The sixth book in Ian Fleming's James Bond series, Dr.No
, is a solid entry in the franchise. There are elements of the work that are particularly strong, and a few that are especially weak. As always, it's important to remember that they were meant as quick, simple paperback reads, not serious novels.
For starters, this is the rare Bond book whose beginning ties in to the ending of the previous one, From Russia with Love
. There, Bond had been stabbed with a poison by Rosa Klebb, and was dying as the work finished.
In Dr. No
, he has just gotten out of the hospital after a lengthy convalescence, and boss M gives him an "easy" assignment, investigating the disappearance of his friend Strangways and a girl in Jamaica, both members of the Secret Service. (Amusingly, in the film chronology, From Russia with Love is AFTER Dr. No, and of course features a more routine ending, with Bond defeating Klebb with nary a scratch)
I liked this bit of continuity, as it made the Bond story feel more authentic, as opposed to their normally episodic nature.
Also, the story is set in Jamaica, a country in which Ian Fleming lived in after World War 2. As such, he is intimately familiar with it, and his description is far more vivid and picturesque than usual.
I also liked Bond's Jamaican sidekick Quarrel, a tough, fearless, clever man who loves Bond. Bond rarely has sidekicks, with the only other one being Felix Leiter. Yet, I liked Quarrel; while he is two-dimensional, like almost every Bond character (sometimes even the titular protagonist himself!) there is a genuine and authentic aspect to his personality one can recognize from actual life. I wouldn't be surprised if Fleming had based him on one or several of his real-life Jamaican friends.
Also, his death is perhaps the biggest emotional moment of the story, and is referenced multiple times since, most poignantly at the end.
Now, at this point, I will do something I normally avoid. Namely, address something written in another review. (You will see why in a second)
One of the most popular reviews here accused the book of "racism" and "sexism". I expected the first; it's a ridiculous charge lacking any merit, but one that someone bombarded with a lifetime of the Western world's obsession with race could well conjure up. (Amusingly, this charge is not applied to the vast majority of Bond books, where the villains are all Eastern Europeans, but the two that had minorities as villains) And yes, it's especially dumb considering how well-done Quarrel's character is.
But I was genuinely shocked by the "sexism" claim. Not only is it insultingly stupid, but it seemingly ignores that Honey Ryder is easily the best heroine Ian Fleming ever created. (This is why I brought it up)
She is tough, brave, beautiful, independent, and intelligent, without ever becoming a caricature or unrealistic. In fact, as much as I love Ursula Andress (one of the sexiest woman of the 1960s) and her on-screen portrayal, I prefer the book version even more. Here, in her famous scene on Crab Key, Honey isn't just wearing a bikini; she is completely naked, with only a belt holding a knife on it.
It's an important distinction, not just for the comparison to Boticelli's Venus, but because throughout the book Honey is depicted as primal, direct, and unashamed.
Another major difference is that despite being perfect otherwise, Ryder has a badly broken nose, suffered when a white plantation overseer punched her out and raped her as a teen. Honey's response to this is to calmly go to a doctor to make sure she is not pregnant, and then kill the man in a particularly tortuous, slow manner.
Then, upon meeting Bond, and caught in a sudden explosion of violence she has never experienced, Ryder keeps her composure, bravely resisting throughout. Without spoiling it, she also completely outwits Dr. No, a man depicted as an evil, brutal mastermind. This leads to an amusing scene where Bond rushes to save Ryder, only to learn she needs no saving at all, having escaped by her own powers.
Later, she refers to the main antagonist as nothing more than a silly man.
I could go on with further examples (I also like how sexually aggressive she is, so different than most submissive Bond heroines), but suffice to say Honey is one of the coolest, best heroines I have come across in the entire action/adventure genre, nevermind just the Bond series. She is brave, tough, and intelligent while still being distinctly feminine, instead of a macho male character given a different set of genitalia. (Like most movies and book that want to create a "badass" female lead and fail at it miserably)
However, the book also suffers from several flaws.
For one, the Bond books have always featured a hearty dose of action, but it is rather limited here. The first physical confrontation involving Bond occurs about halfway into the book, and is sparse even from then on.
But even worse is that the action scenes are usually nothing to write home about. They aren't described especially well by Fleming, being neither vivid, gripping, nor particularly exciting.
And while I enjoyed the mystery of Dr. No, his interesting appearance (far different than in the movie), and amusing backstory, his actual battle with Bond is quite brief. It's not the only Bond story to do this, but in those cases, the villain is usually introduced much earlier. Here, very soon after Dr. No is finally revealed, he is vanquished.
Overall, it's a solid work for fans of Bond or pulp action/adventure in general. It features the best Bond girl, a very well-described setting, and a neat sidekick. If only there was more and better action...