By the time Ian Fleming typed out the last letter of Moonraker, he must have been satisfied with his creation but unsure of where James Bond could go from there. The books were pop culture juggernauts, so not following up with yet another James Bond adventure wasn’t really an option for Fleming. But if Diamonds are Forever is any indication of the man’s mindset, then Fleming was either tired of the formula established in his previous books or simply didn’t know what to do. As a result, Diamonds are Forever is markedly different from its predecessors in several ways, though I personally found it to be tremendously enjoyable even if it’s not exactly what people might expect after the bang-up action of Moonraker and Live and let Die. In some ways, it is structured a bit more like Casino Royale, though with the markedly tougher Bond we’ve seen emerge in the books since that initial outing.
When M calls Bond in to his office to discuss diamond smuggling, 007 wonders what this has to do with the secret service. Surely it’s a case for Scotland Yard. But M wants to smash the smuggling operation from one end to the other, and that entails a mission that could carry Bond from England to America and Sierra Leone. It will definitely bring him into direct conflict with the American Mob, a gang of thugs and theatrical gangsters that Bond holds in very low regard. Compared to SMERSH assassins and madmen with nuclear warheads, going toe to toe with the American Mafia should be a piece of cake. So Bond assumes the identity of a diamond smuggler and meets gorgeous American smuggler Tiffany Case, with whom he is instantly smitten, as Bond tends to be with every woman. Bond ingratiates himself to the Mob bosses in New York, a relationship that will lead him to the horse racing mecca of Saratoga, then to the glittering strip at Las Vegas as he seeks out the head honcho in order to deliver a little Bond-style problem solving, as well as extract Tiffany from the mess in which she’s involved.
It doesn’t sound all that unusual on the surface, does it? But what really makes this Bond book different from the last two is that there is very little action. There are only three violent confrontations, and only two of them directly involve Bond. The bulk of this book is comprised of a breezy Bond travelogue. It’s pretty much like Ian Fleming took a vacation in America, went to New York, Saratoga, and Las Vegas, and then decided to jot down his experiences and force a Bond plot into them somewhere. Bond books and movies always have a travelogue aspect to them — it’s one of the things that made them so popular. You could trot the globe in the company of this suave secret agent, learn about exotic locations and cultures and customs, and never have to get shot at yourself. But here, the travelogues aspect is front and center, as we get Bond’s take on New York eateries, where to get a decent bourbon and branch water, why you shouldn’t go to a seedy Saratoga mud bath, and what you can do in Las Vegas while waiting around for a job to explode in your face. The only real action comes when Bond faces down the chief of the American end of the smuggling operation, and then an after-the-fact confrontation with Mob assassins Wint and Kidd. There’s some violence at a mud bath, but Bond spends the entirety of that confrontation cocooned in his mud bath and uninvolved.
The comparative lack of action and travelogue feel are what really make this feel like a tougher version of Casino Royale, to say nothing of the fact that gambling yet again featured in a prominent role, both in Las Vegas and at the horse races in Saratoga. But this lack of action doesn’t make for a boring book. In fact, I found Diamonds are Forever to be quite engaging despite the fact that it’s really not much more than Ian Fleming taking a short breather before launching into From Russia with Love. Diamonds are Forever is a short book, and it never gives itself time to be boring. Even though there’s not much action, there’s always something going on, and the entire thing is written at a snappy clip that makes it all feel very chummy. It really does feel like you’re on a road trip with Bond. Also, as of this book, despite the vodka martini being his signature drink, I think Bond has actually consumed more bourbon in the series than he has martinis. As someone with an affinity for bourbon but mere tolerance for the taste of a martini, I appreciate Bond’s fondness for my drink of choice. The vodka martini may be his secret weapon, but old fashioned bourbon is his trusty Beretta. Incidentally, Bond favors Old Grandad. For my money, I say go with Elmer T. Lee or Hancock Reserve.
Diamonds are Forever also features the return of Felix Leiter, last seen lying in a hospital bed after being mauled by a shark in Live and Let Die. Physically, he’s a little worse for the experience, sporting a hook hand and fake leg, but otherwise he’s still the same delightful Felix Leiter, and his presence — he’s since retired from the CIA due to losing his shooting hand, and now works as a private investigator for Pinkertons — only serves to heighten the feeling of chumminess that pervades this entry in the Bond series. Tiffany Case is also an excellent Bond girl — much better than her portrayal in the movie, which was overly shrill and whiney. In fact, she’s easily the most memorable and fully fleshed out female accomplice yet presented in a Bond story, and I suspect she’ll remain that way even as I progress further into the series. The supporting cast is an eclectic collection of characters that would have made Raymond Chandler proud. There’s Shady Tree, the hunchbacked and temperamental gangster who runs the New York end of the smuggling ring. There’s Wint and Kidd, two members of the so-called Lavender Mob — a collection of homosexual men who have honed their skills as assassins and enforcers. And then there’s Spang, the boss of the whole U.S. operation, who spends his free time dressed up as a cowboy and hanging out with his thugs in a replica Old West town. Bond learns that, although American mobsters are indeed over-the-top and theatrical in their mannerisms, they’re also very good at what they do, and very dangerous to have as enemies. Bond’s arrogance is definitely on display when he takes the assignment, but it’s safe to say he learns a valuable lesson by mission’s end.
The leaders of the Spangled Mob, as it is called, aren’t the best Bond villains, and they’re fairly poorly developed, especially after Mr. Big and Hugo Drax proved to be such memorable villains. It seems like Fleming was interested in making this Bond adventure more of a lark — still full of violence, but more like an old detective novel than a spy story. Bond sort of goes with the flow for most of the story, and makes some crucial and obvious errors and misjudgments (his inability to identify Wint and Kidd from Leiter’s descriptions being the most glaring). With the slightly absurd villains and locations, as well as the gumshoe plot, my aforementioned reference to Raymond Chandler seems particularly apt. It wouldn’t take a whole lot of tweaking to turn this into a Philip Marlowe novel.
Obviously, there’s very little similarity between this novel and the Bond movie by the same name, which saw the welcome return of Sean Connery to the role after replacement George Lazenby proved to be such a nightmare to work with (although his sole Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, remains one of the best). The movie uses the diamond smuggling plot and Vegas location, but drops the simple, streamlined Fleming tale in favor of a typically Bond movie production involving SPECTRE, the seemingly indestructible series villain Ernst Blofeld, and a giant doomsday space laser. It does throw Wint and Kidd into the mix for good measure, but the film version of Tiffany Case is intolerable, even though actress Jill St. John is a grade-A bombshell. She plays Case as a smart alec airhead, though, which couldn’t be any further from Felming’s characterization of her as a smart, hard-nosed beauty cut from the same cloth as the femme fatales of the film noir era. Still, it has more in common with the source material than the cinematic Moonraker did, and about the same amount as Live and Let Die.
Although it’s easy to discount Diamonds are Forever as one of the lesser Bond novels or as an afterthought or placeholder in between more substantial stories, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s tremendously fun to read. It’s a slim volume and goes by very quickly, and what it lacks in action it certainly makes up for by simply being a quickly paced and highly agreeable travelogue. I’m assuming it has a lot in common with the short story “James Bond in New York,” which I haven’t read yet since I’m going in order. If you want a quick reference guide to Bond’s lifestyle while visiting America, here you go. Not essential reading, but still fun reading, and recommended.