The Hero: James Bond; The Bond Girl: Solitaire; The Villain: Mr.Big; Supporting Characters: Tee Hee, Felix Leiter, The Robber, Dexter, Quarrel, “M”, “Q”; Locations covered: Harlem NY; Tampa Bay, FL; Shark`s Bay, Jamaica
Ian Fleming picked up the pace from Casino Royale by giving us Live And Let Die, a tense, and sometimes grueling suspense thriller with more action, more villians, and more locations. In fact, it`s more of everything. And it`s easy to see why, after reading this novel, that Fleming`s books became such a phenomenen by the early 60`s.
Fleming`s best and most interesting passages seem to be when he delves into subjects he has a knowledge or passion about. Orinthology. Marine biology. The layout of Jamaica (the home of Ian Fleming). All these factors come into play and make for a riveting read.
The book starts off with the suspicion that a vast pirate fortune from centuries ago has been found, and it`s contents are being looted and sold off to finance criminal activities.
“In short” continued M, “we suspect that this Jamaican treasure is being used to finance the Soviet espionage system, or an important part of it, in America. And our suspicion becomes a certainty when I tell you who this Mr. Big is.”
Here`s where the book starts to get tricky and politically dicey:
“Mr.Big” said M, weighing his words, “is probably the most powerful Negro criminal in the world. He is…the head of the Black Widow Voodoo cult…He is also a Soviet agent…a known member of SMERSH.”
“I don`t think I`ve ever heard of a great Negro criminal before” said Bond. They don`t seem to take to big business. Pretty law abiding chaps, on the whole, I should have thought.”
As you can tell from the excerpted dialogue, Live And Let Die contains generalizations and stereotypes of Black people that were probably very common in the world 43 years ago. It also contains a great deal of words that most people wouldn`t think, use or say today. Perhaps Fleming knew something that contemporaries of his day did not. Despite using terminology that might make some people squirm, Fleming does attempt to be balanced in his own view of black people and how he presents them in his book.
Bond moves on to Harlem, where much of the gold coins looted from Bloody Morgan`s Pirate Ship in Jamaica have been turning up. But Bond is on Mr. Big`s turf, and Mr. Big gets the word out quick that 007 isn`t welcome in that part of town. Bond gets a fairly straight forward message delivered to his hotel:
THE BEATS OF YOUR OWN HEART ARE NUMBERED. I KNOW THAT NUMBER AND HAVE STARTED TO COUNT.
Maybe Bond has never had much contact with black people in his life. In his conversation with “M”, he made many generalizations and stereotypical comments, and now, on page 48, Fleming presents Bond as very uncomfortable being in an all black nightclub, and the sweat has now started to bead up on Bond`s forehead.
Bond and Felix get dropped through a trap door in the floor, and 007 comes face to face with Mr. Big and his “psychic” companion, Miss Solitaire.
Speaking of Mr. Big: “It was a great football of a head, twice the normal size and very nearly round. The skin was grey-black, taut and shining like the face of a week old corpse in the river…the eyes were extraordinarily far apart, so that one could not focus on them both, but only on one at a time. They bulged slightly, and the irises were golden around black pupils which were now wide. They were animal eyes, not human, and they seemed to blaze.”
Mr. Big brings in Solitaire to divine the truth from the questions 007 is going to be forced to answer. On page 60, Fleming explains to us how Solitaire got her name, which was a nice touch. After just a few questions, 007 gets the sense that Solitaire is lying to Mr.Big about the answers. It appears she wants to leave her master, Mr.Big, and she`s going to have Bond help her do it.
Bond manages to escape the situation, and Solitaire joins up with him on a train to get out of New York. On the train, Solitaire gives detailed information about her past, and how she fits into Mr. Big`s criminal syndicate. On their train ride down to Tampa, an all points bulletin is put out in the Negro underworld for all `eyes` to be on the lookout for 007 and Solitaire. Baldwin, the room servant on 007`s traincar, seems agitated and mighty nervous while going about his job. Bond sends Solitaire into the next room and has a talk with Baldwin.
“Got something on your mind, Baldwin?” he asked.
Yassuh. Shouldn`t be tellin` yuh this, but dere`s plenty trouble `n this train this trip. Yuh gotten yo`self a henemy `n dis train. Ah hear t`ings which Ah don` like at all. Better take dese hyah.”
He reached in his pocket and brought out two wooden window wedges. Bond took the wedges from him.
Unfortunately, most of the secondary characters such as Baldwin are portrayed as unintelligent and poorly educated. Honest and good, but poorly educated. Baldwin`s assistance for Bond helps save Bond and Solitaire`s life, but it cost`s Baldwin his. On page 112, Bond remarks “Poor Baldwin. We owe him a lot”. So, Fleming did write many of the black characters as decent, good people, but he also stereotyped their language and manner of speaking.
Bond, Felix, and Solitaire all meet up in Tampa, but it`s not long before Mr.Big`s empire finds Solitaire, kidnaps her, and lets a shark eat half of Felix Leiter`s body off. Felix lives, and a note is attached to his dumped body that read:
HE DISAGREED WITH SOMETHING THAT ATE HIM
Bond then sets off to settle the score for Felix and Solitaire. He tracks down the warehouse used to help house the shark that Leiter was fed to, and there, Fleming sets up a wonderful action sequence set amongst gunfire and exploding fish tanks.
The end result at the warehouse is in Bond`s favor, but the FBI is in a huge hurry to rush Bond out of the country, and keep what happened at the warehouse quiet so as not to offend Mr. Big. Bond takes off for Jamaica, and begins training. The routines will last a week, and are used to get Bond in shape to scuba dive up close enough to Mr.Big`s yacht, The Secatur, so as to rescue Solitaire and destroy the gold coin smuggling operation.
As I`ve said, Fleming paints quite a picture in Live And Let Die. He has a firm grasp on creating vivid imagery in the readers mind. His action sequences are tight, crisp, focused and surprisingly up to date. What Live And Let Die lacks though is any real chemistry between 007 and Solitaire. Solitaire is intermittently seen throughout the book. Her “powers” were never really expounded upon, therefore there`s not much to know about her. The dialogue between 007 and Solitaire didn’t go over too well. Much of it was either corny or incomprehensible.
Also, Mr. Big gets the short end of the stick, as far as villians go. Big gets in some choice words, and Fleming writes him as well educated and articulate, but somehow Mr. Big isn`t in the book long enough. After a brief appearance in the beginning, he doesn`t show up until the last 20 pages or so of the book.
The real chemistry actually takes place between Felix Leiter and 007. After meeting for the first time on the Casino Royale mission, 007 and Felix have become very good friends. Fleming does a great job of conveying the sense that these two are friends who are always looking out for one another`s back.