The first thing I will say about Live and Let Die (1954) is how cool that title is. Live and Let Die – hasn’t that got to be the best title for a thriller ever! It oozes excitement, - with a title like that the reader expects a power packed read which is just what you’re gonna’ get when you pick up this book.
The book is structured almost identically to Casino Royale – it starts with the reader dropped into the start of the mission and then we have a flashback scene, which fills in the background of Bond’s mission. It’s an effective way to fill in all the details while keeping the story moving at a pace – that famous Fleming sweep again.
Live and Let Die is the most problematic of the novels for the modern reader. I’ve heard people complain that it is racist, largely because of the frequent use of the words, “Nigger”, (one chapter is titled: Nigger Heaven) and, “Negro,” but such charges are ludicrous. Neither word was considered a slur at the time the novel was written and that is the key. The novel is of its time and as such reflects that time. Yes it may read xenophobic by today’s standards but then so would most fiction of this time period.
“It had been a smart and decisive bit of driving, but what had startled Bond was that it had been a negress at the wheel, a fine looking negress in a chauffeur’s uniform.”
The book is set (and was written) in the early 50’s – a time when there was still segregation, particularly in the United States where the novel is set. So charging Fleming with racism is absurd – he was writing fiction set in a contemporary world – his contemporary world and as such he reflects the attitudes and realities of the time.
Nuff said, - on the racism issue, I think.
We discover Bond is still driving the Bentley convertible, the grey 1933 four and a half litre with the Amherst-Villiers supercharger – such an expensive car would have been out of the reach of most readers and it is details like this that add to Bond’s appeal. He lives a life unattainable to mere mortals but one that we would all like to live if we only had the chance. Bond’s cars are just that little bit larger than life, as are his women, his clothes and his thrilling adventures.
Fleming ties up the loose ends left over from the previous novel in this early section – we learn that Bond has had new skin grafted over the scar on his hand, the mark of a spy, carved there by a SMERSH assassin at the climax of the previous book.
“Morning 007. Let’s have a look at that hand. Not a bad job.”
The meeting between Bond and M doesn’t really flush out M’s character or the relationship between the two men and as in Casino Royale M’s brief appearance is merely to outline the bones of the plot. Though there is a feeling running between the lines that M holds Bond in high regard but the overall impression of the chief of the service is that he is a cold, aloof and very stern. He holds the utmost authority as suggested when it is revealed Bond wouldn’t dream of smoking in M’s presence unless invited to do so.
Fleming didn’t really describe Bond physically in Casino Royale (a conscious decision to let the reader slip into Bond’s shoes more easily). Other than that comma of hair and those piercing blue-grey eyes we knew very little about 007’s appearance, but this time out the author starts to flesh the character out. For the first time Bond’s face is fully described.
“Bond’s eyes narrowed as he gazed into the murk of Regent’s Park and his face in the faint dashlight was cruel and hard.”
There is also a lot more humour in the writing – one early section takes some good-humoured swipes at the American use of the English language. One section where Bond is being advised on his cover as an American is particularly good.
“He was reminded to ask for the check rather than the bill, to say cab rather than taxi and (this from Leiter) to avoid words of more than two syllables. (You can get through any American conversation, advised Leiter, with yeah, nope and sure.) The English word to be avoided at all costs was, Ectually. Bond assured him it was not in his vocabulary.”
If Fleming impressed with his descriptive powers in Casino Royale, then he astounds with Live and Let Die. By the fourth chapter he has given us a potted history of both Voodoo and piracy on the high seas, he has described in great detail Bond’s clothing and his breakfast menu, and yet the story zings along, not once does it slow down, not even when explaining the background of chief villain, Mr Big – the Fleming sweep is cranked up to full gear and runs like a well oiled machine.
The plot is suitably, “Boy’s Own”, - Gold coins, believed to be from a seventeenth century pirate horde, have been turning up on the market. The source is thought to be a treasure hidden in Jamaica by the English pirate, Bloody Morgan (although Henry Morgan was in reality Welsh). M believed the gold is being used to finance SMERSH operations on American soil and that Mr Big, the man behind the smuggling, is an agent of the Soviet terror organisation. Bond’s initial investigation takes place in New York where he is re-teamed with Felix Leiter, the CIA operative who had been such a help in Casino Royale, before moving onto Florida, where Felix is mutilated by a shark (a scene used in the movie, Licence to Kill). From there Bond travels onto Jamaica where Fleming pulls off an extraordinary piece of writing – his description of the underwater world in the chapter entitled, Valley of Shadows is so effective that the reader has to come up for air.
“There were no big fish about, but many lobsters were out of their holes looking huge and prehistoric in the magnifying lens of the water. Their stalk like eyes glared redly at him and their foot long spined antennae asked him for the passport.”
Later Bond and heroine, Solitaire are tied together and dragged behind a boat (a scene used in the movie, For Your Eyes Only). It is an effective scene and by the time the story ends the reader is left exhausted. Bond too it seems – he is given compassionate leave which he, understandably spends with the lovely Solitaire.
Where sex was only touched on briefly in Casino Royale with Live and Let Die, Fleming is firmly in wish fulfilment territory again (who was it that said, Bond is the man every man would want to be and every women would want to be with? It was Fleming himself, I believe.) and the entire text is dripping with sexuality.
“Opposite him, leaning forward with concern on her pretty face, was a sexy little negress with a touch of white blood in her. Her jet-black hair, as sleek as the best permanent wave, framed a sweet almond shaped face with rather slanted eyes under perfectly drawn eyebrows. The deep purple of her parted, sensual lips was thrilling against the bronze skin.”
Fleming was of course inventing the Bond formula as he went along and with this book many of the trademarks of the series were developing – exotic locations, bizarre villains, beautiful women, fast cars, good living, thrilling danger, are all present and correct. Bond is also humanised – no longer the blunt instrument of the previous book and it seems like snobbery is an inherent character trait. Though with Bond it comes across as charmingly eccentric rather than boorish.
Live and Let die is a fast and fun read. It’s more violent than most of the other books in the series, but there are many light moments and the suspense level is cranked up high in several sections. There is also something of a supernatural feel to the voodoo scenes, which conjure up a feeling of genuine unease in the reader.
It’s no fluke that James Bond is the massive franchise he is today. Sure the success of the movies is most to do with the enduring appeal, but it all started with Fleming’s pen. Those exotic images and fantastic plots that have made the movies so successful come from the imagination of Ian Fleming and there is only one place to find the real James Bond and that’s in these books.
Live and Let Die is a perfect thriller that set the blueprint for much of what would follow – Next Moonraker.