Diamonds are Forever: civil servants, “shills” and some great set pieces

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

What is a shill?  Which images of America stayed in the mind of the young Ian Fleming?  What does James Bond know about women, and relationships?  “Diamonds are Forever” pulses with insights into America in the ’50s, and shines a light on everyday sexism in that era.

James Bond novels vs movies

A new James Bond movie, No Time to Die, lurches over the horizon.  Will it be any good?

Almost certainly not (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).

Will it contain bizarre and dated attitudes to women, clothed in feeble nods to political correctness?  Almost certainly.

But I will keep hoping.

Despite the ghastliness of most recent Bond outings, I remain a fan of the original Ian Fleming novels.  I am the proud owner of a growing set of Folio Society editions, and recently read Diamonds are Forever, published in 1956, whose illustrations by Fay Dalton evoke the mood of the book:

Diamonds are Forever Ian Fleming

The story moves at a leisurely pace.  Bond does not take the menace of US gangsters seriously, and attempts a relationship with the magnificent but damaged Tiffany Case before a satisfying resolution on board a transatlantic liner.  Like many in the series, it contains a good deal of language which by today’s standards is racist, homophobic and misogynistic.  I tend to feel that such texts should not put a book out of bounds for today’s audiences, even if they make a modern reader cringe: they are a reminder of how far we have come.  But many readers may feel differently.

“Diamonds are forever” set-pieces

Diamonds are Forever also contains some splendid set-piece descriptions, for example of the “Acme Mud and Sulphur Baths” or of US horse-racing at Saratoga, which are reminiscent of the descriptions of fox-hunting and cross-country horse racing which appear regularly in Trollope.

The novel also revels in the exotic nature of travel, recording the mechanics of flying, or US highways.  As someone who never ceases to wonder at the view out of an aircraft window, or the smell of fig trees in a Greek alleyway, such details delight me.

James Bond and relationships

Finally, Diamonds are Forever includes many revealing exchanges on Bond’s views of relationships.  I include examples in the quotations which follow.

  • ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ [Bond] said, taking out his case and putting a cigarette in his mouth.  [Tiffany Case replies:] ‘If that’s the way you want to die.’
  • Bond slept well and awoke only as [the aircraft was] approaching the southern shores of Nova Scotia.  He went forward to the washroom and shaved, and gargled away the taste of a night of pressurised air, and then he went back to his seat between the lines of crumpled, stirring passengers and had his usual moment of exhilaration as the sun came up over the rim of the world and bathed the cabin in blood.
  • [US agent Felix Leiter:] ‘I’ve come across Tiffany Case.  Nice kid, but she’s been on the fringe of the gangs for years.  Didn’t have much chance from the cradle up.  Her mother ran the snazziest cat-house in San Francisco.  Doing fine until she made one hell of a mistake.  Decided one day not to pay the local outfit’s protection money.  She was paying the police so much I guess she reckoned they’d look after her.  Crazy.  One night the mob turned up in force and wrecked the joint.  Left the girls alone, but had themselves a gang-bang with Tiffany.  She was only sixteen at the time.  Not surprisingly she won’t have anything to do with men since then.  Next day she got hold of her mother’s cash box, busted it open, and took to the hills.  Then the usual round – hat-check girl, taxi-dancer, studio extra, waitress – until she was about twenty.  Then maybe life didn’t seem so good and she took to liquor.  Settled in a rooming house down on one of the Florida Keys and started drinking herself to death.  Got so she was known as “The Boiled Sweet” down there.  Then a kid fell in the sea and she jumped in and saved him.  Got her name in the papers and some rich woman took a fancy to her and practically kidnapped her.  Made her join Alcoholics Anonymous and then took her around the world as her companion.  But Tiffany skipped when they got to ‘Frisco and went and lived with her old Ma who had retired from the girl game by then.  But she never would settle down and I guess she found life a bit quiet so she went on the lam again and ended up in Reno.  Worked at Harold’s Club for a bit.  Came across our friend Seraffimo, and he got all excited because she wouldn’t sleep with him.  Offered her some sort of a job at the Tiara at Las Vegas and she’s been there for the last year or two.  Doing these trips to Europe in between, I suppose.  But she’s a good kid.  Just never had a chance after what the gang did to her.’
  • Tiffany Case: “If you don’t like my peaches, why do you shake my tree?”
  • Then came a gas station with an elegant drive-in restaurant.  ‘GASETERIA,’ it said.  ‘FRESH-UP HERE!  HOT DOGS!  JUMBOBURGERS!!  ATOMBURGERS!!  ICE COOL DRINKS!!! DRIVE IN,’ and there were two or three cars being served by waitresses in high-heeled shoes and two-piece bathing-suits.  The great six-lane highway stretched on through a forest of multicoloured signs and frontages until it lost itself downtown in a dancing lake of heat waves.
  • Bond remembered moments in the last twenty-four hours… moments when a warm passionate girl had looked out happily from behind the mask of the toughie from the gangs, the smuggler, the shill, the blackjack dealer, and had said: ‘Take me by the hand.  Open the door and we will walk away together into the sunshine.  Don’t worry.  I will keep step with you.  I have always been in step with the thought of you, but you didn’t come, and I have spent my life listening to a different drummer.’  Yes, he thought.  It will be all right.  That side of it. But was he prepared for the consequences?  Once he had taken her by the hand, it would be forever.  He would be in the role of the healer, the analyst, to whom the patient had transferred her love and trust on her way out of the illness.  There would be no cruelty equal to dropping her hand once he had taken it in his.  Was he ready for all that meant in his life and his career?

James Bond and Tiffany Case

Four exchanges between Bond and Tiffany Case:

  •  ‘I work for the Government,’ said Bond.  ‘They want to stop this diamond smuggling.’  [Tiffany] ‘Sort of secret agent?’  [Bond] ‘Just a Civil Servant.’
  • ‘Are you married?’  She paused.  ‘Or anything?’  ‘No.  I occasionally have affairs.’  ‘So you’re one of those old-fashioned men who like sleeping with women.  Why haven’t you ever married?’  ‘I expect because I think I can handle life better on my own.  Most marriages don’t add two people together.  They subtract one from the other.’
  • ‘I’m not sure I’d want [marriage].  She’d get me handing round canapés in an L-shaped drawing-room.  And there’d be all those ghastly “yes, you did – no, I didn’t” rows that seem to go with marriage.  It wouldn’t last.  I’d get claustrophobia and run out on her.’  [Tiffany] ‘What about children?’  ‘Like to have some,’ said Bond shortly.  ‘But only when I retire.  Not fair on the children otherwise.  My job’s not all that secure.’  He looked into his drink and swallowed it down.  ‘And what about you, Tiffany?’  ‘I guess every girl would like to come home and find a hat on the hall table,’ said Tiffany moodily.  ‘Trouble is, I’ve never found the right sort of thing growing under the hat… You know what the chorines say on Broadway?  “It’s a lonesome wash without a man’s shirt in it.”‘
  • ‘Up to forty, girls cost nothing.  After that you have to pay money, or tell a story.  Of the two it’s the story that hurts most.’  He smiled into her eyes.  ‘Anyway I’m not forty yet.’

Not my favourite Ian Fleming

On balance, Diamonds are Forever is not one of my favourite Ian Fleming novels.  I find Bond at his best when fighting Soviet spies in exotic European locations (see my review of From Russia with Love).  But as an echo of vanished wonder at the world; a reminder of past political incorrectness; and an exploration of the eternal challenges of relationships, I enjoyed it.  You decide.

“Shills” and “on the lam”

Incidentally I looked up “on the lam“, which means more or less “on the run”.  I also checked “shill“, which is defined as “an accomplice of a confidence trickster or swindler who poses as a genuine customer to entice or encourage others.” This struck me as a remarkably useful word in the context of the unstoppable spread of the “three cup trick” in tourist hotspots around the world.  The way other people always seem to be winning hundreds of euros is one of the main reasons passers-by feel tempted to try their luck.  These big winners, I realise now, are “shills”.

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