Stark and Run For It Marty continue their epic quest to read all of the James Bond novels in order, and to share their thoughts with you here at the Last Movie Outpost. You can read their first entry in this series about Casino Royale here, along with their impromptu history lesson on James Bond, Agent 007.
This time around we delve deep into Live And Let Die, the second book in the James Bond series and one that has the potential to be troublesome if viewed through a modern lens.
A Whisper Of Love, A Whisper Of Hate
Published in 1954, and written by Fleming even before previous novel Casino Royale was released, this book is a revisionists favorite weapon against James Bond. Forgetting that the attitudes of society towards race in the early 1950’s were very different from those of today, they love to use this book as a stick with which to beat Fleming and the character of Bond.
Bond travels From Harlem to Florida to Jamaica on the trail of Mr. Big, a mysterious and feared gangster who controls every aspect of black organized crime across America. Mr. Big is also an agent of SMERSH and is using his smuggling operation to fund Soviet spy activity in the USA. He also sometimes operates out of Jamaica, a British territory at the time. So Bond is once again paired with his friend Felix Leiter of the CIA to assist in taking Mr. Big down.
Protected by his organization, with locals kept in line through intimidation and fear of his supposed voodoo powers, Mr. Big proves a highly dangerous adversary.
Fleming writes every dialect from 1950’s Harlem street talk to Jamaican patois phonetically. It is frequently jarring and, at times, bordering on the comical. When viewed alongside the general portrayal of the black villains throughout the story, and black culture as it was at the time in the US, it would be easy to do that typical revisionist thing so beloved of millennials and Generation Z outrage merchants and assume Fleming was racist.
This is lazy and factually incorrect. Fleming had a genuine liking for Jamaicans and had chosen to make his home in Jamaica, at his cottage Goldeneye. He was on record as praising Jamaican’s for being:
“…full of goodwill and cheerfulness and humour.”
Mr. Big himself is also written as intellectually brilliant with a complex operation spanning the United States and beyond. More than a match for James Bond.
However, this was still the 1950’s and times were very different. Fleming himself considered, for instance, that the relationship between Bond and Quarrel, his Jamaican ally who also appears in Dr. No, was based on a mutual assumption of Bond’s superiority. Fleming described the relationship as:
“…that of a Scots laird with his head stalker; authority was unspoken and there was no room for servility.”
Still, this book is a potential minefield for the sensitive. So let’s lean into it.
Take This Honky Out Back And Waste Him
Stark: It is impossible to talk about this book without talking about the portrayal of black people in it. It is very, very much of its time. When you consider that and make an effort to put yourself in a 1950’s mindset it’s actually quite reverential towards black people and culture for the time. Bond enjoys the music, the food, finds black women incredibly attractive, and Mr. Big is a very competent villain. But it’s still the 1950’s. There is no getting away from it.
Run: I agree to some extent, but half the time I find it hard to believe he’s ever actually met an American black person. I’d believe he just watch a bunch of Little Rascals episodes the way the dialogue in this thing reads.
Stark: Now I know you are just itching to talk about the black characters’ dialogue in this book. I can sense you straining at the leash from an ocean away. You’ve been saving this since you started reading it. Go for it! Unleash the beast!
Run: In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain begins the book with a disclaimer about how he was using slightly different dialects for the character based on where they lived so people wouldn’t think he was trying to have the characters talk the same but failing horribly. He wrote from experience.
This ain’t that. His Ebonics style dialogue for the American black characters is absurd and way overboard. Just about every single word sounds like Big Sam from Gone With the Wind or Stymie Beard said it and some are so out there I couldn’t believe it. “Gummums”? Seriously has anybody ever said “Gummums” for “Gentlemen”? I burst out laughing at that one.
When he gets to Jamaica its a lot better, more believable dialect wise for the black characters, which makes sense because he spent a considerable amount of time down there. But that Harlem stuff is like a parody, almost as bad as what Stephen King wrote for The Drawing of the Three.
Stark: Yeah, that really does line up with your view that maybe he hadn’t spent a huge amount of time around people from Harlem or Florida. I know that he took that same trip as Bond – NYC to Florida to Jamaica with his friend Ivor Bryce once, and then again with his wife. Both times took the Silver Meteor train too. He had visited Harlem on both those trips, but nothing like the amount of time he spent in Jamaica.
Another stand-out is how little of the book made it through to the movie. They only picked this to adapt because writer Tom Mankiewicz (Superman: The Movie, The Deep) thought it would be daring to use black villains, with the Blaxploitation era at its height and the Black Panthers in the news.
Other than a black villain with a Mr. Big persona, his tarot reading captive Solitaire, and the use of Voodoo to keep fearful locals in check, there isn’t a lot in the movie. No heroin plot. No Baron Samedi as a real person, no Kananga or San Monique, no crocodile farm. Tee-Hee is just a common thug, rather than a pincer-handed henchman.
Run: Right. Out of curiosity who did you imagine as Solitaire? I couldn’t picture Jane Seymour as this version of the character. I switched it to a young Vivien Leigh. Leigh worked for me because she could act like a straight-up, nasty bitch and really sell it, which is more of how the book version of the character is. I don’t see Jane Seymour’s movie version busting out the “N-word” like the literary version.
Stark: Funny you say that because even though she was portrayed as snow white in a lot of the illustrations, and played by a porcelain-complexioned Jane Seymour in the movie, in the book she’s actually half-French / half-Haitian isn’t she? So another daring thing for Fleming at the time – an interracial relationship! So I imagined she said the “N-word” in the same way other black people used it as a derogatory term for each other at the time. Surprisingly common in a lot of black literature throughout the early 20th Century.
Also helps underline just how daring, from a sex and violence point of view, this book was for the time. This book was banned in Ireland, remember!
Run: I didn’t pick up on her being anything other than white. Chapter 7 states: “Her face was pale, with the pallor of the white families that have long lived in the tropics…The eyes blue…Her hair blue-back…The face of a French Colonial slave owner.”
Stark: I thought there were references to her Haitian background and Mr Big finding her in Haiti? The French slave owners comment meant to perhaps hint at the slave-owner and a female slave as her parentage? Maybe I read too much into a very small comment buried in the book though?
Mr. Big does still have a hideout beneath his Harlem restaurant with a table over a trap door, used to snare his enemies.
Run: One of my favorite scenes from the movie. Bond getting his finger broken in the first meeting with Solitaire and Mr. Big was an interesting twist though.
Stark: Bond takes a damn beating in almost all of the books. Broken bones, burned, broiled in steam. Who was the first one to really, really get done over in the movies? Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was possibly the first Bond you ever see be scared on screen, at the ice rink while being pursued. I think Dalton in Licence To Kill possibly? At the end? You generally didn’t get to see Bond bleed until Daniel Craig came along.
Run: Well that’s because Q taught him “To never let them see you bleed.”
In Dr. No he was in bad shape crawling through that vent. Thunderball with the rack device at the spa. Die Another Day he was tortured for 6 months in the opening credits. Other than those instances I can’t recall much else.
Stark: Until Casino Royale when we really got to see a beat up Bond straight out of the novels. On the flip side of this though is how much of the book actually makes it to other movies. A villain feeding Felix Leiter to a shark, along with the sinister note “He disagreed with something that ate him” was later re-used wholesale in Licence To Kill. As was the night time return to the fish warehouse, where the shark is held captive, by 007.
A scene in which Bond and the female lead are keel-hauled and towed behind a boat over a reef was used in For Your Eyes Only too.
Run: Good stuff.
Stark: It had been a while since I read it. I was taken aback by how violent Mr. Big’s end is, at the reef. Quite graphically written to. Very evocative. Of course, the shark-related stuff is just about touched upon with Mr Big having those captive sharks at the climax of the movie.
Run: Yeah. He gets eaten by barracuda and sharks like a McRib by yours truly. Chomp!
Stark: Bond seems more human in this book. He was a cold bastard in Casino Royale, especially as he starts to become suspicious of Vesper. In this, with Leiter by his side and with other US agents around he seems in a better mood.
Run: Yeah, Ebonics aside. I like the characterizations better in this book. I think the narrative is better overall too with a lot of locations and suspense along the way. The bomb package in the hotel room, in the beginning, is a stand out for sure. So is 007 fighting that octopus underwater near the end.
Stark: Boys own adventure stuff there. Like something straight off the cover of a pulp novel. Sounds ridiculous when said like “Bond fights an octopus” but in the context of the novel, and the outcomes resulting from it, it makes perfect sense. Fleming clearly loves his marine life too. That whole climax on Jamaica is very good.
Run: It moves at a brisk pace too. I like how during the climax how he’s like: “Welp, I guess I’ll just drown Solitaire and myself if the boat doesn’t explode.”
Stark: Again, the darker Bond. All these people who complain about Dalton or Craig makes me think they don’t really understand James Bond beyond their favourite Roger Moore outing from the 1980’s.
It feels like he was really letting loose here. After a tight and contained novel set in largely one location in Casino Royale, this one moves around a lot, spans great distances a long way from Bond’s home turf.
Run: I think that’s why I liked it better than the previous book. A good variety of location changes and short action scenes at each one.
Stark: Still not huge in Bond tropes and lore yet though. Gadget light. No vodka martini after introducing it in Casino Royale. Still uses a Beretta so no PPK yet. One girl. Then again, most things people take for granted as 007 staples are actually inventions of the movies rather than from Fleming. No jetpacks and hover gondola here.
Run: …and no pigeon double-takes or my boi JW Pepper. I like all of that stuff from the movies, though. They don’t themselves too seriously and are just fun. These books are a good change of pace.
Stark: So onto Moonraker. Expect something very, very different from Roger Moore in Space! This next book is very different, again.