Article by Revelator
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. I
When interviewed by William Plomer, Fleming had this to say about that charge:
“Well, I don’t think they are studies in any of those quite proper ingredients of a thriller. Sex, of course, comes into all interesting books and into interesting lives. As to snobbery. I think that’s pretty good nonsense, really. In fact, we’d all of us like to eat better, stay in better hotels, wear better clothes, drive faster motor-cars, and so on, and it amuses me that my hero does most of these things. As for sadism, well, I think the old-fashioned way of beating up a spy with a baseball bat has gone out with the last war, and I think it’s permissible to give him a rather tougher time than we used to in the old-fashioned days before the war.’12″
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 lines ever spoken by a Bond villain:
“Yes Mr. Bond, I am a maniac. All the greatest men are maniacs.“
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.
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.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.
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 John 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.
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