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.


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.


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.


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!

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.

(Check out the excellent Strange Maps blog, where I found this helpful cartographical curiosity.)

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!

Previously in The Mortal Bath… ‘Fasten your lap-strap’.

Casino Royale (CR), the first James Bond novel, was published in 1953. Here, from the lavish ianfleming.com website, is the original Jonathan Cape jacket blurb:

The dry riffle of the cards and the soft whirr of the roulette wheel, the sharp call of the croupiers and the feverish mutter of a crowded casino hide the thick voice at Bond’s ear which says, ‘I will count up to ten.’

Anyone who has ever gambled will find this tense and sometimes horrifying story of espionage and high gambling irresistible. So will readers who have never entered a casino. Connoisseurs of realistic fiction will particularly note the careful documentation of the Secret Service background, the chilling portrait of Le Chiffre, the authentic menace of SMERSH, and the sensual appeal of the girl in ‘soie sauvage’.

These bumphtious references to conoisseurs and raw silk barely begin to gently stroke the surface of the sensual appeal of the Bond books. Post-war gastronauts, label Mabels and petrolheads would also find much worthy of note within the pages of this landmark novel.* Bond’s reputation as a bon viveur is a significant aspect of the series as a whole, and it’s in CR that many of his predilections and prejudices first surface. He is, to put it bluntly, an aggressive snob in matters of what to eat, drink, drive, smoke, hump.

The cover of the Pan paperback captures the green baize excitement, the essential appeal of Bond, with the cashier’s cheque for an astronomical sum in francs panting continental exoticism, never mind the p’tite wink from the graphics department with the handwritten ‘soixante neuf’…

This consumption with relish of what must have been mostly unattainable pleasures for rationing book Britain appears throughout the Bond canon. Let us take the infamous Vesper cocktail, the ‘vodka martini, shaken, not stirred’ immortalised in the flicks. This bland order does no justice to the thing of alcoholic wonder, ordered with colonial vigour, in the book:

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

Booze pedants will point out that Gordon’s has diluted its recipe since, and so on, that shaking ruins the drink, but Fleming is creating a man who is the measure of all things, knows what he wants and dam’ well gets it. Bond is comfortable adding an absurd proviso regarding grain over potato vodka, lessening the poncery with a ribald crack in the local lingo. He later names the drink after a girl, showing his romantic, perhaps even a sentimental side.

We shall return to Bond’s prodigious consumption in Thunderball, although it is worth noting now that as well as this cirrhotic excess, the gambling and the gorging, Bond smokes around 60 cigarettes a day. However, while there is a lot of this airplane magazine catalogue of ‘cool’ GQ How-To-Guide stuff in the books, Bond’s absurd intake highlights what JCG at Ten Minutes Hate refers to as ‘a… sometimes out-of-control human being.’ Bond is, without doubt, a vehicle for communicating Fleming’s fashionable tastes in the name of excitement and escapism, but he is also a complex character, a haunted one in many ways.

This makes perfect sense given Fleming’s intriguing life story (soon to be filmed again by super Duncan Jones, it says here at ScreenJabber) and the historical context of the book, released a few years after World War II with its own well-rehearsed litany of horrors. Bond is a soldier who, in the absence of a Great Cause, is really just a blunt instrument, a man apparently with a death wish being used to visit it on others, something deliberately worked with by Fleming throughout the novels.

As the first entry in the series, CR establishes some reasons for why this might be. There is the Freudian field day (Field Day is a good name for a Bond girl) start of the infamous series of “Bond babes”, with the dark, quixotic French waft of mystery that is Vesper Lynd. The lemony twist to the tale (such as it is) is of course that Bond’s sentimental attachment to Vesper nearly emasculates him, actually and figuratively. Again, this fallible Bond is far more brutal, and brutalised, than any of the films prior to the Craig reboots, or arguably Pierce Brosnan with a beard in North Korea, managed. The chilling carpet beater scene is convincing and terse.

It also introduces a first ‘new enemy’ for Bond, early Cold War political uncertainty represented in the wonky Cyrillic letter Щ carved into the back of his hand by a heavily-accented Soviet agent. (Check out the excellent Commander Bond website for some far more detailed research and exegesis.) This scene makes explicit Bond’s helplessness in the wider game of history, and the long coda to the novel, with Bond and Lynd’s doomed relationship playing out through convalescence, elaborate meals, empty sex and finally betrayal, is doubtless a metaphor for British involvement in wartime and post-war Europe in some way. The book begins and ends nihilistically; it is a damaged world, full of damaged people, including the protagonist. As Fleming perhaps saw it, life is about the way the cards fall, and how you play them… and the house usually wins.

It is a satisfyingly dark book. Bond has only some of the insouciance and confidence one associates with him, the Secret Agent Man, the suave and apparently indestructible force of justice. His uncertainties and flaws in CR are what make him such a compelling character for the rest of the series. That and the exciting drinks, card games and violence. As a scene setter, and as a standalone work, CR is indeed in many ways irresistible.

*Yes, it is a landmark novel.

Appropriately, for May Day, the stirrings (not shakings) of a James Bond-related project.

J.C. Greenway, currently bank holidaying writer of the excellent Ten Minutes Hate blog, wrote about Moonraker recently, a piece I heartily endorse. Somehow, a discussion of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels – see the comments section here – was suggested.

Something for everyone to look forward to there. So, some considerations on Bond. The notion set me musing on the continuing appeal of the James Bond books. I’ve been a devotee since a while back, probably since I was about 11 or 12. It was a family holiday, a memorable trip for cultural firsts, as part described in the Simon and Garfunkel section here in this music bit of the Mortal Bath. I also became a fan of Fleming, working my way through the series as quickly as I could find the books in various second-hand shops around town back home. Readers who have been to Harrogate may understand the urbane appeal.

I ended up with a full set, as well as two Kingsley Amis additions, Colonel Sun, which faithfully referred to the Casino Royale template of violence, girl and food but was a bit boring, and The Book of Bond, or Every Man His Own 007, which was hilarious. Crucially, it also provided context, a surrounding cosmos for the Bond solar system. Parodying a Playboy/How-To style, Amis used the simple device of quoting the original novels extensively, with dry observations skewering the contradictions, recurring tropes and brand snobbery. Also, Amis being a friend and fan of Fleming, it was clearly revelling in the pot boiler deluxe stylings of the best efforts in the series. This was probably the first time I realised that to parody something effectively you have to love it.

That’s where Bond ended for me, really, with the full set of Fleming and the Amis reductio. The first few John Gardner books I tried were interesting, but it seemed a dilution, somehow, not as compelling. I couldn’t get past the first chapter of Devil May Care more recently for the same reason. And, back in the day, prompted by the lurchings of the film franchise, I had begun to develop Bondsickness. The Book of Bond, at least, amplified self-reflexive, humorous subtexts already present in the books. Importantly, it managed this in a way that did not cheapen them, as Danjaq’s increasingly desperate efforts with the films sometimes did.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll watch an old Bond movie if it’s on, but some of them are pretty ropey.

Anyway, the books, the books. In a moment of teen fundamentalism, manifesting a disastrous decision to “move on”, thinking myself beyond Bond, I divested myself of all the books. I know, I know. If it’s any mitigation, the same period saw me ditching the Clive Cussler and Alistair Maclean collections as well, only one of which decisions is now vindicated. The folly of youth, etc. While having since found what I am convinced was my actual collection in an Oxfam in York, I still no longer have the Book of Bond. I had bought it for £1.00 out of Bell’s Bookshop (sadly defunct). I can’t find the paperback online for less than £15 now.

This reflects, I think it can be convincingly suggested, if not argued in any great detail, the cultural rehabilitation of the original series. The novels-as-objects are hot commodities, the pricing for even bog-standard paperbacks suggesting their desirability. Long since featuring introductions from, like, “proper” writers such as Anthony Burgess, they are also recognised for their contextual importance and lasting cultural impact. And of course, film tie-in, the novels are due for a re-re-release this year. This will no doubt further dent any hopes of ever recapturing my mis-streamlined youth without breaking the bank at Royale-les-Eaux.

It has always been ‘Bond-as-adapted-book’ for me. The films just aren’t as hard, funny, tasty, stupid and horrible as the books. The details and tone of the novels are unique. Still, as JCG notes, the return-to-canon approach of the last few outings has refreshed the movies, while providing new lights with which to re-examine the original texts. The Secret Service trope has been interrogated at length since the 1960s. Bond himself was always part of the deconstruction, at least in the books. One of the main points of appeal is his ambiguity, simultaneously the aspirational model man of tastes and the ‘blunt instrument’, post-war relic adrift intended by Fleming.

I look forward to an exploration of some of these ideas, as well as revisiting my favourite sections. Bondish events here in The Mortal Bath shall start at the very beginning, shortly, with Casino Royale. Fasten your lap-strap…