As various media outlets are observing that 2012 is the 50th anniversary of the James Bond 007 film series, I thought I'd do my part and focus on the original Ian Fleming novels that influenced the movies. Since I already covered the first book in the literary series, 1953's Casino Royale, six years ago (click here to read it), I'll start with the second installment, 1954's Live And Let Die. (Which you can reserve online here.)
Now tougher and hardened thanks to events in his previous adventure, James Bond, British Secret Service agent 007, licensed to kill, flies to New York to work with old CIA pal Felix Leiter and local police and FBI agents to track down local African-American gangster -and SMERSH operative for the Russians- "Mr. Big". Seems Mr. Big, in between using Voodoo to control honest and nonhonest African Americans in the States and abroad, is smuggling gold coins out of various territories in the Caribbean run by the British and selling them to finance Soviet intelligence operations in America.
After a nasty, near fatal run-in with Big and his henchmen in Harlem, Bond travels by train to St. Petersburg, Florida, where the coins, which may be part of a famous treasure trove by the pirate "Bloody" Morgan, are received and sent on to New York. Bond takes along Big's fortune telling mistress, Solitaire, who wants to flee Big's grasp, partly as a way to push the gangster's buttons.
Escaping an awful death trap on the train, Bond and Solitaire meet up with Leiter in St. Petersburg in a hilarious sequence set at a senior citzens' facility. The two agents track down the warehouse where the coins are processed, but not without great personal cost. Bond eventually meets up with Big, who's holding Solitaire as bait, at the gangster's island lair in Jamaica, in a very bloody and explosive climax.
Ignoring the political incorrectness of the novel (the pro-British Colonialism attitude and the depiction of various black characters as being barely literate, superstitious, cowardly and evil), which was a product both of the times and Fleming's privileged, disconnected, personal background, Live And Let Die is an exciting adventure/spy novel that never lets up in pace from start to finish. There are so many thrilling moments -Bond escaping from Mr. Big's henchmen in Harlem; the suspenseful train trip; his slightly scary underwater odyessy to Big's island; the escalating body count Bond racks up (this is one violent book!)- that the reader has to take a breath or two to catch up.
Bond in this novel is no longer the human ping-pong ball bouncing from one situation to another with no control that he was last time. He's able to think on his feet, devise alternative strategies when forced to, and manages to outwit and (surprise) destroy Mr. Big, without having an unexpected third party suddenly show up and "rescue" him (like with Le Chiffe in the last novel). THIS is the 007 we'd read and watch about from now on. And yeah, there's sex too, courtesy of Solitaire, whom Bond THINKS he'll use for his own needs, but....
Fleming's journalistic style also provides enough vivid and realistic background to the book's depiction of early 50s America. Lots of local color and many humorous asides (Bond's snide comments on American food; Leiter's conversation with one of Big's men over jazz) sparkle throughout the novel.
Live And Let Die is wholeheartedly recommended for adventure lovers of all kinds!
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