I recently decided to revisit the original Ian Fleming novels that introduced world to the legendary international secret agent known as James Bond. Unfortunately, while Fleming’s first 007 book, ‘Casino Royale’, still holds up as a pretty exciting spy adventure, the second, ‘Live and Let Die’, is much harder to get through.
When I started this project, I didn’t anticipate how disorienting it would be to read the books in their original publication order. While I knew full well that the movie franchise deviated significantly in plot from Fleming’s books, I’ve grown so used to the ordering of the Bond films that it feels wrong to rearrange the stories into the sequence that Fleming actually wrote them. The ‘Live and Let Die‘ movie was the eighth produced (starring the third actor to play the role), and I had a hard time accepting the story as only Bond’s second mission. It feels like it should come much later.
On the other hand, I wasn’t nearly as bothered by how little resemblance the ‘Live and Let Die’ film bears to its source, probably because I just expected that to be the case. By the time it was adapted, the movie producers had given up much of any pretense of faithfulness. They took only some key characters and plot points from the 1954 book, and invented much of the rest. In fact, significant portions of this book that didn’t make it into the movie would wind up being recycled many years later for the Timothy Dalton entry ‘Licence to Kill‘.
In the novel, Bond travels to the United States to liaise with his CIA pal Felix Leiter, in order to investigate a notorious Harlem gangster called Mr. Big, aka “The Big Man.” The reasons given for why the CIA and British Secret Service would have any jurisdiction over a domestic organized crime matter are pretty flimsy. Mr. Big is allegedly an agent of the Russian counterintelligence agency SMERSH (as Le Chiffre had been in Bond’s previous mission), and has been smuggling gold stolen from an old shipwreck in the Caribbean into America. Bond traces the Big Man’s ring from New York to Florida and finally to Jamaica. Along the way, he also seduces and more-or-less kidnaps the villain’s concubine, a beautiful white woman named Solitaire, who claims to be psychic. (Much of the fear that Mr. Big inspires in his subjects is derived from the Voodoo trappings that he surrounds himself with.)
Part of the problem with the book is that, for at least the first half, Bond merely tags along with Felix, who leads the investigation. Bond is basically a spectator in the mission, with little reason to be there at all other than to take in the sights. The plot also feels like a mishmash of popular genres of the day, part hard-boiled detective fiction and part treasure hunting adventure, awkwardly fused together. However, things pick up in the second half, after Felix gets attacked by Mr. Big’s men, fed to a shark, and left on the brink of death. At this point, Bond vows revenge and goes straight for Mr. Big on a personal vendetta. (This is the part that turned into the ‘Licence to Kill’ movie.)
A much bigger issue with the novel is… how do I put this delicately?… that it’s astoundingly racist. A modern reader will find much of Fleming’s writing quite shocking, from his casual use of the term “negro” (which was not considered derogatory in the day, but is now) to describe all black characters, to its much harder and more offensive variant, which even finds its way into a chapter heading and is printed at the top of a half-dozen pages. (Let me tell you, it was no fun to read this book on the subway during my daily commute. I had to strategically cover portions of pages with my bookmark or hand.) When Bond first arrives in Harlem, he marvels at the spectacle of seeing a “negress” drive a car, which he was apparently not aware they could learn to do.
Of course, one must keep in mind that the novel was written in another era, when attitudes toward race were far more ignorant than they generally are today. I doubt that Fleming intended to come across as a racist. I’m sure that he may have even thought of himself (and been considered by others) as fairly progressive, in that the character he’d created in Mr. Big is depicted as well educated, extremely intelligent, and sophisticated enough to run a successful multi-national crime ring. Nevertheless, this is all written under the basic assumption that the black race is naturally inferior to whites, and that this character would have to be an exceptional example of one to do the things he does. Other black characters are far more stereotypically drawn, and Fleming’s extensive “negro” dialogue is quite uncomfortable to read.
If you can get past that – and it’s a lot to get past – the book lays the groundwork for much of what would later solidify as the Bond formula. The villain has a host of henchmen with colorful names like Tee Hee and Whisper, keeps an ornate secret lair in an old pirate cave, and takes the time to explain the intricacies of his diabolical plan to Bond before trying to kill him. These parts are rather entertaining to read, and truth be told, Mr. Big himself is a pretty fascinating character.
I quite enjoyed the section where Bond makes a stop in St. Petersburg, Florida (very near my old home town), which the Solitaire character describes as “the biggest sucker-trap on earth” and “the Great American Graveyard,” where “Everybody goes to bed around nine o’clock in the evening and during the day the old folks play shuffleboard and bridge, herds of them.” Bond replies: “Sounds pretty grim.” I found all of this hilariously on-target.
Once it settles into the revenge plot, the last act of the novel is actually quite terrific. Bond finally gears up and becomes a man of action, rather than the passive observer he’d been in the rest of the story. His raid on Mr. Big’s lair and confrontation with the villain are excitingly written and extremely suspenseful. Unlike any of the entries in the movie franchise, Bond here faces genuine peril. He’s not an infallible superhero always three steps ahead of everyone else, but rather a normal mortal man (perhaps more skilled than most) who takes a real physical beating and very nearly loses his life. When fans talk about the “hard-edged” Fleming books, this is the sort of thing they mean.
And yet, the Bond character still seems barely half-formed. Not only does he take an exceedingly long time to figure out some of the villain’s obvious moves, he never even gets around to sleeping with Solitaire because – and I kid you not – he’d broken his finger earlier and would find the prospect of lovemaking uncomfortable. This clearly isn’t the James Bond we know.