A literary meditation by Jaques Stewart
Travel, it is claimed, broadens the mind.
Certainly thins the wallet, even in these days of budget airlines that oblige one to sit next to corpulent scutters who would otherwise be ape-crouched in their cobbled streets, lower jaws overflowing with greasy, pie-flecked drool and jabbing fat C fingers skywards in awe at t’Magic Silver Demon Bird. Evidently travel hasn’t broadened my mind however emaciated my purse, and it’s even more expensive if you try it in the style of James Bond when living in an age of austerity. We’re all in it together. Apart from him. There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent, etc. As a hard-pressed British tax avoider, there’s something objectionable about it.
The first really continent-trotting adventure, Bond shuttling about all over the place, at every turn diamonds and sassy broads and snap-brim Americana and car chases and Stratocruisers and dangling out of portholes and blowing people out of an African sky, Diamonds are Forever is a hymn to good-to-wild living wordliness in a bay of plenty. A rub-your-nose-in-it exercise for a time when the British reader could only gape a-dazzled at the sybaritic spectacle, the book would be a welcome distraction from the drizzle, the stench of carbolic and the scrabbling around the rubble, fighting off spavined wolves for the last sliver of corned beef. Published only a couple of years after the end of food rationing, it is timed beautifully – teasingly – for eyes and bellies hungry for sating. Even now, reading out loud this book’s provocative, leeringly juicy descriptions of what Bond masticates to the local Food Bank queue, you’d start a riot, or drown in the tsunami of saliva.
Travel, then, broadens the gut.
What larks this supercharged vision of a British ideal has, observing the manners (such as exist) and mannerisms of the Zoo.S.A., stealing the Americans’ women, our fictional hero taking on their gangsters and cowboys – which is, of course, all these jumpstarts actually are – and soundly thrashing them at their own games. Can’t have these trumped-up colonial sorts pinching the diamonds from Sierra Leone, bladdy outrage, when we were going to invest those in education, healthcare and transport infrastructure for its people (honest we were). Time to give these Yanks a bladdy good hiding, put them in their bladdy place. And eat their lovely, lovely food. The Empire strikes back.
James Bond takes on the Mob and wins. He’s not really such a wonderful spy, but winning lots of money and a gal, he’s a fabulous guy. Bursting with excess of thought and deed, outrageous and idiosyncratic characters, violent spats of incident at various points around the world with characterful moments of observation and reflection, this could well have been the epitome of all that had come before and the core set-text of the Bond novel. Except it doesn’t seem to come with that reputation. Of the initial quintet of varied approaches to writing James Bond “spy” stories – five distinctly different books – before being killed off and resurrected as a super-adventurer for Dr No to OHMSS, this one appears popularly considered to be the least of them. A spy story without a spy, more of a tough-talking, episodic police procedural, absent any momentum. Despite an arresting high concept – James Bond vs. The Mafia – the argument runs that it feels forced and dragged out, unfocused and nowhere near as entertaining as the material that preceded it. A perception of never catching fire; an uncut gem, if you will/really must.
There seem to be two widely-held views why. Firstly, that too much of not very much happens. There’s a hell of a lot of incident here, action and settings described to within an inch of their lives, much more going on than (say) Casino Royale, but little glue bringing them together. The first and third books have limited locations and more time to wallow in them. Whilst Live and Let Die moves from New York to Florida to Jamaica, this is because of sustained cat-and-rat pursuit; conversely, in this one, there’s no explicit danger beyond an atmosphere of generalised menace requiring Bond to suddenly shift from location to location (and on occasion it is Bond himself who brings on the danger by acting recklessly). It’s hard to say where Diamonds are Forever finds Bond “based”. Whilst it may be Las Vegas, as much of interest (and written duration) happens on the Queen Elizabeth; equally so New York. A series of vignettes either violent or descriptive or romantic, or all three at once, impactful themselves individually, lose something when it comes to sticking them together: it lacks a clear centre of gravity. 007 in New York could easily be dropped into the middle of it and not disrupt the tale too much. This is difficult to deny, but query whether it really is a thematic weakness. The movement is constant, a pipeline, the flow of people as much as of the diamonds themselves.
The second perception of the frailties of the novel is not wholly unconnected to the first; the villains. More precisely, the lack of a grand scheme for Bond to foil. Bond smuggles himself into The Spangled Mob’s daily affairs and proves a relatively minor inconvenience but it’s one of few occasions when James Bond arriving on their scene doesn’t incredibly fortuitously also coincide with the villain(s) launching some fantastic plan, devised to relieve themselves of the tedium and lack of challenge of their ordinary, daily mischief. The Spangs just don’t seem interested in Bond, which undermines our reliant interest in them compared to – say – Drax or Le Chiffre. Whereas Bond’s interference would launch crazed autobiographical monologues in others, the Spangs just want him dead. Where’s a Death Laser from Space when you need one?
It is amazing how often Bond turns up uninvited when something huge is about to occur. How uncanny. On such occasions, killing off the big boss foils the single grand project and one is left to assume that the minor villainy originally investigated somehow crumbles too. On reflection, Mr Big’s network would obviously be taken over (I do hope it was by McThing), cheating at Blades will not have stopped and Crab Key would need someone to shift all that bird pooh. Here, the villains just regroup and, with their brief cameo in Goldfinger making The Spangled Mob the first “return” bad guys in the series, tend to amplify that James Bond has absolutely no impact. Standing out amongst the early books, this is one where he arguably fails. Perhaps “lack of overall success” is closer, but it’s hard to call it a complete “win”. That’s quite bold, and more worldly-wise than stopping the lunatic shouting Nazi or giving the supernatural Negroids a jolly good smack. Bond is good at stopping ludicrous over-ambition, but he’s a Big Time Charlie, a luxury player for the great occasion but not bringing much to the game otherwise. The crimes of the Mob do not – cannot – end with the death of any one particular “big” man, whereas the three previous schemes, and those to come, fall when their megavillain does. Here there’s more of a fatalistic sense that so long as diamonds are forever, so are the crimes related to them. No one evil individual is in control: it’s the diamonds that run things, shoving people around like (golf) balls.
Following this argument through, what we have here is the author dropping Bond into a more (um… relatively) realistic environment than one populated by whacked-out commie Jeermans and their V2 “Plus”, or High Voodoo Priests of the Undead, or a little bubble of overstated significance around the Baccarat table. Not to suggest Fleming isn’t pushing things – Wint and Kidd, the mudboiling, Tiffany Case’s OTT-misery lifestory, Bond crawling about on the outside of an ocean liner – but it’s a reduction in fantasy of atmosphere, the Bond novels dipping a toe into a real (ish) situation that would later find itself non-fictionalised. It’s just as experimental as the other four novels in this first run – James Bond intervenes in “real crime”, rather than inherently implausible ones. There’s an immediate counter-argument that one doesn’t want Bond involved in such things, one does crave voodoo demons and missile-toppling and hypnotising dolly birds about chickens, and what it may succeed in demonstrating by its ostensible failure is that such a heightened character as Bond just doesn’t fit a more realistic situation. Bring on the Giant Squid and the Garden of Death. However, I’m prepared to give it a pass for at least trying.
I put all that no higher than “arguable”. However, where I think Diamonds are Forever genuinely succeeds is with Tiffany Case, Fleming’s first substantial female lead and the first time he tries to establish something approaching a relationship. There’s not much to Gala Brand other than requiring someone to rescue; Vesper Lynd is a plot device exemplar in misogyny and Solitaire is – despite huge promise – wafer-theen and, dare I say it, dull, which is an unusual attribute for a telepathic witch. Whilst the Tiffany Case-history is all over the park, ridiculous in several respects, she’s by far the most diverting of Fleming’s women to date, or at all, and whilst one may not completely admire Fleming’s attitudes around her, there is at least a character on show, allowing James Bond to be more developed in response/reaction. Peculiarly, her changeable nature is not a million miles from that of the similarly crazy mixed-up kid that Bond ends up marrying, both burrdds with a wing down and backstories of tragedy and abuse. Is Tracy simply a doomed and rather pathetic attempt to recapture what he had with this earlier version? You might not buy this infliction of continuity, but I’m happy to as it helps reconcile OHMSSBond’s baffling attraction to an otherwise exceptionally irritating brat.
Perhaps better in individual moments, observations and characters than as a sustained narrative, I think Diamonds are Forever is unfairly maligned (and believe me, there’s some very unfair maligning of my own to do in 007th chapters to come). Insofar as broadly exemplifying anything about the Bond series, it plainly demonstrates one trend: after Moonraker, one must come back down to Earth with an episodic, patchy adventure and a villain without a masterplan.
That seems to happen a lot.
The 007th Chapter – Diamonds are Forever: ‘Shady’ Tree continue reading…