Reading “Doctor No”

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I used to think that the James Bond novels and short stories were merely mass-produced potboilers that were churned out by Ian Fleming in order to keep him in the sybaritic lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. Then I decided to read some of the books. Turns out he’s actually a very good writer in terms of his descriptions and plotting. What I can’t swallow, though, is some of the preposterous detail he includes in a story with the hope that readers are so engrossed that they won’t notice that the villains he has come up with are like stick figures. Bond himself is not difficult to work out. He’s a simple man with simple pleasures. Sex and violence seem to be the main ones, which is why the books are so easily adaptable to the big screen, I guess.

I recently finished reading “Doctor No.” I’d read it before years ago but this time I marveled anew at both Fleming’s skill in description and his ineptitude at creating believable villains. As he is recovering from being poisoned on a previous case, James Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of two MI6 operatives. His superior, M, views it as a rest cure, but Bond, it seems, is determined to whip the whole mission up into a cause célèbre that will prove to M that he still has what it takes to be a pain in the ass to master criminals the world over. Archvillain Doctor No has an installation on the island of Crab Key for mining guano – yes, you read that right, bird-shit-shoveling. He is very secretive and anyone who goes to the island is never seen or heard from ever again. Predictably, Bond goes to the island. There he meets the love interest, a young lady with the unlikely name of Honeychile Rider, Honey for short. Among her many accomplishments she seems, for no apparent reason, to have developed a severe clothing allergy, because throughout the book she tediously appears in various situations wearing various combinations of nothingness and scraps of cloth, much to the delight of Bond and no doubt the reading public. After being chased around the Island of Shit by an outlandish flame-throwing armored swamp buggy in the shape of a dragon (sigh), Bond and Honey are captured by the mysterious Doctor No. No treats them to a sumptuous dinner, during which he regales them with his own brand of megalomania, which includes ruining the U.S. nuclear arms program, developing his own weapons and, of course, ruling the world.

It is during Doctor No’s monologue that Fleming indulges in several idiosyncrasies too far. Doctor No, it turns out, used to be the treasurer of a Chinese Triad-like gang. To cut a long story short, he steals a huge amount of gold from the organization, flees, and is eventually captured and tortured. When the gang can’t break him and get him to disclose the whereabouts of the bullion, they decide to chop his hands off as a warning sign to other putative thieves, and then shoot him through the heart. But… lo and behold, Doctor No’s heart conveniently happens to be located on the right hand side of this body. He survives the odious experience (obviously, or he wouldn’t be boring Bond and Honey to tears with this tale) and sets about transforming himself, for reasons that are not quite clear. Here’s how he did it:

“And meanwhile I was changing my appearance. I had all my hair taken out by the roots, my thick nose made thin, my mouth widened, my lips sliced. I could not get smaller, so I made myself taller. I wore built up shoes. I had weeks of traction on my spine. I held myself differently. I put away my mechanical hands and wore hands of wax inside gloves. I changed my name to Julius No – the Julius after my father and the No for my rejection of him and of all authority. I threw away my spectacles and wore contact lenses – one of the first pairs ever built (and here he alarmingly taps one of said contact lenses with one of his mechanical hands). Then I went to Milwaukee, where there are no Chinamen, and enrolled myself in the faculty of medicine […] In due course, I completed my studies and I left America and went by easy stages round the world. I called myself ‘doctor’ because doctors receive confidences and they can ask questions without arousing suspicion.”

Essentially, Doctor No spends copious amounts of expense, time and effort to change himself into what appears to be a large egg. Why he does all this is a mystery. Perhaps it is simply to give himself a sinister look, or maybe it’s to avoid detection by the Chinese gang, or maybe Ian Fleming had had one too many daiquiris the night he wrote that. How Dr. No got through his medical training with no hands is also a mystery. Imagine you have a sore throat and visit the doctor, only to find Humpty Dumpty sitting there waving what appear to be bunches of candles at you, pontificating on the intricacies of the human body? Yet somehow he gets away with it.

And finally, instead of killing Bond, Doctor No decides to put him through a sadistic obstacle course constructed in the facility’s ventilation system, where Bond is electrocuted, attacked by tarantulas, and then receives third-degree burns on most of his body. The nightmare comes to a close with what’s left of Bond fighting against a giant squid. Despite coming through this ordeal still technically alive, but only just, Bond still has the energy to engage in his usual amorous pursuit, this time with Honeychile Rider, in the last scene of the book, thus proving that at least some of his organs are still intact.

There’s suspension of disbelief and there’s utter lunacy. In Doctor No, Fleming strays by gradual degrees over to the inane side and offers us an evil mastermind who looks like an egg, talks like a bipolar zookeeper and has ambitions that, unsurprisingly, stretch to the moon and back. The book is entertaining for the slapstick alone, but the whole narrative is topped off by the icing on the cake: Doctor No’s preposterous monologue. It is with a sense of regret and longing that the reader finds out that (*spoiler alert*) Doctor No meets his bitter end smothered, like an egg in a nest, in a mountain of bird crap. He is a hilarious character that we are sad to see go.

On the bright side, the same character, in different guises, turns up in every other Bond novel with the same brand of rhetoric but different names and idiosyncrasies. And James Bond will go on wooing his way round the globe with one hand, while he fights off myriad villains with the other. Just occasionally it would be nice to see him fail at one or the other, or preferably both. That was never going to happen in Ian Fleming’s world while the public still lapped up his Machiavellian master-criminals and bought his books. But for sheer juvenile, side-splitting fun, in my opinion, the evil mastermind, Doctor No, is one egg that’s very difficult to beat.