Tour de Bond: Live and Let Die (1954)

I’ll be honest with you up front about this: Live and Let Die is one of three Bond novels that I just don’t like (the other two being Diamonds Are Forever and The Spy Who Loved Me). The main reason for my dislike in this case is the casual racism of the book.

I usually have a fairly high tolerance for this sort of thing — I recognize that books are the products of their times, and a book written by an upper-class Englishman in the early 1950s is not going to have a particularly enlightened view regarding other races. Hell, I absolutely *love* the Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer, and those have had a bad reputation for racism for decades now (in their presentation of the “yellow peril” — although I’d strongly argue that the books aren’t remotely as racist as their reputation suggests.) In fact, in many ways, Fleming is working a bit of a Fu Manchu pastiche with Live and Let Die — A “black peril,” if you will. The villain, Mr. Big, is a mastermind in the Fu Manchu tradition, and the omnipresent threat that ANY member of the race met in the story could be a member of the villain’s network is certainly plucked from the Rohmer novels.

So why does it bother me more in Live and Let Die? Not sure. Perhaps it’s that I’m more familiar with African Americans than I am with Manchurian Chinese — making portrayals of them as a mysterious “other” much more jarring to me. Perhaps, as an American raised in the post-Civil-Rights era, it strikes me as horrifying to have a chapter in this novel given the title “Nigger Heaven” (even if I know intellectually that the title is a reference to the 1926 novel set in the Harlem Renaissance). I can forgive references to “negresses”, since that was a perfectly acceptable word choice for an Englishman of his time… but I find it far harder to stomach references to them being “feral.” For all of these reasons, I find the book not just dated, but… ugly.

As a side note, I find it interesting that the three books I mention as my least favorite of the Bonds all take place largely within the United States. Maybe I want more exotic locations in my Bonds. Although, certainly, to Fleming (and to his UK readers) the US certainly qualified. Fleming’s view of the US certainly wasn’t flattering — his descriptions of the South as Bond heads from Harlem to Florida certainly echo my impressions from the time I spent living in Atlanta: The sense of decay that lingers through the oppressive heat, for example, matching the sense of a declining (and at times equally-oppressive) culture.

There are some good points to the novel — Fleming’s pacing is still in evidence here. Not perhaps as tense as Casino Royale, but it moves even faster, because he now takes the reader’s familiarity with Bond as a given, and just throws us into the tale. The book also features one of the more iconic bits of Fleming mayhem — Mr. Big’s henchman “The Robber” feeds Felix Leiter to a shark — when Felix is dumped at the safe house, barely alive and missing an arm and a leg, he has a note pinned to him that says “He Disagreed With Something That Ate Him.”

Moving on, then. Next week: Moonraker (1955).

3 Replies to “Tour de Bond: Live and Let Die (1954)”

  1. I am totally with you on this. What’s even more remarkable is how much more subtly distasteful the movie adaptation is. Yaphet Kotto’s slipping in and out of ebonics, the voodoo revelry, the blacks as being the source of the drug problem, and, of course, there’s not much Haitian about Jane Seymour. It’s as though Broccoli didn’t think the book was racist enough.

  2. Well, the film are a whole ‘nother problem. In the case of the filmed back-to-back LIVE AND LET DIE and MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, Broccoli was trying to revive interest in the series by cashing in on the very-hot film trends of the moment: Blaxploitation films and Kung Fu movies. It didn’t fit Bond at all, and almost killed the series (Hence the three-year hiatus until SPY WHO LOVED ME, which was a hit and re-ignited the popularity).

  3. I’m running into the racism concern in my tour of Holmes — although in this case, it’s Americans (killer Mormons in A Study in Scarlet and the KKK in “The Five Orange Pips”), India and South America (pretty much most of The Sign of the Four). I’m basically noting that it’s awkward to 21st century mentalities and moving on, but these are also the stories I like the least, and I’m wondering how much of my 21 century mentality is interfering with my enjoyment of the stories otherwise.

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