Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

Never before in his life had there been so much to play for.  The secret of the treasure, the defeat of a great criminal, the smashing of a Communist spy ring, and the destruction of a tentacle of SMERSH, the cruel machine that was his own private target.  And now Solitaire, the ultimate personal prize.
1978 Panther
Here's the second James Bond novel, Ian Fleming's Live and Let Die from 1954.  I definitely read this one as a kid, but all I remember about it is that it was the first time I ever encountered the term "negress" and that M tells Bond that "...the negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions--scientists, doctors, writers.  It's about time they turned out a great criminal."  I've seen the silly but spectacular Roger Moore movie, of course, which has so many recognizable faces (Jane Seymour, Yaphet Kotto, Geoffrey Holder) but I doubt much of the book made it into that two-hour extravaganza.

I read a scan at the internet archive of a 1978 Panther paperback with a white-gripped automatic pistol and a woman in a red dress (not to scale) on its cover.  Chapter V of this British printing was titled "Nigger Heaven."  I glanced at a scan of a 1963 American edition by Signet and there Chapter V bore the title "Seventh Avenue."  A scene of two pages in Chapter V of the UK printing in which Bond listens in on the conversation of two African-Americans in a Harlem restaurant and Fleming laboriously reproduces their accents and lingo ("Guess ah jist nacherlly gits tahd listenin' at yah") was absent from the US paperback.  Flipping back and forth between the scans, I found another instance where text containing "the n-word" had been excised for American publication, as well as changes to the text the purpose of which I cannot fathom.  I will have to avoid these Signet editions as I continue to read the Bond novels. 

Signet 1963
In dribs and drabs here and there--but most frequently in Harlem and Florida--a large quantity of sixteenth and seventeenth century gold coins is turning up on the US market, sold to curio shops and pawnbrokers by black people.  CIA, the FBI, and the British Secret Service think Mr. Big, "probably the most powerful negro criminal in the world" has found the buried treasure of pirate Henry Morgan in Jamaica and is liquidating it.  Mr. Big is not just a gangster--he's also the leader of a voodoo cult and a Soviet agent, a member of SMERSH trained in Moscow!  The money gained by the selling the gold, laundered through a multitude of innocent African-Americans, is probably being used to finance communist espionage in the USA.  Bond is eager to exact revenge against SMERSH, and so is happy to lead the British half of the joint US-UK investigation of Mr. Big and is soon on a plane to New York where he meets Felix Leiter, CIA man, whom he knows from his recent adventure in France (chronicled in Casino Royale.)

In New York, Bond receives American clothes and a little training in how to act like an American, and learns more about the Haitain-born, half "negro" and half French Mr. Big and about voodoo. Bond reads a travel book about the Caribbean, The Traveller's Tree by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Fleming generously (and perhaps pointlessly--these long extracts are by far the most boring parts of Live and Let Die) reproduces three and a half pages of text from it that describe a voodoo ceremony.  Mr. Big already knows Bond is in America and why he is there, and Bond receives some menacing mail at his hotel room.  Leiter, who loves jazz and says he likes black people, takes Bond barhopping up in Harlem so Bond can get an idea of what African-American life is like, and in hopes of getting a look at Mr. Big holding court at one of the many night spots he owns.

In Casino Royale and here in Live and Let Die, Fleming does not limit himself to presenting only Bond's point of view or to only writing scenes in which Bond himself appears.  In Casino Royale there were a few scenes with M and S (head of the division of the British Secret Service devoted to the USSR) and Moneypenny in which Bond was absent, and a scene inside Le Chiffre's automobile while Bond was pursuing him in his Bentley.  Sometimes we are privy to the thoughts of characters besides Bond.  Here in Live and Let Die, Fleming includes scenes of Mr. Big and his head of communications, The Whisper, and other Harlem residents--Fleming uses these scenes to demonstrate to us that Mr. Big has all of Harlem under his thumb and knows everything that happens in Harlem.  Mr. Big rules by fear, and by taking advantage of how superstitious black people are--they believe that Mr. Big is a zombie, one of the living dead and thus unkillable.

Bond and Leiter are captured via a trapdoor mechanism and Bond finds himself separated from the American spy, bound to a chair in the book-lined office of the very tall, very broad Mr. Big, a man of intelligence and education and extreme ambition.  Mr. Big has a beautiful Haitian-born French woman, purportedly a telepath, come in to assist in his interrogation of 007.  Bond senses that this woman, called Solitaire because she has rejected all male companionship, is attracted to him and may want to help him.  ("Solitaire" is also apropos because she uses tarot cards to liven up her telepathy act.)  Unfortunately, she can't prevent Tee Hee, a guy who giggles in a falsetto while he tortures people, from breaking Bond's left pinky finger at Mr. Big's order.

Mr. Big doesn't want to kill 007 or Leiter, just hurt them as a warning and an incentive to stop investigating him, so he lets them go.  Tee Hee is supposed to toss Bond in a pond in Central Park, but Bond outwits the torturer, killing him and two other of Mr. Big's thugs and getting back to his hotel in a car he steals from the criminals.  Leiter is supposed to be beaten severely, but the man in charge of him goes on easy on Leiter because they share a love of Duke Ellington and other jazz greats.

Bond takes a train south for St. Petersburg, Florida, while Leiter takes a plane.  St. Petersburg is where Mr. Big's yacht, Secatur, unloads the gold coins from Jamaica.   Solitaire, who hates the "nigger gangsters" (as she calls them in the British version, but not the American one) she has been shut up with for a year sneaks away from Harlem and contacts Bond, who agrees to take her with him in his private compartment on the train.  But most of the black people in NYC are working for Mr. Big and Bond's movements are observed, and an enemy is on the train, waiting to strike!  Luckily, a brave and decent black train employee warns 007 and he and the French psyker get off the train early, in Jacksonville, and transfer to a different train.

The Florida section of Live and Let Die sees Fleming unleash a lot of criticisms of the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Bond, an expert on fine foods, bitches about American eggs and coffee; an expert on cars, he bitches about the automatic transmissions and spongy suspensions on American cars which render driving a breeze instead of a challenge to one's athletic ability.  There's a crack about how the US is a land covered in junk and litter.  Solitaire and Bond both react with horror to St. Petersburg, which is full of gossipy old people and the young people who figure out ways to part the geezers from their retirement funds.  Solitaire complains that it is too easy to make money in America, which she says leads to poor customer service, and Bond calls North America the "great hard continent of Eldollarado."  . 

Bond and Solitaire reach St. Petersburg halfway through the novel and are immediately spotted because of Solitaire's foolishness.  (Remember how in Casino Royale Bond declared that working with women was dangerous?)  While Bond and Leiter are away from their rented cottage doing a preliminary recon on Ourobourous Worm and Bait, the live bait and sea shell company which they believe is where the gold coins are warehoused, Solitaire is kidnapped.  Then while Bond is asleep Leiter goes off on his own to infiltrate the Ourobouros warehouse, and is brought back by Mr. Big's henchmen a broken man--the CIA op is barely alive after having lost an arm and a leg to Ourobouros's ravenous man-eating shark!  (I guess this shark doesn't give two shits about Duke Ellington!)  At night Bond sneaks into the warehouse, where he discovers that the gold coins from Jamaica are smuggled in in fishtanks holding poisonous fish that the Ourobouros peeps are ostensibly importing to sell to scientists.  Bond gets in a fight with the guy who manages Ourobourous; this joker falls in the water with the shark that maimed Leiter, and doesn't come out again.               

Bond proceeds to Jamaica, where the final third of the novel takes place.  Bond, reflecting Flemings' own life experience, loves Jamaica and its "staunch, humorous people."  Aided by Strangways, the head of British intelligence on the island, and Quarrel, a mixed-race Cayman Islander said to be the best swimmer and fisherman in the Caribbean, Bond launches a one man assault on Surprise Island, where Mr. Big's people have set up shop excavating Morgan's treasure and where Mr. Big holds Solitaire prisoner.  (With binoculars the good guys can see that the crime boss and the telepath have arrived on Suprise Island in Mr. Big's yacht, the Secatur.)  Strangways provides equipment and oceanography books, and Quarrel trains 007 in swimming and spearfishing.  Then, on a moonlit night, while Mr. Big's men load the Secatur with the fish tanks full of gold, Bond, in scuba gear, crosses the three hundred yards of Shark Bay that lie between mainland Jamaica and Surprise Island.  He fights a huge octopus and a twenty-pound barracuda, and attaches a limpet mine to the Secatur's hull.  Then he gets captured, of course.

As a captive, Bond is witness to the efficient way in which Mr. Big's crew processes Morgan's vast treasure of (Bond thinks it worth four million pounds) and is reunited with Solitaire.  Mr. Big had hoped to marry and create amazing children with Solitaire (I suppose children with his genius and her psychic powers) but her treachery has convinced Mr. Big that she must die.  Mr. Big proposes to chain Bond and Solitaire to the back of the yacht and drag them through a coral reef so they get all cut up and then into the shark- and barracuda-infested waters beyond the reef where their blood will attract the fish.  Luckily, the limpet mine detonates seconds after the Secatur has passed beyond the reef and seconds before 007 and his psychic girlfriend reach the reef, sinking the yacht within the danger zone and leaving our heroes in the safe zone.  The blacks who survive the explosion are killed by the sharks and barracuda, including Mr. Big, who is close enough to Bond that the Englishman can see him being ripped apart by piscine teeth and hear his screams of agony.

By 2019 standards Live and Let Die seems pretty racist.  But to be fair to Fleming, Bond repeatedly stresses the similarities between whites and blacks.  He points out that most blacks are law-abiding, he says that British people ("particularly the Celts" Bond says to Leiter) are also superstitious, and says (in that restaurant scene deleted from the US edition) that blacks are like whites in that they are interested in sex and keeping up with the Joneses, the only difference being they don't bother to be "genteel" about it.  Leiter rhapsodizes about the central role played in American culture by blacks, saying that "most modern dances were invented" in Harlem, and that all the big bands Bond has heard of were proud to play in Harlem, the "Mecca of jazz and jive."  Bond finds black women attractive and finds the music he hears in Harlem mesmerizing.  I don't list these things to defend Fleming or try to convince people who are offended by the book that they shouldn't be, but to make sure I don't falsely characterize the author or his novel, which is full of black people who are villainous or gullible, but also includes admirable black characters and praise for aspects of African-American culture.

Another thing I found noteworthy about Live and Let Die, and this also goes for Casino Royale, is the large shadow WWII casts over the novel.  In both books Bond's service all over the world during the 1939-1945 war is mentioned repeatedly.  One reason Mr. Big is such an effective leader and successful criminal is that before he was trained in Moscow he was trained by the OSS and served the Allied cause in Vichy France.  When Bond requests equipment he wants things he used or learned about during the war: "And some of that shark-repellent stuff the Americans used in the Pacific....And one of those things our saboteurs used against ships in the war.  Limpet mine, with assorted fuses."

Live and Let Die is a good thriller; I thought all the train scenes were good--tense, and I liked the fight in the warehouse full of tanks of worms and venomous fish, and Bond's harrowing trip through Shark Bay.  The novel's gruesome violence is shocking (Leiter's dismemberment by a shark was a big surprise to me) and it was interesting and sometimes funny to hear a foreigner's assessments of 1950s America, its culture, landscape, and its people, white and black.  (If our English and French friends have such harsh things to say about us in these 007 books, my fellow Americans, I can only imagine what Russian communists will say if Fleming chooses to allow them to give voice to their opinions on the USA.)

On the negative side, Fleming does quite little with voodoo, socialism or telepathy beyond introducing them into his stories--these topics, rich raw material for philosophical discussion or supernatural or science fiction plot elements are mostly just window dressing.  The story would have been basically the same if Mr. Big wasn't involved in voodoo or revolutionary communism at all, but was just a gangster who ruled Harlem by murder and torture and was smuggling and laundering buried treasure and Solitaire was not a psychic but just some chick he wanted to sleep with who saw Bond as her ticket to freedom.  The voodoo/USSR/telepathy angles as written don't really detract from the book, but they feel like lost opportunities--for example, I was a little surprised that Solitaire's psychic powers neither came in handy, nor were ever debunked.

Next stop: Moonraker.


The 1978 Panther paperback I read has an ad in its final pages for "All-action Fiction from Panther."  I was a little surprised to see science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer's name on the list among all these espionage writers; the Panther book advertised is his 1970 novel inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan, Lord Tyger.  I have not read Lord Tyger, but my man tarbandu has, and he wrote about it a year ago.          



  1. "The author who 'makes Alistair Maclean look like a beginner' review caught my eye. "James Graham" is a pseudonym of Jack Higgins, the thriller writer. I've read all those "James Graham" books and they're great reading! I have some Alan Williams books, but I haven't read any (the story of my life).

    1. Wow, good catch on Higgins! I never would have figured that out.

  2. I recognized "James Graham" because I have some old paperbacks--1960s vintage--with "James Graham" on the cover. Later, the publishers changed the later reprint editions author identification to Jack Higgins for more sales.