Review: From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

From Russia With LoveJames Bond played a vital role in the defeats of Le Chiffre (Casino Royale), Mr. Big (Live and Let Die), and Hugo Drax (Moonraker). In doing so, he has made himself the grand nemesis of SMERSH, the Soviet counter-intelligence agency; and they have plans for him. A simple assassination job lacks the necessary grandeur; SMERSH doesn’t just want 007 dead, they want him discredited, and the British Secret Service’s reputation tarnished. Their plan is a convoluted one, involving many pieces, including a psychotic killer, a beautiful Russian cipher clerk, and a Soviet decoding machine: the Spektor. Its depiction, from inception to activation, forms one of Ian Fleming’s finest novels: From Russia With Love.

Until this point, the Bond novels had followed a certain formula, which worked to aplomb for the most part, but after four episodes risked going stale. From Russia With Love smashes readers’ expectations from the off: its opening pages are told from the Soviet perspective as they form their plan, and its various personnel are pulled into the fold. Remarkably, Bond doesn’t make an appearance until sixty or so pages. When he does, the contrast between 007 and his Russian enemies couldn’t be starker: Bond is a killer, no question, but he has an appreciation for life and the beautiful things in it. That’s what makes him moderately relatable.

When SMERSH’s plan comes to fruition, Fleming ups the pace, distilling its unfolding into two-hundred concise, rip-roaring pages. Darko Kerim is the boisterous (and highly misogynous) head of the British Service’s Turkey station, and Bond’s ally in Istanbul, who fills Bond’s time with adventures until the Russians make their move. When they do, and Tatiana Romanava enters the fray, the action shifts to the Orient Express. The scenes here, encompassing their long journey to London, are thrilling: there are enemy agents on board, and the veracity of Bond’s female companion remains questionable.

Though the Bond novels have always formed part of a cohesive series, with one novel following on from the other, From Russia With Love ends with a true cliffhanger.  Hindsight limited the effect of this, but imagine what it must’ve been like at the time! Readers would have to wait for Doctor No to discover Bond’s fate . . . and I’ll be diving into that old favourite very, very soon.

Review: Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

Diamonds are ForeverIan Fleming’s fourth James Bond novel, Diamonds are Forever, centres on the British Secret Service agent’s infiltration and subsequent destruction of a diamond smuggling operation. And while it’s a solid entry in the series, boasting a memorable finale aboard the Queen Elizabeth, after the high-stakes of Moonraker – the near-destruction of London – here, Bond’s opposition is comparatively modest; the villains, The Spangled Mob, lack the flair of their contemporaries. By this stage, 1956, Fleming had clearly identified the Bond ‘formula,’ and while Diamonds are Forever ticks all the requisite boxes, it does so industriously rather than zealously. Bond is initially dubious about his opponent’s – but while he eventually reconsiders his assessment, readers won’t be entirely convinced.

The novel’s greatest asset is its ‘Bond Girl,’ Tiffany Case, but not without a major misgiving. Her hideous backstory feels contrived – she was gang-raped as a teenager, and developed an antipathy towards men – is seemingly included only so Fleming could demonstrate Bond’s macho charisma and garner the adoration of any woman he sets his eyes on. But beyond that, she’s the most charismatic woman in Bond’s life to date – tough, funny, sarcastic; beautiful, obviously. It’s no wonder that Bond falls for her, and starts questioning to whom he has the greater allegiance: Tiffany, or the Service? It’s an interesting inner conflict, but its barrel is barely scraped.

The thrills are few and far between, kept in reserve for the finale, on board the Queen Elizabeth, which unfortunately sees Tiffany again reduced to a victim, and Bond called in to pull off an impossible rescue; outmanned and outgunned, it requires a daring act, and Fleming pulls of his passage with aplomb. If only there was more of it! The novel takes Bond from London, New York (again – hello, Live and Let Die), Las Vegas and finally Sierra Leone, and while Fleming appears to delight in detailing these locales, the plot loses steam at various intervals.

Diamonds are Forever is Fleming’s tamest and most padded book in the quartet so far; the series is showing signs of staleness already. Hindsight suggests Fleming recognized this, because his next novel, From Russia With Love, modified the formula. And in doing so, Fleming crafted one of my favourite thrillers of all time…

Review: Moonraker by Ian Fleming

MoonrakerMoonraker is 007’s third adventure, and the stakes have never been higher. It’s one of Fleming’s most timely novels, playing on the rampant fears of the 1950s, of rocket attacks from overseas, and seemingly inevitable nuclear warfare. It is a clear demonstration of Fleming fine-tuning his craft, ably mixing the perfect ingredients – high stakes gambling, a thrilling car chase, and a megalomaniac villain – to concoct one of James Bond’s best, and most thrilling, escapades.

The novel starts slowly, offering rare introspection and analysis of James Bond: his lifestyle and habits, and his monotonous routine (contrary to what readers might’ve expected, given his exploits in Casino Royale and Live and Let Die). Bond acknowledges his unknowable expiration date – spies are expected to be killed on the job, after all – and explains why he’d rather spend his money than save it for a future that, in all likelihood, will not come to pass. As the novel begins, he is the only agent in the Double-O section marooned to headquarters, and is tired of the compulsory reading and paperwork heaped upon his desk; relenting the nature of his work, and the reality that ‘big cases’ only land on his desk a few times a year (probably a good thing, or Fleming’s rendition of Britain surely would’ve suffered an apocalyptic demise at the hands of its enemies). Of course, fate has other plans, when M buzzes Bond into his office. There’s that familiar spike of adrenaline before a big case, but as their conversation begins, it becomes clear this is something very different. Something personal, perhaps. Bond’s first hint is M referring to him as “James.” A distinct rarity.

Sir Hugo Drax – yes, that Hugo Drax, the self-made millionaire and public hero, responsible for Britain’s Moonraker rocket – is a regular at M’s evening club, Blades. And quite a lucky gambler too, all things considered: Drax has been winning a lot of money playing bridge. Too much, M things, and suspects Drax of cheating, but has no proof. He hopes to utilize Bond’s natural eye and propensity for high-stakes gambling to confirm, or invalidate his suspicions. There’s too much riding on the success of the Moonraker: the last thing the project needs is to be undermined by its leader’s imprudence.

From Bond’s cursory glance into Drax’s illegitimate gambling methods, the plot of Moonraker quickly escalates, with London itself the target of a devastating attack. Ably assisted by Gala Brand from Special Branch – the first ‘Bond Girl’ to truly demonstrate her capabilities and not simply be typecast as a hapless victim, or a mere love interest – the novel propels along at a great place. Fleming pulls of its finale with aplomb, too: it quite literally involves Bond and Brand listening to a BBC radio broadcast, but the author uses all of his verve to maintain the suspense. Readers will be white-knuckled until Moonraker’s final page.

Moonraker is Ian Fleming at his best, providing the perfect blend of thrills and intrigue. Three novels into his series, Fleming was yet to put a foot wrong. Next came Diamonds Are Forever…

Review: Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

Live and Let DieAs much as I adore Casino Royale, it was Ian Fleming’s second James Bond novel, Live and Let Die, which truly set the course of the series. Here, 007 pursues the notorious American criminal Mr. Big, a key figure in America’s criminal network, as well as a member of SMERSH, all the way from New York to Jamaica, accompanied by CIA pal Felix Leiter.

Live and Let Die is a novel of its time, dealing with matters of race with a brusqueness that is unseen, and likely outlawed, in contemporary thrillers. Fleming seemed to have a strange infatuation with the black population, describing various scenes with occasionally awkward assiduousness. But beyond these moments, Live and Let Die is Fleming firing on all cylinders: a taut, gripping spy novel with a fantastic cast of characters and extravagant villains.

Bond’s hunt for ‘the big man’ is blockaded at every turn, and each encounter sees the tables quickly turned: Bond becoming the quarry, faced against impossible opposition. Mr. Big is as conscientious a villain as 007 ever faced in his career – a meticulous schemer who views his operations as a work of art. Assisted (reluctantly) by the seer known as Solitaire, he appears insuperable. Indeed, when one of Bond’s closest allies is brutally disposed of, readers can’t help but wonder how Bond will better his dastardly foe.

Highlights include a tense shoot-out inside a warehouse full of sea creatures, and Bond’s epic swim from shore to Mr. Big’s yacht, which involves a tangle with an octopus, as well as vicious barracuda. Live and Let Die introduces the more fantastical elements of Fleming’s novels, which stood them apart from the competition. The climax is marred by Mr. Big’s excessive monologues – which some might attribute to his overt arrogance, reads as stale and contrived by contemporary standards.

So, while it’s withered somewhat with age, Live and Let Die remains one of the finest Bond thrillers, exposing Bond as a globe-trotting adventurer. Interesting then, that Fleming’s next novel, Moonraker, was set exclusively in Britain.

Review: Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Casino RoyaleI first read Casino Royale as an eleven-year-old. By then I’d feasted on all of the films and had read – or attempted to, at least – a bunch of the Fleming novels. At that time, I wasn’t aware that the films weren’t being released in order of the books; so Doctor No was my first experience with Fleming, followed by From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. And while I read these, joyfully for the most part, I missed the action and silliness of the films; where were the gadgets and the exaggerated action scenes? The car chases and the one-liners? It was James Bond that taught me the meaning of the word adaptation: that films based on books weren’t necessarily verbatim, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Still, much as I enjoyed Fleming’s novels, as an eleven year old I didn’t appreciate their nuance, or quite comprehend how much of a product of their times they are. I have to admit, I must’ve skim-read several passages (particularly the gambling sequences in Casino Royale) in order to get to the action, which was plentiful, and while not quite as fanciful as the films, was certainly sufficient for my young mind. The ultimate test of a novel is of course the re-read; and I’ve read most of Fleming’s novels at least twice in my twenty-seven years on this planet. In fact, I’d say I’ve read my favourites perhaps half-a-dozen times. They’re only short books, after all. The point is: James Bond holds an important place in life. It was the films that inspired me to write my first ‘novel’ as a twelve year old, The Dependable Spy Agency, and lead to a lifetime of ingesting espionage fiction.

Casino Royale remains one of my favourites. The plot is delightfully simple, and though the novel lacks the colourful villains Fleming’s later novels would be remembered for, it’s a stunningly succinct, but adrenaline-charged spy novel, with a last line that I’ll forever fondly recall as an all-time great. Le Chiffre is a SMERSH agent in financial strife, growing increasingly desperate to reclaim his lost funds: so much so that’s he’s willing to put it all down to a game of cards. Enter MI6’s best card player, James Bond, agent 007, who very quickly discovers there’s more than just money on the line; and whose partners, Vesper Lynd and Rene Mathis, may have ulterior masters.

Bond is taciturn and brutal. Women are playthings, distractions for when the job is done, never during: very much a product of the time, with a mentality that would be immediately quashed in today’s world. He’s not likable, but we respect him because he’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done; whereas Connery and Moore’s Bond’s, as capable as they were, always had a softer edge in my mind – though their lovers were just as disposable. I didn’t understand it as an eleven-year-old, but now I understand: Bond is a spy who has been through the war, who has earned Double-O status because of two successful assassinations; one clean, the other dirty, an up-close job. He is not necessarily naturally callous; but it’s a temperament he had to create for himself in order to do the job. I often wonder if Bond despises what he’s become for Queen and Country – but it’s rarely examined by Fleming (and had he done so, the 007 novels would’ve been very different beasts).

In comparison to later plots and villains, Casino Royale is a very modest beginning to the long-running 007 series. It remains, to this day, a distinguished spy novel.