Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Spectreville

I must have read Diamonds Are Forever when I was about 11 or 12. Reading it again, the only bit I remembered was James Bond meeting up with Felix Leiter, who pretends to hold him up and who is missing a hand and a foot after their last adventure. Even having finished it only yesterday, I’m struggling to remember the plot.

It starts in French Guinea with a scorpion and an arch-racist dentist who hates anything black. Including scorpions and ants. He hands some diamonds to a bloke in a helicopter. And thinks some not very reconstructed things.

Then Bond is given a crash course in diamonds and learns how to put a jeweller’s glass into his eye socket.
“’Don’t push it in. Screw it in,’ said M impatiently.”

Ian Fleming, Diamonds Are Forever, p. 12.

Yes, even Bond laughs at that.

He’s sent to Valance, the policeman from Moonraker, who gives Bond some make-up to hide his scar and warp his cheekbones. Then they go to Hatton Garden and annoy a dodgy bloke flogging diamonds.

Bond’s mission is to locate and extinguish the diamond-smuggling line, and of course it just so happens that he’s spotted the villain straight off. To do this, he pretends to be a posh burglar called Peter Franks, who’s already been hired by a sassy broad called Tiffany Case.

Bond flies to America (the plane stops off in Ireland on the way) with diamonds hidden in his golf balls. He’s dismissive of the American mobsters he’s out to bamboozle, and they turn out to be tough customers – a ginger hunchbuck and a guy who lives a cowboy fantasy in his own purpose-built town just a little out of Vegas.

The blurb on the back of the book quotes fellow shocker-writer Raymond Chandler in the Sunday Times:
“The remarkable thing about this book is that it is written by an Englishman. The scene is almost entirely American, and it rings true to an American. I am unaware of any other writer who has accomplished this.”
But I kept feeling Fleming was pushing the clichés. Perhaps it’s because we’re more familiar with Las Vegas and the mobsters after a string of films about them. As Bond is told the story of Buggsy (sic) Siegel I was thinking of Warren Beatty. And Spectreville – the villain’s Victoriana train and playset – reminded me of the villain in Once Upon A Time In The West. It also foreshadows the villainous gang behind Thunderball.

Again there’s the pornographic level of detail: the simply dressed women with little make-up and jewellery, Bond’s woollen clothes, his drinks (bourbon and spring water; his famous Martini with a twist of lemon) and omelettes. There’s psychological realism (or verisimilitude) in describing how casinos are built to drive people to the games, and the dead-eyed women filling the fruit machines with change.

Tiffany Case is a funny, lively broad, and Fleming gives her an awful past to make her that much more interesting. But I felt it was “interesting” like early 80s Doctor Who companions – they become awkward and difficult because of the burden of backstory. In this instance, Tiffany got brutally raped in her teens and hasn’t slept with a man since. How does Bond flatten her prickles and cure her of her horror? He, er, looks at her in a certain way. And buys her a few drinks.

That’s the most frustrating thing: Fleming suggests real difficulties and complexities and then doesn’t deliver on them. Case just switches side at the moment most plot-convenient. Likewise, Fleming’s attempts to address the race issue are quite startlingly clumsy. One paragraph might as well open with, “I’m not a racist, but…”
“Bond had a natural affection for coloured people, but he reflected how lucky England was compared with America where you had to live with the colour problem from your schooldays up.”

Ibid., p. 91.

There then follows an ill-considered joke from Leiter about the response to insensitive language – along the lines of “It’s political correctness gone mad!”

And then of course there’s the two homosexual villains, Mr Wint and Mr Kidd. There’s admittedly a delicious bit of detail in Mr Kidd being a nervous traveller – he carries a suitcase with the label “My blood group is F”. But these two killers don't feel particularly gay: they wear the label like an eyepatch, just something to make them less bland as henchmen.

A friend who has recently started reading Bond has been surprised by the latent, repressed… well, everything about the man. So I was amused by Bond’s qualifications for the perfect wife: “Somebody who can make Sauce Béarnaise as well as love.” He’s joking of course:
“‘And you’d marry this person if you found her?’

‘Not necessarily,’ said Bond. ’Matter of fact, I’m almost married already. To a man. Name begins with M. I’d have to divorce him before I tried marrying a woman. And I’m not sure I’d want that. She’d get me handing round canapés in an L-shaped drawing room. And there’d be all those ghastly “Yes, you did – no I didn’t” rows that seem to go with marriage. It wouldn’t last. I’d get claustrophobia and run out on her. Get myself sent to Japan or somewhere.’”

Ibid., pp. 163-4.

So no issues there, then. Case wins him over by, er, making a Sauce Béarnaise Bond finds “wonderful”. And she demands of him,
“’Everything you’ve ever done to a girl. Now. Quickly.’”

Ibid. p. 173.

Yes, that’s the mark of a Secret Agent. He can be in and out in perfect, swift silence – without you even knowing he was there.

No sooner has Bond got his leg over with un-legoverable Ms Case than Wint and Kidd turn up to bump them off. I’d mis-remembered Bond spotting them as crooks because one of them can’t whistle (yes, Bond thinks a man who can’t whistle is a homosexual, but he thinks it about Scaramanga) or because they’re wearing perfume (that’s what happens in the film). There’s a moment when Bond almost spots them based on a carefully dropped (clang!) signpost. But no. Instead, M sends him a telegram about the two would-be assassins just in the nick of time.

Bond stages a dashing rescue and leaves Wint and Kidd looking like they killed each other. But for all the slyness of this, it all feels convenient rather than clever. There’s no explanation of how Bond then traces the smuggling line back to French Guinea, where the last loose threads are played out.

No mention of what’s happened to Tiffany, last seen installed in Bond’s London flat. No mention of whether he’ll marry her. In all, it’s a disappointing book, with too few action sequences which anyway feel a bit abrupt and rushed.

Overall, I got the feeling Fleming was getting bored, and just wanted done with the thing. But that’s more true of the next one…

James Bond will return in From Russia With Love.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting to see/read Raymond Chandler going on about Americanisms - I mean, what with him being Canadian and all... Nice review! I must go back and reread some Bond soon.

Cheers,
Doc

0tralala said...

What, Americans and Canadians aren't just the same thing?

:)

Le Mc said...

I don't get your James Bond thing, but you do get quite a few good reviews out of it!

funnyerik9 said...

Love the Bond books. Now you make me want to go read them again.

-Erik