Friday, July 24, 2009

James Bond Daily: Live and Let Die

This second James Bond novel was published in 1954, barely a year after the first -- and the Bond books would continue to appear every year until Fleming's death in 1964, and even thereafter, with the last (possibly unpolished) novel The Man With the Golden Gun in '65 and the last few stories scraped up into Octopussy and The Living Daylights in '66.

From the movies, we have an image of Bond in one world -- the '60s, if we're a fan of Connery's straightforward toughness, or the '70s, if we prefer the baroque complexities of Moore. But Fleming's Bond is a creature of the post-war era, of the '50s. He lived and worked when the Cold War was quite warm indeed, when detente wasn't even a joking possibility. His backstory reaches solidly into World War II, and in particular the quiet, darker corners of that war. Fleming's Bond is a man of sniper rifles and knives in the back, of dark alleys and darker actions. The Double-O number doesn't signify elitism or status, as it does in the movies, but is instead a label for a man who has gone too far to get back, an explanation for why he is what he is.

All of the Bond novels take place in a dead era -- one that some of us remember, but none of us have lived in for a generation -- and Live and Let Die is particularly dated, with its voodoo plot and black "Mr. Big" villain. (Though Mr. Big is genuinely nasty and as terrifying as any other villain in the Bond novels; Fleming makes it quite clear that he, and his characters, don't consider blacks essentially inferior, which is an unexpected touch. He also explicitly out-thinks Bond several times; Fleming portrays him as startlingly smart and foresighted.) The dangerous, deadly black men Bond faces here are nearly a decade prior to the Black Panthers and mid-'60s riots; Fleming might turn their dialect into something very ugly on the page -- and he does; rendering much of the dialogue in Harlem nearly incomprehensible -- but he does certainly allow them agency and strength.

This novel has somewhat more plot than Casino Royale did; M sets Bond on the trail of Mr. Big, who has somehow found and is smuggling a four hundred-year-old treasure of gold coins, hidden by Henry Morgan somewhere on Jamaica, to finance his own criminal empire and his Russian backers. "The Big Man" is also, explicitly, a trained agent of SMERSH, that Soviet agency of terror and the policing of spies that Bond has made it his mission to wipe out as thoroughly as he can. And so Bond meets up with his CIA counterpart Felix Leiter -- whom he'd met in Casino -- to start with Big's Harlem base and work their way back, through Fort Lauderdale, to Jamaica.

But Big is more dangerous and smart than they'd expected, and he stays ahead of them for most of the book. Leiter is nearly killed, and Bond survives several times due mostly to luck and his own hypertrophied survival instincts. In the end, Bond gets the girl -- Big's captive (white) fortune-teller Solitaire -- and Big gets killed, but it's in large part due to luck (and another large part due to Bond's planning).

Bond's world is nihilistic; he does believe that he's better than the monsters he fights, but he's not all that much better -- and he knows that. And each monster takes something out of him -- even though he doesn't have all that much to begin with. I'm not claiming these books are great literature -- clearly they're not -- but they are very good, tough-minded novels of violence and conflict, exemplary thrillers of the Cold War.

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