The first James Bond novel to be turned into a movie was in fact the sixth adventure featuring the British spy penned by author Ian Fleming, and is the product of a writer who had hit his stride and knew his protagonist inside out.
Recently, the Folio Society has been celebrating the classic espionage thrillers by releasing a series of them, starting with Casino Royale and From Russia With Love, the novel that immediately precedes Dr No, which ends on a cliffhanger and is alluded to at the start of this one. It’s the first of a few modern stylistic techniques employed by Fleming, and Dr No is a confident, boldly-written adventure.
Bond fans will be delighted to read the opening chapters in which our hero is given his assignment from M and acquires his characteristic Walther PPK and Smith & Wesson firearms for the first time. After his brush with death at the end of From Russia With Love, Bond is sent to Jamaica for what M considers an easy assignment. Two agents have gone missing after they were sent to investigate Dr No, the elusive Chinese manager of a guano (bird excrement used as fertilizer) mine. Of course, the mission isn’t quite as straightforward as all that. Things start to get interesting when Bond visits Dr No’s private island, Crab Key, where he meets Honey Rider, a beautiful young woman with a flattened nose who trades in rare shells. But local rumour has it that there’s a fire-breathing dragon on the loose.
Fleming was very familiar with Jamaica, since he lived there in his Goldeneye retreat, and knowledge of the topography and climate gives the novel a sense of authenticity. The 1962 movie would later make a few interesting deviations from the text: it isn’t a tarantula that crawls across Bond in the bed – though poisonous spiders do later make a dramatic appearance. Dr No is still missing his hands, but they are replaced in the pages by pincers. It’s one of the trademarks of Fleming’s distinctive world that perhaps doesn’t sit well with more politically correct modern readers. Not only is Dr No physically deformed, like so many Bond villains, but also Chinese – and his race is certainly shorthand for ‘untrustworthy’ and, yes, ‘cruel’ and ‘inscrutable’. Bond’s sidekick, the Jamaican Quarrel, speaks in pidgin English and his character is a broad, likeable stereotype rather than a rounded individual. Honey Rider relies on her instincts, but isn’t as intelligent as Bond. Such aspects are a product of their time, and ought to amuse rather than offend today’s reader.
The more one turns the pages, the more Dr No becomes the quintessential Boy’s Own-style adventure, culminating in a breathless wrestle to the death between Bond and a giant squid that is borrowed directly from Jules Verne. The reader should remain caught up in Bond’s Hercules-like trials of endurance and not worry too much about how Honey Rider survives death by crabs – from which Bond does literally nothing to rescue her!
Dr No isn’t the tightest or cleverest of Fleming’s novels, and it’s easy to see how the movie franchise took the cue to become more flippant yarns as time passed. Yet, treated as pure fantasy adventure, it’s relentlessly entertaining, and as the old cliche has it, impossible to put down. It’s best enjoyed as a wide-eyed teenager, who will take the thrilling events to heart, and just as much but in a completely different way twenty-five years later as a mature man (I’m speaking from personal experience).
The Folio Society’s edition of the book is full of excellent details: the chapter headings are placed in three circles, which gives a special thrill when you arrive at 007. The typeface is evocative of the 1950s, and so are the illustrations by Fay Dalton (presumably no relation to Timothy). There are seven full-page colour inserts, which brilliantly bring to life Honey Rider and Dr No but wisely depict Bond generically (though it’s impossible not to imagine Connery in your head). The stunning card slipcase brings to life one of the most iconic moments in Bond’s history – his first meeting with Honey Rider on the beach in Jamaica.
This stunning range of books is the perfect collection for all fans of Fleming’s espionage classics. And if you’re a fan of the movies but you’ve never read the stories; what are you waiting for?
Release Date: June 2017 Published By: The Folio Society