Moonraker ended with James Bond taking a bit of a vacation. Ian Fleming’s 4th book in the series picks up a couple of months later with M instructing Bond to investigate a diamond smuggling ring, running the gems from African mines to the United States. Bond’s assignment is to run the pipeline and learn who’s behind it all. Working under the assumed name of Peter Franks, a petty crook already known for diamond smuggling, Bond meets Tiffany Case, a mysterious go-between. In typical Bond style, he falls for her in the process of trying to learn everything he can from her about her employers.
Before long, Bond learns the ring is being operated by an American gang known as “The Spangled Mob,” run by brothers Jack and Seraffimo Spang, and that they employ the ruthless assassins Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. The pipeline begins with a dentist in Africa who pays miners to smuggle diamonds in their mouth, which would be extracted during a routine appointment. From there, the dentist meets with a German pilot to transport the diamonds via helicopter to London. Once in London, Tiffany gets an assignment from a contact known only as ABC, meeting with “the hire” to explain how to smuggle the diamonds to New York City. That contact is then instructed how to receive the payout, delivered through rigged gambling. You’d think after years of espionage against the likes of the KGB and SMERSH that learning something like this would be somewhat routine for Bond. Not so much. He has to learn this the hard way because Tiffany’s role in this is completely automated by phone recording. All in all, it’s rather ingenious for 1956.
Working undercover, Bond smuggles his diamonds to New York inside fake golf balls. He’s given $1,000 and given instructions for payoff by bidding on the race horse Shy Smile. In the midst of this, he runs into his old friend Felix Leiter. Leiter has left the CIA due to the injuries he sustained in Live and Let Die, and he’s now working as a private detective for the Pinkertons. It seems the real Shy Smile is dead, and his identifying tattoo has been put on another horse. Working together, Bond and Leiter turn the tables and get Shy Smile disqualified.
Receiving another $1,000 from the mob, Bond is instructed to gamble four hands in Las Vegas at The Tiara, a casino owned by Saraffimo Spang. Pressing his luck as he tends to do, Bond turns a $5,000 payout into $20,000 in a game of roulette. Of course you can’t double-cross the mob without consequences, so Bond is driven off the road, captured, and tortured aboard Spang’s historic train in a recreated ghost town called Spectreville.
Fan note: Spectreville has no connection whatsoever to SPECTRE, which will appear later on in Thunderball. SPECTRE has become such a part of the lore, that new fans sometimes draw lines where there are none.
Bond has been trying to win Tiffany over since they met, and apparently it worked. Her feelings for him causes her to turn against the mob, and Bond escapes the train with her help. Then just for good measure, they destroy the train, killing Seraffimo Spang. They flee to New York, catching the Queen Mary bound for London. It can’t be that easy, however. Wint and Kidd spot them aboard the ship and capture Tiffany. Suffice it to say, Bond’s at his best when there’s a woman involved, so he makes short work of both assassins. From there, Bond stakes out the contact point for the mine dentist in Sierra Leone, eliminates everyone in the smuggling ring as he comes across them, and finishes the job in classic Bond style in Africa.
Over the years, this has never been one of my favorite 007 novels, but I have to admit that it gets a little better every single time I read it. I think the problem begins with the fact that the next one, From Russia With Love, is a far superior novel, followed by Dr. No and Goldfinger. I tend to read the entire series rather than one here or there at random, so this one is often the speedbump that I have to burn past in an effort to get to the really good stuff on the other side. I burned through it again this time too, then I decided to change my tact and read it properly for its own merits. The other issue to overcome is the stigma that I consider the movie to be one of the three worst in the entire franchise, and there’s just enough similarities here to remind me of that farce. It says something for the quality of the book, however, that this book can overcome all of it when given proper consideration. It’s a fun read. More than that, I can honestly say that in thinking about it to write this entry, it’s become even better in my mind as I put the pieces together. I love it when that happens. That’s why I do these kinds of blog posts.
Tiffany Case is blissfully nothing like her screen counterpart. The original character has had an incredibly tough life, and as a result is rather apathetic towards men and life as a whole. Her no-nonsense attitude is probably why Bond is attracted to her. People typically want what they can’t have, and Bond just never knows when to say no because he’s made a career of doing the impossible. That’s just who he is. A number of the memorable Bond girls are “sexually damaged,” which gives them an air of both vulnerability and danger, a combination that Fleming was clearly attracted to and encountered often in his world. Even so, it’s easy to make the argument that Tiffany is Fleming’s first fully-formed female character, coming across as every bit as real as Bond within the confines of the novel. It makes me wonder if she’s based on a real person, to be quite honest. In the course of the Bond novels, there are tiers for the Bond girls. Vesper Lynd and Tracy di Vicenzo are the most important women in Bond’s life. They define him. Tiffany Case and Pussy Galore are right behind them in terms of character development and the effect they have on Bond.
Wint and Kidd come across as far more dangerous in the book as well. They’re almost caricatures on screen, but here they are every bit as ruthless and cold-blooded as any villain in Fleming’s series. The rest is what I refer to as the Fleming touch that you just can’t get anywhere else. There’s a bit involving a mud spa and some coffins that’s just too cool for words, and I don’t want to ruin that here for anyone looking to read it. His descriptions of nature, specifically those deadly creatures of nature, are ever insightful. These kinds of things keep Fleming at the top of the pack when it comes to spy novels. He sets the standard for a reason. And if you’re looking for character beats on Bond, this book is also a good source for that. He’s not a character that’s meant to be liked, and often he can only be respected because he’s damn good at what he does. It’s a combination that you can likely apply to Fleming himself and to many of the men under his command back in the war who helped to inspire the Bond character. It also makes him far more human than his nigh-invulnerable screen counterpart.
Fleming had an interest in diamond smuggling, inspired by a Sunday Times article on the subject, which led to this novel. A year after this novel he published a non-fiction book on the subject, The Diamond Smugglers. It was published in the same format as his Bond novels, and as a result it’s often mistakenly identified as a Bond novel. Author Geoffrey Jenkins makes the claim that he once collaborated with Fleming on the plot of a novel he wrote called Per Fine Ounce, featuring James Bond and diamond smuggling. The book has been sited in many sources on Bond, supposedly completed in 1966 but never published.
Fleming’s information on the mob comes from contacts at Los Angeles Police Intelligence and Jack Entratter, the owner of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas at the time Fleming was researching the novel. The security systems and methods of cheating in this novel are straight from real life. That kind of realism is a hallmark of Fleming’s novels, but it’s worth noting that this one is the only one in the series that has nothing to do with the Cold War.
You may have noticed by the dates that these books come out in short order. According to Fleming, his usual practice was to write for three hours in the morning, then “another hour’s work between six and seven in the evening. I never correct anything, and I never go back to see what I have written.” The result is about 2,000 words a day, which I’ve found over the years to be on par with many of the pulp greats of the 30s and 40s. It’s a methodology I’ve tested successfully myself in the past for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Aspiring writers, take note. It’s a system that gets results. You can go back to rewrite and polish later.
As I mentioned before, this book marks the end of the “early” Bond books. The next in the series, From Russia With Love, kickstarts the “classic” era that most people think of when they think Bond.