Article by James Abbott
“No, no, no, a thousand times, no.” – Noel Coward, on being asked to play Dr. No in the film version of Ian Fleming’s novel.
Author Ian Fleming (1908-1964) was often very upfront about his inspirations when writing the James Bond thrillers. Such names as John Buchan (1875-1940), Sapper (1888-1937), and E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) often came up. But the name that came up most regularly in notes, letters and interviews (and most surprisingly, to our 21st Century sensibilities) is that of Sax Rohmer.
Born Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward (1883–1959) in Birmingham to a working class family, Rohmer initially toiled as a public servant before becoming a writer. Rohmer was an incredibly well-read man and amateur Egyptologist; he also was a working writer in every sense of the term, knocking out magazine articles and comedy sketches.
Rohmer published several stories and a novel before really hitting his stride in 1913 with the publication of The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu. This novel was actually a collection of several inter-connected short stories, strung together by one over-arching narrative thrust: secret agent Nayland Smith and his comrade Dr. Petrie working to rid humanity of an evil criminal mastermind bent on taking over the world. The next two novels in the series, The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu and The Hand of Fu-Manchu, were also short stories strung together. When Rohmer revived the series 14 years later in 1931, with Daughter of Fu Manchu, he turned to full-novel form. Some of these later novels are the best in the series (such as the Trail of Fu Manchu), but the sustained narrative structure does seem to knock the wind out of some of them. Rohmer would eventually write 14 Fu Manchu novels (the last, like The Man With the Golden Gun, published posthumously and unfinished).
Rohmer also wrote several different series of detective novels, featuring such characters as Gaston Max and Morris Klaw (who featured largely in supernatural mysteries). Rohmer was one of the most well-paid thriller writers of his generation, and for laughs would sometimes sign his name $ax Rohmer. He and his wife Rose moved to New York after World War II and he died in 1959 from avian flu. (Sadly, Rohmer was a man of high and expensive tastes, and he and his wife were fairly broke at the time of his death. However, financial ups-and-downs were not unknown to the couple, and when hard times hit, Rose would chirp, “well, back to the kitchen.”) Rose, along with Rohmer’s assistant Cay Van Ash, wrote a splendid biography of the man in 1972, called, appropriately, Master of Villainy. (Ash also wrote two Fu Manchu novels of his own, one featuring Sherlock Holmes, and they are equal to those of Rohmer.)
It’s hard to imagine the full impact of Rohmer’s legacy today, after Fu Manchu has been watered down by countless imitators (such as the Shadow’s Shiwan Khan, Batman’s Ra’s al Ghul and pulp baddie Wu Fang) and the tides of political correctness. However, it’s safe to say that without Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith, there may have been no James Bond, as author Ian Fleming had said that Rohmer’s novels were a key influence on his style and his decision to become a writer. Many of the tropes that were invented or perfected by Rohmer have become today’s clichés, and the debt the thriller genre (and Fleming in particular) owes him is immeasurable.
Rohmer and Fleming
Despite their dramatically different prose styles, Rohmer and Fleming had quite a lot in common. Both shared a commitment to his story and his characters – these men believed. Both wrote with a sense of integrity to their imagined worlds: there is never a hint of irony, never less than his 100% commitment as an artist. Neither may have been writing literature, but each wrote as if they were.
Important to both, too, was an insistence on verisimilitude no matter how outlandish the plot or circumstances. Readers of Fleming’s letters know how he reached out to experts in the field on a variety of topics to ensure that he got the details right. So, too, with Rohmer, a man of great erudition as well: if Rohmer says there’s an 18 inch poisonous centipede, rest assured, there is one.
Fleming often looked back on Rohmer as ‘the reading of my youth,’ and one assumes that he learned youth’s lessons well. Though Fu Manchu’s nemesis Nayland Smith is sufficiently intriguing to warrant his attention, we are largely taking the Devil Doctor’s word for it. Nayland Smith is a remarkably … thin hero. Rugged, worldly (with a hint of exotic knowledge), steadfast; he is little more than an attitude in a tweed suit.
Fleming would correct this problem in his novels with the much-more interesting James Bond, and do Rohmer one better by creating not only one master criminal, but several. One of the key pleasures of the Bond novels are the many outlandish, grotesque villains pitted against 007. Men as disparate as Goldfinger, Drax, Largo, and, of course, Blofeld, all owe more than a little to the tradition of Fu Manchu.
In addition, both writers understood the synergy of multiple platforms for story-telling. Both Rohmer and Fleming knew that the financial rewards of being a novelist (even a best-selling novelist) were not as important as selling work to the film industry (or, in Rohmer’s case, films, radio, television and comic strips). It was in this ability to create a sufficiently glamourous hero (or villain) that would support narratives in multiple mediums, that Rohmer and Fleming were most alike.
Both writers were also more than comfortable in changing their heroes in order to make them viable film properties. The “Fu Manchu mustache,” for instance, is an invention of the film-industry. Similarly, what would the film Dr. No have been like had Fleming had his way and cast chums David Niven as Bond and Noel Coward as Dr. No? While Your Correspondent may have found that heady brew much more satisfying than the finished product, it’s unlikely if it would’ve resulted in the decades-long franchise we know today.
If anything, if the film stayed too close to the source novel, Dr. No would ultimately have been seen as an old-fashioned work, and never embraced by the culture formed by the Sexual Revolution. In my mind’s eye, I imagine the perfect movie realization of Dr. No with James Mason as Bond and Basil Rathbone – Rohmer’s choice for the role of Fu Manchu – as Dr. No. However, such a film would have closed an era, rather than started one.
As we’ll see in the quotes following, it would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar authorial voices than Sax Rohmer and Ian Fleming. Here, too, Fleming has the advantage of coming after and learning from the former’s mistakes.
Rohmer often writes in a delirious, ornate, heavily scented style; as if Oscar Wilde and John Buchan collaborated on a thriller while drinking too much absinthe. This is thriller-writing for aesthetes, and often too rich a dish for the average reader.
Fleming, on the other hand, knew that nothing dates faster than certain types of stylistic virtuosity, and wrote instead in a spare, muscular prose. His inspiration, as far as his prose line goes, were the hard-bitten writers of the Dashiell Hammett / Raymond Chandler school. With few references to current events, and a self-contained brevity, Fleming has managed to be more timeless than Rohmer, though seldom more subversive.
I prefer Rohmer’s novels to those of Fleming, mostly because of his fearlessness. I often think that Fleming was just a tad more conservative in his imagination, more willing to hold back rather than go completely off the rails. Rohmer, however, had no concept of imaginative self-control; for Rohmer too much is just enough. His bountiful and grotesque imagination is oddly endearing, and is as irresistible and addictive as cherry brandy.
But clearly Fleming never forgot the debt – both of depth of enjoyment and inspiration in his work – that he owed Sax Rohmer. And in homage (if not pastiche!), Fleming paid that back with interest in his most delirious, lurid, over-the-top James Bond adventure, Dr. No.
It is amazing how much Sax Rohmer Ian Fleming managed to channel into his novel, Dr. No. At times, it’s almost impossible to tell if Fleming is bowing to the Master, or having a little fun at his expense.
Here, for example, is a close-up look at Fu Manchu, Devil Doctor of Rohmer’s imaginings:
Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government–which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.
Not to be outdone, Fleming unveils Dr. Julius No to an incredulous James Bond:
Bond’s first impression was of thinness and erectness and height. Doctor No was at least six inches taller than Bond, but the straight immovable poise of his body made him seem still taller. The head also was elongated and tapered from a round, completely bald skull down to a sharp chin so that the impression was of a reversed raindrop—or rather oildrop, for the skin was of a deep almost translucent yellow.
It gets better. Bond cannot tell if No is 50 or 100; he sports Dali-esque eyebrows, and he moves as if his neck and back were fused into a single, unmovable piece. Then comes the coup de grace:
The bizarre, gliding figure looked like a giant venomous-worm wrapped in grey tin-foil, and Bond would not have been surprised to see the rest of it trailing slimily along the carpet behind.
Doctor No came within three steps of them and stopped. The wound in the tall face opened. “Forgive me for not shaking hands with you,” the deep voice was flat and even. “I am unable to.” Slowly the sleeves parted and opened. “I have no hands.”
The two pairs of steel pincers came out on their gleaming stalks and were held up for inspection like the hands of a praying mantis. Then the two sleeves joined again.
Even now, some 30 years after I first read the novel, I’ve never forgotten my shudder at the vision, see the rest of it trailing slimily along the carpet behind. Yuck!
But Fu Manchu and Dr. No are not just repulsive physically, they are repulsive mentally. It’s not enough that they run criminal organizations and treat human life cheaply – no, no, their homicidal imaginations must be disgustingly ornate. Here are Nayland Smith and his Watson, Dr. Petrie, trapped by the Devil Doctor:
A marmoset landed on the shoulder of Dr. Fu-Manchu and peered grotesquely into the dreadful yellow face. The Doctor raised his bony hand and fondled the little creature, crooning to it.
“One of my pets, Mr. Smith,” he said, suddenly opening his eyes fully so that they blazed like green lamps. “I have others, equally useful. My scorpions—have you met my scorpions? No? My pythons and hamadryads? Then there are my fungi and my tiny allies, the bacilli. I have a collection in my laboratory quite unique. Have you ever visited Molokai, the leper island, Doctor? No? But Mr. Nayland Smith will be familiar with the asylum at Rangoon! And we must not forget my black spiders, with their diamond eyes—my spiders, that sit in the dark and watch—then leap!”
Petrie, with a Watsonian gift for stating the obvious, tells us: “He is mad! … God help us, the man is a dangerous homicidal maniac!“
Fu Manchu is not the only maniac. Like all Master Criminals, Dr. No can’t help but be chatty when he feels he has the upper hand:
Doctor No said, in the same soft resonant voice, “You are right. Mister Bond. That is just what I am, a maniac. All the greatest men are maniacs. They are possessed by a mania which drives them forward towards their goal. The great scientists, the philosophers, the religious leaders – all maniacs. What else but a blind singleness of purpose could have given focus to their genius, would have kept them in the groove of their purpose? Mania, my dear Mister Bond, is as priceless as genius. Dissipation of energy, fragmentation of vision, loss of momentum, the lack of follow-through – these are the vices of the herd.” Doctor No sat slightly back in his chair. “I do not possess these vices. I am, as you correctly say, a maniac – a maniac, Mister Bond, with a mania for power.”
Fu Manchu uses the exotic weapons in his weird arsenal. One of the key threats in his debut novel is The Zyat Kiss. Several characters die mysteriously, until Smith and Petrie are able to finally reveal just what it is:
It was an insect, full six inches long, and of a vivid, venomous, red color! It had something of the appearance of a great ant, with its long, quivering antennae and its febrile, horrible vitality; but it was proportionately longer of body and smaller of head, and had numberless rapidly moving legs. In short, it was a giant centipede, apparently of the scolopendra group, but of a form quite new to me.
These things I realized in one breathless instant; in the next—Smith had dashed the thing’s poisonous life out with one straight, true blow of the golf club!
There is perhaps more than a touch of professional jealousy on Dr. No’s part (or Fleming’s), as he also tries to dispatch 007 with a poisonous centipede.
With a crash that shook the room Bond’s body jackknifed out of bed and on There it was crawling out of sight over the edge of the pillow. Bond’s first instinct was to twitch the pillow on to the floor. He controlled himself, waiting for his nerves to quieten. Then softly, deliberately, he picked up the pillow by one corner and walked into the middle of the room and dropped it. The centipede came out from under the pillow. It started to snake swiftly away across the matting. Now Bond was uninterested. He looked round for something to kill it with. Slowly he went and picked up a shoe and came back. The danger was past. His mind was now wondering how the centipede had got into his bed. He lifted the shoe and slowly, almost carelessly, smashed it down. He heard the crack of the hard carapace.
Bond lifted the shoe.
The centipede was whipping from side to side in its agony—five inches of grey-brown, shiny death. Bond hit it again. It burst open, yellowly.
Fortunately, these hellish and exotic menaces are no match for everyday items like gold clubs or shoes.
In the course of Fleming’s novel, Bond will also face a tunnel-full of venomous spiders before he fights for his life against No’s giant octopus. In addition, the heroine, Honeychile Ryder, will be offered up to carnivorous crabs. (Whenever friends tell me they wish the Bond films were more serious, “like the novels,” I wonder if they’ve ever read Dr. No….)
In addition, both doctors share a taste for Caribbean islands: Fu Manchu eventually holes up in a super-science laboratory hidden in a volcano in Haiti (shades of the film version You Only Live Twice) where he becomes a voodoo master, while Dr. No rules a small landmass off Jamaica, which he patrols with a tank disguised as a dragon. Neither man wins points on subtlety.
It’s these inventions, one more deliciously lurid and outlandish than the last, that makes Dr. No such a harem-scarem homage to Rohmer and his world. It remains Fleming’s most intense fever-dream of a novel, reading more like an artifact of the lurid 1920s than the jet-setting 1950s.
Loves Saves the Day
It’s important, though, to remember that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that it’s clear the Fleming had a great deal of affection for Rohmer. Dr. No at times comes to read much like a skilled artist riffing on the obsessions and affections of his youth. For a novel filled with murder and exotic, unrelenting menace, it’s curiously affectionate in its effort to salute its inspiration.
Dr. No has always been my favorite book in the Fleming corpus because here he goes for broke, and does not care if his creations are unbelievable, or even faintly ridiculous. It’s an antic, unfettered romp through Fleming’s imagination, untampered by attempts at good taste or self-control.
And, as such, is irresistible. One hopes that somewhere, in the Valhalla of Villainy, Dr. Fu Manchu and Dr. Julius No are happily bent over a cauldron of detestable horrors, cackling with maniacal glee. It’s an image that is almost heart-warming.
James Abbott is a California-based writer and arts advocate. His online column The Jade Sphinx (http://thejadesphinx.blogspot.com/) champions the Fine Arts, featuring stories on such concepts as recognizable quality, artistic heritage and tradition, and techniques of the Great Masters. He also occasionally touches upon significant Pop Culture artifacts, such as King Kong, Doc Savage, Sherlock Holmes and … James Bond.