by Ian Fleming
296 pages, Coronet Books
Review by Pat Black
Curious fellow, that James Bond. Most secret agents would get invalided out after having their balls pancaked with a carpet beater, but you can’t keep a good man down.
Live and Let Die is the second novel in Ian Fleming’s spy series, following on from the brutal Casino Royale. You probably think you know this one owing to Sir Roger Moore’s 1970s shenanigans in his Bond debut – Baron Samedi; running over the top of alligators; Paul McCartney; speedboats; Yaphet Kotto’s laugh-out-loud death – but the book is a much more dangerous beast.
Casino Royale was a tough, subversive series opener that sought to debunk our ideas of what a hero is – as well examining who he might be fighting against, as much as what he’s fighting for. In a chilling scene, British superspy James Bond gets tortured in the most leg-crossing way imaginable by his target, Le Chiffre. Then, for added perversity, he is denied a chance of revenge by the very organisation he’s battling. Such neat, villain-killing outcomes – so goes Fleming’s sly argument – are only for heroes in silly melodramas and spy novels, not the grimy stuff of real life-or-death struggles. Bond ends the book as an emotional husk, after coming to realise he’s just a pawn, of little influence on events and of little note should he be killed.
Live and Let Die not only turns this idea back around, with a superhuman Bond offing baddies left and right for Her Majesty, but also sets a template for the series that persists to the present day.
It also does what all good sequels should do: raises the stakes at every turn.
The exotic location factor is considerably ramped up, for one thing. Whereas Deauville-sur-Mer was exotic enough in Casino Royale, it wasn’t quite as alien a landscape as New York, Florida and Jamaica would have seemed to the book’s first readers. These were places almost beyond imagining for British people in the years after the war, when food was still rationed and things taken for granted today like bananas and chocolate were considered luxuries.
Added to this notion of material escapism there’s more good eating and high living; it’s a wonder to me that Bond, with his high cigarette and alcohol intake and his monstrous breakfasts of scrambled egg and smoked salmon, isn’t a wheezing, barrel-bellied trucker of a man, rather than a smooth, slim panther.
Speaking of the latter, the book also features lots of dangerous wildlife in the form of man-eating sharks, syringe-spined lionfish and bone-crushing giant octopuses as Bond tries out the then-new sport of Scuba diving. Underwater scenes in the tropics are something we’re accustomed to seeing Bond enjoying on-screen, while sharks (without nose-mounted lasers, disappointingly) would also prove an enduring foe for 007. Live and Let Die marks the starting point for both these motifs.
The plot hinges on recovered pirate treasure being smuggled by a drugs baron known as Mr Big to finance Soviet operations; there’s a suggestion that it’s tied in with the shadowy criminal cartel SMERSH. Bond, itching to get back at these baddies after the nightmare of Casino Royale, is soon on the case to break this operation up.
He hooks up with the CIA agent Felix Leiter, the man who dug him out of trouble at the baccarat table in the first novel. I’ve already mocked this relationship – the only thing approaching true love James Bond ever encounters, including the woman he marries – in some detail elsewhere. Unfortunately for Leiter he has a mishap involving a hungry shark after being captured by Mr Big. You could say this encounter costs Felix an arm and a leg – and if you think that’s a ghastly pun, wait till you read the note the baddies leave pinned to him.
Mr Big is a black crimelord with some Creole blood in him. Typically for a Bond villain he is grotesque, with an odd, loathsome appearance – his greying skin is attributed to a heart condition - to perfectly complement his sadism. However, this book’s unsettling preoccupation with race and genetic characteristics are among Ian Fleming’s most controversial themes, and anyone wishing to highlight racism will find plenty to underline. Although there’s a strong temptation to make allowances for British writers from Fleming’s era owing to their lack of contact with black people, there’s plenty to grimace at. One chapter title – dropped for years by the US publishers – is “Nigger Heaven”, and actually refers to nightclubs in Harlem through which Bond and Leiter follow their leads.
Although Fleming missed a trick by not setting Live and Let Die in New Orleans, voodoo and the power of the supernatural is another theme of the novel. Mr Big uses these conventions for scare tactics, but it would seem that he places a lot of stock in them himself owing to the “seer” he employs, Solitaire. Bond’s love interest in the book was perhaps the most faithful part in the 1973 adaptation, thanks to Jane Seymour’s pretty ingénue. Mr Big jealously guards her virginity, seeing it as being inextricably linked with her powers of foresight. This of course gives our priapic hero another target to aim for other than Mr Big’s crime empire. It takes Bond a while to spring Solitaire’s chastity belt in the novel, whereas it takes Sir Roger Moore’s Bond all of two minutes to do so in the film. Although to be fair, it is Sir Roger Moore we’re talking about here.
Solitaire is a more interesting foil for Bond than doomed Vesper Lynd was in the first book – a little more helpless, certainly, but with much more mystique, and so much more alluring. Seeing 007 as a knight in shining white armour, this supposed psychic saves Bond during the torture scene – an action I read as a victory of rationalism over superstition. Indeed, Bond’s opposition to the sinister voodoo villains could be characterised as such throughout.
Bond’s white, patrician pragmatism aside, Live and Let Die has an uncanny atmosphere that makes it unique among Fleming’s novels. A sense of death lingers from first to last – and not always the glamorous kind dished out by the hero’s trigger finger. In one unsettling chapter, Fleming portrays the state of Florida not as a sunshiny paradise, but as being a place where wealthy American retirees go to wither and die. Carl Hiaasen would Like This on Facebook.
As for quicker modes of meeting one’s maker, Live and Let Die is a far more violent story than its predecessor. Although it never quite scales the heights of Le Chiffre’s methods of encouragement, Fleming does, as usual, make his hero suffer. After being captured by Mr Big, Bond is made to play a game of “this little piggy went to market” by the lead henchman, Tee Hee, that had my eyes watering.
Bond gives as good as he gets, though, being far more of a video game killer in this one. Casino Royale was good at showing up state-sponsored murder for the sordid business it is; Bond doesn’t directly take any lives in that book, although he does re-live the moments that he earned his Double-0 rating by killing two men in the line of duty.
Here, he is far less shy about his business and over the course of a couple of shootouts and one big bomb blast he ups his bodycount considerably. Though you could argue that this is a retrograde step for Fleming into the realm of pulp action – a zone he would never leave – it certainly makes for bigger thrills in the form of roaring, adrenaline-fuelled gunplay. The role of gunslinger suits James Bond much better than that of hand-wringing, accidental murderer.
Fleming is a little less hesitant to follow Bond into the bedroom than he was in Casino Royale. Although the love scenes are tame, I find myself asking what this early-1950s ladykiller would really have been like in the sack. You could see why the naive Solitaire may be readily impressed by her smooth-suited saviour, but how much effort does Bond really put into the business of loving when he sees himself as surrounded by silly mares? Is he an attentive conqueror, one wonders; or - to paraphrase Nick Cave - is 007 a Loch Ness Monster: two big humps, then gone?
The crackerjack finale – where Bond dons his Scuba gear and negotiates dangerous waters teeming with man-bothering beasts before being captured by Mr Big – might be the best of all the 007 novels. Bond and Solitaire are keel-hauled in a scene which was nicked for the 1981 movie For Your Eyes Only, the idea being that they’ll be shredded on a coral reef before being eaten alive by the sharks and barracuda scenting their blood. However, Bond has left a nice surprise ticking against the hull of Mr Big’s yacht, leading to a memorably gory climax.
It’s a great sequel, but has a markedly different tone to Casino Royale. Though its comical groping octopuses and nasty racial tones may jar modern readers, it establishes the thrills of James Bond in our minds as comfortably as Monty Norman’s famous theme tune. I believe I’ll whistle it on my way to work today.