I said in the review of From Russia with Love that the ending made it feel like this was the first time Ian Fleming had reconciled himself with the fact that the current Bond book wasn’t going to be the final Bond book, and so he decided to throw a juicy “to be continued” twist in at the last moment. James Bond is down! Poisoned by a crafty Russian agent! Is he dead? What will happen? Proceed with haste to the next book to find out! Unfortunately, the cliffhanger is always better than the resolution, and Doctor No picks up the thread by basically going, “Boy, that sure was close, but now James is all better,” and away we go to Jamaica without much bother.
The head of the Secret Service, M, is either peeved at Bond for being such a sucker during the Tatiana Romanova case or he knows there’s more to the upcoming Jamaica case than most other people realize. Probably both. Whatever the case, he berates Bond for allowing himself to be poisoned by a cranky little old lady, then assigns him a puff piece case investigating the disappearance of the two agents running Her Majesty’s relay station down in Jamaica. One of them is Strangeways, an old friend from Live and Let Die (Quarrel also returns from that book). The official explanation is that Strangeways and his secretary ran off together amid a torrid affair. We know they were assassinated, and Bond suspects much the same (and it’s unlikely that, despite towing the party line in front of Bond, M doesn’t harbor his own suspicions that there’s more than an ill-advised romantic liason at the heart of the disappearance).
Before Bond departs for his “fun in the sun” assignment, readers are treated to one of the most famous changes in the entire Bond mythology. Rumor has it that Ian Fleming was talking with a friend who was an enthusiastic gun nut and asked the friend what he thought of the James Bond books. The friend replied that he loved the books but didn’t understand why Bond used a Beretta — “a lady’s gun,” if you will. The conversation worked its way into Doctor No, as Bond is stripped of his lady’s gun and outfitted with the soon-to-be iconic Walther PPK (and a heavy Smith and Wesson revolver, but that gets less attention). The PPK is the gun most people identify with Bond, since Doctor No was the first Bond movie made and the exchange appears in the beginning of the film. And in case you’re curious, from what I can tell, selling a Walther PPK in the United States is illegal — they’re too small and lightweight. However, if you want to get close enough for atom bombs, you can get yourself a Walther PPK-S, which is basically the PPK, but a little heavier. Or rather, that’s what I gather. Actually not a big fan of guns other than on the movie screen and occasionally a shooting range.
After acquainting himself with the PPK and S&W, Bond is on a plane bound for Jamaica. In my opinion, in both film and novels, the Bond stories have been at their best when they’re set in a tropical location. I assume Fleming enjoyed himself in the tropics, and his enthusiasm for the details of the islands shines through in Bond. He’s really in top form here (Bond, as well as Fleming), teaming up once again with Live and Let Die alumnus Quarrel and quickly discovering that news of his arrival has been leaked, and that two rapid assassination attempts probably means Bond’s initial misgivings about the “official story” were correct. All clues point toward the mysterious and not altogether alluring Crab Key, a desolate combination of sulfuric marshland and dirty guano harvesting. Yep, finally the public gets what they demanded: a James Bond story in which guano plays a key role.
Every Bond book goes on at length about some bit of trivia Ian Fleming had picked up. This often comes in the form of some esoteric gambling strategy. During our last visit to Jamaica, it was an extended lesson on voodoo. This time, Fleming must have gotten drunk and had someone captivate him with the minute details of guano farming and the international guano market. So we get a very detailed run-down of guano production and the role it has played in international economics. It doesn’t sound like it’s especially interesting at first, but you do sort of get involved after a while — sort of how like if I told you I was going to sit down and tell you the history of salt, you’d roll your eyes. But then once you hear how much bloodshed and international intrigue goes hand in hand with the history of salt, it might get more interesting. Still, if one was to pick a moment when the book starts to drag, it would be in the lengthy explanation of the guano market and the variety of birds nesting on Crab Key. Guano isn’t as interesting as salt, however, but we can forgive Fleming for his obsession. It is worked nicely into the plot, even if it doesn’t play a particularly large role in the film. I suppose giant piles of guano were deemed insufficiently cinematic.
Crab Key is owned by Doctor No, a reclusive industrialist who protects Crab Key’s privacy with an iron, and often deadly (but never provably deadly, in court anyway) hand. Crab Key was previously the home of an Audubon Society preserve, but the keepers met with rather untimely demises, just as the Audubon reps who showed up to investigate the events happened to die in a tragic plane crash as a result of a botched landing. Ostensibly, Doctor No is just a bit of a crank who likes his privacy, harvesting the island’s abundant guano and eking out some sort of profit from his efforts. It doesn’t take long for Bond to discover there’s quite a bit more going on than simple guano production.
A trip to Crab Key brings Bond in contact with Honey Ryder — a meeting that, in the movies, became another iconic Bond moment. The meeting in the book is quite similar, except that rather than a white bikini, Honey is completely in the buff. Well, except for a dive mask and a knife strapped around her thigh. Apparently, Fleming and I share a fetish for lithe, athletic beauties in (or out of) diving gear. Unfortunately, there’s not much point to her character. Unlike previous women in the Bond stories, she is not central to the plot in any way. She has no important relation to the events and just sort of happens to be around for part of the adventure. She disappears very quickly after her introduction and doesn’t show up again until almost everything is wrapped up. It’s not that she’s an unlikable character or anything. Fleming gives her a tough but interesting back story. It’s simply that she has no reason to be there. After solid female characters like Tiffany Case and Gala Brand, Honeychild Ryder is sort of a non-entity.
The supporting cast of characters is fairly limited this time out, with Quarrel shouldering most of the responsibility. Quarrel’s a fine character, though he has a rough time of it in this outing. He does spend some time training Bond so 007 can get back in top shape, which means we get a detailed run-down of the complete James Bond workout. Frankly, it didn’t look all that arduous, so I thought I’d give it a try. After the first day, I realized how deceptively tough the workout was, and I wasn’t even doing the entire thing. By day three, I simply called off my one-man invasion of Crab Key and went to float in the pool for an hour.
Fleming’s prose continues to improve and impress. His description of Bond’s torment during the obstacle course the agent is forced to run is grueling. The reader has no problem imagining every sensation assaulting Bond as he crawls across burning hot metal plates and piles of tarantulas, only to end up face-to-face with a little beastie I really wish had made it into the movie. As with most of the Bond stories, the plot is lean without being sparse. It wastes very little time with anything that isn’t necessary, and the narrative flies along effortlessly. There’s a lot of action, and unlike From Russia with Love, Bond is in the thick of everything this time around rather than being a spectator while a burly Turk does all the work.
Doctor No himself is a comic book style megalomaniac villain. Most of the Bond villains to this point have been pretty subdued — Hugo Drax being the big-toothed guffawing exception. The gangsters in Diamonds are Forever were cartoonish, but their ambitions were strictly real-world. Le Chiffre, Mr. Big, and Red Grant were all believable as actual human beings. In Doctor No you get the complete package of what people traditionally expect from a Bond villain. He’s mysterious, larger than life, has metal claws for hands, is deadly intelligent, has a lavish secret lair (even if it is underneath a disgusting marsh island covered in guano), and harbors dreams of holding the world for ransom. His schemes are even grander than those of Drax. He’s a wonderfully drawn, slightly over-the-top foil dropped in the middle of one of the hardest hitting “Bond as action story” novels Fleming has written.
Unfortunately, we also get another example of the often-ridiculed, “I shall tell you my whole plan, for only you could appreciate it, and you won’t live to spoil it once I’ve put you in my insanely convoluted death trap instead of just shooting you” tendency in Fleming’s storytelling. Doctor No sitting Bond down to explain the ins and outs of No’s past is good stuff, and well within the confines of simple story logic. But then No lays out the whole secret “next stage” of his nefarious schemes for Bond in meticulous detail. Fleming’s explanation is that No is such an egotist and so sure of his own invincibility that he can’t resist laying the plan on thick and relishing Bond’s helplessness to stop him. I buy this more from Doctor No than I did from Red Grant in From Russia with Love, for whom such a monologue was way out of character, but it’s still worth noting that this would become sort of the signature moment when Bond parodies and detractors would start rolling their eyes. I don’t mind it all that much, frankly. I mean, we need to find out Doctor No’s secret plans somehow. Might as well be over dinner in his secret lair.
If you were, like me, familiar with the movies before you read the books, this is really the point where the Bond we read is almost identical to the Bond we see. He’s hard, determined, and ruthless. When forced to run Doctor No’s sadistic gauntlet, rather than crying and bellyachin’ like the Bond we saw way back in Casino Royale, he just toughs it out and plots his moment of revenge. The film version of Doctor No follows the original novel to about the same extent as does From Russia with Love. It just uses the opposite formula. In Russia the book, we get a long and detailed back story for the villains that does not appear in the movie. In Doctor No the movie, we get a more complicated introduction to James Bond than we get in the book, but that’s necessary since it’s the first time we’ve seen the movie Bond, but the sixth time we’ve encountered the literary Bond. Oh, and the movie drops the thing about the guano and switches the finale to something a little flashier. But the basics are pretty much the same. It’s obvious you’re in the same material, anyway.
Bond hasn’t been this active and two-fisted since Live and Let Die. Doctor No is another stellar entry in the ongoing series about England’s favorite secret agent, and it makes sense that many of the defining factors of the movies are so prominent in this book. It’s less an espionage story and more a rolicking pulp-style adventure, but at book number six one assumes there needs to be a little variety in the types of adventures and cases to which Bond is assigned. It’s difficult to say, six books in, which one is my favorite. I like the breeziness of Diamonds are Forever and the exotic romanticism of From Russia with Love. But as far as delivering action and hardboiled toughness, Doctor No may trump all the books that have come before it.