Book Review: Dr. No by Ian Fleming

Having survived his creator’s attempt to kill him off at the end of From Russia With Love, British secret agent James Bond returned in the 1958 novel Dr. No.

When Dr. No begins, M is concerned that his top agent might no longer have what it takes.  After all, James Bond barely survived his previous mission.  The doctors say that he’s recovered,  Bond has spent months in rehab.  Bond is desperate for a new mission but M still has his doubts.  So, he gives Bond what should be an easy assignment.  He sends 007 to Jamaica, to investigate the strange disappearance of John Strangeways and his secretary.  (Strangeways previously appeared in Live and Let Die.)

It turns out to be anything but simple.  As soon as Bond arrives, it becomes obvious that the mysterious Dr. No was somehow involved in whatever happened to Strangeways.  Dr. No lives on a remote island and has made a fortune through the cultivation of bat guano.  (Eck!)  With the help of the loyal Quarrel and the beautiful Honeychile Ryder, Bond sets out to find out what Dr. No is actually up to.  Of course, the natives say that Dr. No is protected by a dragon.  Bond says that’s foolish but then the dragon shows up…

But it’s not just the dragon that Bond has to look out for!  There’s Dr. No himself.  When we finally meet Dr. No, we discover that he’s basically a cyborg.  Oh, he’s never called that, of course.  I don’t even know if “cyborg” was a word in 1958.  But Fleming delights in telling us about Dr. No’s metal hands and the way that he glides across the floor.  Fleming also delights in telling us all about the ins and outs of bat guano.  Fleming came up with many creative deaths for his Bond novels but Dr. No is the first to feature suffocation by bat shit.

Dr. No is a departure from Fleming’s previous books, all of which may have featured villains with odd names but, at the same time, remained somewhat realistic.  Dr. No, on the other hand, is so fanciful that it almost reads as being satire.  Everything from Dr. No’s megalomania to Honeychile Ryder’s first appearance on the beach suggests that Dr. No is intentionally written to take place in a bigger-than-life fantasy world.  That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad book.  In fact, it’s one of Fleming’s more entertaining novels.  But it’s almost as if, having brought Bond back to life, Fleming was determined to take a break from the real world with his next novel.

Interestingly, Dr. No started life as a non-Bond related screenplay.  Though Fleming ultimately abandoned the script, he used it as the inspiration for his next book.  It’s appropriate that, from such beginnings, Dr. No went on to serve as the basis of the first Bond film.

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