Thursday, August 5, 2021

Doctor No (James Bond #6)

Doctor No, by Ian Fleming
October, 1963  Signet Books
(Original UK edition 1958)

I certainly didn’t mean to take so long to return to the James Bond novels, especially given that I’ve been looking forward to re-reading this particular volume. As I mentioned in my review of Casino Royale, Doctor No was the first Bond novel I read; it was the summer of 1987, I was 12 years old, and I bought, new off the shelf at WaldenBooks, the recently-published Charter Books edition with the glaring orange cover. I’d already read a few of the John Gardner Bond novels, and now I wanted to read a Fleming original. And I certainly enjoyed it, as soon enough I was reading all the other Flemings I could get my hands on. 

Now that I’ve read the preceding novels in sequence, it’s clear that Doctor No is a cut above. I know you’re supposed to say that From Russia, With Love is the superior novel, with its cerebral plot and probing characterization, but I’ll take pulp over that any day. And Doctor No is certainly pulp; the villain is straight out of Sax Rohmer and Bond is much more of a man of action than he was in previous volumes. In fact Fleming’s at pains to tell us how much Bond’s enjoying himself, particularly when in danger. This is a far cry from the effete snob of Casino Royale. Bond’s so tough this time that his main weapon is a big .38 revolver; humorously, Doctor No sees the introduction (at great narrative expense) of the Walther PPK, which will become James Bond’s trademark weapon, but as it turns out he never even uses it in the course of the novel. Anton Chekhov would not be amused! 

While Bond comes off as fit, recuperated from his stay in the hospital after his pseudo-death at the finale of From Russia, With Love, one can’t say that his boss M comes off very well here. I’m fully with Kingsley Amis, who in The James Bond Dossier states “no thought is taking place behind those damnably clear eyes.” M is a buffoon here. He’s as cantankerous as ever, and clearly blames Bond for almost getting killed at the previous novel’s end. First he strips Bond of his beloved Beretta (“For the first time, Bond hated the man”), then he tasks him with a “vacation” to Jamaica to look up some minor business with Strangways, a character who appeared in Live And Let Die. While we readers know that Strangways and his assistant have been murdered, M is incredibly negligent in his muleheaded certainty that Strangways and his pretty young assistant have just run off together. 

In fact M is so obstinate here that it’s a wonder Bond doesn’t suspect “the old bastard” of having dementia. Even Bond, who has been in the hospital for some indeterminate amount of time, instantly suspects foul play when he’s briefed on Strangways’s disappearance by M and the Chief of Staff, aka Bill Tanner, the pseudonym Kingsley Amis adopted for The Book Of Bond. M even mocks Bond for assuming that he, M, hadn’t himself suspected foul play, but of course the old bastard turns out to be completely incorrect. There’s of course the possibility that M knowingly sends Bond into the lion’s den, as penance for nearly getting killed last time, but there’s no real indication of that. In fact it’s the opposite: M gets his digs in by sending Bond on an “easy” assignment, unsubtly implying that this is about all he could trust Bond with anymore. 

A great thing about Doctor No is how quick it is: Bond’s briefed and on the job within the first few paragraphs. There’s no stalling while he dithers about at home or ponders past assignments or anything. In fact, Bond’s private life is almost a closed book this time, and he never thinks of the events in From Russia, With Love, as if blocking all of it from memory. The novel Doctor No most refers back to is Live And Let Die, given that here Bond returns to Jamaica, the first he’s been here since visiting the country “almost five years ago” in that earlier novel. I should say though that while the novel is quick-moving, at least when compared to previous books in the series, it’s still a little too overstuffed: this Signet edition is only 192 pages, but it’s got some seriously small and dense print. And a lot of this stuff is made up of evocative word painting as Fleming brings to life the flora and fauna of his beloved Jamaica. 

I’ll try not to refer to the film version very much, but I will say that it certainly has more action than this original novel. And “adult” stuff, too; oviously, Bond’s “fiance” doesn’t exist in the novel, as she did in the film (a character that was wisely ejected by the third film), and Miss Taro, the busty evil pseudo-Asian babe who beds Bond in Jamaica, is here a very minor character who has no interraction with Bond himself. Also one of my favorite parts of the movie is all the radiation zone stuff in the finale, with goons in pastel radsuits (not to mention Ursula Andress flashing a bit of skin during the “decontamination” sequence – though in reality it was just a “flesh-colored skinsuit”). The goons here for the most part just wear khaki shorts and are much more brutish than their film counterparts, not to mention foul mouthed; Fleming shows the skittish era in which he’s writing by self-bowdlerizing their expletives (ie “Shut your –ing mouth!”). And on the action front, there’s much more of it in the film, with car chases and shootouts that you won’t find here. 

Yet despite all that, Doctor No is still the most action-packed of the novels yet. Bond blows away several goons in the finale, even gunning down some of them in cold blood. He isn’t nearly the ruggedly virile hero Sean Connery portrayed in the film, but he’s still a much tougher bastard than the man we knew in the earlier books. Here the subtext is clear: Bond’s been toughened up by his near-death experience. He even requests Quarrel, the Cayman Islander who also first appeared in Live And Let Die, to further toughen him up. Also this volume has what I consider the best villain in all of Bond: the titular Doctor No, aka Dr. Julius No, who comes off like a Fu Manchu for the Space Age. Memorably described as a “giant venomous worm wrapped in grey tin-foil,” Doctor No is a towering half-Chinese madman with mechanical pincers for hands and a heart that’s on the wrong side. 

The plot of Doctor No is such a Jungian archetype that it practically became the archetype that all Bond films would follow (I am of course only referring to the original films, nothing with “starring Daniel Craig” in the credits): Bond is briefed, goes to some exotic place, meets some exotic locals, dallies with some exotic babe, and eventually tangles with the exotic villain in his exotic lair – foiling, of course, the villain’s exotic plot. At least viewed after all these decades of repeats and retreads it seems like an archetype, though clearly Fleming in his day was also hewing to established pulp templates. He just does it with his usual skill; to me one of the most humorous things to read in vintage Bond criticism is the complaint that Fleming’s prose is childish or poor. Today it comes off as downright literary. So either the literary critics at the time were just effete snobs themselves (how the times have changed…oh, wait…), or our reading standards have plummeted. Honestly I think it’s a combo of both; I’ve seen early 1900s English primers for Elementary school students at antique stores, and some of them would likely challenge college students of today! 

So given this archetypal vibe – not to mention the fact I suspect that most of you have read the book or at least are familiar with the story – I’ll skip over my usual belabored uber-comprehensive rundown of the plot, and just stick to my impressions. It’s been a bit since I read Live And Let Die, but Quarrel is a very memorable presence here. Fleming seems to have an affection for him, and he brings the character to life. Likely Fleming’s portrayal here would at times be seen as insensitive in our overly-sensitive era, but Quarrel is much more of a strong, capable presence than the stereotype seen in the film. One thing I really enjoyed was how Quarrel developed such a “thing” for Annabel Chung, the “Chigro” news photographer who hounds Bond upon his arrival in Kingston; this bit made it into the film, with Quarrel hurting Annabel per Bond’s order and Annabel slashing Quarrel’s face with a shattered flashbulb. But here in the book it further develops that Quarrel’s pretty damn turned on by the whole thing, and in fact thinks about looking Annabel up one day! 

Ah yes, “the Chigroes.” In what will certainly be considered the most off-putting element of Doctor No to today’s coddled readers, the Chigroes are half-black, half-Chinese natives of Jamaica who have suffered much racism, to the extent that a local rep of the British Government tells Bond it’s only a matter of time until someone rounds them up into a political movement! Of course Bond will discover that Dr. No has done just that, he himself being half-Chinese. The Chigroes are presented as all part of one underground network, almost mindless in their devotion to Dr. No. The men who act as No’s soldiers are especially sadistic, boasting of how they like to torture their victims and coming off as much more vile than any opponent Bond’s faced in the past. It goes without saying of course that I was not offended by any of this, I mean it’s a pulp novel for crying out loud, but these days you can’t even read a modern review of a Fleming novel without encountering the words “offensive” or “racist” or “sexist.” I wonder how much longer until these sorts of books are either suppressed from publication or just edited for content – but then that’s nothing new, either, as the original US editions of Live And Let Die removed some of the “racist” content of the original UK printing. 

I also loved the stuff on the “mount of Venus,” which honestly I always thought meant something else entirely! But at least here, per Quarrel, it’s the span of flesh directly under the thumb; the thicker it is, the wilder in bed a woman is. Well that’s something new I’ve learned! Throughout Quarrel has such little homespun profundities, and his dialog is a lot of fun, but really he so pales in comparison to Honeychile Rider that he must be removed from the narrative shortly after her introduction. Deemed by Amis as “the most appealing” of Bond’s women, Honey is usually voted the fan favorite, at least in the surveys I’ve seen over the years. She is I think the most fully developed Bond heroine yet, and I’m not just talking about her “firm beautiful breasts.” She’s naïve but not innocent, childish but not immature. She’s smarter than Bond when it comes to survival in the wild, and Fleming even unknowingly taps into our modern demand for “female empowerment” in that Honey not only saves herself in the finale, but also gets hold of a weapon and goes after Dr. No for revenge! 

Interestingly though Fleming doesn’t cater as much to the exploitative content this time; Honey is introduced fully nude (save for the fetishistic touch of wearing only a wide leather belt), but Fleming doesn’t go hog wild with all the “chesty” details. This is mostly due to Bond’s very interesting response to Honey; while he certainly admires her ample charms initially (watching her like a true Peeping Tom from the bushes), after this he takes on an almost paternal or at least brotherly approach to her. This is different than how he responded to, say, Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever. The implication here is that Honey is too “pure” for Honey, almost a child of nature; there’s also an age divide, as she’s only 20 and Bond at this point is late 30s, I believe. But when has that ever bothered a guy?? It’s deeper than that, as evidenced by the various insulting names Bond refers to Honey as in his own thoughts: “female Tarzan,” “Ugly Duckling,” even “poor bitch.” 

But Honey so sparkles with life that she seems to exist outside the page, and for my money at least she’s the strongest heroine Fleming’s created yet. From my readings of the following books many years ago I don’t believe any female character impressed me as much as she did, though I do recall liking Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice. Honey was to become such a fan favorite that John Pearson had Bond end up with her in his 1973 novel James Bond, The Authorized Biography. Initially though Bond takes as mentioned more of a protective stance toward Honey; perhaps it’s her horrifically-broken nose, which in one of the more memorable moments of the book she covers instead of her “beautiful breasts” when Bond meets her nude on the beach. In her extended monologue Honey proves here again that she’s not the innocent Bond initially suspected; the broken nose was courtesy a man who raped her, a man Honey later murdered in a very cruel way. Bond’s response to this story is so great it made it into the film, and actually does sound very much like the sardonic rejoinders Connery would soon be known for: “It’s not a thing to make a habit of.” 

Once Bond has met Honey on Crab Key the novel takes on more fantastical elements, all for the better. Not only does the mysterious Doctor No employ legions of Chigro followers, but he also has a fire-breathing “dragon,” which Bond rightly assumes to be a modified vehicle of some sort. When Bond and Honey are taken captive they find themselves in an opulent “mink-lined prison” that’s built inside a mountain, complete with a pair of receptionists who seem to have stepped out of the Hilton – and who in one of the few unexplained bits seem completely unaware of Dr. No’s nefarious plots, even if their “guests” often show up in handcuffs. But then it’s established that No’s hold on his minions is so complete that they wouldn’t even think to ask him of such things. But even here, in the well-appointed suite, Bond still refuses to see Honey as the sexual character she is; she practically begs him to have sex with her, to which our hero responds, “This isn’t the time for making love.” 

Here is yet another reminder that Bond the literary character cannot be much confused with Bond the film character. The film version of Bond’s already been through two women at this point, with Honey soon to follow, while the literary version has presumably been celibate since the previous adventure, having been confined to a hospital bed all the time since then. But Bond is all business at this point, determined to figure out how to stop the seemingly-invincible Dr. No and get them out of this seemingly-inescapable prison. Despite which, he’s still kind of a dolt in that he doesn’t suspect the food they’re given might be drugged. That being said, Fleming here creates a bizarrely domestic scene of Bond and Honey, freshly showered and in silk kimonos, eating a hearty breakfast after their surreal adventures in Crab Key. 

But I do feel we get to a stone wall with the almost-neverending monologue courtesy Dr. No on his past. The villain, while incredibly menacing in his visual presentation, turns out to be a damned bore when he opens his mouth. Sure, it’s all about power and the merciless acquisition of it, but still his interminable backstory just seems to never come to an end. I did appreciate Fleming’s occasional mentions that Bond and Honey would exchange mocking looks throughout the speech, none of which No apparently notices. Here we at least learn Dr. No’s fiendish plot: that he intends to do something! Humorously, his entire plan is to do something wicked as “the next chapter” in his villainous career; currently he’s been messing with American missiles, thanks to some Russian programmers he has in his employ. The film version I felt fleshed this out a bit more satisfactorily, also making Dr. No a member of SPECTRE, which didn’t exist yet in the novels. 

But then the movie doesn’t come close to matching Fleming’s climax, which takes up almost a full quarter of the narrative. Clearly an inspiration for the death mazes that would feature in the later TNT series, this harrowing sequence also seems to go on and on…but the effect is the exact opposite of No’s tiresome speech, with the reader almost breaking out in a vicarious sweat. Bond is placed through a series of obstacles, with the clear understanding that he won’t ultimately survive. Here we see an aspect of Bond’s character that hasn’t been this fully explored: he is a survivor, and will fight until the end. He goes through electricity, fire, spiders (almost too much after the celebrated bit with the poisonous centipede earlier in the book), and even at the climax of it all fights a “kraken,” aka a giant squid. Bond also proves himself a proto-MacGyver in that he makes weapons out of what he has at hand, and also has had the foresight to smuggle a bread knife and lighter out of the dining room. All this is great stuff, more thrilling and action-packed than anything in the previous five novels. 

Another interesting element here too is that Bond’s struggle to survive isn’t even to save his own skin; it’s to get out of this death maze so he can save Honey. She’s been carted off to her own sadistic fate, to be Dr. No’s first “white victim” of the crabs that inundate the beach each night and tear apart everything in their wake. I can only assume this bit was the inspiration for Guy N. Smith’s later Crabs series. But as mentioned Honey isn’t nearly the damsel in distress Bond assumes. Even though she passes out when Dr. No reveals her fate, it’s later revealed that Honey knows more about these crabs than the doctor does, and she passed out because she knew Bond’s fate would be even worse than hers! With Bond and Honey reunited, we do get some of the action the movie series would be known for, with an armed Bond running roughshod through the place. But again it’s nowhere to the spectacle of the film, with Bond only making a few kills – some of them in cold blood. Another part I loved: Bond kills one guy and apologizes to Honey for having to do so in front of her, to which she responds, “Don’t be an idiot!” Man, I really loved her character. 

Here’s one part where Fleming goes to greater lengths than the film: Bond and Honey make their escape in the “dragon.” I kept waiting for this to happen and was glad it did, but unfortunately Fleming doesn’t decide to go all the way with it and have Bond light up the flamethrower and fry up some thugs. Fleming does deliver Dr. No a more gruesome fate than the anticlimactic one he received in the film; in one of the more hard-to-buy bits in the novel, Bond suddenly knows how to operate a crane and manages to dump a ton of guano on the doctor. Even more sadistic is how Bond gets hold of the crane controls; he jams the sharpened bread knife into the operator’s throat. Again, all much more brutal than the James Bond of the previous five novels. 

I feel that Fleming knew he’d created such a strong heroine with Honeychile Rider that he had to establish, even here, that she would not be in the following novel, per the series template of a new “Bond girl” each book. For Bond, once back to safety in Kingston and about to have some much-delayed good lovin’ with Honey, thinks to himself how he can help her get her nose fixed and set her up with a good job. (Another great bit: Honey’s earlier statement, delivered matter of factly, that she’d become a hooker to make enough money to fix her nose!) It’s almost as if Fleming’s telling us now that Honey, despite being such a vibrant character, will have to go. In reality though I think practically any guy would try to hold on to her for good. I know I would. But then, Fleming here has Bond for once reflect on a previous flame, Solitaire from Live And Let Die, so perhaps this material at the end is just playing off of that; Bond already knows that these relationships are not meant to last. But unlike Solitaire, whose fate Bond briefly wonders over earlier in the book, Bond will know exactly where Honey is: with the job he sets up for her. 

There’s an interesting thematic subtext in Doctor No that Bond is constantly being told what to do. This of course plays into Jacquelyn Friedman’s somewhat twisted interpretation of the series in Ian Fleming's Incredible Creation. But it’s pretty obvious here, starting off with the M-Bond briefing which ends with Bond saying, “If you say so, sir,” and M replying “I say so,” and continuing throughout the novel, the last line of which is Honey telling Bond: “Do as your told.” It’s almost overt given how frequently it happens, with Fleming giving the impression that Bond, despite being the action-prone hero of the series, is really just a pawn on a chessboard. Speaking of Friedman, I do appreciate her study, if only because it’s so far-out, but she does miss one thing: in the chapter “Dignity and Grace: The Morality of the Wasteland,” she claims that Fleming never outright states what Dr. No’s plans are. This is only partly true, of course. Otherwise I suspect Friedman took a lot of her inspiration from Doctor No; this novel in particular shows the “decayed death-throes of the white world” in full effect, with all the white figures of authority, from M to the Governor of Jamaica, so disaffected and siloed in their elitism that they have no concept of the “vibrant, non-white energy” that thrives around them – and, as is the case here, that plots against them. 

At the bottom of the post I’ll put up the cover of that Charter edition I got when I was a kid; I’m betting I picked it up right around its publication date of July, 1987. In past posts I’ve been writing “1986,” so clearly I got my dates wrong based off this publication date; maybe 1986 was when I started reading the John Gardner novels. My memory of summer of 1987 is certainly wrapped up with Bond, as I recall reading Doctor No as well as the two new Gardner novels: Nobody Lives Forever, which I had in the just-released mass market paperback edition and loved at the time (I recall telling my pal Jimmy Stevens I’d come over and play with him some other time ‘cause I wanted to keep reading the book – which was a big deal because Jimmy’d just gotten that insanely massive G.I. Joe aircraft carrier and wanted to show it off!), and No Deals, Mr. Bond, which I had in the just-released hardcover edition. 

But it was Doctor No that apparently made the biggest impression on me; it was the first “pure” Bond novel I’d read, in that it was by the creator himself, and right away I could see how different the character was from Gardner’s interpretation. That summer I went on to read as many of those original Flemings as I could. I always held Doctor No in high esteem, but I recall it was the one-two punch of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice that thrilled me the most, and which I ranked as my favorite. I look forward to seeing whether that’s still true, as I have to say Doctor No was a lot of fun and I can’t see any of the others topping it; the older I’ve gotten, the more I appreciate pulp, and this must be the pulpiest the Bond novels ever got. Disregarding of course the ninjas in You Only Live Twice

Oh and if you haven’t already, be sure to download my Music To Read James Bond By compilation! I listened to it for the first time in years while reading Doctor No, and it really does make for good music to read Bond by! 

And finally, here’s the cover of the Doctor No mass market paperback (Charter Books, July 1987) that I got off the shelves of WaldenBooks in the summer of 1987; I recall the cover being very neon ‘80s orange, which isn’t really reflected in this cover scan:


Grant said...

Since I have a one-track mind about villainess characters (at least in THESE kinds of stories), I'm more disappointed to hear that there's no Miss Taro (to speak of) in the book than I could ever be if that were true of Honey Ryder.
But as with Fiona in THUNDERBALL, it makes me that much more grateful to the movie for doing what it does with her.

dfordoom said...

An excellent write-up. I think 1954 to 1959 was Peak Bond. Six great books one after the other. I agree that Dr No himself is a very cool villain and, yeah, Honey Rider is a great Bond Girl.

It is tiresome these days that so many people feel they have to apologise for liking the Bond books. It's also weird, to me, that so many people seem to fail to notice that Bond is a guy who genuinely likes women and that he is not a guy who thinks of women merely as sexual playthings. When Bond falls for a girl he's always hoping that she'll be The One, the woman he'll marry.

Johny Malone said...

Great review. I always thought that Bond was the first "Die Hard", you see the same thing.

Sharpie said...

I love the Signet covers (they're the ones I collected). The Charter covers I always associate with John Gardner's Bond novels, since I remember seeing them in the grocery stores during checkout as a kid.