Review by C.J. Bunce
First published in March 1956, Diamonds Are Forever is Ian Fleming’s fourth James Bond novel. This time Bond is tasked by M to follow the route of diamond smugglers transporting stones into England from Africa and on to the United States. He replaces a small-time transporter and is partnered with the novel’s requisite “Bond girl,” Tiffany Case, and they embark on a trip to the Northeast United States. Bond becomes an employee of The Mob, and is reunited with his former American ally Felix Leiter (minus an arm and leg after the shark incident in Live and Let Die). The story moves on to Las Vegas, with some good gambling scenes, then on to a rebuilt Old West town called Spectreville, where Bond meets a strange and wealthy villain who collects real antique trains as if they were toys. And the action culminates aboard the cruiseship Queen Elizabeth. The novel is nicely bookended, beginning and ending at a thorn bush occupied by a scorpion in the middle of a desert.
Typically Ian Fleming and James Bond are at their worst when visiting America. It’s difficult to enjoy the normally down-to-Earth Bond pick up his author’s clear disdain for Americans, whether his inner-monologue through Bond is truly a reflection of the times or not. Fleming exhibits his peculiar theme of Americans rambling all their dialogue in long outbursts with “low English” dialect regardless of their social strata. And Fleming seems to wallow in his racism in scenes set in America more so than with Bond in other locales. But the biggest plus? The lack of that James Bond misogyny compared to other Fleming efforts. The seventh novel adapted into a film, and the last canon work for Sean Connery as Bond (he’d have one more go at it 12 years later in Never Say Never Again), Fleming’s fourth Bond novel and the film carrying its name ultimately share little resemblance, ultimately a good thing for moviegoers. Yet with the current Bond and the reboot of the franchise with Casino Royale, a solid adaptation redo from a good screenwriter could be possible as the story is serviceable with a good edit.
The first act takes off too slowly. The second act is very dry, reading like a travelogue, and at times it is nearly unbearable–to illustrate this point I began reading Diamonds Are Forever in 2014 and kept grinding to a halt (as noted in my review of Dr. No). Somehow I began again and made it this weekend, thanks to a classic Bond casino scene in Chapter 17 and a stunning car chase action sequence in Chapter 18 that got me over the hump. From then on, those final 100 pages, the story comes together and Bond, Tiffany Case, the corps of villains, and that classic Bond action finally kicks into high gear.
That Bond checklist is all there with some twists: there’s Bond as spy, his romance with the Bond girl, his choice firearms, his giving a beating and taking a beating, and that illustration of real-life, mundane spy-work that rarely made it to the movie adaptations. As for the typical British car, this time out it’s Felix’s rare Studillac–that 1950s competitor to the Aston Martin–a Studebaker with a Cadillac engine that surpassed 125 miles per hour when pressed (Fleming writes some great buddy time between Bond and Leiter). And Bond seems to actually care about and empathize with Tiffany Case, another tool in his undercover work the character normally would have exploited and discarded. Case has a troubled past and dislikes men much like Tippi Hedren’s Marnie in Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name (oddly enough co-starring Sean Connery). Fed up with the gangsters manipulating her, she’s a rare female character in the early Bond novels who takes charge and even rescues Bond from certain death at one point. The villains aren’t Fleming’s best: two stereotypical mobster brothers and a pair of henchmen, and those beautiful, exotic locations Bond is synonymous with are non-existent here.
A big surprise is the nature of the smuggled diamonds as merely a story MacGuffin. When a reader picks up a novel titled Diamonds Are Forever, he or she is probably expecting a heist story, something like The Pink Panther. Fleming is probably more ahead of his time in that regard. Diamond smuggling is as synonymous a story device as drugs or human trafficking–a real-life problem the Brits and others were trying to address then (and now). You might think the story’s Bond girl B, C, or D will enter the room sporting some flashy jewels, too, and that doesn’t happen either. In fact the only woman in the story is Tiffany Case, and she’s not a society woman.
So if you’re keeping score, in the positive camp, check out my review of Fleming’s first Bond novel Casino Royale here, the third Bond novel Moonraker here, the fifth novel From Russia With Love here, and the sixth novel, Dr. No here. That slow second act puts Diamonds Are Forever next in line, good but not great, followed by the all-out misfires in the series: the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die, reviewed here, and the ninth novel in the series, The Spy Who Loved Me, reviewed here. Next up: Goldfinger.