Review by C.J. Bunce
The fifth James Bond novel, From Russia with Love, was a popular mainstream read back in 1957. One of President Kennedy’s favorite books, the film adaptation would be the last movie he would ever see before that fateful trip to Dallas in 1963. From Russia with Love reflects a lot about the Cold War era and Europe in the late 1950s. As part of the James Bond universe it is a rare faithful adaptation of an Ian Fleming novel. And, unlike some of Fleming’s Bond novels that fail to hold up to modern sensibilities, including The Spy Who Loved Me (previously reviewed here) and Live and Let Die (reviewed here), From Russia with Love is full of political intrigue and spymastery, putting it toward the top of Bond’s adventures along with the novels Casino Royale and Moonraker.
A nice twist is the admission within the story of the more ludicrous elements, as just that, ludicrous. Namely, the plot focuses on a sort of off-the-book operation by SMERSH (SPECTRE in the film, the Soviet secret spy program), and its efforts to kill Bond and exact revenge on MI6 through an elaborate sex scandal plot, all for the deaths by Bond of Le Chiffre in Casino Royale and Hugo Drax in Moonraker and other bruises to the Soviets. Its means? By assigning a Soviet cipher clerk (think Bletchley Circle) named Tatiana Romanova, stationed in a consulate in Istanbul, to pretend to fall in love with a photo of Bond and attempt defection to Great Britain. The catch? Only James Bond can collect her in Turkey and bring her over to the Brits. Dangling the carrot of a Spektor code breaker machine that the Brits have never been able to get their hands on, she’s SMERSH’s best bet to finally bring Bond to his knees. Thankfully, MI6 doesn’t blindly jump right in–MI6 sees it as an obvious trap, yet the value of the code breaker is too good to pass up, and it’s just the type of mission Bond is good at.
There’s more to From Russia with Love than the typical Bond novel. Sure, there’s the suave spy, the womanizing, the “Bond girl,” the martinis. There’s also the exotic locations. You’ll get the feel you’ve been to Istanbul, to the “stinking streets” of the city, to the Soviet consulate, the SMERSH training grounds, to a party and fight and bombing at a Gypsy village, and a ride on that famous train, the Orient Express.
Fleming penned a unique yet appropriate and able, despicable and ruthless villain in its Colonel Rosa Klebb, head of operations and executions for SMERSH who leads the Bond termination mission and employs Romanova as the perfect tool of the plan. Violent, athletic, and downright nasty in her own very special ways, she should be listed as one of the best of the Bond villains along with Blofeld and Dr. No.
Fleming creates a superb field operative second only to René Mathis with his Darko Kerim Bey, the local British head of operations in Turkey. Every bit as great a spy and tactical strategist as our man Bond, we finally get to see another agent at work, and it’s a great change of pace. Think John Clark as co-star to Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy’s novels.
From Russia with Love also contains the best ending of the Bond novels, equal in fun to its trademark “Bond will Return” tags that always hinted at another Bond novel (and also with the movies) coming soon. A cliffhanger for readers who like cliffhangers—at the time of publication Ian Fleming wasn’t sure if he ever was going to write another Bond novel to let readers know what happened to Bond next.
In a series with some hits and some misses, flag From Russia with Love as one to add to your reading list. The film is good, too, with Sean Connery confident and comfortable in his most famous role in only his second performance as Bond. Also look for a great soundtrack by John Barry. Frequently out of print, used copies and old stock are usually available here at Amazon.com.