As I mentioned back in my entry on Live and Let Die, this week’s Bond is, unfortunately, one of the three that I don’t like that much (all of which, interestingly, take place in America). However, this novel is also one of Fleming’s best-researched.
Fleming threw himself into research on diamond smuggling, so much so that he didn’t leave it at background for this novel. He ended up taking that research and publishing it in the following year (1957), as The Diamond Smugglers, one of Fleming’s two non-fiction efforts (the other being the 1950s travelogue Thrilling Cities.
Yet for all the research, it doesn’t really change the fact that this book seems out of place as a Bond novel. It seems like a police procedural, with the Bond characters dropped into it ham-fistedly. Bond is assigned to infiltrate a smuggling ring, based on information from a Special Branch investigation — a job which seems far more suited for a Special Branch undercover, like Gala Brand who was introduced in the previous novel, rather than a Double-0. Even Felix Leiter, a CIA agent, is recast now as a Pinkerton Detective (justified by his maiming in Live and Let Die). Upon multiple readings, it really feels to me like Fleming wrote a Mike Hammer pastiche, and re-worked it as a Bond novel.
Diamond smuggling just seems like such a lackluster threat for an agent of Bond’s calibre (no wonder the god-awful film version in 1971 made the smuggling plot part of a larger effort by SPECTRE to build a world-threatening particle-beam weapon). Yet the book takes Bond into such mundane efforts as thwarting a fixed horse race, which just seems out of place — and honestly, made all the worse by the fact that Diamonds Are Forever is bookended by two of the better novels (Moonraker and From Russia With Love).
The villains of the piece are cartoonish mobsters, Jack and Seraffimo Spang, who run “the Spangled Mob.” They come off as sub-par Dick Tracy villains, obsessed with the Old West (to the point of purchasing ghost towns in the Nevada desert, and running a locomotive between them), and poorly realized. Thankfully, they barely appear in the novel, as most of its fairly brief length is given over to an unflattering and detailed travelogue of 1950s America, from Saratoga NY to Las Vegas (which Fleming calls a “gilded mousetrap”). Most of the descriptions play up Fleming’s view of the United States as sprawling and tacky.
The “Bond Girl” for the book, the first of Fleming’s real howlers in naming, is Tiffany Case, who is one of the better parts of the book. Another fully-fleshed-out character, Case makes such an impression, she’s actually mentioned in the next novel, From Russia With Love — an explanation of why she and Bond are no longer together is given, and Bond actually seems to be emotionally effected by this loss. Of course, she’s also an example of an unfortunate Fleming trope: the man-hater who is ‘converted’ by Bond’s attentions. In Tiffany’s… er… case, she was the victim of a gang-rape, and this has led her to despise men — until, of course, Bond changes her mind. It’s not a particularly pleasant feature, and it crops up several times in Fleming’s work (Pussy Galore in Goldfinger is the most famous example), but as pulp fetishism goes, it’s fairly mild.
Next week, we’ll take a look at one of my favorites: the Cold War version of “The Final Problem”, From Russia With Love (1957).