“Nothing is forever. Only death is permanent.”
Inspired by news of African diamond smuggling as featured in a 1954 Sunday Times article, Ian Fleming’s fourth James Bond novel leads 007 on an undercover adventure through the heart of America in search of an international gang running the “richest smuggling operation in the world.” Despite being ostensibly a Cold War spy novel, the Russians and SMERSH are wholly absent. Instead, Bond infiltrates a gang of diamond smugglers in order to discover an illegal supply chain stretching from Sierra Leone to the United States.
Diamonds Are Forever shares a great deal in common with Live and Let Die. Both novels take place in the shady milieu of the American criminal underworld, and both novels simply ooze with disdain for American culture —“It’s not as if this is Iron Curtain business. America’s a civilized country. More or less” (18); it’s fierce and corrupt but “that’s how it is in America these days” (70). In a travelogue of sorts, Bond travels from New York to Las Vegas to Los Angeles, and along the way his heavy-handed disgust for the United States becomes blatantly apparent. According to Bond, America is a sleazy land of would-be cowboys, dingy diners offering “jumboburgers” and hot dogs, run-down motels, six-lane freeways, casinos, gangs, crime, drugs, racism, and rampant commercialism. Bond sees Americans as little more than a pack of slack-jawed imbeciles who cannot help themselves when salivating over money and cheap thrills. Appropriately, the book’s title is even borrowed from an American diamond advertisement in Vogue Magazine: “A Diamond is Forever.” As Christopher Hitchens once noted: “the central paradox of the classic Bond stories is that, although superficially devoted to the Anglo-American war against communism, they are full of contempt and resentment for America and Americans.” Along this journey, Bond wants nothing more than to escape from the cultural despair in America –he hopes to return to the greener pastures of England sooner rather than later. As a consequence, Diamonds Are Forever is not exactly a joyous reading experience –the stakes of the mission are low and Bond seems mostly bored or uninterested in his mission.
At the outset, Bond has just returned from a two-week vacation in France (following the events of Moonraker). M has been approached by higher ups at the Treasury (and the Permanent Secretary to the Board of Trade) regarding a troubling economic trend. The illegal diamond trade is costing England $2M pounds per year –England’s “Diamond Corporation” appears to be losing a significant chunk of its profits to an American company called “House of Diamonds.” Typically, the legitimate diamond trade in England nets some fifty million pounds. The problem is not that diamonds are being smuggled per se, but rather that smuggling is economically benefitting the United States at the expense of England. So why isn’t the United States addressing the diamond smuggling racket? According to M, the FBI is simply too busy dealing with domestic gang activity in America to focus on anything else. Furthermore, smuggling actually helps the American economy so there is little incentive to stop the trade.
At any rate, Bond visits the London office of “House of Diamonds” flanked by Sergeant Dankwaerts, and they discover that the office is headed by an odd little fellow named Rufus B. Saye. Meanwhile, a dentist in Africa has been smuggling diamonds inside people’s teeth to the United States, however Sir Percy Sillitoe (a character based on the real former head of MI5) has been cracking down on smuggling in the region. Nerves are high among smugglers in West Africa as they demand increased pay from the operation ringleader, a mysterious villain known only as “ABC.”
Bond assumes the persona of “Peter Franks,” a golfer and low-level smuggler (the alias of Peter Franks is suggested to Bond by Assistant Commissioner Ronnie Vallance, an old friend from the Moonraker affair. As Peter Franks, Bond travels to New York and meets with a contact at the House of Diamonds named Michael “Shady” Tree (a “red-haired hunchback”). Soon it is revealed that this whole smuggling operation is run by the “Spangled Mob,” a criminal enterprise headed by twin brothers Jack Spang (his alias is revealed to be Rufus B. Saye, the eccentric head of the London office) and his twin brother Seraffimo. Under the purview of both brothers, the Spangled Mob purchased the House of Diamonds corporation five years earlier and now they also own the Sure Fire Wire Service, which engages in illegal operations, as well as the Tiara Hotel in Las Vegas, where Seraffimo runs his end of the business (Fleming apparently based the Spang brothers on Jack and Solomon Joel, early 20th century diamond merchants and thoroughbred racehorse breeders). Bond initially scoffs at the idea of the American mob being a serious threat, they are little more than “a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat-balls and squirting scent over themselves.” However, in time he comes to realize the true extent of their power in America.
At the heart of the novel is a philosophical search for something lasting and enduring, something that survives “forever.” While many things in life are fleeting, like the flashy things Bond finds in Las Vegas, diamonds mined in Africa remain evergreen and beautiful, hence why they drive so many people mad. Indeed, diamonds serve as a metaphor for obsession in the novel: “Now he could understand the passion that diamonds had inspired through the centuries, the almost sexual love they aroused among those who handled them and cut them and traded in them. It was a beauty so pure that it held a kind of truth, a divine authority before which all other material things turned…” (11). In the world of James Bond, only diamonds and death are assured, however there are moments of hope in other unexpected places… In America, amidst a world of vapid consumerism, Bond meets a rare diamond in the rough –Tiffany Case, a jaded woman with a troubled past. She is a 27-year-old American citizen from San Francisco with blonde hair and blue eyes (5’6”). As a child, her father abandoned the family in a Tiffany’s with a case (hence the name “Tiffany Case”). Her mother ran a “cat-house” in San Francisco, but she made the mistake of not paying off a local gang, while foolishly placing her faith in bribes made to the police department (in Ian Fleming’s America, bribery and criminality rule the day). In response, the gang attacked and savagely destroyed her “cat-house” before brutally gang-raped Tiffany at the age of sixteen. This shockingly vicious memory presents the image of a broken, tortured woman hardened by years of alcoholism, and ensconced in the a-moral criminal underworld of America.
“She was very beautiful in a devil-may-care way, as if she kept her looks for herself and didn’t mind what men thought of them, and there was an ironical tilt to the finely drawn eyebrows above the wide, level, rather scornful grey eyes that seemed to say, ‘Sure. Come and try. But brother, you’d better be top” (35).
In addition to the introduction of Tiffany Case, we are also given the return of Felix Leiter, everyone’s favorite delightfully hokey Texan CIA agent (Bond’s counterpart within the CIA in the events of prior novels Casino Royale and Live and Let Die). Last we saw of Felix, he had been brutally wounded, bitten by sharks at the conclusion of Live and Let Die. In fact, Bond recalls that Felix was in a “cocoon of dirty bandages on a bloodstained bed in a Florida hotel” (64). As a result, Felix now brandishes a steel hook as his right arm, and a noticeable gimp thanks to a mostly replaced left leg. At this point, Leiter has left the CIA and is working as a private detective for Pinkerton’s, a company in the vein of “The Eye That Never Sleeps.”
As it turns out, James Bond and Felix Leiter are pursuing the same enemy (the Spangled Mob), and this leads them on an odd side-quest to Saratoga Springs, NY for a horse-racing bribery scheme (a horse named “Shy Smile” and his jockey Tingaling Bell) as well as a subsequent fiasco in a mud and sulphur bath. For me, these adventures represent a dreary mid-section of the book which is a bit wandering. However, this section does introduce two quirky henchmen –Wint and Kidd. Wint is a chubby sadist who nervously sucks a wart on his thumb (he is deeply fearful of traveling and carries with him a personal tag that identifies his blood type as F). Kidd is white-haired pretty boy nicknamed “Boofy” by his friends. In addition to being partners in crime, they are also gay lovers for some reason. In the film version of Diamonds Are Forever, this pair is portrayed as campy and ridiculous, but in the book they are slightly more fearful assassins.
When things go awry in New York and Bond is unable to secure his payment from the House of Diamonds, he is sent off to Las Vegas (upon arrival he curiously stops at an oxygen bar) and he quickly begins gambling inside the “Tiara” where Tiffany Case works as a card dealer, but Bond’s gambling success actually draws the attention of Seraffimo Spang himself. This leads to a tense car chase and shoot-out (Bond is being driven around by Felix Leiter’s undercover compatriot Ernest “Ernio” Cuneo) which only ends when Bond is captured and taken to an old western-themed ghost town in the middle of the desert outside Las Vegas (it is called “Spectreville,” which is derived from the nearby Specter Mountain Range and which marks the first time Ian Fleming incorporated the word “spectre” into his writing). Bond is then horribly tortured in a “Brooklyn Stomping” as Wint and Kidd employ the use of soccer cleats to stomp on Bond’s body. During the night, while barely conscious, Bond is awoken and rescued by Tiffany Case. They flee together on an old railway pushcar as Seraffimo pursues them in a luxurious vintage Pullman train (dubbed the “Cannonball”) which only ends in a sudden crash, killing Seraffimo. Bond and Case are then surprisingly saved by Felix Leiter who appears out of nowhere. When all is said and done, Felix decides to remain behind in Las Vegas, while Bond and Case fly to New York where they board the magnificent Queen Elizabeth as it sets sail en route to London.
Here, the pace of the novel slows considerably. James Bond and Tiffany Case gaze out over the endless sea and enjoy lavish food and drink together. There are some lovely scenes of romance between Bond and Tiffany as they flirt and seemingly fall in love (at one point Bond rather uncharacteristically admits that he wouldn’t mind settling down and having a child or two, even though he believes marriage is not about two people getting together, but rather more so about one person being subtracted). Bond feels as if they have “all the time in the world.” After they sleep together, Tiffany Case is suddenly kidnapped by the two Spangled Mob henchmen, Wint and Kidd, who have secretly snuck aboard the ship. In a rush, Bond discovers their room which is located directly below his own. He climbs down the wall of the ship and breaks in through their window and shoots both men. While dying Wint remarks: “Mister. Nothing is forever. Only death is permanent. Nothing is forever except what you did to me.” Bond and Tiffany are then reunited (Bond stages the room to appear to be a murder-suicide). Now all that is left is for Bond to visit West Africa and assassinate the other twin brother, Jack Spang, a task which he easily completes in the end. As it turns out Jack Spang was both “Rufus B. Saye” and “ABC” (his alias of “ABC” was partly taken from the French letters for his name “Ah-Bay-Saye” per a cable from headquarters, pp. 213). The diamond-smuggling pipeline, which initially began with Jack Spang (a.k.a. “Rufus B. Saye” or “ABC”) and then proceeded through Michael “Shady” Tree via House of Diamonds only to end in Las Vegas, has now been officially destroyed. Like the image of a scorpion in the book’s opening chapter (wherein “greed had won over fear”), thanks to British intelligence, the only way to deal with a predator like the House of Diamonds corporation is to crush it. These opening and closing scenes in West Africa really stuck with me. They serve as a nice metaphor for the ways in which greedy diamond smugglers are eventually handled (no thanks to the second-rate American FBI.
There are several minor callbacks to earlier Bond novels in Diamonds Are Forever. Aside from Felix Leiter’s mangled limbs, the scene in which we first meet Tiffany Case (which reads like a scene straight out of Raymond Chandler), Tiffany is scantily clad playing music, but Bond deliberately skips over “La Vie en Rose” due to the painful memories it invokes of Vesper Lynd as portrayed in Casino Royale. Another example of a callback is an early scene at MI6 which features brief cameos of Miss Moneypenny and Loelia Ponsonby (Bond calls her “Lil” even though she does not like the name per Moonraker). These little details offer some delightful continuity between the novels. We also get a bit of background on James Bond’s time in the service (blink and you might miss it in the novel), such as Ronnie Vallance, an old friend from the Moonraker affair, and there is a brief allusion to Bond’s early days in the Service as he apparently traveled widely through Strasbourg into Germany, through Niegoreloye into Russia, over Simplon, and across the Pyrenees.
Ian Fleming actually conducted fairly extensive research for this novel, much of which wound up in a nonfiction book entitled The Dimond Smugglers (1957). He also took a trip through the United States which inspired many of the events in Diamonds Are Forever –many characters are named after people he met, like Ernest “Ernio” Cuneo, and even a Studillac makes an appearance in the novel (a hybrid Studebaker with a powerful Cadillac engine) after it was encountered by Fleming when he met a rich American socialite, William Woodward, Jr., who happened to own one. In a strange turn of events, William Woodward, Jr. was killed (perhaps accidentally) by his wife who feared he was a prowler. Fleming dedicated the novel to his memory.
This is not the best Bond adventure in my view –there are vast stretches in the middle of the book that drag and the whole mission is also a bit confusing. Why would MI6 send one of its top assassins to investigate diamond smugglers in America? Like Live and Let Die before it, Diamonds Are Forever is a bit of a stretch for me and it beggars belief that British intelligence would go to such great lengths over a few million pounds. Nevertheless, Tiffany Case shines as a compelling paramour for Bond, and the return of Felix Leiter is a welcome return, even if Fleming chooses to portray American culture as an essentially vapid, hollow wasteland.
Fleming, Ian. Diamonds Are Forever. Thomas & Mercer in Las Vegas, NV c/o Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. 1956 (republished in 2012). Paperback edition.
Click here for my review of the film Diamonds are Forever (1971).