Monday, April 22, 2024

Books of 2024: Week 17 - Live and Let Die

The second novel about James Bond, 007.

LIVE AND LET DIE by Ian Fleming

In 1953, writer Ian Fleming (who had a history in Naval Intelligence) introduced the world to British spy James Bond in his debut novel Casino Royale – and before that book had even been published, Fleming had already written a sequel called Live and Let Die. It hit book stores one year after Casino Royale and follows Bond on an even bigger adventure than the one Fleming had previously told us about.

The events of the first book in the series had left Bond with a personal distaste for the Soviet counterintelligence organization called SMERSH – which was a real organization that got its name from the phrase “Smert shpiónam,” which translates to “Death to spies.” So when M, the Head of the British Secret Service, sends Bond on a mission to bring down another SMERSH agent, he’s glad to get the opportunity. The agent in his crosshairs this time around is Buonaparte Ignace Gallia, a.k.a. Mr. Big, and he has caught the secret service’s attention by using old gold coins, believed to be from the treasure of pirate Henry Morgan, to fund Soviet operations. Bond is sent to New York City to look into this Mr. Big character and find out the source of his gold coins – an objective that will also lead him to taking a train ride down through the eastern states, making a pit stop in Florida, and eventually heading down to Jamaica. CIA agent Felix Leiter, also introduced in Casino Royale, is around to give Bond some assistance and Bond, despite being brought to his knees by love in the first book, doesn’t hesitate to steal away Mr. Big’s bride-to-be, the possibly psychic Solitaire, along the way.

Mr. Big isn’t just a SMERSH agent, he also has a whole lot of associates and henchmen through the criminal endeavors he has on the side, plus he has a following because people think he’s an important figure in the voodoo world, so there are plenty of villains for Bond to deal as he makes his way around the U.S. and Jamaica. There were some small action sequences in Casino Royale, but the major set pieces of the book were a lengthy card game, a brief car chase, and a famous torture scene. There’s more action to be found in Live and Let Die, as Bond has to fight his way out of captivity, have a shootout, and put himself to the test by swimming through water that’s full of sharks and barracuda with a mine strapped to his chest.

But modern readers do need a warning before they dive into Live and Let Die: Mr. Big is a Black man and so are the majority of his followers, and this book was written and published in the early 1950s, so there are moments where readers might cringe at the way these characters are described. There’s not racism on the level of something you might find in, for example, the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but the language is outdated... and yes, there are a couple uses of the N-word.

If you can overcome that hurdle, Live and Let Die is an entertaining adventure novel that moves along at a good pace and wraps up in just about as many pages as Casino Royale did, coming in at around the 200 count.

Although this is the second book in the James Bond series, it was not the second to receive a film adaptation. And even though the makers of most of the Bond films weren’t able to secure the rights to Casino Royale when they set out to build that franchise (those rights had already been sold off and wouldn’t circle back to the Bond producers until the 2000s), they didn’t just send Live and Let Die into production first. Their first movie was based on the sixth novel, Dr. No, and they didn’t get around to making Live and Let Die until the eighth film. It was a bit of an odd choice, because the Dr. No novel and movie feature a couple of characters who were introduced in the Live and Let Die novel, but they found ways to make it work.

When the Live and Let Die movie was made, it wasn’t as faithful of an adaptation as some of the preceding movies had been, but most of the major ideas made it to the screen. Still, there were so many good ideas in this book that some elements were left over to be used in future Bond movies like For Your Eyes Only and Licence to Kill. So if you’re familiar with the movie franchise before you read this book, you’ll recognize things from at least three different films.

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