He disagreed with something that ate him - Ian Fleming's Live and Let Die

"Beautiful, fortune-telling Solitaire is the prisoner (and tool) of Mr Big - master of fear, artist in crime and Voodoo Baron of Death. James Bond has no time for superstition - he knows that Big is also a top SMERSH operative and a real threat. More than that, after tracking him through the jazz joints of Harlem, to the Everglades and on to the Caribbean, 007 has realised that he is one of the most dangerous men that he has ever faced. And no one, not even the enigmatic Solitaire, can be sure how their battle of wills is going to end."

Live and Let Die was the second James Bond novel written by Ian Fleming and originally published in 1954. The plot of the book begins with gold coins from seventeenth century pirate Henry Morgan turning up in the United States and being sold to fund the Soviet spy network there. The operation is masterminded by SMERSH operative 'Mr Big', mysterious and feared boss of the black underworld. James Bond is dispatched to New York by M to investigate where he teams up with old friend Felix Leiter - now working as a FBI/CIA liaison officer - and is soon up to his neck in intrigue and danger in locations as diverse as Harlem, St Petersburg and Jamaica...

It's fair to say that Fleming's second Bond book is more quickly paced and larger in scope than the first Bond novel Casino Royale. We get the first sense of Bond as an international globetrotter and his investigation of Mr Big is interesting because we learn that Big rules by fear with a network of voices reporting anything to him. He's quite a sinister character and we often feel an element of danger for Bond as he seeks to get more information. Big uses voodoo superstitions to control the black population and keeps fortune teller Solitare close by and although the voodoo elements are a bit hokey it does inject an air of the exotic into the book. In typical Fleming fashion we also get a lot of information presented to us about voodoo ('The next step [he read] is the invocation of evil denizens of the Voodoo pantheon...') and indeed the history of Henry Morgan.

As you'd expect from an Fleming though the story is exciting and there are plenty of entertaining and tense moments like a duel with a robber in a warehouse and an atmospheric night swim to a Caribbean island by Bond where he is literally swimming with the sharks. The author's tendency to 'recap' is a tad unnecessary at times but he creates a vivid fifties atmosphere and the scenes in Harlem are always interesting. Live and Let Die though is somewhat dated and patronising at times in its depiction of black people and some moments are a tad jarring for the modern reader - especially Fleming's attempts at black 'slang'. 

It's interesting to read the sections in the book which were later used for the film series. An attack on Leiter in Live and Let Die was used in the film Licence To Kill and another famous set-piece where Bond and Solitaire are tied up and face the prospect of being keelhauled over coral underwater was borrowed for For You Eyes Only. One thing I quite like about the books - which they understandably tend to avoid in the films - is that they reference real people from the era in which they were written. An example here being the legendary boxer Sugar Ray Robinson who gets a mention during the Harlem sections. 'Let's hope we both know when to stop when the time comes,' says Leiter to Bond .

We learn more about Bond in this second novel which is always fun. He takes benzedrine tablets for strength and on missions where he is required to act the part of a rich man 'takes refuge in good living to efface the memory of danger and the shadow of death.' His friendship with Leiter is more fleshed out and there are some nice little scene-setting character moments when Bond is alone with his thoughts - 'Far below the streets were rivers of neon lighting, crimson, blue, green. The wind sighed sadly outside in the velvet dusk, lending his room still more warmth and security and luxury. He thought of the bitter weather in London streets, the grudging warmth of the hissing gas-fire in his office at Headquarters, the chalked-up menu on the pub he had passed on his last day in London.' Food is always an important part of Bond's life and as usual Fleming describes many of his meals ('Soft-shell crabs with tartare sauce, flat beef Hamburgers, medium-rare, from the charcoal grill..) in intricate detail.

Mr Big makes a grand, colourful villain and like any Bond baddie worth his salt has his own private island. He's described as having grey skin from heart disease and has a 'great football of a head' with no hair - including eyebrows. He's also a villain who projects an air of menace especially in a passage when he asks henchman Tee Hee to break one of Bond's fingers. He's given some enjoyable Bond villain speeches too - 'Mister Bond, I take pleasure now only in artistry, in the polish and finesse which I can bring to my operations. It has become almost a mania with me to impart an absolute rightness, a high elegance, to the execution of my affairs.' In a nice touch, Big suffers from 'accidie', a word the 'early Christians' had for boredom, 'the deadly lethargy that envelops those who are sated, those who have no desires.' It's interesting because one could say Bond himself suffers from this himself.

Solitaire is a typically alluring Bond girl although perhaps not as interesting or complex as Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. 'Her face was pale, with the pallor of white families that have lived long in the tropics,' writes Fleming. 'But it contained no trace of the usual exhaustion which the tropics impart to the skin and hair. The eyes were blue, alight and disdainful, but, as they gazed into his with a touch of humour, he realized they contained some message for him personally.'

The perpetually laughing Tee-Hee is a decent henchman and the use of Felix Leiter here is nicely done. The friendship between Leiter and Bond really comes through in this book and we see that the two men have much in common. Bond's reaction to Leiter's trouble is quite poignant in Live and Let Die.

Despite dated elements, Live and Let Die is an entertaining and interesting book with some good set-pieces that builds to a suspenseful finale.

- Jake


c 2009 Alternative 007