by Ian Fleming
I wish these didn’t have to start off with an obligatory “Ian Fleming is a racist/sexist/misogynist/imperialist/etc, and that bleeds over into his books,” but I do. He’s all of those things, and each of his books has a different proportion of outdated ideas in them. It’s part of what gives each Bond book its unique flavor. Just this once, I’m going to spare you the details, and move right on to the non-offensive aspects of From Russia With Love.
It’s easy to see why From Russia With Love was Kennedy’s favorite of the series, a preference that no doubt influenced the filmmakers’ decision to adapt it immediately after Dr. No. The Bond books very frequently have plot and pacing problems, which weren’t apparent to me when I was a young lad, but have become painfully obvious now. Fleming frequently has difficulties with endings; these either come out of nowhere, or are followed by overly long wrap-ups, or both. Diamonds Are Forever, for example, pretty much unravels towards the end.
Fleming solves this problem in From Russia With Love by completely cutting Bond himself out of the first act. Instead, he uses this part of the book to set up the trap that SMERSH lays for MI6, which involves using Bond’s own proclivities against him. His arrogance and weakness for women will lure him into a situation that he can’t escape, and one that will embarrass his agency and his country while avenging the defeats of earlier SMERSH schemes.
Admittedly, the plan isn’t really all that genius, but the point is that this set-up gets all the important stuff out of the way. The villains are introduced, the book’s structure is laid out, and Tatiana Romanova, the Russian the center of this honeypot, is recruited and activated. By the time Bond himself shows up and embarks on his assignment we already know exactly what’s coming, with the only real question being whether Tania will faithfully play the role demanded of her. We see the entire board, and we know how the game will bear itself out, beat for beat.
What’s most interesting to me about this book is that while Bond and Tatiana make their escape from Turkey, both of them know that their love is a charade. Bond is aware of the Russian plot, and knows that Tania is essentially a trap or him and his agency; Tania, likewise, knows that the British sent Bond to collect her and the encryption machine that she claims to possess. They both know that they’re playing a part, and they know the other is playing a part, but they’re required to finish their respective assignments. This makes for some awkward interactions, especially as they make their escape, when all the lying nears its end.
Other than that, I think the well-defined villains make From Russia With Love superior to, say, Diamonds. Fleming is at his best when he follows Bond and perhaps just a couple other well-defined characters. The charms of the Bond girl and the quirks of the Bond villain should be established early, contrasting with Bond’s peculiarities and setting the novel up for an epic showdown. This particular novel establishes SMERSH assassin Red Grant as Bond’s foil. Grant, a sociopath with little concern for ideology, prefers the Russians to the British only because he believes the USSR will make more use of his murderous tendencies. Bond, a largely amoral English patriot himself, finds a near-equal in Grant. While this juxtaposition lacks subtlety, it’s fun in its own way, and besides, we don’t read James Bond books for the subtlety of Fleming’s writing.
The best James Bond novels have fully fleshed out women, menacing villains, fast-paced narratives, tight plotting, and interesting challenges for our protagonist. From Russia With Love has all of that, easily earning its place as one of the best in the series.