Thursday, December 6, 2012

Only Death and Diamonds are Forever

This week saw a return to the superspy genre as I completed yet another of Ian Fleming's original novels on the eternal James Bond. (And no, sadly, I still haven't managed to catch Skyfall.)  This time it was the fourth Bond outing, Diamonds Are Forever (1956).

Learning Courtesy and Etiquette via classic paperback art.
Initially I was hoping to write this review after I'd had a chance to take in the 1971 film again, but that didn't quite work out. Despite being the final canon Bond film to feature Connery in the role (He would of course play Bond once more in Never Say Never Again (1983), the film made during the Thunderball legal loophole over ownership.), Diamonds is generally considered to be the least of the Connery Bond's, and ranks fairly low on most Bond aficionados hierarchies.  It certainly didn't make much of an impression on me as it's one of only a small handful of Bond films that I've only seen once. However, whatever its flaws, it was able to resuscitate the series after flagging box office returns following the smash success of Thunderball (1965).

See how this is all oddly connected?  No?  The major difference between the book and the movie is the book features a pair of gangsters, the Spang brothers as its villains, whereas the movie would see the return of Bond's arch-nemesis Ernst Blofeld. Blofeld wouldn't appear in print until five books and five years later in ninth Bond novel Thunderball.  But then that's the danger in adapting the books into movies, or seeing the movies/reading the books out of order: continuity problems. Yes?

Let's continue.  Book only.

Sorry Sean...
A few weeks back I reviewed one of Fleming's non-Bond books, The Diamond Smugglers, and wouldn't you know that elements of that book would appear in Diamonds Are Forever...or rather, the reverse.  In my head, I had worked it out that he'd written the non-fiction book first and used it as research for the Bond novel.  The only problem is that the fiction beat the fact to the newsstand by a year. More's the pity, as in retrospect, the Bond novel makes the research book seem even more dry by comparison.
"Excuse Mr. Fleming...could we see what's in that case?"
The plot sees M. assigning Bond to help stop diamond trafficking from Africa, putting him undercover as a low-level hood looking to act as smuggler to get out of England.  His contact is a beautiful but icy girl named Tiffany Case.  Once in America, Bond tries to work his way further into the criminal underworld when he runs into his old pal, Felix Leiter.  Leiter, severely injured during Live and Let Die (the book), now works for the Pinkerton detectives. The two men foil a fixed horse race, and Bond gets sent on to the Spang brothers' headquarters in Las Vegas. I wouldn't want to ruin the rest, but I will say that casinos, a ghost town, and an antique steam engine figure into Bond's future from here.

Of those I've read, this was certainly the most rapidly paced of the Bond novels, which was both a good and bad thing. Dr. No, for instance, did a pretty good job of balancing movement and stillness...but it also came two books after this one (there's that continuity thing again.)  Diamonds chugs along pretty swiftly until a brief dip just before the finale. Fleming still has a tendency to over-describe superfluous details from time to time, but never enough to mar the enjoyment. Bond's love affair is well intertwined into the plot outside of his usual bed 'em and bolt routine. There's a whole bunch of colorful henchmen and hoodlums of the movie gangster variety.

The book did have the good taste to spare us Charles Gray in did Rocky Horror ironically.
In fact, I'd say the books sole weakness is that it doesn't have a Blofeld. Not that it specifically needed the arch-villain himself, merely that we're not given nearly as good a characterization of the Spang brothers as Dr. No, or Mr. Big, or Goldfinger. They're not totally lifeless, there's just a little less enthusiasm for Bond's going after them as compared to his toppling his more usual big time super-villains. Still and all the other thugs he contends with are at least entertaining enough that it's not terribly noticeable as the story goes.

In all, I would say that Diamonds Are Forever was yet another enjoyable and quick-paced romp in the literary superspy world, a fine getaway for a weekend read.

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