Live and Let Die - Audio Book Review

A James Bond Audio CD - read by Rufus Sewell. Ian Fleming's 1954 novel Live and Let Die was only the second Bond book to be published and is generally regarded to be one of the better of the series. This is the one with voodoo capers and finds Bond investigating 'Mr Big', a feared crime figure in the black underworld of Harlem. Mr Big is behind a huge scheme that involves gold coins from seventeenth century pirate Henry Morgan being used to support a clandestine Soviet spy ring in the United States.
He's a SMERSH operative and as ever the British Secret Service sends 007 to rumble his plans. You'd think he was their only agent sometimes! However, our villain proves to be one of the most dangerous characters Bond has ever tangled with as the usual Fleming mixture of sadism, sex, intrigue, escapism, political incorrectness, snobbery, food, drink, exotic locations and danger plays out, from the streets of Harlem to the Everglades to the West Indies...
If anything I tend to prefer these simpler Audio CD adaptions to the more ambitious full cast ones that they attempt now and again. The full cast ones sometimes seem a bit stagey and theatrical whereas these ones are more intimate and give you more freedom to imagine how characters might actually sound or look. If Ian McKellen is playing Goldfinger in a Radio 4 thing you unavoidably keep imagining Goldfinger to look like Ian McKellen. You don't really get that problem here and Sewell is a crisp and unobtrusive reader of the novel.
The story here benefits greatly from strong supporting characters for our hero and the atmosphere of the novel is nicely conveyed. The chief female character here is Solitaire, the blue-eyed and alluring fortune teller held prisoner by Mr Big. It's almost impossible not to imagine Solitaire looking like a young Jane Seymour when you listen to the CD but then that's certainly not a bad thing. The story here is, of course, much tougher and less campy than the 1973 Roger Moore film of the same name, and a period piece.
The period atmosphere is a big part of the fun of Fleming books and here you are taken back to fifties Harlem and a time of Cadillacs and Sugar Ray Robinson owning half of the area. Another thing these abridged adaptions do is manage to reign in some of Fleming's longeurs and recaps. Fleming was an enjoyably descriptive writer but he did sometimes read like he was regurgitating an encyclopedia entry on something. This did work to his advantage though when he wrote about food, a subject that both he and James Bond took very seriously. Sewell describes some of the varied things Bond guzzles in the United States, from hamburgers to crabs, in bits taken from Fleming's always memorable grub ramblings.
I didn't feel like anything too irritating was left out here from the book and although reading the novel is obviously more comprehensive this quite good fun if you are stuck on a train. I loathe being stuck on a train or train station platform without a book or something to listen to personally. Mr Big is a pretty good villain here and has just about the right mixture of manners and brutality. 'Mr 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.'
Despite the smooth exterior, he will ask his henchman Tee-Hee to break something upon your person if you get on his nerves too much though. This is a rather atmospheric story too with the far flung locations. It's much larger in scope than Casino Royale and more exotic with set-pieces like a dangerous swim in shark infested waters.
These passages are amongst the most entertaining as you listen to the CD with Fleming always quite a dab hand at building tension and putting our hero into some tricky situations. There are some good lines in this one too. Told by a Captain Dexter that they have a 'live and let live' policy towards Big until the case is 'ripe', Bond responds; 'In my job, when I come up against a man like this one, I have another motto. It's "live and let die".' This is also the book where Fleming talks about 'accidie', a term for boredom or, as Fleming says, 'the deadly lethargy that envelops those who are sated, those who have no desires.' Big suffers from this, as too does Bond from time to time.
This Live and Let Die Audio CD is generally good fun even if you have read the book and well described too by Sewell. It helps of course that this is one of the stronger Fleming novels and the straight ahead slightly low-key manner of this works perfectly well even when put against more elaborate Audio Books that rope in a cast and some big names.
- Jake

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