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
After a transatlantic crossing, the pleasurable rituals of the journey loving played out over the course of most of a chapter as if that might just be the point, a disinfected James Bond has just landed in New York. Presumably Bond’s just filled in his little green card declaring that no, he wasn’t responsible for the persecution of the Jewish between 1933 and 1945. It’s just as well it doesn’t ask about anyone else, as he’s done plenty of that (and persists in his ludicrous views about “the colour problem” later on). Onwards to the nine-hour queue in immigration with the reward of the most sinister and hostile welcome on Earth. Give me your huddled masses, yearning for a wee. As long as they don’t have a preposterously overstated “English” accent, a French/Scottish name and a complexion not necessarily indigenous to the climates of any of those places. That just seems to confuse and annoy them. Garnish this tantalising casserole with an uppity demeanour and it’s just hours – and hours – and hours – of endless fun. Next time, might bring along the Italian wife and see if that achieves for me the motherlode of a full cavity probing from a strapping lad. Do hope so.
Except none of this happens to Bond (the book’s “realism” only goes so far). There’s a definite critical undertone to the overlay of a laudatory depiction of the USA, not least here with the ease in which Bond gets through Customs. Pointed criticism is evident in the description of the sweaty “good-living” (also known as fat, also also known as Norman Burton was perfect casting) Customs officer who saunters “lazily”, putting the wildly idle into Idlewild, is rubbish at golf and is more interested in Bond’s handicap than examining his luggage thoroughly; they’re not subtle and the plain suggestion is that with practices so lax, this lot get everything they deserve, although admittedly the British end wasn’t any better. Slightly uncomfortable implication these days given more recent events, but it is interesting to see Fleming pressing some sores, despite evident admiration for the place; this is not the only example. Returning to one’s own experiences for a moment, lengthy interrogation at US Customs about one’s handicap does run true. Meeting travellers doesn’t really broaden the mind.
Interesting that Bond’s first thought when running though alternative names for Tiffany is “Zarathustra”, a philosophical allusion rather than something more likely/prosaic such as Zimmerman or Zachary or the like, and one slyly playing up to Bond’s general allure as Ubermensch. The previous book gave us a picture of Bond’s home life: this one so far has drawn out further his cultural one. The earlier scene with Tiffany Case’s record collection is also telling in this regard. This is not the sole-purpose unthinking weapon of mass destruction lobotomised troglodyte that some would claim 007 to be. Bond demonstrates literary and artistic pretensions throughout the Fleming novels – presumably to appeal to the As – not least as an unpublished author, and from memory this awareness of art, philosophy and music, snobbery with violence, is something that Mr Gardner runs with, to a certain degree anyway.
The “Peter Franks” stuff got itself dropped pretty quickly, didn’t it? More so than in the film, which was obviously made before the invention of the, y’know, photograph.
Back to the Casino Royale toolshed of descriptive metaphor with the “hatchet-faced” man who wears appalling garb and carries a gun in his pocket. It definitely is a gun because he doesn’t seem particularly pleased to see Bond. “Typical, thought Bond. Mike Hammer routine. These American gangsters were too obvious.” Oh har-de-har har, Ian old freckle. Bit meta, non? “They had read too many horror comics and seen too many films.” So here comes a thunderingly realistic character who won’t be sullied by appearing in mass-populist films and… um… One has to assume all this is self-aware wit, and at least it’s funnier than the crass banter between government assassin James Bond and his new golfing chum about “shooting”. Whatever his other merits as a writer, Fleming’s jokes are few and far between.
“The cheerless prairie of Idlewild…” Yes, yes, James Bond has landed in the (Idle) Wild West. There’s a new Sheriff in town. We get it. Possibly trying a bit too hard now, darling. Time to get the story moving. If there is one.
“He wondered how soon he would be able to throw some weight about.” Challenging paragraph where Bond is contemplating – and realising – his position in all this, perhaps some recognition that he is showy, both hunter and gatherer of attention, displeased at staying “small”. The reluctance of having to “get used to the idea” doesn’t stick; often in this book, when the action comes, it is Bond who instigates it (usually unwisely, just to get things moving and keep his/our interest up). Show pony; attention-seeking twerp. Agent provocateur, indeed. Something even more dangerous than the diamonds has just entered the country. Still, as La Rochefoucauld observed, humility is the worst form of conceit. A notable little daydreamt journey through Bond’s dangerous vanity and rampant ego, to pass the time on the journey through Manhattan. The author unafraid to openly criticise the morality of his hero? Not as if it’s the first time. History is moving pretty quickly these days – more quickly than this traffic anyway – and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.
Slightly curious – clumsy? – immediate repetition in successive sentences of the “black marble” “elegant shop-front” at which Bond eventually arrives, but defter is a small description within the same incident, a man stepping from the “pavement”. A few paragraphs on, this will change to a “sidewalk” without authorial comment upon nor explanation of the term. The chapter occasionally flirts between American English and British idiom and expression (outside of the dialogue, which is probably massively unrealistic); we’ve had a sedan, rather than a saloon, for example, again without seeking to clarify that this is “the American word for it”. A number of possible interpretations come to mind. Firstly, laziness. Secondly, the book’s being written for an audience that would be sophisticated enough to know these things, therefore saving the trouble of explaining it (which is still laziness, albeit a variety winningly infused with snobbery). Thirdly, this is the author demonstrating his comfort in pulling away from a classic “British Adventure Hero” style of narrative into a more worldly one, confident in his handling of what he’s up to; as his character has travelled, so has he. Fourthly, a textual representation of a notion that James Bond is comfortable with both the USA and Britain, but is not wholly of either nation, operating slightly at a distance to the two (which gives him plenty of opportunity to pass comment – both positive and negative – on each). The fifth is that this sort of thing renders the book sellable in both without having to go to the bother and expense of separate editions, but that’s a dull – if the least contrived – reason. Possibly a combination of these. Something to mull over, anyway, as we follow Bond walking from room to room to room, without much of particular interest happening in any of them other than to note that there’s deliberate contrasting going on between the Hatton Garden scenes of a couple of chapters ago, and this scruffier equivalent on West 46th Street, with the delicious onomatopoeia of its brass spittoon.
Ah, the hench with the hunch, Michael ‘Shady’ Tree, a vivid Fleming grotesque. Alongside giving the leading lady some character, Fleming unleashes memorable second-string villainy in this one. Tee-Hee, The Robber, Krebs and various Le Chiffre goons et cetera have had their moments, but ‘Shady’ Tree and Wint & Kidd are the most impactful henchpersons to date (arguably completely at the expense of the Spangs). “Bond didn’t remember having seen a red-haired hunchback before.” Apart from wondering why the word is “didn’t” rather than “couldn’t”, it seems a bit rich of Fleming to have chastised the comic-book approach earlier when he chooses to present us with this exaggerated Dick Tracy cartoon goon, squeaky of voice and china of eye, short and humpy and big-eared, barrel-chested and no-necked. Anyone who suggests he’s played by Daniel Craig is heading for a firm smack on the botty.
Do red-heads get a fair showing in the Bonds? I’ve a feeling it tends to be a danger signal, like Drax and this malformed caricature, who is described in the narrative by his shape more than by his name. I might be wrong in that – happy to be corrected – but of all the folks Fleming cheerfully weighs into in his works, strikes me that the ginger/auburn/strawberry blonde/no, it is ginger don’t get their equivalent of (say) Quarrel balancing out (well, -ish to “very poorly”) the attitudes in Live and Let Die or Tanaka and Kissy “compensating” for various very sinister Asiatic persons, or Felix Leiter for Wint & Kidd. Come to think of it, not sure the Germans get a terribly good press, either, but the red-headed, and for that matter the “short”, seem an oddly-victimised league. Welcome to the playground. We can’t all be Victor Ludorum (twice), you nasty old git.
“I like to have a good look at the people we employ, Mr Bond…” And yet, despite this, still not in possession of a photograph of the actual Peter Franks? Plot-hole you could drive a Studillac “sedan” through, then. “Rocky, get those balls out of the bag and cut them open.” Ouch – much worse than anything Le Chiffre did with the carpet beater. Ye gods and little godlets, that’s going to hurt. The subsequent “legerdemain” (a Prefect’s word for “trick”) with the throwing knife amplifies the threat of the character reasonably enough as a Bad Ass Quasimofo but leaves one wondering what he’s hiding in his hump: a tommy gun? Shergar? He’s patently a bad sort because he refers to golf clubs as “sticks” which is frightfully uncouth.
The business with the glass of milk is an odd little detail, but it’s not surprising that “the hunchback” pulls a face of distaste when drinking it; it’s a very hot day so it’s probably gone off. Suggesting ulcers, Bond pokes away at Tree in that unkindly, mocking-the-afflicted Ubermensch way of his: illness is weakness, frailty, and yet Bond can smoke and drink as much as he wants because he’s made of stronger, more wholesome stuff. Yay him.
“Put those balls on the table where I can see what you’re doing…” “Coming, boss.” You can’t put gems like that before a putrid mind like mine and expect to escape without any touching, stroking and undressing of it. The conceit with the golf balls hiding the stones is an amusing one although, again, a bit of a plot hole: why would you bring brand new golf balls with you, instead of (say) buying them once in the country? Another winner for the slovenly ways of the Customs guys, there.
The back and forth between “the hunchback” – oh Ian, he has a name, and a mother, and probably played with a ball as a child – and Bond is revealing insofar as Bond seems slightly out of his depth in this world, beyond his usual comfort zone of being slightly super, bit bossy and in control of things, and contemplates that he has seriously underestimated these people, despite the fact that nothing they have said or done could have led him to that false conclusion. The reference to the Bridge game at The Savoy amuses in reflecting on the fact that Blades definitely wouldn’t have let this freak anywhere near. I mean – an American. Pretty unlikely Bond would have deigned to be seen with him, either. He’s a bit funny like that. The plan to give Bond his money (rather than, say, just killing him) and the hard logic of not having him swan around with oodles of cash, both appear sensible and credible, a sense and credibility that Bond blows once in Las Vegas and beats the house, presumably because he hasn’t been getting enough attention and has to that point been a bit-part player in this fragment of his life story. The immediate acceptance by Tree of Bond as who he says he is, is harder to swallow, but there’s been enough sitting around chatting so we need to get on the road to Saratoga pretty damned soon, and “into the gangster world – with a bang”. There’s nothing remotely bloody suspicious about the manner in which Bond pushes, and pushes, and pushes. Tree seems to take it largely in his stride; anyone else would get the hump.
Tree’s “china eyes” merit a number of repeat references, which strike a chord of memory in how Le Chiffre’s eyes were described, and other than their capacity to be glazed, presumably are there as a counterpart to the hardness of the AFRICAN NON-CONFLICT TOTALLY LEGITIMATELY BRITISH DIAMONDS that Tree spends a fair part of the chapter pushing into an assortment of geometrical shapes (albeit not a diamond formation, as that would be slightly too coy). The set-up of the Shy Smile short story – basically what each of the book’s loosely strung-together but largely independent incidents is – sounds clever but as I know as much about betting on the gee-gees as I do Bridge, I’m just going to have to (confidently) rely on Fleming to write me through that when I get to it.
Slight suspicion that Fleming pulls a punch when Tree shrugs his shoulders “resignedly” in not poking at “the hunchback” once more and telling us all what a grotesque sight that would be. Still, at least he’s given the man “an indignant squeak” and a “short, shrill laugh”, which doesn’t play up to Leprechaun/troll stereotyping one bit. ‘Shady’, we just adored your act. What taste, what style. Later to be described in savagely patronising manner by Bond as “harmless, rather likeable”, it’s only in comparison to some even more upsettingly unpleasant people Bond happens across. Not getting much “likeable” out of ‘Shady’ Tree here. Still, I recall that he survives. Not totally sure about that: call it a hunch.
We depart with Tree giving Bond his telephone number in Wisconsin (?) and Bond noting the details of the horse-fixing plot in his notebook, which he hasn’t been using up to this point and is presumably produced following some legerdemain of his own, and wondering what this particular 007th chapter has given us insofar as “Building Bond” is concerned. Possibly some complacency on the author’s part in having abandoned his thesaurus and thereby repeating himself, or a tendency to cheaply use physical disability to discomfort the reader, but neither are positive attributes with which to saunter lazily away. “Colourful” henchpeople, comfort in using foreign idiom to amplify the atmosphere of “having travelled” and being in an alien environment, confidence in trying pastiche (whether it’s successful is another matter), smart ideas for criminal schemes and a keen friendly-critical “cruel to be kind” eye. That’ll do.
The trouble is, now four diverging books in, and as Raymond Chandler is said to have observed following the publication of this one, it is very hard to determine now what type of writer Fleming is actually trying to be. Diamonds are Forever is markedly different to its immediate predecessor, and whilst it shares some locations and characters with Live and Let Die, their respective executions of atmosphere and plot mechanics are wholly dissimilar. With the next one completely throwing respect for standard narrative structure from the train, the first five James Bonds possess startlingly different dynamics, moods and strengths (and weaknesses). Undoubtedly unafraid to try new things, but an overall restlessness shines through, as if the ambition to write the spy novel to end all spy novels was still beyond Fleming’s grasp, each change of direction still not satisfying him, however much it may entertain us. It might be only at the end of the first five that it’s actually been achieved; will come back to this. Whilst I embrace their inconsistency as variety belying a common perception that all Bonds are equal, inconsistent is what they are. Dr No, Goldfinger, Thunderball and (despite its ending) OHMSS feel more cohesive, more uniformly within a “series” or style. That may be to their benefit or to their detriment, depending what it is one demands from Fleming.
One last try then. If it’s still not quite coming together, may as well kill him off.
James Bond won’t return in the 007th Chapter of From Russia with Love, because he’s not in it. Jacques Stewart is still waiting in the queue. Come on. Get your passport out before you approach the desk, you stupid old sod. Look at you, rummaging in your jacket only now. Give me strength. Go on, club him one and bag him off to Gitmo.