On re-reading, Ian Fleming’s fourth Bond novel now sparkles among the top grades of my favourites. Although not without flaws, the subject matter, structure and themes are finely cut and polished.

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Diamonds are Forever (DAF) succeeds, mostly, because Bond is not being given more consideration than the characters against whom he is set. He is reduced from larger-than-life protagonist, becoming a facet of a complex whole. ‘Nothing you could put your finger on,’ as it says in chapter 3 (‘HOT ICE’), ‘but it all added up to someone who certainly wasn’t James Bond.’

DAF is based on research carried out for The Diamond Smugglers, a non-fiction work by Fleming. I have never managed to get round to finding a copy of, never mind reading The Diamond Smugglers, despite countless occasions seeing the advert in the back of the Great Pan paperbacks. However, the notebook scribbles seem to have had a positive effect on Fleming, adding realism and authenticity where sometimes his novels savour too much of the GQ opinion piece. There is an impression that this is essentially a true story, to some extent a journalistic article that has been ‘Bonded up’.

Listener called it ‘supersonic John Buchan’, as quoted on the cover of the edition I have. As well as being just about one of my favourite phrases ever, this is also a deft summary of Fleming’s contribution to literature overall. DAF is, as with the best of the Bond books, a strong cocktail of adventure yarn, where the reader reads knowing that Bond will triumph, shaken with post-war cynicism, jet age concerns and obsessions, and a good dash of relentless pace. Everything is planes, trains and automobiles fast.

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In DAF, the attitude of Bond to the bad guys is habitually dismissive. He refers to them repeatedly as jumped up gangsters, cowboys. Among the points of negative criticism one could make is that the antagonists, as in Live and Let Die, are again almost caricatures. Bond sees Serrafimo Spang as ‘having more to him’, only prompted by a visit to Spectreville, Spang’s rich man’s folly, a Western ghost town with working railway, beautiful old frontier rail engine, and a champagne supper in luxurious caboose.

‘More’, presumably, in an Old Europe class sense, with ‘class’ here being both ‘having class’, according to what might be called Fleming’s notions of fashionable acceptability, and class conscious snobbery, where champagne suppers trump broiled beef patties and root beer. Undercutting this, Spang then rocks up wearing chaps, a Stetson, carrying two massive guns at his hips. It’s a few brush strokes too far, as if Fleming can’t bring himself to have our hero come up against a convincing adversary.

This chimes with Fleming’s continuing depiction of the USA as a garish Technicolor bauble. Here’s an awesome description of Las Vegas from Chapter 15, ‘RUE DE LA PAY’:

They were just entering the famous ‘Strip’. The desert on both sides of the road, which had been empty except for occasional hoardings advertising the hotels, was beginning to sprout gas stations and motels. They passed a motel with a swimming pool which had built-up transparent glass sides. As they drove by, a girl dived into the bright green water and her body sliced through the tank in a cloud of bubbles. Then came a gas station with an elegant drive-in restaurant. GASETERIA, it said. FRESH-UP HERE! HOT DOGS! JUMBOBURGERS!! ATOMBURGERS!! ICE COOL DRINKS!!! DRIVE IN, and there were two or three cars being served by waitresses in high heels and two-piece bathing suits.

Supersonic John Buchan. It is hilarious, and likely entirely made up, but has the wide eyed, slightly sniffy, authentic air of Stateside road trip observation. It’s also a fantastic set of Kodachrome slide image descriptions. One gets the impression Fleming adored the USA as ‘land of plenty and opportunity’, but with a cagey distrust. Perhaps depicting a realm of unrefined tastes and Hollywood unreality was a way of mitigating the relentless ascendancy of America after the Second World War. Perhaps one reads too much into what is essentially entertainment, although the politics of the potboiler are often the most accurate gauge of an era.

Yet, regarding characterisation, Fleming didn’t just hang his ideas on shop dummies (didn’t just hang his ideas…) DAF is improved with genuinely menacing henchmen, driven straight over from crime noir magazines, literally dripping hot sulphur as they snarl and maim their way through the book. Tough guys. Spare talk is cut. They are excellent examples of villains that do wisecracking, far superior to anything Bond came out with in the films, actually. Never mind the camp histrionics of Wint as he gets tossed overboard in the garish Technicolor Connery bauble – the ‘two torpedoes’ in the book are bad brotherlovers.

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Wint and Kidd as problematic, even homophobic, characters stems more from the “cartoon homo” aspects of their portrayal in the film, I think. While thumb sucking and eccentric (wearing a tag reading “My Blood Group is F”), it is important that in the novel Wint and Kidd are primarily dour-faced sadistic killers. Any ‘relationship’ is hinted at. Possibly we have Fleming saying something Partridge-esque about how gays, like women, should be shot first, as they are more dangerous… possibly he is being more playful. Miles from the film though Wint and Kidd are here, it is hard not to imagine Fleming giggling to himself as he constructs this “fairy tale” climax, where the effects and innuendo as Our Hero clambers about the cruise ship are slathered on like Sauce Béarnaise.

Indeed, one might make also a great deal of the symbolism of this particular end to the book’s strand of Bond’s romance with female lead Tiffany Case (oh, Mr Fleming, ha ha ha). Damaged goods but heart of gold, only needs a good buffing for her true qualities to shine forth, etc. I sell Tiffany short, actually – there is a surprising amount of depth to her as a character, although in the ‘been roughed up a bit’ kind of lost-kitten-turned-tigress way that Fleming’s female characters tend to have to have. She is given a few good lines, but she is basically there for Bond to ‘use’… although Bond early on decides to be a knight in some sort of armour for Case:

It was his job to use her, but, whatever the job dictated, there was one way he would never ‘use’ this particular girl. Through the heart.

Oh, James. And, as with LALD, there is at the end only weariness from Bond, a preoccupation with the realities of his role, his own heart-sickness, rather than a quick dissolve to the closing credits eiderdown samba.

In the climactic tussle with the killers, the reference to targeted weapons provides a chance for Fleming to wax ruminative about death, life and the lot of the extra-legal operative. Given the emphasis on the unfortunate scorpion at the beginning, there are a number of interpretations one could make of the way that ever more powerful predators predate on various prey throughout the book. We zoom in and out, through Fleming’s monocle/jeweller’s eyeglass, bouncing off facets in the diamond, refractions of scarab beetles and scorpions, nature red in claw and tooth, a dentist killed by Spang/ABC, Spang destroyed in turn by a Bofors gun operated by Bond.

And, of course, it’s still an adventure story, to which Fleming rather curiously draws our attention in his cynical epitaph: “It reads better than it lives”. The distance between fictional excitement and the mundanities, and horrors, of ‘real world’ global cops and robbers. With all this and Bond’s continuing status as blunt instrument in mind, one wonders what apparatus may appear in the next instalment.

James Bond will return in 10 Minutes Hate’s look at From Russia With Love!

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