Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming (1956)
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 19.)
As much as I enjoyed the compact, self-contained suspense of Moonraker, Ian Fleming's third Bond novel, reading Diamonds Are Forever reminded me of what it was missing. Bond's visit to an exclusive English gaming club, while rendered in loving detail, wasn't exactly a trip to an exotic locale. And the back half of the book, set largely outside London in a mad scientist's bunker, didn't exactly play to Fleming's descriptive strengths. Not so, Diamonds, even if it's as much a trip through time as space. Assigned to investigate a diamond-smuggling ring controlled by the American mafia, Bond takes a Transatlantic flight nestled in a plane's "Final Lounge," a place where Bond "waited for the steward to wheel around the tray of Martinis and the caviar and smoked canapés," all this before landing in Ireland's Shannon airport to dine on "steak and champagne for dinner and [a] wonderful goblet of hot coffee laced with Irish whiskey and topped with half an inch of thick cream." (Fleming then details all the kitschy Olde Ireland junk for sale at the airport, and as someone who traveled there recently I can sadly report that this aspect of Irish tourism remains unchanged.) Ireland's just a jumping off point for New York City, then Saratoga for the races, then the Las Vegas Strip less than a decade on from Bugsy Siegel's untimely death, a mad explosion of mid-century Americana :
The desert on both sides of the road which had been empty except for the occasional billboard advertising the hotels was beginning to sprout gas stations and motels. They passed a motel with a swimming pool which had transparent glass sides. As they drove by a girl with dove into the bright green water and her body sliced through the tank, tailing a banner of bubbles. Then came a gas station with an elegant drive-in restaurant attached. "GASETERIA," it said. "FRESH UP HERE! HOT DOGS! JUMBO-BURGERS!! ICE-COOL DRINKS!!! DRIVE IN." There were two or three cars being served by waitresses in high-heel shoes and two-piece bathing suits.
Never mind the intrigue. I want to hear more about the jumbo-burgers. Fortunately, the plot's pretty gripping, too. A neat framing device involving a crooked dentist helping smuggle diamonds out of Africa opens and closes a book that's otherwise almost entirely a tale of Bond versus the American mob. Working undercover after assuming the identity of an English crook (with a quintessentially English specialty: breaking into country houses), Bond hooks up with an alluring low-level operative with the last name of Case. First name? Tiffany. Of course. Case is a pretty intriguing Bond girl. She's roughly an amalgam of Moonraker's Gala Brand and Live And Let Die's Solitaire. Like Gala she's a competent, smart woman who fills our James' head with the temptation to settle down. And like Solitaire she's a good woman tangled up with the wrong crowd and in need of the sexual healing only a certain Double O agent can provide. Fleming gives her an underworld career that practically began at the age of 16 as a gang-rape victim and then lets Bond take his time making her comfortable with his inevitable seduction. The sexual politics here may not be especially progressive but it's still a far cry from the cruelty that's always just under the surface of Sean Connery's portrayal. The more of these novels I read the less trouble I have divorcing the Bond on the page from the Bond of the movies. Is it just Old World snobbery that causes Bond to view his Mafioso opponents with such contempt? It's almost as if after taking on SMERSH and other Euro-villains mere mob thugs are beneath his notice. One of Diamonds' strands involves him learning better, after witnessing a brutal attack at a mud bath and seeing one of the villains living out a Wild West fantasy. When he sees his opponent dolled up in Western gear, something seems to click. Maybe, as M said of the "Negro race" back in Live And Let Die, Americans are starting to throw up criminal geniuses too. (As in that book, M is thinking several steps of Bond and suitably worried about him. It's sweet, really.) At least one American shows considerable resilience. Bond ally Felix Leiter, now a Pinkerton detective, has bounced back after losing an arm and a leg to a shark in Live And Let Die. He even has an awesome car, a Studillac. That's a Studebaker with a Cadillac engine and though it sounds made up, it's a real car popular among custom hot-rodders in the early-'50s. And it was apparently awesome enough to remain blog-inspiring.
Oh yeah: The plot. It's not that complicated, really. Bond goes undercover as a lowly diamond smuggler then fairly rapidly works his way up in the organization and does his best to shut it down despite grievous injury and pitiless toughs. There's really not even much evidence of the Cold War here. It's a book more about vividly described locations and grimly rendered violence than the usual spy stuff. Bond pretty much sheds his identity to get the job done and it's a bit of a bloody busman's holiday away from his usual job. He's even settled down with that nice Tiffany Case by the book's end. No doubt she'll figure prominently in the next adventure, right? Next: The Testament Of Man: Darkness And The Deep, by Vardis Fisher Then: Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard