From Russia With Love is said to be one of President Kennedy’s favourite books. It is easy to see why.
I have not seen the movie, nor read any of the Bond books, so this was a first for me. Initially it started slowly, especially when compared to the opening pages of The Bourne Identity. It is not until about 90 pages in that we first meet the legendary 007, and the book is only 260 pages long.
SMERSH, the Russian security service, is keen to embarrass the security of another country by assassinating a member of their services, and so eliminate one more threat to the Russians.
After scouring Europe, the small group who have decided to carry out the plan settle on England, and finally hone in on our Jimmy.
Bond is sent to Istanbul, where he will meet Russia’s answer to Greta Garbo, a young Corporal in the security services named Tatiana Romanova. She is apparently in love with Bond, having seen his file while at work, and is willing to sneak a much desired cipher machine called the Spektor into England, and Bond will be her passport.
They meet, and so ensues the obligatory sex scene. Tatiana insists on taking the Orient Express to Paris, despite Bond’s flight plans. A four day trip on the luxurious train begins, accompanied by a fond acquaintance of Bond named Darko Kerim, and three unwelcome Russian spies, two of whom are swiftly dispensed with.
The first three days of travel pass in comparative peace, but on the fourth day the real action begins. Fleming gives the impression all the way through the book that he is building up to something big, and he does not disappoint.
It all takes place within the last 70 pages, and when it began, I felt as though I was riding the rails on the grand train, hurtling through Western Europe quicker than the plot, and wishing that the Orient Express had seatbelts.
The book, like the movies, is littered with likeable, un-likeable, ugly, and beautiful people. Fleming paints a very vivid picture of their build, gait, personality and character within a few lines; and does the same for his locations. While on my train journey I could easily imagine pulling in to the hot, drab, Turkish stations along the way, and seeing the landscape from the dry, bleak land of the Middle-East to the lush green of the Swiss mountains.
Despite its slow beginnings and a surprisingly high amount of suspended belief, From Russia With Love is great escapism, and has something for everyone. A handsome British spy, a Russian beauty descended from royalty, revenge, love, and the most romantic train journey in the world turned deadly.
This is the book that made Fleming’s name, four years after Casino Royale (1953) was published. Yet Bond did not become the icon is he is today until after Fleming’s death. It seems that From Russia With Love is not the only thing to have a slow start.