Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming (Jonathan Cape, London, 1954)
After being somewhat underwhelmed by James Bond’s debut in Casino Royale, I approached the second Fleming novel with trepidation. I needn’t have worried. Live and Let Die is a much better book and moves Bond out of his chintzy Edwardianism to present for the first time elements of 007-ness that we now recognise as hallmarks of the series.
The plot is generally more robust. It is still preposterous in its premise but at least that premise develops logically. Its starting point is that the treasure trove of Black Morgan, the seventeenth century pirate, has been discovered by a Harlem gangster who is not only a voodoo high priest on the side but also, in a nod to series continuity, a “known member of SMERSH”. This places him high on Bond’s to-do list because of the Soviet execution squad’s responsibility for the death of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. The treasure, in the portable form of gold coins, is being smuggled piecemeal out of its Jamaican hiding place to enrich and empower the Bad Guys.
This gives Fleming the only excuse he needs to send 007 on a globe-trotting odyssey of hedonism and mayhem, from the drifting fogs of London to Idlewild Airport in New York (no JFK then, of course), Harlem, Florida and finally Jamaica. The landscapes of all these locations are beautifully realised and the reader feels the clamour, danger and glamour of each as appropriate. These quirky travelogues were evidently hugely enjoyed by the novels’ first readers.
We also get our first really worthy Bond villain. Being graced with the name Buonaparte Ignace Gallia conveniently gives him the nickname of Mr Big and he is, like all the most memorable villains, physically grotesque at a giant-like six and a half feet tall and weighing in at twenty stone. He has a gigantic head with eyes so far apart Bond can only focus on one or the other at a time, and a grey black complexion, the result of heart disease, that gives him the sheen of “a week old corpse in the river”. He ruthlessly uses the primitive superstition of his followers to subdue and manipulate them. Bond is struck by “the power and the intellect that seemed to radiate from him” but concludes that his criminality must have been motivated by his awareness since childhood that he was “so ghastly a misfit”.
The obligatory female interest is provided by Solitaire, who works for Mr Big as a kind of human lie-detector, using a variety of Extra-Sensory Perception to vet any of his potential “business associates”. Turns out her heart is not in it, though; one glimpse of Bond and she flings herself at him to save her from the gangster’s evil clutches. The sexism that was so objectionable in the earlier book is implicit here too, in that Solitaire’s purpose is purely decorative. She exists only to be rescued, flirted with and ultimately seduced by 007. Unlike Vesper Lynd, she makes no active contribution to the plot but is still the trophy with which Bond gets to amuse himself for a couple of weeks when the caper is over.
What stands out in Live and Let Die, however, are the action sequences. They are staging posts in the plot and are more exciting than the card game and car chase in the first book. Bond escapes from his first encounter with Mr Big in a thrilling shoot-out and when he breaks into an exotic fish supplier on the trail of the smuggled gold we are given a blow-by-blow account of his techniques. By far the best sequence, however, is his moonlight scuba dive to Mr Big’s island stronghold which creates a real sense of menace and danger. We can feel Fleming getting into his stride as his hero becomes a more definite entity and the daring extreme sport sorties of one good man against the massed ranks of evil clearly inform the direction that the later films took. The last third of this novel, where Bond and Solitaire are roped together to be dragged over a coral reef in the wake of Mr Big’s powerful motor-yacht, reminds the reader irresistibly of the Dr No and Thunderball movies.
The structure is similar to the earlier novel. It begins with Bond in the thick of the action, being swept through Idlewild airport in New York (this is pre-JFK, of course) to a luxurious hotel where he meets Felix Leiter, his CIA counterpart from Casino Royale. A flashback to foggy London details his customary meeting with M. (where it is interesting to note that Miss Moneypenny’s description has been upgraded to an unqualified “desirable”) and fills us in on the necessary plot set-up then we’re off and running.
This early segment is interesting for a number of reasons; Fleming’s journalistic eye manages to distil the New York experience into few choice descriptions. Watching the sun rise on the “great concrete stalagmites” of the city, for example, Bond notes that it “lit up the windows floor by floor as if an army of descending janitors was at work in the buildings”. In pursuit of their quarry, Leiter and Bond visit a number of bars and clubs in Harlem, which “doesn’t like being stared at any more” and where “often you get tossed out on your ear simply because you’re white”. Fleming is in his element here, and brings to life Sugar Ray’s on Seventh Avenue, closely followed by Ma Frazier’s restaurant, and then The Boneyard where, according to a tip-off, not only will Mr Big be present but they can also witness “the hottest strip in town”. So can we, as the author inevitably describes it in all its lingering, sweaty detail before Bond and Leiter are kidnapped and brought face-to-face with their adversary.
The author also presents us with an overview of what passed for fashion sense among American males in the early fifties. As 007 is to appear inconspicuous he receives a parcel of US-style clothes to aid his camouflage. These include “two single-breasted suits in dark blue lightweight worsted” and “chilly white nylon shirts with long points to the collars”. Against his will, Bond has to accept “half a dozen unusually patterned foulard ties” and “dark socks with fancy clocks”. His parcel also contains nylon vests and pants, which he must call “T-shirts and shorts”, and two pairs of “very comfortable hand-stitched Moccasin ‘casuals’”. The clothes are so different from the habitual dress of British men of the period, both in design and fabric, that they would undoubtedly have seemed to contemporary readers like the plumage of some other-worldly Bird of Paradise.
A curious aspect of this section is that, over a couple of pages while Bond and Leiter are enjoying a pre-dinner drink, Fleming transcribes in phonetic spelling the patois conversation between “a handsome young negro in an expensive fawn suit” and his “sexy little” girlfriend. Their inconsequential talk is about where to move on to, and in response to his jealous questioning she reassures him that she has no interest in anyone else. These pages are completely gratuitous and we’re not sure whether the author was simply trying to add local colour, make a social comment on the attitudes and behaviours of Black people or draw his contemporary readers into being complicit in a little mocking, casual racism. For what it’s worth, my view is that Fleming was probably entranced by the exotic difference of what he saw on his own visits to Harlem and was trying to recreate the flavour of this world by reporting the sights and sounds of its denizens verbatim. In other words, it’s done with affection, not ridicule, to show those who haven’t witnessed it first-hand how fascinating it is.
There is much less fetishising of food and drink in this book. When Felix orders a lunch of soft-shell crabs, flat beef hamburgers with french fries and ice-cream with melted butterscotch, which Fleming judges to be “American cooking at its rare best”, the reader could be forgiven for thinking “here we go again” but subsequent meals are very restrained. True, Bond specifies his breakfast must be the usual scrambled eggs, bacon, orange juice and double espresso but in Harlem he and Felix confine themselves to a dinner of Little Neck Clams and Fried Chicken Maryland, filling up the gaps later with chicken sandwiches when they reach The Boneyard.
In place of outrageously strong cocktails and vintage wines, Bond mostly drinks Haig and Haig “Pinchbottle” Scotch (fondly remembered by those of a certain age by its UK name of “Dimple”) with the occasional half-pint (!) of Old Grandad bourbon to wash down dinner in a diner. Gone too are the bespoke Balkan and Turkish blend cigarettes, replaced by the readily-available Chesterfield king-size. When in Rome? (Or New York, or Florida or Jamaica?)
The novel is not without its flaws: Fleming has difficulty with exposition and often feels a compulsion to educate his readers in ways that seem patronising. In Bond’s meeting with M., for example, which still reads like an interview between an earnest schoolboy and his rather chilly headmaster, the older man delivers a lesson on gold coins of the seventeenth century that sits rather lumpily in the mix. During his early days in New York, Bond reads a chapter about a voodoo rite from The Travellers Tree by Patrick Leigh Fermor and Fleming quotes it verbatim for five pages, despite the fact that actual voodoo plays little part in the ensuing narrative.
We might hurry over the preachy sections in our quest for the next adrenaline rush, but despite these reservations, for the modern reader, Live and Let Die, with its heady mixture of romantic locations, super villain and alluring female companion, is quite possibly the quintessential Bond novel.
Let’s see if he can top it.