The Beautiful Lure - Ian Fleming's From Russia With Love

'Every major foreign government has a file on James Bond, British secret agent. Now, Russia’s deadly SMERSH organization has targeted him for elimination - they have the perfect bait in ravishing agent Tatiana Romanova. Her mission is to lure Bond to Istanbul and seduce him while her superiors handle the rest. But when Bond walks willingly into the trap, a game of cross and double cross ensues - with Bond both the stakes and the prize...'

From Russia With Love is the fifth James Bond novel written by Ian Fleming and was originally published in 1957. The book begins with the heads of the Soviet intelligence organisations plotting to put one over on their Western counterparts by murdering a Western agent in a particularly audacious and embarrassing fashion. The Western agent they eventually choose to assassinate is of course none other than James Bond 007 of the British Secret Service.
The plan involves luring Bond to Turkey where he will be led to believe that a female cipher clerk wants to defect to the West with a much prized secret code machine. The Soviets assign the mission of terminating 007 to their deadliest assassin Donovan ‘Red’ Grant and the luring part of the equation to beautiful agent Tatiana Romanova. Romanava is planted to seduce Bond in front of a hidden camera to suggest a sordid affair and ruin his reputation after death. The final part of the plan will involve Red Grant eliminating Bond and Romanava as they make their way back to Britain on the Orient Express. They will both be murdered by SMERSH and it will be made to appear as if a crazed Bond killed the woman himself and then committed suicide.

One of the stronger Fleming novels, From Russia With Love has one of the greatest and most dangerous Bond villains ever in Red Grant and plenty of suspense and intrigue. It's probably no coincidence that the subsequent film version of From Russia With Love was arguably the best James Bond film of all time and certainly in the top three alongside Goldfinger and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The first part of the novel finds James Bond absent and is devoted to SMERSH and their new masterplan, absorbingly introducing us to Red Grant, Rosa Klebb and Tatiana Romanova along the way. It's an effective enough ploy from Fleming who begins the book with the unemotional Grant receiving a massage in an elaborate private garden. 'He was the Chief Executioner of SMERSH,' writes Fleming. 'The murder apparat of the MGB, and at this moment he was receiving his instructions on the MGB direct line with Moscow.' 

The passages dealing with SMERSH and their clandestine discussions are enjoyable here for readers of the series because Bond's exploits in earlier books are mentioned as the main reason why he has been singled out. Bond has become a slightly mythic figure in these murky but powerful circles and the SMERSH bigwigs remind each other that he is a great danger and irritant who has already terminated the activities of Le Chiffre (Casino Royale) and foiled the schemes of Hugo Drax (Moonraker) and Mr Big (Live and Let Die). 'The headquarters of SMERSH,' writes Fleming. 'Is a very large and ugly modern building on the Sretenka Ulitsa. It is No 13 on this wide, dull street, and pedestrians keep their eyes on the ground as they pass the two sentries with sub-machine guns who stand on either side of the broad steps leading to the big iron double door. If they remember in time, or they can do so inconspicuolously, they cross the street and pass by on the other side.' The notion of SMERSH out for revenge on Bond and desire for him to be killed with ignominy is a enjoyable one that supplies our enduring hero with an intriguing challenge and plenty of apprehensive moments through the story.

The book has some great characters, especially Darko Kerim, the SIS Station Head in Turkey, who becomes like a father figure to Bond and has a periscope which rises into a corner of the Soviet Consulate planning room from a hidden tunnel. There is a nicely atmospheric set-piece where they visit a gyspy camp and Bond witnesses a fight and some cold blooded behaviour which makes him reflect on his own attitudes and experiences. 'These Russians are great chess players,' advises Kerim. 'When they wish to execute a plot, they execute it brilliantly. The game is planned minutely, the gambits of the enemy are provided for.' Tatiana Romanova is also a memorable character and said to look like Greta Garbo. 'Fine dark silken hair brushed straight back from a tall brow and falling heavily down to the shoulders, there to curl up slightly at the ends (Garbo had once done her hair like that and Corporal Romanvova admitted to herself she had copied it), a good, soft, pale skin with an ivory sheen at the cheekbones.' Red Grant is asexual and becomes more murderous with the onset of a full moon. He is one of the most dangerous people Bond is ever likely to tangle with.

We gain a little more insight into Bond here and, enjoyably, pay a visit to his comfortable King's Road flat where he is having breakfast and chatting to his beloved Scottish housekeeper May. Bond feels bored when we first meet him, the only vice he truly condemns. He only reads The Times and breakfast includes Norwegian Heather Honey from Fortnums and Cooper's Vintage Oxford marmalade. He is over six foot tall and speaks fluent French and German, began working for the Secret Service in 1938 and in his teens climbed the Aguilles Rouges in Switzerland. For the purposes of his mission here he is given a briefcase containing ammunition, throwing knives, a silencer in a tube of palmolive, and a cyanide pill. Fleming's food obsession - he once said he always attempted total stimulation of the reader all the way through, even to his taste buds - is also present and correct. 'The yoghurt, in a blue china bowl, was deep yellow and with the consistency of thick cream. The green figs, ready peeled, were bursting with ripeness, and the Turkish coffee was jet black and with the burned taste that showed it had been freshly ground.'

The book moves towards an exciting final showdown between Bond and Grant where you actually begin to wonder how 007 is going to get out of this one. From Russia With Love consistently proves one of the stronger Bond novels. Possible criticisms? Well, Fleming, as he was prone to now and again, contradicts himself here - and the events of Casino Royale - by stating Bond has never killed in cold blood. There are also, unsurprisingly for a book written several decades ago, a few dated elements. "I though we all agreed homosexuals were about the worst security risk there is," says a character. Bond's line of 'If there was a bit more room I'd put you across my knee and spank you' to Tatiana probably wouldn't pass any stringent PC examination today either!

From Russia With Love has a good story, some wonderful descriptions and a nice air of intrigue and danger. One of the better novels in the enduring series of books written by Ian Fleming.

- Jake


c 2010 Alternative 007