While From Russia with Love included the classic elements that fans would want in a James Bond adventure, the novel’s structure gave it a somewhat different feel from other entries in the series.
The plot revolves around a Soviet conspiracy to murder Bond in a way that would serve a punishing and highly public blow to the British Secret Service. Rosa Klebb, the head of SMERSH, the Soviet murder bureau, puts an intricate plan into play. She lures Bond to Istanbul, with a beautiful would-be defector (Tatiana Romanova) and a Soviet cryptography machine as bait. Bond teams up with Anglo-Turkish agent Darko Kerim for some skirmishes with Soviet agents before boarding the famed Orient Express with Tatiana, whose growing feelings for Bond are giving her serious second thoughts about her mission. All the while, the brutal Red Grant, SMERSH’s top assassin, stalks the duo to a climactic final confrontation.
One of the most notable aspects of From Russia with Love is that the hero of the book doesn’t make an appearance until a third the way in. The first section instead focuses on the Soviet characters, providing a glimpse into Moscow life of that era. Author Ian Fleming spends time fleshing out Rosa, Tatiana and Red, among others, and shows how the plot against Bond comes together. It’s a slow burn approach that gives the story a different feel early on. The approach adds depth to Bond’s nemeses, making them more than just cardboard straw men for the super spy to knock down.
When Bond does enter the story, it kicks the plot into a higher gear. Fleming sketches some involving espionage action, making especially good use of the exotic Istanbul setting as the backdrop to the East vs. West spy games. Unlike the bon vivant image of the character often displayed in the famous movies, the written Bond comes across as a much darker figure. He grapples with existential malaise and the love affairs that come across as bits of froth onscreen cut him much deeper on the page. Bond doesn’t come across as perfect; indeed, Fleming hints at the fact that his hero is fundamentally unbalanced, but in a way that makes him an ideal fit for his job.
Among the newer characters, Kerim is a vivid force of nature, a good partner for Bond, even if at times he slips into an Ottoman pulp caricature. Klebb is among the best villains of the series, ruthless and complex, while the ambivalent Tatiana, torn between duty and her feelings for Bond, is a sympathetic mix of love interest and enemy. Fleming spends a lot of time building up Red, possibly a little too much time. In the end, Red’s more a bit of villainous color who doesn’t have the layers of Rosa or Tatiana.
As always, the pre-PC sensibility of the Bond novels won’t be a good fit for all sensibilities. Some passages could be shocking for modern readers unused to the period’s different standards. But for espionage drama fans with an open mind, the Bond series remains a compelling and worthwhile ride.