Mass market paperback, 290 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1956)
Acquired and read March 2016
Possible they get worse after this, of course, but thus far this is definitely my least favorite James Bond novel. It's just unpleasant on a number of levels. First is that the whole thing is grotty: Bond is sent to America to find the end of a diamond-smuggling pipeline, but he seems to be sneering about everything in the whole country. I mean, Bond is often kind of a classist jerk, but he usually does things that classist jerks like doing and enjoys them; here, he's always grumbling about how much he doesn't like America, doesn't like horse-racing, doesn't like Vegas. It's not very fun to read about.
Second, the bad guys never convince as being in his league given what he's faced down in the last three books. Diamond smugglers? Hardly a threat to king and country. Fleming lays it on a bit thick with a briefing scene early on where M tells Bond how dangerous these American gangs on, which is 1) really over done and 2) kind of weird, given that Bond fought some American gangs two books ago. What Bond goes on to do doesn't seem very 00-agent worthy (the horseracing diversion is particularly pointless), and the pipeline unravels extraordinarily easily. When shortly before his confrontation with the villain, Bond observes that he's "thoroughly bored" and you have to wonder why Fleming wrote that in, since this reader just wanted to agree with him.
Lastly, Bond sinks to new lows in terms of racism and homophobia. I assume Fleming must have taken some flack for Live and Let Die because this book has a scene where Bond 1) explains how much he loves black people, honestly some of his best friends are black people and 2) complains that you can't say the n-word like you used to, because some people just get so offended.* Seriously, Fleming has the audacity to follow a scene where Bond cringes at the very thought of being massaged by a black man with the line, "Bond had a natural affection for coloured people." Like, just own the racism if you're gonna do it! Later on we get a pair of killers, Kidd and Wint, about which Bond's American counterpart (formerly, anyway, as following Live and Let Die, he's gone freelance) Felix Leiter says, "[Kidd] [p]robably shacks up with Wint. Some of these homos make the worst killers." Whoa.
All that said, Fleming can still do good work when it comes to the creation of tension and suspense. The idea that one of the gang leaders is so into Westerns he built his own ghost town, where Bond ends up confronting him, feels like something the movies would do, but it pays off in terms of a harrowing desert escape for Bond and his current love interest, Tiffany Case. I did like the idea of an assassin so terrified of travel he lists his blood group on his luggage (I've no idea what Fleming is on about with a "blood group F," though.)
Bond's interactions with Case make her one of the better "Bond girls" thus far: you can feel the two of them seducing the other as the novel goes, and we once again see (as in Casino Royale) that Bond yearns for a traditional English domesticity he can never have as long as he fights to protect it for others. A funny artifact of reading this 1956 novel exactly sixty years later is that "Tiffany" is supposed to be a weird name (she's named after the jewelers). In the decade I was born, "Tiffany" was in the Top 20 Girl Names in America, so I've always known women named Tiffany. But back in 1956, it wasn't even in the Top 1,000! Apparently it's a pretty recent invention as a first name (inspired by the film Breakfast at Tiffany's), but I had no idea.
Next Week: Hopefully it's a better James Bond novel than this one: From Russia with Love!
* This is told in the form of a flashback to Live and Let Die, actually, but it is original to this novel.