April, 1957. The world hangs in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, where it’s been since the Soviet atomic tests of 1949 and the American attacks on Japan four years previous that ended the Second World War. This is the world in which Ian Fleming writes, but that’s nothing compared to what it will be in the immediate months and years to come. In a mere six months from the release of this novel, the Soviets quite literally pour rocket fuel all over an already tense situation when they initiate the space race with the successful launch of earth’s first man-made satellite, Sputnik. There will be panic. There will be paranoia. There will be Communist witch hunts as the Red Scare takes over. There will be bomb shelters and food shortages. The world is poised on the brink, and it needs a hero.
President John F. Kennedy would list out his ten favorite books, and on it is Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love. With that shout-out, this book’s newfound popularity would cement the Bond franchise as a worldwide brand, riding the whirlwind of pop culture phenomena from the 1962 and ’63 theater releases of Dr. No and From Russia With Love, respectively. Though critical reviews may vary, From Russia With Love is often hailed as the best of the entire Fleming line-up. I, myself, do not agree with this assessment, but it’s certainly one of my favorites. I’m in the other camp that thinks On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the best one, and I will happily concede all arguments to greatness on both sides of that divide because these books represent the literary version of Bond at his best. This novel would go on to become the most heralded — and the most hyped — spy novel ever written. Its hero would set the standard for a hundred spoofs and a thousand knock-offs.
But in 1957, six months before Sputnik, it was simply the next in line of Fleming’s original James Bond novels. This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, where we find out if a book can hope to live up to the impossible standards heaped upon it over the course of six decades.
Well, I suppose my earlier comment has already let the cat out of the bag, so to speak. In my humble estimation, this book absolutely does live up to the hype, assuming one has an understanding of what that hype actually says and why. After all, Fleming’s Bond sets the standard of the genre for a reason.
At this point in the series, we’re still five years away from seeing Bond on the big screen and the solid stamp Sean Connery would put on the character as he made Bond his own. Here, we’re still in flux. We don’t yet have the quintessential gadgets and toys, and of course, we don’t have the Connery charisma that made Bond work for general audiences. When most people read these books, the reaction is either shock at how different Bond is, or the entire Connery zeitgeist is simply overlaid like a second skin of the imagination. It’s an honest and understandable thing for general readers to do. But I like to see the evolution, and I readily see the differences.
As always, the modern reader is going to have a difficult time. The idea of an enlightened and equal society is a complete myth, but we make active strides every day to see it come about. That’s to be applauded. In Fleming’s day… not so much. Many will level their anger at Fleming for rampant misogyny or worse. Some will simply see that in the circles he ran with, and especially in the spy business, people were simply like that. The realism that Fleming brings is simply part and parcel, regardless of who gets offended by it. For my part, I think both sides are correct, and I just don’t dwell. I’m not interested in getting disgusted by attitudes and comments that don’t line up with my personal understanding and values. I want to see the values of those people who lived in 1957, in these different cultures, doing these extremely dangerous jobs. Everything else… well, as I’ve said in past, it’s not unlike reading a bad romance novel. The more wrong it gets, the more controversy it generates, and the more successful it’ll be for that reason. So long as people get the difference between the fantasy and the reality, there is no harm. Those who don’t, books like this aren’t the problem. Point fingers at the source, get the guy some help, and move on. It’s a sad state of affairs that I always feel I have to explain this in these reviews, but that’s part of operating in a more aware society. I choose to be thankful we do, and I choose to enjoy the historical fiction for what it is. If I didn’t, I’d not be able to read 90% of what I do, because let’s be honest… history is full of far worse things.
Even so, I’ll just come right out and say it. A great many things in this novel probably set the women’s lib movement back a generation or two. Consider the backgrounds of the characters, consider their professions, and consider what was probably at stake in their personal and professional lives. This might help to overcome some of the skin-crawling, laughter-inducing insanity that provides part of the Bond milieu. Or it might not. If you think you’ll have a problem with it, you probably will. For those who don’t understand what kind of a person would enjoy a novel like this… as I say, JFK was a fan. He and I are very different, but his mentality wasn’t so different from Fleming himself.
Speaking of far worse things, let’s spotlight on Karim Bey for a moment. He’s a far bigger character than Bond in this story, large in personality and cross-cultural beliefs. In modern times, he’s probably not the most sympathetic of characters, but his presence flavors the story considerably. Fleming clearly had a blast writing for him, likely just as much as he did for the villains.
And aren’t the villains usually the part of the story the writer enjoys writing most? This novel is unusual in that we don’t even see Bond until chapter 11. The first 10 chapters are all setup as the methods of SMERSH are outlined in vivid detail. It’s the first time we spend quality time with the baddies. The result ratchets up the tension and explains the mission in such a way as to make it erotic in its own way, not in the sexual manner as one might think, but more at the intellectual level. That SMERSH employs a chessmaster is one of those creative touches that makes me wonder if Fleming knew somebody like this. It turns everything in to a classic Cold War cat and mouse game. The nuance is incredible for those with an eye to see. All of the villains in this are so well-crafted that their screen counterparts alter them very little, for there is little need to do so. Rosa Klebb is a terrifyingly sadistic little psychopath. Red Grant is completely believable as someone could be Bond’s physical match or better. While the screen versions of these characters would form the foundations for SPECTRE, it needs to be reminded that SPECTRE would not come about in the books until Thunderball. SMERSH had to be a credible threat on its own. Sputnik made it a little too real in its own time.
Roger Moore once quipped that Bond was the worst secret agent because everyone knew everything about him. This may be the book that inadvertently set that stereotype into motion. This time SMERSH is out for vengeance, seeking to murder both 007 and his reputation. The setup is a bit hard to swallow, and Fleming knew it too, which is why Bond questions it right from the start. But the story is told with such enthusiasm, you really don’t care once things are set into motion. That enthusiasm changes everything. After Diamonds, it’s like Fleming found a renewed interest in Bond. Or it could just be that better villains make for better stories, and these are some of the best of the lot, made so by the extra attention Fleming has given them. Either way, this book marks a transition for me, from the earlier books to the stories that inspired the classic Connery era. Maybe it’s because I grew up on those that I always gravitate more towards this book and the ones immediately following it. It’s hard to shake such bias, but I own it. It’s part of what brings me back time and again to read something so very different from the life I lead.