It is the 50th anniversary of the first Bond movie adaptation (Dr No), and what with the forthcoming new James Bond movie, Skyfall, it has become a rather inescapable Celebrating Bond Month, in the UK at least. Articles everywhere, covering the franchise, the books, Bond’s sex life… MGM and the Estate of Cubby Broccoli, for two, thank you for your continuing interest.
Much earlier this year, the exciting news of Skyfall prompted Julia at ten minutes hate blog to a review of the source material. Now nearing the 60th anniversary of the publication of the first one (Casino Royale), Ian Fleming’s original Bond novels have been a source of comfort and excitement since my first discovery of them at some tender age or other in the 1980s… I agreed enthusiastically to join in. For me, it’s a barely-needed excuse to revisit the books and cast over a critical-but-loving eye.
In the interests of labour division, we have split the novels roughly equally. Next up on my list is ‘Live and Let Die’. And sorry, JCG, for the delay!
We are examining Ian Fleming’s books, not the film adaptations, but any discussion of LALD requires perhaps rather inescapably a brief mention of Sir Paul McCartney’s live and let deathless theme tune.
It doesn’t seem to fit with the visuals particularly well, but it was recently voted ‘Best Bond Theme’ by people interested in such matters. As one of a number of memorable Macca moments, one would have to say at least Top 5 Bond themes. Foreshadowing: the cod-reggae stylings in the middle bit are important.
LALD was the second of the Bond novels, originally published 1954. It is the first book in which Bond goes to America, and provides opportunities for Fleming to toss about his quasi-urbane opinions on food, culture, people, in the USA. The plot concerns a treasure trail of looted gold coins, SMERSH’s money man in New York turning out to be a negro gangster called Mr Big, who rules his turf with a mix of brutality and voodoo for the extra fear factor. Bond blazes a messy trail from New York through to Florida and then out into the Caribbean, where the big showdown takes place.
On initial reading, Fleming’s view of the States is as shallow as this overview would indicate – a nervous skirting of the East coast and then off as quickly as he can. It seems quite one-dimensional, perhaps playing on notions of Americans being known to the general British public at the time largely as an admixture of ‘over-sexed, over-paid and over here’ memories of GI war billetteers and impossibly glamorous Hollywood stars providing escape in matinees and double features. The Yanks, for they are ALL Yankees to the Brits, have garish and extravagant tastes. They are not at all like the British in the way they speak, eat and dress. Also, in America, there are many, many black people.
The thematic involvement of “colored people” has dated in many ways, and in fact was probably dated in many ways when LALD was published. As with Macca’s clunky ranking roots referents, it’s a musical thing that sticks in the book. Principally, Felix Leiter’s down-wit-duh-negroes jazz conversations, which rely on Duke Ellington as a cultural signifier. This is fair enough to a point. Leiter, a straw-haired Texan in the books, is a Dixieland aficionado, and he leads Bond on a whistle-stop tour of Harlem for “local color” en route to a meeting with Mr Big. They take in nightspots such as the Savoy, Sugar Ray’s, Yeah Man… all of which were real, and historically/culturally significant, but as featured on maps of Harlem from 1932.
Surely a jazz aficionado, or anyone familiar with clubs in 1950s New York, would have had at least a passing awareness of the hipper happenings at Minton’s? Fleming reveals something of the cultural snob with the what-to-say crib sheet, alluded to in my overview of Casino Royale. It could be argued that he’s not really talking (through Leiter) about jazz music so much as indulging in vague political theorising about “the blacks” in Harlem, and the impact on the middle classes that an exploitative character such as Mr Big might have…
Something about wolves and sheep, bastards and Our Bastards, anyway. And this is one example of the difficulty in distinguishing authorial and character voice that one finds with Bond and the Bond novels. Fleming-the-writer works in the chapter ‘Nigger Heaven’ (renamed ‘Seventh Avenue’ for the American version) in clear reference to Carl van Vechten’s 1920s novel, which offered a similarly controversial insight into cultures (black/white) firmly divided from each other, while bringing massive cultural tensions/influences to bear on each other. Fleming’s take jerks a knowing head backwards towards Harlemania while acknowledging the “advancement of colored peoples” to ultimate criminal achievement when let to develop “on their own”. His characters are disparaging, and glibly so, about this, while also offering a certain level of grudging respect that comes from “tough men” for their counterparts. Mr Big does at least have some gravity in his caricature role as “first of the great negro criminals,” with some decent descriptions and lines. Some…
What Fleming-the-Brit-conservative is doing with Mr Big as a subtext in the Carribean sequences is presumably some sort of “don’t let the Windies go the same way as Cuba, or they’ll all be doing the Stalin One-step in Nassau by Christmas” domino theorising. Even so, Fleming’s metaphoric exploration of post-colonial politics could be developed more effectively, with less of a broad brush. I mean, “Mr Big”, for fuck’s sake. The climactic scenes, in a sub-aquatic grotto filled with gold, gramophone voodoo drums and oiled negroes pliantly doing the chieftain’s bidding… it is absurdly cartoonish, to put it kindly. There is an uneasy sense of facetiousness, of the ‘flippancy’ Elisabeth Sturch referred to in the TLS (thanks Wikipedia!). Still, in kindness: Fleming was developing as a writer, and developing an eye for his market… a scant six years after the Empire Windrush made port I’m sure there were many readers in Britain slurping down this part-informed pulp like conch chowder.
Later Bond excursions to the Caribbean, and the US, are more assured, though still cynical; supporting characters more developed, less one dimensional, though still flat. We’ll come back to those. Turning our attention to the surface appeal, the little details of sex and food and violence, as in Casino Royale, Fleming’s violence is casual, his dialogue dry as a waft of Kina Lillet. Bond’s little finger is broken as a punishment by Mr Big, Leiter is fed to sharks… Fleming’s own arched eyebrow at the typewriter is telegraphed with “He disagreed with something that ate him (we have plenty more jokes as good as this).”
The food porn is amusing, both in menu content and in its condescension:
‘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?’
‘It sounds fine,’ said Bond with a mental reservation about the melted butterscotch.
They sat down and ate steadily through each delicious course of American cooking at its rare best.
“American cooking at its rare best”!
There’s actually a kind of double reverse snobbery here, with such a menu today coming across as pretty commonplace, although I am talking about Western cultural norms, of course. Yet the meal does actually sound pretty good as well… at a time of rationed meat and just re-introduced sweets, to a half-famished Brit-in-the-street such bounty would have been as exotically unattainable as a Caribbean treasure cave. Fleming knows this: it’s already an obvious part of the appeal, the sniffy dismissals of greasy spoon diner food in other chapters, extolled hearty breakfasts, and label Mabelry in the usual areas such as cigarettes and alcohol.
Fleming does also, on occasion, do an admirable job of absorbing some tougher moments from thriller fiction, while sustaining a depiction of enduring British importance in global affairs that is as exciting and endearing as it is wholly implausible. Revisiting LALD, I was struck by how uncomfortable a book it is to read in many ways, and not just with regard to race, music and menus. As a Brit, seeing one’s cultural past through the lens of pop novels, films, etc, can be instructive. It both preserves and diminishes. I look forward to reading the Andy McNab books in thirty years to see what they say about our just-post-millenial continued need for action tools.
Note, not “re-read”… this is part of that discomfort. Something that perhaps should be bourne in mind when talking about thrillers is that they are generally popular but critically unloved. If the films hadn’t turned Bond into Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, globally recognised and archetypal, it is entirely possible that the books would have fallen by the wayside a little, later ones perhaps even going unwritten in favour of more journalistic non-fiction exercises like The Diamond Smugglers. Hypothetical, of course, but it would be interesting to consider worlds – fictional and actual – where Bond dies at the end of… well, we’ll come back to that one too.
Bond is also an uncomfortable character to read in LALD. Something that many writers have picked up on in recent Bond retrospectives and analyses is the idea that Fleming was writing Bond as much as a critique as a celebration of the secret agent, man as blunt instrument, thug with a gun being pointed at the bad guys, whoever these are deemed to be. In LALD as a straight thriller, Bond is reassuringly tough. His laconic style can support this reading. “Don’t be seen… Wear a veil or something,” he suggests to Solitaire, Mr Big’s erstwhile pet psychic and Bond’s burgeoning love interest, as they escape New York.
However, even though Bond’s reward is food and sex, Fleming makes it clear that Bond is not invincible. He is damaged, and damageable. It is the thousand cuts of coral scrapings, pistol whippings, beatings and little finger breakings that whittle at the Bond of the books and make him such a compelling character as the series progresses. In LALD, the climactic scene where “the first tears since his childhood” well in Bond’s eyes is an odd, touching moment. It is one of a number of such episodes throughout the novels that show us glimpses of the more human Bond, rather than Bond the Cold War style template anachronism, suave cinematic superman.
Fleming stayed home for the next novel in the sequence, Moonraker, set entirely in Britain. Here is a link for Moonraker as discussed in the piece that kicked off this project at Ten Minutes Hate.
James Bond will return in
JCG’s The Mortal Bath’s review of Diamonds are Forever!