Due to circumstances beyond his control, Stark is having to fly solo for this edition of Fleming Revisited, the quest to re-read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels in order of publication and discuss them here, at the Last Movie Outpost. You can read previous entries here starting with Casino Royale, Live And Let Die, Moonraker and Diamonds Are Forever already.
Now things get really serious as the fifth book in the series is From Russia With Love, a fan-favorite movie and a very, very faithful adaption.
First published on 8th April 1957 this is the book that propelled James Bond into the stratosphere and brought the series first to the attention of the world, including a budding movie producer by the name of Albert R. Broccoli. With a feature in a magazine about British Prime Minister Anthony Eden visiting the GoldenEye estate in Jamaica, and a ringing endorsement from President John F. Kennedy who listed this among his favorite books, Bond was hitting the big time.
The book matches the movie closely. Why wouldn’t it? It’s a pretty perfect tale of international espionage featuring code machines, a femme fatale, fights, hulking assassins and glamorous international travel from a more refined age. Why mess with perfection?
Internal politics and power plays between the various Soviet agencies have left SMERSH, already wounded by their failures in Estoril (Casino Royale), Jamaica (Live And Let Die), and in England itself (Moonraker), in a precarious position within the cut-throat Soviet structure. They need to do something.
They make a plan to commit a grand act of terrorism in the intelligence field. Their target British secret service agent James Bond. They will deliver a stunning success and at the same time destroy the man behind their recent failures. Bond has been listed as an enemy of the Soviet state and a death warrant is issued for him.
His death is planned to involve a major sex scandal, which will dominate the press and leave his and his service’s reputations in tatters.
Kronsteen, SMERSH’s chess-playing master planner, and Colonel Rosa Klebb, the head of Operations and Executions, have a plan and their weapon is to be the SMERSH executioner Donovan “Red” Grant, a British Army deserter and dangerous psychopath whose homicidal urges coincide with the full moon.
A young cipher clerk in the Soviet embassy in Istanbul, along with her cipher machine, is the bait. Bond and M know full well it’s a trap and Bond is the target, but Bond goes anyway. After a game of cat-and-mouse played out across Istanbul, Bond races home with his prize across Turkey, the Balkans and into Italy as his would-be killer closes in.
Mr Bond, We’ve Been Expecting You
There is still no S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in the book, even though they are involved in the plot in the movie. This is all SMERSH and all the Soviet menace. However, it’s widely regarded that this is the book where Fleming really hits his stride. All elements are there and written about with flair and panache, yet comfortably, by Fleming.
Author of the Young Bond novels, Charlie Higson, notes that Fleming spent the previous four novels changing the style of his books and his approach to his characters. He considers From Russia With Love the book where Fleming absolutely nails what became known as “The Bond Character”.
The literary analyst LeRoy L. Panek goes even further, labelling the previous novels as episodic detective stories, and stating that From Russia With Love is completely different. Chief among the differences is a number of highly detailed chapters to open the book that describes the structure of the Soviet intelligence apparatus, their internal power struggles, Red Grant himself, Tatiana Romanova’s backstory and even Klebb’s career and her sexuality. Bond himself does not enter as an active character until the second act of the book.
As with all Bond novels, the inspiration for much of the plot points and characters are based on reality. Fleming attended an Interpol conference in Istanbul in June 1955 as a Sunday Times journalist. There he met the Oxford-educated ship owner Nazim Kalkavan, who became the model for Darko Kerim, Kerim Bey in the movie. Fleming took down many of Kalkavan’s conversations in a notebook, and used them verbatim in the novel.
Fleming also used friends, acquaintances or his knowledge to inspire characters in the book. Red Grant was a Jamaican river guide whom Fleming’s biographer Andrew Lycett thus described:
“A cheerful, voluble giant of villainous aspect.”
Rosa Klebb was said to be partly based on Colonel Rybkina, a real-life member of the Lenin Military-Political Academy about whom Fleming had written an article for The Sunday Times. The Spektor machine was renamed Lektor in the film to avoid confusion with S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and was inspired by the World War II Enigma machine, which Fleming had tried to obtain while serving in the Naval Intelligence Division.
All The Time In The World
As with a number of the novels, while Fleming studiously did not date the events, John Griswold and Henry Chancellor (both having been put into print by Ian Fleming Publications) have identified different timelines based on events and situations within the book.
Chancellor put the events of From Russia With Love in 1955 while Griswold considers the story to have taken place between June and August 1954.
In the story General Grubozaboyschikob of the MGB refers to the Istanbul pogrom, the Cyprus Emergency, and the “revolution in Morocco” when France was forced to grant Morocco independence in 1955.
The Orient Express section of the book was inspired by the real-life incident of Eugene Karp. He was a US naval attaché and intelligence agent serving in the Budapest office who boarded the Orient Express from Budapest to Paris in 1950. He was carrying a number of papers about blown US spy networks in the Eastern Bloc.
Soviet assassins were waiting for him on the train. The conductor was drugged and Karp’s body was eventually found in a railway tunnel south of Salzburg.
In September 1955, Fleming visited Istanbul during the pogrom against the Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities which history proscribes to the Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes. Witnessing ethnic Greeks lynched by Turkish mobs while hundreds of women and boys were gang-raped in the streets, Fleming was sickened by the level of violence. He wrote of:
“…mobs went howling through the streets, each under its streaming red flag with the white star and sickle moon.”
This experience colored Fleming’s view of the city of Istanbul and this was apparent in the novel where he presents Istanbul as a dangerous place.
“Istanbul was a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were its only population.”
Bond himself, as he reflects on the city upon his arrival, thinks that he:
“…would be glad to get out of alive.”
The Death Of Bond
Fleming was forever a contrarian, and it’s no surprise to learn that just as Bond was poised to become a global icon, so he found himself tiring of writing about him. Fleming wrote to his friend, the American author Raymond Chandler:
“My muse is in a very bad way … I am getting fed up with Bond and it has been very difficult to make him go through his tawdry tricks.”
As a result he ended the novel with a scene that left Bond’s fate ambiguous. Therefore should Fleming decide to not write about Bond again, it could serve as a conclusion. Having reconnected with Rene Mathis (Casino Royale) in Trieste, Bond and Tatianna encounter Rosa Klebb who makes a last-ditch attempt to kill Bond herself via the poison-tipped daggers in her shoes.
The novel ends with her kicking Bond even as he kills her, and the final lines in the book are as follows:
Breathing became difficult. Bond sighed to the depth of his lungs. He clenched his jaws and half closed his eyes, as people do when they want to hide their drunkenness. … He prised his eyes open. … Now he had to gasp for breath. Again his hand moved up towards his cold face. He had an impression of Mathis starting towards him. Bond felt his knees begin to buckle … pivoted slowly on his heel and crashed head-long to the wine-red floor.
Fleming, of course, chose not to end Bond in such a way and at the start of Dr. No, the next novel, Bond is recovering slowly from his poisoning and therefore is given a supposedly easy mission to Jamaica.
A Call To Arms
Stark: OK, this one is an absolute cracker. No denying it. Probably the best one so far and the closest the movies get to that novel.
It’s pretty amazing how much detail this book goes into for many chapters at the beginning. You get absorbed in it. Then suddenly the whole first part of the book, many chapters, is over and part II starts with Bond walking into M’s office. You suddenly realize you have read about 1/3rd of a Bond book without the character of Bond appearing and, actually hadn’t noticed.
The whole Orient Express sequence is fantastic. Red Grant, the slow reveal, the game of cat and mouse with the other Soviet agents, leading up to THAT fight.
And the fight is different from the world-famous one in the movie. Back then nobody had really seen violence like that on screen before, so it set the bar. Still stands up today. This fight is slightly more tactical and a bit more brutal though. Resolved completely differently, but I won’t spoil that for you. It shows just how ruthless the literary Bond is when threatened.
Major components still there though. The gypsy fight, assassinating the Bulgarian as he flees out an escape hatch, the trip through the sewers to be under the Russian embassy. All appears.
The key differences remain that the plot against Bond is much less fleshed out in the movie to the book, the character of Mathis has yet to appear in the world of the movies and would stay that way until 2006’s Casino Royale, and Bond’s near-death experience / potential death is completely omitted.
You can really see why this book is so popular, with the endorsement from Bond scholars, fans, Presidents, and Prime Ministers. It’s a classic Cold War thriller that adds a fantastic layer of detail above and beyond the movie that we all know and love. It is a page-turner and the ending is something of a downer after such an exhilarating ride.
Klebb is a particularly good character, with her sexual peccadillos blatantly laid out for prudish, 1950’s judgment. This was a trope of Fleming. A lot of his villains were either disfigured or otherwise deviants. This is where the hulking henchmen with physical irregularities largely come from in the movies.
As the movie adaption of From Russia With Love really underpinned the success of Dr. No, and laid foundations to help underpin the viability of the franchise, the book is a clear benchmark in the literary series. Fleming may have been tired of writing Bond, but the character as a literary icon was left in rude health by this nook.
If you love a spy thriller then this book really is a must-read, even if you are unfamiliar with the literary Bond.