“In my job … when I come up against a man like this one, I have another motto. It’s ‘live and let die.’”
Now that we’ve been introduced to the world of James Bond, 007, Ian Fleming gets right to the point in the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die. The events of Casino Royale don’t seem to have had much of an impact on Bond aside from having a skin graft on his hand to cover the scar a SMERSH agent deliberately carved into place. He’s all healed up from his wounds and ready to go and fulfill his new goal of beating down SMERSH wherever possible.
Good thing, because M has a new mission for him and it indirectly involves SMERSH. Mr. Big, head of a vast underground criminal empire based in Harlem, New York City, has been laundering gold coins from a pirate treasure in Jamaica to help finance Soviet espionage (which means SMERSH). If Bond can find out what Mr. Big is up to and put an end to his money laundering, it will kill off one of SMERSH’s main sources of funding.
Bond eagerly heads to NYC, where he’s greeted with the royal treatment thanks to his CIA buddy Felix Leiter. But while investigating Mr. Big in Harlem, it becomes very clear that Bond and Leiter got more than they bargained for—even with an assist from Mr. Big’s gorgeous psychic Solitaire, who turns to them for protection. They end up hightailing it for Florida to check out Mr. Big’s distribution center. Except things don’t go much better in the Sunshine state: Solitaire is kidnapped and Leiter is brutally maimed and left clinging to life after Mr. Big’s goons try to feed him to sharks. So it’s up to Bond himself to get to Mr. Big’s base of operations in Jamaica, stop his fiendish plot, and rescue the girl.
Live and Let Die is essentially just as fun as Casino Royale, but it definitely feels more dated from a cultural perspective. Ian Fleming makes some positive, forward thinking comments about black people in the course of the book but damn if most of the book isn’t accidentally terribly racist. Mr. Big is African American and all of his agents are as well, but Fleming makes a curious assumption that all black people are impressionable enough to fall under Mr. Big’s spell because they all must believe in voodoo. According to this book literally every black person must be treated with suspicion because they could become an agent of Mr. Big at the drop of a hat. Fleming is trying to let you know that Mr. Big is scary and powerful enough to force people to bend to his will just by dropping his name, but the implications are troubling.
Solitaire is spared the indignity of Bond’s misogynist belief that women are useless in the field from Casino Royale, but she’s essentially reduced to a sex object at every turn.
If you can get passed those aspects, Live and Let Die is a fun ride, particularly as an espionage/noir action adventure. In that regard it has a lot to offer: an all-seeing, all-knowing bad guy; exotic locations; dangerous stakes; pirate treasure; and a dash of sex. It’s just a little harder to swallow than the first outing.