For his second novel, Ian Fleming revisits the Gothic tradition of the Caribbean
By May 1953, inspired by the success in England of his first novel Casino Royale, Ian Fleming was eager to return to New York to complete a North American contract with Macmillian Publishing. The five-day journey across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth provided time to reflect on his accomplishments and correct the proofs of his second novel, Live and Let Die. I imagine him looking out the window, at the sea, and smiled.
There was momentum in his new-found calling as a thriller writer: he wrote the first draft of the new novel, originally titled The Undertaker's Wind, with healthy speed that winter, taking less time to complete than he did for Casino Royale. Fiction, with its characters existing in a plot, proved fertile terrain for Fleming's imagination. The urgency of the narrative gives the impression that once he started to write, his ideas developed, and ideas formed more ideas, until the creativity flowed to make this second effort the best of the early novels—in terms of suspense, narrative structure, imagery, and characterizations. William Plomer,1 essentially Fleming's literary confidant, had given the novel enthusiastic approval. “The new book,” he proclaims in a letter to Fleming, “held this reader like a limpet mine & the denouement was shattering . . . If I'm any judge, this is just the stuff—sexy, violent, ingenious, & full of well-collected details of all kinds” (Lycett 245).
Plomer, at least as his letters reveal, never comments on the specifics of the “ingenious” aspects of the novel. For my part, though, the ingenuity centers on Fleming's use of the Caribbean as an exotic setting. Live and Let Die is a very brief novel and could be termed Gothic if we could put aside any preconceived notions that Fleming wrote nothing but pulp thrillers. The latter half of the novel is set in Jamaica, but the presence of the Caribbean and its mystical dimension is prominent throughout, underscored by references to Haiti and voodoo rituals, and the association of some characters with the occult. Could it be that Fleming was aware of the offshoot of Gothic fiction, namely the Caribbean Gothic, and was quietly experimenting with the genre? He was fond of this region of the world, and I suspect the rich literary history of the Caribbean could not have eluded him. By the 1790s, as Britain's empire expanded, Gothic writers turned to the colonial landscape for inspiration. Tales of terror and darkness in the Caribbean suddenly arose, enhanced by “voodoo priests, zombies, and sorcerers,” along with “the many plots that revolve around the threat of mysterious practices associated with animal sacrifice, fetishes, and spells,” which transformed the colonial setting into a “locus of horror necessary for the writing of Gothic literature” (Paravisini-Gebert 233).
Perhaps the earliest piece of Caribbean Gothic is Charlotte Smith's novella The Story of Henrietta (1800), set in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, where the expatriate heroine is terrified of the occult practice of Obeah.2 A century or so later, James Bond stares at the Blue Mountains one morning from the veranda of his retreat, Beau Desert, and “thought how lucky he was and what wonderful moments of consolation there were for the darkness and danger of his profession” (158). It's almost as if Fleming had abandoned the spy thriller genre and dropped his hero by parachute into the landscape of the Caribbean Gothic. We've got the villain Mr. Big, parading as a voodoo baron and whose followers believe is either the voodoo god Baron Samedi or perhaps his zombie. We've got the enigmatic heroine, Solitaire, raised in Haiti, possessing telepathic powers. We've got references to sacrificial rites and underworld figures by way of Bond reading The Traveller's Tree, Patrick Leigh Fermor's powerful account of voodoo rituals in Haiti. We've got the backdrop of pirate treasures that points to the plunders of colonial settlers, which echoes a prominent theme of the Caribbean Gothic: namely, the dark aspect of colonial power. We even get Bond's almost mystical underwater swim to Mr. Big's island, a passage of sorts into the dangerous underworld of barracudas and sharks, of death and darkness. In Live and Let Die, we encounter Fleming's ode to the Caribbean Gothic.
The Bond in this novel emerges fully recovered from the torture in Casino Royale, and his self-reflections display Gothic nuances, particularly in meditations on the loss of the self—and of death itself, the ever present element in Gothic fiction. Specifically, in the Caribbean Gothic, death and the loss of the self converge in the tantalizing figure of the zombie. Think of it as a vampyric ghoul relocated to the West Indies to enjoy ganja and steel drum bands. Or, putting it more accurately, it's a living/dead creature without spirit in its body and thus remains in that twilight area between life and death. Its recurring presence in the region's literature, in tandem with other motifs such as sorcery, evil spirits, and blood-thirsty soucouyants,3 have proved popular to sensation-seeking readers and thus dominates “the region's writing throughout the twentieth century almost whenever it has any Gothic flavor at all” (Paravisini-Gebert 238). Fleming alludes to the phenomenon early in the novel by way of Bond's introspection as he waits in line to go through immigration at the Idlewild Airport4 in New York:
[He] disliked the idea of his dossier being in the possession of any foreign power. Anonymity was the chief tool of his trade. Every thread of his real identity that went on record in any file diminished his value and, ultimately, was a threat to his life. Here in America, where they knew all about him, he felt like a Negro whose shadow has been stolen by the witchdoctor. A vital part of himself was in pawn, in the hands of others. (2)
The allusion to voodoo and sorcery signals not only Bond's in-depth knowledge of the Caribbean culture, including the region's metaphysical roots in the occult, but his conviction in the inner self and that this precious bit of possession is easily lost—lost to the bureaucratic machine, that equally dark destructive force that threatens the individual. Moments earlier, Bond had entered the “notorious purgatory of the US Health, Immigration, and Customs machinery.” It is the world of menacing authority, of “drab-green rooms smelling of last year's air” and the “fear of those closed doors marked PRIVATE that hide the careful men, the files, the teleprinters chattering urgently to [different governmental agencies]” (1). It's a clever use of imagery, rendering bureaucracy as a malevolent spirit, a force that can take possession of the self. It also reveals a shadow of existentialism in the way it raises the notion of alienation. We are existential zombies, Fleming seems to suggest, because we are estranged from institutions such as bureaucratized government: as individuals, we’ve become small components for these vast impersonal entities that have a life of their own. We neither feel that we are part of these institutions nor can we comprehend their inner workings, and our individuality is at their mercy. For Bond, anonymity (the state of not having intrusions into one's life, the possession of identity) is full being; the loss of anonymity, on the other hand, is a kind of zombification, a condition where the individual is without identity, trapped in a soulless shell and existing in that region between life and death.
In these first few passages of Live and Let Die, Fleming depicts his hero as a passionate guardian of the self. This characterization derives from the aftermath of Casino Royale. Bond's recovery from the torture in the previous novel signifies the existential reconstruction of an individual. He's a new man, so to speak. He first appears at the end of Casino Royale: the agent who vows to seek and destroy the villains in the world. Fleming presents a striking image of his hero early in Live and Let Die, during the drive to M's office, when he remembers the Soviet machine SMERSH. The agent's determination, his strong will, is vivid: “Bond's eyes narrowed as he gazed into the murk of Regent's Park, and his face in the faint dashlight was cruel and hard” (11). Here, then, is the new 007, manifesting his credo as a driven agent, an individual who has something to act upon and seek a meaning to his life, to struggle for a cause. The title gains significance from his existential state: as he tells FBI agent Captain Dexter, “‘In my job when I come up against a man like [Mr. Big], I have another motto. It's 'live and let die.'’” This is one of the best lines in the series, unifying characterization and the meaning of the title. It also implies a mythic angle: Bond is now the destroyer of evil, or at least he likens himself to be a force of destruction, seeking out evil in the world. Thus, adhering to his homage to the Gothic, Fleming prefigures a mythic confrontation between the destroyer of evil and and evil itself (under the guise of the villain Mr. Big).
Yet this man Bond is still capable of falling in love, and rather quickly; in this case, to fall in love with one of the more interesting heroines in the series, Solitaire. Her association with the occult (she is telepathic, with a childhood raised on voodoo rituals in Haiti) adds an enigmatic, almost ethereal, aspect to her personality. Her name connotes solitude—she is solitary by nature, differentiated from the masses because of her unique powers. Bond senses her solitude during the trip to St. Petersburg, Florida as he stares out the window, on board the Silver Meteor: “He wanted her to come back and sit down opposite him again so that he could look at her and play with her and slowly discover her. Solitaire. It was an attractive name. . . . Even in her present promise of warmth towards him there was much that was withdrawn and mysterious” (88-89).
Mr. Big, though, sees none of that poetry in the woman. He acknowledges her telepathic powers but expresses a bit of psychomachy in his view of her, dragging her down to the realm of the flesh, so to speak. During his first encounter with Bond, when the agent is held captive in his lair, Mr. Big depicts Solitaire in coarse terms, touting a reference to her virginity: “For the time being,” the villain declares, “she is difficult. She will have nothing to do with men. That is why in Haiti, she was called ‘Solitaire’” (60). Of course, he intends to marry her, apparently failing to grasp that even he—a thickset, middle-aged, self-proclaimed genius with sickly complexion—would be completely revolting to this twenty-five-year-old babe of the occult. I'm forced to assume that she would only find their union tolerable if the proviso for a sexless marriage was enforced for all eternity. Unfortunately, Mr. Big finds a disturbing amusement from eugenics. He brags to Bond that he is “going to marry her because she is unique” and that “it will be interesting to see our children” (60).
Solitaire's penchant for wearing white dresses, along with her pale complexion and black hair, and her imprisonment by the villain, all point to Gothic motifs: not only is she the familiar damsel-in-distress but a ghostly beauty, descending from the realm of poetic imagination. She reminds us of a Lady Madeline Usher, or the other melancholy babe in the Poe landscape, Ligiea—essentially apparitions of women who have, in the eyes of those tortured narrators in Poe's tales, transcended the material world. Moreover, with Solitaire, Fleming harks back to aspects of another heroine, introduced in 1929 in The White Witch of Rosehall by Herbert George De Lisser, a remarkable work of early Jamaican literature, which presents archetypal Gothic conventions to explore the mystery of one Annie Palmer, mistress of the Rosehall plantation.5 And if similarities between the characters seem farfetched—well, then, let us note that Annie Palmer, known for her beauty and dark hair, was born with supernatural powers, but orphaned at an early age and raised by a Haitian voodoo priestess, all of which constitute a background that foreshadows our Ms. Solitaire.
Bond is spellbound by Solitaire's beauty. His thoughts on her display other images and themes from the Caribbean Gothic: namely, plantations, ancient colonial mansions, the beautiful heroine's lonely childhood and her struggles on a remote island. Once again, on board the Silver Meteor, the introspective Bond imagines Solitaire's life in Haiti:
He sensed a lonely childhood on some great decaying plantation, an echoing 'Great House' slowly falling into disrepair and being encroached on by the luxuriance of the tropics. The parents dying, and the property being sold. The companionship of a servant or two and an equivocal life in lodgings in the capital. The beauty which was her only asset and the struggle against the shady propositions to be a 'governess,' a 'companion,' a 'secretary,' all of which meant respectable prostitution. (89)
Indeed. It's quite melodramatic, and Bond himself realizes that his interpretation of Solitaire's life is a “romantic picture, perhaps. But it must have been something like that” (89). At this stage, she's all mystery to Bond, distant and, well, brought to life only in his imaginations. Fortunately, the “real” Solitaire finally comes to life on that train trip, announcing herself as Simone Latrelle, and proves that she's quite cunning: realizing that 007 is her only chance to escape from Mr. Big, she turns on the charm to nab the secret agent. Surprisingly, on the Silver Meteor, she welcomes Bond's advances and, though inexperienced in matters of romance, she manages to do quite well: “she brought his lips against hers again and kissed him long and lasciviously, as if she was the man and he the woman” (97). Our Ms. Solitaire, then, is unpredictable.
The plot of Live and Let Die concerns Bond's investigation of Buonaparte Ignace Gallia (a.k.a. Mr. Big), a rumbling hulk of a villain and one of Fleming's best, a SMERSH operative suspected by British Intelligence as the mastermind of a smuggling operation that funds Soviet agents in America. The requisite doomsday speech is one of the best in the series, expressing an intriguing vision of individuality, though wrapped in the usual self-importance of a megalomaniac villain:
I prefer to regard myself as one who has the ability and the mental and nervous equipment to make his own laws and act according to them rather than accept the laws that suit the lowest common denominator of the people. You have doubtless read Trotter's Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, Mister Bond. Well, I am by nature and predilection a wolf and I live by a wolf's laws. Naturally the sheep describe such a person as a 'criminal.' (199)
His speech, then, is a manifesto of individuation—the absolute state of the principium individuationis with shades of Raskolnikov's belief in the Extraordinary Man.6 In his vaunted estimation of himself, Mr. Big shuns any adherence to the herd mentality, seeks to override common humanity, and, as a sop to his ego, places himself above the law to assert the universal truth of his superiority. There's just one complication: at the center of his being is mortality itself. Despite his magnificence, Mr. Big is bound by human finitude—he is just a man, as Bond notes, “who walked and defecated, a mortal man with a diseased heart” (198). The Gothic theme is kept intact through the clever combination of Mr. Big's illness and the notion of the zombie: the villain suffers an ashen complexion from his chronic heart disease, which gives the illusion of a ghostly appearance, a trait that he uses to his advantage; for Mr. Big has declared to be the dreaded zombie of Baron Samedi, the Prince of Darkness. It's an effective marketing ploy that empowers him to maintain control over the Harlem underworld, as well as the superstitious local population of Jamaica and surrounding islands. Thus he rules his empire by manipulating the folklore of the Caribbean. Mr. Big has, in essence, reinvented himself as the embodiment of the doctrine he promotes.
The smuggling operation reverberates with pirate treasures, linking the story to colonial times and, once again, to the Gothic genre: seventeenth-century gold coins have been turning up in Harlem and Florida, which are part of a larger hoard buried in Jamaica by the pirate Sir Henry Morgan, whose infamous name—Bloody Morgan—signals the haunting imagery of the novel. Live and Let Die is drenched in blood—the blood from grisly violence and death. Blood soaks the sack that covers the mauled body of Felix Leiter, blood and offal pours onto the surface of the sea, stirring the frenzy of sharks and barracudas as Bond swims underwater to place a limpet mine on Mr. Big's yacht. In one gripping scene, blood oozes from Bond when a barracuda bites his shoulders; and, near the end of the novel, a cloud of blood wells up on the dark sea as Mr. Big's body is devoured by barracuda.
This finale is a cavalcade of the macabre: Bond and Solitaire, tied together to the villain's yacht, have been dragged behind to be lashed against coral rocks in shark-infested waters. Fortunately, the yacht explodes from Bond's limpet mine; and the two victims witness, from a safe distance, the grisly end of Mr. Big and his guards, shipwrecked and attacked by barracuda:
On the edge of the circle of bobbing heads and dead fish a few triangular fins were cutting fast through the water. . . . The body in the water jerked sideways. Half of the Big Man's left arm came out of the water. . . . But the great turnip head, the drawn-back mouth full of white teeth almost splitting it in half, was still alive. And now it was screaming, a long gurgling scream that only broke each time a barracuda hit into the dangling body. (211-212)
The combination of the barracuda attack and the preceding imprisonment of Solitaire (once again, the damsel-in-distress), along with the keel-hauling torture, all point to the sensationalism of extreme emotions, to the effect of Gothic fiction. That's not to say Fleming was deliberately formulaic by returning to an old literary tradition. Au contraire. I like to think Fleming returned to Gothic terror to enhance his approach to the thriller. The precision of detailed images, for example, in Mr. Big's death evokes vivid horror and slows down the duration of the bloodshed. Mr. Big suffers much agony in an almost lingering fashion, though in real time he is devoured quickly by barracudas. It is a way to pass off the fantastic with credibility, to bring it closer to readers and convince them that the event really happened.
The novel opens with Bond in New York, and he receives a red carpet treatment from American authorities at the airport in tandem with indulgence in a sumptuous lunch hosted by CIA counterpart Felix Leiter. “There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent,” so the omnipotent narrator declares, emphasizing that there are occasions when a spy not only plays the part of a wealthy man but takes “refuge in good living to efface the memory of danger and the shadow of death” (1). Right away, we enter the novel full on into high-living, 007-style. This is, however, in contrast to the novel's other landscape of voodoo and the supernatural. The narrative movement, then, progresses from a sybaritic world of extravagance to the occult realm of voodooism; from the material realm to supernatural evil, death, and darkness. The movement starts when Bond reads the Fermor book, The Traveller's Tree, in his hotel room. It makes for a relaxing bit of reading, for there is nothing more pleasant than horrid accounts of human sacrifice and arcane voodoo incantations of the arch-fiend himself, Baron Samedi, CEO of the Legion of the Dead and expert of all things beyond the grave. What is surprising in Fleming is the excerpts from Fermor's book. We gather it's all part of not only making us see—and read—the text that Bond is reading, bringing the agent's experience closer to us, but an attempt at grounding the fantasy of the novel (the supernatural) in the factual account of Fermor's study. What at first glance appears to be purposeless is essentially a clever narrative mechanism that acclimatizes us to the supernatural backdrop to Bond's adventure. As the novel unfolds, Bond enters the voodoo world of Mr. Big and meets Solitaire, who is, as we've noted, connected to the occult. We realize what is at work in the text: Bond is undergoing a metaphorical journey into this dark realm, culminating in Chapter 19, “Valley of Shadows.”
The title obviously alludes to the well-known Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my Shepard"), particularly the stanza that introduces the image of the dark valley:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou annointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over. (lines 4-9)
The passage is a declaration of faith; and, at least to the speaker of the psalm, the courage to cling to faith is the only armament that can withstand the sufferings in life. But one gets the impression that Fleming, who wasn't all that religious, was drawn to the passage because of this business about courage: the very essence of the hero, he seems to say, is to have courage to face danger and death and, in that state of mind, an element of selflessness occurs in which the hero finds something greater than himself to struggle and fight for. So we now find Bond, in the late evening, embarking on an underwater swim in a lagoon infested with sharks and barracudas. In his wet suit, he transforms into a “shimmering black bat-like figure” and “slipped off the rocks into ten feet of water and vanished under the sea” (176). Another mythic image appears, in the guise of Christian iconography: Quarrel (Bond's ally) makes the sign of the cross at the spot where Bond had disappeared. This undersea swim is the secret agent's descent into the underworld. The sharks and barracudas stirring in frenzy signify obviously, in context to the danger of the mission, the presence of death; and, once again, the perspective Fleming seems to suggest is the stature of the individual in the face of suffering, measured by how one confronts the terrors of existence with dignity and bravado. The scene links to a previous one wherein Bond's plane, on route to Jamaica, enters an intense tropical storm, forcing our hero to contemplate death and its eternal presence in the here and now:
Bond gripped the arms of his chair so that his left hand hurt, and cursed softly to himself. . . . And the forty little heavier-than-air people, fallible within the plane's fallibility, vain within its larger vanity, fall down with it and make little holes in the land or little splashes in the sea. Which is their destiny anyway, so why worry?... 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. (151)
If it weren't for Fleming's interesting travelogue commentary and descriptions of the finer things in life, I'd say he's at his best when he's explicating Bond's thoughts on death. His hero not only lives with the dangers of spying but is fatalistic. Hence, death and its inevitability haunt the novel: characters are subjected to torture, violence, the terror of the supernatural, even natural calamities such as tropical storms that threaten air travelers. The novel suggests looking beyond individual death to see the full scope of death—death not so much as finality but as a necessary phase in the cycle of life. Quarrel's explanation of Jamaica's prevailing winds underscores this sense of life renewal: in the evening, The Undertaker's Wind “‘blows [the] bad air out of [the] Island;’” but in the morning, the Doctor's Wind brings “‘[the] sweet air in from [the] sea’” (163). Against this life-death symbioses, one stands in the moment of the here and now. From such a perspective, Fleming suggests, we can begin to affirm each moment and be grateful one is still alive.
Taut and engaging, Live and Let Die stands as a unique entry in the series. Although dated, particularly in its portrait of blacks (characters use epitaphs that are today considered simply degrading)—and Fleming himself falls into the trap of imitating their speech with trite dialects—the novel unfolds with urgency and suspense. Its violence is hard edged; its got an intriguing Cold War theme concerning the financing of Soviet espionage in the West. But it's also fantastical with motifs of voodoo and pirate treasures—the very elements that make the novel an homage to the Caribbean Gothic. One hundred years before Fleming sat down at Goldeneye to write Live and Let Die, his predecessors created the link between the colonial and the Gothic to probe whatever fears lurked in Britain's remote outposts. That literary tradition was enough for Fleming to reproduce terror in a hybrid narrative—part Cold War thriller, part supernatural tale, Live and Let Die is a testament to the many ways in which the colonial legacy and the Caribbean culture have entered the Gothic genre, expressing a strange thrilling paean to the terrors and darkness of death.
|1||Fleming knew Plomer, a distinguished poet, since the Thirties when he wrote the latter a fan letter. At the time Fleming began writing the Bond novels, Plomer was a reader for Jonathan Cape Publishing. He essentially transformed Fleming into a published writer when he recommended Casino Royale for publication to publisher-proprietor, Jonathan Cape.|
|2||Obeah is a religious practice, deriving from Africa, which involves the use of sorcery to cause harm to enemies.|
|3||According to Caribbean folklore, the soucouyant is a creature that lives by day as an old woman. Then, eager for an exciting nightlife, she removes her craggy skin and transforms into a fireball that flies into the night to suck the blood of hapless victims. Belief in this creature originated in Trinidad, although the business about blood-sucking at night recalls the vampire lore from Europe.|
|4||Idlewild Airport was renamed the John F. Kennedy International Airport in1963, one month after the assassination of the 35th President.|
|5||Annie Palmer is a well known figure in Jamaican folklore. She and the Rose Hall Great House—the most famous colonial mansion on the island—have become the focal point of fiction and fact. Born in 1802 in England, Annie had moved to Haiti with her merchant parents when she was 10. When the parents died from yellow fever, Annie was adopted by her Haitian nanny, a voodoo priestess who was under the impression that educating her young ward in the occult was the surest path to effective childhood development. In 1820, at age 18, Annie took up residence at the Rose Hall Great House with her hapless hubby, John Palmer, the grandnephew of the mansion's founder. The harsh life of spending many hours learning to paddle surf must have left him little time to notice that Annie dabbled in voodoo. It all led to a pleasant household: she eventually poisoned her husband's coffee and began a reign of terror, killing two more husbands, ruling the sugar cane plantation as a cruel landowner, and seducing slaves and killing them when they bored her. Such a paradise had its demise, of course: during the slave uprisings of the 1830s, Annie was found dead in her bedroom. To this day, there are those who claim to see her ghost wandering the halls of the Great House. The mansion is located on a windy bluff east of Montego Bay. Its proximity to Goldeneye and popularity as a tourist attraction suggest that the chilling legend of Annie Palmer did not elude Fleming.|
|6||In Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, the central character Raskolnikov views himself extraordinary and thus exists beyond the moral rules that govern the rest of the world. The murder he commits is justified and nothing more than the consequence of his struggle to establish the truth of his superiority. It seems Fleming had Raskolnikov in mind when he imagined Mr. Big: just as Raskolnikov idolizes Napoleon—the exemplar of the overman, or übermensch, and thus has the right to overstep boundaries to rise above humanity—Mr. Big shares similarities with the French leader: aside from having a good dose of French blood, Fleming's villain carries the first name Buonaparte.|