Sunday, May 09, 2010

No? Spelt like Yes?

I first read Doctor No when I was 11. I was all about James Bond at the time, thrilling at the new guy in the films and trying to work out which ones I'd not seen. Bond had been a staple of Sunday afternoons and bank holidays for as far back as I can remember, but at 11 I suddenly got it like a fever.

The books, I knew, were not like the films. They were harder and nastier, proper Grown-Up books. There were fewer jokes and explosions and a lot more stuff about sex. And while the films were all modern and gadgety – almost set in the future – the books were from the 1950s, packed with details about the clothes, foods and medicines of that prehistoric age.

Hooked on Bond, I was desperate to at least try them, whatever warnings I'd been given about how hard they'd be to read. Then, at some second-hand book stall, Raymond Hawkey's tinglingly simple cover (right) used nothing more than a cobweb to suggest the visceral thrills inside. I could not resist.

It's odd reading the thing again now and glimpsing the 11 year-old me in its pages. It's really not suitable reading – and I'd never had got away with it, or dared to pick it up, the version I've just reread, with the cover by Michael Gillette in which a sultry blonde is wearing only a belt. I remembered it as a serious, gritty thriller full of close and brutal violence. And, because I aspired to adolescence, I thought this made it somehow more gritty and real than the cool and enjoyable films, as if Bond – and Doctor Who and the other comics and books I adored – improved the more stark and humourless they were. Surprisingly, the book turns out not to be an experiment in documentary realism.

Like the film, Bond is despatched to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of local Secret Service agent Strangways. It's meant to be a routine job, almost a holiday – Fleming killed Bond off at the end of the last book, so he could do with taking it easy.

As with the film Castaway, before we get to the sunny islands, we start in drab, cold London, cursing the “hail and icy sleet” (p. 13). It's ten o'clock in the morning, but it's dark enough outside for M to need to turn the lights on.

It takes two whole chapters to brief Bond on his mission, even though M already assumes that Strangways has merely run off with his secretary. M is all about the infodump, lecturing us on guns, poisons and the bits of the body a man can do without (important, since Bond has just been resurrected). As always, there are mentions of academics who've written papers on this stuff, and a string of brand names also help make it all seem authentic.

Bond swaps his Beretta for the famous Walther PPK 7.65 mm – though it's the hammerless Smith and Wesson Centennial Airweight revolver .38 calibre that he actually uses on the job.

Then we're out to Jamaica, and with all the exotic description, there's a constant casual racism as Bond sizes up the local ethnic populations. His friend Quarrel, last seen in Live and Let Die, is a good friend and it's never made an issue that he's Black, yet he's also characterised as a big, superstitious child and Fleming's attempts to convey his speech suggest he's fluent in Minstrel.

At surprising speed, Bond and Quarrel are soon on the heels of Doctor No, who owns an island that mines bird guano as fertiliser, and who has upset some American bird geeks. Strangways also just happened to be looking into the complaint when he disappeared. Even if the trail wasn't any more obvious, Jamaica's “Chigro” (“Chinese negro”) population are all terrified of him and Chigroes keep trying to kill Bond.

With this useful clue, Bond races ahead far faster than he does in the film. So there's no Felix Lighter, no “He's just dead”, no Chinese girl up in the mountains who Bond shags even though he knows she's a villain, and no coolly killing an assassin that Bond's just disarmed. These are all inventions of the film, making Bond smarter and drier and a million times more cool.

When he finally meets Honey Rider on the beach, film Bond has bedded two girls already and gets stuck right in to the flirting. Book Bond has gone without since From Russia With Love and spends until the last page resisting Honey's advances and trying not to notice she's naked.

Yes, there's no white bikini in the book, but instead, scampering about on the beach:
“It was a naked girl, with her back to him. She was not quite naked. She wore a broad leather belt round her waist with a hunting knife in a leather sheath at he right hip. The belt made her nakedness extraordinarily erotic.”

Ian Fleming, Doctor No, p. 101.

Lucky he added that last sentence, in case we hadn't noticed. The description continues more oddly:
“The behind was almost as firm and rounded as a boy's ... She was not a coloured girl.”

Ibid., p. 102.

This before he's even told us the colour of her hair, which suggests some rather odd priorities. When Honey turns round, though, there's something odder. She's got a beautiful, perfect body and a broken nose that makes her – Bond will keep telling us until the final pages – somehow all the more perfect.

Though Honey then puts some clothes on, they don't stay on for long. There's a lot of nakedness in the book – taking her clothes off to wade through the swamp, or in the bathroom and bed before dinner with Doctor No, or when the dastardly villain leaves her pegged out to be eaten by crabs. That's not merely for titillation but to make her vulnerable – Bond is likewise naked in bed when a deadly caterpillar climbs over him. (Yes, that really happens.)

I'd remembered the naked girl on the beach from when I read it before, but had not registered how much of the adventure takes place in the nude. But then I was also a little naïve. My dad enjoys reminding me that he'd had a quick look at the book I was so avidly reading, and I'd got to the bit where Honey tells Bond about the career she's planning.

“And,” said my dad, “do you know what a call-girl is?”

I rolled my eyes. Of course I did. In the old days you couldn't just phone people. There were girls who connected the call... I was allowed to continue reading.

To Bond's horror, Honey confirms all Quarrel's superstitious talk of a dragon on the island. There's some discussion of the strange things that exist in nature, which Honey knows all about because she's read the first third of an encyclopaedia and was friends with the rats in her house. We're reminded of the giant squids, who have never been seen alive but whose tentacles have been found inside the bellies of whales. It clangs a bit as proof that dragons might exist.

They then discover that the dragon is real, if it's really a customised dune buggy with a flamethrower. Quarrel is killed – and really horribly – and Bond assumes he'll be next. But there's then a brilliant twist where he and Honey find themselves in a luxury suite, with all the pedicures and pampering they can eat. Doctor No is a perfect gentleman for all he's a perfect villain.

The oddness goes a bit too far when, over dinner, he taps his eyes with his metal fingers. It's revealed he's wearing contacts, but at the time it suggests he's got metal eyes. For a moment, Fleming fumbles the line between the compelling grotesque and the madly daft. Because for all the strangeness of the story, it's utterly absorbing. The more Bond is put through – spied on, attacked by caterpillars and spiders and a metal dragon – the more vivid and thrilling the story. It ends with him forcing himself through an endurance course of horrors, which ends with him battling single-handed against the legendary kraken – the giant squid Fleming nicely set up by mentioning on the beach.

The madness of events is tempered by continual reminders of the mundane. It's not a realistic story in any sense, but Fleming's good at making it seem just about credible long enough to keep us hooked until the next outlandish moment. Like M, Doctor No can quote the authors of recent papers that back up his claims. His fortune is based on nothing so grand as bird shit – and it's the bird shit that ultimately kills him. Bond and Honey escape in the dragon, which we've been carefully told already is the perfect vehicle for the terrain.

As a result, though I made notes on all the odd and incongruous details – Bond mentioning his war service in the Ardennes on page 118, or Doctor No's endurance test including an “asbestos baffle” on page 249 – I couldn't put the book down. It's a very silly, convoluted story, full of casual racist, sexist and culinary assertions. And it's nothing like the serious tome that I remembered. That's what makes it so good.

Also, while the Bond of the films has no compunction about killing a man in cold blood, the Bond of the books is made of nobler stuff – which is funny for a man with a licence to kill.
“Bond knew he wasn't going to like this, killing again in cold blood, but these men would be the Chinese Negro gangsters, the strong-arm guards who did the dirty work. They would certainly be murderers many times over. Perhaps they were the ones who had killed Strangways and the girl. But there was no point in trying to ease his conscience. It was kill or be killed. He must just do it efficiently.”

Ibid., pp. 278-9.

James Bond will return in Goldfinger.

1 comment:

Jonny Morris said...

My main memory of reading this book when I was about 12 (apart from the fight with the giant squid) is a bit where James Bond pokes his head over a boulder to check out Dr No's base, but only for a fraction of a second, because he's been trained to retain visual information and will be able to still 'see' the base after he's ducked back down again. I thought this was cool, presumably.