Dr. No - Novel Discussion

edited February 2014 in Literary 007 Posts: 4,342
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.

Comments

  • BirdlesonBirdleson San Jose, CAModerator
    edited February 2016 Posts: 31,015
    I like the puerile and voyeuristic side of things. Thanks for the well thought out essay. If I had energy I would try to respond in kind. I find it to be a very solid, exciting read. Not one of my top Flemings, but very good.
    It bothers me when I hear the racism rant. Today's audiences seem spring-loaded to react in such a way. So maybe Bond has some issues with blacks, chigroes, etc. As a reader you're not required to like everything about the character you're reading about (another issue I have with today's readers-"relatability"). Bond is from a time and place where such sentiments were common, if not the norm. Not every story should be molded to fit and reenforce the modern reader's delicate sensibilities and inability to contemplate that not everything is nice.
  • Samuel001Samuel001 Moderator
    edited February 2014 Posts: 13,305
    As the first novel I read, it holds a special place for me. I think it's very good indeed. I will add more thoughts later.
  • WalecsWalecs On Her Majesty's Secret Service
    Posts: 3,157
    I really enjoyed reading Doctor No. The obstacle course was really suspensful, ending with the Octopus confrontation, really epic.
    Dr. No and Honey's backstories also made it really good. I love when characters have a backstory and a psychology, and Fleming does this really well.

    Thinking to Dr. No brings back a lot of memories.
  • So what do we think?


    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 in the book 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.

    Great summation @ Pierce2Daniel except for your acceptance that accusations of racism are fair - I'll come back on that point.
    Regarding the novel itself, speaking for Bondologists of my vintage, DR.NO was the first Bond novel that many of us read. I bought the book after seeing the movie in '62 and the rest, as they say is history and what a great history it's been. I owe a life time reading habit to Fleming and he will always have my eternal gratitude for that.
    Regarding the novel itself, the thing that struck me most was Fleming's descriptive powers. His beautiful evocation of Jamaica started my love affair with the island and I remember during my first visit, being struck by how accurate he was and how amazingly well he captured the vibrant nature of the country and the ex-pat, colonial lifestyle.
    It was interesting that, at the time of Flemings meteoric rise to fame, not even his most ardent critics would challenge his descriptive powers. Of course, those powers were omnipresent throughout all his work but I always found them to be particularly vivid when he was writing about the Caribbean. He loved the place and it shows.
    With regard to the hoary old chestnut of 'racism,' I really wish that younger readers would take some perspective of this. People have to remember that these are period pieces and we are all products of our time. People expressed themselves differently then. Nobody criticises Dickens, Haggard or Doyle - why Fleming? I think we should give the guy a break.
    I have spoken to many people who knew him in Jamaica and believe you me, he was well liked by the locals and the ex-pats.
  • Posts: 532
    Words continually evolve for a variety of reasons. Sometimes because of issues involving sensitivity, sometime because they become obsolete. I can recall many times when my grandmother said she fancied a fag. Had she been able to see into the future, she might well have said she fancied a cigarette. Or what about the friend who said he had a gay time? What should we make of that? Anyone still using the word fagot, meaning a bundle of sticks? If we are to accuse Fleming of racism, then we must accuse all who have ever written anything objectionable or insensitive by today's standards. As a starting point, let's begin with the original title of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. It's easy enough to Google.

    Here's what we really know about racism: subtle or otherwise, there is no mistaking it.
  • edited February 2014 Posts: 2,300
    Doctor No is definitely one of the better Fleming novels. The novel is divisive only because it caused an idiot at the New Statesman named Paul Johnson to write an article accusing Fleming of "sex, snobbery, and sadism," a phrase still used by lazy journalists. Johnson went on to attack The Beatles with equal viciousness and later went from a left-wing hack to a right-wing hack. If only he had died in 1964 instead of Fleming.

    Doctor No is notable for marking a shift in the Bond novels, especially from the subdued, smaller-scale books that preceded it. Whereas the previous novel, FRWL, was a realistic, Eric Ambler-style cold war espionage thriller, Doctor No is a larger-than-life adventure story that harks back to the Fu Manchu novels Fleming read in childhood. From here on the Bond novels grew more grandiose and outlandish--the next book, Goldfinger, was on an even larger scale, almost a self-parody, and would determine the tone of the James Bond films.

    So DN is really a hinge in the Bond saga, situated between the early books and the wild later ones. It's been called a modern-day "fertility myth," thanks to its lush island setting and its mythic overtone of a modern-day St. George trekking through the jungle and fighting a "dragon." Two dragons actually--the fake tank and Dr. No himself, though the latter is perhaps more of a human worm. He just might be Fleming's greatest villain. I love all the crazy details, like how his heart is on the wrong side of his body, just as I love his great supervillain speeches, including some of the greatest line ever spoken by a Bond villain ("Yes Mr. Bond, I am a maniac").

    The book also features one of the characteristically Flemingian features pointed out by Kingsley Amis--a scene where Bond is wined and dined by the villain. Amis said Crab Key was one of the most exciting settings in modern fiction, and he praised the book's "unrelaxed tension, its terrifying house of evil, and the savage beauty of its main setting on a Caribbean island, a locale which Fleming made part of himself and which always excited his pen to produce some of his best writing." DN even influenced Amis's Bond novel Colonel Sun, which also features Bond journeying to a remote island to be tortured by a sadistic Asian villain. The first time I read DN I was slightly disappointed to find that No was crushed by a mountain of bird guano, instead of drowning in a radioactive pool, but now I appreciate the craziness of his literary death.

    The movie certainly can't compare to the book when it came to the torture sequence, the longest, most excruciating description of physical pain in any Bond novel. You can see Fleming's sadomasochism at work in how minutely he describes Bond's physical sensations, how alert he is to the state of Bond's body and its growing exhaustion. The torture course is what got Fleming in trouble with the literary tastemakers, and Amis claimed this reaction caused Fleming to forgo using torture in his later novels. In any case, discussion of the scene is incomplete without its capper--Bond fighting a giant squid! The scene could have easily proved ridiculous, but Fleming makes it not only plausible but terrifying. Look at how he sets it up:

    Below him the water quivered. Something was stirring in the depths, something huge. A great length of luminescent greyness showed, poised far down in the darkness. Something snaked up from it, a whiplash as thick as Bond's arm. The tip of the thong was swollen to a narrow oval, with regular bud-like markings. It swirled through the water where the fish had been and was withdrawn. Now there was nothing but the huge grey shadow. What was it doing? Was it...? Was it tasting the blood?
    As if in answer, two eyes as big as footballs slowly swam up and into Bond's vision. They stopped, twenty feet below his own, and stared up through the quiet water at his face.


    Let's move on to Honey, one of Bond's best heroines--she is self-sufficient and definitely the opposite of a damsel in distress. Her oneness with nature also adds to the book's mythic feel. Her coming-on to Bond in Dr. No's mink-lined prison is perhaps overdone, but I do like the low comedy of her naked introduction. Even better is her domineering command at the end of the novel: "Do as you're told." That would be a great close to a future Bond film.

    Quarrel is given a fine send-off--his death is far more affecting than in the film (which makes him literally carry Bond's shoes). The treatment of the "Chigroes" is more racist--both Bond and No treat them as subhuman and call them "apes." They are looked down on by both Blacks and the Chinese, and one feels sympathy for this "tough, forgotten race," even if Bond doesn't.
  • Excellent post @Revelator. I think you have summed the novel up perfectly in a very deft review.

    Your points about Fleming entering the realm of self-parody with GF do ring true. Both Fleming's GF and TB where exercises in excess. After those two novels he notably calmed down his overzealous imagination and produced two rather grim Bond novels - arguable both accepted as his best books.
  • MrcogginsMrcoggins Following in the footsteps of Quentin Quigley.
    Posts: 3,139
    @Revelator that was indeed a most excellent review. which I enjoyed reading verry much Thankyou Coggins.
  • Revelator wrote:
    Doctor No is definitely one of the better Fleming novels.

    @Revelator, what a brilliant summation. Bravo!
    Although I never had Dr.NO as my best ever Fleming. That privilege goes to either OHMSS or FRWL (they are interchangeable depending on my mood), I always had it in the top five and in my not so humble opinion, it was Fleming at the top of his descriptive powers.
  • Posts: 2,341
    I enjoyed the book found it to be a good old fashioned adventure story. The part about the giant squid was kinda way over the top. Giant squids are so rare and hard to find that the odds of Dr No capturing one and domesticating it is well, out there.
  • Posts: 2,300
    I've toyed with the idea of setting up a blog of my own, but I'm lazy and like to procrastinate. I also like to repeat myself and cannibalize earlier posts, so anything you miss will likely reappear. Several of my discoveries have been posted on the Artistic License Renewed blog (http://literary007.com/), thanks to the kindness of 007InVT. He's asked about using my post on Dr. No, so I'll probably re-edit it.

    Anyway, I should quit talking about myself and get back to Dr. No. One aspect I left out of my earlier thoughts involves the most shocking part of the novel--the deterioration in Bond and M's relationship. If Dr. No really is a hinge between the earlier and later Bond books, this deterioration marks a permanent change.

    The trouble begins with M's disappointment with Bond for nearly getting himself killed in From Russia With Love. This leads to M giving him a more comfortable assignment. Now, that is what the wise Sir James Molony recommended, but M handles this with such coldness and ill-concealed disapproval that Bond--for the first time ever--gets angry with his boss.

    Worse, M strips Bond of his trusty old gun and insists he use a new one. Crazy old Dr. Freud, who believed guns were phallic symbols, would say the scene represents a symbolic castration of the son by his father. We needn't go that far, because the scene uncomfortable enough as it is.
    Bond is ordered to stand up so the armorer can inspect his build. After the armorer feels up his biceps and forearms, Bond is ordered to hand over his Beretta, which is mocked by Major Boothroyd: " 'I think we can do better than this. sir.' It was the sort of voice Bond's first expensive tailor used."
    Back then someone like Bond would have first met such a tailor during his late-teenage, public school years--so Boothroyd's comment practically strips Bond of his adulthood. (I wonder if Bond's irritation was shared by Fleming, who made Boothroyd a rather unattractive character.)

    Bond's old Beretta might not be phallic, but it's practically his spouse : "He thought of his fifteen years' marriage to the ugly piece of metal...when he had dismantled the gun and oiled it and packed the bullets...pumping the cartridges out on to the bedspread in some hotel bedroom somewhere around the world. Then the last wipe of a dry rag...he had ties and M was going to cut them."

    M is unmoved--"there was no sympathy in his voice." But there is belittlement--he tells Bond "The sunshine'll do you good and you can practice your new guns on the turtles or whatever they have down there." And then M demands Bond leave behind his Beretta. Now their relationship is truly marred:

    Bond looked across into M's eyes. For the first time in his life he hated the man. He knew perfectly well why M was being tough and mean. It was deferred punishment for having nearly gotten killed on his last job. Plus getting away from this filthy weather into the sunshine. M couldn't bear to have his men have an easy time. In a way Bond felt sure he was being sent on this cushy assignment to humiliate him. The old bastard.

    I was shocked the first time I read that passage. In the earlier books M and Bond had a near-perfect relationship--Bond was happy to take orders from a man he loved and regarded as being a Churchillian deity. And the reader was encouraged to feel the same way. But now Fleming mockingly writes, "M's occasional bursts of rage were so splendid."

    After concluding his Jamaica mission, Bond sends a snarky telegram to M, saying his new guns were ineffective against No's dragon. Bond has second thoughts about this "cheap" gibe, but "he just wanted M to know that it hadn't quite been a holiday in the sun."
    M probably didn't even notice. In the following books he stayed rude, belligerent, and nasty, to a degree that convinced Kingsley Amis M was slightly evil.

    It's certainly true that Bond and M never regained the idyllic relationship they enjoyed before Dr. No.
    In Goldfinger Bond laughs in M's face, in "For Your Eyes Only" a morally compromised M uses Bond as a personal hitman, in OHMSS M drives Bond to the point of resignation and is stupidly belligerent when Bond devises a plan to snare Blofeld. In YOLT M shouts at Bond and almost fires him. In TMWTGG--well, the relationship can't get any lower there! Even M's employees start calling him a bastard.

    That said, M is hardly the sort of evil, duplicitous spymaster found in a Le Carre novel. But it is fascinating how the unambiguously good M of the first books transforms into the foul old fart of the later ones. As with Bond, Fleming made the character more human as the years went by. But in M's case, this meant poking fun at the crusty admiral. You can't say he didn't enjoy it.
  • Posts: 5,767
    I like the straightforwardness of Dr No. And I like how it takes things out of proportion with the octopuss.
  • @Revelator

    Some very interesting observations about the M character there. I think by using DN as the basis for the first film the series was able to establish M off the bat as a harsh and cold authority figure. In there first scene together he is berating Bond and as you say emasculating him. It's very clear who is in charge.

    Interestingly, I think Fleming made M very sympathetic to Bond later in the book series, especially in YOLT. Here when we first see M he is far from himself in his Blades gentlemen club and is pondering 007's future in his employment. He knows that Bond's standards have massively dropped but feels sorry for him after the events of OHMSS. As a result he is willing to give Bond one last chance and an 'impossible assignment' to try and get that fire back in him. M knows the mission is pointless and only conjures it up to give Bond a sense of importance and worth but he dosen't let his agent know this. Here I think M is very benevolent as he wants to bring Bond out of his malaise and back to life, which is fitting to that novel's theme of rebirth.
  • Posts: 1,385
    Birdleson wrote: »
    I like the puerile and voyeuristic side of things. Thanks for the well though out essay. If I had energy I would try to respond in kind. I find it to be a very solid, exciting read. Not one of my top Flemings, but very good.
    It bothers me when I hear the racism rant. Today's audiences seem spring-loaded to react in such a way. So maybe Bond has some issues with blacks, chigroes, etc. As a reader you're not required to like everything about the character you're reading about (another issue I have with today's readers-"relatability"). Bond is from a time and place where such sentiments were common, if not the norm. Not every story should be molded to fit and reenforce the modern reader's delicate sensibilities and inability to contemplate that not everything is nice.
    Amen. I'm sick of the demand that every protagonist in book or film live up to one's demands for some sort of moral perfection. Flawed characters are infinitely more relatable in my opinion. Sometimes it's easier to just consent that the charges are true and say "Yes anti-heroes are usually imperfect."

    In regards to the novel, you're not alone in liking it a lot Pierce2Daniel. Live and Let Die was my favorite and faces similar charges. Live and Let Die, Dr. No, & Moonraker are at the top of the pile of ones I want to re-read and for very similar reasons--there's a mystery element to all of them that had me hooked and they were so suspenseful that I found them to be real page turners the first time I read them! I too loved Dr. No's backstory (I like the explanation of what happened to his hands). And when he did show up the way Fleming described the character really creeped me out--very unsettling. Bond being toyed with by Dr. No was also excellent. I wish more of Dr. No's material had made it into the film and that he had been developed as well as he was here because this is a really interesting character.
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