A little more than two years ago, I started a project to re-read all of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels. Unfortunately, I got sidetracked after just the third book and gave up my ambitious plans. With a new Bond movie hitting theaters soon, I’m willing to give it another shot and pick up where I left off with ‘Diamonds Are Forever’. Let’s see how far I get this time.
To be honest, part of the reason this project stalled the last time was that I read ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and didn’t care much for it. I put off writing about it for so long that the book was no longer fresh in my mind and I couldn’t remember many of the details. Eventually, I felt that I’d really need to read it again, and I simply did not look forward to prospect of doing that.
Here we are two years later and I’ve decided to get it over with. I’ve read the book twice now and this one is still a chore to get through. With low expectations, I managed to get a little more entertainment out of it this time, but it’s clearly one of Fleming’s lesser works. I finished it about two weeks ago and once again found myself delaying the write-up. Some of the details are already slipping from my mind.
Published in 1956, the plot of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ sends Agent 007 into the world of international diamond smuggling. When the British Secret Service is tipped off that an organized crime ring is funneling stolen diamonds from the mines of Sierra Leone through the UK and thence to the United States, Bond goes undercover as a small-time thief to infiltrate the pipeline and trace it to its final terminus. Although his mission is simply to confirm the identities of the men who run the organization and report back, Bond being Bond, he winds up getting a little more involved than that.
Even having read the book more than once, I’m still quite unclear as to why this would be a mission for the elite Double-0 branch. Moreover, it seems as though everyone already knows from the beginning that the responsible parties are the so-called Spangled Mob, headed by brothers Jack and Seraffimo Spang. Bond takes a job ferrying diamonds out of the UK to New York, and after various plot machinations winds up in Las Vegas, where he meets Seraffimo. Having done so, he feels that his assignment is complete as soon as he can send a telegram back to London. Why was any of this necessary? By this point, he has learned precisely nothing that wasn’t already known.
A small amount of mystery is built up around a Mob contact called “A B C,” but this is eventually resolved as an afterthought, and the man’s identity is so obvious and unsurprising that I fail to understand the point of making it a secret at all.
Much like Fleming’s previous two entries, the book tries to put an emphasis on the detective work aspect of being a spy. Bond meets up with his good friend Felix Leiter, formerly of the CIA but now working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. (Felix survived a shark attack and now has an artificial leg and a hook-hand, but otherwise is as sharp and capable as ever.) As with ‘Live and Let Die’, Bond spends much of the story as an observer simply tagging along as Felix does most of the legwork (no pun intended) and explains to him all the ins-and-outs of the Spangled Mob’s crime racket. Frankly, Bond himself makes a terrible detective. He does little to hide his own true name or identity, and spends a great deal of time hanging around with Felix out in the open in public locations with no concern at all that anybody might be keeping tabs on him.
From the way he writes the story, Fleming appears to have gotten most his knowledge about gangsters from watching American B-movies and reading dime store paperbacks. The Spangs and their associates are drawn in very broad, caricatured terms. Seraffimo then turns out to be rather ridiculous even by Bond villain standards. He has used his enormous wealth to indulge a Wild West fetish by buying up an old ghost town that he struts around while dressed in cowboy duds. The climax of the novel involves a chase with an antique steam locomotive he has restored.
The primary Bond Girl this time out is Tiffany Case, an experienced smuggler who gives Bond his first point of entry into the Spangled Mob. Naturally, she falls in love with Bond, despite having an inherent hatred of men that stems from being gang-raped in her youth! (Yes, Fleming’s misogyny is in full force here.) Unlike the last two books, Bond does bed the girl, though he also develops feelings for her, and even contemplates a fantasy of settling down with her while still maintaining a career as a spy.
In addition to the sexism, Fleming can’t help but work in a little uncomfortable racism too, as well as some particularly vile homophobia. The latter comes in the form of the gay assassin couple Wint and Kidd. The later movie version of this story played these characters for comic relief, which was offensive enough in its own way, but the book treats these “poofs” (the author’s term) as psychotically murderous. This is explained as a direct result of their homosexuality, as if the two things automatically went hand-in-hand.
In short, the novel has a dumb plot and is plagued by offensive stereotypes of all forms. What redeeming qualities it has are primarily the incidental pleasures of Fleming’s descriptive prose. The author was a hell of a travelogue writer, and spends much of this book reliving his own journeys through New York City, the horse tracks at Saratoga, and the Las Vegas strip – at each stop dwelling in considerable detail about where and what he ate and the fine hotels he stayed at. Given that we’re now six decades removed from it, the book is like a time capsule to a long gone era.
Fleming also comes through with a couple of dandy action scenes toward the end. Bond’s adventure scaling down the side of the RMS Queen Elizabeth while the ship glides through the ocean late at night is quite suspenseful. A wrap-up sequence back at Sierra Leone is also pretty exciting.
Although published as the fourth James Bond book, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ didn’t hit cinema screens until the seventh movie, which served as Sean Connery’s swan song for the character. (Technically, it was his second of three swan songs for the character.) The 1971 film perhaps wisely did not borrow very much from the novel except some character names, but very unwisely was a really lousy story in its own right, just for different reasons.
In either medium, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ is a lesser James Bond work. I’m glad to finally put it behind me so that I can move on to some of the more essential books in the series.