From Russia with Love – Book Review
From Russia With Love was written by Ian Fleming and published in 1957. It was the novel that made his name, and James Bond’s.
From Russia with Love: Logline
The Soviets plan to discredit the British Secret Service by luring James Bond to Istanbul and then killing him in a compromising position with a beautiful defector. Bond must use all his skills to avoid the trap, save the girl and turn the tables on his attackers.
From Russia with Love: Plot Summary
Warning: My reviews include spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1955. SMERSH, a Soviet spy agency, decide to target Britain’s best agent, James Bond, who has damaged their operations several times in the past. They decide to lure Bond into a honey trap and kill him, hoping a sex scandal will damage MI6’s reputation for competence.
SMERSH orders Kronsteen, a chess mastermind and their chief planner, to come up with a trap for Bond. Colonel Rosa Klebb is placed in charge of implementing it. Klebb recruits Red Grant, an Irish psychopath who has worked as an assassin for SMERSH before.
The bait in the trap is an attractive cipher clerk, Tatiana Romanova. She’s ordered to defect, seduce Bond, and offer the British a fake code machine. Kronsteen calculates that the British will be suspicious, but that greed for the code machine will override caution. Tatiana is unaware that SMERSH plan to murder both Bond and herself.
With all the components of the trap in position, Klebb orders the operation to kill James Bond to begin.
Bond hasn’t been in action for a year and is bored. He has recently split up with his girlfriend, Tiffany Case, who had been living with him. He finds headquarters work detestable.
M orders Bond to report to him. He explains that a Soviet cipher clerk has offered to defect from her post in Istanbul, Turkey. She claims to have fallen in love with Bond after seeing his photograph in Soviet files. M is suspicious, but thinks it’s possible that a woman could develop a crush on a heroic figure like Bond. He orders Bond to seduce the clerk and return to Britain with her and the code machine.
When Bond arrives in Istanbul, he meets Darko Kerim, head of Station T, Britain’s spies in Turkey. Kerim has just survived a bomb explosion, planted by the Soviets.
Kerim takes Bond through a secret tunnel underneath the Soviet embassy. They use a periscope, which Kerim has had installed in the tunnel, to spy on the Soviets. Bond glimpses Tatiana, but can’t tell what the Soviets are discussing.
That evening, Kerim takes Bond to a gypsy encampment. There, Soviet agents attack them. In revenge, Bond helps Kerim assassinate the chief Soviet spy in Istanbul.
Bond meets up with Tatiana, and they’re immediately attracted to each other. Tatiana insists they must return to Britain on the Orient Express, not by plane.
The Orient Express
The next evening, Bond, Tatiana and Kerim board the Orient Express, taking the code machine with them. Kerim discovers three SMERSH agents on board. This makes both Kerim and Bond even more suspicious of Tatiana. Kerim bribes the border guards to detain two of the enemy agents.
Later, Bond finds Kerim dead in his compartment, locked in a death embrace with the final Soviet agent…
M[blackout]sends another agent, Nash, to meet Bond at Trieste. Bond finds Nash irritating but is glad of the help. That night, Nash says he will take first watch. Bond gives Nash his gun and falls asleep.[/blackout]
Just after midnight,[blackout] Nash, who wants to talk, wakes Bond. Nash tells Bond he’s really Red Grant. He also explains SMERSH’s plan in detail. Then he shoots Bond, but the bullet hits Bond’s cigarette case. Bond pretends to be dead, then attacks Grant and, after a fight, kills him.[/blackout]
In [blackout]Paris, Bond delivers Tatiana and the code machine. He goes to confront Klebb, who is awaiting Grant. Bond captures Klebb, but she kicks him with a blade concealed in her shoe. There’s poison on the blade and Bond collapses, dead.[/blackout]
From Russia with Love: Analysis
Warning: This analysis is unavoidably spoiler heavy. Read the book first.
This is how From Russia With Love ends, just after Rosa Klebb has stabbed Bond with a poisoned knife:
He said, or thought he said, ‘I’ve already got the loveliest…’
Bond pivoted slowly on his heel and crashed headlong to the wine-red floor.
Bond is supposed to be dead. That From Russia with Love is the only Bond novel to close with the words THE END emphasises this.
Ian Fleming killed his hero off because he had resolved to stop writing novels, having earned less than two thousand pounds from his first four.
Of course, From Russia with Love was a huge commercial success, rescuing Fleming’s career as a novelist. In the UK, the success was partly because of newspaper serialisation. President Kennedy’s endorsement assured huge sales in the USA, making continuation of the series a commercial certainty.
Fleming resurrected his hero with a deus ex machina at the start of Dr No – inventing a previously unmentioned ‘specialist in tropical medicine’ staying at the hotel where Klebb stabbed Bond. The doctor stabilised Bond, giving his friends time to get him to a hospital.
This brief exchange between M and ‘Sir James Molony, the famous neurologist’ waves the problem away:
‘Lucky he got away with it.’
The Orient Express
Like Stamboul Train, From Russia With Love is partly set on the Orient Express, although Bond takes a different route (there were several). Bond’s route was known as the Simplon-Orient Express, and went via Greece, Yugoslavia, and Italy. Bond refused to go through Bulgaria, which was behind the Iron Curtain.
Style and attention to detail
In general, Fleming wrote quickly and without looking back. His early novels feature straightforward prose, with little flourish or style. From Russia With Love is an exception to this rule, though. Fleming made multiple revisions and polished the manuscript a great deal. This shows in the writing which is much superior to his previous novels. His trademark set-pieces, digressions and explanations of tangentially related subjects are present though.
From Russia With Love has an interesting variant of an unusual plot structure that I call ‘Playing Defence’ (See Spy Novel Plots)
The Playing Defence Plot
- Is involved in an Inciting Incident caused by the Antagonist.
- Makes a plan to stop the Antagonist.
- Trains and gathers resources to stop the antagonist.
- Involves one or more Allies in their defence (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to prevent the Antagonist’s attack, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Has their plan undercut by the Antagonist attacking differently.
- Narrowly fails to stop the Antagonist (or stops the Antagonist who then escapes)
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and stops (or fails to stop) them carrying out their plan.
Fleming twists that formula by spending the first third of the novel in Russia showing the Soviet plot being constructed and building the antagonist’s characters. The first section is basically a series of character sketches. Kronsteen, Klebb, Tatiana, and Grant all get a chapter. There are no action scenes in this part of the novel – it is essentially an extended prologue.
Fleming tried a more extreme version of this ‘prologue’ approach in The Spy Who Loved Me, which was written entirely from the point of view of the heroine, with Bond only appearing in the last third. It was a critical failure in that case, though.
Bond appears in Part Two, when the point of view switches to him (with occasional jumps to Tatiana’s point of view after they meet). The first part has done its job and the second part of the novel is tense, as the reader knows Bond is falling into a trap.
Here, Bond keeps having to react to the Soviet plan, falling for Tatiana as expected, being attacked by Soviet agents, forced to travel on the Orient Express, and trapped on the train by Nash/Grant. He only takes control after he kills Red Grant and goes to confront Rosa Klebb.
When Red Grant has Bond at his mercy, he rather conveniently explains SMERSH’s entire plot to him, including such details as the exact room number that Rosa Klebb is waiting in. As a plot device, it’s transparent. Nowadays, this kind of thing has become a cliché.
The Truth Behind the Story
- In 1950, a Soviet agent assassinated a US naval attaché, Eugene Karp, on the Orient Express.
- Ian Fleming travelled to Istanbul on the Orient Express whilst preparing to write the novel.
- The code machine in the novel is very similar to the German Enigma machine, which was well known to Fleming because of his work in Naval Intelligence, but was unknown to the public at the time, as it was still secret.
From Russia with Love: Alternative Cover
Most From Russia with Love book covers have either focussed on Tatiana or been movie tie-ins featuring Sean Connery. Instead, I focussed on the code machine that lures Bond to Istanbul. The code machine’s plug-board in the foreground hints of the complex plot that Bond has to escape.
From Russia with Love: My Verdict
Probably the best James Bond novel. A must read for all spy thriller fans.
From Russia with Love: The Movie
From Russia with Love was the second James Bond movie, made in 1963 and starring Sean Connery as James Bond, Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana and Robert Shaw as Red Grant.
The movie is very close to the second part of the novel, although it compresses the first part drastically. It also tones down the Cold War politics of the novel by replacing real Soviet spy agency SMERSH with fictional criminal masterminds SPECTRE. The ending is much more action-packed with boat chases and fighting. And of course, Bond doesn’t die at the end.
It’s one of the best early James Bond movies, partly because it follows the novel closely and so avoids being as formulaic as some of the later movies. It does though feature for the first time some of the long running ‘Bond formula’ items – an opening sequence featuring images projected on women, a scene with Q where he gives Bond gadgets, and the first appearance of Bond’s would-be nemesis, Blofeld.
Sean Connery was still relatively new to the Bond role and enjoying himself. Robert Shaw makes an excellent anti-Bond and Daniela Bianchi is exquisitely beautiful, which doesn’t do any harm.
From Russia with Love: The Game
From Russia with Love was released as a video game in 2005.
The plot is even further away from the novel, being largely based on the movie, but changing the villains from SPECTRE to OCTOPUS and adding two new female characters, Elizabeth Stark and Eva Adara and a lot of new action-oriented scenes. It uses the character’s likenesses from the movie and new voice-acting by Sean Connery.
Want to Read or Watch it?
Here’s the trailer for the movie:
A Kill in the Morning
If you like James Bond then you’ll love my novel A Kill in the Morning, which SFF World described as “an action-packed romp that Ian Fleming would be proud of.”
You can read the opening here: The first two chapters of A Kill in the Morning.
If you’d like to buy A Kill in the Morning then:
- In the UK: A Kill in the Morning on Amazon UK, although the novel is also available in bookshops.
- In the USA: A Kill in the Morning on Amazon USA.
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