Dr. No, 1958

This book is wacky and wrong in so many ways, and it wouldn’t be Fleming’s Bond if it were any other way.

Picking up with the cliffhanger ending of From Russia With Love, M sends Bond on a “rest cure,” a routine inquiry at the insistence of the American Audubon Society on behalf of some endangered birds. The location is, naturally, Jamaica and surrounding areas, Fleming’s home away from home that features so prominently in the Bond lore. For Fleming, it’s a working vacation site, and so it is now for Bond as well. For those readers who are more familiar with the films, it’s worth noting that Dr. No is one of rare instances where the movie is largely faithful to the source material. There are a great many differences, certainly (such as the glaring absence of Felix Leiter in the book), but the basics are here for the film to build upon later.

Since a Bond novel is all about fighting an outlandish foreign villain in the name of British superiority, let’s talk about the elephant in the room that Fleming readers know so well by this point: racial stereotypes. Dr. No is largely built on the “Yellow Peril” stereotype that was so familiar to pulp readers in the 30s and 40s (i.e., Fu Manchu or Shi-Wan Khan). This includes inhabiting an island that’s home to a “dragon,” because… why not. While he’s not a moustache-twirling, cape wearing Snydley Whiplash caricature, he does manage to improve on the “tie the girl to the railroad tracks” motif. Like Fleming’s other noteworthy villains, Dr. No has the physical maladies that pinpoint his villainous status. In this case, his hands were cut off, and his heart is on the wrong side, allowing him to be shot and survive, literally a one in a million “defect.” This inevitably means he bears a grudge, has something to prove, and is hard to kill. His specialty is torture, and he embraces the fact that he’s a maniac. This means that 007 is in for a particularly rough adventure. But then, isn’t that supposed to be the point? Suffice it to say, Fleming has ensured that our hero faces a worthy adversary who likes to monologue. His backstory is the stuff of comic book legend. After all, it takes a special kind of crazy to convert guano into gold and use that as your cover story for the real threat.  I also enjoy how Dr. No can call Bond’s bluff on things by claiming he’s been “reading too many pulp novels.”  He knows how secret service agents work, and he knows the odds are well in his favor when it comes to success.  As he believes, those who want something typically find a way to succeed.  If they don’t, they didn’t want it enough.  It’s the same kind of logic you’ll find used by every successful person on the planet.

While Honey Ryder sets the on-screen standard for the Bond girl, her print counterpart was merely the next in line of Bond’s feminine leads. She’s introduced without the iconic bikini (or anything else), and then Fleming manages to *ahem* flesh out her character, giving her an in-depth backstory, as though to convince you she’s more than just a pretty face. And then Fleming has her throw away that advantage, setting the women’s rights movement back a few decades in the process. Bond’s responses to her shameless advances are surprisingly gentlemanly. Bonus points for class and character development, Mr. Bond.  At least until the end of the book.

It’s interesting to see just how unlike Connery this version of Bond can be. In addition to treating Honey far better than she obviously wants to be treated, Bond is also considerably less brutal in this novel than what we’ve come to expect. For example, he apologies to Honey when he has to kill people in front of her. Definitely not the style we’ll see from Connery later, much less what anyone has come to expect from Bond in any incarnation. That the book has so much in common with the movie by comparison of other titles in the series makes the differences stand out even more.

One of the great behind-the-scenes stories tells of how a gun expert named Boothroyd wrote a letter to Fleming, explaining to him that Bond’s Beretta pistol was “a ladies’ weapon,” extolling the virtues of the Walther PPK as a viable alternative. Fleming was so grateful that Boothroyd became the armorer in the story, and Bond was properly outfitted with the weapon of choice that would become synonymous with him in print and on screen. That’s when he starts to look like Connery in my head, which as I say, is heavily contrasted with the way he’s written for the entirety of the book. That transition to Connery stays with me because the movie plays out in like fashion, and the character of Boothroyd, aka “Q,” would be recast with Desmond Llewellyn for From Russia With Love, a part he’d play until his untimely death. Peter Burton debuted the role in Dr. No, but I still see ol’ Desmond in my head when I read the book.

The truly ironic part of this novel is its timing with film history.  This book is written, published, and set in the colonial era of Jamaica.  Likewise, so is its film counterpart, the first of the official EON productions.  The film, while also set in the colonial era, was released in 1962, just a couple of months after Jamaica won its independence from Britain.  Timing is everything.  But Fleming couldn’t have known any of that when he ran this through his golden typewriter. As with anything else in the 60s, it was a time of transition.

Dr. No, for me, marks a transition in the novels.  The villains are more solitary types, kings of their private kingdoms as opposed to merely mobsters or enemy agents.  That is certainly what Dr. No himself would want us to think, even though he says his allies in this venture are the Russians, which invariably ties him back in to SMERSH.  The web continues to be woven into something far larger and more insidious because we know there’s something lurking in the darkness, pulling the strings of even the self-made supervillains like Dr. No.  At this point, even Fleming doesn’t know what that is.

4 stars

Dr No