I’ve been a James Bond fan since I was a kid, when I rented just about every Bond film available (actually my mom rented them, but whatever) and spent countless hours absorbing them. But for some reason I never got around to tackling any of the source material – Ian Fleming’s Bond short stories and novels. I guess I never figured there was a reason to dig that deeply into 007, even though I’ve developed a taste for spy novels in my adulthood.
But during a recent trip to a used book store I spotted some older editions of a few Bond novels and decided to take the plunge. So I’ve finally finished my first Bond book, 1957’s From Russia, With Love. It’s Fleming’s fifth Bond novel and became, in 1963, the second in the film series. I think I picked a good one to start with.
Despite being book number 5, the story in FRWL is fairly self-contained. There are passing references to events in previous stories but by no means are they a roadblock to appreciating the current one. In addition, I was surprised at the amount of actual story Fleming was able to cram into a book of less than 200 pages (paperback, no less). The pacing was handled quite well, with events not reaching past the simmering point until the final third of the book.
In fact, the biggest surprise of all is that Bond does not make an appearance until chapter 11, roughly halfway through the story. It’s a ballsy move by Fleming but it works quite well. Until we catch up with 007 lounging in his London flat, we’ve spent the entire book focused on two things – the construction of an elaborate Soviet plot to not only kill Bond but to disgrace him (the chess metaphors become a bit labored but it’s not a big deal), and the back story of Red Grant, the Irish-born agent/executioner tasked with dispatching Bond.
Said plot is relatively straightforward but is the result of much planning by SMERSH (Russian for ‘death to spies’), the secretive and brutal counterespionage arm of the Soviet Communist government. SMERSH, having been humiliated by Bond previously, targets him to be “killed with ignominy”. The circumstances surrounding Bond’s death are hoped to generate a scandal large enough give the entire British Secret Service a black eye, thus taking the heat off some beleaguered Soviet bureaucrats.
(In the film version SMERSH is mentioned but the real villain is the fictitious organization SPECTRE.)
But how to lure Bond into a situation from which he could not only fail to escape death, but dishonor as well? If you guessed “hot blonde Russian” give yourself a gold star. SMERSH hand-picks a low-level cipher clerk named Tatiana Romanova for her looks, innocence, and relative lack of sexual experience. SMERSH leaks word of Romanova’s intentions to defect to the West – with the additional enticement that she will only meet with James Bond, whom she has fallen in love with through photos – and Bond is dispatched to Turkey to fetch both the girl and a valuable piece of spy technology she promises to deliver.
With the trap set, one of the fascinating aspects of FRWL becomes how much it resembles the plot of a latter-day horror movie. You can see just how every move Bond makes leads him closer to his doom, but he seems to do so willingly for some reason. This is foreshadowed when he makes his first appearance in the book and we’re told that he is rusty from being out of action for too long. He admits to reservations about Romanova’s story and intentions, but overlooks all the red flags anyway.
Only when Bond comes face to face with his potential assassin does the full implication of his clumsiness sink in. The showdown between Bond and Red Grant (which takes place on the Orient Express) is a study in how to craft an exciting scene before the first punch is thrown. The final battle is almost anticlimactic in a way, but still makes for fun reading.
All of this leads up to the final confrontation, and a seemingly last fatal slipup by 007. I won’t give away the ending, but I can only imagine the impact it would’ve had for Bond fans when the book was published. I’ll just say that it sure looks like Fleming had written his agent’s swan song, and although we now know better, its impact is only slightly diluted.
(paperback cover scan obtained from Illustrated 007)
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