Article by Benjamin Welton
Although the Bond novels officially began with Casino Royale, 1954’s Live and Let Die is the true beginning of the Bond canon. The novel has all the right elements — Jamaica, a whiff of Caribbean culture and superstitions, a larger-than-life villain, and an enchanting female who is Bond’s equal in more than one respect. Live and Let Die presents everything we love about Bond for the first time. Rather than the taciturn, tortured, and at one point cynical Bond of Casino Royale, Live and Let Die shows a confident Bond who is quick with his gun and his fists. For further proof, compare how both books open.
In Casino Royale, Bond begins the novel by musing that “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” After hours of fruitless gambling, Bond has grown tired and listless. And despite the novel’s action, which sees the portly Le Chiffre torturing Bond for hours, Bond ends the novel not only as a duped lover, but also as a secret agent who’s not entirely convinced of the necessity of his work:
“Of course…patriotism comes along and makes it seem fairly all right, but this country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date. Today we are fighting communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of conservatism we have today would have been damn near called communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”
Such disillusionment disappears until later in the series, and it still remains a question why Fleming decided to put these words into Bond’s mouth in the very first novel, especially when compared to his later portraits of 007. In Live and Let Die for instance, Bond displays none of his previous skepticism about the international fight against communism, and in fact he maintains his trademark panache throughout.
There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent. There are assignments on which he is required to act the part of a very rich man; occasions when he takes refuge in good living to efface the memory of danger and the shadow of death; and times when, as was now the case, he is the guest in the territory of an allied Secret Service.
From the moment the B.O.A.C. Stratocruiser taxied up to the International Air Terminal at Idlewild, James Bond was treated like royalty.
Cue the music, for this is the James Bond we know and love. Maybe this effervescence is due to Bond’s assignment. In Casino Royale, Bond is tied to the French Riviera — an old nest of spies in a European country with an often ambiguous relationship with Great Britain. In Live and Let Die, Bond is first sent to the U.S., then travels to Jamaica. Who knows? Maybe Bond prefers the New World to the Old, and as such his mood brightens in this second novel. Then again, knowing Bond’s love of a good fight, it’s quite possible that Buonaparte Ignace Gallia, alias Mr. Big, strikes his fancy more than the pitiful Le Chiffre.
One cannot overstate the importance of Mr. Big in the James Bond canon. If nothing else, Mr. Big is the villain who first brings a sense of the weird and supernatural into the Bond novels, and subsequently, the Bond novels are almost defined by their instances of the outré (Diamonds Are Forever not included). Also of great importance is Mr. Big’s defining characteristic — his use of voodoo as a scare tactic.
Voodoo, which can also be called voodou or voudon, began as a folk religion in Africa before it was imported to the New World as part of the transatlantic slave trade. In Haiti, African slaves incorporated the rites, rituals, and iconography of Roman Catholicism into their native practices, and thus what we think of today as voodoo took shape. Live and Let Die, however, presents a slightly different origin story which Bond gleans from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travelogue The Traveller’s Tree. According to Fermor’s account, which Fleming quotes at great length, voodoo “is of Congolese origin” rather than the widely accepted position that voodoo is a West African tradition.
Considering that The Traveller’s Tree was published in 1950, Fermor can be forgiven for working with relatively little evidence concerning voodoo’s exact origins. Furthermore, William B. Seabrook, the American adventurer-cum-journalist who gained enormous popularity in the 1920s with his sensational accounts of Yazidi “devil worship” in northern Iraq, also considered the Congo to be voodoo’s original homeland in his 1929 book The Magic Island. This confusion could be based on equating voodoo with Palo, a syncretic Congolese religion that some have termed the “dark side of Santería.” Almost all historical and contemporary accounts of Palo describe it in evil terms, with some claiming that it’s a death cult. In Beware the Night, which has since been republished as Deliver Us From Evil, Ralph Sarchie, a former NYPD detective who became a demonologist, devotes an entire chapter to describing a case that involved a Palo priestess and her gruesome collection of human remains that had previously been used for morbid Palo rituals.
Although he got voodoo slightly wrong, Seabrook’s account of his travels in American-occupied Haiti is one of the earliest and most popular accounts of not only Haitian voodoo, but also of the figure of the zombie. While many erroneously claim that The Magic Island gave the English language the very word “zombie,” it cannot be doubted that The Magic Island helped to inspire a zombie craze in the early 1930s that culminated in the release of 1932’s White Zombie. In his book, Seabrook, as a novice ethnographer, valiantly attempts to render the principal facts of the zombie in print:
It seemed…that while the zombie came from the grave, it was neither a ghost, nor yet a dead person who had been raised like Lazarus from the dead. The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life – it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive.
In Live and Let Die, Mr. Big is regarded by the superstitious residents of both Harlem and Jamaica as either the zombie of Baron Samedi or Baron Samedi himself. One of the chief Loa (or gods) of Haitian voodoo, Baron Samedi is the god of the dead. Therefore, Mr. Big’s intentional connection to Baron Samedi makes him all the more satanic.
 In an interesting twist, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who came to power in Haiti three years after the publication of Live and Let Die, used voodoo and a personality cult to maintain authoritarian control over Haiti for years, and like Mr. Big, Papa Doc intentionally invoked the name and image of Baron Samedi to instill fear into the hearts of the people around him.
Another instance where Fleming, Fermor, and Seabrook meet is over the issue of black sexuality. Although such talk would be considered incredibly un-PC today and even “racist,” all three men spent time in their books about Caribbean voodoo to detail the hyper-sexual habits of the black societies they immersed themselves in. In The Magic Island, Seabrook salaciously details what he called the Danse Congo, a Haitian dance that simulated sexual intercourse for hours on end. When Bond and Felix Leiter travel to Harlem in order to track down Mr. Big and his associates, they watch a striptease in a club called The Boneyard that features not only an alluring beauty called Sumatra, but also voodoo-inspired drumming that, along with the gyrations of Sumatra, whips the Harlem crowd into a serious lather.
The drums went into a hurricane of sexual rhythm. She [Sumatra] screamed softly again and then, her arms stretched before her as a balance, she started to lower her body down to the floor and up again. Faster and faster. Bond could hear the audience panting and grunting like pigs at the trough… “C’mon, G-G. Take it away, Baby. Cmon. Grind Baby, grind.”
This carnal scene ends when Bond and Leiter are propelled downwards into Mr. Big’s secret chamber thanks to a hidden trap mechanism. From here on out, female sexuality is represented by Simone Latrelle, the descendant of French Haitians and a clairvoyant who is so disinterested in men that her nickname is “Solitaire.”
Solitaire is Mr. Big’s prisoner, and he uses her supernatural abilities to his advantage. The aptly named Solitaire is also Live and Let Die’s link to the greater Gothic tradition, and as Ian Dunross states in his brilliant article “Live and Let Die: Terror from the Caribbean Gothic,” Solitaire’s existence and the novel’s conclusion in Jamaica places what is ostensibly a pulp action novel firmly within the boundaries of 18th century literature.
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.
Dunross then goes on to compare Solitaire to the melancholic women of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, such as Ligiea and Madeline Usher. More interestingly, Dunross also brings up the name Annie Palmer in connection with Solitaire.
Called the “White Witch of Rose Hall,” Annie Palmer was supposedly the scion of an Anglo-Irish family who lived in Haiti. When her parents died of yellow fever, she was adopted by her nanny, a voodoo priestess who taught her ward all the secrets of the religion. When she grew up and married John Palmer of the Rose Hall Planation in Jamaica, Annie began a reign of terror inside of the mansion’s walls. She not only murdered her husband, but she also killed her many slave lovers as well. According to local legend, Annie, after being killed by a slave named “Takoo,” began to haunt Rose Hall and continues to do so to this day.
If the bewitching beauty Solitaire is really a reference to the legend of Annie Palmer, then Live and Let Die is truly an espionage story completely ringed by the supernatural. From pirate treasures to voodoo, Live and Let Die is a somewhat creepy and thoroughly strange novel that drips with Gothicism. Live and Let Die is also an action novel that showcases Bond in all his glory for the first time. In sum, Live and Let Die is Fleming’s first foray into mystery. Thankfully, Fleming did not abandon either the strange or bizarre, for it’s hard to imagine his bibliography without these elements.