“Those who deserve to die, die the death they deserve.”
The second novel in Ian Fleming’s James Bond series takes us on an unusual adventure to the United States and Jamaica while Mr. Bond tracks a criminal named “Mr. Big,” a fearsome crime lord with ties to an underground voodoo cult and links to the notorious Soviet counterintelligence agency SMERSH (short for Smyert Spionam or “Death to Spies”). Live and Let Die amusingly concerns Mr. Big’s scheme to smuggle 17th century pirate gold (Henry Morgan’s treasure) from Jamaica to the United States in order to finance illicit operations. James Bond is sent to investigate.
Who is Mr. Big? He is a 45 year old black Frenchman involved in a strange voodoo death cult, his true name is actually Buonaparte Ignace Gallia and he is a known agent of SMERSH. The SMERSH connection piques Bond’s interest, recalling his brutal scene of torture in Casino Royale. By this point, MI6 has managed to heal most of Bond’s hand which was shockingly branded with a Russian spy insignia in Casino Royale. Now in Live and Let Die, Bond assumes an American cover –he is a New Englander from Boston on holiday and he sports a military haircut (he is also put through a brief “Americanization” course which advises him to change many of his British mannerisms and vocabulary).
CIA agent Felix Leiter returns in this story, as well. Together, he and Bond investigate Mr. Big’s clubs in Harlem where they meet an unusual girl named Solitaire, but they are quickly captured by Mr. Big’s henchmen. Bond and Leiter are tortured and then curiously released (I thought this was a rather convenient plot-hole –why do the villains never kill their known enemies?) Bond’s pinky finger is broken after Mr. Big’s supposedly oracular beau, Solitaire, claims Bond is telling the truth (she is so-named because she apparently gave up on men in her native Haiti). She is described as one of the most beautiful women Bond has ever seen, and we learn that she is being kept as a voodoo prophet by Mr. Big, exploited for her supposed psychic abilities. She flashes playing cards at Bond to indicate her disloyalty to Mr. Big, and this is all it takes for Bond. can she be trusted? The introduction of Solitaire as a seer in the eyes of Mr. Big is the first moment in the novel where we are introduced to its eerie supernatural voodoo cult sub-theme.
Upon his exit, Bond kills several of Mr. Big’s henchmen while escaping. Before skipping town Solitaire connects with Bond and they meet under an alias aboard a train from New York to Florida (Ian Fleming once took this exact train ride in 1943 while en route to Jamaica), however Mr. Big’s henchmen are watching everything. There is an accident in their train car but only after Bond and Solitaire have left. Bond meets up with Felix Leiter in St. Petersburg, Florida to investigate a large warehouse filled with Mr. Big’s tropical fish while Solitaire waits in the hotel, but they are turned away by a suspicious security guard. When they return, Solitaire has been kidnapped and shortly thereafter Felix Leiter decides to return to the warehouse alone where he is promptly captured, tortured, and dropped into a shark tank (he loses an arm and a leg). Bond is now alone on this mission, following the trial of mr. big’s right hand man known as “The Robber” (Bond kills him in a fight that only ends with The Robber falling into a shark cage).
It’s no secret that a key subtext in James Bond is a not-so-subtle critique of Americans, and this holds true in Live and Let Die. The Americans are apparently incapable of handling a criminal who is smuggling pirate gold onto their own soil! Indeed Ian Fleming originally intended to kill off Felix Leiter at this point he but was persuaded against it by his publisher and so Bond’s Texan CIA compatriot remains alive (albeit barely).
Bond flies from Tampa to Jamaica and we are given the backstory of Henry Morgan’s hidden treasure which was always rumored to be on the Isle of Surprise until a young fisherman suddenly disappeared one day and then a New York syndicate (later revealed to be wholly owned by Mr. Big) purchased the island for a thousand pounds. Strange activities like violent shark and barracuda attacks have since surrounded the island, meanwhile there have no less than twenty visits by a yacht called the Secatur (owned by Mr. Big), and also many people on the mainland start to hear the sound of loud beating of voodoo drums.
Bond’s Secret Service liaison in Jamaica, Strangways, connects Bond to his factotum, a local man named Quarrel who is described as the “best swimmer and fisherman in the Caribbean” (I recall this character from the first Bond film, Dr. No). He is a Cayman islander with a deep knowledge of the region and culture.
As the novel concludes, Bond makes a risky scuba diving venture through shark-infested waters in order to plant an explosive on Mr. Big’s yacht (Bond also spots a secret cave where the treasure is likely hidden), but after doing so Bond quickly gets into a silly tussle with an octopus which gets him caught by Mr. Big’s men. Bond and Solitaire are then tied to a line which is dragged off the back of his yacht until the explosion suddenly strikes, killing most of Mr. Big’s henchmen. Those that survive meet a remarkably grisly demise as sharks and barracuda feast on their flesh –we are given a particularly bloody account of Mr. Big’s bloody end. Bond and Solitaire are then rescued by Quarrel and Bond recovers in a hospital.
“Never before in his life had there been so much to play for. The secret of the treasure, the defeat of a great criminal, the smashing of a Communist spy ring, and the destruction of a tentacle of SMERSH, the cruel machine that was his own private target” (177-178).
Live and Let Die is a change of pace from Bond’s classier debut in Casino Royale. From odd beliefs in zombies and voodoo cults, to uncomfortable racial tropes and a slightly warmer, more romantic Bond even though the ghost of Vesper Lynd is entirely absent in the novel (“when the time comes I want to be alone with you, with all the time in the world”), Live and Let Die is a sophomoric effort in my view. Strangely enough, I greatly enjoyed the moments of background exposition, especially the classified information provided by the CIA or MI6, and as in Casino Royale I appreciated the latent paranoia underlying Bond’s coded phone call to MI6 following Felix Leiter’s injury. These moments stand out as Cold war literature at its finest.
I liked the exotic locale of Jamaica in this novel. There are lots of interesting allusions to the age of exploration, from Christopher Columbus to Henry Morgan: “Here, because of the huge coastal swamps, nothing has happened since Columbus used Manatee Bay as a casual anchorage. Jamaican fishermen have taken the place of the Arawak Indians, but otherwise there is the impression that time has stood still” (172). Apparently, Bond knows Jamaica well, he visited the island once on an extended assignment after the war when the communists tried to infiltrate the Jamaican labor unions. I imagine Ian Fleming deeply enjoyed writing these scenes while sitting on the veranda of his tropical Goldeneye estate in Jamaica.
There are several differences between the book and the 1973 movie –the pirate gold is replaced in the movie with an underground heroin ring, and an additional character called Dr. Kananga is featured in the film as a front for Mr. Big. I would submit that both the movie and the book, though considerably different, are both mediocre outings for Mr. Bond and thus not essential reading/viewing for the casual James Bond fan.
Fleming, Ian. Live and Let Die. Thomas & Mercer in Las Vegas, NV c/o Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. 1954 (republished in 2012). Paperback edition.