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?
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.
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.
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?