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?

1956 Club: Erle Stanley Gardner and Ian Fleming, Bonding over diamonds

Two books published in 1956: Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever and Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Terrified Typist. Both share a theme: diamonds! And diamonds were in the news, too, in more ways than one.

The Case of the Reluctant Reader (not by Erle Stanley Gardner)

Challenged to read books published in 1956 for the 1956 Club by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, I discovered that the prolific Erle Stanley Gardner published three books in 1956:

  • The Case of the Terrified Typist (#49)
  • The Case of the Demure Defendant (#50)
  • The Case of the Gilded Lily (#51)

As luck would have it, my husband has all three (I didn’t say it was good luck!). I’m not keen on them, so I view this as a mixed blessing, but I did want to try reading at least one. I’ve never been very demure nor do I go in much for gilding the lily, but I’m a pretty nifty typist and am old enough to have learnt on the last generation of manual typewriters. Apart from which, the Terrified Typist was the earliest, so that one it is.

However, as far as editions go, the Typist is the newest of the three, reissued in 1984 by Ballantine/Random House. It has a suitably ‘80s cover with neon pink title and a picture with rather a snazzy knife or letter opener, covered with what could be blood, but could just as easily be sealing wax, given the pile of letters lying next to it. The Demure Defendant was issued by Pan/Heinemann in 1964 (unabridged) in a cover with an orange/ochre/rust geometric design on a dull brown background with a photo of a blond who may be looking down with her heavily false eyelash-adorned eyes (they may be too heavy to lift!), but not demure enough to wear any clothes, or none that I can see. The Gilded Lily is a Pocket Book edition from 1968 with a photo of a Twiggy-style blonde with short hair, wearing square tinted glasses and enormous black and white square earrings, peering out from behind her heavily made up eyes over a martini glass with olive. By the way, we know that Perry Mason solves the case because it says so on the front cover! Nothing about the cover makes me want to read it.

Criticising The Case of the Terrified Typist, the reading experience

It was a quiet evening so I sat down to start reading, but I soon noticed that the book wasn’t as dated in language and attitudes to Della Street as I’d expected. I wondered if the book had been edited for the new edition, with attitudes and speaking style updated, perhaps to tie in with the script of the TV show. I didn’t find an answer to that and I’m not inclined to read another of the three from 1956 to compare.

Translation

However, I came across a fascinating article from an academic journal with an introduction/summary in French, describing how Erle Stanley Gardner’s French translators slightly adapted the endings and beginnings of the early novels to suit the different French book market where people were not as likely to buy every book of a series. Apparently, as Gardner was not only a lawyer, but had previously worked in marketing, he believed that you needed to hook your readers so they would be compelled to read the next instalment, rather like those irritating ‘next week’s episode’ at the end of television shows or the even more annoying excerpts from the author’s next book at the end of a novel. Erle Stanley Gardner may have a pioneer of this technique, but he did it more subtly, incorporating it into his storyline. He did this by using devices such as Della pulling out a file on the last page, handing it to Perry and telling him about what his next case will be. Then, at the start of the next book, there would be a quick recap of the previous one, reminding the reader where they had left off.

Foreword

This technique isn’t used in The Case of the Terrified Typist, but the book does begin with a foreword. In this, Gardner goes into a little history that feels irrelevant, then praises a particular legal colleague, in this case “my friend the Honorable (sic.) John Ben Shepperd [who] became the attorney general of the State of Texas.” Whether this was to curry favour with powerful men in real life, I don’t know, or perhaps he was paid to include the endorsement. It certainly has nothing to do with the book itself.

He also waxes lyrical about the generosity and enjoyment of drama (or showing off) common in Texas. It reminds me rather of James Michener’s autobiography, with name-dropping galore, which may be inevitable when you’re talking about popular and influential male authors of the 1950s and ‘60s (and undoubtedly earlier and later). It often feels like women authors haven’t had the same access to the ‘old boy network’, but maybe wome are just more subtle about it. I’m reminded of a story the blogger Judy Dykstra Brown shared fairly recently about being given a badge allowing her and her friend to enter an all-male Legion Club (a club for ex-members of the forces, like the British Legion) in Australia. To be allowed to attend was a special privilege for women that broke club rules. I suppose that was the reason for the country clubs in America. But I digress.

Looking at the next book in the series,  it occurred to me that Gardner used the Forewords as extended dedications. So often, a book is dedicated to a random friend or relation without giving any more details. Gardner’s forewords tell you something about the person he wishes to dedicate it to. It often expands on a particular legal peculiarity, a branch of investigation (forensics, toxicology; presumably  still in their infancy in 1956). And he takes the opportunity to tell some little edifying anecdote about his friend, such as you might use when introducing someone at a party.

Cast of characters

Another feature of this book is the Cast of Characters list (note the word ‘cast’, as Gardner also envisages it as a television script), giving a little potted biography of each, which does seem to give away plot points. For instance:

ANN RIDDLE—her frosty blue eyes observed many goings-on from her vantage point behind a cigar counter, and she seemed eager to report on all she saw—at first….

Hence we already know that she is going to be more than a one-off witness and it also sounds as if she will be pressured to keep quiet.

Words used to describe Della Street

If you aren’t reading the series in any sort of order, I suppose this does help to remind you who’s who of the regular cast. I particularly like the rather tongue-in-cheek description of Della:

DELLA STREET—she was everything a man could want in a confidential secretary—and then some ………….

Ooh la la! In The Case of the Demure Defendant, Della is described as Perry’s ‘amiable amanuensis’. I had just decided it might be interesting to find out how she is described in the Cast of Characters in each of the books we have when I discovered The Case of the Gilded Lily has no cast list. How disappointing!

Della Street has a dry sense of humour, for instance when she suggests Mason’s reputation may have intimidated the typist, “After all, […] you’re not entirely unknown, you know.” (p.4) We’re shown that she’s resourceful and observant and makes a good detective. Della admits she might have felt self-conscious if anyone had come across her searching the bin and the idea of concealing evidence makes her feel apprehensive; she is not as self-assured as she at first appears. She is also overly cautious about maintaining her good reputation and not allowing Gertie the secretary to jump to the wrong conclusion and gossip if she and Mason are locked in the law library together. She is also described as ‘demure’ when making the observation that Mason may be bending the law somewhat. Mind you, the word ‘demure’ seems to be Gardner’s shorthand for any well-behaved woman.

Sexism and demure dames

In a book written by a man in 1956, a certain degree of sexism is to be expected, of course. On the whole, it’s not to awful, but the young detective Paul Drake does describe trying to find a taxi driver who remembers a particular fare to the airport as being “like going to some babe wearing a skirt reaching to her knees, a tight sweater, and asking her if she remembered anybody whistling at her yesterday as she walked down the street.” (p.91)

One of the witnesses, Yvonne Manco, is described as ‘demure’, but when she crosses her legs, two of the male jurors “hitch forward in their chairs for a better look, while the chins of two of the less attractive women on the jury were conspicuously elevated.” (p.96) The objectivication of women is very much in evidence, though it’s not necessarily seen as an edifying characteristic. Victim blaming is lurking just around the corner.

The next female witness, Mae Wallis Jordan, is also described as “quiet, demure”; as I said, we’re amassing quite a collection of demure ladies!

The strange case of Della, Della Street

Incidentally, I’ve noticed a peculiarity of Erle Stanley Gardner’s writing style in that he never says simply Della, he always says Della Street. Why is this? It’s almost like a cutesie Southern affectation, like calling her ‘Miss Della Street’ (you’ll have to imagine the Gone With the Wind twang). Why the emphasis on her surname? Then, in an act of curiosity that could only be reasonably indulged in the age of the internet and an excess of time,  it occurred to me that there might be an actual road called Della Street, so I searched Google Maps and, yes, there’s one in Houston, Texas that may have served as inspiration. Incidentally, there are several around the USA, including one in Hernando, Missouri which I strongly suspect was named in homage to the character because it’s right around the corner from Mason Drive.

Certainly on television, there is definitely chemistry between Della and Perry. However, so far in this book, apart from the innuendo in the cast list, Della seems to be described as a professional and competent woman who contributes a great deal to the work, with no hint of the sexism  that had so annoyed me when I read The Case of the Fan-Dancer’s Horse. The titular typist is also incredibly competent, so Perry’s ‘flighty’ receptionist Gertie bears the brunt of the misogyny. On the other hand, one of Della’s roles is definitely to present female insight into how a woman might behave in a particular situation, which can grate on modern sensibilities.

Is it a crime to be too British?

As Duane Jefferson, the American defendant in the related murder trial, is working for a British company, there is an amusing exchange between him and Mason in which the latter accused him of becoming too British for his own good:

“There are certain mannerisms, Mr Mason, which the trade comes to expect of the representatives of a company such as ours.” [A diamond trading firm.]

“And there are certain mannerisms which an American jury expects to find in an American citizen,” Mason told him.

“If a jury should feel you’d cultivated a British manner, you might have reason to regret your accent and impersonal detachment.” (pp.47-48)

Lobotomies and other period props

One of the as yet unmet characters in The Case of the Terrified Typist has a brother who has been in a mental institution, but is now described as a “sort of a zombie” because he has had a prefrontal lobotomy , which Mason points out have been more or less discontinued by this time. I was very aware of this as I recently watched a couple of episodes of Ratched, which is a TV series written as a prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Prefrontal lobotomies are heavily featured.

Behind the eight ball is a phrase I had never knowingly heard before. Mason uses it when he has no clear evidence. “If we don’t get some line on Mae Jordan and Marline Chaumont, we’re behind the eight ball”, he says. (p.86) It means to be in a difficult position, which is clear from the context, but the phrase surprised me. 

Two of the characters first come into contact with each other after an advert to exchange stereo photos in a photographic magazine. Perhaps Stereolist photos.

Now you’re cooking with gas! How unexpected to come across this phrase in a book published in 1956! I thought it was a British Gas advertising slogan from the 1980s, though I remembered it as ‘Now we’re cooking on gas!’. Apparently not. It was an early natural gas slogan in the USA in the late 1930s or early 1940s and used as sneaky product placement in radio scripts for Bob Hope, Jack Denny and in a Daffy Duck cartoon in 1942. All I can find for British slogans is ‘That’s the beauty of gas.’

Did I enjoy the book?

Unexpectedly, I did! There was enough excitement, red herrings, trickery, verbal dexterity and humour to keep my originally sceptical interest. I feared a deadly dull court case at the end, but that wasn’t as bad as expected, though I probably skimmed the bits where the lawyers are stopping the witnesses from actually saying anything. I was also pleasantly surprised about how modern it all felt, even if they were still using typewriters and carbon copies. In fact, I might even be tempted to read another Erle Stanley Gardner for the 1936 Club. And that was a conclusion I certainly hadn’t expected.

DIAMONDS IN 1956

It suddenly occurred to me that Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Terrified Typist revolves around diamond smuggling and that another high-profile book published in 1956 does exactly the same, Ian Fleming’s Bond thriller, Diamonds Are Forever. Were diamonds in the news in 1956 or, more probably, the year before? Well, yes, they were.

Marilyn Monroe memorably sang Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=knLd8bfeWtI  The diamond-themed heat was building. 

The first artificial diamonds were created at GE in Schenectady New York at the very end of 1954 by researcher H. Tracy Hall, running the machine in secret on December 16th and New Year’s Eve. GE was sceptical, but finally announced the invention on Valentine’s Day 1955.

On Christmas Day 1954, a plane carrying a cargo of diamonds valued at £1 billion crashed at Prestwick Airport, scattering the diamonds.

Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio in January 1954, with prominent photos of her diamond engagement ring in Vogue.

In 28 September 1955, a dramatisation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, A Diamond as Big as the Ritz was televised by Kraft Theater. The story is about a boy who visits a rich school friend whose mansion is built on top of a gigantic diamond. However, he soon realises that the father is paranoid and likely to kill anyone who visits. I will be attempting to squeeze this into my reading for Novellas in November (#novnov).

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER – IAN FLEMING (1956)

I don’t know how to break this to you, but you have just missed your chance to bid for the original final typescript of Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, including his signed revisions. It was on sale at Sotheby’s with a large collection of Fleming and Bond memorabilia In November 202. The typescript is expected to sell for between £80,000 and £120,000. All the lots will first be displayed at Sotheby’s prior to a range of four sales, Bond on Bond Street, celebrating all things Bond, from the first book to 60 years on screen. 

Who can forget the Diamonds Are Forever theme song by John Barry, sung so wonderfully by Shirley Bassey? It’s as timeless as a diamond and perfect for the glamorous Bond film of the same name. I’ve never been a great Bond fan, but last Christmas they were all shown on television and I watched many of the older ones and reluctantly admitted they had a certain je ne sais quoi.

However, I had never actually read any of the books, so once again, the 1956 Club challenged me to read something I would probably never have got round to.

First surprise: Bond going out for ‘dressed crab and a pint of black velvet’ (Stout and sparkling white wine) with the Chief of Staff. I thought he only drank ‘martini, shaken not stirred’.

He mentions an ‘inspectoscope’ used by customs officials. That’s explained here: https://flemingsbond.com/the-inspectoscope

Bond is going undercover as a diamond smuggler and his contact is a young woman (surprise, surprise) whose profession is given as ‘single woman’. Surely nobody ever filled that in a passport application? I am dismayed.

Then we visit the London Diamond Club where we are introduced to the idea that Jewish Ripley is instantaneously recognisable as such and may well speak with a strong Jiddish accent. Not very politically correct.

Ian Fleming is very specific with his descriptions of clothes and decor and accessories such as suitcases. I’m sure he was hoping it would be filmed, though the first film wasn’t released until 1962. Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman bought the film rights to all the Bond novels the previous year. In fact the decors and costumes and styling are the main reason for me to watch early Bond films, though some of the dialogue is very funny.

Where’s the humour gone?

That’s one of the things I really miss in the novel. All that witty repartee that makes Bond so appealing, the twinkle in his eye, comes from the film script, not from the book. In fact, I haven’t managed to finish the book yet because I tend to read it when I get into bed at night and before I know it, zzzzzzz.

That isn’t altogether fair of me, but it’s a description of a man’s world of drinking and eating, smoking, horse racing and gambling. It’s dry and long-winded and nowhere near as exciting as the films. Bond and his friend go off into long discussions about gambling odds about which I care not a fig. There was that scene in the steam room for excitement and a tense interview with a crook, but it really isn’t thrilling enough to make me want to push through to the end. I will do it and I may change my mind by then, but at this stage I decided it was time to finish my blog post and move beyond the book and accept that sometimes, just sometimes, the film is better than the book. As far as I know, he doesn’t even say, “The name’s Bond. James Bond.” And if he doesn’t say that, what’s the point?

RIP Sean Connery, (25 August 1930 – 31 October 2020). The best Bond.