Monday, July 07, 2014

Dr No by Ian Fleming

When I wrote about From Russia with Love, I repeated the common myth that Ian Fleming was growing tired of the Bond series by then and wanted to kill off his main character. Turns out, that's not entirely accurate. Fleming was certainly experimenting when he wrote From Russia with Love, but not out of desperate boredom. He was simply interested in improving the series and was willing to take risks to do so.

Part of the myth of Bond's death is that Raymond Chandler is the one who talked Fleming out of making it permanent. But according to one Bond FAQ, Chandler's advice to Fleming was simply to criticize Diamonds Are Forever (I agree that it's a weak book) and suggest that Fleming could do better. Fleming took that to heart and From Russia with Love was the result. But there's other evidence - also dating back to Diamonds Are Forever - that implies Fleming always intended for Bond to live beyond From Russia with Love.

Shortly after Diamonds Are Forever was published, Fleming received a now-famous letter from a fan named Geoffrey Boothroyd who was also a gun expert. Boothroyd criticized Bond's use of the .25 Beretta as inappropriate and recommended the Walther PPK as a superior choice. Fleming also took this advice to heart, but was already too far into writing From Russia with Love to make the change for that book, so he replied to Boothroyd that he'd include that idea in the next one, which turned out to be Dr No. Apparently, the intention was never to leave Bond dead after From Russia with Love, but simply to end on a cliffhanger and get readers buzzing for the next installment. The myth could be the result of people getting Fleming confused with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who did grow tired of Sherlock Holmes and killed him off before later changing his mind.

As Dr No opens, Bond is still recuperating from Rosa Klebb's poison and M is nervous about sending 007 back into action. He discusses the agent's shelf life with the neurologist who's been watching over Bond's recovery and we get some insight to M's thoughts on pain in general and how much he expects his agents to be able to take. He doesn't want to coddle Bond and risk softening him up, but M is also aware that Bond's been through a rough time and doesn't need to be thrown up against another threat like SMERSH right away. Instead, M has a gravy assignment in mind for Bond; what M calls a "holiday in the sun."

Before we get into the mission, Fleming throws a little world-building into this section of the book. He finally uses the term "license to kill" in reference to the Double O privilege and he also reveals that Bond's best friend in the Service is M's Chief of Staff. I'm not sure what "best friend" means exactly in this context, because we've never seen Bond and the CoS hanging out, so maybe he's just the person who Bond feels the most camaraderie with at work. Bond doesn't seem like the kind of guy to have close friends.

The most famous bit of world-building in Dr No of course is the introduction of the Walther PPK, keeping Fleming's promise to Boothroyd. What's more, he names the armorer after Boothroyd and has the character repeat the fan's comments to M. Bond has to trade in his familiar Beretta for the gun that will become his trademark. As far as I remember, that's the last appearance of Boothroyd in the novels, but the films will make more of him.

Once Bond's outfitted, M reveals the cake-walk mission he has in mind. Strangways, the eye-patched agent stationed in Jamaica whom Bond worked with in Live and Let Die has gone missing with his secretary. Everyone - including M - believes the two of them ran off together, so Bond is just supposed to verify that and tie up loose ends.

Of course, the case is much more complicated than that and Bond quickly figures that out as soon as he starts looking into Strangways' most recent investigation. When a couple of attempts are made on Bond's life, he knows he's on the right track and follows his queries to an island called Crab Key and it's enigmatic owner, Dr. Julius No. Bond teams up again with Quarrel - also from Live and Let Die - and fans of the movie will be very familiar with the rest of the plot.

During all of this, Fleming brings up again a couple of elements that have become recurring features of Bond's world: the "Bond, James Bond" introduction and his preference for martinis that are "shaken, not stirred." This is at least the third novel in which each of those has appeared, so I probably won't mention them again. By the time the movies get started, they're standard aspects of the character.

If Fleming was experimenting in From Russia with Love, he's gone back to a traditional form of storytelling in Dr No. In fact, the narrative structure of Dr No is more straightforward than all the other Bond novels so far except for Diamonds Are Forever. But where Diamonds Are Forever is my least favorite of the series so far, Dr No is nipping at the heels of Casino Royale for my top spot. It's an extremely pulpy book, from it's fantastic attempts on Bond's life to the revelation of its Fu Manchu-inspired villain with his island hideout and wonderfully elaborate death traps.

It also has the same casual racism that permeated the pulps - and the previous Bond novels - but isn't as horrifying as, for instance, what shows up in Live and Let Die and Diamonds Are Forever. Unlike those books, it was easy for me to filter that out of Dr No as I read. As an example, when Dr. No monologues to Bond at the end - another pulpy element that works better in this setting than it did in the more serious From Russia with Love - he says that it's because Bond will appreciate the story more than No's men would. No calls his men "apes," which could be an ugly reference to the African part of their heritage, but I (choose to?) believe that it's a non-racial insult about their education. I might be reinterpreting to make the book more palatable for myself, but my point is that it's possible to do that with Dr No, where it isn't with the explicit and aggressive racism of Live and Let Die and Diamonds Are Forever.

I'm aware that I'm heaping higher praise on Dr No basically because it's less ambitious than From Russia with Love. It sets a lower bar for itself and then easily clears it, so maybe I'm not being fair. But as much as I love Fleming's willingness to experiment, that's not what I go to the Bond books for. It's possibly a sad comment about me as a reader, but I prefer that Fleming write excellent books in a traditional style than try to transcend the genre and fail. I can appreciate From Russia with Love, but I adore Dr No.

Not that Dr No simply retreads old territory. The Bond series has never been this pulpy before, so that itself is an experiment. More than that though, Fleming does something exciting and important with Bond's character, especially once he meets Honey Rider.

I think I've said before that I've been imagining Daniel Craig as Bond as I've been reading these again, but that's getting increasingly difficult to do and it comes to a head in Dr No. Even back in Casino Royale, I pointed out how weird it would be to have Craig fantasize about erupting from the ocean in a shower of spray for Vesper to see. That's way too romantic for Craig, even though his Bond falls for Vesper as hard as the literary Bond does. The thing is that as dark a character as Fleming's Bond is, Craig's is darker. The literary Bond has some true moments of light-heartedness, like the way he interacts with Quarrel and Dr. Pleydell-Smith in Dr No. When he's alone and in danger, he's as dark as they come. But when he's hanging out with the right people, he has a light sense of humor that shows through. Craig's Bond has a sense of humor, but it's always cold and ironic. The more I read, the more I think Timothy Dalton nailed that balance better than any other actor.

Craig's Bond also wouldn't be as gentle with Honey Rider as Bond is in the novel. When she's introduced, Honey is a wild child; an example of the noble savage stereotype. She's been living on her own for years, surrounded by nature and animals. The little experience she's had with civilization hasn't been pleasant, so she's mostly avoided people until circumstances throw her together with Bond and Quarrel on the island.

Bond is instinctively protective of her. She's 20 (I kept imagining Saoirse Ronan in the role, but that's not perfect casting) and he's pushing 40, so one might be forgiven for expecting him to feel paternalistic towards her, but that would be prudish and unrealistic. The literary Bond isn't as bad as Roger Moore's version, but he's still highly sexual and a womanizer and he quickly decides that the very hot Miss Rider is a grown enough woman to allow himself some romantic thoughts about her. Especially since she makes no effort to hide that she's having the same thoughts about him.

But she's such an innocent that I kept wondering how much of a woman she really is. Her relationship with Bond is almost like a devoted pet at first and I think there's an interesting, if uncomfortable comparison to be made to Ulysse and Nova in Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes or Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid in that movie. It's great that Honey's innocent loyalty brings out an intensely protective side of Bond, but how able is she to know what's going on if the relationship becomes sexual? Would he be taking advantage of her? Fleming leaves that question unanswered for quite a while.

But he does get around to answering it in a marvelous way. As the novel progresses and the danger increases, Honey reveals herself to not be so helplessly innocent after all. For starters, she tells Bond a story (repeated in the movie) about taking revenge on a man who raped her as a kid. It's not using rape as an origin story, but it does show that she has agency in taking care of herself and always has. That doesn't change on Crab Key either. Unlike in the movie, she rescues herself from Dr. No's clutches, using her own knowledge and wits and strength. When Ursula Andress tells Sean Connery that she knows lots of things he doesn't, my response is "yeah yeah sure sure." It sounds like childish bragging to me and the movie never provides a reason to think otherwise. The literary Honey on the other hand, proves her claim to be true.

Fleming awesomely puts to rest my fears about Honey's being more pet than consenting adult, which does wonderful things for Bond's character. He feels protective of her, not like you would a favorite dog, but as a human being who proves herself again and again to be capable of protecting herself. In other words, she pulls him out of the selfishness that's defined his relationships with women since Casino Royale and before.

Though they do eventually have sex, it's not until the end of the book (after the last sentence, actually) and it's entirely on Honey's initiative. Bond wants it too, naturally, but she plans it, pushes for it, and makes it happen.

And as the novel ends, Bond has committed to helping Honey enter society in a way that offers him no reward. He's not leaving his job for her, but even that doesn't feel selfish. It's as if he knows he'd be bad for her and he wants nothing bad for her. He's going to provide what financial support he can to get her set up in a life that will bring her happiness, and he makes sure that she has continued support in the form of Pleydell-Smith and his wife (both of whom I adore). After that, he's going to leave her alone and not ruin things for her. It's an amazing act of conditionless love and I didn't think him capable of it.

But Bond is changing. Fleming shows it with Honey, but he also shows it as Bond thinks back over the case and the deaths it brought. He wonders where Dr. No's soul would go. "Had it been a bad soul or just a mad one?" Then he thinks about Quarrel:
"He remembered the soft ways of the big body, the innocence in the grey, horizon-seeking eyes, the simple lusts and desires, the reverence for superstitions and instincts, the childish faults, the loyalty and even love that Quarrel had given him - the warmth, there was only one word for it, of the man."
Bond decides that a man like Quarrel can't have ended up in the same place as a man like No. Bond's job and perception of the world makes it tough to think in terms of good and evil - especially since Casino Royale - so he thinks in terms of warmth and cold. Quarrel was warm; No was cold. And which, Bond wonders, is he?

That remains to be seen, but I love where he seems to be headed.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi Michael, I wanted to drop you a note thanking you very much for all if your blog posts analyzing all the James Bond stuff. I just found your blog recently and am a frequent visitor now.

I am also enjoying your posts with regard to Letterbox films.

One thing I really like about your blog is your abundant use if high quality Pics/Graphics. That really makes the reading much more pleasurable.


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