For my Double-O-7th review, I felt I HAD to do something with Bond… James Bond…
Ian Fleming – Doctor No (1958/1964)
Doctor No is Ian Fleming’s sixth adventure thriller starring the ever popular agent with the license to kill, James Bond. I grew up watching James Bond movies, mostly of the Sean Connery or Roger Moore varieties, but I wouldn’t really call myself a big FAN. (My favorite Bond film is Moonraker, which might even disqualify me as a Bond fan at all.) In addition, this is the only Fleming novel I’ve ever read—and I only really read it because I had it laying around the house and I wanted to review a 007 book for my seventh review!
So let’s start with the bad, because there’s a lot of bad in this book. The unmistakable horror of racism is the foundation upon which the entire narrative is structured (and possibly by which the world turned back then. I’m not sure.) The story takes place in Jamaica in the 1950s, where the benign British government have set up shop on the island to help make sure the good natured but essentially lazy and dim witted islanders use the rich natural resources to the fullest benefit. Into this loving and ideal relationship comes the evil Doctor No, of mixed Chinese descent, and his army of ethnic killers… This is pretty dark stuff. It turned my stomach, to be frank.
In a sick way, a novel like this does show the progress we’ve made in the last hundred years, (prior to the rise of the Trumpster’s lot, that is). However, the sick specter of eugenics is still pervasive in this novel, which is less than sixty years old, and it was a popular novel that was already in it’s 16th printing by 1964. It’s awful. Truly. Sexism is also rampant in the book, plus there are some rather unpleasant descriptions of torture in the tale (a large chunk almost reminds me of the Saw movies), and Bond appears to be a massive alcoholic, but somehow these issues seem less depressing because they aren’t the KEY ELEMENTS by which the narrative turns. The racism, however, is foundational to the plot and character development throughout the entire story.
With that said, and I think it had to be said, there are a few things that I did like about the book. For one thing, and unlike the glamorized films, Bond is a very human character in this tale. He has doubts, he gets scared, he makes mistakes… He isn’t all dash and perfection. For me, this made the unpleasant situations that he had to endure more effective. Things stick to Bond in this book. There are consequences to his miscalculations. I actually kind of liked him, as a character, and you certainly root for him to pull through. Interestingly to me, I didn’t really think of him as any particular ACTOR, either. I’ve never seen the film version of Doctor No, so that might have helped, but as the character is suffering through a giant centipede crawling up his leg as he lays in his hotel room bed at night, I didn’t imagine the creepy crawler making his way up Sean Connery’s leg—it was BOND’s leg.
So I’ll give Fleming his due. He is a strong writer who can certainly create an engrossing tale. It’s just unfortunate that he was writing during an era where racist conceptions were so pervasive. Do I think others should read this book? Maybe. Fleming can definitely craft a thrilling narrative, but be aware that you are dipping into a dark time when racism was alive and well, spewing from the faces of every character, good and evil, and when men where men and women were toys, and when your main character could chug booze like he’s in a contest at a frat party while ON DUTY as a spy for the British government and in the midst horrifying, life threatening situations. Oh, and the villain in this book has metal clamps for hands, which was pretty cool. There you go…
—Richard F. Yates