Review by C.J. Bunce
A modern reader will flinch a bit at Ian Fleming’s second James Bond novel, Live and Let Die. His novel was written in 1954 through the eyes of an ex-British intelligence military officer and all the British imperialism of the time in which Fleming was writing spy novels. Blacks are referred to as negroes throughout the book and it’s hard to separate whether the characters or narrator are guilty of the use of racial slurs attached to characters of almost every race, and even 1950s America is disparaged incessantly by Bond and the narrator throughout the book.
The villain of Live and Let Die is a large black man with “golden eyes” called Mr. Big. By all accounts he is every bit the equal of any other mob boss from New York City’s history, only this mob boss is said to be the first criminal genius who is black. He gets all the benefits of being a criminal mastermind and, indeed, gives Bond as much of a run for his money as any Bond villain. M sends Bond on this mission in New York City, partnering with the CIA to attempt to track down a tie of rumored gold coin treasure of legendary pirate Captain Morgan and how Mr. Big is using the gold to fund his illegal enterprises. Because Mr. Big is believed a spy for Russian agency SMERSH, whose agent left Bond’s hand branded as “spy” at the end of Casino Royale, Bond is eager to take out Mr. Big. But Bond under-estimates this crime lord. To give you an idea of the lens through which Fleming wrote the book, here’s an excerpt:
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a great negro criminal before,” said Bond. “Chinamen, of course, the men behind the opium trade. There’ve been some big-time Japs, mostly in pearls and drugs. Plenty of negroes mixed up in diamonds and gold in Africa, but always in a small way. They don’t seem to take to big business. Pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought, except when they’ve drunk too much.
“Our man’s a bit of an exception,” said M. “He’s not pure negro. Born in Haiti. Good dose of French blood. Trained in Moscow, too, as you’ll see from the file. And the negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions–scientists, doctors, writers. It’s about time they turned up a great criminal. After all there are 250,000,000 of them in the world. Nearly a third of the white population. They’ve got plenty of brains and ability and guts….”
The villain Mr. Big seems to mirror this in the climax of the book:
“In the history of negro emancipation, there have already appeared great athletes, great musicians, great writers, great doctors and scientists. In due course, as in the developing history of other races, there will appear negroes great and famous in every other walk of life. It is unfortunate for you, Mister Bond, and this girl, that you have encountered the first of the great negro criminals.”
So you not only have racist banter, you have the passing derogatory reference from a 1955 British society view, including the hinted weak attempt at the “but hey, jolly good, they’re giving it a good show,” and multiple attempts by Fleming to claim that he has managed to write the account of the first black villain of literature. So the bottom line is this novel will make the average reader cringe, several times, throughout the story. If you want to move past that part of the book, you’ll find the story and action rival that of his first novel, Casino Royale.
I had the benefit of reading Live and Let Die without reference to the Roger Moore film of the same name, the eighth in the Broccoli family’s cinematic productions. But as much as I think I have seen all the Bond films multiple times, this story seemed unfamiliar. It may be because bits of the novel are filtered through the movie adaptations Licence to Kill and For Your Eyes Only. So I read it imagining Bond as current Bond actor Daniel Craig, but also trying to remember Sean Connery playing the role. Only after finishing did I realize this was Roger Moore’s first role as Bond. His more snobbish performances might very well have made him the better pick for this Bond story.
The co-star of this novel is American CIA agent Felix Leiter, and perhaps because I am an American reader, he has become my favorite supporting character in the new series, as played by black actor Jeffrey Wright in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. He’s sort of the John Clark (from Tom Clancy’s novels) of the Bond world. In my mind’s eye I saw Wright as Leiter here, but he was written and played in the films as a white Texan, so my thoughts of his Fleming’s clever use of Leiter helping Bond through understanding the politics of Harlem were just misplaced. I also did not realize Yaphet Coto played Mr. Big onscreen and Jane Seymour as Bond-girl Solitaire. Unlike Seymour’s typical role, the novel’s female conquest for Bond is neither independent nor strong. But in trying to save her own life she manages to help Bond in the process, and is interesting as a second tier Bond partner. And for my last movie reference I also admit I was tripped up every time M was referred to as male, as Dame Judi Dench’s seven portrayals on film now forever lock her as the only M in my mind.
Movies aside, as spy novels go, Live and Let Die stands on its own merits. Peeling back the social commentary, James Bond in his second mission is both more accessible and emotional (he tears up once) and also more gritty. His banter among spies rings of a predecessor to Richard Marcinko’s Rogue Warrior persona. The most enjoyable trait is his loyalty, and even friendship, to Felix, and it is damage done to Felix that drives Bond’s motivation through half the novel. Ian Fleming, who knew his hero at page one of his first novel, here leaves aside any character building and dives in head first with Bond as the fully realized master spy, fully aware of all the details in the room. Fleming’s own life at his real-world estate called Goldeneye in Jamaica in particular is used to excellent effect in his descriptions and assessment of contemporary Jamaica.
Look for good sequences of Bond and Leiter being beaten in Harlem by Mr. Big’s henchmen, Felix’s “off-screen” bout with a shark in Florida, Bond exacting satisfying revenge for Felix, Bond’s attempt to save Solitaire from Mr. Big while uncovering the secret behind Captain Morgan’s gold as he swims in underwater gear off the coast of Jamaica, and finally, Mr. Big’s cunning method of concealing the gold and protecting his find from others. A strange sub-culture of voodoo permeates the novel–Mr. Big uses black American workers across the country as his eyes and ears and to do so relies on their belief in and fear of voodoo. This comes off as strange to the modern reader, particularly that all these people supposedly truly believe that Mr. Big is not the devil himself, but the devil’s own zombie.
Despite its shortcomings Live and Let Die features an action-packed story and Bond in spy mode as intriguing as ever.