Continuing my summer tradition of a James Bond novel on the beach, this year on Anse des Sables in Vieux Fort, Saint Lucia, is something I look forward to with relish. Under a palm tree, with rum near to hand and an expanse of turquoise sea in front of me, I read From Russia With Love (1957) – the fifth book in the James Bond series.
Despite the modern reputation Ian Fleming’s novels enjoy, in 1956 he wasn’t satisfied that they were commercially successful enough. With this in mind From Russia With Love saw Bond at a crossroads and the writer's approach demonstrates this.
In a slight departure from previous Bond novels, the first part of the novel deals exclusively with SMERSH formulating a plan to strike the Secret Service’s top man, James Bond. The reader is drawn into the meticulous construction of an airtight plan – the target, the beautiful bait, the exotic location, the risk of scandal and the right man for the execution.
The characters working for SMERSH seem even more extreme than usual too. We meet ‘Red’ Grant, a deadly man with an almost werewolfesque, supernatural drive desire to kill during a full moon and Rosa Klebb a woman described as a “neuter” whose need for sex with men and women “was nothing more than an itch.” As the plan to trap Bond using the beautiful and innocent Tatiana Romanova moves forward, you begin to believe that Ian Fleming was seriously considering the untimely demise of his protagonist.
With the planning over, around a third of the way into the novel, we move into part two – ominously entitled ‘The Execution.’ Increasingly we gain momentary insights into a different Bond. We see him in his home, we see him frightened during a few minutes of turbulence on a plane journey and we see him taken in by a SMERSH trap to lure him to Istanbul. This is not the sickeningly suave Bond of the movies, but a believable and fallible character
Istanbul seems like the perfect place for the action of the novel to truly begin. Fleming writes that for Bond “Istanbul had given him the impression of a town where, with the night, horror creeps out of the stones. It seemed to him a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were its only population.”
|Reading under the dappled light of a palm tree, Saint Lucia.|
The action really picks up after Bond and Miss Romanova’s departure from Istanbul aboard the Orient Express bound for Paris, accompanied by the lively Darko Kerim, a local agent. Once more the sensation of entrapment means that the reader is never really sure of how long it will be until someone makes a move, mirroring, in many ways, the global tensions of the Cold War.
The novel, as well as developing Bond’s character from the previous novels and leaving the audience with an epic cliff-hanger ending, makes a number of observations of the world at the time of writing. A number of references are made to Britain’s loss of influence and power on the global political stage, something that many political commentators continue to comment upon today.
All in all, From Russia With Love is a good read, and, despite wishing that I was reading one of the Caribbean-based novels on the beach rather than one set over in Europe, it is definitely the most tense, if not always the most action-packed, of the first five novels in the James Bond series.