From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

I normally like to read the book before I watch the film but having been exposed to James Bond films on the TV at an early age, this was just not possible. It was with some hesitancy that I reached for Ian Fleming’s original books as I did not want my image of Bond to be altered considerably. I needn’t have worried.

In From Russia With Love, Bond is the same suave, handsome man of the films and an excellent spy. When the Russians decide to have Bond assassinated, they choose a beautiful Russian woman as a lure (of course) and have their most psychopathic killer as the person to ensure his demise. The main action of the book takes place in Istanbul where Bond is taken under the wing of Darko Kerim, MI6’s Head of Turkey and is exposed to the seamier side of life in the city where east meets west. Bond is faced with the possibility of a violent death and is determined to thwart the Russians no matter what. The action culminates on the Orient Express, trains always being, for some reason, a rather excellent place for furtive dealings and dark events.

I have to say that when I began the book, I thought that it was going to be a quite tedious read. It started slowly with the establishing of the character of Red Grant and the Russian creation of the plot to get Bond. I don’t know about you but sometimes, if I am hit in a narrative by a surplus of strange sounding names, my brain struggles to assimilate the differences between who is who, which is appalling to admit and I feel quite ashamed of myself. It’s a bit like high fantasy where you have made-up names with odd syllables and stresses, all designed to create this immersive new world, a wonderful product of the writer’s imagination. For me, I am sorry to say, it turns me off or baffles me or both.

In the context of this book, I did wonder if I was going to be able to enjoy it as I did find those initial pages turgid to read but I am glad that I persevered as once the foundations had been laid, the action from that point became well-paced.

The establishment of the character of Red Grant was superfluous really to the story. I think that Fleming incorporates it to show the reader what a formidable enemy Bond finds himself faced with at the dénouement of the story and maybe how treacherous people can be, not having the same loyalty to their country as Bond.

Despite my initial fears, I have to say that I am very keen to read more Bond. Ian Fleming is a lively writer and the depiction of Bond as a capable spy and lover are all the things that you would expect. What I especially liked, and is not what you get in the film, is the following of Bond’s thought processes, which, in movies, can only be inferred by eye movement and a well-placed camera angle, suggesting that the cigarette case may indeed be needed in this life-or-death scenario. In the book, however, you are privy to James’ mind meanderings and whilst I found this intriguing, it also rattled me a bit, at first. Bond, it would appear, can also be unsure of things and is not as infallible as I thought.

We all know that he succumbs to attractive women far too often but it would appear that he is also prone to self doubt and poor judgement at times. The book achieves in doing something that the films perhaps fail in – the book makes Bond human with all the flaws and weaknesses that that presents. I am in two minds about this as it shakes the strong image that I have always had of England’s finest secret agent and yet, it also makes more sense and creates more warmth in me for him as a character and paradoxically, makes me view him as a stronger individual as a result, bizarre as that may seem. The fact that he has weaknesses but is able to conquer them in order to succeed, I think, is a stronger evocation of character than the almost invincible Bond of the films.

One thing that did perplex me is the description that Fleming gives of Bond’s mouth, calling it “cruel”. Is this to indicate Bond’s ruthlessness when required or an outward sign of the experience that he has had to endure? It seemed a crucial detail to me and again, it does not wholly fit with my image of Bond. I suppose there are not likely to be happy spies or contented spies. Still, “cruel” denotes something decidedly different to strength, determination or bravery in my interpretation of it. It is not a positive association.

And I have to mention before finishing a rather fine fighting scene with gypsy women, which must have also been included in the film although fortunately, I feel, my mind is vague about this. I’m not sure why Fleming chose to write this either unless it was to highlight cultural differences and accentuate the exoticness of Turkey and gypsies and how other cultures try to resolve conflict within their community. Maybe it was purely for titillation as Bond is renowned as a bit of a saucepot generally and the films can’t have just created this without a basis for it from the books and Fleming. Whatever the purpose, Bond’s reaction to the gypsies fighting is one that does not revel in the spectacle; in fact, I am pleased to report, quite the opposite.

Fighting gypsies – not for titillation at all

The book ends on quite a formidable cliffhanger which I would imagine would have frustrated readers of the original novels or perhaps excited them into buying book #6 to find out what happened. I will certainly be looking for Bond books at the thrift stores as I very much enjoyed this one. The cover of the edition I read with Sean Connery on the front also made me feel like I was reading a book very much of the era which added to my enjoyment somewhat and I would like to replicate this again, perhaps wearing a dress with a full skirt and some rather large sunglasses.

However I am dressed when it happens, it would appear that we will meet again, Mr Bond.

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