Diamonds Are Forever and Dr No Audio Book Review

Diamonds Are Forever

First up, an abridged adaption of Diamonds Are Forever, read by Rufus Sewell in 2002. I quite like the simplicity of these adaptions and they are fairly pleasant if you need something to listen to when you are walking somewhere or waiting for a train. Diamonds Are Forever was the fourth book in the famous series by Ian Fleming and published in 1956. It isn't regarded to be one of the most inspired things Fleming wrote but does have some good moments. The story revolves around a highly efficient diamond smuggling ring that is snaffling diamonds in Africa on a large scale and secretly transporting them to the United States. This is costing the British government a lot of money so MI6 (as usual) send James Bond 007 to New York to look into this crooked scheme. Bond is warned that the culprits are most probably the mafia - specifically a brutal crime organisation known as 'The Spangled Mob' and led by Seraffimo Spang. Allied with the beautiful Tiffany Case, Bond must investigate and infiltrate the diamond smuggling operation and the very dangerous characters that are behind it...

One problem that many have with the story here is that the villains lack the grand nefarious schemes, sophistication, scope and larger than life appeal of the more memorable baddies in the 007 series. The villains in Diamonds Are Forever are essentially American mobsters. They aren't trying to hold the world to nuclear ransom, stealing Vulcan bombers or living on a sun drenched private island. They are just criminals trying to make money. While it perhaps makes the story more grounded and believable than some of the more far out Bond plots this does feel like one Bond entry that is missing a classic nemesis for our martini guzzling hero. Seraffimo Spang is basically a mob boss obsessed with the Old West. He's not a bad villain but he's hardly Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Fleming's depiction of these American mobster types isn't always terribly convincing and it's one Bond book where he sometimes doesn't quite seem sure of his footing. It's not quite so noticeable in an abridged audio version than it is reading the whole novel but it is detectable. Fleming is definitely more convincing with some urbane SPECTRE type swanning around Europe in casinos than he is with these period Tony Sopranos.

Diamonds Are Forever is a slightly strange Bond novel at times and therefore never works quite as well as an Audio CD as some of the other books in this series. The story is set in the United States and American set Bonds never quite have the same atmosphere as the more European and globetrotting entries. Another thing about this novel is that it has quite a languid jet-lagged atmosphere at times and this quality is slightly reigned in by the abridged format. Ian Fleming was famously a very descriptive writer and it was both a strength and a weakness. He could paint a wonderful picture of a certain place or location but also waffle on far too much when describing something technical or a particular object. In Diamonds Are Forever though Fleming's descriptive obsessiveness is often a strength and the audio version loses something by trimming his more elaborate flourishes and scene setting at times.

Rufus Sewell is quite good at the low-key stuff and although there is a good sense of time and place here just a bit more of the dreamlike atmosphere of the novel would have been nice. What descriptive passages there are that dwell on some of the locations Bond visits are amongst the best things for Sewell to read. 'The first thing that struck bond about Saratoga was the green majesty of the elms, which gave the discreet avenues of colonial-type clapboard houses some of the peace and serenity of a European watering place. And there were horses everywhere, being walked across the streets, with a policeman holding up the traffic, being coaxed out of horse-boxes around the sprawling groups of stables, cantering along the cinder borders of the roads, and being led to work on the exercise track alongside the race-course near the centre of town.'

I like the unobtrusive nature of these particular adaptions and while this is not one of the strongest stories for Sewell to read to us it still becomes very absorbing even if you've read the novel a couple of times. There are some decent supporting characters too, even if the villain isn't that great. Tiffany Case is a good Bond girl with some decent lines ('I don't often date a good-looking Englishman and the dinner's going to live up to the occasion') and Wint & Kidd make memorable henchmen for Spang. Wint & Kidd are obviously supposed to be gay but Fleming's more dated flourishes around this are understandably negated and excised in this audio version. A mention too for Felix Leiter who makes a welcome return and is now a 'Pinkerton' detective. This is a competent adaption on the whole but suffers a little from not being one of Fleming's tighter and more memorable novels.

Dr No

Another abridged Bond Audio CD from 2002 read by Rufus Sewell, in this case Dr No, the sixth book in the series by Ian Fleming and first published in 1958. The story immediately picks up from the events of From Russia With Love where Bond was left with a nasty case of poisoning after his encounter with Russian agent Rosa Klebb. After being diagnosed and cured, a still shaky Bond is given an easy assignment by M to ease him back into his duties and also humiliate him slightly for nearly being killed on his last mission. Bond is rather insulted by this but the apparently innocuous assignment turns out to be anything but easy. Bond is asked to look into the disappearance of Jack Strangways, the SIS Head of Station Jamaica. Strangways and his secretary have gone missing and the general assumption is that they've run away together. On arrival in the West Indies though, Bond soon begins to discover that the mysterious Dr Julius No may be involved. Dr No is a secretive Chinese-German bird-dung merchant with a heavily guarded and mysterious private island known as Crab Key and it is said that any ornithologists who venture too close to Crab Key with their binoculars and flasks of soup have an unfortunate habit of vanishing. What in the name of George Lazenby is this enigmatic bird-dung millionaire up to?

On the whole, Dr No works works very well as an audio book, better in fact than some of the more languid and rambling entries in the series. This is Fleming at his most surreal and macabre and the strange atmosphere of the book is rather cosy and enjoyable to listen to through your earphones. Fleming spent most of the year in the West Indies at Goldeneye, his Jamaican retreat where he wrote the Bond novels on an old typewriter with a drink always to hand. He was a something of an authority on the area and the story here is laced with evocative and enjoyable descriptions of locations, beaches, wildlife and the sun drenched atmosphere of life in this part of the world. This all makes Dr No work wonderfully well as a story to read at times and if the abridged format means that some of the atmosphere of these books is slightly lost it does at least have the advantage of sparing us some of Fleming's more encyclopedic and unnecessary descriptive flourishes where he talks about the history of porridge for three pages or something. The hangover elements here from the previous book (From Russia With Love) are fun too at the start. Bond has been poisoned with tetrodotoxin, a toxin taken from a type of Japanese fish. I hate it when that happens!

I tend to like the simplicity of these adaptions and find them pleasantly introspective and low-key to listen to. The full cast James Bond radio adaptions I've listened to have been quite disappointing and you alway have a couple of voices in there that get on your nerves. They tend to be a bit more showy too with background noises and music, something which can sometimes be a plus and sometimes be a weakness. It helps the story here that Dr No (based on Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu) is an enjoyably bonkers Fleming creation for Bond to match wits with. No's mysterious island contains spiders, crabs and a fiendish obstacle course that makes anything on I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here look like an absolute doddle. He tries to kill Bond by putting a deadly centipede in his bed and is obsessed with the limits of human endurance. And anyone who thinks James Bond is supposed to be incredibly worthy, miserable and serious BAFTA baiting fare (and yes I'm talking to you Barbara Broccoli) must have forgotten the part here where Bond wrestles with a giant squid! In typical Fleming style, Dr No has grotesque physical characteristics plus metal claws for hands. Like all good Bond villains though, he's quite refined and suave in his own nutty way. 'Let us proceed with our talk,' says No to Bond. 'It is a rare pleasure to have an intelligent listener.' He's so right!

The story has a memorable Bond girl too in Honeychile Rider (forever immortalised by Ursula Andress in the film version) and Ryder's first appearance in the novel is Fleming at his cheekiest. Dr No is interesting because it feels like a pivotal point in which the Bond universe as we would come to know it is all falling into place and creating a world with fixed points that could be returned to again and again. We have Q - or Major Boothroyd - as Bond's gadget supplier and armourer and some of Bond's more familiar traits are established, like his favourite tipple for example. 'A medium Vodka dry martini with a slice of lemon peel. Shaken and not stirred, please.' Sadism, that other Fleming staple, was introduced to the series right from the start, but the author further explores this particular element with the devious games No has in store for Bond, describing the pain our hero endures with great relish and detail. 

This is a sadistic, far out and superior thriller by Ian Fleming and enjoyably conveyed by Sewell in this audio adaption. Sewell is not the greatest reader I've ever encountered but he does certain accents well and isn't too irritating. I quite like him in these on the whole. While these are truncated I think they generally do a decent job in deciding what to trim and the more dated elements of the book are negated somewhat - if never completely erased. Ian Fleming books are not the most politically correct stories you've ever read but they are very much of their time and that is of course both a strength and a weakness today. It's fun to be taken back to the fifties and plunged into an adventure with James Bond and also a teensy bit jarring to encounter the odd term or line that would appear rather racist or sexist to us today. This version of Dr No is not bad at all and worth a look if you see it at a bargain price.

- Jake


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