After the critical and popular misfire of The Spy Who Loved Me — A literary experiment that was noble in intention but fell apart in execution — the pressure was on Ian Fleming to deliver a top notch Bond adventure to make up for things. At the same time, it’s obvious that Fleming was beyond the point of wanting to crank out another by the numbers book. He was going to have to find a way to work within the expectations people had of what a James Bond book would deliver to them, but find ways to tweak and alter the formula where he could. The result was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, regarded by many — if not, indeed, most — people as the finest Bond adventure Fleming ever wrote. For most of its pages, it is an exceptionally well executed but formulaic Bond adventure. The twist comes near the end, which leaves Bond an emotionally shattered man, cradling the body of his dead wife.
After a worthwhile idea (exploring the effect on a normal person’s life when they come into contact with James Bond) that turned into the savagely crummy The Spy Who Loved Me, Ian Fleming had a lot to make up for. The trick for the author was finding something unique to do with the long-lived character of James Bond while still fulfilling the basic expectations of the Bond formula. Unfortunately for Fleming, as with many authors, musicians, and movie makers, when you strike upon a successful franchise you either make more or less the same thing over or over — variations upon a theme — and have people talk about how your work has become stale and formulaic or you make a radical change in the work and listen to people complain about how things changed and the author has turned his back on the essence of what made the series successful. After the dismal The Spy Who Loved Me, it would have been fair to write Fleming and Bond off as having dried up. No one could have expected that Fleming would bounce back with the best book in the series.
I hope whatever good will was generated for you (provided you liked the book as much as I did) by Thunderball is still fresh in your memory, because you’re going to need to lean heavily upon it if you ever want to make it to the end of Fleming’s next Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s tempting to just skip this one entirely and move immediately on to the next book, so bad is The Spy Who Loved Me and so well documented is the near universal dislike for the book from fans, critics, and Ian Fleming himself. At this point it seems like adding my opinion is just gratuitous piling on, because I’m not going to have all that much to say that’s different from what has previously been written about this book. If I’d read the book and found it to be the “best of the series,” then at least I’d have a more unique position which I could defend.
OK, now this is more like it. After muddling through a series of unsatisfying short stories — some of which were frustrating because they contained the unrealized kernel of a great story, others because they had next to nothing to do with James Bond — Ian Fleming returns to familiar territory with one of my favorite books in the entire series. Thunderball combines the breakneck action of Doctor No with the breezy travelogue spirit of Diamonds are Forever as Fleming proves once again that he is at the time of his game whenever he’s writing a Bond story set in the Caribbean. Thunderball also marks a major development in the series in that it features the debut of the shadowy international criminal organization SPECTRE and its mysterious mastermind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Goldfinger was a decent enough adventure for James Bond, but it also smacked of “going through the motions” and relying on remixing ingredients from previous novels: the card cheat angle from Moonraker, the SMERSH funding angle from Live and Let Die, and a couple other things here and there. The next book in the series is a break from the full-length novels. For Your Eyes Only is a collection of short stories of wildly varying tone and quality that possess ample ability to entertain yet do almost nothing to advance the world of James Bond. In fact, he’s hardly even in a couple of the stories. Nothing here fits into the larger Bond continuity as established by the novels (this disposability would not hold true for the second collection of short stories), and nothing stands out as spectacular. Still, if you are a Fleming completist you’re going to read this collection anyway, so let’s dig into it shall we?
Goldfinger is the James Bond film that set the standard for most of the Bond films that followed, to say nothing of the hundreds of cheap (and often enjoyable) knock-offs that came out during the 1960s. Although Doctor No and From Russia with Love were both big successes, it was Goldfinger that seemed to resonate most with copycat filmmakers around the world. Goldfinger the novel comes late enough in the series that it isn’t the historically important work that the movie was, except perhaps for being the source material for the movie that had to be made before people like me would ever be allowed to enjoy Kommissar X films or Lightning Bolt. And once again, we find out that the movie follows the book very closely, with the only major changes being an increased role in the movie for iconic Bond girl Pussy Galore (who, in the book, is overtly referred to as a lesbian, where as her sexual orientation is just barely hinted at in the movie) and a different death for main villain Auric Goldfinger and equally iconic henchman Odd Job.
I said in the review of From Russia with Love that the ending made it feel like this was the first time Ian Fleming had reconciled himself with the fact that the current Bond book wasn’t going to be the final Bond book, and so he decided to throw a juicy “to be continued” twist in at the last moment. James Bond is down! Poisoned by a crafty Russian agent! Is he dead? What will happen? Proceed with haste to the next book to find out! Unfortunately, the cliffhanger is always better than the resolution, and Doctor No picks up the thread by basically going, “Boy, that sure was close, but now James is all better,” and away we go to Jamaica without much bother.
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.
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.
Casino Royale, the story of high-stakes, espionage-infused gambling that introduced the world to James Bond. Fearing that the book might not be a success, Fleming’s friends urged him to begin work on a second novel even before the verdict came back on his first, figuring that after two novels, you’re in the professional writing groove, where as waiting around to have your first novel fail is going to take you out of the game pretty quickly. Fleming and his chums needn’t have worried. Casino Royale did quite well, but the follow-up, the voodoo-tinged spy thriller Live and Let Die, did even better, and was a much better book to boot.