Last year my friend and fellow history grad student wrote a paper about James Bond. I think it was for a class that dealt with British Empire, but I'm not sure. She read On Her Majesty's Secret Service because it was the only book in which Bond was married, From Russia with Love because it dealt with the Middle East, and Live and Let Die because it focused on Harlem and Jamaica. She concluded that beyond the obvious chauvinism, these books often had an undercurrent of xenophobia and homophobia...and even ophidiophobia. Actually, that last one may have been from her paper on Indiana Jones. Apparently she has a thing for adventurous men.
Last year I read Casino Royale, the first of the Bond series, and completely agreed with Maribeth about Bond's chauvinistic tendencies. Casino Royale was alright, nothing great. Live and Let Die, the second of the series, was much better in plot and style, and the chauvinism was not so abrasive. However, it appears that Fleming simply traded in one ism for another. Bond is not overtly racist in the book, but some of the descriptions and subtleties of language make it easy to level the charge at Fleming. At best, he was woefully ignorant about issues of race.
Let me try to quickly summarize the plot...
The British government suspects that someone has found the treasure of Bloody Morgan, a 17th Century pirate whose actions were sanctioned by the Crown because he mostly attached Spanish ships off the coast of Jamaica. A few months before Bond became involved, gold coins started turning up in Harlem. M tells Bond that they are fairly certain a mysterious Mr Big is involved with the smuggling of these coins. Bond is assigned to work with the CIA and the FBI on the case, beginning in Harlem and ending in Jamaica. His goal is to find and recover the treasure, which Britain sees as rightly theirs.
The way that Fleming depicts Harlem is amusing. It's as if he believed the black community to be completely monolithic. They all are under the thumb of Mr Big. Everyone does his bidding, above all else. And the reason for this: they think he is the zombie of Baron Samedi the Chief of the Legion of the Dead, according to Jamaican island lore. The incredibly misguided assumption is that most blacks who live in Harlem are from Jamaica, or at least believe in its spiritual practices. Of course, neither were true. Fleming's descriptions often evoke exoticism and notions of otherness. He refers to "the secret voodoo language" known only by these people and the "sixth sense of fish, of birds, of negroes." Issues such as these fall squarely into the "uninformed" category. But some of Fleming's other statements cannot be judged so lightly. Describing a bar in Harlem, he writes, "It was hot and the air was thick with smoke and the sweet, feral smell of two hundred negro bodies." Fleming likes to put the word "sweet" in unsavory situations. In Casino Royale, he wrote, "And now [Bond] knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape." At a later point in Live and Let Die, Fleming refers to some black villains as "clumsy black apes."
Besides what are very likely some of Fleming's personal shortcomings showing through in his work, his writing is fairly good. It improved dramatically from Casino Royale. And the Bond of the books is a much more interesting character than the Bond of the big screen. He has doubts, fears, pains, and experiences heartbreak. He is not simply some flippant cad. One passage that I thought was particularly good was the thoughts of Bond as he flew in a small plane to Jamaica. He was realizing just how fragile life is, how much his existence hinges on others. Bond thinks,
You are linked to the ground mechanic's careless fingers in Nassau just as you are linked to the weak head of the little man in the family saloon who mistakes the red light for the green and meets you head-on, for the first and last time, as you are motoring quietly home from some private sin. There's nothing to do about it. You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. So take it easy. Light a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs. Your stars have already let you come quite a long way since you left your mother's womb and whimpered at the cold air of the world. Perhaps they'll even let you get to Jamaica tonight.
Despite some of its problems, Live and Let Die can be appreciated for its action and suspense. Fleming does a great job with both.
As a sidenote, this book is leaps and bounds better than the movie (surprise, surprise). Live and Let Die was the first Bond movie starring Roger Moore, who ushered in the stupid, campy era of Bond. The movie fluctuates between laughably bad and just plain bad. There are only two good things about it: Jane Seymour and the Paul McCartney & Wings song. Best Bond song ever.