“From Russia With Love”

“History is moving pretty quickly these days, and the heroes and villains keep changing parts” —Ian Fleming

I have hazy memories of the Bond films; I remember watching them with my father when they were on “The ABC Movie of the Week”— and while I remember their titles, I’ll be damned if I can tell you what happens, for example, in “The Man With the Golden Gun”. We saw some of them in theaters as well. I remember “Moonraker” fairly well, and while I saw it, I don’t remember anything about “Octopussy” aside from the title, which made 13 year old me giggle like a 13 year old would giggle at a movie named “Octopussy”. I’ve seen four out of the five newest Bond films, and to be honest, while I found it enjoyable, I don’t remember what happens in “Spectre” at all.

I think this is fine; by and large, Bond movies are fast food. They’re not particularly designed to be memorable, just entertaining. They also age fairly poorly— the injection of ‘humor’ in them, especially during the Roger Moore era, guarantees that. They are all products of their time in a way that the books are not. The books don’t age perfectly (more on that later); I’ve a bit more tolerance for that kind of thing in print, for reasons I have trouble articulating, and are beyond the scope of this little essay.

So why would a casual at best Bond fan read the books? I was looking for something fun and light to read on a trip to Thailand, which is home to “James Bond Island”, which is really named Khao Phing Kan, and was used in the filming of “The Man With the Golden Gun”. That’s it. 

Ian Fleming never went there (he did spend a fair amount of time in Jamaica), and, as far as I know, none of the books are set there. But it was good enough for me, and sipping on a cold Singha in a hotel bar on Phuket and reading Casino Royale was a fine experience, and I recommend it. 

“From Russia with Love” is the fifth book in the series, and the first one, to me, that really felt like the Bond I vaguely remember from my childhood. Cigarettes! Trains! Double Vodka Martinis! It’s also kind of an odd read. 

The plot is simple and convoluted at the same time: SMERSH concocts a plot to murder Bond and sabotage some of MI6 by handing them a boobytrapped code machine. They plan to do this by having a Russian spy pretend to defect, fall in love with Bond, and have him escort her via train back to England, where he will be killed, humiliated, and the booby trapped machine presumably messing things up at MI6 HQ. 

In fact, the first 25% of the book is exclusively devoted to explaining this plot. We learn a whole lot of details about Bond’s assassin, the inner workings of SMERSH, the woman whom the Russians choose as bait for bond Bond, etc. It’s a strange choice, but not a terrible one. Bond’s would-be assassin is portrayed as a frightening psychopath who enjoys killing like children enjoy ice cream. It’s effective in its own way, and when Bond shows up, we have a solid foundation for a story. 

We also learn that Bond is a hipster. He doesn’t own a TV, smokes, drinks pour over coffee and eats farm fresh eggs from a specific farm, which are delivered to him. He dislikes Windsor knots in ties, and also does not like the taste of virginia tobacco. All of Bond’s indulgences are a kind of pornography for the 1950s British reader, for whom rationing did not end completely until 1954. 

It’s the little detours that make the book work for me. The way that Bond moves through the world and Fleming’s determination to give his exotic locales and plots a sense of grounded place makes the books hold up well in a way that the films can’t. The Bond of the books is also a lot more businesslike and matter of fact about his work. There are no “clever” quips or the like. And yes, there are some dated moments. Fleming’s descriptions of foreigners and minorities are in line with the times, and that can mean some (to put it kindly) archaic language (he always uses the polite terms of the day, it should be noted). There’s also a strong implication that one of the characters is a lesbian, which is mostly glossed over, but still awkward. I’m not qualified to comment on how any particular individual might react to these things, but they are there.

We detour quite a lot. There’s a lengthy subplot involving Darko Karim, MI6’s “man in Turkey”. We spy on Russian agents. Karim kills someone who attempted to bomb him. It’s more like a set of set-pieces than a novel for a while. Once Bond gets on the Orient express with the Russian asset(s), the end of that plot thread is sort of sudden and almost anticlimactic, especially given how much buildup it had at the beginning. 

And then Bond dies at the end. Or at least appears to. Having dispatched the his would-be assassin, Bond encounters the mastermind behind the plot; who poisons him with a blade in her shoe. It’s a strange, abrupt ending. Fleming apparently thought about ending the series with this book. He didn’t, but had he chosen to, it would have been a rather ignominious ending for Bond. He just gets poisoned: 

“Bond felt his knees begin to buckle.

He said, or thought he said, “I’ve already got the loveliest…”

Bond pivoted slowly on his heel and crashed headlong into the wine-red floor.”

And that’s it. It’s like the Sopranos sans the ambiguity, and honestly, I found it to be one of the stranger endings to a popular book I have ever read. You’re expecting an epilogue where his colleagues gather round or a paragraph or two about the fallout, or something like that, but nope. It just finishes. 

It’s a general rule of thumb here to recommend or not recommend a thing; if I’ve read it, and wrote about it, it’s because I find it interesting in some capacity. “From Russia with Love” is both a time capsule and a fast, easy read. I often seek odd connections between moments in my life and themes in a book, but here all I have is set of half formed memories of a time when I was a child, combined with a desire to have something I can read in a bar or on a plane. In a world that is frequently overcomplicated and difficult to navigate, the convolutedly simple world of a martini drinking spy is a fine enough escape. Seek yours as you see fit. 

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