Tour de Bond: From Russia With Love (1957)

After a week’s hiatus, we’re back, and just in time for one of the best books in the series. From Russia With Love was the book that skyrocketed Bond into pop-culture stardom, thanks largely to a LIFE magazine interview where President John F. Kennedy listed it as one of his favorite books in 1961. Aside from finally achieving world-wide popularity, though, this book is one of the best-plotted in the canon, with a tense, cold-war premise and Fleming stepping outside of the formula he established with the previous novels.

Readers of the time must have been shocked (I know I was, when I first read the novel in the early 80s) to discover that Bond doesn’t even show up until Chapter 11. The first third of the novel delves deeply into establishing a Soviet plot to discredit and kill 007 — revenge for his successes against Soviet efforts in the previous novels. A division within Soviet intelligence, SMERSH — which Fleming named from an actual 1940s-era Soviet Army counter-intelligence program, Smert Shpionam (“Death to Spies”) — enacts a plan to ensnare Bond in a sexual scandal and then kill him, thereby discrediting British Intelligence in the process. The opening chapters of the book introduce SMERSH, the assassin, Red Grant, and his superiors, the chess-playing Kronsteen and Colonel Rosa Klebb (another of Fleming’s pun names — this time based on the Soviet slogan for women’s rights, khleb i rozy (“bread and roses”).

The time spent establishing the villains, clearly communicating the threat they pose, observing them setting the pieces in motion, is a brilliant tension-building strategy. By the time Bond appears in Part II of the novel, we wonder how he can prevail against the extremely competent plotters that we just spent 10 chapters watching. The plan unfolds — A cipher clerk, Tatiana Romanova, expresses a desire to defect, and provide the Spektor decoding device — and says that she’ll only turn it over to Bond, because she fell in love with a file photo of him. The best part about this is that Fleming has MI6 wary of what seems an obvious trap, yet send Bond anyway, because the opportunity is too good to pass up. This sort of gamesmanship rings very true of the sort of real operations that played out between East and West during the Cold War.

The main thrust (ahem) of the plot takes place in Istanbul, which allows Fleming to flex his well-established travelogue muscles, basing most of the details on his own experiences visiting the city. As always, Fleming’s true talent lies in details and pacing. The plot — with the young cipher clerk throwing SMERSH’s plan into disarray by actually falling in love with Bond — is thin, but relentless in its movement from set piece to set piece: A catfight in a gypsy caravan, the assassination of a Bulgarian by Bond and the head of MI6’s Istanbul station, and a climactic confrontation on the Orient Express.

By this novel, Fleming was growing tired of writing Bond for middling success, and, like Conan Doyle in “The Final Solution”, figured that the best way to give himself an out was to kill off the character. The book that began with 10 chapters before the main character makes an appearance ends just as shockingly — with Rosa Klebb, disguised as a widow, tracks down Bond to a hotel in paris, and using a blade concealed in her shoe, poisons him. The book ends with Bond collapsing to the floor, apparently dead.

Thankfully, Flemings friends, agent and publisher managed to convince him to return, and the series continued with Doctor No in 1958.

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