Several months back, my grandfather gave me his (almost complete) collection of tattered James Bond Signet paperbacks, printed in the 1970's (with fantastic cover art illustrations, by the way). At the time he mentioned that he had read them all numerous times over the years (and the books show their wear for having been read so many times, but in a good way), and that he thought I might enjoy them as well. I believe the only volume missing is Casino Royale, and I have a hunch this one still exists somewhere in my grandparents' attic. I'll be sure to hunt for it next time I'm there.
Until now, I had not read any of them—they became victims of my ever-growing “meaning-to-read-this” library made up of so many untouched volumes currently on my bookshelf—but recently felt in the mood to dive in. Live and Let Die is one of my favorite Bond films and is chronologically the second book in the series after Casino Royale, so it seemed a logical place to begin.
While the film is set in New Orleans and the book in Harlem, they share a common thread of Voodoo folklore. Like the film, there seems to be an indication that the supernatural elements are real, at least in Bond's universe (though these elements are not so brutishly upfront as in the film). Mr. Big is believed by many to actually be a zombie, and for that reason impossible to kill (not in our modern day Walking Dead way of thinking of the term, but the older, much creepier definition in which a zombie is actually the resurrected spirit of Baron Samedi of voodoo lore). Additionally, Solitaire—the mysterious fortune-telling virgin who 'has no interest in any man' (except Bond, of course)—is written as if her telekinetic powers are real. This surprised me, as I had previously been under the impression that the Bond novels “played it straight,” in the sense that they were written in such a way that remained within the realm of the “real,” not stretching into supernatural or spiritual territory.
I will not take the route of endlessly comparing the many differences between the book and the film (as that has surely been done many times over by Bond enthusiasts finer than I), but I will say that I was struck by just how scarce the book was as far as action or activity, though that is not to say I mean boring. Still, in terms of a book considered to be a Thriller (by the publishers at the time, according to its book jacket), not a lot happens. Front to back, Bond gets his mission from M, investigates, experiences a few exciting altercations with Mr. Big or his henchmen, then comes the big finish where Bond gets the badguy (though not without significant help in this case). Otherwise, Bond spends a decent amount of time waiting around in hotel rooms, bars, or restaurants. There is excessive use of the word “luxuriously,” and specific detail is given to many of the meals Bond consumes. But the easy, leisurely pace was endearing rather than dull.
I enjoyed the relationship between Bond and his American partner for this mission, CIA agent Felix Leiter. Ian Fleming is unblushingly condescending in his writing of American characters, but Felix is an exception to this. Leiter is a charming fellow, if overzealous at times.
Speaking of charming, that is probably the best adjective to describe Bond himself. Throughout the book, he is immensely cool in both mannerism and speech. However, it was also refreshing to see a range of Bond's emotions and a level of his vulnerability. James Bond of Fleming's books (or of this one, as it is my only reference thus far) is not the nearly-invincible figure of many of the earlier films. 007 gets nervous and sweaty in tricky situations; he gets scared; he gets injured significantly; he would have been dead at the end of the book without the timely help of Felix Leiter's crew. All that to say, Fleming's Bond is a talented hero, but he is also just a man, and subject to all the limitations therein.
Fleming's writing style is sharp and intelligent, but easy to read. His pacing is excellent, and the book was exciting and fun from start to finish. Also, I might add, quite scandalous at times without being vulgar. It is amazing how “steamy” a passage can be when none of the words being used are obscene.
I had a great time with this one, and am now keen to dive into the rest of the 007 novels. I would highly recommend it to any reader who already enjoys the Bond film franchise but has not yet taken the time to try the books. Even being published 50+ years ago, this is just as smart and entertaining as any contemporary spy thriller.