Although Doctor No was Ian Fleming's sixth James Bond book, it was the first to hit the silver screen, in a 1962 release starring Sean Connery. It is also one of the Bond series that is being re-released this year, complete with campy 1960's style cover art.
When reading the James Bond books, one cannot help but wonder just how much of Bond's personality and experience is really Ian Fleming. The short biography of Fleming provided seems fascinatingly parallel: An upper class gentleman, born into the world so carefully depicted in the novels, an agent of the secret service, a frequent visitor to Jamaica, even a Commander, just like Bond! This scintillating hint that there may be some truth to these adventures is like marshmallows in hot chocolate – it would be pretty good anyway, but with that little extra oomph, wow!
Fleming's evolution as a writer from the earlier titles is clearly evident in Doctor No, as is Bond's evolution as a world-class spy. The narrative flows better, and the story is much more dramatic, with some of the fabulous gadgetry that Bond is so famous for being introduced (although in this book most of it, unfortunately for James, is in the hands of the bad guys). James is still the suave gentleman gourmet, but his attitude towards women has relaxed a bit and the fresh air of the Jamaica setting seem to do him good, as there is a bit less drinking and smoking going on than in the earliest volumes of the series.
The villain in this book is the evil Doctor No (not to be confused with Austin Power's Doctor Evil – or perhaps, yes, go ahead and confuse them. I think that may be the intent of Austin Powers' creators) who lives in an underground fortress on a tiny Caribbean island. He spends his days working out his plans for world domination, annoyed only by
one tiny little glitch. His island is home to some rare birds, and the Audubon Society wants to monitor the darn things. Dr. No finds it rather hard to plot properly while a lot of goody-goody birdwatchers gallivant around his stronghold, so he does what any evil scientist worth his salt would do: he gets rid of them. Bad move. Complaints are made, flags are raised – and Bond is sent to investigate.
Pretty much everyone except Bond suspects that there is not much to this case. He is also to investigate the disappearance of two secret agents from the Jamaican station – a man and a girl – but it is assumed by the powers that be that they just ran away together. There is no apparent connection between the two assignments, and M, Bond's boss, sends him because he thinks that James could use a bit of a vacation. However, Bond quickly determines that something much bigger is going on, and that the two cases are connected in some way (discovery made via obvious surveillance of him and blatant attempts on his life). He and his old friend Quarrel set out for the mysterious island to investigate.
Quarrel made his first appearance in Live and Let Die, and rejoins Bond in this caper. Fleming often re-uses characters, which gives the series continuity and lets readers, after a few books, feel like "insiders." He does not, however, re-run leading ladies. This adventure's girl du jour is Honeychile Rider, a lovely but naïve island native who handles a knife like a pro and can certainly take care of herself rather better than Bond's females usually manage.
Bits of Fleming's prose seem dated, but all in all, for works written over forty years ago, the Bond books hold up remarkably well. Doctor No features certain racial descriptions (Doctor No is half Chinese, and much of his staff consists of half-Chinese, half-Jamaican thugs) that would probably not be seen in contemporary fiction, as well as the charmingly quaint practice of blanking out cuss words ("'May be a ----ing crocodile,' yelled the leading man."). Of course the drinking/smoking/heavy-on-the-cholesterol menus are largely items of the past, too. Still, the book is a good read and the plot and technology are quite believable. In fact, they may be more realistic sounding now than they were in Fleming's own time.
Doctor No has all the action, drama, and romance that has kept Fleming's books in the limelight for nearly half a century, all told in Fleming's droll, understated style. The James Bond series et al could well be required reading, if there were a college course in "How To Behave Like a Gentleman." Highly recommended!