Sunday, February 17, 2013

007 Reloaded: Dr. No

It’s interesting to look back on the story behind Ian Fleming’s sixth Bond adventure, Dr. No. After taking a major risk in From Russia With Love, Fleming decided to play things a bit safer in the follow-up. Many of the plot elements were taken from a proposed TV show, Commander Jamaica, where the main character was supposed to be named James Gunn, and his great enemy would be the half-German half-Chinese Dr. No. The project never came to fruition and so Fleming incorporated several of these ideas into Dr. No. And I must admit here that Dr. No is not my favourite James Bond novel. But it sure comes close.

It begins quite simply, with a murder. Commander John Strangways and his secretary are both gunned down one day, right before they are to make an urgent call to London. Strangways represents the Secret Service in Jamaica, you see, and he had an impeccable record with his calls. He had a habit of playing bridge with a few other men, and would leave the game every day at the same time to make the standard call to London. “It was an iron routine. Strangways was a man of iron routine. Unfortunately, strict patterns of behaviour can be deadly if they are read by an enemy.

And so one day, Strangways is shot by a group of three “Chigros” – men who are half-Chinese, half-black. Next, they kill his secretary and make the bodies disappear. By the time someone is sent to investigate, the two are gone and the police are convinced that it is a case of two lovers deciding to disappear from the world.

But M is not satisfied and James Bond is called in. He met Strangways before – he collaborated with him back in Live and Let Die – and he doesn’t believe the runaway-lovebirds theory. He begins to dig around and realizes there’s something fishy in the nearby waters of Crab Key. The island was purchased by a German-Chinese man who calls himself Dr. No. The good doctor has put the island to excellent use, establishing a relatively profitable guano mine. Only Crab Key happens to be a natural habitat for a rare bird, the Roseate Spoonbill. The National Audubon Society has got a sanctuary established on the island dedicated to the bird. But recently things haven’t gone well and the bird population is slowly decreasing. As a result, the Audubon Society is crying foul and are demanding an investigation.

I daren’t reveal more of the story. What started as a simple murder investigation slowly turns into a nightmarish, adventure-filled extravaganza. It straddles the line between impossibility and implausibility. For instance, at one point Bond fights off a giant squid. While it’s not the kind of thing every secret agent has to do on his missions, in Fleming’s hands the scene doesn’t seem so outlandish. Thinking back on it, the scene seems like something out of a fantasy. But for a few key pages, Fleming had me convinced that such a thing could happen even if it doesn’t happen to people in “real life”.

Of all the Bond villains, Dr. No is one of the most colourful. This is all the more remarkable when you consider how he hides in the shadows for much of the book. But when we do finally meet this man, we find out his backstory, and he shows himself to be one of Bond’s toughest challenges. This is a villain who takes pleasure in his villainy, a man who subjects Bond to a maze full of various tortures. He meets a suitably nasty end. Bond villains have died in various ways throughout the series, including death via atomic bomb. Dr. No’s death is the most unpleasant one of the series thus far, and possibly the worst death in the entire Bond series.

There’s also the Bond girl, Honeychile Rider. She’s a survivor, a girl who’s had a tough life. After her parents died she was raised by her nanny, and when the nanny died, Honeychile was left on her own. She had her nose broken by a man who raped her, and she’s very sensitive about this flaw. She has a beautiful body but she can’t see past her disfiguration. She comes to Crab Key to collect valuable shells, and she doesn’t trust Bond at first—she’s convinced he’s come to steal her stash. But they soon clear things up between them and team up to escape from Dr. No. The character is not explored as deeply as, say, Tiffany Case, but we know that we are dealing with more than just a pretty face here.

This book is also notable for the introduction of Major Boothroyd, aka Q, who became such a staple of the Bond films. Fleming named the character after a man named Geoffrey Boothroyd, who wrote to Fleming explaining that Bond's Beretta was all wrong and that 007 should get a new gun. I believe the reply he sent back was along the lines of "it's too late to change it for the next book [From Russia With Love] but I'll give him a new gun next time". The classic cover of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE even features one of Boothroyd's guns, a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver. During this time, a triple murder took place with a similar gun, and Boothroyd had to "assist the police with their inquiries" by proving that the gun was sent to Ian Fleming to use as a model for his next book cover.

I can’t say much more about Dr. No. It’s a wild adventure that starts small and ends big. It’s got a creative villain and Bond girl to remember. The plot borders on that of a fantasy novel but somehow, while you read, Fleming has you convinced that these elements don’t cross the line into impossibility. As a result this is one of the most entertaining Bond novels. I highly recommend it.

Notes on the audiobook: Dr. No was read by Hugh Quarshie, and he was perfectly cast. He really nails the voice of Bond, that very British manner and the effect he has on the ladies. He also does a terrific job with Honeychile Rider, getting that feistiness and her sheer sexiness down pat. He also gets really into the character of Dr. No, giving his voice a suitably sinister edge without going over-the-top. In the post-audiobook interview, Quarshie revealed that he’d read Dr. No before, but only after seeing the film adaptation. If you’re a fan of this Bond novel, this is a must-hear audiobook performance.

9 comments:

  1. As I commented before, "Dr. No" was the first Bond book which I read and I do agree that it is brilliant. I have a feeling that Fleming drew some of his inspiration for the character of Dr. No from Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu. The maze of torture reminds me a great deal of the elaborate forms of torture Fu subjected his victims to, and even the psychical descriptions of the two men are rather close.

    I also think it is interesting to note that for the most part, the movie version of "Dr. No" stayed fairly close to the book. It is for the most part an excellent adaptation and I feel like the first four Bond movies are good adaptations of their novels. After that, things just became really mixed, and while I love all of the Bond films, it would have been nice to see more adaptations done of Fleming's novels.

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    1. My experience with Sax Rohmer and Fu Manchu has been very limited, so I didn't want to make the comparison. But I got that vibe myself, though maybe it was just having a "sinister Chinaman" as the villain. I never came across a maze of torture in the Fu Manchu tales, but it doesn't surprise me. Sounds like something he'd come up with!

      By Bond movie standards the movie is very close to the book, but it changes considerable stuff to accomodate the character of Felix Leiter for instance. The finale with the maze and the squid is almost completely different, but that's understandable seeing how CGI wasn't around back then. I don't think it'd work particularly well as a cinematic scene anyhow, unlike the thrilling car chases and steam-pressure pipes of MOONRAKER.

      One thing I forgot to mention is the introduction of Major Boothroyd, aka Q. Fleming named the character after a man named Geoffrey Boothroyd, who wrote to Fleming to explain why Bond should get a new gun. I believe the reply he sent back was along the lines of "it's too late to change it for the next book [From Russia With Love] but I'll give him a new gun next time". The classic cover of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE features a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver that belonged to Boothroyd and was borrowed to use as a model for the cover.

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    2. Ah, added the bit on Q in the review. Funny how I managed to forget the points I was supposed to make. I even had this jotted down among the notes I made before I wrote the review a little over a week ago. I guess I must've forgotten due to the stress of having four exams in five days last week!

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  2. As I've told you, Patrick, in e-mails we've exchanged, and as mentioned in an essay (http://www.mystericale.com/historical/IMPOSSIBLEPLEASURES.html), DR. NO was the first Bond novel I read, and it remains my favorite. I was amused by Nick's comment because I'd also been reading the Fu Manchu novels at the time and Fleming's title reminded me of them. Well, that and the back-cover teaser that described Dr. No as "a six-foot-six madman with a mania for lust and torture."

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    1. I'm amused by the red cover I have pictured here, describing Dr. No as a "James Bond Mystery". Granted, Strangways' death is a mystery to him, but not to us! The book is really far more of a thriller, but I guess "mystery" would've sold more.

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  3. I enjoyed this review. Very much. I like the level of detail. You are (re)reading these in order? Have you found that it makes a difference? I want to do that, too, so I am curious.

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    1. Tracy, as it happens, I read the series almost entirely in order the first time around, with only two exceptions: THE SPY WHO LOVED ME before THUNDERBALL and skipping over YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (which my library lost at the time and I never got around to reading). So I can't say there's much of a difference for me. What I do enjoy about this is seeing how the series develops and how Fleming's attitude towards Bond changes.

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  4. DR NO was also the first Bond novel that I read, probably because it as the first to be filmed though it may simply have been the one that was on the library's shelf. It does feel a lot like a Sax rohmer penny dradful, even beyond the main character, what with the leading lady chained in the cellar so she can be gobbled up by srustaceans etc etc, which I think has stopped me going back to it. But I found it pretty darn thrilling at the time.


    Really enjoying the new livery Patrick!

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    1. ***mild spoilers***

      But remember, Sergio, that she got herself out of that death trap instead of relying on Bond's help. In fact, she was planning on avenging Bond's certain demise while he was planning to avenge her certain demise. The moment where they meet and explain this to each other is a pretty funny scene.

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