Live and Let Die is the second James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. It deals with the rise of the African-American Gangster and Voodooism and reading it more than fifty years after the time it was written, the culture shock can be intense. The way Fleming throws around descriptions of the black gangsters and goes around painting certain characters as typically “negroid” can leave the reader shell-shocked. In the context of its time period it may have been accepted but in today’s politically correct society such descriptions are jarring and take away from the narrative. It is hard to get lost in the story when you’re so amazed that society viewed a section of the population through this sort of lens. I’m sure all sorts of essays have been written about the racism in Live and Let Die, but the simple fact of the matter is that it is simply a book of its time and arguing about it doesn’t do anything to alter the content of the book at all. It is the first sequel in a series featuring one of the most prominent characters in pop culture history and there is enough there to see why several more stories were yet to come.
The novel deals with a shadowy criminal figure named Mr. Big who found himself allied with the Russian spy community after World War II which he had spent working for the American secret service in France. He has the same sort of intelligence background that 007 has without being painted as a “spy.” Here, James Bond is fighting a criminal mastermind with tactics normally reserved for fighting other spies. As such, it gets those around him hurt, namely his friend Felix. I feel as if the choice of the villain and his tactics was meant by Fleming to show the versatility of 007 as a character. That his opposition wouldn’t be repetitive communist strawmen. In that regard, the book is quite good. Even Mr. Big’s plan comes across as somewhat original and lucrative. The best part of the book is truly the villain, as the threat of his power feels palpable.
Contrast all of this with the film version, which shares very little in common with the book that shares its name. Part of that comes with twenty years in between the release of the novel and the film, turning Mr. Big into a caricature mired in Blaxploitation tropes. We never really even see that much of him in the film. The intimidating presence so well displayed in the novel is lost in the adaptation. His plan is also overly simplified, trading hidden gold treasure for heroin fields. Live and Let Die is a horrible when viewed as an adaptation. It is a serviceable James Bond film, but only when completely divorced from his literary counterpart.
When stacked up against the debut of Casino Royale, Live and Let Die is a bit of a misfire in some regards, but still an interesting book and well worth reading for anyone who wants to dive into the depths of the James Bond canon.