Friday, September 06, 2019

Book review: LIVE AND LET DIE by Ian Fleming

LIVE AND LET DIE (1954) by Ian Fleming

Note: This lurid 1950s cover depicts a key scene in the novel quite accurately.

I don't particularly like James Bond books or movies - too formulaic for my taste - but I read this one out of professional curiosity, to learn why the books are so popular.

I made some observations:

1) LIVE AND LET DIE opens not with colorful adventure or dramatic tension, but with a sequence of rather tedious formal procedure as James Bond arrives in the U.S. I think this a deliberate writing trick: the more dull Bond's job seems at first, the greater the jolt when the action starts.

2) The head villain, Mr. Big, isn't all that interesting. He's a gangster with a taste for ponderous, self-important speeches and sadism. Fleming exaggerates the freakishness of Mr. Big's physical features in such an obvious way that it's ludicrous. (Apparently that was Fleming's standard manner of defining the villain as a freak, a physical monstrosity.)

3) It's a Cold War story, and the threat of Soviet Russia and nuclear war is the backdrop of all events, although not a single Russian appears in the book. Mr. Big works for the Russians, it is repeatedly stated, but never really shown. Why?

4) It's fashionable to call out racism and sexism these days, but in the case of a spy thriller from the 1950s - what's the point?
 

I roll my eyes when the author sees the need to point out whether "races" are "mixed," and words like "Negroid" are used. Although... Fleming's cringe-worthy attitudes about "race" are typical of his generation and not 100% consistent (consistency is the hallmark of the true fanatic).

5) Fleming really excels when it comes to violence. His action scenes are very precise, with an eye for the telling detail, and come off as realistic. Bond in the novel isn't invulnerable like in the movies, and his injuries leave lasting consequences.

6) James Bond is in many ways a "consumer-as-hero." A lot of space is given to what he eats and drinks and smokes, which brands he uses. You could argue he's an early example of the kind of person who builds an identity through the products he consumes.


(The James Bond movies are, as you know, overloaded with product placement -- but so were the original novels...)

Is LIVE AND LET DIE worth reading today? Well... no. There are better thrillers, and some parts of it seem terribly dated.

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