Monday, February 24, 2014

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming, Chapters 1 - 10

As I mentioned in my intro to this project, I'm a slow reader. I'd like to have a Bond post up each week though, so I'm going to write about however much of the books I've read in the last seven days. Hopefully, that'll also help control the length of some of these posts, because I do tend to ramble.

Before Casino Royale was even published, Ian Fleming had completed his second Bond novel. Inspired in part by the train ride that Fleming and his wife took from New York to Florida before heading to Jamaica where he wrote the book, Live and Let Die has Bond making the same trip as he investigates a criminal named Mr. Big.

Like Casino Royale, Live and Let Die begins with a cold open as Bond arrives in New York City to collaborate with the CIA and FBI, then flashes back to the briefings that sent him there. Bond has mostly recovered from the events of Casino Royale, but still carries emotional scars. How much damage he took from Vesper's betrayal remains to be seen, but at the very least he's passionately bent on taking down SMERSH, the Soviet organization behind most of the troubles in Casino Royale. M knows this, so when a possible SMERSH agent is identified in the United States, M gives Bond the job of verifying the intelligence and - if necessary - eliminating the threat.

The connection between Mr. Big and SMERSH is circumstantial. The British have reason to believe that SMERSH is financed partially by a horde of pirate loot that once belonged to Captain Morgan, and Big has been caught handling some of that treasure. On paper, part of Bond's job is making sure that Big is actually involved with the Soviets, but that fact is mostly taken for granted. Bond is after Big from the get-go.

Before getting into the mission, there are a couple of things worth noting from the briefing scene. First, Fleming reveals that Bond was stationed in the United States during World War II, so this isn't his first trip to the country. Also, this scene is the first interaction Fleming's written between Bond and Moneypenny. It's a tiny bit - nothing more than an encouraging smile from her - but does establish that they're on friendly terms, even if they're not openly flirtatious (yet?).

It's also in the briefing that the extremely offensive racism of Live and Let Die first appears. I'm not going to keep bringing it up after this paragraph, but it can't be ignored either. As M and Bond discuss black people, they make all sorts of gross generalizations about the entire race and talk about them as if they're some sort of alien species. They make it sound like Mr. Big has turned the entire black population of the United States into a spy network, as if that's possible simply because they're all the same race. Fleming uses especially crude metaphors to describe them, like having them in a club "packed like black olives in a jar." The N-Word also comes up a lot all through the book; in casual conversation as well as in a chapter title. This is 1954, so Product of the Times and all that, but racism saturates the book to an extent that enjoying it may be impossible for many people. My approach though is to acknowledge it and move on, seeing what positive things can be gleaned from the book.

Mr. Big is of course a ridiculous name, but Fleming makes it work by giving it a specific origin. First of all, it's an acronym for the Haitian's real name, Buonaparte Ignace Gallia. That and Big's stature earned him the nickname even as a boy, and I love that Fleming includes previous versions of it, like Big Boy and The Big Man. It lets me believe that the name evolved naturally and isn't just a parody of an American criminal.

Even though I don't buy the extent of Big's reach as it's imagined by Bond, the villain is still plenty deadly and frightening. We'll talk more about differences between the book and the film when we get to the film, but a major change is that the literary Big doesn't parcel out his identities the way the movie version does. The film's Kananga doesn't exist in the book and Baron Samedi isn't a separate character either. Coming from Haiti, Big has started his own voodoo cult and encourages the belief that he himself is Samedi.

Some of Big's other movie henchmen do come right out of the novel though. Whisper is here (a tuberculosis victim with one lung who quietly directs Big's men via a massive switchboard) and so is the giggly Tee Hee (though he has both hands and no claw). Goofy nicknames are apparently standard in Big's gang, because we also get to meet McThing, Blabbermouth Foley, Sam Miami, and The Flannel.

As in the movie, Bond meets up with Felix Leiter in New York and the two of them check out Big's operations in Harlem. Fleming's talent for description really shines here and he gives a nice travelogue of Harlem. It's fun reading Fleming describe the United States. He has Bond dressing in American clothes (including horn-rimmed glasses!) and even tries his hand at American dialogue.

He's not entirely successful at American speech though and Felix sounds like no Texan I've ever met when he says, "One used to go to Harlem just as one goes to Montmartre in Paris. They were glad to take one's money." Fleming also unwisely attempts to write the dialogue of most of the black characters phonetically, which at worst contributes to the overall racism, and at best reminds me of Chris Claremont writing Rogue and Gambit.

Felix and Bond's night out ends much like it does in the movie, with a trick booth in one of Big's clubs (though watching a stripper instead of a lounge singer). The two spies are separated and Bond gets to meet Mr. Big. Like in Casino Royale, it's the villain who gets all the gadgets in Live and Let Die, from the trick booth to Big's desk with a gun built into it. As if to explain these gimmicks, Fleming has Bond ruminate on the gadgets and their function. "They had not been just empty conceits," Fleming writes, "designed to impress. Again, there was nothing absurd about this gun. Rather painstaking, perhaps, but, he had to admit, technically sound." That describes very well Fleming's use of gadgets in the novels so far. Whether it's Le Chiffre's carpet of spiked chainmail or Big's desk-gun, they're sensational, but also functional and possible; not like the silliness the movies would become known for.

In Casino Royale, Fleming said that Bond killed two men before receiving his Double-O number, but Big reveals (if his intelligence is reliable) that it only takes one cold-blooded killing in the line of duty to achieve that. He also notes that the number of men who attain that would still be relatively small in an organization like MI-6 that doesn't routinely use assassination as a tool.

Of course, the reason Big wants to meet Bond is to find out how much he knows. He has Bond tied to a chair, which naturally brings to mind the torture scene from Casino Royale. Fleming doesn't repeat himself though, and instead of having Big go to town on Bond with a nearby riding whip, the author introduces Solitaire, who's able to use telepathy to tell if Bond is lying. Not only is it different from torture, it's - as Big says - more reliable.

Solitaire is quite different from the innocent, naive lamb of the movie. Fleming's version is confident and powerful. In the film, Big has fiercely protected Solitaire's virginity so that he can continue using her powers. If Fleming's version is a virgin (the subject doesn't come up right away), it's by her own choosing. She's always avoided men, which is why folks in Haiti started calling her Solitaire (a joke about playing with herself?). Big still controls her, but he has a more difficult time than in the movie and occasionally resorts to physical beatings to keep her obedient, hence the riding whip.

Another example of the literary Solitaire's increased agency is that she doesn't have to be tricked into helping Bond. The movie Solitaire has been Big's captive her entire life, but Fleming's has only been with the criminal for about a year. She's looking for a way out and sees Bond as it. In a scene that the movie uses later in its story, Solitaire lies to Big. She verifies Bond's cover story, but in the novel, Big doesn't know she's lying. He decides to let Bond go with a nasty beating, starting with having Tee Hee break one of Bond's fingers. The movie uses that later too, but only as a threat. Fleming is much meaner to his Bond than the movie writers are to theirs.

But he's also nicer. If memory serves, Roger Moore only escapes Big's clutches in the early confrontation with outside help . Fleming's Bond has to work hard to escape with just a broken pinky, but his doing so makes him a tougher, more capable hero.

Hilariously, Felix uses a different tactic to get away from the guys holding him. When he and Bond compare notes later, Felix reveals that he made friends with one of his guards by discussing jazz. That's not as racist as it sounds; the other guards don't succumb to Felix's charm, so Felix has simply made a real friend by talking about a common interest. Jazz is something that Felix is legitimately interested in as evidenced by his going on about it to Bond longer than necessary to tell the story. Felix is a nerd for jazz.

The difference in the two spies' escapes highlights something important about Felix. Bond's escape is brutal. Felix's is charming. After they hang up, Bond smiles to himself and reflects that Felix's cheerfulness had "wiped away his exhaustion and his black memories" of his encounter with Big. Casino Royale beat Bond down hard and now he's up against another ruthless villain, but the darkness of Bond's world is made bearable by having guys like Felix (and, in Casino Royale, Mathis) in it. The books need these characters to keep the tone from becoming overly oppressive, but Bond needs them too for the same reason. They're the Robins to his Batman.

The result of Bond's meeting with Big is that Bond is no longer welcome in New York City. The FBI is furious that Bond forced a confrontation, so Bond and Felix decide to leave and head for Florida where Big's pirate gold is likely coming in from the Caribbean. As Bond communicates this to M, Fleming introduces the concept of Universal Export, a major element of Bond's world. The films eventually went so far as to have UE plaques on MI-6 buildings, but in Live and Let Die it's simply a cover for agents to use when communicating over unsecure lines.

Before Bond leaves, he gets a call from Solitaire who - still seeing him as her opportunity to escape Big - is desperate to join up with him. Bond doesn't trust her, but knows that she lied for him before and decides to help her despite his misgivings. Once they meet on the train headed to Florida though, they begin to relax around each other. She tells him her real name - Simone Latrelle - and he decides that in addition to her usefulness against Big, he just plain likes her. There's no sign of his falling for her like he did with Vesper, but she's a beautiful, confident woman and he just enjoys her company. There's no immediately hopping into bed a la Roger Moore and every woman he ever met. In fact, as the train leaves New York, Bond and Solitaire have figured out who sleeps in which bunk and there's not even a hint of romance yet.

There is, however, every indication that their movements have not gone unnoticed by Big's spies, some of whom are even on the train...

1 comment:

Ken O said...

The books really make you love Felix.

The racism in this one really makes it hard to get very far into it. I probably started reading the Bond books about 6 years ago and I almost stopped at this one because of it. There is some really fun stuff in Florida though.


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