As much as I adore Casino Royale, it was Ian Fleming’s second James Bond novel, Live and Let Die, which truly set the course of the series. Here, 007 pursues the notorious American criminal Mr. Big, a key figure in America’s criminal network, as well as a member of SMERSH, all the way from New York to Jamaica, accompanied by CIA pal Felix Leiter.
Live and Let Die is a novel of its time, dealing with matters of race with a brusqueness that is unseen, and likely outlawed, in contemporary thrillers. Fleming seemed to have a strange infatuation with the black population, describing various scenes with occasionally awkward assiduousness. But beyond these moments, Live and Let Die is Fleming firing on all cylinders: a taut, gripping spy novel with a fantastic cast of characters and extravagant villains.
Bond’s hunt for ‘the big man’ is blockaded at every turn, and each encounter sees the tables quickly turned: Bond becoming the quarry, faced against impossible opposition. Mr. Big is as conscientious a villain as 007 ever faced in his career – a meticulous schemer who views his operations as a work of art. Assisted (reluctantly) by the seer known as Solitaire, he appears insuperable. Indeed, when one of Bond’s closest allies is brutally disposed of, readers can’t help but wonder how Bond will better his dastardly foe.
Highlights include a tense shoot-out inside a warehouse full of sea creatures, and Bond’s epic swim from shore to Mr. Big’s yacht, which involves a tangle with an octopus, as well as vicious barracuda. Live and Let Die introduces the more fantastical elements of Fleming’s novels, which stood them apart from the competition. The climax is marred by Mr. Big’s excessive monologues – which some might attribute to his overt arrogance, reads as stale and contrived by contemporary standards.
So, while it’s withered somewhat with age, Live and Let Die remains one of the finest Bond thrillers, exposing Bond as a globe-trotting adventurer. Interesting then, that Fleming’s next novel, Moonraker, was set exclusively in Britain.