The Elegant Venus - Ian Fleming's Doctor No

'British Secret Service agent and his secretary have gone missing from their base in Kingston. M thinks this will be an easy case for 007, still recovering from his near fatal encounter with a Russian agent. Arriving in Jamaica to investigate, Bond learns that the reclusive Dr Julius No may be behind their disappearance. And when Bond and the exotic Honeychile Rider are caught trespassing on Dr No’s secluded island, they discover he has diabolical plans afoot that could threaten international security.'

Doctor No is the sixth book in the series of James Bond adventures written by Ian Fleming and was originally published in 1958. The story starts with 007 still recovering from the events of From Russia with Love and his poisoning at the hands of Rosa Klebb. M discovers that Bond has been given tetrodotoxin, a poison that derives from a type of Japanese fish. A combination of Bond's friend Rene Mathis and a doctor well versed in poisons manage to save our hero and, despite a grim diagnosis, he recovers. M then decides to give 007 a 'rest cure', in other words an easy assignment, and tells Bond to investigate the disappearance of the SIS Head of Station Jamaica, Jack Strangways. Strangways is widely believed to have simply run away with his secretary but Bond isn't terribly convinced by this theory and neither are we after reading the exciting beginning of the novel involving the missing operative.

Bond's attention is soon drawn to Dr Julius No, a reclusive and wealthy Chinese-German bird-dung merchant with a heavily guarded and mysterious private island known as Crab Key. Though rich in wildlife, ornithologists tend to go missing should they ever curiously venture to this island which - legend has it - is said to be guarded by a dragon. Bond and his old friend Quarrel decide to pay a secret visit to Crab Key and soon meet the beautiful Honeychile Ryder - who is there searching for rare seashells. Their presence is then detected leading to a nightmarish battle for survival as they seek to uncover the secret agenda of Dr No.

One of the most purely entertaining - not to mention fantastical - of the Bond novels, Doctor No finds Ian Fleming on top form and serves up a fast-paced and exciting read with lashings of sex and sadism and some enjoyably daft pulp elements. One could argue this might be the most violent and sadistic of all of the James Bond books and - with some style - it throws all manner of strangeness and mayhem at the reader in the inimitable Fleming fashion. The book begins in fine style with Strangways in the West Indies and then resolves the cliffhanger ending of From Russia with Love. Bond is rather piqued to be given what seems to be a dull and routine mission almost beneath a man of his experience and abilities and there is a real tension between him and M because of this apparent slight. 'Bond looked across into M’s eyes. For the first time in his life he hated the man. He knew perfectly well why M was being tough and mean. It was deferred punishment for having nearly got killed on his last job. In a way Bond felt sure he was being sent on this cushy assignment to humiliate him. The old bastard.' 

Doctor No is a prime example of why the Bond books took off in the first place, transplanting the reader into an irresistibly exotic and sun-drenched adventure full of danger and intrigue. There is some great stuff here when some inventive attempts are made on Bond's life, especially a classic piece of Fleming where a deadly centipede (replaced with a Tarantula in the 1962 film adaption by Eon) is placed in 007's bed while he is asleep. The author amps up the tension over four or five pages in this episode and it makes for gripping reading.

James Bond always works best with an eccentric and formidable villain and Dr No is a suitably challenging and unhinged opponent for 007 here. No, based on Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, is tall and bald with no eyelashes and mechanical claws for hands. He has a sadistic fascination with pain and the endurance of the human body, which has alarming consequences for Bond himself. 'You are right, Mr Bond. That is just what I am, a maniac. All the greatest men are maniacs. They are possessed by a mania which drives them forwards towards their goal. The great scientists, the philosophers, the religious leaders - all maniacs.' No's strange tropical island - based on Inagua in the Bahamas - contains spiders, giant squids, hundreds of crabs and a very nasty obstacle course designed for Bond. It gives Doctor No a ludicrously bonkers but hugely entertaining quality at times as a book and Fleming does a great job here in describing the pain endured by Bond when he's put through some of No's devious games - involving electric shocks, spiders and much more besides.

Honeychile Rider makes for a vivid and resourceful Bond heroine and 007's first introduction to her is as striking as the enduringly iconic moment in the film adaption when Ursula Andress first walks out of the sea. 'It was a naked girl, with her back to him. She was not quite naked. She wore a broad leather belt round her waist with a hunting knife in a leather sheath at her right hip. The belt made her nakedness extraordinarily erotic. She stood in the relaxed pose of the nude, all the weight on the right leg and the left knee bent and turned slightly inwards, the head to one side as she examined the things in her hand.' Honeychile to Bond is Botticelli’s Venus seen from behind.

As ever with Fleming there are some rather dated elements, such as the employees of Dr No, of black and Chinese extraction, being termed 'Chigroes' for some reason. One thing that is enjoyable about the novel though is the way certain (now familiar) traits and characters are starting to be firmly established in James Bond's orbit - such as Service Armourer Major Boothroyd (Q) and 007's request for 'a medium Vodka dry martini with a slice of lemon peel. Shaken and not stirred, please. I would prefer Russian or Polish vodka.' Dr No is a nasty but urbane villain who establishes some of the blueprint for the classic Bond villains who would grace the silver screen, him being prone to enjoyable Bond villain speeches and lines like 'You persist in underestimating me, Mr Bond.' I do love the interaction between Bond and No here, the civilised clash of wits that every Bond villain craves before he puts his nefarious plans into operation. 'Let us proceed with our talk,' says No. 'It is a rare pleasure to have an intelligent listener.'

Doctor No is an enjoyable piece of stylish nonsense, more fantastical and far out than some other James Bond novels but great fun nonetheless.

- Jake


c 2009 Alternative 007