Bond in Print: 'Live and Let Die' - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Bond in Print: 'Live and Let Die'

When Alexander Wallace was young he used to say live and let live...
Live and Let Die is easily one of the more … problematic Bond films. It was made to cash in on the blaxploitation trend sweeping through Hollywood in the 1970s. Its portrayal of race is frankly abysmal, and its portrayal of women is not much better. It pains me to say, somewhat, that these sins were already present in the original novel.

The second Bond novel written by Ian Fleming, Live and Let Die was published in 1954. Unlike the film that was spawned from it, the book concerned the discovery of a long-dead pirate’s treasure hoard in Jamaica, which is used to fund organized crime, backed by SMERSH. Since at the time Jamaica was a British possession, MI6 dispatches James Bond to New York to work with American authorities to take down this criminal operation.

The Bond of this book is warmer than he is in the films, or indeed the novel Casino Royale. In particular, I detect that he has a very real affection for Felix Leiter, his opposite number at the CIA. At one point, Leiter is seriously harmed by his opponents, and you get the feeling that part of his fury towards the antagonists is because his friend was hurt.

This warmth also extends, to some degree, to Solitaire, the female lead of the novel. There are a number of legitimately warm moments between the two that make it feel that his affection for her is more than that of a playboy towards tonight’s conquest. However, this is let down by the fact that Solitaire, as a character, doesn’t really do much beyond provide stimulus to which Bond responds. This is a disappointment, particularly in contrast to the way that Fleming wrote Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale; Lynd has a personality and agency in a way that Solitaire just does not.

Even more so than Casino Royale, Live and Let Die feels like a travelogue. As an American, it was somewhat odd to see New York and Florida, both places I have been to, portrayed as the exotic foreign lands filled with strange and interesting people (although, as a swing dancer, I was very happy to see Bond and Leiter visit the Savoy Ballroom, birthplace of Lindy Hop, if only for a paragraph’s worth). This intensifies when Bond makes his way to Jamaica; the history, terrain, and wildlife, especially aquatic life, is written in a generous portion of lavish detail. This is written with vivid imagery, but has the annoying effect of sometimes dragging the pacing to a crawl.

As previously mentioned, the specter of racism looms uncomfortably over the proceedings. The various black characters range from gangsters to submissive servants, reflecting this patrician view of anyone who wasn’t white commonly held by middle-to-upper class white Britons in the period. ‘Negro’ is used as the neutral term for black people, as was the practice in the 1950s, and the dreaded n-word is used once or twice. There are moments when it feels Fleming has a sense of decency, if not necessarily progressivism; in one scene, Bond and Leiter notice a black couple sitting at a table next to them in a nightclub, and remark that their worries and their foibles are those that are common among just about anybody of any heritage.

Live and Let Die I found to be inferior to Casino Royale by just that much; the racism is the worst of it. If you can get past that, it is a well-paced thriller that laid the foundation of so much of the film series. It is an odd, problematic book, but it is certainly entertaining.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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