Sunday, July 27, 2014

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.

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