Live And Let Die, by Ian Fleming
Everyone who lives in Florida should be required to read the middle third of this gripping political thriller from Ian Fleming. I don’t remember there being that much about Tampa Bay in the film, but the book shows an accurate and frightening knowledge of the sociopolitical culture in Florida, especially the West Central Florida of the “oldsters” that I know so well. It is rather chilling to hear an urbane Englishman so thoroughly understand and detest the culture of the area I have known for so long, but his thoughts are not that different than my own, and it was a surprise to see the corruption of Florida so well understood by a foreigner whose ties to Florida are quite limited, if not nonexistent.
It would be easy for modern readers to find fault with Ian Fleming’s portrayal of the many black characters in this novel, most of whom are tied in to the web of Soviet agent and Harlem gangster Mr. Big. That said, Fleming clearly understands the close relationship between Communism and the civil rights movement. It would be nice if those of us who detest racism would be able to deny any relationship, but the evidence is rather damning that the Communists infiltrated civil rights movements going back at least to the 1930’s, and that investigations of these links continued well into the 1960’s, and the evidence remains there today. Fleming did his homework, as unsettling as that may be to us.
The story of Live And Let Die is very straightforward. This is the second volume in the James Bond series, and M gets James Bond to enact some vengeance for the events of Casino Royal by taking out a major Soviet Agent who works in the US, who happens to be a massive black master criminal from Harlem named Mr. Big who uses brutality and fear to ensure his power, as well as controlling the servants and logistical workers of American society, who at this time are black. With the help of Mr. Big’s mistress, a mixed-blood (?) beauty from Haiti as well as a CIA agent (who later shows up, minus a few body parts, in Diamonds Are Forever , thanks to the bloody action of this movie), he manages to get his man through a delicate combination of skill and luck involving a bloody mess in the Tampa Bay area of Florida as well as rivalries between America and Great Britain concerning colonial matters.
One thing that is striking about this novel that did not translate really at all into the film is the fatalism of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. This is a James Bond who, while enduring a tropical storm in a plane ponders his own death, as he does later on in Jamaica, and also seems unusually gloomy. We picture James Bond as a smooth, debonair, maybe even slightly effete hero at times (especially the Pierce Brosnan era), but the James Bond of the books is gritty and brave and defiant, and not at all lacking in grim seriousness. This, I believe, makes the novels better than the movies. At any rate, Live And Let Die is a good spy novel, with a keen but rather biting political viewpoint of race and geography (especially in its savage portrayal of Florida). Even more than 50 years after it was written, it remains relevant to both social geography and the politics of race in America. That’s heady for escapist spy fiction, but it’s an achievement that Ian Fleming shares with Graham Greene and maybe a few other masters of his craft that is rarely seen in fiction. And that is a worthy achievement.
One other short note is worthy of mention. When you reflect on the high body count of this novel, and its setting in Florida during its middle third, it’s hard not to at least hum along the Paul McCartney & Wing’s tune “Live And Let Die,” and reflect on how appropriate it is on multiple levels.