I like Eon’s James Bond films, but I love Ian Fleming’s original novels (except for Live and Let Die, which makes for a profoundly uncomfortable reading experience). At some point (either You Only Live Twice or Diamonds Are Forever, though the Moore flicks are the worst offenders), the cinematic 007 became a super-hero, unflappable and infallible. But Fleming’s little character details make the literary 007 more relatable, more vulnerable, more human–Moonraker, for example, opens with the dashing 00-agent working through some pre-mission boredom at the firing range, while Goldfinger finds him shaken by an especially nasty assassination job.
Doctor No continues this proud tradition of punishing the protagonist: Bond enters the story in the second chapter, and by the third, he has been threatened with the loss of his licence to kill (owing to the debacle chronicled in From Russia with Love), stripped of his preferred firearm, and saddled with a “soft” assignment–investigating a loss of contact with the Jamaican office, little more than a working holiday. It’s part slap-on-the-wrist, part doctor’s orders: a leading neurologist cautions M that, while Bond’s physical injuries have healed, his psychological scars are fresh and numerous (stretching back, Fleming subtly suggests, to Vesper’s death in Casino Royale), making a hasty return to active duty potentially dangerous.
Only 007 himself has an inkling of just how important this “cushy” tropical excursion will be; some deeper instinct reassures him that M (or, in a more metafictional sense, the author) is only breaking him down so that he might reassemble the shattered remnants of his career. And therein lies the book’s greatest pleasure–and Fleming’s structural genius (previously glimpsed in From Russia with Love, which spent the better part of ninety-two pages stacking the odds against Bond): it becomes much easier for readers to lose themselves in an adventure yarn when the hero has something to prove.
[Originally written October 11, 2012.]