Skip to main content

Doctor No by Ian Fleming

Cover image © Penguin.
Once more the summer James Bond novel tradition is resurrected. This year, with the beaches of the Asturias and Cantabria regions of Spain as my backdrop, and the promise of chorizo and sidra in the evenings to come, I set about reading Doctor No (1958) by Ian Fleming – the sixth novel in the Bond series.

At the end of the previous novel, From Russia With Love, we are left with a serious doubt about whether Bond has survived. Having brought about the demise of SMERSH’s latest plot, he is poisoned and the reader is unsure about what will have become of him.

Obviously, he survives thanks to some quick thinking and good luck. As part of his recuperation a slightly grumpy M decides that the warm climes of Jamaica will suit Bond where he is to clear up the small mystery of a couple of Secret Service operatives seemingly eloping and abandoning their station. Added to this is a fire at a bird reserve on Crab Key, an island off the Jamaican mainland, which an American pressure group seems keen to have investigated.

Bond is convinced he’s ready for real action, but goes along with M’s decision sensing there may be more to these stories, even if it does mean having to ditch his beloved Baretta gun in favour of something new.

From the instant that Bond gets close to Jamaica, Fleming’s ability to evoke the region shines through. The references to sea grapes, soursop, bougainvillea, and star-apples help to furnish the scenery in addition to more detailed description:
“Bond watched the big green turtle-backed island grow on the horizon and the water below him turn from the dark blue of the Cuba Deep to the azure if the inshore shoals… The scattered dice of small-holdings showed on the slopes and in the clearings in the jungle, and the setting sun flashed gold on the bright worms of tumbling rivers and streams… Bond’s heart lifted with the beauty of one of the most fertile islands in the world.”
Upon arrival he is met by Quarrel, a Cayman Islander who had first appeared in Live and Let Die and a somewhat suspicious female paparazzo from the local newspaper. The same paparazzo, Annabel Chung, appears later that evening as Bond is picking Quarrel’s brains over the mysterious Crab Key island and its owner Dr No. Taking no chances they choose to interrogate her, but get very little information – something that serves only to heighten their suspicions about Dr No and the disappearance of the Secret Service operatives.

Bond and Quarrel resolve to escape Kingston and head to the more remote Beau Desert plantation in order to train and plan a night time voyage to Crab Key. Initially they plan just to do a brief recon of the island, but find themselves getting drawn into things much quicker than expected following the arrival of one of the most famous Bond girls, Honeychile Rider. Her arrival is one of the more memorable moments of the film adaptation when the beautiful Ursula Andress emerges from the sea with a knife in her bikini - although Honey is naked in the novel.

Needless to say, her arrival, along with Bond and Quarrel's, has been spotted and it's only a matter of time before Dr No’s mixed race Chinese and black henchmen are after them.

Reading Doctor No on the beach in Santander, Spain.
Having visited the Caribbean for the first time last year, to the small island of Saint Lucia in the Windward Islands, reading this book definitely brought back elements of that tropical island landscape, even if culturally the Jamaica of Doctor No and modern day Saint Lucia are culturally and socially rather distinct from one another.

At times I wish that Bond would hang about on the beach a bit more, or take a walk through the dense forest, or even take a boat out to a reef by daylight, just so that Fleming can continue to describe the scenery of his second home with the passion he does.

That aside, the plot pushes the boundaries of what is sensible at times, as all of the Bond Novels do, but perhaps to a greater extent here. The action seems so plausible until we reach Dr No’s lair, deep underground on Crab Key.

Added to this, a modern reader will be troubled by references to ‘chigroes’ (a portmanteau of Chinese and negro) and ‘niggerheads’ (I think a partially submerged dark rock under the surface of the water) whilst reading. Such ignorant language could easily detract from the skills of an author who is clearly much more gifted with language that such expressions would seem to imply.

Simon Winder, author of The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond, and who also contributes the introduction to the Penguin edition, says it so well:
Dr No is definitely Fleming at his peak, even when he turns silly, and Dr No is perhaps his most attractively crazy villain. It is probably also the only novel in any language where the hero’s penis is directly threatened not just by a centipede’s jaws, but by a giant squid’s tenticle too. Fifty years after it was written it remains – even with all its racism, snobbery and chaotic plotting – a book that can read over and over again with immense pleasure.”
I’m inclined to agree with Winder. Bond seems at his best towards the end of the novel, even if Fleming’s plot choices aren’t, but overall Doctor No is well up there with action of the preceding novels.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

From a Crooked Rib by Nuruddin Farah

Cover image. © Penguin Books. I stumbled across Nuruddin Farah’s novels when searching for something written by a Somali author. Perhaps due to the conflict that has raged for years in Somalia, it is very difficult to find much from Somali writers published in English. From a Crooked Rib was published in 1970 and tells the story of Ebla, a young, orphaned, illiterate nomadic girl, who runs away from her encampment. She takes the decision to leave upon learning of her Grandfather’s intention to marry her off to an older man within their Jes (a group of families living in an encampment together). She firstly escapes to a town, Belet Amin, where she finds her cousin and his pregnant wife. She also finds a guide and confidante in a character known only as the widow. Things seem settled until, yet again, Ebla finds her freedom compromised by a male character – this time her cousin, whose wife and child Ebla has been nursing. In her haste she leaves Belet Amin with the w

The Bakiga Window: Taufiq Islamic Primary School: Part II

In a manner so typically Ugandan, Yasim approaches silently and politely asks whether he can have a word with me – it is one of those ironies that a word has to be had in order to have a word with someone. Irony aside, he has heard back from the Sheikh and arranged an appointment for me. It is Wednesday 20 th April and once more I find myself en route to Taufiq Islamic Primary School. The morning started in the usual way: waking up sleepy students, ensuring that everyone had 'taken' breakfast and had a supply of bottled water, and then walking with the group down the hill, into the town. At the foot of the hill, the group scattered into many fragments, with everyone off in search of their own adventures. I head straight on, past the noise of the metal workers, over to Taufiq. After having had to beat a hasty retreat last week , I was unsure of who would be in my reception committee. Teacher Bright was the first to greet me, before taking me inside to m

Beach Huts, Southwold, Suffolk

Sleeping beach huts on Southwold Beach, Suffolk. Safely back from my annual visit to Rotterdam, my parents invited me to spend a few days with them in a small holiday cottage in Southwold, Suffolk. Give or take driving through Newmarket a few years back when studying at Anglia Ruskin University, I'd never really seen much of the county. Southwold itself is a beautiful seaside resort which happens to be the home of Adnams , a well known brewery, which means that for a small place there are a healthy number of pubs - suddenly Dad's choice of location made sense . On the early afternoon of Wednesday 20th February  I took a walk to the Harbour Inn to meet my parents for lunch. The pub was just under two miles away from Grace Cottage , where we were staying. This gave me the opportunity to take some pictures of the sea. On our way towards the see we also spotted  Georgie Glen  from Waterloo Road humming happily to herself on the High Street. Southwold is lovely,