When Casino Royale proved to be a major success for first-time author Ian Fleming, the call went out for a continuation of the adventures of Commander James Bond. Luckily, Fleming was ahead of the game and had already started working on a follow-up. Because, they reasoned, if Casino Royale bombs, you won’t be in the mood to write another book. Live and Let Die pits Bond against Harlem-based SMERSH operative Mr. Big, who is using a curtain of superstition and voodoo to mask a treasure smuggling operation funding Russian spy hijinks. Live and Let Die finds the franchise on ground more familiar to Bond movie fans, who maybe found the last book confronted them with a sort of proto-Bond, an emotional and sometimes petulant agent who was far less ruthless and efficient than one might expect — at least until the final sentence, when we witness the birth of James Bond as popular culture would come to know him.
It is this James Bond — brash, witty, and deadly ruthless — that appears in Live and Let Die, and the story is all the better for it, though the continuing evolution of the Bond character is only one of several aspects that make Live and Let Die a much more accomplished and enjoyable read than the previous book. Bond must hunt down Mr. Big, a genius operative who is heading up most of the Russian SMERSH activity from a headquarters in Harlem, where he utilizes the vast network of blue collar black workers largely eschewed by white America. It’s the perfect set-up for Big: his people are taxi drivers, porters, hotel clerks — eyes and ears that can track anyone, anywhere, and at any time without arousing the slightest bit of suspicion.
Bond is put on the case when a number of antique coins start showing up in pawn shops and coin dealerships in New York. Some of the coins point to them being from the legendary lost treasure of a pirate who supposedly left a major bundle hidden somewhere in Jamaica. MI6 and the CIA both suspect that Big has found the treasure and is using it to finance his branch of the SMERSH organization. Working alongside CIA agent Felix Leiter once again, Bond must locate the treasure and put an end to Big’s operation — something no agent has been able to do. Complicating matters, as they so often do, is the woman Solitaire, kept by Mr. Big because of her ability to tell the future and glance into the minds of Big’s adversaries. She’s not happy with being Big’s kept woman, though, and she sees Bond as her ticket to freedom.
The action moves from the streets of New York to the beaches of Florida, and finally to the island of Jamaica. The Florida sequence, in particular, is notable for boasting possibly the most terrifying description of St. Petersburg ever committed to the page. It’s obvious that Fleming must have witnessed and been horrified by the dull, witless lifestyles of America’s retirees who moved down to Florida to play shuffleboard and eat awful food. He instills a similar horror at the “oldsters” in both Bond and Leiter, who find themselves in St. Pete after tracing Big’s smuggling operation to an exotic fish import company in the city. I can’t say my opinion of the oldster lifestyle is very different. I wish them happiness and grant them their retirement, but my God I hope that’s not it for me.
Juxtaposed with appalled yet humor-infused look at life in St. Pete is one of the series’ most grisly scenes — a mauling by shark that wouldn’t show up in a Bond movie until the Timothy Dalton entry, “License to Kill. In fact, this story has much in it that would show up in the Bond films, though not necessarily in the one that shares the title. The character of Quarrel, familiar to fans of the film, Dr No, first appears here. And there is a scene in which Bond and Solitaire are dragged by Big’s boat through shallow water and over coral reefs which producers couldn’t figure out how to film realistically until For Your Eyes Only.
Fleming’s prose has been greatly sharpened between his authorship of Casino Royale and this book. He’s improved both his command of writing in general and his ability to pace a story. Live and Let Die rarely lets up, and even when Fleming indulges himself in verbose exposition on esoteric topics (in Casino Royale it was is frequent descriptions of the finer points of gambling, which often went for pages; in Live and Let Die it’s historical background information on voodoo), he does so in a way that doesn’t lose any of the fast pace and tension of the overall story.
He also employs use of black slang and vernacular with far more accuracy than you’d expect from an old British guy n the 1950s. For many people, the racial aspect of Live and Let Die is a stumbling block, but for the most part, Fleming handles it with a more progressive view than the majority of his contemporaries. He is careful to point out that the rise of a black criminal like Mr. Big was inevitable. Black culture, despite all it had endured in the past couple hundred years, was very quick to produce geniuses in every walk of life. It was only a matter of time before it also produces a criminal genius. And Fleming’s idea of having Big use a network of black informants who are at once everywhere and yet, in the eyes of many whites, practically non-existent was both a clever way to move the espionage forward in a believable fashion while also taking a shot at the way white culture disregarded black even though black culture had contributed so much to the overall culture.
Fleming — through Bond — is also vocal in expressing his admiration for Mr. Big, a complex villain who emerges as one of the smartest and most efficient villains Bond has ever faced. Big doesn’t rely on brute strength alone, and Bond frequently comments on the frightening brilliance of the man’s mind. In the end, as I’ve stated elsewhere, I don’t have many hang-ups about race relations handling in old books. Fleming’s not perfect in his dealings with it, but all things considered, he’s more on top of things than many, and what racism there is in Live and Let Die is mild, comparatively speaking.
Live and Let Die definitely picks up the pace and sets the bar higher than was done in Casino Royale. For me, looking back, it seems as if the success of Casino Royale was almost lucky. It was a good book, but not great, and James Bond was sort of irritating. It was a look at Ian Fleming’s potential, where as Live and Let Die is an example of the author living up to that potential and turning in a thrilling, complex adventure novel that is much better at showing you why the character of James Bond has endured for so many decades.