Author: Ian Fleming
The fifth novel in Ian Fleming’s acclaimed James Bond series, later to be adapted into the second Bond film, From Russia with Love follows amorous and adventurous secret agent James Bond as he investigates a Soviet counterintelligence plot. Lured by the promise of an advanced Soviet decoding machine (the Spektor) and the doey-eyed admiration of a sexy Russian cipher clerk, Bond travels to Istanbul to unravel the true reason for the trap. Behind the scenes, SMERSH is plotting not only Bond’s demise but the ruination of the entire British secret service agency. Meanwhile, a psychotic assassin is on Bond’s trail as the beautiful Soviet spy contemplates abandoning allegiance to her secret mission for love of the dashing Bond.
Entangling outlandish plots, exotic locations, criminal desperation, international intrigue, and powerful villains From Russia with Love captures the essence of old-school Bond, being touted as Fleming’s finest offering to the series. My fiancé, an ardent James Bond fan, was pleased to see my gift of a battered omnibus book with the original Bond stories, and arbitrarily, we dove into this one first, well versed in the popular movie realm of Bond. The story here is different, antiquated in many ways. Le Chiffre is already defeated along with Hugo Drax and others, leaving SMERSH (the main villain/Soviet counterintelligence agency) desperate to regain face and discredit Bond while also doing away with him, once and for all. Believing that if Bond were caught in a compromising position with a fellow spy, his reputation would be discredited (old-school, as I said) SMERSH’s Colonel Rosa Klebb, a terrifying bisexual woman with torture tendencies, forces Corporal Tatiana Romanova to prepare herself to be both Bond’s lover and his downfall. Tatiana knows nothing of the planned assassination, instead following her naive heart to a man’s bed first for her country and then later, for herself. Meanwhile, the were-wolfish Red Grant, Fleming’s first acclaimed psychotic villain, is living an oddly languid, sensual life, the mounting desire for murder building in him. Klebb identifies him as the perfect cool-headed operative to destroy the famous James Bond and, simultaneously, MI5. Specter, the major player in the movie adaptation, is absent from this particular narrative and the decoding machine itself is a lure, not the main acquisition.
Having both grown up with Bond, the fiancé and I, after reading the novel, decided to indulge once again in the movie, refreshing our memories and trying to decide which one is better: the book or the movie. In an unusual fete, the movie proved (at least in our minds) superior and certainly more palatable in some sequences. Fleming is known for his racism and chauvinism, Bond being represented as a cavalier character further complimented by Karim – a praised brutal womanizer in the book despite his appealing amiability in the movie. Karim’s stories of a tying a woman to his table, degrading her, and then consequentially being loved by her for his masterful ownership are laughable for the over-the-top ostentation of it and also somewhat disturbing because Fleming appears serious, despite the novel’s playful nature with reality. It doesn’t help that Bond is enamored with the dashing Karim’s way with woman and holds him (and his outlandish lifestyle) in great esteem. Essentially, Karim becomes Bond’s hero – a person to whom Bond is not only bonded but aspires to be.
The aspect of ruining Bond’s “respectable nature” and therefore casting a blemish on M15 is simply more outdated than the movie rendition where this was acknowledged and appropriately sidelined. The novel, however, concentrates on the growing romance and Bond is oddly not intuitive, being represented as weaker in the narrative with a strange aura of self-doubt overcome by an inquisitive nature and adventurous spirit. Bond doesn’t see through obvious setups and even when he does, he goes with the flow out of curiosity. It’s simply a different Bond than audiences are used to encountering.
Of course, the laxity of Bond concerning his own safety and the desire for adventure allows the tale to rollick between danger and adventure, mostly in the locale of Istanbul and aboard the Orient Express. Some reviewers complain that the Bond books shift the plot around haphazardly, and maybe this is the case, but From Russia with Love stays true to established facts and the original scheme, only occasionally veering into some weird side sequences (such as a multiple page gypsy girl fight complete with tearing blouses).
Fleming’s unique descriptive style creates a textured world where the people are elegantly, even lovingly described. Our first introduction to Red Grant finds him sunbathing and the way in which his body is described is strangely loving, almost as though a sculptor was breathing life into his greatest creation. These in-depth sensual descriptions of both male and female characters are somewhat ironic, considering Fleming’s famed homophobia yet his created world drips with the vitality of description and the humid breath of life. Don’t even get me started on how his descriptions of food vanquished my desire to diet.
The action portion of the adventure focuses on the Bond you, dear reader, would expect, particularly in the final confrontation between Bond and Red Grant in the rushing Oriental Express. In this aspect, I actually enjoyed the book more, relishing the realism of the after-encounter’s bloody gruesomeness. Fleming’s ability to paint everything in living color comes into play here and the danger and tension are escalated by a more human and more easily destructible Bond.
This motif continues toward the conclusion – an ending that Fleming had originally decided would conclude not only the novel but the entire Bond series. Knowing that Bond isn’t as invincible as the striding stud of the big screen adds an extra layer of breathless anticipation. Bond can indeed be hurt (very hurt) and it’s within the realm of possibility that Bond may die. Readers become engaged on a deeper level knowing that the usual saunter away from danger complete with tie adjustment may not be delivered.
Complimenting the James Bond movie franchise, the original inspiration is certainly worth reading, although readers should beware that it is different in many aspects. Fleming’s reputation precedes him and everything you heard vis-à-vis chauvinism and the like is unfortunately very true and egregious in areas. However, the quintessential nature of Bond, the danger and vitality of a non-stop anti-hero on secret missions, is everything that Bond should be and everything that fans desire. An excellent complement to the continuing Bond stories.
– Frances Carden