Countries and locales change, plot points change, and entire characters are sometimes changed, removed, re-sexed, or (very much so in the past but still in recent times) stripped of their original ethnicity. But when removing white characters is involved the purity of the source material suddenly become of deep importance. I get it, but they need to step outside themselves for a moment and consider why they never noticed it happening all these decades to other people's beloved literary characters. Just some food for thought.