Saturday, May 06, 2006

DOCTOR NO – Ian Fleming Warns Us All of the Threat of the Chigroes! 

Doctor No is a really fun novel. I heard somewhere that From Russia With Love, Doctor No and Goldfinger constitute a Triple Crown of James Bond novels, three consecutive Bond novels so well-written and so popular that a film series was inevitable in this period. (Goldfinger was published in 1960 and the first Bond film appeared in 1962.) So far, I have read two of these novels and the Triple Crown description hold up really well.

That doesn't mean there isn't much to makes fun of in Doctor No. We're in Jamaica again! Let the funny and perceptive darkie comments begin. As soon as I read the first chapter, set in Jamaica, I breathlessly awaited Fleming's passages on those funny Negroes and their antics. I expected to see something like this within a few pages:

The pilot announced that the plane would be landing in an hour. Bond smiled at the thought of being in Jamaica again. It had been five years. He had missed making fun of the darkies and their funny antics. He wished Felix Leiter could be with him to talk about how sensitive the niggers were.

But Bond had a natural affinity for the Negroes, and they seemed to know it.

Or something like this would be very amusing:

Bond had a natural affinity for these inferior people. He especially found it amusing that they ate watermelon, fried chicken and something called soul food. The darkies appreciated his amusement and understood his cracker ass. When they saw him coming, they acted and spoke as stupidly as possible, knowing it would please him and knowing they existed solely for his entertainment.

"You think that's funny, whitey!" shouted one of the darkies, bringing Bond back to reality.

Bond and Felix laughed at the silly Negro and his friends as they gathered around like Zulu tribesmen.

"Me and the boys are going to kick your smug, white ass, limey," said the leader of the Negroes.

And they did. Bond was picking watermelon seeds out of his ass for weeks. Felix said he'd rather go another round with the shark that ate him in a previous novel.

Those funny darkies!

Fortunately, Bond and Leiter both had a natural affinity for the Negroes, so they bore their assailants no malice. They were Negroes and didn't know any better.

OK. I'll fess up. That's not what happened. Doctor No is not entirely free of racist remarks and comments, but Fleming seems to have realized that his blatantly racist James Bond might be a less sympathetic figure to many potential fans. He has toned it down quite a bit (which wouldn't be hard to do after the numerous offensive passages in Live and Let Die). But don't think that Fleming has let us down entirely!

Breifly, the plot is this: An important British intelligence officer in Jamaica (still a British colony in 1958) has disappeared along with his secretary. Their office was burnt to the ground as well. Did they run off together? Or were they disposed of for some mysterious reason?

James Bond, just recovered from the fatal dose of poison administered by Rosa Klebb at the end of From Russia With Love travels to Jamaica to find out what is going on.

It seems there are too many Chinese in the Caribbean. One tries to take his picture at the airport. Another one works as a secretary for the Colonial Office … and she may be a spy … or something. And then there's the Chigroes, half-black, half Chinese. (They MUST be up to something!)

Most suspicious of all is Dr. No, Dr. Julius No, half-Chinese, half-German (DEFINITELY up to something!) who owns Crab Key, a large island between Jamaica and Cuba, where he runs a bird-poop mine. (I'm not making this up.)

Do we need any more clues? Bond doesn't. Dr. No is half-German and half-Chinese! His name is Dr. No! He owns an island! He's the only suspect! It couldn't be any more obvious unless he was played by Bela Lugosi!

Well, there's also the four mysterious deaths (in addition to the disappearance of the British intelligence agent and his secretary) related to a bird sanctuary (for roseate spoonbills) at one end of Crab Key.

So Bond goes to Jamaica and starts investimigatin'. He meets with Quarrel, the black fellow who helped him out in Live and Let Die. Quarrel knows where his bread is buttered and craftily puts on the comic darkie act for Bond. He says "hoctopus" instead of "octopus," which Bond finds amusing. (Quarrel is a very capable comic darkie, helping Bond get into shape, making all the arrangements for Bond's schemes, abusing Chinese girls when necessary, providing mounds of useful information, helping Bond paddle out to Crab Key in the middle of the night, and various other duties that entail doing most of the work while Bond sits around in his hotel room, meets with various British officials, and drinks a lot. A LOT!

Come to think of it, Quarrel reminds me a little bit of Rochester, Jack Benny's valet or servant or driver or whatever he was. James Bond has the same initials as Jack Benny. Coincidence? Don't be so naïve.

(Quarrel dies a little later in the book, burnt to death by a mechanical dragon that shoots fire, a contraption devised to scare people away from the island and to disrupt the roseate spoonbills who are causing such a ruckus at one end of his island. Bond feels bad about it, because he failed to protect Quarrel like a good patriarchal white man should. Bad James Bond, bad!)

So they go to Crab Key and meet a naked girl. The naked girl's name is Honeychile Rider.

"People call me 'Honey'."

I bet they do, Honey. I bet they do.

Doctor No is a pretty good novel, but I've often wondered why it was chosen as the first novel to be filmed. At least eight novels had been published when filming began on the first Bond film, and both From Russia With Love and Goldfinger are as good as (or better than) Doctor No. I will probably come across this bit of trivia (the official version of why Doctor No was filmed first) when I watch the film version of Doctor No and watch the documentary of how the film was made. (All the DVDs of the early Bond films have these documentaries and they are very interesting.)

But I think I have found the real selling point of Doctor No: the introduction of Honeychile Rider.

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 her right hip. The belt made her nakedness extraordinarily erotic. She stood not more than five yards away on the tideline looking down at something in her hand. She stood in the classical relaxed pose of the nude, all the weight on the right leg and the left knee bent and turning slightly inwards, the head to one side as she examined the things in her hand.

It was a beautiful back. The skin was a very light uniform café au lait with a sheen of dull satin. The gentle curve of the backbone was deeply indented, suggesting more powerful muscles than is usual in a woman, and the behind was almost as firm and rounded as a boy's. The legs were straight and beautiful and no pinkness showed under the slightly lifted left heel. She was not a coloured girl.

(You can depend on Ian to make this distinction.)

Her hair was ash blonde. It was cut to the shoulders and hung there and along the side of her bent cheek in thick wet strands. A green diving mask was pushed back above her forehead, and the green rubber-thong bound her hair at the back.

The whole scene, the empty beach, the green and blue sea, the naked girl with the strands of fair hair, reminded Bond of something. He searched his mind. Yes, she was Botticelli's Venus, seen from behind.

Eventually, Bond reveals himself, and she turns around, a little startled:

… the girl whirled around. She didn't cover her body with the two classical gestures. One hand flew downwards, but the other, instead of hiding her breasts, went up to her face, covering it below the eyes, now wide with fear.

The girl dropped her hand down from her face. It went to the knife at her belt. Bond watched the fingers curl round the hilt. He looked up at her face. Now he realized why her hand had instinctively gone to it. It was a beautiful face, with wide-apart deep blue eyes under lashes paled by the sun. The mouth was wide and when she stopped pursing the lips with tension they would be full. It was a serious face and the jawline was determined – the face of a girl who fends for herself. And once, reflected Bond, she had failed to fend. For the nose was badly broken, smashed crooked like a boxer's. Bond stiffened with revolt at what had happened to this supremely beautiful girl. No wonder this was her shame and not the beautiful firm breasts that now jutted towards him without concealment.

The eyes examined him fiercely. "Who are you? What are you doing here?" There was a slight lilt of a Jamaican accent. The voice was sharp and accustomed to being obeyed.

"I'm an Englishman. I'm interested in birds."

The producers, the directors, SOMEBODY really wanted to film this scene. Aside from the name of Honeychile Rider and Fleming's unnecessary obsession with pointing out that she isnt "a coloured girl," it is a perfect scene, erotic, tantalizing, suspenseful, mysterious.

(Of course, Fleming HAS to ruin it by calling her "Honeychile" for another gratuitous poke at black mannerisms. What kind of people were her parents to call her Honeychile? If they just liked the sound of it, why didn't they call her "Honeychild"? But her parents apparently spelled it phonetically, and I can't see any other reason for that except to make fun of the way the Negroes talk. Ian, Ian, Ian. You sick bastard.)

Honey Rider is a great character, a real standout from the early Bond girls. She's on Crab Key collecting rare shells. She is one of many of the elements that make Doctor No such a great novel. And her introduction is, so far in my reading, the best passage from the Bond novels. Her backstory is fascinating, and she becomes entwined in the action that defines the last half of the book as they flee Dr. No's minions, hiding in the jungle, finding the desolated former refuge of the roseate spoonbills, facing Dr. No's mechanical dragon, being captured and learning Dr. No's story, and so on and so on to the exciting conclusion.

As I recall the film, it followed the novel very closely. (In the book, Dr. No is an independent entity who is working closely with the Russians. In the movie, Dr. No is working with SPECTRE. But in the books, SPECTRE doesn't appear until Thunderball, which had been published not long before work started on the film.) A great read, I could hardly put it down. When Bond and Honey were separated for several chapters, I read it almost too fast to figure out what was happening because I HAD TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED TO HONEY. Dr. No had threatened to strip her naked and stake her out flat on the ground in the path of the migration route of MAN-EATING CRABS! EEK!

(I won't tell you what happened. You'll have to read it for yourself.)

Doctor No - the book - is highly recommended by this writer. It's easy to see, for a lot of reasons, why it was chosen to be the first film.

NEXT: Doctor No - The Movie.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?