Monday, June 23, 2014

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

With three of the Bond novels behind me – four counting this one – I feel like I almost know what I’m doing, so I’m going to try a new format. For one thing, in order for me to stay on target and wrap this project up in eighteen months, I’ve got to read faster, so no more breaking novels into multiple posts.

But also, I’ve kind of figured out what themes I want to focus on, so I’m going to try out a standardized structure to see if that keeps me organized. I’ll briefly summarize the plot and any interesting details from Fleming’s life that may have contributed to it, then talk about Bond’s character development in terms of his tactics, psychology, and relationships. Finally, I’ll mention any building that Fleming does of Bond’s world and offer closing thoughts on the book as a whole.

Mission Briefing

Two weeks after the Moonraker affair, M asks Bond to investigate a diamond smuggling pipeline that’s threatening Britain’s control over the world’s diamond markets. Bond’s job is to ascertain the extent of the operation so that it can be shut down. To do this, he replaces an arrested smuggler named Peter Franks and meets Franks’ contact, a woman called Tiffany Case who gives him diamonds to sneak into the United States.

If you’re familiar with the movie version, you can see that it follows the book’s plot for a while. I’ll get into major differences when I cover the movie, but one, small change that’s interesting to point out is the way Bond smuggles the diamonds into the US. In the film, he uses a dead body in a coffin, but in the novel Case asks him about his hobbies and personalizes the smuggling method to him. He tells her he likes to golf (already mentioned in Moonraker), so she rigs some trick golf balls to hide the diamonds in. She even lets him pick his favorite brand: Dunlop 65s, which – if memory serves – comes up again in Goldfinger.

A Blunt Instrument

Bond’s learned from the Moonraker case that lack of subtlety has its rewards. In Diamonds Are Forever, it starts innocently enough when he drops the Peter Franks identity at first chance. He tells Case that Franks is just an alias; his real name is James Bond. That becomes kind of a joke in the films when everyone knows who Bond is, but the literary Bond doesn’t have that problem and it makes a kind of sense that he prefers to be called by his real name and so avoid slipping up and forgetting to answer to the fake one. It’s an indicator though that he doesn’t really have patience for true undercover work, which becomes even more obvious as the novel progresses.

The longer Bond stays on the case, the less patience he has with it. He bristles at playing a lackey looking for a job with the Spang brothers, the gangsters who run the smuggling ring. He’s bored with his role and bored with the mob and even bored with their style of gambling. Bond loves to gamble, but when his mission leads him to Las Vegas he finds it cheap and dull (which has probably formed my own opinion of American casinos since this novel was my first exposure to them as a kid). Eventually, he decides to take matters into his own hands.
“The truth of the matter, Bond decided over coffee, was that he felt homesick for his real identity. He shrugged his shoulders. To hell with the Spangs and the hood-ridden town of Las Vegas. He looked at his watch. It was just ten o’clock. He lit a cigarette and got to his feet and walked slowly across the room and out into the Casino.

“There were two ways of playing the rest of the game, by lying low and waiting for something to happen – or by forcing the pace so that something had to happen.”
That’s the very definition of the blunt instrument and Bond now seems to have reached a place where he can’t even function any other way. At least not on this assignment. He makes a moderate effort to force the pace in a way that still allows him to maintain his cover, but at that point maintaining cover is a secondary consideration. I’m not going to go so far as say that Bond is a bad spy, but he’s becoming a very particular kind of spy.

That his scheme pays off and leads him to a meeting with the head of the gang presumably only reinforces the effectiveness of this new method of uncovering and defeating bad guys.

“Oh, James!”

The literary Tiffany Case isn’t much like the way Jill St John plays her in the film. Both versions are tough cookies, but St John’s is playful. The literary Case has a strong aura of sadness and loneliness around her and I found myself imaging her as Scarlett Johansson, whose voice and appearance exactly matches Fleming’s description.

When Bond meets her in her apartment, she’s listening to a collection of French songs and she lets him control the phonograph while she goes to put on some clothes. As a callback to Casino Royale, he skips “La Vie en Rose” because it has memories for him. Fleming isn’t explicit about it in Diamonds, but that piece was playing during one of Bond’s dinners with Vesper. It’s a lovely detail that puts Bond in the right emotional state for his relationship with Case.

Right away, Bond’s relationship with Case is very different from the ones he had with Solitaire and Gala Brand. He saw Solitaire as an object. She was a prize to be won; a reward for completing his mission. He might have been tempted to think of Brand the same way, but she was too much his equal. He wanted to sleep with her and she was attracted to him, but she was also engaged to someone else and never seriously considered getting involved with Bond. After being hurt so deeply by Vesper, Bond used Solitaire as a rebound girl, while Brand brought him back to reality and made him see that not all women can be thought of as objects.

His relationship with Case is interesting because it’s much deeper than what he had with the previous two women. In many ways, it’s a lot like what he had with Vesper. Case is tough and can take care of herself, so there’s a little Gala Brand in her, but she also has a lot of vulnerability. She’s been on her own and looking out for herself her whole life, but Fleming quickly peels some of that toughness away and reveals that she likes Bond and is a little flustered by him. At first, I was concerned that Fleming was going to have Bond “tame” her, but that’s not where the relationship goes.

Bond genuinely likes her. For one thing, she’s totally his type with her unpainted nails (Fleming mentions that detail a couple of times), but he immediately feels conflicted about how to treat her. He needs to use her to get information about the pipeline, but he desperately wants to avoid hurting her. For her part, she seems just as conflicted; attracted to him even though she believes he’s as much a thug as the other men in her life.

By the end of the novel, Bond admits to himself that he’s “very near to being in love” with her. But as they travel back to London on the Queen Elizabeth and have a chance to interact without the pressures of trying to stay alive, it becomes clear that Bond’s all wrong for her. Case wants out of her dangerous life. She wants to settle down and have a normal relationship, but Bond readily confesses that settled life isn’t for him. Maybe when he retires, but not right now. His job still comes first.

Which is as it should be. He may have genuine feelings for her, but that doesn’t mean that the timing is right or that things will work out for them. By the end of the novel, she’s living at his place until she gets on her feet, but it’s obvious to me that that’s not going to last a long time. He was the right man to get her out of the mob, but the wrong man to be with once that’s done. Diamonds Are Forever shows us a lovely beginning to a doomed relationship.

The World-Building Is Not Enough

Bond’s secretary Lil reappears after her introduction in Moonraker and he flirts with her briefly before heading up to see M. In contrast, his interaction with Moneypenny is limited to a smile into her “warm brown eyes.” I’m still curious to see if things liven up with Moneypenny in the books before the Dr. No movie. Could the Bond/Moneypenny relationship in the films be more inspired by Bond and Lil?

Vallance from Scotland Yard is also back from Moonraker, though there’s no mention of Gala Brand. Bond’s obviously over her, though that was never in question.

Felix Leiter shows up by complete coincidence. After his tragic injuries in Live and Let Die, he’s now disabled with a prosthetic leg and a hook for a hand. He’s out of the CIA and is working for the Pinkerton detective agency, investigating a different angle of the diamond smuggling case. I couldn’t be too frustrated with the coincidence though, because Felix is such a charming character and I loved his buoyancy even after losing his limbs and his job.

Casino Royale revealed that Bond’s favorite drink is shaken with ice to make it cold, but it’s in Diamonds Are Forever that the famous “shaken, not stirred” instruction makes its first appearance. Bond’s on a date with Case and that’s how he instructs the waiter to make their Martinis.

When Bond learns that he’s going to be playing blackjack as part of his cover, he remembers playing that as a kid at childhood parties. Bond’s status as an orphan has become well-known in the Daniel Craig movies, but there’s no hint of that yet in the novels and the image of Bond’s parents taking him to playroom tea parties was a surprising one, even though Skyfall indicates that its version of Bond wasn’t super young when they died. I’m curious to see where the orphan idea makes its appearance.

I’m still trying to figure out the limitations of Bond’s license to kill (though that term hasn’t come up yet in the novels). In Live and Let Die, Mr. Big suggested that Bond’s a government assassin, which is more or less a license to kill, but only in situations when specifically ordered to do so. In Moonraker, Bond muses that he can’t just kill Hugo Drax without risking hanging for the crime, so clearly there are limits, even though Bond racks up quite the body count in Live and Let Die without any consequences. Diamonds Are Forever has Felix ask Bond if he’s “still got that double O number that means you’re allowed to kill” and Bond affirms that he does. That’s pretty much the license to kill idea right there without actually coining the term and it makes sense. Bond’s not just an assassin; he’s got a lot of liberty when it comes to killing people in the line of duty. But as Moonraker points out, there are limits. One of which apparently is bumping off wealthy industrialists/public heroes just because you think they might be up to something.

One of Bond’s allies in Las Vegas notices that two of the Spang’s thugs are from Detroit; part of the Purple Mob. If memory serves, that’s another element that pops up again in Goldfinger.

Any Last Words, Mr. Bond?

Diamonds Are Forever is fun to read as an American, because it’s set in such familiar territory, but it’s a deeply flawed book. One of Fleming’s major goals in it is to make American gangsters appear to be formidable villains, but he goes about it all wrong. He starts off strongly enough by showing that M has as much concern about the mob as he does for SMERSH or any other foreign power, but Fleming’s love of goofy names works against this. You don’t see many Soviet assassins named “Shady” Tree or “Tingaling” Bell, even in Bond novels. Fleming probably thought he was safe in the tradition of Baby Face Nelson and Machine Gun Kelly, but his gangster nicknames are so cutesy that it’s tough to take these mugs seriously.

Their own men don’t take them that seriously either. When Felix blackmails a jockey into throwing a crooked horse race, there’s no sense that the jockey is all that concerned about what’ll happen when he does. He seems practically eager to betray his bosses, which nicely lets Felix off the hook for the consequences, but doesn’t make the mob seem as scary as M claimed they are. In fact, no one in the novel seems to take the mob as seriously as everyone says they should. When the jockey does throw the race, the mob only sends its goons to wound him. It’s in a dramatic, pretty horrible way, but it’s hard to imagine gangsters from The Godfather or Goodfellas stopping there when the jockey’s screwed up an expensive, long-term plan.

That’s the real problem I had with Diamonds Are Forever: that it doesn’t hold up at all next to modern stories about the ruthlessness and cruelty of the mafia. Then again, it doesn’t hold up next to Live and Let Die either. Mr. Big’s organization felt infinitely larger and stronger than the Spang Brothers’ almost adorably tiny operation. Counting Bond and Case, there are nine people in the entire outfit and as much as he says otherwise, Fleming doesn’t really think they’re all that threatening either.

He apparently did some research on the mob by talking to a captain in the Los Angeles Police Department, but he’s filled his fictional version with so much color that their unnecessarily elaborate payoff system feels stupid and ridiculous. Instead of simply paying Bond his $5,000 for smuggling the diamonds, they give him $1,000 and make him pretend to earn the rest in crooked gambling schemes that require him to travel first to Saratoga Springs for the horse race and when that fails to Las Vegas for the casinos. This is supposed to cover the fact that he’s being paid by them, but they’re taking care of his air travel and hotel expenses, so any competent investigation would see right through that.

Not that the good guys are any better. When Leiter’s elaborate (but also kind of stupid) plan to pay off the jockey are fouled by the demonstration of the mob’s displeasure, Leiter simply tells Bond that he’ll mail the jockey the cash. Why he didn’t try that in the first place has a simple, but unsatisfying answer, which is that Fleming wanted to have some fun with the scenario. And that’s what part of what makes Diamonds Are Forever a lesser Bond novel: Fleming is having goofy fun while asking his readers to take this all very seriously.

A minor issue with the book is the obviousness with which Fleming uses color and detail to pad out its simple, thin plot. Color and detail are a couple of Fleming’s many strengths as a writer and I never get bored with him even when he’s writing long chapters about the history of Saratoga Springs or the mundane aspects of Bond’s downtime between action scenes. But that doesn’t prevent me from noticing what Fleming’s doing and realizing that Bond’s mission is actually super easy and – like all the schemes and plots in Diamonds Are Forever – could have been accomplished much more efficiently by routine methods.

In addition to those problems, racism continues to be an issue in the series. This is the first time Bond’s been back to the States since the super racist Live and Let Die and he and Leiter comment on the attitudes in that book by joking about them. Fleming got some flack for Live and Let Die and a chapter title with the N-word in it was changed for that novel’s US release, so it feels kind of petty and self-indulgent that he’s commenting on it in Diamonds Are Forever. At one point, Leiter tells Bond how sensitive people in the US are about race, but in the same sentence he makes fun of it.

Live and Let Die’s other big problem – ageism – is missing in Diamonds Are Forever, but it’s been replaced by homophobia with the introduction of gay mafia assassins Wint and Kidd. On the one hand, they’re extremely efficient and not stereotypically effeminate, so that’s positive. But from the way Felix and other characters talk about them, it’s obvious that their sexual preference is meant to represent depravity in the same way that Fleming uses physical deformity with other villains.

They’re not the only gay characters, but the others are also villains: the men from the Detroit Purple Mob. The Purple Gang was an actual mob of bootleggers and hijackers that worked out of Detroit in the ‘20s and – according to Wikipedia, which is always right – got it’s name either from the color of a prominent member’s boxing shorts or from a comparison to the color of rotten meat. In Diamonds Are Forever though, it’s crudely pointed out that purple is also the color of pansies.

On the positive side, the novel gives us Tiffany Case, a remarkable character whose position in the mob becomes suddenly way more dangerous thanks to Bond. He does end up having to rescue her, but it feels only fair since he’s mostly responsible for getting her in the level of trouble she’s in. That he’s also the catalyst for her finally breaking away from the mob makes her not so much a feminist hero, but she’s still a survivor and worthy of admiration. I hope she ends up somewhere nice.


snell said...

The concern about killing Drax in Moonraker might have been a restriction against MI-6 operating inside of England, which was really MI-5 territory. Killing a British citizen on British soil was likely outside the parameters of his licence to kill (killing foreigners abroad? Go for it!)

Michael May said...

That's an excellent theory and seems to be supported by something I just read in From Russia With Love. Thanks!


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