I’ve been reading the Ian Fleming Bond books for the last couple of years in order of release. Diamonds Are Forever is the 4th full length Bond novel and like its predecessors much more focused on tension and mystery than over the top action and unbelievable circumstances. This time out, the British secret service has tasked Bond with discovering the head of a diamond smuggling operation. This assignment pits Bond against a crime organization known as the Spang Brothers and puts him in the company of a beautiful mob operative named Tiffany Case. At first Bond is utterly contemptuous of the gangsters but soon learns they are not to be trifled with when he finds his cover blown and is forced to run for his life.
Fleming’s writing is superb as always. His use of descriptions are always just enough so the reader can easily see the scene yet doesn’t overpower the narrative. He’s a writer who gets out of his own way and doesn’t draw attention to the prose while still keeping everything singing along. Like a magician doing a simple but flawless card trick you don’t realize how good he is until you have been utterly sucked in to the performance. The plot of Diamonds are Forever concerns not only diamond smuggling but also horse racing and Las Vegas casinos. The window he opens into the world of the 1950’s is utterly fascinating and great fun.
What I like best about the James Bond in the books is his fallibility. This is not the unstoppable and sociopathic automaton of the movies. This Bond feels, he regrets, he doesn’t enjoy killing but he recognizes he is an exceptional killer. He also understands that as much as he may want to settle down with the right woman, he also can’t do that yet. As he says in the novel before he could get married he would have to divorce M. Diamonds are Forever shows us a much more introspective and almost ineffectual Bond. For the most part he doesn’t do much of anything other than get himself captured and that happens because he underestimates the gangsters over and over again. He is undercover but defies specific instructions because he is bored and wants to force action. His old ex-CIA buddy Felix Leiter fills in most of the pieces of the puzzle as do other accomplices along the way. Only when violence is the last option does Bond snap to action with his Beretta and bring everything to a bloody conclusion.
Tiffany Case is a typical Bond heroine. Beautiful, smart, steely, yet marked with a dark past which ignites Bond’s need to “save” her. Case demonstrates a lot of resilience and intelligence. The problem with the character is the way she is shown to grow is by dropping her defenses and allowing Bond in to her confidences. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it misogynistic because she is a strong character for most of the book. At one point she saves Bond’s life and gets him to safety when he is unable to help himself. However Fleming has an unfortunate tendency to soften and domesticate his female characters as soon as they submit to Bond’s charms. Still for a book written in 1956 its pretty progressive for the most part. Just be aware if this is a sensitive area for you.
I would love for the producers of the James Bond series to finally go back and make a Bond movie that is true to the books. Set it in the mid 50’s and make it a thriller instead of an adventure and really go back to the character’s roots. The closest they’ve gotten was the early Sean Connery outings, especially Dr. No and From Russia With Love. The recent Casino Royale and Skyfall both have elements that are true to the books but they tend to be overwhelmed by huge action scenes which are still a hallmark of the movies. Casino Royale takes a full hour to get going and Skyfall suffers from a ludicrous villain plot. But each brings that spark of the original idea and lets us see why the character has enthralled the world for over 60 years.
James Bond will return in From Russia with Love!