Thursday, May 04, 2006
Great villains, original (and almost plausible) plot, plenty of action, polished writing, a book you can't put down, a book that you wish would never end.
Briefly, SMERSH, the Soviet anti-spy organization from the first two novels, seeks to embarrass the West by embroiling a British spy in a sex scandal. They single out James Bond. Though he is unknown to the world at large, Bond is famous in spy circles, and his downfall would demoralize the Western intelligence organizations.
And so the labyrinthine plot develops. Freaky lesbian Russkie Rosa Klebb, SMERSH operative, recruits an ex-patriate British psychotic, Donovan Grant, and a beautiful Russian agent, Tatiana Romanova (who looks a little like Greta Garbo), and plans are made.
Soon, Bond is in Istanbul, hanging out with the magical Turkish agent, Kerim Bey, running with rats, killing Bulgarians, fighting alongside gypsies, and waiting for the plot to unfold.
The last part of the novel is a cat-and-mouse game, with Bond and Tatiana fleeing to the West on the Orient Express and matching wits with Donovan Grant and other SMERSH operatives.
And, at the end, Bond dies.
(He gets better, just like Felix Leiter when he was eaten by the shark in Live and Let Die.)
The book was written in 1957 and sold very well. In 1961, a magazine published a list of President John F. Kennedy's favorite books. The only fiction on the list, coming in at Number Nine, was From Russia With Love. (Some sources say that John and brother Bobby liked the Bond novels but From Russia With Love was not on Kennedy's original list. It was added by a staffer to make Kennedy look less like a nerd.) As the story goes, Kennedy's "endorsement" ignited a Bond craze and even greater popularity for Ian Fleming's creation.
There had been talk of a James Bond movie for several years, but it hadn't materialized yet. However, the new popularity made a James Bond film inevitable.
(I don't know why Dr. No was chosen as the first Bond film instead of From Russia With Love. Perhaps I will find out and we will discuss it in a future essay.)
So, From Russia With Love may be the novel that is most directly responsible for jump-starting the film series. I urge James Bond fans to read it, for fun, for posterity, for history.
Next: FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE - THE MOVIE