Live and Let Die is Ian Fleming’s second James Bond novel, and due to its racial depictions is considered to be one of his most controversial.
Let’s go ahead and acknowledge the elephant in the room up front, shall we? I have a feeling this is going to take up far more space than it should, but with this book it’s pretty much unavoidable to engage in a serious discussion these days without calling things out, so I’ll just come out and say it. This book is an uncomfortable read at best by modern standards.
We know that Fleming was many things — womanizer, British elitist, etc. — but a racist he was not. If anything, one could easily point out how intelligent and resourceful the vast majority of his characters are. The cultures he depicts, whether it be Harlem as in this book, or Jamaica in many of his books, or Japan in You Only Live Twice are described as Fleming himself experienced them. His eye for detail comes from a lifetime of work in intelligence and journalism where observational insights are necessary. The problem as I see it is two-fold. The first is that many of his observations are also generational, and what was cultural diversity in one era becomes offensive stereotyping in the next. The second and probably more egregious problem is his word choice. His language might have been acceptable in the circles he traveled in 1954, but these things are always on a sliding scale when it comes to social progression. At this point in the game Fleming’s on the wrong side of the acceptable language arguments. There’s just no way to justify it. His terminology is cartoonishly bad by today’s standards.
So what’s the answer? To edit a work like this? To cover it up? To do so would be an even bigger crime, pretending such things never happened. Instead, I choose to confront a work like this head-on, with eyes open and with full awareness. It’s an opportunity for me as a reader to expand my horizons and encounter something that I know will make me squirm. Personally, I think every reader should do that sort of thing at regular intervals so as to get us over the idea that everything needs to be sanitized. If all you read are “safe” works, then you don’t develop as a reader, or as a person. That’s not what literature is about. That’s not what any form of art is about, regardless of its medium or perception of quality. By seeing what’s there, taking it in context, and being honest about it, we can take steps to ensure that, going forward, we address whatever needs to be addressed, and we develop as individuals and as a society in the process.
Hopefully I come across better than Fleming on this point. The primary reason I dwell on it at all is because I need to make sense of it, at least for my sake if for no one else, because it’s all part of my James Bond experience. You take the good with the bad. If I can’t explain it to myself, I can’t explain it to others when asked, and then sooner or later I get attacked simply for reading the material. Go ahead… ask me how I know. 007’s ability to piss off complete strangers in my world seems to know no bounds.
Putting the racial issues to the backburner then, let’s talk about what the book actually offers since we can agree Fleming didn’t set out to write something that would get him or his readers crucified on the altar of public perception.
In terms of plot, we’ve got a setup for adventure that’s far bigger than the scope of Casino Royale, one that will set the stage for further novels. Following in the wake of the previous novel’s events, Bond is eager for revenge against SMERSH, and makes it known to M. His opportunity comes when one of SMERSH’s agents, a gangster known as Mr. Big, is discovered laundering 17th century gold coins through his operations in Harlem. Trivia: Mr. Big’s name is an acronym of his real name, Buonapart Ignace Gallia.
Bond joins forces once more with his counterpart in the CIA, Felix Leiter. When he confronts Mr. Big, he learns of the villain’s rather incredible modus operandi, which includes the fact that his size and gray skin lead people to believe he is the reanimated zombie of Baron Samedi, possessed and controlled by the voodoo deity himself. In short, people believe he is all-powerful and beyond death, a fiction that Mr. Big has allowed to circulate to further his own ends. During the meeting, Bond meets Solitaire, a pawn in Mr. Big’s operation with a supernatural gift that allows her to act as a human lie detector. Desperate to escape, Solitaire risks everything to connect with Bond, first subtlely in their first encounter through her cards, then later on the phone. Bond agrees and arranges for her to join him on the train bound for Florida, where she is once again captured.
Snooping around Mr. Big’s operation, Leiter is also captured and fed to a shark. Bond very nearly falls into the same trap, but instead moves on to discover that the gold coins are being smuggled under the sand of aquariums holding dangerous fish. Would you try to retrieve them? Neither would I.
Flying to Jamaica, Bond sets out to end Mr. Big’s operation permanently and deal SMERSH a heavy blow. Joining up with Strangways and Quarrel, Bond discovers the island where Mr. Big is excavating the treasure. Locals fear it, always aware of the voodoo chanting and drumming, and dead bodies always appear in the wake of such ritual. The chanting and drums turn out to be recordings that serve not only to frighten the locals, but also to attract sharks and barracuda. Bond manages to attach a mine to Mr. Big’s yacht, but he is captured, tied to Solitaire, and the two of them are dragged behind the boat. The idea is that coral will shred their bodies, which will then attract sharks. The mine detonates before they reach the coral, and they survive (surprise!). Mr. Big also survives the blast, but the sharks and barracuda take him down in a bit of poetic justice.
All in all, this is a plot most of us would consider worthy of 007. Mr. Big has achieved so much power in his organization that the only remaining objective he has is artistry, driving his level of perfection up so high as to gain instant respect in all circles. In short, his worst enemy is boredom, which is a trait he shares with Bond. On this front, the two are evenly matched. Tying in the elements of the voodoo cult was, to my mind, pure genius. What makes it even better is how Bond draws the direct connection between that cult and the early Celts, essentially saying “our people aren’t so different after all.” I’m never quite sure if that’s a backhanded compliment or a poke at superstition as a whole. Whatever the case, Bond understands the power of superstition, taking nothing for granted.
Solitaire is, I think, somewhat underused, but then, I think the same can be said of her big screen counterpart as portrayed by Jane Seymour.
Elements from this book were used primarily in three films. 1973’s Live and Let Die used the characters. 1981’s For Your Eyes Only and especially 1989’s License to Kill used some of the main plot elements not used in the original film. Ironically, David Hedison would play Felix Leiter in both Live and Let Die and License to Kill, one of the few times an actor has reprised this role. That he did so for these two movies specifically… that’s just spooky considering how his character fared here. Strangways and Quarrel were used in 1962’s Dr. No. Strangways was killed at the beginning, prompting Bond’s investigation.
One last point before I wrap this up. Fleming seems to have a grudge against American breakfast, especially in the South, and against what Americans call coffee. I realize these things are subjective, especially coming from a world traveler like him. I’ll respectfully disagree on all counts. I’ve had a traditional English breakfast. Seriously, you’re comparing this to the veritable feast that is a traditional Southern American breakfast? He didn’t bash it at every turn, but still. Some things just get personal. Granted, the standard diner-quality coffee of the era (or really of any era since) isn’t that great, but I’m going to call out Fleming on his choices. I know at one point later in the series he declares Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee to be the best coffee on the planet. Eh, it’s good, but hardly near the upper echelons of coffeedom in my humble estimation. Clearly he’s never had the liquid bliss that is Kauai Peaberry. Just saying.