The second James Bond novel. A disappointing sequel to Casino Royale that sees Bond transplanted to America to investigate a Harlem gangster known as Mr. Big who’s smuggling pirate treasure from Jamaica into the states via Florida.
Out of the gate, this book proves challenging. What should be a terrific scene where Bond and Mr. Big stare each other down across a busy New York City street, grinds to a halt:
It was a smart, decisive bit of driving, but what startled Bond was that it had been a negress at the wheel, a fine-looking negress in a black chauffeur’s uniform, and through the rear window he had caught a glimpse of the single passenger – a huge grey-black face which had turned slowly towards him and looked directly back at him, Bond was sure of it, as the car accelerated towards the Avenue.
Language like this litters the book. Fleming was racist—a product of a Victorian education that taught him a race hierarchy with European whites at the top—but not a malicious one. Not knowing better isn’t an excuse, but an explanation. Moreover, it’s important to note Fleming is portraying then-contemporary America, which, in 1954, promoted racial stereotypes. It’s telling that once Bond gets to Jamaica, his sidekick Quarrel displays none of the broken English and dim wit ascribed to all the American characters of color, save Mr. Big.
Further, Fleming proffers two moments of subtle but poignant commentary, one when Bond’s friend and ally, CIA agent Felix Leiter comments on the plight of blacks in America:
…And I admire the way they’re getting on in the world, though God knows I can’t see the end of it.
The “it” is ambiguous, but I read it as America’s rampant racism, which Fleming reflects back at Bond and Leiter when they venture into Harlem after dark:
Bond suddenly felt the force of what Leiter had told him. They were trespassing. They just weren’t wanted.
This awareness doesn’t excuse Fleming’s other insensitivity and ignorance, but intent factors when examining yesterday’s world through today’s lens.
Back to the story. Besides the uncomfortable racism, we also get a softer Bond. The ice-cold, borderline sociopath of the first book is gone, replaced with a more sensitive man who faints when a goon breaks his finger and breaks out in a sweat when his plane hits turbulence. This Bond proves quick to fall for this story’s love interest, despite having ended the last novel—set just six months prior—with “The bitch is dead.”
His original stoic persona makes appearances, but it’s no longer the norm.
As mentioned, Felix returns, his character consistent with the prior novel, though Fleming struggles to avoid British idioms in his dialog, such as when he tells Bond:
I ordered lunch directly I got the word you were downstairs and it’ll be on its way.
Or later when a New York cabbie argues about a fare saying:
‘Two bits for three.’
And once, we get the reverse, with Bond slipping into an American dialect:
‘Christ,’ said Bond, ‘I gotta sit down. My leg won’t hold me.’
Anyway, Felix and Bond team up to take down Mr. Big, who, as mentioned early, is SMERSH agent, though this detail seems forgotten by the book’s end.
Prior to a reconnaissance mission into Harlem, the pair rendezvous at the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis. I appreciated the familiar setting.
The Harlem excursion provides Fleming the aforementioned opportunity to both celebrate American black culture and reflect the racism it suffers. It also introduces Mr. Big’s secret network of eyes and ears, a trope still surfacing today in the John Wick franchise.
After Harlem, the story switches to a train taking Bond and this novel’s love interest, Solitaire, to Florida. I relished Bond’s commentary on arriving in the sunshine state:
He suddenly felt depressed by the thought of their four-hour wait in this unwashed, dog-eared atmosphere.
Regarding Solitaire, she proves enigmatic, maybe psychic, and throws herself at Bond at first sight. Bond responds in kind, though Fleming makes a token attempt at consistent characterization:
His growing warmth towards Solitaire and his desire for her body were in a compartment which had no communicating door with his professional life.
Only to have Bond abandon this sentiment by the story’s end.
Throughout, Fleming takes subtle digs at American culture:
To Bond, American cars were just beetle-shaped Dodgems in which you motored along with one hand on the wheel, the radio full on, and the power-operated windows closed to keep out the draughts.
From Florida, the story shifts to Jamaica, where Bond must infiltrate Mr. Big’s island compound. He’s scared.
That night Bond’s dreams were full of terrifying encounters with giant squids and sting rays, hammer heads and the saw-teeth of barracuda, so that he whimpered and sweated in his sleep.
Whimpered in his sleep? Bond, what’s happened to you? Lacking the edge present in the prior novel, Bond proves less compelling than Mr. Big, who gets one of the book’s best lines as he’s pointing a pistol at Bond’s midsection:
‘Let him go,’ he said, quietly. ‘If you want an extra navel, Mister Bond, you can have one. I have six of them in this gun.’
Fleming again flashes a moment of poetic brilliance:
The evening awaited him, to be opened and read, page by page, word by word. In front of his eyes, the rain came down in swift, slanting strokes – italic script across the unopened black cover that hid the secret hours that lay ahead.
But it’s not enough to overcome the missteps. The neutered Bond, the casual racism, the low narrative stakes involving pirate treasure, they combine to drag down what should have been a tight thriller. Where Casino Royale left me eager for more Bond adventures, perhaps I’ll wait to try Moonraker.
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- 30 Jun, 2022Finished