By the time Ian Fleming typed the last letter of Moonraker, he must have been satisfied with his creation but unsure of where James Bond could go from there. The books were pop culture juggernauts, so not following up with yet another James Bond adventure wasn’t really an option. But if Diamonds are Forever is any indication of the man’s mindset, then Fleming was either tired of the formula established in his previous books or simply didn’t know what to do. As a result, Diamonds are Forever is markedly different from its predecessors in several ways though still very enjoyable even if it’s not exactly what people might have expected after the bang-up action of Moonraker and Live and Let Die. In some ways, it is structured a bit more like Casino Royale, though with the tougher Bond we’ve seen emerge in the books since that initial outing.
When M calls Bond in to his office to discuss diamond smuggling, 007 wonders what this has to do with the secret service. Surely it’s a case for Scotland Yard. But M wants to smash the smuggling operation from one end to the other, and that entails a mission that could carry Bond from England to America and Sierra Leone. It will definitely bring him into conflict with the American Mafia, a gang of thugs and theatrical gangsters that Bond holds in low regard. Compared to SMERSH assassins and madmen with nuclear warheads, going toe-to-toe with flamboyant American gangsters should be a piece of cake — or so Bond smugly assumes. He assumes the identity of a diamond smuggler and meets American smuggler Tiffany Case, with whom he is instantly smitten, as Bond tends to be with every woman. Bond ingratiates himself to the Mob bosses in New York, which leads him to the horse racing mecca of Saratoga, then to the glittering Las Vegas strip as he seeks the head honcho in order to deliver a little Bond-style problem solving — as well as extract Tiffany from the mess in which she’s involved.
What makes this book different from the previous two is that there is very little action. There are only three violent confrontations, and only two of them directly involve Bond. The bulk of this book is a sort of breezy Bond travelogue. It’s like Ian Fleming took a vacation in America, went to New York, Saratoga, and Las Vegas, and then decided to jot down his experiences and force a Bond plot into them somewhere. Bond books and movies always have a travelogue aspect to them; it’s one of the things that made them so popular. You could trot the globe in the company of this dangerous secret agent, learn about exotic locations and cultures and customs, and never have to get shot at yourself. But in Diamonds Are Forever, the travelogues aspect is front and center. We get Bond’s take on New York eateries, where to get a decent bourbon and branch water, why you shouldn’t go to a seedy Saratoga mud bath, and what you can do in Las Vegas while waiting around for a job to explode in your face. There’s some violence at a mud bath, but Bond spends the entirety of that confrontation cocooned in his mud bath and uninvolved. The only real action comes when Bond faces down the chief of the American end of the smuggling operation, and then an after-the-fact confrontation with Mob assassins Wint and Kidd.
But this lack of action doesn’t make for a boring book. It’s fun and engaging despite the fact that it’s really not much more than Ian Fleming taking a short breather before From Russia with Love. Diamonds are Forever is a short book, and it never gives itself time to be boring. Even though there’s not much action, there’s always something going on, and the entire thing is written at a snappy clip that makes it all feel very chummy. It really does feel like you’re on a road trip with Bond. And it features the return of Felix Leiter, last seen lying in a hospital bed after being mauled by a shark in Live and Let Die. Physically, he’s a little worse for the experience, sporting a hook hand and fake leg. And he’s retired from the CIA due to losing his shooting hand, and now works as a private investigator for Pinkertons. Otherwise, he’s still the same Felix Leiter. His presence heightens the feeling of chumminess that pervades the book.
Tiffany Case is also an excellent Bond girl — a smart, hard-nosed beauty cut from the same cloth as the femme fatales of the film noir era. Fleming puts substantial thought into her back story and confronts Bond with the most complex woman with which he’s become involved. She’s easily the most memorable and fully fleshed out woman yet presented in a Bond story and will remain so throughout most of the series. Not until Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service will Bond meet the equal of Tiffany Case.
The supporting cast is an eclectic collection of characters that would have made Raymond Chandler proud. There’s Shady Tree, the hunchbacked and temperamental gangster who runs the New York end of the smuggling ring. There’s Wint and Kidd, two members of the so-called Lavender Mob, a gang of homosexual men who have honed their skills as assassins and enforcers. And then there’s Spang, the boss of the whole operation, who spends his free time dressed up as a cowboy and hanging out with his thugs in a replica Old West town. Bond learns that, although American mobsters are indeed over-the-top and theatrical in their mannerisms, they’re also very good at what they do and very dangerous to have as enemies. Bond’s arrogance is initially on display when he takes the assignment, but it’s safe to say he learns a valuable lesson by mission’s end.
The Spangled Mob, as it is called, aren’t the best Bond villains, and they’re fairly poorly developed, especially after memorable villains Mr. Big and Hugo Drax. At the same time, however, they fit in the lighter mood of this book. It seems like Fleming was interested in making this Bond adventure more of a lark, still full of violence but more like an old detective novel than a spy story. Bond just goes with the flow for most of the story and makes some crucial and obvious errors and misjudgments — but that’s pretty much his trademark mode of operation by this point. Although it’s easy to discount Diamonds are Forever as one of the lesser Bond novels, a placeholder in between more substantial stories, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s tremendously fun. It’s a slim volume and goes by quickly. What it lacks in action it makes up for by simply being a fleet-footed, agreeable travelogue.