Retro review–Ian Fleming’s first novel adapted to film, Doctor No

Doctor No book cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

Doctor No can be best summed up by a cover blurb from an early paperback edition:  “A beautiful nature girl and secret agent James Bond battle a power-mad maniac on a secluded island of death.”

After reading Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and Moonraker, I had moved ahead to his next book, Diamonds are Forever.  But after several failed attempts to get into the book I decided to skip ahead to his Doctor No, the first Fleming novel to be made into a film, and one of the novels that was adapted fairly closely from the novel to film.  An enjoyable read, Doctor No looks into the psyche of James Bond more than Fleming’s first three novels, and ends up as a pretty interesting look at Jamaica in the 1950s.

Doctor No cover

Where you might read Casino Royale and see Daniel Craig as Bond as you read, Doctor No is all Sean Connery.  This Bond is a hardened but flawed character, with incredible perception and skills, but also solidly footed in the 1950s.  Fleming begins with his best introduction so far, which on film seemed a bit silly, yet in print it just seems a bit creepy:  Three blind “Chinamen” eliminate a British intelligence agent working out of Jamaica.  We experience the classic scene where M takes away Bond’s famous Walther handgun, and M sets Bond on what he hopes to be a simple case of a two government employees running off together.

From that point Bond trips through a set of odd facts and a MacGuffin that sounds like the script to John Grisham’s much later novel, The Pelican Brief.   Here it is a private (fictional) island called Crab Key, sought out by the Audubon Society to protect a species of birds, of economic interest for its tonnage of guano, and controlled by a Chinese recluse named Dr. Julius No.  If you can dodge the 1950s era stereotyping of the Chinese and Blacks, that never seems to wane throughout the novel, you’ll find a good adventure.  You’ll also find one of his more appealing “Bond girls” in Honey Ryder, a woman Bond encounters as he is trespassing on Dr. No’s island to investigate why Dr. No would have reason to murder the British operative.

Doctor No pulp cover

Dr. No is a strange sort.  He has pincers for hands and a ludicrous but ambitious personal agenda to conquer the world in an Emperor Ming or Lex Luthor-inspired way.  He tends to monologue too much.  If there is a failing in this novel, it is too much conversation and explanation between Bond and Dr. No.  Yet we still have a very unique and celebrated entry into the league of Bond villains.

But ultimately it’s the setting and adventure, from Bond wrestling a squid to Bond allowing a centipede to crawl over his body while he slept, to Bond and local mate Quarrel paddling in a canoe out to Crab Key, that makes Doctor No a worthy addition to the Bond novels.

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