Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Live And Let Die

Live And Let Die
Ian Fleming

My copy of the second Bond novel opens with a short preface by Louise Welsh. I don’t really see the connection, but she makes a great point about the success of the Bond books in the ‘50s. It doesn’t quite correlate with historical timelines we take for granted but in 1954, Britain finally stopped rationing. That’s nine years of rationing after winning World War II. That’s a tough result.

It nicely puts this second adventure in context. Basically, this tale expands on Casino Royale in almost every conceivable way. The language and style are much more self-assured, Fleming’s time as a travel writer coming to the fore. The descriptions as Bond arrived in America for the first time (“since the war”) are charming and childlike in their wonder, especially from a 21st century perspective. The opening scenes in London, shrouded in thick fog are swept aside for an adventure that also takes in Jamaica and it’s coral reefs. Surely, at the time, these kinds of places were unimaginable exotic. Ten years later, as the books were made into films, this desire to show people something they’d never seen before was as strong and in demand as ever. So, as an historical piece alone, they serve as a very interesting reminder of how the world, and Britain’s place in it, was changing in the ‘50s.

The plot itself was eventually stripped bare by various films, most of them not Live And Let Die. Whilst some of my Casino Royale review was concerned with the rather ugly language towards women, here we have the pleasure of seeing a ‘50s take on the ‘negro’. The main villain is Mr Big, a black chap who may or may not be working for the soviets. He lives in Harlem and the story involves Bond travelling around Harlem and investigating ‘negro culture’ which, this book would have us suggest, is a mix of voodoo and drug pushing. And violence. And communism, which is even worse, obviously.

It’s not racist though is it? I just see it as a product of the times. If you wanted to psychoanalyse it, you could put it in the context of the changing role of Britain in world affairs again, and some fear of the black man. I don’t think that’s the case. I think the culture of Harlem and of Voodoo were just as equally exotic and foreign as Miami and Jamiaca. Though the decision to write all the ‘black’ language phonetically does result in it appearing in your head like a bad ‘70s sitcom.

It’s a pacey read. There’s a lot more action than Casino Royale and a lot more cunning from the villains. The finale is well handled and is genuinely tense. But it is an easy read. There’s no great literary value in it. The pleasure is seeing which bits went into which films and enjoying the new bits. The character of Bond is still a bit faceless; he is efficient, job-committed and cold. After reading the first two books, it does seem that Daniel Craig has hit upon the most ‘Bond’ Bond yet. But I think it works best as an historical novel, in relation to pop culture. The stuff that sells; sex, violence, escapism, heroism is the same as it ever was. But it is interesting reading an example of where it all began, certainly in relation our 21st century understanding and experiences of those genre traits.

Dean Freeman

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