Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Dr. No, by Ian Fleming


Dr. No

Published in 1958, 240 pages

M calls this case a "soft option". He sends Bond to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of the head of the Kingston station. Jamaica is luxurious, and the seductive Honey Rider is beautiful and willing, but they are both part of the empire of Dr. No.

Bond discovers that Dr. No is working with the Russians, and that they have supplied him with several million dollars worth of equipment to sabotage nearby American missile tests. The doctor is a worthy adversary, with a mind as hard and cold as his solid steel hands and an obsession for power. His only gifts are strictly pain-shaped.

Okay, I enjoy the Bond novels. They are my literary guilty pleasure. I have to this point considered Ian Fleming somewhat underrated as an author.

But holy crap was Dr. No a stinker. I still enjoyed it, but there was definitely more guilt than pleasure.

Let's get the plot out of the way with. Dr. No takes place immediately after From Russia With Love. Bond is still recovering from his poisoning by Rosa Klebb, and M is kind of pissed at him, so he sends Bond on what should be an easy assignment: figure out why MI6's station head and assistant in Jamaica have disappeared. The assistant is a woman, so naturally the first theory is "The two of them ran away together." Because of course it totally makes sense for professional intelligence agents to ditch their assignment without a word and run off together; that's just what happens when you let chicks join the workforce, amirite? To Bond's credit (and he needs all the credit he can get), he's the first one to point out that this theory doesn't make much sense.

So he goes to Jamaica, and after stumbling around for a while enjoying the native scenery, surviving an attempted assassination-by-centipede (more on that later), and getting a loverly briefing by the British state department official about the various racial types who live on Jamaica and the inherent flaws in each making them inferior to the white man (sample: "The Jamaican is a kindly, virtuous man with the virtues and vices of a child"), he learns that there is a little island everyone is afraid of, owned by a half-Chinese gentleman named Dr. Julius No. So Bond goes to the island, and there he meets Honeychile Rider.

Dr. No

An accurate cover, actually.

Yes, that's Honeychile Rider. Previous Bond women did not have such ridiculous names. Okay, "Vesper Lynd" is unusual, but kind of poetic. Tatiana Romanova is a fine Russian name. But "Honeychile Rider"? She was apparently dubbed this by her black Jamaican mammy. Yes, really.

Honey Sells Seashells By the Seashore

Honey's parents were killed when she was five, and she's basically been living wild since then. Bond finds her collecting seashells on Dr. No's island to send them to a collector in Miami. She has calculated that in a mere ten years, she will have made enough money to afford to go to New York and have an operation to fix her nose, which was broken by a man who raped her. Then, her plan is to become a call girl. Bond, not unreasonably, questions her about this plan, suspecting that she might not actually know what a "call girl" is, but to his surprise, she knows exactly what a call girl is, though her notion of the work is exceedingly naive. ("Men pay you to make love with them.")

Ever gallant and sensible, Bond suggests that since she knows so much about animals, she might get a job as animal keeper at a zoo instead. Yes, really.

So, you expect Bond girls to be kind of, well, sex. But Honeychile was giggle-inducing, from her name to everything about her, and I had a much stronger feeling than in previous novels that Fleming was writing parts of this book one-handed. (Note, though, that it's still a "respectable" novel published in the late 50s, so there aren't any actual sex scenes.)

No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to listen to me monologue

Dr. No also seems to be the beginning of the more cartoonish Bond villains. He's half-Chinese, and if repeatedly describing his sinister slanted eyes and unemotional demeanor and cold calculating bloodthirstiness and of course the fact that underneath his Inscrutable Orientalness he's a raving psychopath doesn't make him inhuman enough, he also has deadly prosthetics in place of his hands, which were cut off when he was working for the Tongs.

What is Dr. No's Big Evil Scheme? To be master of his domain and hold the power of life and death! Which is why he spent all the money he stole from the Tongs to buy a small island whose chief export is guano. Now he's lord and master of... a few hundred guano-collectors. But to explain why he's got armed guards and gunboats and shit and give Bond a reason to care about stopping him, there's also a side plot about him being paid by the Russians to mess with American missile tests.

That's not enough to make him a serious villain, though, so after hosting Bond and Honeychile on his island and giving them a nice gourmet dinner, he informs them that he intends to torture them to death to satisfy his scientific curiosity. Honeychile in particular arouses his scientific curiousity: he previously had a black woman (the word he actually uses is "negress") eaten alive by crabs, and he's very curious to see how long a white woman will last. Yes, really. Apparently there is some scientific question about whether crabs eat white meat more slowly or something. So, have we checked off all the boxes in the "Incredibly Icky Villainous Asian Stereotype" column yet?


Oh, you want more? The word "Chigro" is used approximately six thousand times in this book. A "Chigro," in case you couldn't guess, is a half-black, half-Chinese person, who are at some points in this book described as "rare" and yet seem to make up most of Dr. No's private army.

Also, every time Bond meets a person of Chinese descent, he "knows" that this person must be secretly working for Dr. No. ('Cause they're Chinese, get it?) This being an Ian Fleming novel, naturally Bond is always correct in his assumption.

An enchanting Chinese girl in a mauve and white flowered kimono stood smiling and bowing as Chinese girls are supposed to do. Again there was nothing but warmth and welcome in the pale, flower-like face.

Go ahead, count the points of fail! in the above sentence.


Seriously, the previous Bond novels had about as much racism as you'd expect from Mighty Whitey 50s spy thrillers, but they weren't this gross.

Fleming Fails at Zoology

Research? Oh, come on, you can't expect a 1950s British author to know that kimonos aren't Chinese.

How about knowing that sharks aren't reptiles?

No, seriously, he (not Bond: Fleming) refers to a shark as a REPTILE!


Dr. No is actually full of zoological ridiculousness.

Question: You wake up in the middle of the night and realize that a large, nasty bug is crawling up your body. Do you:

  1. Knock the damn thing off?
  2. Levitate six feet into the air in uncontrollable hysterics and then run screaming around the room, probably knocking the damn thing off in the process?
  3. Lie there sweating and hoping it will crawl off of you without biting you?

If you are most peopleokay, me, you would probably aim for #1 even if your actual reaction is likely to be closer to #2.

Bond goes for option #3. Because you see, centipedes are so deadly that if it bites him, he will die almost instantly. Except really, not. Also, it's not like they are snakes -- if the damn thing hasn't bitten you already, you can almost certainly swat it off before it does. But how could a trained secret agent be expected to know that? There aren't any centipedes in England, after all.

For extra LOLs, after Bond smashes it:

It burst open yellowly.

And then he goes and throws up. Yes, really. Aww, the big bwave sekwet agent is afwaid of bugs...

Honeychile Rider killed the man who raped her by finding a big hungry black widow spider and putting it on his stomach while he was asleep. He "took a week to die."

I've already mentioned Dr. No's plan to kill Honeychile by feeding her to crabs. (It doesn't work because, you know, crabs won't actually eat people unless they're already dead. Evil genius Dr. No's scientific curiosity apparently had not gotten as far as figuring this out yet.)

He tries to feed Bond to a giant squid. Yes, really.

The writing is purple, yellow, pink, and white

Was Fleming's writing this bad in previous books? Did I just not notice it? No, I think I would have noticed if his previous books had been full of sentences like this:

It burst open yellowly.
Their eyes shone redly.
Three pairs of eyes looked whitely at their leader.
The tip of the tongue showed pinkly between the purple lips.
The thin purple lips parted.
The black apertures turned towards him.

Those "black apertures" are referring to Dr. No's eyes. Yes, really. "Black apertures," "purple lips," and other color-adverbs appear repeatedly- I counted at least two "yellowly"s. Yes, really.

Maybe this is what you bang out when you're writing one-handed.


(OH IAN FLEMING NO is a respectful rip-off of the meme started by hradzka's brilliant "review": OH JOHN RINGO NO.)

The First Bond Film

Dr. No (film)

Though Dr. No was the sixth Bond novel, it was the first one made into a film. The 1962 film introduced Sean Connery as 007, and starred Ursula Andress as the first Bond girl.

Okay, not gonna lie: Ursula Andress is hot.

Ursula Andress

The movie is pretty consistent with the book: the overall plot and most of the characters are as Fleming described, though Honey's backstory is mostly omitted. CIA agent Felix Leiter appears in the movie (he did not in the book), Dr. No is made an agent of SMERSH (which was not mentioned in the book) and No has a nuclear reactor on his island for no apparent reason. The more hideous racism of the book is toned down a bit. All the tropes that later become Bond movie hallmarks: the opening credits with Bond shooting at the viewer, the 007 sound track, the evil villain who explains his plans before putting Bond in a deathtrap, the flirting with Moneypenny, and the movie ending with Bond and the Bond girl making out as their "rescuers" find them, were all established here. This was not my favorite Bond film, but unlike the book, it's not my least favorite either.

I was very disappointed that there was no giant squid in the movie, however.

Verdict: Contemporary readers will find all of the Bond novels very much products of their time, and either you can overlook that and enjoy them for what they are or you can't. However, Dr. No has all the worst qualities of Fleming's writing and very little of the best. Lard halp me, I still enjoyed it, but I was cringing more than I usually do, and I would not recommend this book unless you're either a die-hard Bond fan or you just want to have a good long sneer.

Also by Ian Fleming: My reviews of Casino Royale, From Russia With Love, and Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories.
Tags: books, books that fail, ian fleming, movies, netflix, reviews

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