“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 purpose. Mania … is as priceless as genius.”
We last saw James Bond, agent 007, collapsing in a heap after SMERSH agent Rosa Klebb kicked him in the calf with a poison-tipped knife secreted in the tip of her shoe in From Russia, With Love. Despite the heavy cliffhanger, it should come as no surprise that Bond survived that incident and, after a brief spell in the hospital, has been deemed fit for duty at MI6. Bond’s pride, however, is still wounded. He knows he got carried away with his last assignment and made some amateurish mistakes that landed him in the hospital. He blames himself and is eager to prove his worth to his boss, M. So when M hands Bond a routine assignment and refers to it as a ‘personnel issue’ that needs rectifying, Bond’s shame only burns brighter. We of course know that this ‘routine’ assignment will turn out to be anything but a simple beach vacation, but to Bond it’s another mark of shame.
You may remember Strangways, MI6’s man in the Caribbean from Live and Let Die, where he made an appearance to help set Bond on his way. Well, now Strangways and his secretary have gone missing altogether. It is believed that they ran off together, but the details of their last radio broadcast are troubling enough that MI6 wants to send it’s own man out to determine what happened. After arriving in Jamaica, Bond hooks up with his buddy Quarrel (also from Live and Let Die) and quickly ascertains that all is not as it seems in this tropical paradise. All roads seem to lead back to Strangways’ last investigation into the activities of the mysterious Doctor No out on Crab Key Island. When 007 sneaks onto the island to investigate, the situation escalates into a deadly game of survival against one of the world’s most diabolical minds.
Just like Live and Let Die, Doctor No is accidentally wildly racist, but this time it’s against Chinese people. Doctor No himself is half Chinese and half German, and he employs nothing but people who are half Chinese and half Jamaican–which means it is assumed any time a Chinese person shows up that they are a bad guy. Even worse, Fleming makes it true. There’s not much here for feminists either since 007 sees Honeychile Rider as a sex object he basically wants to treat roughly. Plus she gets naked. A lot. She isn’t so a character so much as a blow-up doll that can walk and talk. Large swathes of the Bond books come down to adolescent wish fulfillment, and never has that been more true than in Doctor No. It really isn’t great, but you kinda have to go with it.
Some of the Bond books thus far have been disappointingly lacking in the villain department (here’s looking at you, Diamonds Are Forever). It’s like the modern complaint that all the Marvel superhero movies never actually have a memorable villain other than Loki. The reason they work, and the reason the Bond books work, is that the hero carries the weight. Doctor No doesn’t actually show up until late in the book but you begin feeling his menace early on. Suspense builds around what he is up to. He’s a Bond villain that comes to life on the page–mechanical claw-hands and all. So it’s unfortunate that the climax of the novel essentially takes place without him. He tosses Bond into a deadly obstacle course to see how far he makes it, then disappears to check on a shipment at the dock. That’s it. The emotional climax of the story is more about James Bond fighting his own body (his tiredness, his injuries) to survive. It’s not about a showdown with a diabolical madman. Once Bond escapes he dispatches Doctor No practically without ceremony (he and the Doctor don’t even exchange any words). That’s a bit disappointing considering how good the rest of the book is.
Still, there have been worse books in the series. This one is fun (if you can get past the racism and misogyny), it just loses a lot of steam in the end. Without that hiccup it’s a great installment. I particularly like that Ian Fleming’s Bond has a trajectory through the novels. Tiffany Case moves in with him at the end of Diamonds Are Forever but by From Russia With Love she’s dumped him to run off with another man. The hurt he feels there leads him to be a little too reckless and susceptible to Tatiana Romanova, so when we meet him again here he’s desperate to prove himself as an agent all over again. The movies frequently try as hard as possible to avoid continuity, so it makes the Bond on the page that much more interesting.