by Ian Fleming
Gotta get it out of the way right now: this one struck me as a little bit racist. It starts on the second page, in which Bond compares himself to a “negro whose shadow has been stolen by the witch-doctor.” Later on we get to the chapter called “Nigger Heaven” (referring to Harlem). Oh, and Bond’s mission involves taking down a nationwide organization of American Communists. That last one doesn’t seem so bad, right? Well, the organization in question consists of every black person in America. They toe the line out of malevolence, stupidity, or fear of Mr. Big’s voodoo powers. Fleming seems to have some, uh, old-fashioned views on race. Of course, if you’re reading any James Bond book, you’re probably at least aware of some of the more odious attitudes that can be found within. I mean, Bond isn’t exactly a feminist hero, either, so you can’t be surprised that he’s not at the vanguard of civil rights and tolerance.
That being said, Fleming writes a hell of a book. And a refreshingly short one; I mentioned before how short Casino Royale was, and the rest of the Bond novels are no different. They’re quick and violent, and 007 rarely wastes time brooding. Sure, there’s always some exposition, and Fleming revels in the details of, for instance, a train ride from New York to Florida, which I doubt is actually as romantic as he seems to think. (I’ve ridden Amtrak.) But when action gets going, it goes hard and fast. The first action sequence of Live and Let die takes place beneath a Harlem nightclub following a burlesque act, and there’s something about the scene that just keeps you entranced.
This is also when 007’s nemeses started to become the “Bond villains” that we’re all familiar with. While Mr. Big is, like his predecessor Le Chiffre, a Soviet agent, he’s also an unusually large man with a skin condition whose appearance leads his cronies to believe that he’s also the zombie of Baron Samedi. (Black people are really into voodoo in in Fleming’s America.) In both appearance and status, Mr. Big is the first larger-than-life Bond villain, and he provides a good template that the books and movies return to again and again. (Kingsman jokes on this idea by giving Samuel L. Jackson’s villain a lisp. Actually, that whole movie is a great homage to and send-up of Bond and other spy movies. I highly recommend it.)
By the by, in addition to reading Live and Let Die the first time I read the Bond series in middle school, I started the book again a little over two years ago. I even started writing this very blog post. Unfortunately, I left a Dr Pepper on my bedside table next to the book, and apparently those Chipotle cups just aren’t meant to hold liquid for very long. I took the book off the table and left it somewhere to dry, then I went on to read something else. I ended up moving soon thereafter, packing up all my Bond books and letting them sit in a box for almost a year. I moved again, and again, until I finally ended up in a semi-permanent spot. Everything was unpacked, and I finally got around to finishing my soda-stained book as well as this blog post.
I just wanted to let you know how dedicated I am to the craft.
Live and Let Die might be the most politically incorrect Bond novel, at least to a 21st century reader, but the completist can’t just skip it, and its action makes it worth checking out anyway. Also, I wasn’t kidding about Kingsman. See that shit.