James Bond returns in Ian Fleming’s second novel, Live and Let Die. This time we find James traveling to New York City to track down the source of mysterious gold coins that have started to flood the market. The trail leads to a Harlem kingpin named Mr. Big, a hulking giant of a man, who controls all criminal action on the eastern seaboard. With the help of CIA agent Felix Leiter, Bond tracks down Mr. Big only to find that Bond is the one who is being hunted. With the beautiful fortune teller Solitaire in tow, Bond escapes Mr. Big time and time again until the final confrontation on a secluded island in Jamaica where every passing second means the difference between life and a watery grave.
Live and Let Die portrays a more likable Bond than the cold and hard man at the center of Casino Royale. Even though Live and Let Die was written before publication of the first novel it is evident that Fleming actively worked to make Bond a more likable character. While still an assassin, now Bond works to protect Solitaire from danger and his affection for both her and Felix Leiter are evident throughout. Rather than the action heavy adventures the movies tend to be, the novels are more easily classified as thrillers. Time after time Bond and companions narrowly escape attempts on their lives as they continue to search for the source of the gold coins. There are moments of pure suspense, in particular a night time undersea crossing of a lagoon that makes the reader feel all the fear and dread that Bond is experiencing right along with him.
Live and Let Die was written and set in the 1950’s and the attitude at the time towards black people is unavoidable in the narrative. References abound to Negroes, negroid, Negresses, and harsher racial epithets. The main villain, Mr. Big, is black as are all of his henchman and informants. A large chunk of the narrative takes place in Harlem and Jamaica and nearly every adversary Bond and Felix go up against is black. The interesting thing is that the anachronistic descriptors are not invoked to cast aspersion but rather as adjectives. One chapter is titled “Nigger Heaven”; the title meant to describe a jazz club in Harlem that Bond and Felix are casing for Mr. Big. It’s jarring to see something that we consider as hate speech used in the narrative so nonchalantly but Bond and Felix never talk down to any of the black characters and some of them end up aiding the heroes. I bring it up because it is an element of the novel that can and, to be honest, should make modern readers uncomfortable. Live and Let Die is not a racist book and Bond is not a racist character but both the character and the novel are of their times.
One of the fun things about reading the novels is reading scenes in their original form that has since shown up piece meal in the movies. At one point there is a shootout in a large aquarium warehouse. This same sequence was used in the Timothy Dalton Bond film License to Kill. One of the big scenes in the novel is two characters being keel hauled through a reef bed, the same scene occurs in the Roger Moore film For Your Eyes Only. Interestingly, the movie adaptation of Live and Let Die uses very few of the elements from the book unfortunately. The characters of Solitaire and Mr. Big carry over but they do not closely resemble their written counterparts. Given that the movie is, to be blunt, not good this probably is for the best.
This is the second full length Bond novel I have read and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Once you get past the anachronistic (to us at least) language and social mores the novel proves to be an exciting and suspenseful thriller.