She was the Paris of the East. And the Whore of Asia. Shanghai in the 1930s was a dizzying mix of glamour, seediness, decadence, intrigue, and political turmoil. A city divided up by conquering countries, where her own people were relegated to third class citizens. A city would-be adventurers and femme fatales came to make their mark or destroy themselves in those opulent dens of vice. Spies, warlords, gangsters, gamblers. And drifting through it all was the sound of Shanghai music driven by the voices of its divas. Vamps. Coquettes. The voices of a city whose name was synonymous with vice. The city, the country, the entire world was about to go to war. But in her smoky nightclubs and dancehalls, the sirens of Shanghai enchanted everyone.
Toei Movieland Studio hadn’t been on our official itinerary, but I convinced people to give it a try even though I was the only big Japanese movie fan in the bunch. Toei had given some of my absolute favorite sci-fi superhero shows, and the chance to see one of their studios was too good for me to pass up. After shelling out a rather hefty ¥2500 per person to get in (note: this was in 2001; it is probably more now), I quickly began to realize it wasn’t going to be as cool as I’d hoped. The entrance was was a museum of samurai and ninja articles, most of them from then upcoming movie Red Shadow. A large screen television played clips of various Toei samurai movies and histories of the studio. None of it was especially interesting, unfortunately.
It was a fine morning but looked like it might turn to rain by the afternoon. I found myself with the day to myself and no real plans, so even though it was a bit late to start such an excursion, I decided to go hiking. After leaving through a guide on my way to the car, I decided to try a hike called Stairway to Heaven, just south of Harriman State Park and the Hudson Highlands, on the New York-New Jersey border. It looked to be a fairly easy drive to a hike that, the trailhead being out int he middle of nowhere, probably wouldn’t be too terribly crowded.
In the wake of the success of Universal’s 1931 shocker Dracula, there were many attempts to continue and/or cash in on its success, but for one reason or another, Universal itself was never able to capitalize on Dracula the same way it did when it turned both Frankenstein and The Mummy (and later, The Creature from the Black Lagoon) into franchises. Even in the later monster team-up House of… films, Dracula was at best a supporting player, even when his name was in the title, and the vampire prince of darkness didn’t really interact with the other monsters (or the main storyline). The fact that Dracula was so closely identified at the time with Bela Lugosi, and that Lugosi himself never returned to the role (at least in an official capacity), probably hindered Dracula from becoming the same sort of series as did the other Universal monsters. But where Universal failed, others were ready to step in and try to hitch their wagon to the Dracula gravy train…err, or some metaphor like that. Dracula liked gravy, right?
Kaiju films were old hat in Japan by the 1970s, but elsewhere in Asia the giant monster film industry was only just getting going. Inspired by Japanese movies like Godzilla and, even more so, television shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, aspiring (or canny) filmmakers (or hucksters) in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Korea decided they too would pit their cities against giant monsters and invading aliens against super-sized superheroes. South Korea was among the first kaiju copycats out of the gate with 1967’s Yongary. Because it’s Asian and features an irritating little kid in tiny shorts and a dinosaur-like giant monster, most people chalk it up as a Godzilla clone. It has far more to do, though, with that do-gooder crusading giant turtle Gamera and, in my opinion, even more to do with Western rip-offs of Godzilla and Gamera, like 1961’s Gorgo. Eh, whatever the case, a dude in a rubber suit was kicking over buildings and swatting model jets out of the matte painted sky much to the delight of all.
Morning mist was still clinging stubbornly to the ground when we pulled into the parking lot. My partner in crime rubbed the tiredness out of her eyes, which grew wide as soon as she realized what she was looking at.
“Did I lie?” I asked her as I pulled into a parking spot adjacent to the bottom row of chipped white concrete teeth that were part of the lower jaw of a gaping T Rex mouth that served as the entrance to White Post, Virginia’s Dinosaur Land. To our right were two more dinosaurs, one a brontosaurus, the other one of those two-legged beasts that, because no one knows exactly what it is, simply gets called an allosaurus. They were frozen in mid-menace of an Amoco gas station sign. To our left, just visible on the crest of a hill, was a giant octopus locked in mortal combat with a prehistoric shark. In front of us was a sign:
20′ Kong! 60′ Shark! 90′ Octopus! Christmas Shop!
Diamonds are Forever was a bit of a sightseeing vacation for our intrepid 007, a breather author Ian Fleming took in between more substantial books. From Russia with Love finds Bond and the Bond books back in top form for one of the best-loved stories in the entire franchise, films and books. From Russia with Love certainly deserves its lofty ranking, though to be honest, at the end of the adventure, we have another sightseeing excursion for Bond, who operates here as more of a supporting character along for the ride while everyone else does all the work.
It is fashionable, and has been for some time now, for Americans to dislike France. Our one-time close ally, the country that basically bankrolled the American Revolution, that gave the world Brigitte Bardot, Sophie Marceau, and Jean Reno — you surrender early in one little world war, and suddenly the US is holding a grudge against you for decades, exacerbated by your unwillingness to approve the occasional dubious war in the United Nations. Here, however, in this city of bon vivants and coquettes, we harbor no ill will toward our brothers and sisters on The Continent. They simply gave us and continue to give us too many wonderful things, including that statue I see in New York Harbor every day on my way to work.
And they gave us the risque magazine. Specifically, La Vie Parisienne, founded in 1863 as a guide to upper class and artistic life in Paris. Of course, anyone who knows anything about such circles both high and low knows that eventually a bared breast or naked bottom is going to find its way into the discussion, and before very long, La Vie Parisienne became the preeminent publication for those in search of a bawdy jest, juicy gossip, or investigative exploration of some manner of Bohemian life, preferably involving nudity. The magazine became hugely popular, and not just among the Parisienne libertine set. Imitators quickly sprung up, with titles like Le Sourire, Le Rire, Le Regiment, and Fantasio. It was not all about the coy mademoiselle or caddish gent, however, and like the early editions of its eventual descendant, Playboy, La Vie Parisienne also featured articles on style, finances, politics, the arts, and romance. So you could totally buy La Vie Parisienne just for the articles.
But if perchance your eye did stray and was drawn to those spicy illustrations, you would be inevitably greeted by a knowing smirk, a defiant liberty, and playful sauciness that became increasingly popular after the first World War and during the rise of the Jazz Age, flappers, and the tremendous sense of blowing off some steam and shedding inhibitions that did its best to lift the weight off the world’s shoulders during the 1920s. During the Great War, General Pershing himself warned American troops that under no circumstance should they submit their eyes to viewing such filth, which I’m sure resulted in a mysterious spike in sales for the publication. La Vie Parisienne continued to publish well into the 20th century, but with the rise of photographic magazines and increasing brazenness of the publications, the glimpse of stocking or artfully bared bosom from a loose Grecian tunic became quaint and then was surpassed and forgotten. In 1970, the storied and ground-breaking publication printed its final issue, though the name was sold and assigned to a new magazine in 1984, which continues publication now.
But for us here, as one would guess, we prefer the old days and old ways and the artwork of bold pioneers in sly sinfulness and mature mirthmaking like Georges Barbier, Gerda Wegener, Cheri Herouard, Georges Leonnec, Maurice Milliere, Sacha Zaliouk, Umberto Brunelleschi, Raphael Kirchner. There is such a…not innocence about their artwork, but an energy, a happiness, an idea that sexuality and playfulness and intellectualism were things to be loved, celebrated and enjoyed rather than demonized and shunted to the shadows of guilt and self-loathing. Such a joie de vivre. Without them, we might never have had…oh, who am I kidding? Nudie magazines were inevitable, since the first thing we do as humans with any new medium is use it to display each other naked. But still, we honor the magazine that started the ball rolling. So order yourself a French 75, put on some Francoise Hardy, and join us celebrating the magazine that dared celebrate our secret love of decadence and dandyism. On s’est bien amusé, darlings!
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.
There are a lot of pluses and a good number of minuses to living in a place like New York City. Among the pluses is that, if you time it so as to miss the traffic and drive in the right direction, it doesn’t take long for the city itself and its surrounding sprawl to melt away and be replaced by the forested peaks and craggy ridgelines of the Appalachian Mountains, or whatever it is that the yankees up here have named them. Ninety minutes can put you anywhere from the Delaware Water Gap along the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border to Bear Mountain along the Hudson River, or maybe the Shawagunks in New Paltz, home to some of the best climbing on the east coast.