Dr. No, by Ian Fleming
It is ironic that Dr. No was the first James Bond film but is the sixth novel in the James Bond series, about halfway through Ian Fleming’s run before his own early death. The novel itself is closely connected to Fleming’s general anti-communist worldview, is surprisingly pointed in its social commentary, and contains numerous unsettling and distinctive qualities that make it a rather dark novel (as opposed to a cheeky movie).
The novel shows a great deal of tension between James Bond and M. M rather arrogantly dismisses doctor’s concerns about Bond’s abilities to continue suffering the punishment of the job, and then blackmails Bond into switching his fun by threatening him with the removal of the “license to kill,” considering the job in Jamaica to be an easy and restful assignment. Bond thinks otherwise, more skeptically, and his suspicions are proven to be correct. The whole novel appears cloaked in mortality–Bond needs to be inspired by other people to continue fighting to live, even as he lets no one inside of himself. Bond, in character, and Fleming out of character muse on death and the afterlife, speculating that the loyal Cayman Islander Quarrel (who appears also in Diamonds Are Forever ) will enjoy a better fate than the meglomaniacal half-Chinese Dr. No, though Bond himself is unsure of his own fate.
Meanwhile, the novel is fairly savage about the lazy and slack behavior of England at the close of her empire, with a lazy Governor who dislikes doing any work, even after Bond presents them with a full story of Dr. No’s behavior, and rather biting racial commentary about the laziness of Jamaicans unable to profit from the wealth of their land, providing an accurate prophecy of the danger and poverty of Jamaica post-independence, as well as a prescient prophecy of Chinese rising power and influence, a remarkable achievement in the 1950’s.
Jamaica’s wealth and decadence, the rising power of the environmentalist lobbies in the United States, and Britain’s decidedly low-budget approach to spycraft are shown in detail in this particular novel. Also, James Bond’s relationship with Honeychile borders on (if not actually crossing into the boundary) of pederasty, since while a beautiful (and often unclothed) young woman, she appears to be extremely childlike and perhaps a bit mentally handicapped, and certainly the survivor of a traumatic childhood. One feels deeply uncomfortable about her portrayal as part nymphomaniac and part damaged innocent, especially given the way that James Bond behaves with her. This unsettling portrayal also reflects badly on Ian Fleming himself, obviously.
A few clear points are driven home in the course of this novel. One is that Britain’s days as a colonial power are ending, and largely due to a slack hand and laziness that extends well into the elite, including the Governor as well as M, who blithely disregards any threats to Bond’s life and fails to give him the information and backup he needs. Bond is almost on his own, and if it were not for the desire of Dr. No to make an experiment out of him while being distracted with his lust for money, Bond would have had little chance of survival. After all, Dr. No is among the prototypes of the mastermind villain, with his lengthy speeches, his insane wealth, his eccentric desire for privacy in a master lair, and his extreme ambitions for global power. James Bond is merely a tough guy with a weakness for voluptuous women and drink with extremely high amounts of courage and luck.
And yet he wins, which means Britain is supposed to be lucky (or blessed) enough to overcome her material limitations in the second half of the “American Century.” Certainly darker readings are possible–it is possible to consider this novel a warning that even Britain’s own colonies are at risk to the workings of evil and that Britain’s own laws and protections of private property rights can be a weakness if that property is held by evil masterminds. It is unclear the extent to which Ian Fleming intended this disturbing and plausible novel to be a warning to his contemporary society, and how much was merely dramatic action, but enough warning remains for even a contemporary reader to find value, if a lot of unpleasant bits, within it. Just as noteworthy, of course, was the way in which the adaptation of this novel served to nearly invent the cliches of evil masterminds which we are so familiar with in movies, due in large part to the imagery of the book itself.