Book Review: Live and Let Die

One of the best parts of moving is getting a new library card. Or at least for me that’s one of the best parts. On my inaugrual visit to my local library I wandered around the shelves and discovered an “in the movies” display, that held, among other things, about ten Ian Fleming books.

These James Bond novels were recently (c. 2008) rebound for Fleming’s 100th birthday and the covers have this great retro, ’60’s vibe to them. Having never read any of the 007 novels, I decided to give them a shot. Unfortunately, the first in the series, Casino Royale, was checked out by another. So I went with the second book, Live and Let Die.

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Bond is just as suave and debonair in print as he is on the screen. Reading this novel, you can really see why this series has been such fertile material for film. It’s a slim, trim book at just 229 pages. But those pages are full of well paced action and adventure. Well-paced gets used often in book or movie reviews, and in this case I mean it does a good job of giving you breathers between covert operations while still giving you salient information.

One of the great things about this series constantly being revamped on film is that it gives you more freedom to imagine Bond however you’d like because so many men have already filled the 007 shoes. For whatever reason I kept picturing Cary Grant as Bond, even though he has never played Bond. The way that Fleming writes Bond’s dialogue and thought process just reminds me of Grant in North By Northwest, although certainly more effective at the spy game. But I digress.

There isn’t a great deal of surprise with this book–you know Bond will be put in multiple life-and-death situations, you know Bond will survive, you know Bond will get the girl–but Fleming still keeps your attention. I didn’t find my mind wandering at all while reading this novel. Except for this one thing…

Holy Racism, Batman (wait, wrong action hero)! I realize that this book was originally published in 1954, over a decade before the major civil rights movement in 1965-1969, but whoa. Sometimes as a reader when you’re faced with writing from previous decades or centuries,  you end up struggling with accepting things like blatant racism or sexism as just another part of the story. It’ll catch you off guard and hit you right in the gut. When this happens you can either stop reading the book altogether or you can chalk it up to the context of time when the book was written.  I opted for the latter.

Still, there were moments when I felt my eyes widen in surprise at the level of casual racism. For instance, there is a scene in a nightclub where Bond listens to a conversation between a black couple that’s written in a dialect style. This conversation is irrelevant to the larger plot; it does nothing for our understanding of character or events. It goes on for two pages and it’s horrible on so many levels.

And all of the villains are black. The only two redeemable characters who are black, Fleming takes the time to mention that they look to be of mixed race. These were the moments when I struggled with this novel the most.

Vodoo is also a central to the plot, and it’s interesting in how superstitious the portrayal of that religion comes off. And it still is shown that way in many mediums. But the use of Vodoo didn’t bother me as much because the villain, Mr. Big (take that Carrie Bradshaw!), utilizes the superstitions as how he controls his power base, which fit within his character.

I could have used a bit more of Mr. Big in this novel. He’s always in the background as the looming threat but he was a complex bit of evil that I would have liked more info on.

Also this novel amped up my fear of deep water. I appreciated that Bond was likewise concerned about sharks and barracudas because the man has to have a chink in his armor somewhere. Some of the most poetic writing from Fleming came from the scenes where he discusses the great unknown of the ocean, which was beautiful and terrifying to read. I’m not a large body of water person, so I felt on the edge of my seat whenever Bond had to use rudimentary scuba gear.

One of the things I liked most about this book and this character was when Bond talks to himself about “his stars.” Bond considers his stars a guide and a powerful force in his life. I myself am rather star obsessed. I have two tattoos that have to do with stars, so I connected with that part of Bond’s character.

Overall, I liked Live and Let Die and Fleming’s sense of character. I did struggle with the social context of the novel, particularly considering what has been happening lately in the US with Ferguson. But I would be interested in reading other Bond novels in the future.

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