So what do we think?
I'm really surprised to hear that it was one of Fleming's more divisive novels. Back when it was released it seemed to cause something of a storm in a teacup (according to Wikipedia) with Fleming himself having to publish a defence in a Sunday newspaper.
Maybe there's something wrong with me because I thought it was one of his more accomplished works. Firstly, I really admired the simplicity of it all. The story is essentially a straightforward detective yarn with traces of espionage thrown in. Bond is dispatched to investigate the sudden disappearance of an Mi6 operative in Jamaica and when he gets there and starts digging all signs point to the elusive Dr. No. That's it, there isn't any nifty twists or turns along the way and I enjoyed the novel most for it's stripped back nature. The thin nature of the plot is put to good use by Fleming as it works as a clothesline for him to peg together lush locations and beautiful girls. I enjoyed the back-to-basics approach of the story as it forced Bond to rely on his wits and often throughout the novel the only gadget he has his trusty knife kept between his teeth.
One thing Fleming always did well is write great villains and Dr. No is one of his best. Firstly, Fleming makes the great decision to only reveal the character very late in the day which works fantastically as an air of mystery and intrigue begins to grow over who this man is. The only hints we have towards his character are his horrific island Crab Key and his clear desire for privacy. Once we finally meet him he does not disappoint.
Dr. No's first appearance as he watches Bond sleep is suitable creepy and it's clear Fleming graced the character with a homosexual bent as he has the good Doctor linger over Bond's naked body longer than Honey's. Another aspect of the book I liked was how polite Dr. No is to his prisoners, he puts them in the best suite he has and has a gourmet dinner with them. It's a suitably creepy device and really shows the grandeur of Fleming's imagination. Once Bond and Honey go to the hotel part of Dr. No's island there is a unnerving artificiality to the world which is perfectly creepy and frightening. Dr. No's backstory also great (he's got some serious Daddy issues and he isn't even a real doctor for Christ's sake!), all in all he is the most interesting character in the whole book.
Bond is also in good form in the novel. I'm glad that Fleming actually let him do some killing in the book. Despite having a 00 number rarely does Bond get his hands dirty in the novels and reading the murders written by Fleming are suitably haunting. I feel Bond as a character really comes alive during the final trial sequence. During this segment Fleming really puts the character's back to wall and forces Bond to conquer some huge obstacles. I liked this stripped-back finale as it showed Bond desperate and exhausted, two characteristics you don't typically associate with the man. Of course Bond's instinct for survival won't let him give in; Fleming turns Bond into something of a feral beast in this sequence as Doctor No rids him of much of his humanity and providing Bond with a very primal blood-lust. The whole of this sequence is really a good example of great thriller writing, as it's often painful to read Bond's ordeal but still engrossing.
I also really liked Honey Rider, she's a very strong female character something Fleming far from specialised in. She's a single-minded, wily and determined girl who really doesn't need Bond. The finale is essentially set up as Bond having to once again save the damsel-in-distress, however Honey is able to escape on her own volition and really didn't need 007's help. But Fleming can't stop there of course and sadly makes the character go all gooey over the 'irresistible' 007. I really disliked this sudden shift in her character and found it quite disappointing considering how well she had been set-up, also Honey's naked introduction is slightly on the puerile and voyeuristic side of things.
The novel has also been fairly accused of racism especially regarding the characterisation of Quarrel. But nonetheless I think it's clear that Bond is wounded by the death of his friend and even at the end of the novel contemplates whether Quarrel and Dr. No went to same place when they died and wonders which one his soul will join. There are some other surprising notes to be made, firstly; there is no Felix Leiter or Professor Dent in the book and Miss Taro's role is very brief compared to the film. Also I was glad the film injected some more urgency into Bond's mission; in the novel the fact that two Mi6 agents have gone missing and their HQ has been burnt down is hardly big news at all.
So in summary, I enjoyed the novel, it's a simple, straight-forward yarn which is thrilling and rather exciting. I always see the Bond stories as essentially being children's books for adults. They may be slightly puerile and sensationalist but I can only imagine that back in the 1950's teenagers caught many a cheap thrill reading them.