LIVE AND LET DIE (Ian Fleming)

a045c6354116a6a3d907c46f16fa055cThe second James Bond novel  established the format in ways that were largely followed in the films also: Bond is briefed by M about an enemy agent (in this case, Mr Big) and sent abroad to break the SMERSH operation. In the course of this New York – Florida – Jamaican adventure, Bond encounters an assortment of villains, henchmen and beautiful women.

The action is combined with Fleming’s atmospheric descriptions of the places Bond visits which are often very accurate and based on local knowledge. The characterization of Mr Big, as with all the villains, is highly effective: a Negro who uses Voodoo (which Fleming had read about, and maybe misrepresents) to cultivate fear.

There is also the first use of barracuda fish which seem to be the favourite animal of Bond villains for disposing of people. Fleming was familiar with the creature as he was an enthusiastic skin diver. As always, there is the pace of the writing, which Kingsley Amis called the “Fleming sweep,” that keeps the reader interested from beginning to the end.

Fleming is one of the most effective thriller writers ever. He gives us a mixture of pace, thrills and atmosphere in a winning combination. “Live and Let Die” is at the top of the very best Bond novels and, unlike thrillers from some other authors, remains fresh and very readable even on repeated readings. Fleming’s spare journalistic style gives the book a hard-boiled, stripped down feel that perfectly complements a plot that is fast paced and never lets up.

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His ability to make scenery come alive in your mind’s eye is beautifully detailed, particularly Bond’s midnight dive through the coral reef. Then there is the train journey aboard the ‘Silver Phantom’. This is another opportunity for Fleming to demonstrate his mastery of the travelogue genre, as he describes the changing American countryside.

To contemporary ears the references to Negroes and the descriptions of 1950’s African American/black Caribbean culture do sound at best incredibly old fashioned, and at worst derogatory. But to dismiss the entire novel because it includes such old fashioned language and imagery, ( the descriptions of Harlem and Jamaica at that time may well be accurate) would be unfair, ignoring the positives the book has to offer.

One odd flavour to Ian Fleming’s writing is the era he conjures up seems more like the 1930s than the 1950s. Maybe his entire world view had been formed before 1940. The world Mr F inhabited doesn’t exist anymore, and even what he considered to be a tough guy’s attributes do not measure up to the action men of today. For example, Bond is ridden with fearful apprehension before taking a scuba dive. In 2015 this makes him a big girl’s blouse.

As 007 is also a smoker whose main diet consists of bacon and eggs, lets just say he wouldn’t be able to pass any MI6 fitness test either. All silly nitpicking aside, Ian Fleming was an artist who could paint with words. Despite his social/political views many people still read and prefer his vision of Bond, James Bond, rather than Hollywood’s version. So he must have been doing something right.

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