Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

During the excellent dinner that finally materialized Bond wondered about the evening ahead and about how he could force the pace of his assignment.  He was thoroughly bored with his role of probationary crook who might, if he found favour in the eyes of Mr. Spang, be given permanent work with the rest of the permanent adolescents who made up the gang.  It irked him not to have the initiative.  He resented having been ordered to Saratoga and then to this hideous sucker-trap at the say-so of a handful of bigtime hoodlums.  Here he was, eating their dinner and sleeping in their bed, while they watched him, James Bond, and sized him up and debated whether his hand was steady enough, his appearance trustworthy enough, and his health adequate to some sleazy job in one of their rackets. 
007 is back, here at MPorcius Fiction Log. You may recall that I thought that Moonraker, the third of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, was recycling some of the memorable parts of Casino Royale, the first--Bond gambling against a Soviet operative who claimed to have forgotten his past due to war-induced amnesia, and then unsuccessfully chasing this villain in a car after he had kidnapped a female British agent. Let's hope that the fourth 007 adventure, Diamonds Are Forever, first printed in 1956, has some new ideas.

I have expressed skepticism of Signet's editions of the James Bond books after noticing major differences between the text of Signet's version of Live and Let Die and that of British editions, but the only handy copy of Diamonds Are Forever is an internet archive scan of a 1964 Signet paperback, so I'm biting the bullet and reading that one.  Maybe I can take comfort in the legend on its cover: "COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGED."

In Casino Royale, we met a communist torturer who almost left Bond unable to have children.  That was one scary dude.  In Live and Let Die we had a voodoo priest who threw people, including CIA agent Felix Leiter, to the sharks.  Another fearsome individual.  In Moonraker there we observed Nazi scientists aiming a nuclear missile at London.  Chilling!  But I think we can all agree that Diamonds Are Forever takes the cake when the first person we meet in the novel is that figure of terror who haunts the dreams of every one of us--the dentist!

This Afrikaner dentist is employed at a diamond mine in South Africa, but he is more than a medical professional devoted to the struggle against plaque and gingivitis.  Oh, so much more--this plier of probes and drills is also a vital cog in the world's most lucrative smuggling machine!  You see, the black miners who extract the raw diamonds from the Earth like so many diseased molars will secrete diamonds in their mouths, go to the dentist on some pretext, and then exchange the stolen ice with the dentist for cash.  Every month, on the night of the full moon, the dentist rides a motorcycle across the countryside to meet a veteran of the WWII Luftwaffe, who lands his helicopter on a flat stretch of ground and receives the contraband jewels.

In Chapter 2 we are in London with James Bond and M--the highest levels of the British government want this diamond smuggling stopped!  It seems that the smuggled diamonds come to England, and then are shipped by a mule to America.  The British authorities have captured the guy who was going to transport the latest packet of stolen diamonds, a Peter Franks, and M wants Bond to impersonate this Franks, take the shipment to the USA and learn whatever he can about the smuggling operation.  When M's Chief of Staff warns Bond that the Mafia may be mixed up in this whole diamond smuggling business, 007 cavalierly dismisses them as a bunch of goombah goofballs:
"There's nothing so extraordinary about American gangsters," said Bond.  "Anyway, they're not really Americans.  Mostly a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meatballs and squirting scent all over themselves."
Bond, in the role of career criminal Peter Franks, a burglar just starting in the smuggling game, makes contact with the member of the smuggling ring who will accompany him to New York, a sexalicious American blonde named Tiffany Case.  When he first meets her she is just wearing her underwear, a fact immortalized on the covers of many editions of Diamonds Are Forever.  Bond also receives some clues from British police that suggest that the powerful American crime family headed by twin brothers Jack Spang and Seraffimo Spang and known as "The Spangled Mob" are closely involved in this diamond smuggling business.  Bond is not worried:
Seraffimo.  The name of a night-club waiter or an ice-cream vendor.  But these people were like that.  Cheap and theatrical.
Bond hands the diamonds (hidden in golf balls) to The Spangled Mob's man in Manhattan, a red-headed hunchback named Michael "Shady" Tree, and convinces the hunchback to consider hiring him on as a permanent employee of the Spang organization.  007 then runs into Felix Leiter, who now has a hook for a right arm and an artificial left leg.  Leiter left the CIA because he couldn't do field work without his gun hand, and the former Marine is now a Pinkerton investigating Shady Tree.  What a coincidence!  One of the things Shady Tree does for the Spangled Mob is fix horse races--in fact, the hunchback paid "Peter Franks" by giving him a tip on a big race, telling Bond to bet on the horse which the gangsters have, by devious means, made sure will win.  Leiter is investigating this very scam.

Leiter also knows all about Tiffany Case.  Case's mother ran a brothel in San Francisco, but she refused to pay the local mob protection money, so mobsters busted up the place and gang raped Tiffany, then sixteen.  The girl ran away from home and drifted into a life of crime; she fascinates men like Seraffimo Spang because she has no interest in men due to the psychological scars left by the gang rape.  Of course, expert womanizer Bond begins worming his way into that cold heart, partly because he actually likes her, partly because she may be able to provide him the info about the diamond smuggling operation he came to America to get.

Leiter, in his Studillac, drives Bond up to Saratoga Springs, where this big crooked horse race is going to take place.  Remember how, in Live and Let Die, Fleming included a long (and boring!) excerpt from The Traveller's Tree by Patrick Leigh Fermor about voodoo?  Well, here in Diamonds Are Forever, Fleming includes two pages of a newspaper article about Saratoga Springs penned by sports columnist Jimmy Cannon.  Zzzzzzz....

In Saratoga Springs we witness the race the mob has fixed--in the same way that the world's best secret agent James Bond is impersonating loser hoodlum Peter Franks, the Mafia has murdered weak horse Shy Smile and replaced it with a superior horse that looks just like Shy Smile.  The Pinkertons have been hired by a coalition of horse owners to make sure the Mafia doesn't corrupt the race, and Leiter blackmails and bribes the jockey who will be riding the bogus Shy Smile into throwing the race.

Nota bene: Amsterdam is not even mentioned
in the copy of Diamonds Are Forever
I read
The jockey's disloyalty to the mob leads to a creepy and somewhat homoerotic scene in which Bond goes to a place where black men provide medicinal mud baths.  As a patron of Acme Mud and Sulphur Baths, you lay naked in a coffin-like box and one of the "Negro" attendants covers you with heated mud (110 degrees Fahrenheit!) and then binds you up tight in a shroud-like blanket so you can't move.  Bond goes to this monument to alternative medicine and human gullibility to do Leiter a favor--he is to pay off "Shy Smile"'s jockey for throwing the race; the diminutive equestrian is a regular at Acme Baths, and we even see him joshing around with the attendants like they are old friends.

But nobody is laughing when a masked gay couple, Wint and Kidd, the Spangle Mob's most ruthless enforcers, come in while Bond and the jockey lie helpless in their mud boxes!  These jokers beat up one of the attendants and torture the jockey before Bond even has a chance to give him his bribe.  (Leiter later mails the money to the jockey's hospital room, quipping that maybe it will make the torture victim feel better!)

Bond and Leiter proceed to Las Vegas--Shady Tree has directed Bond to go to the Tiara, the casino the Spangled Mob owns, and Leiter's boss has told him to go looking for the bones of the real Shy Smile, like he's Roy Chapman Andrews or something.  Even though we've been told in earlier books that Bond loves gambling and loves casinos, he hates Las Vegas and the Tiara.  Fleming doesn't come right out and say it, but I feel like this is a denunciation of American democracy and America's essentially middle-class, business-oriented, nature.  Unlike the European gambling venues Bond frequents, which I guess are haunts for the rich that are bedecked in an aura of tradition and sophistication (remember how in Moonraker Fleming went on and on about how M's cardplaying club had such a long and respected history?), Las Vegas casinos are brand new in 1956, and are unabashedly businesses that cast a wide net and succeed in drawing customers from all levels of society.  Bond is dismayed by the sight of the unfit bodies of ordinary Americans at the pool ("only about one percent of the customers should be allowed to wear bathing suits") and by the sight of so many women addicted to the slot machines ("elderly women of the prosperous housewife class...they reminded Bond of Dr. Pavlov's dogs....")  In America, ordinary people have opportunities (including opportunities to do things that are risky or stupid!) only the elite have in other societies, and everybody is shameless about chasing a buck, and Bond finds this all "vulgar," "obvious," and "inelegant."

I'm trying to remember a scene like this in
the novel...maybe that is Wint or Kidd seizing
Tiffany Case aboard the Queen Elizabeth
Bond, hoping to "win the initiative" and "force the pace of his assignment" by pissing off the Spangs, plays roulette and wins $20,000.  One of the interesting things about the Bond novels is that Bond, while a genius at killing people, in situations outside of fights often succeeds only due to dumb luck or by getting bailed out by his friends.  Roulette is a case in point--roulette isn't like poker where you can use math skills or a good memory or psychological tricks to get an edge, it is just as much a matter of luck as the one-armed bandits.  Anyway, Bond gets three five-thousand-dollar bills from the cashier, and five one-thousand-dollar bills--I have to admit, I hadn't even known there ever were $5,000 bills, but, as with the Studillac, Fleming did not just make these up.  The real world is full of more cool stuff than we sometimes give it credit for.

Diamonds Are Forever is 160 pages long in this edition, and for 100 pages it moves forward smoothly and pleasantly enough, but with limited danger and excitement (unless you are a jockey.)  But then in the last 60 pages things shift into gear and we get the car chases and gunplay we crave, along with another helping of torture.  Seraffimo Spang gets a telegram from England that informs him that the real Peter Franks is in the custody of the British police and so the Peter Franks who is in his casino must be some kind of cop or private eye!  Spang has his thugs bring Bond to him at his own private town, Spectreville.  (Before he is caught Bond leads the mafia muscle on a merry car chase that sees one of Felix Leiter's friends, who is helping Bond, get shot.  It is hell being one of James Bond's friends!)  Spang is a Wild West buff, and Spectreville is an old ghost town that he has had refurbished to look like it did in 18-whatever; he has even spent a pile of money on restoring a beautiful old Victorian train called The Cannonball.  Spang, wearing chaps, spurs, and ivory handled revolvers, orders Wint and Kidd to put on what Bond and Fleming call "football boots" (I guess most Americans would call them "cleats") and stomp and kick Bond until he is a bloody unconscious wreck.

Tiffany Case helps Bond escape Spectreville in the dark of night--they ride a little maintenance car along the railway used by The Cannonball.  (Fleming calls it a handcar, but it has a gasoline engine.)  Behind them follows The Cannonball, driven by Spang; this chase and its climax are pretty good--Spang dies in his beautiful locomotive as it crashes and goes all to pieces.

It's nice to see Seraffimo Spang in his
cowboy outfit, but I wish the artist had
included The Cannonball in the background
Felix Leiter picks up 007 and Case in the desert and the three ride the Studillac to Los Angeles.  Bond finally admits that the Mafia of the USA is more than just "a bunch of Italian greaseballs who filled themselves up with pizza pie and beer all week and on Saturdays knocked off a garage or a drugstore so as to pay their way at the races."  Leiter books the Englishman and the American blonde on a flight to New York and a cruise ship to England.  But the Mafia is connected, and knows about our heroes' movements, and as the Queen Elizabeth sets sail also aboard are the sadistic Wint and Kidd!

During the L.A. to UK trip we get most of the novel's love story, which I can't say is very convincing or moving.  Bond is impressed that Case can play cards well (she was a black jack dealer at the Tiara) and he likes that she doesn't paint her fingernails, which I guess is sort of interesting--I'm always telling my wife that women don't paint their nails to impress men, but to impress each other.  There is a saccharine bit in which Bond tells Tiffany that he would like to marry a woman who can make a Bearnaise sauce, and so Tiffany goes down to the galley and convinces the chef to let her use his kitchen to make a Bearnaise sauce for Bond--this scene had me saying to myself, "Boy, those gay guys are sure taking their time murdering these lovebirds."  (Now, as I copy edit this post, I am wondering where Tiffany Case, black jack dealer and smuggler for the mob, learned how to make a Bearnaise sauce.  It would have been funnier and more appropriate if she had made Bond a pizza pie!)

Fortunately for us readers, when Wint and Kidd go into action and Bond has to rescue Case from their cabin Fleming provides us some pretty good scenes of suspense, violence and melodrama.

In the last chapter of Diamonds Are Forever, Bond is in South Africa with some local police, waiting to ambush Jack Spang, Seraffimo's twin brother and the head of the diamond smuggling operation.  Spang has left his base in London and taken the place of the German helicopter pilot--now that the American end of the diamond smuggling operation has collapsed, Jack is killing everybody on the European and African side who might be able to finger him as the top crook.  Jack murders the dentist, and then when Bond tries to arrest him, he jumps back into the chopper and tries to fly away.  Luckily the truck Bond and the South Africans brought to the smuggler's meeting place is equipped with a Bofors gun, with which Bond shoots down Spang's copter--Spang dies in the burning wreck.

The excerpt from the New York Post about Saratoga Springs and the romance on the Queen Elizabeth are a little hard to take (it makes sense that a psychologically damaged woman surrounded by murderous freaks might fall in love with a halfway decent guy who protects her, you know, like Solitaire did in Live and Let Die, but I didn't feel like Fleming gave us a good reason for Bond, a man who has had many women, to finds this one special enough to fall in love with) but all the spy stuff and all the violence and chases are good--like every healthy boy, for me derailing locomotives and shooting a 40mm anti-aircraft gun at people are the stuff of which dreams are made.  (I wonder if any Allied servicemen in World War II ever had the opportunity to shoot a Bofors gun at a moving train--now there is the thrill of a lifetime!)  I'm a little disappointed that there were no communists in this one; I really thought the secret leader of the diamond smuggling gang would turn out to be a SMERSH agent, not just the other Spang.  Casino Royale's ending gave me the idea that the first seven 007 novels would be about Bond's crusade against SMERSH, but this crusade has not eventuated.  Well, maybe in the next Bond novel, From Russia With Love, we'll see SMERSH take center stage!

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