LIVE AND LET DIE / Ian Fleming. 1954 (159 pgs)
First Sentence: “There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: Third person. Very close and observant of the chronological telling of events as if they have just recently happened. The story is told in past tense and often utilizes a passive verb choice, such as “the man had stepped forward” or “what was happening to”. It is very different in tone from the James Bond film franchise where the language is strong and direct. The sensibility in the book is considerably softer and more effete.
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: James Bond is a secret agent. James Bond is landing at Idlewild airport (Long Island. The reader is told that luxury and privilege await agent Bond, yet Bond anticipates bureaucratically drudging through customs like a regular visitor with its “drab-green rooms smelling like last year’s air and stale sweat and guilt and fear….”. The list goes on. What I learned in reading the opening of LIVE AND LET DIE that this book, and probably most of the others, are not very well written.
What the reader learns in the first ten pages: In the first few paragraphs and throughout the first two chapters that comprise the first ten pages, the narrator utilizes several topical references contemporary to the early 1950’s, which are intended to fill in the blanks where the narrator has elected not to give the character’s impression of his situation and location. The narrator name-drops that Bond is arriving on a Stratocruiser (a luxurious flight), FBI, CIA, Secret Service, and over the Triborough Bridge into a teeming concrete jungle smelling of petrol. There are several references to Civil Defense, the cold war and the Atomic Bomb. Upon arrival at the St. Regis Hotel, Bond is whisked to his room, all the mundane details he has anticipated, evaporated. What is odd about these introductory pages is, while the reader is given a great deal of detail of the world surrounding James Bond, there is very little physical description of Bond or what he looks like. Perhaps as LIVE AND LET DIE was the second Bond book (CASINO ROYALE was the first), the author relies on the reader’s memory, and that they have read book #1.
The second chapter is a flashback to James Bond’s meeting with his boss “M”, for whom he has great respect. Bond is deferential and follows orders. The reader is given back-story on Bond’s previous case where he sustained an injury from a Russian spy from SMERSH and his upcoming assignment to the US and Caribbean Islands where he will meet his nemesis Mr. Big, head of the Black Widow voodoo cult and a known member of that evil Russian spy organization!
Character: In this installment of the James Bond adventure, the reader doesn’t learn so much about the character of James Bond, but instead about the character of the world in which Bond is a secret agent. There is a naïve quality to Mr. Bond, particularly in his meeting with his superior, “M”, which is not present in the film adaptations. The reader, as mentioned before, is given several references to cars, bridges, the cityscape, and the deferential attitudes of those who are greeting Bond. These attitudes reflect back onto Bond and give the reader clues to the identity of this world-class secret agent. Of course it is difficult not to see Sean Connery, or in this case Roger Moore in his debut at Agent 007.
Setting: Like said above, the world Bond operates within – upstanding and nefarious – is the setting for this story. In a strict sense the reader is placed in the locations of New York, London and will eventually travel to the Caribbean and other places with James Bond, but the underlying setting is that of Cold War Europe and the US. In the first ten pages there are at least two dozen references to Atomic War, bombs, spies, agents, secrets and the need to defend “ourselves”.
Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page: Between the first two chapters, the forward motion of this story has been put into place. We have seen Bond land in NYC and welcomed by his FBI / CIA counterparts. We have gotten the background on his assignment to track the golden treasure flowing from the Caribbean to the US via Harlem to finance the Russian underworld dealings of SMERSH. In keeping with the formulaic style of the genre, the third chapter opens with, “And now it was ten days later,” which insures that the reader returns to New York and where James Bond was operating prior to the flashback.
Random Comments: It is interesting to note that Ian Fleming’s bio on the book jacket says that he is (in 1962) a member of the editorial board of The London Sunday Times, which makes sense given the journalistic style his book has taken; chronology, single sentence paragraphs, references to current events, and a sense of narrative reportage.
There are several uncomfortable and insulting racial references toward members of several ethnic groups, particularly black characters, which Fleming refers to as Negros and Negresses. While he is being briefed about Mr. Big and the assignment, Bond makes the alarming statement, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a great Negro criminal before…Chinamen, of course, the men behind the opium trade. There’ve been some big-time Japs, mostly in pearls and drugs. Plenty of Negroes mixed up in diamonds and gold in Africa, but always in a small way. They don’t seem to take to big business. Pretty law-abiding chaps, on the whole. I should have thought.” His superior, “M” responds that Mr. Big was born in Haiti with “a big dose of French blood.” It is awkward to read, even fifty years later.
Interestingly, Ian Fleming intended for his second book to be less of an action-thriller and be a more serious meditation on the nature of evil. The novel’s original title was The Undertaker’s Wind, however, his publisher offered him a three book deal and required Bond to continue in the style of the popular CASINO ROYALE.