Friday, December 18, 2015

Signal Watch Reads: "Live and Let Die" by Ian Fleming (aubiobook)

Reading the first two Bond books is a bit of an odd experience.  This is still a Bond that's not yet been made into a film, and the books feel oddly slight, especially in comparison to the meandering nature of the typical Bond movie.  I'm not sure if I should rehash that the Bond of the book, at this point, is not equipped with super-science gear or any of the trappings I think of when I consider my first exposure to Bond via the movie For Your Eyes Only.  And after the exotic locales of the first book (to Americans, anyway), setting much of Live and Let Die in Harlem and then St. Petersburg, Florida is oddly pedestrian despite the death traps and odd goings on.  But with the 3rd act change in scenery to Jamaica, it does move the action to a locale I readily associate with the Bond franchise and, of course, Ian Fleming's base of operations when writing his Bond novels.

Anyone picking up the books expecting a progressive take on much of anything in a Bond novel is going to get a wildly mixed bag with Live and Let Die.  Fleming is keenly aware of the cultural upheaval working in the United States and beyond as Black people began to make social gains in post WWII America and Europe and seems totally on board.  It's made mention of twice that Bond has seen the "first" of many achievements by the Black population, and our villain is the first Black super criminal in the West.  Fleming also clearly was an equal opportunity ogler when it came to the ladies as he goes into quite the lurid description of a completely inconsequential character as Bond ponders the ladies in a Harlem night club.

Still, the old-school depictions of superstitious Black people appear and a lot of common physical attributes that don't even really make sense except "that's how Black people used to be described in old books" is on display, particularly in the Jamaican portion.  However, Fleming's perception that Black America is so detached from White America that a criminal organization could exist on a huge scale without White people catching on...   doesn't exactly feel like science fiction in an era prior to the Civil Rights movement.

But, make no mistake, he still sees White male Brits as second to none.

This mission is a little...  You can positively feel the 1950's dripping off the plot.  Someone is distributing cold coins in the U.S., coins to which no one should have that kind of ready access or volume.  It's determined the coins must be a lost treasure of Henry Morgan coming in from Jamaica via Harlem and the money earned from the sale of the coins going to SMERSH, a Russian evil organization bent on killing spies (which was apparently very real.  Thanks, Wikipedia!).

Explaining how and/ or why our villain, a Haitian with a seeming penchant for finery and criminality would bother to associate himself with SMERSH and not take all the dough himself is not really clear.  In fact, Bond never really proves he has any ties to SMERSH at any point, and it becomes irrelevant except as a reminder that he has a personal stake in the game.  Still, Mr. Big is at least an intriguing villain - not exactly evil, just smart enough to have figured how to work around the law, and perhaps almost bored as he's mastered the game he set out for himself in creating a sprawling criminal empire.

It's kind of pointless to discuss the infamous chauvinism of the Bond novels and movies, and so I won't here.  The female lead, Solitaire, would be pretty boring if not for the suggestion that she may (but likely does not) have some psychic ability, to pluck whether people are being truthful from human's thoughts.

Fleming's views on women, race, hell. the elderly. America in general, are all on display - and not just as subtext.  There's a peculiarly long passage on how gross old people as Bond wanders St. Petersburg, Florida.  It doesn't advance the plot in the slightest, but at least Fleming got it off his chest.

I'll be honest, this wasn't my favorite book.  I mean, while the book's adventure itself is fairly exciting, it was probably outdated by the time the first Bond film was produced - but it's also interesting just to see the tip of the spear for the spy genre.  All the things Fleming is putting into the book may have been going on in a few other adventure books, but this character is the one that would become popular, and spawn a thousand imitators and variants and mutations.  Hell, you kids wouldn't be watching Agents of SHIELD on ABC is Marvel hadn't launched Nick Fury super spy comics back in the day to have an entry in the Man from UNCLE era of spy pop.

So, it's almost more interesting to read as a sort of investigation into the genre, as cultural perspective in 1954 or so, and to see the state of Bond in his early outings than to count on a read that's surprisingly still relevant.  It's not.  But as a bit of cultural archaeology, it's a bit of priceless.

I did listen to the book as an audio book, performed again by Simon Vance - who may do an amazing Bond, Solitaire and M, but he needed some serious coaching when it came to voicing Mr. Big and his minions.  Mr. Vance may have pushed the limits of his considerable acting talent trying to play a 1950's-era Harlem mob enforcer.

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