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"Unfortunately, strict patterns of behavior can be deadly if they are read by an enemy."
- Ian Fleming, Dr. No
It is weird to visit a book that is so well preserved by a film. Maybe it was because it was the first James Bond film, but it has always stuck with me. The book was both more and less interesting. It had some great lines by Dr. No, and Honey Ryder was better developed in the book. But, still, it was hard to read the book and not think of Ursula Andress, the very first Bond Girl on film, walking out of the ocean. Obviously, there is something about these books and films that appeals to reader and viewer (sex, adventure, etc.) that keeps them in print and consistently being imitated and produced. However, as I've aged, I seem to have gravitated more towards John Le Carré's view of the world and away from Ian Fleming's. One has to grow up. But still, I keep coming back. There is still a 14-year old boy that needs to be feed, and sometimes shaken, sometimes stirred.
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This book is wacky and wrong in so many ways, and it wouldn't be Fleming's Bond if it were any other way.
Picking up with the cliffhanger ending of From Russia With Love, M sends Bond on a "rest cure," a routine inquiry at the insistence of the American Audubon Society on behalf of some endangered birds. The location is, naturally, Jamaica and surrounding areas, Fleming's home away from home that features so prominently in the Bond lore. For Fleming, it's a working vacation site, and so it is now for Bond as well. For those readers who are more familiar with the films, it's worth noting that Dr. No is one of rare instances where the movie is largely faithful to the source material. There are a great many differences, certainly (such as the glaring absence of Felix Leiter), but the basics are here for the film to build upon later.
Since a Bond novel is all about fighting an outlandish foreign villain in the name of British superiority, let's talk about the elephant in the room that Fleming readers know so well by this point: racial stereotypes. Dr. No is largely built on the "Yellow Peril" stereotype that was so familiar to pulp readers in the 30s and 40s (i.e., Fu Manchu or Shi-Wan Khan). This includes inhabiting an island that's home to a "dragon," because... why not. While he's not a moustache-twirling, cape wearing Snydley Whiplash caricature, he does manage to improve on the "tie the girl to the railroad tracks" motif. Like Fleming's other noteworthy villains, Dr. No has the physical maladies that pinpoint his villainous status. In this case, his hands were cut off, and his heart is on the wrong side, allowing him to be shot and survive. This inevitably means he bears a grudge, has something to prove, and is hard to kill. His specialty is torture, and he embraces the fact that he's a maniac. This means that 007 is in for a particularly rough adventure. But then, isn't that supposed to be the point? Suffice it to say, Fleming has ensured that our hero faces a worthy adversary who likes to monologue. His backstory is the stuff of comic book legend. After all, it takes a special kind of crazy to convert guano into gold and use that as your cover story for the real threat.
While Honey Ryder sets the on-screen standard for the Bond girl, her print counterpart was merely the next in line of Bond's feminine leads. She's introduced without the iconic bikini (or anything else), and then Fleming manages to *ahem* flesh out her character, giving her an in-depth backstory, as though to convince you she's more than just a pretty face. And then Fleming has her throw away that advantage, setting the women's rights movement back a few decades in the process. Bond's responses to her shameless advances are surprisingly gentlemanly. Bonus points for class and character development, Mr. Bond.
It's interesting to see just how unlike Connery this version of Bond can be. In addition to treating Honey far better than she obviously wants to be treated, Bond is also considerably less brutal in this novel than what we've come to expect. That the book has so much in common with the movie by comparison of other titles in the series makes the differences stand out even more.
One of the great behind-the-scenes stories tells of how a gun expert named Boothroyd wrote a letter to Fleming, explaining to him that Bond's Beretta pistol was "a ladies' weapon," extolling the virtues of the Walther PPK as a viable alternative. Fleming was so grateful that Boothroyd became the armorer in the story, and Bond was properly outfitted with the weapon of choice that would become synonymous with him in print and on screen. That's when he starts to look like Connery in my head, which as I say, is heavily contrasted with the way he's written for the entirety of the book.
Hugh Quarshie is a fantastic choice for this book's narrator. I know him best from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Highlander, but that didn't tell me what he would bring to the table for Bond. Right up front, I was given that annoying "oh-oh-seven" pronunciation that's become something of a running gag in these reviews, but he corrected that in short order to "double-oh-seven." I immediately felt better about that, and from there it was easy to just let him run with the diverse characters of this story. He's got a smooth British voice, and he also does a convincing Jamaican accent that's needed for Quarrel. His female and Chinese characters are a bit cartoonish, but then, we've established Fleming writes them tat way too. Even so, it's evident that Quarshie had a great deal of fun performing this one. Always a plus.
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