(James Bond Novels)
by Ian Fleming
240 pages, Penguin
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
By the time Ian Fleming came to write 1957’s From Russia with Love he was beginning to tire of the fictional secret agent James Bond and attempted to kill him off at the novel’s conclusion. Thankfully, he brought the super-spy back for another outing in 1958’s Dr. No and it was here that he hit upon the winning formula that was repeated for many of the subsequent books and films. The glamorous locations; the sultry, damaged beauty; the cruel, intelligent megalomaniac with a fiendish scheme – whilst Fleming had dabbled in these aspects before within his novels, he had never allowed the plot to stray beyond the realms of plausibility. It is clear that for Dr. No, the sixth book in the series, Fleming allowed his imagination to run wild and the end result is not just the most enjoyable of all the James Bond novels, but quite possibly one of the greatest thrillers ever written.
Writing convincing action is one of the toughest challenges facing an author of thrillers. Just look at Sebastian Faulks’ recent effort at a Bond novel, Devil May Care (I certainly didn’t). The man may be able to write thoughtful, reflective, even beautiful prose but when he comes to writing a fist-fight or a car-chase, he seems out of his depth. There is something about Fleming’s terse, sharp prose that crackles with energy and this lends itself to effective action sequences. There’s a distinct lack of floweriness to his writing – a no-frills approach to descriptive passages that enables the reader to never lose track of what is going on.
Fleming himself wrote that his books were aimed “somewhere between the solar plexus and the upper thigh” and he wasn’t kidding. The Bond books are charged with a raw sexuality that is often brazen but never gratuitous. Those searching for evidence of Fleming’s misogyny will find plenty of evidence within their pages. Fleming’s women, though often independent and strong-willed, are mere conquests for the sexually voracious Bond. Honeychile Ryder, the love interest in this book is a feisty, almost feral beauty whose love of nature matches her staggering naivety. Her purpose in the novel is to be rescued by Bond, to be “mended” both physically and emotionally. However valid a criticism, it is worth bearing in mind that Fleming was a writer who didn’t care about the sensibilities of his readers – his job was to entertain, not educate. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning the man’s portrayal of women, but it must be remembered that the Bond novels are a product of the time in which they were written and so should be taken with a generous pinch of salt. To criticise them for their misogyny is like pointing to the Mona Lisa and moaning about her wonky smile.
The plot of Dr. No is wonderfully simple. James Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of another secret service operative. His line of questioning leads to the mysterious island of Crab Key and the secret lair of the reclusive Doctor No. Once there, he is pushed to the limits of his endurance in order to thwart the Doctor’s diabolical scheme to redirect missiles at targets in the United States, essentially using their own weapons against them. Okay, so it’s not exactly Shakespeare but it packs a far weightier punch than most modern thrillers and is so expertly paced that there is not a dull moment to be found within its pages. Fleming punctuates the moments of action by gradually cranking up the tension. Drip-feeding the reader clues about the mysterious Doctor, Fleming grabs our interest and keeps us reading the villain is revealed in all his wicked, repellent glory.
The Doctor is a great adversary. Based on Fleming’s love of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, No is both highly intelligent and dangerously mad. His bizarre physical appearance (the movie adaptation didn’t even come close to capturing his otherworldy freakishness) helps to make him all the more strange and terrifying. The chapter where Bond and No verbally spar over dinner in the Doctor’s lavishly decorated underground lair manages to be both fantastically over-the-top and utterly gripping.
As I’ve already mentioned, Fleming’s novels aren’t for everyone. Some will find Bond a hard character to sympathise with. He is cold and cruel, ruthless in his determination and a million miles away from his celluloid persona. By all accounts Ian Fleming was not the nicest of people but he certainly could write a cracking adventure romp. This is what has kept people coming back to Dr. No for over fifty years. Whilst many will be familiar with the movie starring Sean Connery there are aspects of the novel that were left out of the cinematic adaptation. Flights of fancy such as 007’s battle with a giant squid (!?) would not translate well onto the silver screen but we don’t question them in the book. Though outlandish and totally unrealistic, by the time Fleming slips them into his narrative we’re having way too much fun to care.