He just had to end the story with a cliffhanger, didn't he? Now, it's not as though I don't already know there are more books to come and that James Bond, agent 007, will be just fine and live to see another day to continue with ever more nail biting adventures, but this means I'm being tempted to pick up another book by Ian Fleming. I hadn't really planned on that, as this was meant to be a brief foray into my list of spy novels (no doubt incomplete and perhaps missing some of the classics of the genre?) which I plan on dipping into now and again. Being familiar only with some of the old Bond movies I wasn't sure which Ian Fleming novel to choose, but I'd heard From Russia With Love is one of his best and is certainly one of the better known James Bond stories.
Although I am a little ambivalent about a few things, I liked it. It was a fun and entertaining read, and yes, I've gone and ordered the first book featuring 007, Casino Royale. Why does it seem like there is an abundance of Bond stories? There are just a dozen novels and a couple of collections of short stories that Fleming wrote. Apparently other authors have taken up the reins and continued Bond's adventures--among them Kingsley Amis (writing under the name Robert Markham), Jeffery Deaver and even Sebastian Faulks. Not sure how far I'll go with this, but I'm definitely curious and it would be interesting to see how other authors compare to Fleming.
From Russia With Love comes somewhere in the middle of the group of books, but perhaps it doesn't really matter where you start reading. James Bond is a British Secret Service agent. Black hair, blue eyes, athletic, fluent in two languages and with a taste for drink and women. I didn't know the "00" was a classification within MI6 for the elite agents in the organization, the "7" meaning the agent is licensed to kill in the field at his own discretion. Bond has been sitting idle living the soft life, having just ended a serious relationship, when he makes his appearance in From Russia With Love.
But better to start at the beginning since James Bond doesn't enter the story until over a third of the way into the book. James (or as the Russians say 'Shems') Bond is well known to the Russians and has been marked for elimination by SMERSH ('Smiert Spionam' meaning 'Death to Spies'), the Russian counterintelligence agency. They want to deal a blow to British Intelligence as well as give a little payback to Bond who has frustrated past SMERSH operations. Knowing his weakness for women they decide to dangle the beautiful Corporal Tatiana Romanova in front of him, and the famed Spektor decoding device in front of M, James's boss. The plan is for Tatiana to defect with the machine, seduce James en route to England and then someone will swoop in to finish off Bond. The indiscretion will be suitably documented and released to the press causing maximum discomfort and embarrassment to the British.
The fatal blow will be served by a Russian assassin who is ironically British by birth and without an ounce of remorse for his actions. Red Grant is the perfect killing machine. Interestingly the novel begins with Red Grant and how he came to be the way he is. Red never was a normal child, with proclivities to killing small animals and then later people, the war seemed the perfect place for him to exist. This being generally frowned upon he decided to go over to the Russians where he could give in to his urges in a state sanctioned manner.
The meeting is to take place in Istanbul where James will make contact with Tatiana and the two will return to England with the machine. Tatiana doesn't know the real purpose for this job. She expects to only spy on the British, but is willing to do her part for Mother Russia. It's her job to convince him that she is in love with him having seen his photo and heard of his prowess, and when she meets him it's not hard to pretend to be enamored.
Part of what I like about thrillers and spy stories is the exotic locations where they often take place and Istanbul certainly delivers on that count. Tatiana convinces Bond to return via the Orient Express so much of the action, once the story really starts rolling, takes place on the luxury train as it races towards Paris. From Russia With Love was published in 1957, and while not exactly dated, it does reflect the times and the prejudices of that period. I realize that women as seductresses are part and parcel of a Bond story (and admit it felt a little weird to be reading a book in public with a scantily clad woman on the cover), but some of the attitudes expressed by a few of the characters weren't exactly what you would consider enlightened. And I was a little surprised that James fell so easily for some of the Russian ploys, but I guess it's best to put that down to the desire to create a little narrative tension. Despite a few shortcomings it was a fun read. I think if you take the books as a product of the times and make a few allowances they can be both entertaining and illuminating. Fleming was a naval intelligence officer during WWII, so I expect he knew well of what he wrote about. And as a side note, something of curiosity, President John F. Kennedy considered From Russia With Love one of his favorite ten books, so there's a recommendation for you.
Now I am reading Helen MacInnes's Decision at Delphi, which has another exotic setting and is a story of suspense. Perhaps not her most famous work, I'm happy to read a spy-ish story from a female perspective. I'd be happy to get more recommendations of espionage stories written by women or featuring a female spy (I've read Stella Rimington and count Anne Bridge as a peripheral sort of author in terms of espionage stories). Surely there must be more out there than I've found so far.