Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Doctor No.
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 34.)
When we last saw James Bond, he was dead. He's feeling much better now. Kicked by a poison boot at the end of From Russia With Love, Bond begins its follow-up, Doctor No, at the tail end of his recuperation. Seems that poison wasn't as fast-acting as everyone thought. At least Doctor No opens with some concern for Bond's health. M seems reluctant to send him off on another dangerous mission, particularly after he gets some strong chiding from one of Bond's doctors. In fact, the mission at the heart of Doctor No is supposed to be easy. M's man in Jamaica has disappeared, apparently taking a fetching female co-worker with him wherever he's gone. It looks like love has made them go AWOL. M doesn't buy it, nor does Bond. So off to Jamaica he goes. Fleming knew the setting well. Bond got his name from the ornithologist "James Bond," a friend of Fleming's who let him use his place in Jamaica as a writing retreat. After the initial success of the Bond thrillers, Fleming made Jamaica his home, living on an estate called "Goldeneye." All that plays into Doctor No, which requires Bond to pose as an ornithologist investigating a rare bird outpost of the Audubon Society on the island inhabited by the villainous Doctor No, after spending some time soaking in the sights and sounds of Jamaica, and the opinions of colonial residents who probably don't yet suspect that their days running the place are numbered. We'll get to that. First, Bond has to be a little humiliated. In his first meeting with Major Boothroyd, the armorer from the Q division who will become simply "Q" in the film series, Bond has his weapon of choice, the Beretta .25, dismissed as a "ladies' gun" and replaced by a Walther PPK, which will become a Bond trademark. Then it's off to the islands, where he's reunited with Quarrel, the Cayman Islander who whipped him into fighting shape in Live And Let Die. Quarrel isn't not his only ally, either. Bond has a talk with the Colonial Secretary, who explains the way things are in Jamaica:
It's like this  The Jamaican is a kindly, lazy man with the virtues and vices of a child. He lives on a very rich island but he doesn't get rich from it. He doesn't know how to and he's too lazy. The British come and go and take easy pickings, but for about two hundred years no Englishman has made a fortune out here. He doesn't stay long enough.
And so on. All this is leading up to a point about the Afro-Chinese opponents Bond winds up facing, the product of Chinese immigrants–"the most powerful clique in Jamaica," per the Secretary–and the West African-descended majority. Here's where pop culture can be educational. I didn't even know that there was a sizable Chinese population in Jamaica until I started listening to Jamaican music and read about the rivalry between producers Prince Buster and Leslie Kong. Buster took offense when Kong produced a song for Derrick Morgan, who'd enjoyed a string of hits under Buster. Buster's response was scathing, and turned the defection into an issue of Jamaican pride, "Jamaican" here defined as not Jamaicans of Chinese descent: "Black Head Chinee Man" by Prince Buster But I digress. Pop culture is also good for capturing in amber ways people thankfully don't think any more. Or at least those who do think those ways tend to keep quiet about it. Of the Afro-Chinese Bond encounters, the Colonial Secretary has this to say:
[The Chinese] keep to themselves and keep their strain pure.  Not that they don't take the black girls when they want them. You can see the result all over Kingston–Chigroes–Chinese negroes and negresses. The Chigroes are a tough, forgotten race. They look down on the negroes and the Chinese look down on them. One day they may become a nuisance. They've got some of the intelligence of the Chinese and most of the vices of the black man. The police have a lot of trouble with them.
Sigh. Moving on, Bond certainly has his share of trouble with some Afro-Chinese henchmen who turn out to be in the service of Dr. Julius No, a German-Chinese criminal genius of the Fu-Manchu/25th century Mongol with an evil scheme to extort money from the Cold War by diverting missiles. But Bond doesn't find that out until much later. First, he has to reach the island, befriend a naked shell collector named Honeychile Rider who's more child than woman, and confront a vehicle made into a mechanical dragon. And here's where the book started to lose me. I know in some ways we're on turf classically associated with Bond–the supervillain, the evil lair, the mad genius, the beautiful female sidekick without a thought in her head–but this is the first time one of Fleming's books has offered so many of these elements in one place at the expense of some of the travelogue realism and psychological depth of the earlier books. Doctor No was the first novel adopted into a feature film, and it set the template for the classic Bond movies, but I got bored with it as a novel. For one, Honeychile Rider is a really annoying love interest. Orphaned and raised by her mammy, who then died while Honeychile was still a young teenager, she's almost feral, and like most Bond women, she suffers some sexual damage that only Bond can cure. She's written as unbearably cute, and her come-ons to Bond leave him confused. Wouldn't sleeping with this obviously adult woman be a form of child abuse? It's one of the few moments of introspection in a book that otherwise forgets how interesting a character Bond can be can be. The emphasis is squarely on his adventures, which, without a compelling character at their center, aren't as interesting as they might be. Including a fight with a giant squid, in a moment that feels as if Fleming simply gave up on the grit and intensity he'd previously brought to the series and decided to just give the people the over-the-top adventures they wanted. I don't want to be too down on Doctor No. It was still a good read, but it's the first of the Fleming books that felt like it was only a good read. Although I did learn a lot about guano I didn't know before. Pop culture can be educational.
A note: I'm taking next week as a bye week. I've been reading other stuff and fallen a bit behind. See you in two.
Next: The Green Odyssey by Philip José Farmer
Then: Not This August (a.k.a. Christmas Eve) by C.M. Kornbluth