First published in 1957, the fifth James Bond novel was nearly the last. Despite the success of the previous books, Ian Fleming was growing tired of the yearly obligation of coming up with a new adventure for James Bond. His health failing and his marriage strained, Fleming wrote to his friend Raymond Chandler, “My muse is in a very bad way … I am getting fed up with Bond and it has been very difficult to make him go through his tawdry tricks.”
Perhaps that’s why From Russia With Love could have easily been retitled “The Death of James Bond.”
In fact, the promise of death hangs over every paragraph of From Russia With Love. Bond doesn’t even make a personal appearance until halfway through the book. Up until that point, we spend our time with the men and the women who are plotting his death. The Russians not only want to kill Bond but they want to do so in a way that will embarrass the British secret service. What better scheme than to use the naive Tatiana Romanova to entice Bond and get Bond to lower his guard long enough to be killed by their top assassin, the sociopathic Red Grant?
Indeed, From Russia With Love is unique among the Bond books in that the reader spends almost the entire book a few steps ahead of Bond. While Bond thinks that he is helping Tatiana defect to the West, we’re aware that Red Grant is waiting just around the corner. And while Bond is often unsure about whether Tatiana is really in love with him, we know that she is but we also know that the Russians consider her to be expendable.
Up until the final few chapters, Bond is almost as passive a character in From Russia With Love as he was in Casino Royale. When he arrives in Turkey to investigate Tatiana, he spends most of his time being led around by the older Darko Kerim. Much as in Casino Royale, Bond is a bit of a student, one who is briefly disturbed when Kerim ruthlessly assassinates an enemy agent. Kerim is one of Fleming’s best creations, an outspoken spymaster who is so full of life that he often overshadows Bond. It’s only when Kerim is dead that Bond can step up into his usual heroic role.
Throughout the book, Fleming appears to be fascinated by everyone but James Bond. However, the change-of-pace actually works out surprisingly well. Grant, Tatiana, Kerim, and the dangerous Major Rosa Klebb are such memorably drawn characters that it doesn’t matter that Bond spends most of the book in the background. More than being a good Bond novel, it’s a genuinely exciting thriller.
And then there’s that ending. After originally ending with Bond and Tatiana going off on a typical Bondian jaunt, Fleming revised the book’s conclusion. Now, the book ended rather abruptly with Bond, having been poisoned by Major Klebb, crashing to the floor. If you ignore the fact that you’re reading a James Bond novel then it’s obvious that the Russians have succeeded in assassinating MI6’s best agent. That may have been Fleming’s intention but, of course, that’s not the way things turned out. Instead, Bond would return a year later in Dr. No.
And why not? From Russia With Love was the best Bond novel up to that point. (I consider it to be the second best of Fleming’s Bond novels, behind On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.) Fleming may have been growing bored with Bond but readers? They loved him.
Up next: Bond gets strange with Dr. No!