“Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make bored.”
Following the somewhat lackluster novel Diamonds Are Forever, From Russia, With Love nicely sets everything right in the world of James Bond. Following the events of that diamond-smuggling adventure, James Bond has found himself living ‘the soft life.’ Work has been slow and he’s been keeping time with desk work as he waits for his next assignment. Tiffany Case has dumped him, gotten engaged to an American military man, and is returning to the USA to live a life of marital bliss. Licking his wounds, 007 is itchy to get back in the saddle. “In his particular line of business, peace had reigned for nearly a year. And peace was killing him.” Well, one should be careful what one wishes for.
For the first 90 pages of From Russia, With Love James Bond isn’t even present. Instead, we are introduced to the characters who will be attempting to bring about his demise in this novel. First we meet Red Grant, a psychotic man who is tempted to kill by the full moon, and who has found gainful employment as the top assassin of the Soviet Union’s deadly secret service: SMERSH. We go to meeting of ‘the moguls of death,’ who decide that in order to dismantle MI6 (Britain’s secret services division) they must target its most prized officer, James Bond, in order to defame him and then kill him. The fact that Bond, agent 007, has caused them trouble before (in Casino Royale and then again in Live and Let Die) only makes the operation seem that much sweeter to them. Then we meet Rosa Klebb, SMERSH’s head of Operations and Executions, who devises the plan that will follow. They must trick 007 into going to a neutral territory where they can get at him easier, and get him to fall for a beautiful Russian girl who will bring about his downfall. Enter Tatiana Romanova, an MGB agent recruited by Klebb to be the pawn in a scheme that will destroy James Bond and British Intelligence once and for all.
On the one hand, it seems curious that we spend so much time setting groundwork for the novel before James Bond himself appears. Truth be told, Ian Fleming could have easily edited the Soviet chapters out completely and From Russia, With Love would work just as well. It would change the tone completely, but it would still work. But I actually like the addition of the Soviet chapters. Without them you’d be in Bond’s shoes, wondering if the mission he’s going on to Istanbul is a trap or not. The suspense would come from that mystery. Instead, you know full well that 007 is walking into a trap. The suspense is in watching him get tangled in the web and wondering how he’ll ever manage to free himself of it.
The scheme is that Romanova contacts the Istanbul branch of MI6 to profess her love for James Bond, whom she ‘got to know’ from transcribing reports about him. She claims to want to defect to Britain to be with him, and promises to have a code machine called a Spektor as a sign of good faith. MI6 willingly takes the bait for the Spektor’s value, but the rest depends on your ability to check your brain at the door a bit. You see, Bond naturally falls for Romanova pretty hard. You’re meant to wonder where Romanova’s allegiance truly lies, but the reality is that she falls for Bond just as hard. It doesn’t really make sense for them to fall in love so quickly and so effortlessly–with such high stakes, no less. But the good thing about From Russia, With Love is that it’s so much fun you don’t really care all that much. I guess it also helps that Fleming makes sure you know that Bond is reeling from his breakup with Tiffany Case and a deadly case of boredom when this mission comes along. Both of those features would make him more reckless than usual, I suppose.
The novel is full of smart little twists and turns. I complained in Diamonds Are Forever that the villains weren’t central enough to the story, and oddly enough this novel turned that complaint on its head–because Red Grant and Rosa Klebb disappear completely for a large swath of the plot, but you hardly mind. Knowing their scheme is at work adds sufficient menace to propel the story even without their physical presence. You may remember that in my review of Moonraker I noted that it was my favorite novel in the series so far. Well, From Russia, With Love just stole the title. This Soviet tale of espionage even had a stamp of approval from no less that President Kennedy (who listed it among his ten favorite books, and screened the film adaptation at The White House just before his assassination), and it’s easy to see why he would be taken with it.