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Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

Cover image © Penguin Viking
So, having read and enjoyed Casino Royale, I couldn't really resist reading Live and Let Die (1954). Most people who have seen the films maybe haven't read the books and frankly they're missing out. What has continued to delight me about the novels is the fact that they are a lot darker and more serious than the Bond films. 

In the second novel, James Bond is called into action to take on a Harlem gangster, Mr Big, and his network of criminality that inevitably leads back to SMERSH. The nature of Mr Big's activities revolves around the selling of 17th Century gold coins in order to bankroll Soviet spies' operations in the USA. Meaning that the locus of the tensions moves from British-Soviet relations to US-Soviet relations - the biggest area of tension during the Cold War. 

From Harlem and the jazz clubs, all the way to the Everglades, it seems that Mr Big's network is endless and this claustrophobia is recreated in Fleming's writing. The story eventually leads to the tropical paradise of Jamaica where Mr Big has his island base. 

There is of course the customary damsel in distress, Solitaire, who is able to see into the future. Having been used in the past by Mr Big to build his operations, she defects to assist Bond before being kidnapped and taken to Mr Big's mysterious island off the coast of mainland Jamaica. 

The action has serious pace, yet the novel does the depth of the characters a whole lot more justice than the film ever could. You really get a sense of the threat of the violence and edginess emanating from the voodoo underworld throughout - something lost in the technicolour campness of the 1973 film. 

Fleming's writing, it is clear to see, had developed by the time of writing the second Bond novel. The plot is a lot tighter and moves fluidly from chapter to chapter, almost always having a small cliffhanger at the end of each. Of particular interest to modern readers are the terms by which Fleming refers to the black characters. Words such as 'purple' to describe very dark skin tone, 'nigger' and 'negress' are all terms that show the novel is of its time - whether the use of such words is racist, or just displaying the mild ignorance of the period, is for scholars to decide.

Review for Live and Let Die adapted from an Ayohcee review previously available on LivingSocial:Books before the closure of that site.

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