Saturday, 18 May 2013

Diamonds Are Forever

Ian Fleming

With its two fighting claws held forward like a wrestler's arms the big pandenus scorpion emerged with a dry rustle from the finger sized hole under the rock.


This one is a bit of a departure for Fleming. Reading online reviews, I came into it with the impression that it's one of the lesser of the classic novels, but I came away pleasantly surprised.

I remember seeing an edition of this one in Borders about ten years ago that sported a quote on the cover from Raymond Chandler. I just made a half-hearted attempt to track it down using Google and failed miserably but to paraphrase, it was something like "Fleming writes about America more convincingly than any other Brit."

After finally getting around to reading it, the Chandler quote on the cover of that decade-old edition makes sense. Not just because Fleming devotes large swathes of the book to effectively bringing to life various aspects of 50s America, from Las Vegas to horse racing to cars to the mafia; but because at times this book feels very much like Bond dropped into a Philip Marlowe adventure. This isn't all that surprising, as the two men were contemporaries and friends, as evidenced by their amusingly stilted 1958 co-interview of each other.

Initially, this is most obvious in the American location and the choice of adversary. Rather than facing off against an erudite European supervillain like Le Chiffre or Blofeld, Bond finds himself up against a group of colourful American gangsters with names like Shady Tree. As others have pointed out, this is one of the few Bond novels where the villain isn't working for SMERSH or SPECTRE. The love interest, Tiffany Case, is an excellent femme fatale whose snappy dialogue and hard-to-get attitude adds to the hard-boiled atmosphere. But the Chandler influence is most keenly felt in Bond's musings toward the end of the book, reminiscent of the more philosophical of Philip Marlowe's reflections:

As he walked slowly across the cabin to the bathroom, Bond met the blank eyes of the body on the floor. And the eyes of the man whose blood group had been F spoke to him and said, "Mister, nothing is forever. Only death is permanent. Nothing is forever except what you did to me."

When I read that sequence, I suddenly realised how Chandleresque the title is, if you can disassociate it from decades of being attached to the worst Connery film. Diamonds are Forever goes quite nicely along with Farewell my Lovely as an offbeat title for a thriller.

The pace of the book is sedate by modern standards, with Fleming devoting pages to atmosphere and background information about the places Bond goes that, while interesting, have no relevance to the story. These sequences clearly put some modern readers off, and it's hard to imagine a thriller writer getting them past his editor today, but I have to confess I liked them. Reading the book was like reading an engaging travelogue that occasionally takes a break for a gunfight or car chase. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, I certainly don't mean it that way.

The plot itself is reasonably forgettable, but I still got a lot out of this book. Careful readers will have noticed by now that I couldn't care less about plot if you give me atmosphere, strong characters and smart dialogue, and I'm in good company, because Chandler himself felt the same way.

The scene-setting and obsessive attention to detail come as standard, of course, but I found the characterisation in this Bond a notch above the others I've read so far. Case emerges as my favourite literary Bond-girl so far (the fact she's not killed off actually qualifies as a twist at this point), and for the first time, you begin to get a handle on the character of Bond himself.

What I learned:
  • Even seemingly perfect heroes can benefit from some emotional depth
  • A good writer can make you want to keep reading, even for pages of descriptions of horse races and mudbaths

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