Leave your expectations at the first page and forget all images of meglomaniacal masterminds with white cats intent on world domination, of laser satellites covered in diamonds or cheesy late sixties Las Vegas; Diamonds Are Forever (DAF) the novel is a million miles from the film of the same title.
Less a traditional espionage story and more a straight forward crime novel, the Bond of DAF behaves more like a simple detective and less like the super-spy of legend. Finding himself investigating a diamond smuggling ring for the very prosaic reason that it's costing the British government money, Bond is forced to take on the Mob rather than agents of SMERSH. To do so he has to go undercover on a mission that takes him from London to New York to Las Vegas and leaves him isolated and relying on his wits rather than any cunning gadgets.
As with all of the original Bond novels it takes a while to get used to Bond as Fleming wrote him rather than the Bond of the movies. It's also necessary to accept that this is a book published in 1956 and as such portrays a world that has little in common with our own contemporary one. Beyond the obvious physical differences such as the fact that the Las Vegas of 1956 is nothing like the Vegas of 2009, social attitudes have also changed almost beyond recognition in the last fifty-plus years. Attitudes Fleming expresses on matters of everything from sartorial taste to women to race may feel old fashioned or even unacceptable to contemporary readers but they are indicative of the time the book was published and should not be used as a reason to reject this or any of the other Bond novels.
Assuming the reader can get past the old fashioned trappings of the book what they will find is a first class thriller that, the character of James Bond aside, could have emerged from the pen of Chandler or Hammett as easily as Fleming. The prose style is punchy and hard-boiled and the action equally swift and at times brutal. There are no comedy henchmen here; the Mob men in DAF are very serious and very dangerous individuals.
The parallels with American noir fiction can also be seen in the character of Tiffany Case, who here is an ice-cold blonde of dubious morals rather than the slightly comedic character of the same name in the film, and in the settings of Sarratoga race-course and Vegas, all of which could and often did feature gum-shoe detective novels of the period.
Where DAF does fall down is in Fleming's attempt at creating his fictional Mob gang, the Spangling Gang. Whilst the individual gang members come across as realistically amoral criminals and behave as such the structure Fleming gives the gang itself and the nicknames such as `Shady' Tree he affords each member don't really work and lack an air of authenticity. The latter may be a side effect of everything we now know fifty years later about the way the Mafia in America actually operated, and may have seemed utterly plausible to readers at the time, but I can't help but feel that even they would have balked at the idea of a mob-boss who loves the wild-west so much that he reconstructs his own ghost town and runs a refurbished western steam train for fun. When set beside everything else that happens in the book these details just don't really ring true.
Don't let that put you off though. DAF remains an exciting read and far superior to the sixties-kitsch offered by the movie. The latter might have one of the best exchanges in Bondian movie history;
Girl: "Hi, I'm Plenty."
Bond (looking at her ample cleavage): "But of course you are."
Girl: "Plenty O'Toole."
Bond: "Named after your father perhaps."
The book however, has more than enough real excitement and tension to make up for it.