Doctor No

Release and reception

Dr. No was very cardboardy and need not have been ... The trouble is that it is much more fun to think up fantastic situations and mix Bond up in them.

Ian Fleming[18]

Dr. No was released on 31 March 1958 in the UK as a hardcover edition by publishers Jonathan Cape,[25] priced at 13s 6d.[26] It was released in the US under the name Doctor No in June 1958 by Macmillan.[27] As with his previous four novels, Fleming himself came up with the concept of the front cover design; as he had considered Honeychile Rider to have a Venus-like quality when introduced in the book, he wanted this echoed in the cover, which he commissioned to show her on a Venus elegans shell;[28] the final artwork was undertaken by Pat Marriott.[18]

Prior to the release of Dr. No – and unconnected with the book itself – Bernard Bergonzi, in the March 1958 issue of Twentieth Century attacked Fleming's work, saying that it contained "a strongly marked streak of voyeurism and sado-masochism"[29] and that the books showed "the total lack of any ethical frame of reference".[29] The article also compared Fleming unfavourably to John Buchan and Raymond Chandler in both moral and literary measures.[30]

In 1964, Dr. No was serialised in France Soir for the French market and the year marked the growth of sales in Bond novels for that market, with 480,000 French-language copies of the six Bond novels being sold that year.[31] The largest boost in books sales came in 1962 with the release of the film version of the same name and the subsequent Bond films. In the seven months after the film Dr. No was released, 1.5 million copies of the novel were sold.[32]

Reviews

For the first time in the series, Fleming encountered some harsh criticism for one of his novels. The most virulent of the criticisms came from Paul Johnson of the New Statesman who opened his review, "Sex, Snobbery and Sadism",[33] with: "I have just finished what is, without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read".[33] Johnson went on to say that "by the time I was a third of the way through, I had to suppress a strong impulse to throw the thing away",[33] Although Johnson recognised that in Bond there "was a social phenomenon of some importance",[33] this was as a negative element, as the phenomenon concerned "three basic ingredients in Dr No, all unhealthy, all thoroughly English: the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical, two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult."[33] Johnson saw no positives in Dr. No, saying that "Mr Fleming has no literary skill, the construction of the book is chaotic, and entire incidents and situations are inserted, and then forgotten, in a haphazard manner."[33]

Perhaps these are superficial excuses. Perhaps Bond's blatant heterosexuality is a subconscious protest against the current fashion for sexual confusion. Perhaps the violence springs from a psychosomatic rejection of Welfare wigs, teeth and spectacles and Bond's luxury meals are simply saying "no" to toad-in-the-hole and tele-bickies. Who can say? Who can say whether or not Dr. Fu Manchu was a traumatic image of Sax Rohmer's father? Who, for the matter of that, cares?

— Ian Fleming, [34]

Maurice Richardson, writing in The Observer, summarised the novel, calling it "the usual sado-masochistic free-for-all, plus octopuses."[35] Writing in The Manchester Guardian, the critic referred to Johnson's 'sex snobbery and sadism' tag, but pointed out that whilst "the casualties take place on a somewhat narrower front than usual, they are heavy".[36] The Manchester Guardian‍ '​s critic disagreed with part of Johnson's summary, saying that "to regard [the novel] as necessarily being a sign of moral decay would be to oversimplify the relationship between literature and its audience."[36] Instead, they said, "we should be grateful to Mr. Fleming for providing a conveniently accessible safety-valve for the boiling sensibility of modern man."[36] Where the critic was negative about the novel was in the enjoyment of objects because of their exclusivity, which was "pernicious" and "symptomatic of a decline in taste" in British society.[36]

On 1 April 1958, Fleming wrote to The Manchester Guardian in defence of his work, referring to both that paper's review of Dr. No and the "nine-page inquest in The Twentieth Century".[34] Fleming accepted the criticism from the paper concerning the exclusivity of Bond's objects, such as cigarettes and food, but defended it on the basis that "I had to fit Bond out with some theatrical props".[34] These included his cocktail, ("The Vesper"), which Fleming said "I sampled several months later and found it unpalatable"[34] and Bond's diet. Fleming called these devices "vulgar foibles" which he was saddled with,[34] although maybe, he suggested, "Bond's luxury meals are simply saying "no" to toad-in-the-hole and tele-bickies."[34]

Writing in The Times Literary Supplement Philip Stead was more generous to Dr. No, although he thought that Fleming was offering "too opulent a feast"[26] with the book, although he manages to pull this off, where "a less accomplished writer, lacking Mr. Fleming's quick descriptive gift and his powers of making his characters talk with such lucid and natural style, would never have got away with this story."[26]

The critic for Time magazine acknowledged the critical storm around Fleming and Dr. No, but was broadly welcoming of the book, writing that whilst "not all readers will agree that Dr. No ... is magnificent writing, ... pages of it, at least, qualify for Ezra Pound's classic comment on Tropic of Cancer: 'At last, an unprintable book that is readable'."[11] Writing in The New York Times, Anthony Boucher—described by a Fleming biographer, John Pearson as "throughout an avid anti-Bond and an anti-Fleming man"[37]—was again damning of Fleming's work, saying "it's harder than ever to see why an ardent coterie so admires Ian Fleming's tales".[38] Continuation Bond author Raymond Benson described Boucher's critique as "true to form" and "a tirade"[39] as Boucher concluded his review by saying: "it is 80,000 words long, with enough plot for 8,000 and enough originality for 800."[38]

The reviewer for The Washington Post, Book Editor Glendy Culligan also received Dr. No well, calling it "a thin little whodunit which rocked the British Empire and shook the English Establishment",[40] adding "Bully for it!"[40] Culligan admitted that "Confidentially though, we enjoyed Dr. No, and if this be sick, sick, sick, gentlemen, make the most of it." James Sandoe in his book review for the New York Herald Tribune was very positive about Dr. No and thought that it was "the most artfully bold, dizzyingly poised thriller of the decade. You'd much better read it than read about it."[39]


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