SMERSH appoints Colonel Rosa Klebb as head of this operation. And the plan is a complex one, a brilliant piece of work designed by the world-class chess grandmaster Kronsteen. For this plan, Klebb needs a few elements. One of them is a mad killer named Red Grant, a vicious, amoral psychopath whose homicidal urges coincide with the full moon. But there’s also a role for a beautiful woman in this plan, and Corporal Tatiana Romanova is recruited for that part. And this forms the basis for the plot of Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love.
From Russia With Love is highly regarded as one of the best Bond books, and rightly so. We have seen SMERSH pop up throughout the Bond series thus far. Bond vowed revenge on them after the events of Casino Royale. One of their agents is Mr. Big, the main villain of Live and Let Die. It was also heavily implied that SMERSH was behind the villainous plot of Moonraker – it’s confirmed in this novel. SMERSH has a goal to settle, and it does so in grand style. This is a masterful konspiratsia, calculated to the smallest detail. We don’t see the entire plan until late in the novel, though: we see some (relatively large) snippets of the plan, but only when Bond fights an opponent to the death on board the Orient Express that all is revealed.
The book is a bucketful of thrills that will easily keep readers entertained. There are several excellent action sequences, such as the exciting fight aboard the Orient Express or the book’s very final confrontation. There’s a fight at a gypsy camp (memorably staged in the film version). And there’s even a beautiful woman!
Although Bond is a strong main character, Tatiana Romanova is a pretty typical Bond girl and the best character we get in this novel is the head of Station T, Darko Kerim. He’s a colourful, larger-than-life personality with a fascinating backstory and many, many sons. Everyone in Istanbul knows that Kerim is head of the English Secret Service in Turkey, and there’s a friendly unspoken-agreement of non-aggression between Kerim and the Russians. It’s terrific stuff.
(Also note that Tiffany Case is mentioned in this novel, and we find out that she left Bond after the events of Diamonds are Forever. In the films, a Bond girl disappears after her movie with no explanation and is never referred to again; it’s nice for once to see what happened to a particularly vivid Bond girl.)
But the plot is this novel’s strongest suit, and the reason is pretty simple. Ian Fleming was seriously considering killing James Bond off. He was beginning to tire of 007’s exploits, and so decided that if Bond would die, at least he would die with all his guns a-blazing. So he constructed a thrilling, complex plot which is unveiled only at the end. Bond suspects a trap—and we readers know that he’s right to suspect one—but he reasons that a trap is impossible and thus walks right into it while we stare in horrified fascination.
From Russia With Love is one of the very best Bond novels. Its main virtue is its exciting story, and Darko Kerim is a wonderful asset on the character angle. I confess I can’t find much to distinguish Tatiana Romanova from many other Bond girls except for her being Russian, but Fleming was a male author, so it’s only reasonable to expect female characters to be weaker than males. (You might as well be outraged that Shakespeare never wrote a geopolitical thriller about the Zulus.) If you’ve only seen the film, I’d urge you to read the novel as well. It’s a masterful book and it’s still highly readable when you know the plot – I should know, this is my second time reading it! If you were only to read one Bond novel in your life, this would be a very good choice.