Thursday, August 13, 2009

James Bond Daily: Doctor No

Doctor No is the prototype of the modern American thriller, via the movie version -- all of the big Hollywood action movies of the past forty-five years (and their parodies, and the TV and literary versions of the same plot) derive from this slim fifty-year old book. Oh, there were definitely precursors -- Doctor Julius No himself is in large part an updating of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, for one example -- but Fleming put together all of the important elements here, in a neat package suitable for use and copying by a million subsequent hacks, copyists, and admirers.

We have a hero who's been kicked around by life: Bond nearly died at the end of the previous book, From Russia With Love. In fact, his boss, M, gives him this particular mission -- investigating the disappearance of the British Secret Service's man in Jamaica and his secretary -- because he expects that the two just ran off together, and this mission will be a nice relaxing way to ease Bond back into the business. Read "too old for this shit." Read "I'm watching you, {protagonist}!"

We have a villain cold and implacable in his evil. Doctor No does have a fiendish plot, but he's mostly an amoral schemer, increasing his own personal power and wealth at all costs. He's a Yellow Peril for the Atom Age, updated with a German father, a missile-diverting scheme and claws for hands -- but he's still emotionless, still a tall slim figure moving smoothly and quietly, still dressed in the long lines and flowing clothes of the old Western image of the Chinese coolie.

And that villain has a secret lair -- again, so did Fu Manchu, but No's base is gleaming and modern, complete with a complicated death-trap to force the hero through. Doctor No works for the great menace of his age, the Soviet Union, but at a remove -- he can both be an independent agent of evil and a representative of the massed forces of evil, and thus all evil to his 1958 audience, both the yin and the yang.

In the end, the hero triumphs -- surviving the death-trap, taking revenge on the villain, saving the girl and riding her off into the sunset. (Or rather vice-versa; Honeychile Rider, one of the more dominant Bond girls, demands her "slave-time" of 007 in the last chapter.) Could it be otherwise?

Doctor No encompasses all of the million variations on that plot since; it realizes that it's a cartoon, that the Bond series has moved miles away from the relatively straight spycraft of Casino Royale, but also knows that it's punching through to a clearer, starker realm, creating the Platonic ideal of the 20th century thriller.

And then, a year later, Fleming took many of the same ingredients, torqued them up yet another notch, and produced the refined version: Goldfinger. But that's for the next post...

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