Thursday, February 07, 2013

007 Reloaded: From Russia With Love

SMERSH, the top-Secret Russian Murder Bureau, is furious. It has been involved in failure after failure, and the results have been disastrous for their reputation. So they have decided to strike back. Their target? The English Secret Service. They want to create a major scandal, one that will cause the public to go into an uproar and permanently stain the service’s reputation. And they have one particular target in mind. He’s an agent who has given SMERSH plenty of trouble in the past. And his name? James Bond.

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.

Notes on the audiobook: Toby Stephens read From Russia With Love, and he did a brilliant job. I like Stephens as an actor, and although he gave us one of the worst Bond villains in Die Another Day, it was mainly the fault of a piss-poor script and the series going through some sort of mid-life crisis. That aside, Stephens is one of the few actors who has played a Bond villain as well as Bond himself (on the radio). He was perfectly cast to read From Russia With Love. He reads the book with all the enthusiasm it deserves. He does a terrific job with the villainous Russians and their voices in the boardroom meeting at the start of the book. He’s a great Bond. He brings Darko Kerim to life quite vividly. And he has fun! In the post-audiobook interview, Stephens reveals that he had read From Russia With Love before—indeed, he’s read the whole series. And you can tell that he enjoyed reading it; this was an audio recording by someone who really loved doing it. Highly recommended audiobook— I think it’s the best performance of the “007 Reloaded” series thus far, narrowly beating Dan Stevens’ brilliant reading of Casino Royale.

1 comment:

  1. There is no doubt that it is one of the best of the Bonds. I was surprised by the unusual structure of the book when I originally read it. Leaving Bond out of the first half of the book was a bold move, but it paid off. In most of the other novels we are side to side with 007, facing the dangers at the same time he faces them. Here, we are aware of the terrible danger he is in, and this foreknowledge helps rack up the tension to an unbearable degree.

    The scenes of the plot being hatched are very interesting. They are played as almost a paranoid comedy, with everyone recording everyone else's responses on tape in order that they can denounce them later on. Grant is one of the most terrifying of the Bond villains in that he is utterly real (in the real world, Richard Kuklinski was a Mafia hitman who used his murderous urges to make a living as a killer for the mob). The final showdown has got to be one of the most gripping pieces of writing that Fleming ever did. Equally, Rosa Kleb is so wonderfully vile that it's startling that she appears in so little of the book.

    Kerim Bey is such a vivid character that you have to wonder if he was based on a real person (Dikko Henderson from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE definitely was, so perhaps Kerim Bey was). Fleming was always good at depicting strong male friendships.

    I'm strongly tempted to buy the audio book. Stephens is a terrific actor and a great Bond on the radio (I'd love to see him as Bond in the movies, although it's probably a forlorn hope).