Ian Fleming: Live And Let Die
After a lack-lustre introduction to James Bond in Casino Royale, a book with two memorable scenes, one for being an overlong dialogue explaining the ins and outs of baccarat, I turned to the next adventure for the British spy, Live And Let Die, hoping for something more in the way of action. And with the quote on the back of my edition from the Times Literary Supplement stating that it “contains passages which for sheer excitement have not been surpassed by any modern writer” it seemed as if the book may deliver. Alas, no.
Following on from his mission in Casino Royale, Bond is sent to America to investigate the appearance of gold coins onto the market believed to be from the pirate Henry Morgan’s lost fortune. The reconnaisance done so far suggests a powerful criminal nicknamed Mr Big may be behind this with an operation spanning New York to the Florida Keys and beyond into Jamaica. Bond, with the assistance of his CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter, set out to uncover the seemingly untouchable Mr Big’s operation, an added incentive for Bond being that Mr Big is a known SMERSH operative, the Soviet group that tried to kill him in Casino Royale.
Getting at Mr Big, however, is not an easy task. He controls the black population by fear, using voodoo superstitions to make people believe he is the zombie of Baron Samedi, also keeping a Haitian woman named Solitaire prisoner for her fortune-telling skills. The men on the street form a huge network of eyes , whispering down the nearest telephone line anything that may be of interest to Mr Big. And so it goes that Bond, with Leiter, attempt to find Mr Big and face a series of scenes and scuffles that raise the stakes each time until the final endgame between Bond and the man from SMERSH on a Jamaican reef.
While it all sounds exciting the delivery is certainly not. The prose is very matter of fact, telling the reader things rather than letting us get a sense of the scene. There’s no real connection to our hero as Fleming keeps a reasonable distance most of the time, opting to let us know exactly what Bond is thinking rather than give him any real character, making him rather wooden. It also seems, when it comes to description, that Fleming has a limited stock of phrases as shown by Bond’s repeated “comma of black hair” and two black men’s pale skin being like some variation of a week-old corpse in a river. Further adding to the misery of reading Live And Let Die is the data dumps Fleming slips in over some topic or other, examples being a lengthy page from a book explaining voodoo, the history of Henry Morgan, or the nature of random fish which Bond luckily knows about:
He chose a tank containing a six-inch Scorpion Fish. He knew something of the habits of this deadly species and in particular that they do not strike, but poison only on contact.
That said, along with the occasional spot on verb or adjective dotted through the book, there is one particular standout passage – lengthy too – amongst all the exposition and clunky prose regarding fate in the context of air travel that merits mention and a sample:
No, when the stresses are too great for the tired metal, when the ground mechanic who checks the de-icing equipment is crossed in love and skimps his job, way back in London, Idlewild, Gander, Montreal; when those or many things happen, then the little warm room with propellers in front falls straight down out of the sky into the sea or on to the land, heavier than air, fallible, vain. And the forty little heavier-than-air people, fallible within the plane’s fallibility, vain within its larger vanity, fall down with it and make little holes in the land or little splashes in the sea. Which is anyway their destiny, so why worry?
There’s not much to the characters in the novel. While Bland, James Bland may be a more suitable monicker for our hero, the others don’t fare much better, all having a rough two dimensions of personality, all lacking depth. Heaven forbid we should expect both action and depth of a book! While Mr Big walks around spouting his evil mastermind plans and his network observe and say what they see, Solitaire simply wants to escape with them and wants to shack up with Bland…I mean Bond. Miss Moneypenny, albeit a minimal player in the opening scenes, is simply passed off as “the desirable Miss Moneypenny”. And the dialogue isn’t worth dwelling on, it being proper English for our hero, info dumps from Command, and heavily accented slang for the black community.
When it comes down to it, Live And Let Die is an action novel, plain and simple. It’s not too dated (with the exception perhaps of the overused “negroes”) and still stands up to modern scrutiny but has become a bit of a cliché in the fifty-plus years since its publication. Namely characters called Mr Big, the gleeful detailing of impending elaborate murders, and the sheer patronisation of lines recapping the story so far, such as “the end of the dangerous road that had started three weeks before in the fog of London”, and it’s all just so predictable. I certainly didn’t find the same level of excitement that the TLS reviewer did and think that the action was far too much a catalogue of events without feeling to give the book the vital energy the storyline required. Live And Let Die? Live and Don’t Try!
August 1, 2007