Saturday, April 6, 2013

Live and Let Die

Live and Let Die was Ian Fleming’s second James Bond novel and it’s a considerable improvement over his first effort, Casino Royale.

This time Bond finds himself not only up against his old foe, the Russian spy assassination agency SMERSH (Death To Spies), but against a new and even more formidable enemy, voodoo. And these two threats are combined in one man, the sinister Mr Big.

Mr Big is a half-French and half-black giant of a man who runs the underworld in Harlem, and in fact controls the black underworld throughout the United States and in the Caribbean as well. Mr Big had worked with Allied intelligence agencies during the war but switched his allegiance to Moscow and now combines espionage with crime.

Mr Big can rely on unquestioning obedience from his black underlings since they believe him to be the dreaded Baron Samedi himself, the most feared of all the voodoo gods. Or at the very least they believe him to be Baron Samedi’s Zombie.

Mr Big has come to the attention of the British Secret Service in a rather curious way. Huge numbers of gold coins have started turning up, mostly in the US. The coins date from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries but none were minted later than 1650. This has led M to the conclusion that someone has discovered the legendary treasure trove of the infamous English pirate Sir Henry Morgan, believed to be buried somewhere in Jamaica. What’s really causing concern is that this vast treasure seems to be being used to finance Russian espionage in the US, and there are indications that the notorious black crime lord and known SMERSH agent Mr Big is behind the plot.

The possible Jamaican connection is the reason the CIA have called on the help of the British Secret Service. This will be a joint operation with the CIA, which is likely to cause some problems since the CIA is not supposed to work within the US itself and the FBI is likely to be at best unhelpful, at worst openly hostile.

But Bond will be working with his old friend Felix Leiter of the CIA which should make things somewhat easier.

Finding Mr Big is easy enough but there’s a complication in the form of a beautiful white Haitian woman known as Solitaire. Solitaire is the descendent of French colonial planters and is believed to have the second sight. Mr Big employs her to check on whether his underlings are being truthful with him or not. Solitaire can always tell if a person is lying. She is so valuable to him that Mr Big intends to marry her. Solitaire is being kept by him as a virtual prisoner and Bond soon discovers that she wants out. But can he trust her? And what kind of hold does Mr Big have over her?

Mr Big has agents everywhere and Bond has only been in New York for a short while before it is obvious that he is being shadowed, and when Solitaire flees with him it is obvious that Mr Big will stop at nothing to get her back, and to arrange a suitably artistic death for Bond. Mr Big considers himself to be a true artist of crime.

The action moves from New York to Florida and eventually to Jamaica. As in so many of the Bond adventures there will be plenty of action both on land and at sea, and under the sea. Bond will have to run the gauntlet of sharks and barracuda driven mad with blood lust (caused by Mr Big’s habit of throwing large quantities of blood and offal into the sea around his island lair with just that intention).

Fleming pulls off a real tour-de-force of an ending in this one. The action is non-stop and voodoo is an ever-present threat.

Fleming prided himself on the quantity and quality of research he did for his novels. Not being an American I can’t myself say how accurate his research on the US was but he certainly makes great use of American locations, and especially of American railroads (which Fleming considered to be far more exciting and far more romantic than the railways of Britain). Trains always make great locations for thrillers and Fleming uses them with great skill in Live and Let Die.

Of all the Bond novels this is probably the least politically correct - much more so than the 1970s movie adaptation of the novel. But political incorrectness is not something that bothers me and Mr Big is a superbly realised villain, a true diabolical criminal mastermind, intelligent and exceptionally dangerous. And I adore any thriller that involves voodoo.

Solitaire is a memorable heroine. Fleming liked his heroines to be exotic and she certainly fits the bill in that respect. He also liked his heroines to be somewhat ambiguous - Bond has to take a very big chance indeed in trusting her. And Bond’s interest in her is certainly more than merely professional - he is captivated by her beauty and by her mystery.

Live and Let Die was adapted for film in 1973 as the first of the Roger Moore Bond movies.

Live and Let Die sees Fleming really hit his stride with the Bond series. The plot is outrageous but is combined with Fleming’s habit of describing espionage in a grittily realistic way, and with generous helpings of sex and violence. It’s a potent cocktail and one that Fleming was exceptionally good at mixing and this is a real crackerjack of a spy thriller. Highly recommended.


  1. Ken Follett said that this was his favorite Bond book in his Intro to the 2007 Folio edition. In his intro he said Fleming was to the left of his Tory brethren when it came to race.

    A lot of people look at the title of Chapter 5 to try to prove that Fleming was a racist but was actually the title of Carl Van Vechten 1926 novel regarding the Harlem Renaissance.

    It is also theorized that Solitaire was based on the Jamaican White Witch of Rose Hall, Annie Palmer.

  2. As an American who's lived in the South nearly all his life (in it but not of it, you might say), I think Fleming got the Negro dialect right. It's not fashionable nowadays to spell out dialect phonetically ("Ah'm tahd" for "I'm tired"), and a little less of the misspellings would have been good, but he captures the sound and the rhythm very well.

    And the book is exciting. Fleming had been pleased by the decent reception of "Casino Royale," and wanted this time to write a thriller with a proper ending, i.e., a big climactic scene near the end. He succeeded.