From Russia, With Love, by Ian Fleming
In the order of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, this one comes in at fifth, right after Diamonds Are Forever , and featuring a bit of commentary about Tiffany Case, the heroine of that novel, and the fact that the relationship with James Bond didn’t work out (which will not be a surprise to anyone who knows anything about James Bond). The result of that is a James Bond portrayed as a bit flabby, a bit out of practice, and not as mentally sharp as he usually is, and therefore prone to making mistakes from a lack of clearheadedness.
The plot is rather intriguing. The first section of the book shows the operations of Communist Russia, the mistrust, the espionage, the plotting, the cover stories, the deceit, and it is some time before James Bond appears as anything more than a target. It is very close to the end of the story before James Bond even realizes what is going on or the reader understands the precise nature of the trap. Throw in a pretty Romanov young woman as bait and a “dead spy” (in the tradition of Sun Tzu) and a shabby British security operation and one has a novel that seems to point to England’s decidedly downmarket appearance by the time this novel came out, despite its many odes to Winston Churchill.
A fair amount of the novel’s time is spent in Istanbul, a city which I enjoyed visiting but one which does offer even a fairly anonymous traveler like myself a bit of danger. During the time I was in Turkey some friends of mine nearly got caught up in an anti-Western riot, and I found the lack of security of the place (the police were not on patrol but rather engaged in static defense only) to be a bit alarming, and I was also rather appalled about the corruption I saw there. This novel captures that sort of exotic but corrupt feel very well, through a winning albeit expendable character in Kasim Bey.
What this novel makes plain is that the England portrayed by Ian Fleming even in the late 1950’s can no longer depend on its economic strength, as it is hopelessly eclipsed in terms of power dynamics and monetary strength by the United States and Soviet Union. Bond opines patriotically that the right people can trump machines, but Britain’s vulnerabilities are laid pretty openly here in ways that savvy English must have felt very uncomfortable about. Furthermore, Bond’s own weaknesses of vanity (in being the object of desire of the pretty Tatiana Romanova) and greed (in receiving a booby-trapped cipher machine) are laid bare as emblematic of English problems in general.
Of course, Bond is lucky enough to survive anyway and capture the head of his archenemy SMERSH in the end, but it is a near run thing, due more to good fortune than to any sort of skill on his part. Ian Fleming’s fatalistic strain and biting commentary are turned on Britain’s own postwar malaise, making some rather biting commentary about Britain’s own socialist decline as well as what happens when intellectuals are no longer respected by a society. It’s a sobering lesson for all of us, and a surprise that James Bond is on the side of respecting and honoring intellectuals. At least that’s one good thing about his character. Overall, this novel is a bit gloomy and foreboding in its execution, all decay and ruin for both the Orient Express and the hero traveling on it.