Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Live And Let Die by Ian Fleming (1954)
(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 six.)
By the time Ian Fleming published Live And Let Die, his second James Bond novel, in 1954, India had attained independence. Fleming's adopted home of Jamaica would follow at the turn of the next decade. In the years after World War II, Great Britain found it could no long sustain the empire it had spent centuries building. But empires have a way of fading faster than imperial thinking and, as a living (however fictional) vestige of Britain's old might, it's little surprise to see Fleming's Bond copping no end of imperial attitudes when dealing with people whose surnames don't show up in the Domesday Book. That explains it, but it doesn't make it any less ugly.
Live And Let Die is at once a terrific adventure novel and a spectacularly racist embarrassment. I kind of appreciate it for being both. Time has a way of letting people forget that unacceptable ways of thinking were once commonplace: Uncle Ben can get a CEO makeover, cartoons with racist stereotypes fall out of circulation as if they never existed, and an ugly caricature like the Cleveland Indians mascot can get grandfathered in as tradition. It's harder to excuse away Live And Let Die–not that reviewers at Amazon haven't tried–but because it's part of an iconic series, it's impossible to make it disappear. That's just as well. There's much to be learned from dredging up the recent past, and much about it that's applicable to the present. (See also Mad Men.)
So what kind of thinking could pass without much comment in 1954? Here's a snippet of conversation between Bond and his boss M, who's explaining his latest adversary: A Caribbean-born and Harlem-based crimelord/voodoo priest/Communist sympathizer named Mr. Big:
'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. Ther've been some big-tome 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 seeem to take to big business. Pretty law-abding chaps on the whole, I should have thought.'
'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 race are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions--scientists, doctors, writers. It's about time they turned out 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. And now Moscow's taught one of them the technique.
Take a second to untangle everything there: faith in eugenics, paternalism, casual stereotyping, openhearted meliorism. It's practically a crash course in discredited early 20th century thinking. And it doesn't stop there: Mr. Big has henchmen with names like "Blabbermouth" and "Tee-Hee." Bond's CIA sidekick Felix Leiter is able to ingratiate himself to one of them by discussing his taste in jazz. There's a trip to Harlem in which everyone speaks in the exaggerated dialect of Mammy Two Shoes from an old "Tom And Jerry" short. None of this is to attack the book–what good is it to get up in arms over it now?–or to excuse it. It's just best to see it for what it is.
Here's what else it is: A crackingly good thriller that finds Fleming developing as a writer and Bond's eccentricities, and sexual hang-ups, growing ever more pronounced. There's a paragraph early on that nicely captures Fleming's descriptive skills, offering a snapshot of New York City as it enters a post-war boom:
He was glad to keep silent and gaze out at his first sight of America since the war. It was no waste of time to start picking up the American idiom again: the advertisements, the new car models, and the price of second-hand ones in the used-car lots; the exotic pungency of the road signs: SOFT SHOULDERS–SHARP CURVES–SQUEEZE AHEAD-SLIPPERY WHEN WET; the standard of driving; the numner of women at the wheel, their menfolk docilely beside them; [. . .] the Civil Defense warnings: IN CASE OF ENEMY ATTACK KEEP MOVING–GET OFF BRIDGE [. . .]–all the small fleeting impressions that were as important to his trade as are broken bark and bet twigs to the trapper in the jungle.Bond, of course, would never let a woman do the driving. In any sense. Early in the book he suffers a hand injury that prevents him from making love to Solitaire, the book's heroine. It's only one hand that's hurt but apparently the limitations from that injury force their relationship to remain chaste.
Live And Let Die was turned into a film in 1973. This was the first Bond film to star Roger Moore and like a lot of Bond films, it's virtually an in-name-only adaptation, albeit one not without its own uneasy racial subtext. With a new Bond in place, it must have seemed like a good time to go in a new direction, but the film plays less like a Bond movie than a mostly clueless attempt to ride the coattails of blaxploitation. (Or, as my wife once put it, "It's llke Cleopatra Jones with Roger Moore as Cleopatra.") Nothing looks quite right and it doesn't help that Moore's Bond initially favors cigars and bourbon. No wonder viewers had a hard time accepting him. Bond may be a prejudiced womanizer, but a cigar-chomping bourbon enthusiast he is not.
We're done with Bond for a few weeks. Sort of. Next week we're tackling a man who might've been Bond, Desmond Cory's Johnny Fedora.
Next: Johnny Goes South, by Then: The Food Of The Gods by H.G. Wells And then: The Might Swordsmen by various authors