Monday, March 17, 2014

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming, Chapters 11 - 23

I covered the first half of Live and Let Die a couple of weeks ago. Since this post wraps up the novel, I'll be spoiling some things about the ending.

As Bond and Solitaire make their way by train to Florida to see where Mr. Big is bringing his pirate treasure into the country, the couple begins to flirt, but agree not to have sex yet. For one thing, Bond's hand is still bothering him where Tee Hee broke his little finger and the spy doesn't feel like he can work his moves properly one-handed. Beside that, they suspect that Big has people on the train wanting to kill them, so they're not too keen on getting naked and making themselves vulnerable. They also have to get up early, because Bond wants to sneak off the train in Jacksonville instead of riding it all the way to St. Petersburg/Tampa as planned. Lots of excuses.

The couple is obviously into each other though and pretty much promise to do it as soon as they get the chance. Bond is attracted to Solitaire - she's an aggressive kisser and seems to be a strong, confident woman - and she believes he's the strong man she's been waiting for. Sadly, that's not just about helping her escape Big, but I'll have more to say about that in a minute.

Bond stays very friendly with Solitaire, but it's worth pointing out that he still doesn't seem to entirely trust her. He asks her lots of questions about Big's organization, but he never offers her any information or confides in her about his mission. Like I mentioned in the first half of the novel, Bond's relationship with Solitaire is absolutely not a repeat of what he went through with Vesper. He's having a fun time getting to know Solitaire and seems at ease around her, but he's not letting her in. That's important to the long-term arc of Bond's character throughout the series. He got burned badly in Casino Royale and though Fleming isn't explicit about saying it, Bond's not letting that happen again in Live and Let Die.


In Florida, the novel adds agism to it's already rampant racism. Bond, Solitaire, and Leiter (whom they meet up with again in St. Petersburg) constantly refer to the "oldsters" and "baldheads" in Florida and how gross they are. Vesper calls the area, "The Great American Graveyard" and warns Bond that "it's a terrifying sight, all these old people with their spectacles and hearing-aids and clicking false teeth." When Bond finally gets to see it for himself, he's horrified and Leiter agrees that "it makes you want to climb right into the tomb and pull the lid down." Fleming had a gift for prose, but it's as poorly put to use in this case as it is when he's writing about black people.

It's also in St. Petersburg that Solitaire loses all the strength and confidence she showed when Bond first met her in Big's office. One of the things I'm going to write about when we get to the movies is the moment in most of the films where the girl gets dumb. Many a Bond girl starts the movie capable and smart, but turns into a puddle of "Oh, James" goo by the end. Unfortunately, there's a literary precedent for that with Solitaire. She's quietly defiant in Big's office, but as soon as she gets near his operation in St. Petersburg, she grows frightened and clingy. 

To be fair, that might be her telepathy/precognition at work. She tells Bond that she has a feeling, but can't articulate what it is. And sure enough, something awful happens in St. Petersburg. But her change to scared rabbit is so quick that it's jarring.

As I said though, she has reason to be worried. When Bond and Leiter check out the warehouse where Big's men have been bringing in the pirate loot from Jamaica, it lets Big's operation know where the good guys are. Solitaire is kidnapped and Leiter is captured and fed to a shark at the warehouse. That part is familiar to movie fans because it got used in Licence to Kill, as did Bond's breaking into the warehouse to take his revenge. 

What happens to Leiter is especially worrying and heartbreaking. As we noticed in the first half of the book, Leiter's charm and humor has a positive effect on Bond's dark outlook about his job and the world in general. Leiter is Robin to Bond's Batman. But that makes Live and Let Die sort of Bond's Death in the Family. Though like in Licence to Kill Leiter doesn't die, he's severely maimed and it's not certain he's going to make it. It doesn't propel Bond through the rest of the story the way it does in Licence to Kill, but it certainly ups the stakes for him and makes Big feel even more ruthless. But more on that shortly.

In Licence to Kill, the bad guys are smuggling drugs in tanks full of maggots, but in the novel Live and Let Die, it's pirate gold in the bottom of tanks holding poisonous fish. Feeling like he knows everything he needs to about Big's stateside operation (and feeling unwelcome in the US by the FBI thanks to all the killing he's been doing), Bond catches a flight for Jamaica and the last stage of his operation. Felix's injuries and Big's deadliness are weighing on Bond though and he feels as down and fallible as he did at the end of Casino Royale. During some bad turbulence over Cuba, Bond's even sure that his plane is going down, fantasizing that the mechanic who checked it out was distracted by a bad romance and that Bond's going to pay for it with his life. It's a beautifully written passage, as is the part where the plane stabilizes and Bond's mood improves. Fleming knew something about mood swings and the literary Bond is a far cry from the films' usual portrayal of a confident, swaggering spy. This isn't the last time Bond goes through this shift in Live and Let Die either.

In Jamaica, he's helped out by the eye-patched Strangways, the British Secret Service's chief agent in the Caribbean. Fans of the film Dr. No will recognize Strangways' name as the agent whose death in the beginning of that movie brings Bond to Jamaica and sets the plot in motion. Here, he sort of takes Leiter's place as the guy who lightens Bond's mood. He's not as charming as Leiter, but he's smart and pleasant and he also introduces Bond to the indispensable Quarrel, someone else familiar to Dr. No viewers.

Surprisingly, Fleming communicates a great deal of affection from Bond for Quarrel. Bond has liked individual black characters earlier in the novel, but he positively gushes about Quarrel and Fleming defines their relationship as "a Scots laird with his head stalker; authority was unspoken and there was no room for servility." It's obviously not a relationship between equals, but it's the most progressive relationship between a white person and a black person that Fleming offers.

No, wait, that's not true. Big is absolutely presented as Bond's equal. The villain is a worthy follow-up to Casino Royale's Le Chiffre. He's every bit as ruthless, but even more deadly and smart. Le Chiffre was ultimately brought down because of his vices for women and gambling, but Big has no obvious weaknesses. He's ultimately brought down through good intelligence and Bond's planning, but not easily.

That's why Bond frets so much during the case and needs people like Leiter and Strangways to keep him from sinking into depression. He has Quarrel get him into physical condition and train him in diving techniques so that he can swim through shark- and barracuda-filled waters to Big's private island (and the source of the pirate treasure that's financing SMERSH), but Bond easily loses confidence despite this preparation. Fleming writes that "He, Bond, after a week's paddling with his nanny beside him in the sunshine, was going out tonight, in a few hours, to walk alone under that black sheet of water. It was crazy, unthinkable."

What's lovely though is that Fleming allows Bond to pull himself heroically out of his own despair.  As the time for the dive draws closer, "Bond was immersed in a sea of practical details and the shadow of fear had fled back to the dark pools under the palm trees." This struggle between confidence and self-doubt is what makes the literary Bond such a compelling character. He has his own demons to conquer in addition to horrible villains and it's exciting to see him rise to the challenge. The classic, cinematic Bond is an aspirational character; Fleming's version is far more relatable.

In preparation for his swim, Bond orders some equipment from Q Branch, but like in Casino Royale, the Secret Service's quartermaster division provides not fantastical gadgets, but mundane supplies. In this case it's SCUBA gear, underwater flashlights, and weapons no more esoteric than a commando knife, harpoon gun, and Limpet mine.

Fleming also writes a lot about Jamaica, including the geography of the island and Bond's own history with it. Fleming famously owned a house called Goldeneye there and vacationed there every year where he would write his novels. So he gave Bond some connection with the place too, saying that Bond was stationed there after WWII "when the Communist headquarters in Cuba was trying to infiltrate the Jamaican labour unions." Bond had fallen in love with the place as explained in Casino Royale when he chose as his cover to play the part of a wealthy Englishmen from there.

Unfortunately for Bond, his underwater journey to Big's island is eventful and features a cool fight with an octopus that gives away Bond's presence and leads to his capture. The cinematic Bond takes a lot of grief for not being a good spy, and rightfully so. I'll have more to say about this when we get to the movies, but there's a reason that Judi Dench's M takes to referring to him as a "blunt instrument." He's a useful tool so long as what she wants to do is throw him into a situation and see what he's able to shake up. One of his most reliable techniques is to get himself caught by the villain and then proceed to destroy the bad guy's operation from the inside.

I say all that to say that that's not what happens in this book. Bond is captured, but the success of his mission doesn't depend on that. By the time Big takes him in, Bond's already attached his Limpet mine to Big's boat. Big's operation is going to be destroyed and Big will probably die in the process; the question is whether Bond and Solitaire (whom he's reunited with in captivity) will die as well.

Big's plan for Bond and Solitaire is far better than the ones the typical, cinematic Bond villains come up with. Unlike the movie version of Live and Let Die, which seems to be the template for Dr. Evil's "unnecessarily slow dipping mechanism" in Austin Powers, the literary Big ties Bond and Solitaire to the back of his boat, intending to drag them across a coral reef until their bleeding bodies attract enough sharks and barracuda to eat them alive. It's such a clever scheme that it got transplanted into the film For Your Eyes Only, though Bond escapes it in a different way there than he does in this book.

Bond's dark side almost gets the better of him again and he decides that if the mine on Big's boat hasn't exploded by the time the sharks are coming, Bond will drown Solitaire under his own body and then use her corpse to weigh down and drown himself. Fortunately, it doesn't come to that. The mine goes off in time and Bond escapes with his "prize."

It's curious to see Bond's attitude about Solitaire change. In the earlier chapters, she's his partner. After St. Petersburg though, she's a prize to be rescued and won. Bond uses that word explicitly when he's thinking about her. She's his reward for defeating Mr. Big, much like Bond thought about Vesper before he fell for her.

Solitaire tells Bond that she loves him shortly before their modified keelhauling and he returns the sentiment, but there's no evidence that he's serious about it. He tells her in the same breath that he thinks they can survive, even while he's contemplating killing her and himself to keep from being eaten alive. In other words, he a lying liar just trying to keep her calm.

Solitaire is gorgeous, but she's too needy and volatile to be reliable in a relationship. She changed personalities in St. Petersburg and as a result his interest in her never progresses beyond the concept of prize. I suspect that's going to be an important concept going forward in the series and it'll be interesting to see which women - if any - are able to rise above that in Bond's mine. Vesper never would have if Bond hadn't been tortured and made so vulnerable, and his letting her become more than a prize had disastrous emotional consequences for him.

So we leave Bond and Solitaire, recuperating on a beach in Jamaica, wondering if Bond will ever find love or real human connection again. He desperately needs it to help encourage him through his darkest moments, but he's not yet finding it in a woman and even his relationships with guys like Leiter, Strangways, and Quarrel - while somewhat effective against the darkness - are superficial and temporary.

That's the curse of Bond's job, but it's also that disconnection from humanity that makes him such a useful sociopath in hunting down and destroying evil people like Mr. Big. Do we want him to find happiness? Or do we need him up on that wall, protecting us?
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