Diamonds Are Forever was the fourth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. By this time Fleming was well and truly in the groove and had things humming along like a well-oiled machine. Fleming, like all thriller writers, worked to a formula but in his case the formula allowed for a surprising (and often overlooked) degree of psychological and moral complexity.
This time Bond is not facing Russian spies or international super-criminals. His enemies are American gangsters and most of the story takes place in the US. No less an authority than Raymond Chandler was impressed by Fleming’s handling of the US setting.
As the title suggests diamonds are at the heart of this case. Large quantities of diamonds are being smuggled out of Africa. From there they apparently make their way to London and then on to the United States. Diamonds being one of Britain’s major exports the matter has been deemed important enough to be put in the hands of the Secret Intelligence Service. M is not entirely happy about this but he has his orders and he assigns Bond to the case.
The trail will eventually lead Bond to Las Vegas, allowing Fleming to include the gambling scenes which were one of the trade-marks of the Bond novels. Fleming was no gambler himself but he had very quickly decided that high-stakes gambling added exactly the right touch of glamour and danger to his stories. Here, as always, Fleming handles the gambling sequences with consummate skill.
Initially Bond finds it difficult to take American gangsters altogether seriously despite the warnings of his old CIA buddy Felix Leiter. Bond’s contempt for men he considers to be little more than jumped-up small-time hoodlums will prove to be something of a mistake.
Bond villains need to be colourful and larger-than-life and so Fleming gives his chief villain these necessary characteristics by making him a wild west fanatic who owns his own western town including an 1870 steam locomotive called the Cannonball. This locomotive provides a suitably inventive ingredient for the book’s major action set-piece.
There is a girl of course, and Tiffany Case is by any standards a very suitable Bond girl. She is blonde, beautiful, possibly dangerous and psychologically damaged. The James Bond of the movies has a casual attitude towards women and this is one of the major differences between the novels and the films. The Bond of the books is in fact a man who falls in love rather easily, and he falls hard. He also has, surprisingly (if you’re only familiar with the movies), a rather old-fashioned and romantic view of women. Bond not only believes in marriage, he also yearns for children. That he has not married (at this stage of the Bond cycle) is due primarily to the fact that he takes marriage very seriously and he fears that his career is not likely to be compatible with such a commitment. Those who glibly assume that Bond is something of a misogynist will find Diamonds Are Forever rather a surprise. Bond’s view of women might not fit today’s politically correct climate but they are far from misogynistic. Bond is protective of Tiffany Case but also in many ways far more respectful to her than are most modern movie thriller heroes.
The Bond of the books is also a long way from the wise-cracking Bond of the movies. He has little time for wise-cracks, and little inclination for them. He is also far from being a sadistic killer. He will kill without hesitation and without compunction, but only when it is necessary. It is an unpleasant but unavoidable part of the job. On occasions, when dealing with particularly vicious enemies, he may take a certain grim satisfaction in killing but it is never a matter for glib wise-cracks. The books are violent, violent to an extent that outraged many contemporary reviewers, but the violence (on Bond’s part at least) is never casual.
Fleming took spy fiction quite seriously and while he may not have deluded himself that he was writing literature he certainly believed that it was possible to write what he called “thrillers designed to be read as literature” and that is what he attempted to do, with considerable success. Fleming was no hack writer. His books are polished and superbly constructed. The action scenes are important and skillfully executed but he gives even more attention to the process of building up the tension, this giving the action scenes the impact they require.
Fleming was always a believer in the virtues of properly researching a novel and his researches for this one were extensive enough to form the basis for his 1957 non-fiction book The Diamond Smugglers.
The story is nicely book-ended by scenes set in the thorn scrub of west Africa, providing a neat contrast to the glamour of Las Vegas and the opportunity for some philosophical musing on death, diamonds and eternity. The opening scene with the scorpion establishes the book’s mood particularly well.
Those who like their thrillers well-laced with unfashionable political incorrectness will not be disappointed but here again Fleming proves to be more complex than he is usually given credit for being. While their morality may not be today’s morality they are from being amoral.
Diamonds Are Forever is spy fiction done with both skill and style (not to mention a great deal of entertainment value) and his James Bond is a fascinatingly complex and contradictory hero. Highly recommended.