My first thought when I picked up Diamonds Are Forever, the fourth of Ian Flemming’s James Bond novels, was that I was reading the source material for Blood Diamond, the 2006 DiCaprio film. The novel opens in the empty border regions of Sierra Leone at a time when it was still a colony of the British Crown. We meet a smuggler, whom I picture with Leo’s face, moving diamonds across a border to be handed off to a ex-Nazi pilot who will spirit them to the West. I am quickly disabused of the similarities between the two stories; except for the geographical setting of the opening (and the close, I might add), there is little to connect the two tales.
This is in stark contrast with the James Bond films. Diamonds Are Forever was the seventh of the James Bond movies and the final (almost) with Sean Connery as the lead actor. The Bond movies open, typically, with James concluding out a previous case. The scene is action-packed, often involving Bond’s signature gadgets and stunts and usually involving some sexual action with a beautiful woman (although not the one of the beautiful women from the current story.) By contrast, Diamonds Are Forever, the book, starts out in the same way as the previous novel. Bond is reviewing paperwork in his office and trying to stay awake.
The story predates the anti-colonial revolutions in Africa and, therefore, does not involve the modern anguish over improperly sourced diamonds. The crime here is, apparently, one of tax evasion. By smuggling raw diamonds out of a British colony and then back into England proper, one can avoid the payments to the British government and the government-sanctioned British monopolist. Said British government has had the good fortune to capture one link in the smuggling chain and so Bond goes undercover as his replacement, with the mission to discover who is behind it all. As with the 2006 film, one undertone is questioning the extent to which the “legitimate” diamond dealers are complicit in and beneficiaries of the illegal trading.
Bond uses no high tech gadgets and, with one or two exceptions, engages in no feats of strength or agility. He does climb down a rope, hastily assembled out of bedsheets, dangling on the outside of the Queen Elizabeth II while both in the middle of the Atlantic and the middle of the night. This is followed quickly with a true action scene wherein he remains as the lone survivor of a two-on-one shootout, escaping with only a knife wound. The scene is meticulously described such that we see Bond’s exceptional gunfighting prowess.
Beyond that, I’ve come to believe, James Bond is in many ways all of us. He has impressive shooting skills, yes, as we’ve learned through the books so far. He also has rather impressive skills (and a good bit of luck) when it comes to gambling. He has his good looks, but he has neither wealth nor connections. Through his job, however, he is allowed to assume the trappings of that lifestyle that eludes the rest of us, if but temporarily and briefly. Once again, the book might be read as a travelogue, both to distant places and to different social strata.
Consistent with the other books, gambling is once again a major focus in Diamonds. While a game of blackjack does feature prominently, the detailed focus is on horse racing with the to-the-English exotic location of Saratoga Springs, NY. The focus is on the infusion of Mafia money into the former domain of the upper class. There is a combination of legitmate participation of “new money” in the old sport as well as an analysis of how the sport can be gamed to illegally put more money into the pockets of the criminals. Amidst the people, places, cars, and other exotic activities, there is a detailed focus on clothing and other elements of style. Dinners, especially when composed of the fare of the upper crust, are also described in detail. While the promise of the spy story draws us in, I think we are held by living vicariously through this ladies’ man who gets to sample of the things in life that we never will.
For the British audience, there is the fascination of the strangeness of American and, in particular (for this book), the American Mafia. The “Spangled Mob” seems to be entirely incongruous in our post-Godfather, post-Goodfellas, post-Sopranos conceptualization of how the Mafia worked. The very name, a witticism derived from the name of the capos (the British-sounding Strang), seems a bit silly. It may have even seemed so at the time; I did read that, when adapting the book to a screenplay, an American writer was chosen specifically to make the Las Vegas scenes and the American mobsters more, well, American.
With each new Fleming book I read, I keep waiting for the style to transition from what I enjoyed in the first couple of books to something more akin to the style from the films. With each book, however, I’m not disappointed to find a different kind of story; a different James Bond, one whom I can take more seriously.