Having recovered from both the horrific torture he suffered in Casino Royale and the suicide of Vesper Lynd, British secret agent James Bond is ready to return to the field. His latest mission takes him to America, where his job is to investigate Mr. Big. Mr. Big is Harlem-based gangster who is suspected of helping to finance Russian operations through his criminal enterprises.
(Specifically, Mr. Big has been selling 17th Century gold coins that are believed to be a part of a legendary pirate treasure that was buried somewhere in Jamaica. Ian Fleming knew his pirate lore and devotes a good deal of the beginning of the book to discussing Sir Henry Morgan.)
In America, Bond partners up with his old friend Felix Leiter but he soon discovers that taking down Mr. Big is not as easy as he thought it would be. Using the fear of voodoo to control his minions, Mr. Big has agents all across America. As well, Mr. Big also has the services of Solitaire, a beautiful Creole fortune teller. The case takes Bond and Felix from New York to Florida to Jamaica. It also costs one of them a leg and an arm. In order to maintain some suspense, I will refrain from revealing who gets attacked by a shark.
Reading the original James Bond novels can be enjoyable but it can also lead to a good deal of culture shock. Because Bond is constantly changing in the movies and the role is regularly recast, we tend to forget just how long the character of James Bond has been around. In the movies, Bond is forever the same age and his villains and their plots continually change to reflect whatever’s going on in the world. In SPECTRE, Blofeld was even reinvented as a bored Christoph Waltz.
The books, however, are frozen in time. They all reflect the attitudes and concerns of the time period in which they were written. That can often make for a fascinating read but it can also leave modern readers cringing. Ian Fleming was a man of his time and he shared both the strengths and the weaknesses of his time and his class. That’s a polite way of saying that, in the Bond novels, Fleming tends to treat anyone who is not British, white, and male with, at best, a patronizingly condescending attitude. (At worst, Fleming treats them with outright disdain.) That’s especially obvious in Live and Let Die, in which Mr. Big and all of his henchmen are black.
Live and Let Die was first published in 1954. Interestingly enough, Fleming doesn’t come across as being as prejudiced as some of his contemporaries. For instance, even when the action moves the American south, the n-word never appears in the book. (Then again, neither do any redneck sheriffs.) I wouldn’t call Fleming a racial progressive but, at the same time, it’s obvious that he means it to be the highest compliment when Bond describes Mr. Big as being the “first great Negro criminal.” But then Fleming introduces us to two sympathetic black characters who do nothing but happily take orders from Bond and then he starts writing dialogue in phonetic dialect and you just find yourself cringing and saying, “Oh my God, Ian, stop it!”
Here’s what does work as far as Live and Let Die is concerned: Mr. Big is a great villain, far less of a wimp than Casino Royale‘s Le Chiffre. As well, James Bond is a far more active character in this book and less whiny than he was in Casino Royale. Bond once again gets tortured but he doesn’t threaten to quit the service just because his finger gets broken. Instead, he seeks revenge.
As an American, it was interesting for me to read Fleming’s thoughts on my home country. While Bond seems quite comfortable in New York, both he and Felix are absolutely miserable in Florida. In fact, Fleming portrays Florida as being Hell on Earth, hot and full of ill-tempered old people. It’s impossible not to be amused by just how viscerally Fleming disliked Florida.
Finally, Fleming’s skills as a storyteller were even stronger in Live and Let Die than in Casino Royale. I mean, whatever else you might say about the book, who can resist that perfect one line dismissal of a opponet: “He disagreed with something that ate him.”
Tomorrow, we take a look at Moonraker!