Live and Let Die (1954) by Ian Fleming, a belated #1954 Club blogpost

Not really a review, not a synopsis. This are my comments on reading Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming, featuring the evil gangster Mr Big, the beautiful tarot card reader Solitaire, and a motley crew of henchmen and marauding fish. Plus some book serendipity and a strange coincidence that threw up my own personal theory about who might have inspired Fleming’s description of his villain, Mr Big.

If you loved the film Live and Let Die, then you might be disappointed by the book. It’s quite a different animal. Some of the plot points were used in other Bond films rather than the one in which Bond meets Solitaire, played by Jane Seymour, a beautiful tarot card reader. As I’m not a Bond film aficionado, I was perfectly happy with the book, except for the racist tropes Fleming used. I remember reading about Jamaica in the 1970s and the (official, white) view back then was that all races got along perfectly well with each other on Jamaica. This is reflected in how Fleming believed he was tolerant, but used racist terms to refer to Black people and used a background of voodoo, superstition and Black gangsters for this book. Looking past this, the villain, Mr Big, is satisfyingly evil and intelligent – a dangerous combination.

Comments and observations: spoilers within

Bond is whisked through American customs and driven to the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan by an FBI man. As he gets out of the car, he catches a glimpse of an older Black man with a female Black chauffeur driving off. Black people are referred to as Negroes, starting on the first page in the comment, “he disliked the idea of his dossier being in the possession of any foreign power. Anonymity was the chief tool of his trade. Every thread of his real identity that went on record in any file diminished his value and, ultimately, was a threat to his life. Here in America, where they knew all about him, he felt like a Negro whose shadow has been stolen by the witch-doctor.” An uncalled for simile made worse by a racist equation of Blackness with traditional African beliefs.

Chapter 2, Interview with M, is a flashback to a foggy day in London when Bond was called in to discuss the case. He has apparently had time off work to have a skin graft to replace the Russian letter ш (sch) cut into the skin on the back of his hand, the first letter of Spion (spy) to mark him asa spy by an agent of “the Soviet organ of vengeance, SMERSH, short for Smyert Spionum—Death to Spies”. (p.13)

The villain: Mr Big

Bond’s target in this book is a Haitian man known as Mr Big who is now a linchpin of the Harlem underworld, running several brothels and nightclubs employing call girls. His enemies have a habit of meeting a sticky end. During WWII, Mr Big was drafted in America, trained by the secret service “who trained him with great thoroughness and put him into Marseilles as an agent against the Pétain collaborationists,” working closely with a Russian agent. After the war, he disappeared for five years, presumed to have been trained as a Russian spy, then returned to Harlem.

“Those who deserve to die, die the death they deserve,” says Bond to Mr Big. Now I’ve read the book, I know what happened and, of course, Mr Big gets an appropriate comeuppance, but given the extent of his villainy, almost any death would have been appropriate.

Zombies and voodoo

“He was known to have originated an underground Voodoo temple in Harlem and to have established a link between it and the main cult in Haiti. The rumour had started that he was the Zombie or living corpse of Baron Samedi himself, the dreaded Prince of Darkness, and he fostered the story so that now it was accepted through all the lower strata of the Negro world. As a result, he commanded real fear, strongly substantiated by the immediate and often mysterious deaths of anyone who crossed him or disobeyed his orders.” “They believe the Big Man is the Zombie of Baron Samedi. Zombies are bad enough by themselves. They’re animated corpses that have been made to rise from the dead and obey the commands of the person who controls them.” Fleming claims “the fear of Voodoo and the supernatural, [are] still deeply, primevally ingrained in the Negro subconscious!” Of course, Mr Fleming, this is obviously true for all Black people, all over the world!

Bond’s view of America

To fit in, Bond has to be ‘Americanised’ with a single-breasted suit, “chilly white nylon shirts with long points to the collars, […],unusually patterned foulard ties, dark socks with fancy clocks, two or three handkerchiefs for his breast pocket, nylon vests and pants (called T-shirts and shorts)”, etc. and “two pairs of hand-stitched and very comfortable black moccasin casuals’.” There are also several mentions of Americans wearing ‘Truman shirts’. If anyone knows what these are, I’d love to know.

Some of the comments on American food and habits are rather scathing. Bond makes a comment about Americans adding milk to their scrambled egg and I was mystified because isn’t that how it is made? He is also rather rude about a Florida town full of ‘oldsters’ sitting on benches (Davenports) “like the starlings in Trafalgar square”. I would have expected sparrows or pigeons, but in any case Bond has a horror of becoming like those white-haired and blue-rinsed pensioners. Another poke at America is when his colleague tells him “to avoid words of more than two syllables“. Fleming really wasn’t out to make friends, was he?

The title

An alternative title in Dutch is Moord onder water (murder underwater), but it doesn’t really fit very well with the actual events. The title in English is introduced when Bond decides to go to Harlem to see Mr. Big’s area of operations. Captain Dexter agrees, but tells him not to stir up any trouble.

“‘This case isn’t ripe yet. Until it is, our policy with Mr. Big is ‘live and let live.’
Bond looked quizzically at Captain Dexter.
‘In my job,’ he said, ‘when I come up against a man like this one, I have another motto. It’s ‘live and let die.’”

Bond and his friend and CIA colleague Leiter go out on the town, ending up at a club called The Boneyard. We know that the Boss (Mr Big) knows exactly where they are, has placed them at a particular table and planned an ambush. When they arrive there, after midnight, I was surprised to find they order Scotch and soda and ham sandwiches. The walls are lacquered black to offset the reflections of lights on the different coloured ‘witch balls’ hanging around the room. “The whole scene was macabre and livid, as if El Greco had done a painting by moonlight of an exhumed graveyard in a burning town.” That would have been a wonderful description if Fleming hadn’t added racist slurs and sexualised descriptions of the people. Yes, I know it was in a strip joint, but he spent far too long describing the woman dancing. And many of the words he used about Black people were negative and related to animals: feral, chienne, growling. Mr Big’s eyes “were animal eyes, not human, and they seemed to blaze.”

The description of Mr Big

“It was a great football of a head, twice the normal size and very nearly round. The skin was grey-black, taut and shining like the face of a week-old corpse in the river. It was hairless, except for some grey-brown fluff above the ears. There were no eyebrows and eyelashes and the eyes were extraordinarily far apart, so that one could not focus on them both, but only on one at a time. […] The nose was wide without being particularly Negroid. The nostrils did not gape at you. The lips were only slightly everted, but thick and dark. […] There were very few wrinkles or creases on the face, but there were two deep clefts above the nose, the clefts of concentration. Above them, the forehead bulged slightly before merging with the polished, hairless crown.      Curiously, there was nothing disproportionate about the monstrous head. It was carried on a wide, short neck supported by the shoulders of a giant. Bond knew from the records that the Big Man was six and a half feet tall and weighed 280 pounds, and that little of it was fat. But the total impression was awe-inspiring, even terrifying, and Bond could imagine that so ghastly a misfit must have been bent since childhood on revenge against fate and against the world that hated because it feared him.”

Was Mr Big based on wrestler Maurice Tillet?

With a few exceptions, this description fits perfectly with a real person I looked up a few days ago (I can’t remember why), the French wrestling champion Maurice Tillet  who had a medical condition (acromegaly) that made his head and hands continue growing. He had originally planned to become a lawyer, but his disease prevented this. After WWII he became a worldwide wrestling star, who had visited the UK and was based in the USA. Fleming must have known about him and could have shoe-horned him into his new novel in the guise of Mr Big, changing his race to fit his setting. Even his weight fits, though Fleming makes him taller. Also note that the actor playing Mr Big in the 1973 film bears no resemblance to the description and the whole story was completely changed for the film.

A blogger who has been researching Tillet’s life for years has even gathered some circumstantial evidence that, like Mr Big, Maurice Tillet may have been a spy. After all, he had been in the French navy, spoke several languages and seems to have spent time with several celebrities who were spies, or were suspected of being so. This includes Josephine Baker and even his own manager, Karl Pojello, a Lithuanian-American.  Who knows, maybe he even met Fleming, who had also worked in intelligence. This makes it even more likely that he could have been the model for Mr Big!

It is entirely probable that Fleming saw Tillet fighting, live or saw him in black and white on TV or in the newspapers. He may have assumed he was black. He retired from wrestling in 1953, perfect timing for Fleming to write him into his new novel. Sadly Tillet died (perhaps of a broken heart) in September 1954  and the book was published in April of the same year, Fleming could easily have had him in mind when writing Mr Big. He was at one time listed as the highest paid sportsman and also appeared in films, so was a well-known figure.  Fleming did make notes on his inspirations for names, so perhaps his notebooks reveal the truth. I have absolutely no proof of this whatsoever, it is simply sheer coincidence that I was reading about him a few days before reading the book. What is almost certain is that Tilley was used as the inspiration for Shrek’s appearance, though Dreamworks refuse to corroborate this. 

Before he went to America, Tillet had bit parts in films, including as the barman in a 1935 film starring Josephine Baker, Princesse Tam Tam. In this excerpt with Baker singing, dancing and drinking a glass of water without using her hands, you can see that his appearance was not unusual at this stage, just something of a gentle giant. 15 years later he was virtually unrecognisable.

Maurice Tillet in Princesse Tam Tam, starring Josephine Baker

Locations: write about what you know

In 1952, Fleming and his wife Anne visited New York, took the Silver Meteor train to St. Petersburg in Florida, then flew to his Goldeneye Estate in Jamaica, all locations used in Live and Let Die. In May 1953 he travelled to the USA on the RMS Queen Elizabeth, a ship he used as a setting in his 1956 book Diamonds Are Forever (link to my review for the #1956club.  In Live and Let Die, Bond takes the Silver Phantom train to St. Petersburg, Florida from Pennsylvania Station, passing through Washington, Jacksonville, and Tampa, then changing to the Silver Meteor.

Bond, health, booze, drugs and smoking

When Mr Big is interviewing Bond, one of his henchmen breaks Bond’s little finger on his left hand. Bond faints. Who would have thought Bond was such a wimp? I somersaulted over my bicycle handlebars a few years ago and fractured the same finger. It really didn’t hurt that much! In fact, the adrenaline meant that I didn’t realise it was broken until I looked at it. I certainly didn’t faint. They do say women have higher pain thresholds than men. Poor Bond, his little finger is so painful, he is unable to make love to Solitaire when they are alone on the train. It’s probably just as well. If he had, maybe that would have been the end of him once and for all. Saved by a painful pinky!

Another instance of Bond showing us that he isn’t fearless is when he flies to Jamaica; he is suddenly aware of his mortality and the vulnerability of planes. I was also surprised to discover that Bond’s lightning fast reactions are enhanced by drugs. Perhaps that is to compensate for the vast quantities of booze he regularly consumes at all hours of the day, including breakfast. It’s interesting to note that even in 1954, Bond knows his drinking and smoking habits are not good for him. When he needs to get fit in earnest, he stops smoking and drinking and starts exercising, swimming and running.

Jamaica

As in all good Bond stories, the villain has a secret lair, preferably on an island or on top of a mountain. This time it’s an inhospitable island off the coast of Jamaica which had once been a pirate’s base. Here, Fleming throws in a little history that doesn’t put Britain in a particularly good light, or shows how sneaky they were, depending on your viewpoint. To avoid war with Spain in Europe, the colonial government of Jamaica pretended not to notice Bloody Morgan’s piracy until the Spanish had left the Caribbean. He was then given a knighthood and became Governor of Jamaica. In any case, the denouement takes place in and around the island, with Bond approaching underwater and fighting off a large octopus before even reaching the island and having to deal with his human enemies.

In the final scene, Mr Big toes a torpedo-shaped paravane behind his boat, the Secatur. I didn’t understand the description, so looked it up. Torpedo-shaped paravanes were used for minesweeping,  so were unlikely for a private boat. There are other sorts, also known as water kites, used for placing bait at specific levels for sport and commercial fishing and scientific purposes, which seem perfect for collecting rare fish such as those caught by Mr Big’s contacts. The torpedo shape (which Fleming repeats multiple times, without really explaining what it looks like) fits the Bond’s persona much better.

Another gadget Bond mentions are nightglasses. I didn’t realise they existed in 1954. In fact the first ones were developed in Germany in the 1930s, but as Fleming liked to refer to cutting edge technology, he was probably referring to US military night vision developed in 1948 or perhaps he had even heard talk of something that was still being developed, since the ITT corporation started to supply the US military with night vision equipment in 1958, four years after Live and Let Die was published. 

Book serendipity: Bond recommends a book!

Bond, I was surprised to discover, is keen on researching his work by extensive reading. In preparation for this job, he is reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Traveller’s Tree, a book which I do not possess. However, mere hours before I read this part, I had coincidentally picked up two of his other books from my bookshelf to see which countries they covered (the Netherlands and further travel across the continent). I understand why Bond was reading The Traveller’s Tree as part of the preparation for his assignment; it’s a travelogue of several Caribbean islands. Live and Let Die directly quotes about two and a half pages of lurid description of voodoo rites. I think I’ll probably give that book a miss!

Book serendipity: Trenton, New Jersey

This is the third book I have read recently that mentioned Trenton:

  • The whole of Janet Evanovich’s Two for the Dough is set in and around Trenton
  • In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s Americanah, Ifemelu travels to Trenton to visit a Black hair salon
  • In Live and Let Die, Bond sees Trenton from the train

Once more I prolonged my reading by Google reading, i.e. looking things up as I go along, a term I first encountered in Shawn the Book Maniac’s video about Reading Wales month. In spite of the old-fashioned view on race in Live and Let Die, it always amazes me just how many fascinating little details I pick up reading a book that was written decades ago. I don’t feel compelled to search out all the Bond books, but I have at least one more unread on the shelf and, if it should happen to fit in with a challenge, I just might go ahead and read it.

I’ve never been much of a fan, but after watching a few one Christmas, I must say it’s actually quite fun pointing out the sexism and enjoying the clothes, groovy decor and the scenery. Sean Connery is, of course, the best Bond by far, even if the films are shinier nowadays. Do you agree with me? And have you read any Bond books? Or are there other authors who write similar books that bring the genre up to date?

Not the #1954 Club: books from 1953

When I was looking for books to read for the 1954 club, I discovered that I have a number of books that were published in 1953. So I’m all set for 1953 Club, whenever that happens!

Left pile: books for #1954Club. Right pile: published too soon, in 1953

Books on my shelf published in 1953

The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley. Read long ago.

The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham TBR

De vrouw met de zes slapers [The woman with the six overnight guests], Antoon Coolen, 75% read.

The Heart of the Family, Elizabeth Goudge, TBR

The Overloaded Ark, Gerald Durrell TBR, possibly a reread

King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Roger Lancelyn Green TBR

A Kiss Before Dying, Ira Levin TBR

Heimwee naar de jungle (The Lost Steps), Alejo Carpentier, half-read; I must finish reading this! I think it may be on the 1001 list.

It wouldn’t surprise me to find that I have some children’s books lurking on my shelves that were published in 1953, either. I can’t wait to find out what year the next book club will follow. It’s a bit soon for 1953, methinks.

1954 Club: overview of books to read or to add to the wishlist #1954Club

If the books on my bookshelf and available in my library are anything to go by, 1954 was a varied and interesting publishing year. A couple of likely authors were conspicuous by their absence and there are some more I may read later. As it is, I am behind on my reading and blogging. #1954Club will keep me going for a while yet.

Twice a year, Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings run a challenge to read and blog about books from a particular year. This time the lucky year was 1954 and I was determined not to get caught out. I collected some books together, some of which I’d already read, some of which are short or children’s books. I even started reading early and prepared my overview blog. I was all set! And then things began to go pear-shaped. By the way, that is one of my very favourite English sayings. But not so wonderful when you’re living the pear-shaped life!

Excuses, excuses!

This time last week, I was unusually organised and couldn’t wait for the start of the 1954 Club week. At the beginning of the week, I was coasting, reading one of the 1954 library books I’d borrowed, commenting on other people’s blogs, getting sucked into Twitter. Many, many things need to happen in my garden and I’d forgotten it was Easter weekend, so my husband was there expecting action. Then, out of the blue, the translation agency I haven’t heard from for six months asked me to do a 15,000 word translation which involves a fair bit of checking jargon, so is going to take me into next week. To top it all, I realised that the book I’d borrowed on ILL (De wand/The Wall by Maren Haushofer) had been immediately re-reserved and needed to be read pronto and returned. Very inconsiderately, this was not a 1954 book, so more precious time was wasted. This is all a rather long-winded way of saying my contributions to the 1954 Club will mostly be belated ones, but in the immortal words of Magnus Magnusson, I’ve started, so I’ll finish! I will link to my reviews whenever I get round to posting them. Promises, promises!

1954 books in my possession 

These are the books already gracing our bookshelves, plus a couple I was able to borrow from our local library:

TBR:

  • Live and Let Die (Ian Fleming)
  • Under the Net (Iris Murdoch, 1001)
  • The Horse and His Boy (C.S. Lewis)
  • Moominsummer Madness (Tove Jansson)
  • The Song of the Abbey (Elsie J. Oxenham)
  • 3x Perry Mason (Erle Stanley Gardner):
    • The Case of the Fugitive Nurse
    • The Case of the Runaway Corpse
    • The Case of the Restless Redhead

Library books borrowed (in Dutch):

  • I Am Legend (Richard Matheson) – now read
  • De diamant [The diamond] (Harry Mulisch) – currently reading 
Books published in 1954
My books to read for #1954 Club

Online:

Already read:

  • The Wheel on the School (Meindert de Jong)

Couldn’t find:

  • The Mystery of Tally-Ho Cottage (Enid Blyton)
  • Jip en Janneke. First 21 stories (Annie M.G. Schmidt). It doesn’t surprise me I can’t find this one. It may be a Dutch children’s classic, but as a young mother I was not at all impressed by the two naughty pre-schoolers. In fact, in one of the earliest chapters, they dig all of the sand out of the sandpit and Jip’s lackadaisical mother says the equivalent of “Oh, you can have fun tomorrow putting it all back in the sandpit, darling.” As I had a similarly-aged child who annoyed me by doing this every time and had no interest whatsoever in clearing it up, that day or the next, the story made my blood boil. Some of Annie M.G. Schmidt’s books and songs are wonderful, but I don’t think I’ll ever make my peace with Jip and Janneke.

1954 wishlist and future possibilities

  • The Eagle of the Ninth (Rosemary Sutcliff). When we were clearing out my mother’s flat, we discovered that she had collected many of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books. Sadly, The Eagle of the Ninth is not one of them. In fact, it may be the only one of hers I have read, but my memory of it is as lost in the mists of time as the Roman Ninth Legion.
  • The Bafut Beagles & Three Singles to Adventure (Gerald Durrell). I am sure I read The Bafut Beagles many years ago because the title is so familiar, but I have read many of Gerald Durrell’s books and loved them for their humour and superbly sketched illustrations. As I don’t have a copy of this to review, I will direct you to a Goodreads review that consists almost entirely of direct quotes and illustrations from The Bafut Beagles. The book is an account of one of Durrell’s animal collecting trips to Cameroon. One of the things I noted when I read The Drunken Forest for the 1956 Club is that Durrell often didn’t have to do much hunting to find the animals himself. He was extremely adept at getting local people to show him where they were to be found. In addition to going out himself, once local people knew what sort of creatures he wanted, they were only too happy to bring creatures back for him. In this book, Durrell tells a story about ‘pagans’ who were scared photos would gradually gain control of their soul, so he sneakily took photos standing side on so they wouldn’t notice. This reminds me of the recent (in my opinion) over-zealous privacy laws that supposedly prohibit you from taking photos in public places of much-photographed sites like the Eiffel Tower. Only after two trips to Japan did I discover that it is illegal to post photos online of people without permission, unless you blur the faces. Just as well I am not an efficient blogger and never actually got round to posting anything about Japan on my expat blog.
  • Under Milk Wood (Dylan Thomas) I feel like I ought to read this, but…
  • The Sound of Waves (Yukio Mishima, 1001). Available in English, national ILL, €5
  • Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis, 1001).  Available in English, IL, free
  • Katherine (Anya Seton). Available in Dutch, national ILL, €5
  • The Living Room, a tragic play (Graham Greene)
  • Twenty-One Stories (Graham Greene)
  • Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (Barbara Comyns)

Prolific authors who didn’t publish anything in 1954

Elizabeth Goudge. The Heart of the Family, the third part of a trilogy about the Eliots of Damerosehay, came out in 1953, then there was a gap until The Rosemary Tree in 1956.

Mary Renault did exactly the same thing: The Charioteer in 1953 and The Last of the Wine in 1956. I’ve added The Charioteer to my wishlist because several reviewers said it perfectly expressed the experiences and self-loathing felt by gay men in the 1950s. The title made me expect it to be about the Romans, especially knowing some of her later books. How wrong I was; it’s about an injured WWII soldier convalescing in a British hospital and his developing relationship with a hospital orderly, a conscientious objector. As a sad corollary to this, I found this on an overview of notable events from 1954: Lester Callaway Hunt, Sr., a US Senator, committed suicide at his Capitol Hill desk after being blackmailed over his son’s homosexuality. 

Random 1954 events

  • Politics: Brown v. Board of Education legally ended “separate but equal” school segregation in the US.
  • Most popular songs included Sh-boom by The Chords, Mr. Sandman by The Chordettes and Oh! My Pa-Pa (O Mein Papa) by Eddie Fisher. I’ve always loved Mr. Sandman.
  • The most popular films included Rear Window, White Christmas and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
  • The world population was only ~ 2,772,000,000! It’s now at a mind-boggling 7,942 million and rising.
  • Sports: Roger Bannister becomes the first man to break the four minute mile, at 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.
  • The 1954 book I Am Legend by Richard Matheson has had three movie adaptations. The Omega Man (1971), The Last Man on Earth (1964), and I Am Legend(2007).
  • The Piña Colada was invented in Puerto Rico in 1954 at the Caribe Hilton. Source: Pop Culture US