Thursday, January 17, 2013

007 Reloaded: Live and Let Die


James Bond, introduced to the world in Casino Royale, would see the light of day once again one year later, with the publication of the novel Live and Let Die. 007 is sent to the most bizarre, exotic location you could possibly imagine: The United States of America. Specifically, he starts off on the streets of New York City. Old gold coins have been showing up all over the States, and these appear to be part of a legendary treasure. But how did they get into the country? Somebody is smuggling the gold into the country, and in this case, all the roads lead to the larger-than-life gangster Mr. Big.

Larger-than-life is a literal description in this case. Mr. Big is simply an enormous man, the most powerful black criminal in all of America, possibly the world. He strikes terror into the heart of the black community and is believed to be the incarnation of the feared Baron Samedi, of the voodoo religion. They say he cannot be killed. They say that anyone who opposes him will meet death face-to-face. And they also say that he is an agent of SMERSH, the secret Russian organization that James Bond tangled with in Casino Royale.

It’s no wonder that James Bond accepted the mission. Along the way, he reunites with Felix Leiter. He meets a beautiful girl named Solitaire who has the unique ability to see into the future (!). He goes to the street of Harlem and meets with Mr. Big on the gangster’s home turf. He goes to Florida and looks for clues. Finally, he goes to Jamaica and meets some characters who will resurface in later novels, such as Strangways (whose murder opens up the plot of Dr. No). The plot is bigger, the stakes are higher, and after the events of Casino Royale, Bond’s battle with SMERSH gets personal. So what could possibly go wrong?

Well… let’s just say that race was not Ian Fleming’s strong suit. Fleming attempted to give these black gangster colourful personalities, but unfortunately these end up more like racist caricatures. The infamous N-word is thrown around with the generosity of Oprah with her cars. There are several generalisations about black people that would never get past censors today. If you insist on strict political correctness, there is no way you could possibly enjoy this novel. But let’s assume you can suspend your disbelief and you can accept the idea that a black gangster surrounds himself with gullible, superstitious black people in order to command fear over them and thus control them more easily. If you can get past that, you’re in for a terrific read.

Fleming really builds up Mr. Big and makes the battle look like a real showdown for the ages. Mr. Big frankly looks unstoppable. Although Bond proves tough in a tight corner and even outwits the gangster on occasion, Mr. Big could have killed him early on. But he spares Bond’s life out of sheer boredom. As he explains to Bond:

I am a prey to what the early Christians called “accidie”, the deadly lethargy that envelops those who are sated, those who have no more desires. I am absolutely pre-eminent in my chosen profession, trusted by those who occasionally employ my talents, feared and instantly obeyed by those whom I myself employ. I have, literally, no more worlds to conquer within my chosen orbit.

And that’s why, although he has a perfectly good chance to do so, Mr. Big doesn’t kill Bond when he gets the chance. Instead he orders his thugs to rough Bond up. But 007 turns the tables on him, and in an extremely thrilling scene he fights his way out of the gangster’s lair, leaving some casualties behind. This means war, and from this moment on the battle escalates.

Live and Let Die also has a terrific scene where Bond commits the most cold-blooded murder of the series (at least to my recollection). [spoiler alert]A thug named The Robber has just been battling 007 and was planning to drop him into a shark tank, when suddenly the roles are reversed and The Robber is hanging on desperately, pleading for Bond to save his life. Bond extracts the information he wanted, and then delivers two strategic kicks, sending The Robber to his rendez-vous with the shark. This was Bond’s revenge on The Robber for doing the same to Felix Leiter, only Felix was taken out of the tank after losing an arm and a leg. The Robber loses his life. It’s a terrific scene, and it shows you just how cruel Bond can be when his anger is aroused.[end spoiler] Although Fleming paints a fascinating portrait of a man who uses violence without particularly relishing it, this act was a brutal revenge that makes Mike Hammer look like a kitten. (It wasn’t used in the film adaptation of this novel, but it resurfaced in the criminally underrated License to Kill.)

Like its predecessor, this is a thriller and not a mystery, but the importance of some events is finally discovered at the end, such as the significance of some mysterious voodoo drumming and the mystery of a fisherman’s disappearance. It also has a great villain monologue where Mr. Big leaves Bond to ponder the elegance of the death trap he has planned.

Although I confess Live and Let Die is not my favourite Bond novel, it is a fairly readable one. Mr. Big is a terrific villain, a figure that strikes fear into the hearts of men, a seemingly-unstoppable force of evil. His battle with Bond takes on epic proportions, and Felix Leiter gets caught in the crossfire (the character will reappear throughout the series, and he is forced to make something of a career shift thanks to his injuries.) Although some objections may be raised about the novel’s portrayal of the black community, I think the novel has plenty of good points to it if you can get past them. And to be honest, Fleming doesn’t descend to the bigotry of some other writers in this field. 

Notes on the audio recording: Live and Let Die was read by Rory Kinnear on a new set of audiobooks released collectively as “007 Reloaded” by AudioGo. Kinnear has actually been in two Bond films: Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. I was hoping that he’d bring something interesting to Live and Let Die as a result, but the audiobook is merely good without being great. My one criticism is that Kinnear isn’t particularly good at doing an American accent, and his real accent keeps slipping through in little bits and pieces, which can be problematic when much of the book is set in America. He does an excellent voice for Mr. Big, but that is the only real highlight of the recording. It’s not as good as Dan Stevens’ reading of Casino Royale, but it is a good recording. In the post-audiobook interview, Kinnear admits that he hadn't read Live and Let Die before.

7 comments:

  1. To be fair, I think that Fleming was attempting to avoid racism, although it might not read that way nowadays. In his briefing with 007, M tells Bond that the Black community is producing great writers, scientists, performers etc., and so it is only natural that a great villain would also be produced. Equally, when he is sitting in a nightclub in Harlem later on, Bond reflects that the locals are just like people anywhere else.

    Mr Big is really the first of Fleming's supervillains. Whilst Le Chiffre is nasty, Mr Big seems almost supernaturally evil, and you feel that Bonds battle with him is actually important. His death is also one of the nastiest in the series.

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    1. I think you're right in terms of intent -- besides, 007 ends up with a black Bond girl. But I was commenting on what the actual result felt like. There are moments where a respect for black people comes through (such as Leiter's discussion with the thug who's keeping him prisoner on jazz) but there are other passages where Fleming talks about the primitive minds still under the grasp of voodoo. I don't think racism was his intent, but it can come out sounding like that, and there's no way a book published today could get away with stuff like that.

      I think you're right about the villain. Le Chiffre is a nasty bit of goods, but it's the people behind him (SMERSH) that are the really nasty ones. Mr. Big, who is himself part of SMERSH, has got the training. He has eyes everywhere. He commands people by striking terror into their hearts. He's a bigger, badder villain and far more of a challenge for Bond.

      Although I do think there's a nastier villain death in MOONRAKER. After all, the guy essentially had an atomic bomb dropped on him.

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  2. I recently read of of James Mitchell's original CALLAN novels from the early 70s, and it included stuff about black people, homosexuals and women that could never, ever be included in a mainstream thriller nowadays. Like LIVE AND LET DIE you feel that not only did the author non intend to be rude, but in fact was probably patting himself on the back for being so enlightened. It's one of the dangers of posterity, I suppose.

    In terms of villains demises, the worst has got to be DR.NO. I won't spoil if for anyone who hasn't read the book, but when I first encountered it as a kid it made me feel quite unwell.

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    1. I have similar feelings about THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, where Fleming tried to do something admirable with his female character, but he was simply unable to write from a woman's POV. The result can be distasteful to our modern sensibilities. But I'm sure we all have some perfectly normal prejudices that two centuries from now will be viewed as monstrous. And the experiment has got enough interesting points to warrant reading (and re-reading!). But if I remember my original impressions correctly, the fun truly began with the very last sentence of Part II, when Bond walks in (although part II had some nail-biting moments). I'm afraid the reviews I originally wrote of the series have been lost in the sands of time -- I wrote them in the Visual Bookshelf app on Facebook, and it no longer functions because it doesn't adhere to the site's privacy policies or some rot like that.

      Ooh, yes, the death of Dr. No has got to be one of the worst ones if not the worst. Fleming could get... *creative* in the casualties department.

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  3. Love those Penguin covers. That Perma Books one--oh dear!

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    1. Penguin seems to have done the best covers. The books that I own were published by Thomas & Mercer -- i.e. Amazon -- and their covers are extremely boring minimalistic ones, so I've avoided using them. If ever I need to use another picture because of an article's length I might use my own covers, but I far prefer the Penguins I've used for these first two installments. They're positively gorgeous.

      I felt that the Perma Books cover should be included out of historical interest. Note how Bond is nearly naked, the girl being imprisoned by Mr. Big is white (she's black in the novel) and although Mr. Big isn't giving off a Sinister Chinaman's leer that arched eyebrow makes an already unpleasant figure look even worse. Certainly not someone I'd let date my non-existent, hypothetically yet-to-be-born daughter.

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    2. Oh, and the second Penguin cover: she's really "showing her cards"!

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