Before we begin, a little disclaimer: I am by no means a Bond aficionado.
I’ve seen only three or four Bond films, but I’ve caught brief flashes of several others – often on slow weekend afternoons, or while flipping aimlessly between channels. I’d watch a scene or two, find myself disinterested and move on. When I think of Bond films, I think of car chases, long underwater sequences and really, really corny jokes.
While I’ve seen a few Bond movies, I’ve never read one of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. Live and Let Die is my first…and, if I have my way, it’ll be my last.
Live and Let Die
by Ian Fleming
Published in 1954
Ian Fleming seems to be under the impression that the key to writing is slavishly adding as many details as he possibly can. Live and Let Die is a hellish, nonsensical barrage of pointless little details – details that do nothing to help move the novel’s plot forward, or help us gain an insight into the psyche of James Bond, his iconic hero.
Fleming simply doesn’t appear to understand that writing a long list of items a character owns does not count as character development:
“A tailor had come and measured [Bond] for two single-breasted suits in dark blue light-weight worsted (…) and a haberdasher had brought chilly white nylon shirts with long points to the collars. He had had to accept unusually patterned foulard ties, dark socks with fancy clocks, two or three ‘display kerchiefs’ for his breast pocket, nylon vests and pants (…) a comfortable light-weight camel-hair overcoat with over-buttressed shoulders, a plain grey snap-brim Fedora with a thin black ribbon and two pairs of hand-stitched and very comfortable black Moccasin ‘casuals’.” (p. 24)
In the four paragraphs (!) following, we learn what kind of watch Bond wears, the gun he carries, Bond’s preferred brand of cigarettes – and even what he wears to bed. But it’s all so utterly meaningless. I found that the more information Fleming flung in my direction, the less I cared about this novel. Live and Let Die is crammed with detail, but there’s nothing behind it all. There’s no connection.
Okay, I wasn’t expecting Live and Let Die to be a literary triumph…but, at the same time, I was at least hoping for something exciting; a novel I could simply sit back and enjoy. I was sorely mistaken. Live and Let Die is a short novel, but it could easily have been half the length it is. What makes it even more unbearable is Fleming’s ridiculous need to document every single meal Bond eats:
“Soft-shell crabs with tartare sauce, flat beef Hamburgers, medium-rare, from the charcoal grill, french-fried potatoes, broccoli, mixed salad with thousand-island dressing, ice cream with melted butterscotch and as good a Liebfraumilch as you can get in America. Okay?” (p. 9)
He has a particular fascination for breakfast:
“Room service? I’d like to order breakfast. Half a pint of orange juice, three eggs, lightly scrambled, with bacon, a double portion of cafe Espresso with cream. Toast. Marmalade. Got it?” (p.23)
“‘Breakfast, please’ said Bond. ‘Pineapple juice, double. Cornflakes and cream. Shirred eggs with bacon. Double portion of Cafe Espresso. Toast and marmalade” (p.93)
“…they finally ordered scrambled eggs and bacon and sausages, a salad and some of the domestic Camembert that is one of the most welcome surprises on American menus” (p.107)
Bond spends more time eating breakfast than he does running around being all debonair and suave and…well, James Bond. Fleming’s Bond is, to my mind, a man in novelty socks and black moccasins; a bit podgy around the waist as a result of all those full English breakfasts, with a hacking cough and a lingering stench from his whopping three pack a day smoking habit. Ugh. Forget 007 – Fleming’s Bond is more 00Bacon.
The plot? I should probably have mentioned it much earlier. It’s a hodge-podge of explosions, shark attacks and idiotic racist stereotypes.
British spy, James Bond, is sent to America to work with the CIA to investigate a smuggling operation in Harlem. The head of the smuggling cartel, an enormous Haitian by the name of Mr. Big, is revered by his army of devoted followers as a voodoo God. As if that’s not bad enough, Mr. Big works for the amusingly-named Russian spy syndicate, SMERSH.
When Bond is captured by Mr. Big and taken to his Harlem headquarters, Bond is interrogated by Solitaire, his beautiful clairvoyant assistant. Before too long, Bond has rescued Solitaire from the clutches of Mr. Big and the pair are aboard an overnight train to the Everglades, their lives in more danger then they realise.
Bond’s next stop is the shark-infested waters of the Caribbean, where a daring underwater mission awaits our hero – before a final showdown with Mr. Big.
I’ve tried to make the novel sound as thrilling as I can…but, for me, reading Live and Let Die was a miserable, even painful experience. The plot drags, bogged down in a ridiculous amount of completely unnecessary detail. And then, there’s the whole racism thing…
Fleming’s ridiculously inappropriate portrayal of African American characters was something I wasn’t expecting. The entire novel works under the assumption that African Americans are gullible, superstitious – even stupid. Mr. Big is the only exception, but Fleming goes out of his way to make him almost implausibly evil to compensate. He’s not only a black man, he’s also a communist and a Russian spy.
There’s a particularly noxious conversation between Bond and M at the start of the novel, where M describes the “negro subconscious” in such patronising terms, I’d have thrown the novel out the nearest window if I didn’t have to write this review. And the less said about the scenes set in Harlem at the beginning of the novel, the better. Here’s the way Fleming relates a part of a conversation Bond overhears between a man and his girlfriend in a Harlem nightclub:
“The man’s voice suddenly sharpened. ‘Wha’ dat Birdie he mean tuh yuh, hey?’ he asked suspiciously. ‘Perzackly,’ he paused to let the big word sink in, ‘perzackly wha’ goes ‘tween yuh ‘n dat lowdown ornery wuthless Nigguh? You sleepin’ wid him mebbe?” (p.46)
‘Perzackly? It’s difficult to read while cringing, Mr. Fleming.
I realise this hasn’t been my most eloquent review, but Live and Let Die is not an eloquent novel. Live and Let Die is an awkward, lumbering thing; as inappropriate, archaic and downright bizarre as an embarrassing uncle. As far as I’m concerned, Live and Let Die was published in the Fifties – and that’s where this novel deserves to remain, like the relic it is.
If the devil is in the details, Live and Let Die is sheer hell.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Only if you’re desperate for something to read. And you’ve already read your phone book, and all the cereal packets in your cupboard. Actually, even then I’d consider just going without…
In a word: