Monday, October 4, 2021

Ian Fleming’s Dr No

Dr No, published in 1958, is the sixth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

Dr No takes Bond back to Jamaica which had been the setting for the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die. Bond would return to Jamaica once again in The Man with the Golden Gun. Fleming had owned a house in Jamaica since 1945. His first-hand knowledge of the island was obviously an advantage but to Fleming it offered other attractions as a setting, being one of the last outposts of the British Empire (Jamaica did not achieve independence until four years after the publication of Dr No). One of the recurring themes of the Bond novels is Fleming’s bitterness at the loss of the Empire and the declining power and influence of Britain in the post-war world. The Bond novels were in some ways Fleming’s attempt to deal with this unpleasant reality by denying it, and by creating a fantasy world in which it’s always the British Secret Service that saves the day.

Dr No begins with the murder of a man named Strangways, the Secret Service’s Head of Station in Jamaica. His secretary, Mary Trueblood, also a Secret Service agent, is also murdered. The reader certainly knows they were murdered but the reasons for the murder are entirely unknown.

The Secret Service doesn’t even know they were murdered. M assumes that they simply ran off together. Their disappearance will have to be investigated but to M it seems to be an absurdly trivial matter. In fact it would be an ideal matter for James Bond to investigate. Bond is still recuperating after receiving shocking injuries in his previous case so a bit of sunshine and a very routine case will be a good way of getting him slowly back into the swing of things.

As soon as he arrives in Jamaica someone tries to kill him. To Bond that’s a pretty clear indication that this is no routine case. He also has a feeling that there might be something to the bird angle after all. There’s a sanctuary for rare birds on Crab Key, an island thirty miles north of Jamaica, and various ornithologists sent to check up on the birds have met violent deaths. And Crab Key’s only significance is that it contains immense amounts of guano, and there’s big money to be made from bird poo.

Bond hooks up with his old friend Quarrel, a Cayman Islander who was very useful to him on an earlier case, and decides to take a closer look at Crab Key. He’d also like to find out more about the man who owns the island, a half-German half-Chinese chap by the name of Dr No.

When Bond reaches the island we get the scene that became such an iconic part of the Dr No movie - Bond’s encounter on the beach with a beautiful naked blonde girl (in the movie she naturally isn’t naked but wears a bikini). The girl is Honeychile Rider. Bond will also encounter Dr No’s dragon. And eventually Bond and Honey will get to meet Dr No.

By the time this book was published Fleming was already starting to become something of a pop culture phenomenon. He was also starting to make enemies among the critics. Fleming was starting to be accused not just of relying on sex and violence but also on sadism and snobbery. There’s also no doubt that many critics hated the fact that the Bond books were so popular - it just didn’t seem right that an author could achieve so much success by writing books that people wanted to read, rather than by writing the kinds of books that critics thought that people should read.

There’s plenty in this novel for the anti-Bond crowd to hate. There’s torture, and in particular there’s the torture awaiting Honeychile Rider. Once you get to that scene, which doesn’t play out at all the way you might expect, you can’t help feeling that Fleming was having some fun with his critics.

The interesting thing about Honeychile Rider in the novel (compared to the film) is that her beauty is not quite perfect. She has a badly deformed nose, the result of a broken nose that was never set properly. Oddly enough Bond finds that this imperfection in her beauty makes her more appealing. Honey is a rather interesting Bond Girl - she’s both intelligent and naïve, and both gentle and wild.

By the time Fleming wrote Dr No he was really on a roll. The books from Live and Let Die (1954) to Goldfinger (1959) saw him at the peak of his powers. Dr No has all the essential ingredients to make a great Bond novel, and it is a great Bond novel. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed the 1962 Dr No movie at Cult Movie Reviews.


  1. Definitely one of the best - I think it was the first one I read (I bought 4 second-hand as a teen, and accidentally read them in reverse order). I love the idea of a plot about bird poo - genius on Fleming's part, especially since it was actually important to the global economy!

    There's a bit more of a morbid air of doom in the book than the film IMO. It doesn't have many flaws; although in both book and film, Bond escapes a little bit too easily - there's an air of "One Inept Guard" syndrome; although if the villain kept a real eye on the hero, the hero wouldn't have a chance!

    There's also some nice acidic touches about some of the people Bond has to work for in his job.

    Highly recommended. Perhaps because I read it first, I think this may be the best one.

    1. There's also some nice acidic touches about some of the people Bond has to work for in his job.

      I've been re-reading quite a few of the books and also the short stories recently. And I'm noticing that Bond at times actually has a slightly uneasy relationship wth the Secret Service, and with M. It's something I hadn't noticed the first time I read the books many years ago. There really are times when Bond isn't entirely happy with the jobs.

      The short stories are particular interesting in this respect.

  2. When I first started rereading the Bond books, I was surprised at how different the various books were. Some were more adventurous, some were straight spy stories. I think my favorite is From Russia With Love but I change my mind about that sometimes. Also that one is my favorite film, I think.

    1. When I first started rereading the Bond books, I was surprised at how different the various books were.

      They started to change over time as well. In the later books Fleming started to experiment just a little with the idea of doing different things with Bond.

      I think my favorite is From Russia With Love but I change my mind about that sometimes. Also that one is my favorite film, I think.

      It's definitely my favourite of the films. As for the books, I'm torn between From Russia With Love and Diamonds Are Forever.