03 October 2017

Review: From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

Mass market paperback, 337 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1957)
Acquired and read August 2016
From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

This reads like the ultimate James Bond novel. Not in the sense that Fleming has outdone himself, or perfected the formula-- I still reckon that Casino Royale is the best of these, and I don't see any sign of formula yet, neither the one from the films nor one of the books' own-- but in the sense that it feels final. Charlie Higson's introduction indicates Fleming toyed with killing Bond off in this novel, but even if I didn't know that, you can see how this book looks back at the trends and tropes of the earlier Bond novels and exploits them. Basically, the Russians note Bond's predilection for vulnerable women (seen in four of the five novels so far) and exploit it, staging a defection of an attractive young female cipher clerk in order to implicate Bond in a scandal. I'm curious to see where the novels go from here: is this trope done with, or will Fleming just keep using it anyway?

The format is a bit different than what we've seen previously. Bond doesn't show up for the first third of the novel, which instead details the inner workings of SMERSH, the Soviet counterintelligence organization. (Does SMERSH ever make it on screen? All of the film adaptations I've seen so far have excised the Russians for various reasons, and "SMERSH" is a dumb-sounding word, even if it was kind of a real thing. But if SMERSH makes it on screen ever, it must be in the film of this book, so I guess I'll see soon.) Here, Fleming's obsession with minute details serves him well: instead of carefully delineating meals or weaponry, we get the operations of Soviet intelligence and counterintelligence. I don't know if real Soviet intelligence organizations operated like this, but I would believe they would. It's a cold, clinical world where everyone does what they're told out of either total fear and paranoia or psychopathic glee.

Fleming times his switchover perfectly: exactly at the point where I was like, "Okay, where's James Bond?" the action switches to England. Honestly, the middle third of the novel is probably the weakest. Well, sort of. Bond goes to Istanbul, and we get to meet Kerim, the Head of T (MI6 operations in Istanbul), and he is a very entertaining character: he runs the Cold War as a sort of game, business, and family operation all in one. On the other hand, there's actually not a whole lot of relevance that happens in this section-- when Bond and Kerim go to see some gypsies, it has the sort of page-filling feel of the horse races in Diamonds are Forever. Lots of local flavor and color, but it's not really put to much use. Honestly, most of these Bond novels so far have been kind of weirdly plotted, except for Live and Let Die; I wonder if Fleming will get better at this as the series goes on.

The interest of all the local color is of course undermined by Bond's disgust at foreigners. Right from landing in Istanbul, it's all matter-of-fact racism from him: "So these dark, ugly, neat little [customs] officials were the modern Turks. He listened to their voices, full of broad vowels and quiet sibilants and modified u-sounds, and he watched the dark eyes that belied the soft, polite voices. [...] They were eyes that kept the knife-hand in sight without seeming to, that counted the grains of meal and the small fractions of coin and noted the flicker of the merchant's fingers. They were hard, untrusting, jealous eyes. Bond didn't take to them." Like, holy cow, Bond, even their "modified u-sounds" are evil? Bond likes Kerim, but of course Kerim's mother was English. It's this stuff that prevents one from fully engaging in the otherwise lavish descriptions of "exotic" Istanbul. Will I have to put up with this casual racism the whole rest of the series?

The last third of the novel is better, though. Like in Live and Let Die and Diamonds are Forever, we have Bond protecting a woman while on a slow-moving form of transport; the Russians really have figured out what it takes to make him fall in love with someone. It's tense and Fleming keeps the tension escalating throughout. If this part is done on screen as is, I can see it being really intense and captivating. I'm still impressed by how much Fleming makes you feel the pain Bond is in, and how hard it is for Bond to do things that look simple on screen-- like grab a gun while wrestling an opponent-- in a way that's completely captivating.

I'd place this in the middle of the Bond novels thus far: not as good as Casino Royale or Moonraker, but better than Live and Let Die or Diamonds are Forever. I'm interested enough to keep reading, at least.

Next Week: The sixth novel, but the first film: Dr No!

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