He was at the top of his tree. the chief executioner of SMERSH, and therefore of the whole of the Soviet Union. What could he aim for now? Further promotion? More money? More gold knick-knacks? More important targets? Better techniques?
There really didn’t seem to be anything more to go for. Or was there perhaps some other man whom he had never heard of, in some other country, who would have to be set aside before absolute supremacy was his?
A wealthy man is lying in the sun in his garden. After a while, a local peasant girl turns up and wordlessly begins to massage his heavily muscled back. And she finds him repulsive. It’s a striking opening to From Russia With Love, the fifth James Bond novel.
Grant has been a killer all his life, beginning as a gifted amateur in his native Ireland, progressing to the British army before defecting to Soviet Russia, recognising it as a place with a lot of killing to be done. While Grant is getting his back rub, James Bond’s fate is being decided at a wonderfully paranoid secret meeting of SMERSH (Smash the Spies) in Moscow.
SMERSH wants to strike a blow at the heart of the Intelligence apparat of the West. Top British agent James Bond is ‘To be killed WITH IGNOMINY’ by order of General Grubozaboyschikov. The toad-like Comrade Colonel Rosa Klebb and genius chess champion Kronsteen will handle the details. Grant will do the killing.
Between them they come up with a honey-trap for Bond, and recruit innocent young cipher clerk Tatiana Romanova to their team. Tatiana looks like Greta Garbo, although ‘a purist would have disapproved of her behind’. She is to contact British Intelligence and offer to defect with a Russian Spektor code machine, but only if James Bond himself will come to Istanbul to collect her. The story is that she has fallen in love with him.
Almost a third of the book is gone before Bond makes his first appearance. He’s bored, sitting in London marking time on committees, and delighted to be sent on a mission to meet up with a beautiful girl, even if the whole thing looks like a set-up.
By the way, there are a few surprises in London, including two new-to-me series regulars. We meet Bond’s Scottish housekeeper May, and a secretary called Loelia Ponsonby. Miss Moneypenny gets a mention, but it seems this Loelia is Bond’s regular flirting-partner.
Later she had kissed him goodbye with a sudden warmth, and for the hundredth time Bond had wondered why he bothered with other women when the most darling of them all was his secretary.
Q makes no personal appearance. And get this – M is a chap! And a proper chap, at that:
‘Here’s a silly girl doing a secretary’s job in Moscow. Probably the whole department is staffed by women, like our Records. Not a man in the room to look at, and here she is, faced with your, er, dashing features on a file that’s constantly coming up for review. And she gets what I believe they call a ‘crush’ on these pictures, jut as secretaries all over the world get crushes on these dreadful faces in the magazines.’ M waved his pipe sideways to indicate his ignorance of these grisly female habits.
In Istanbul, Bond is greeted by local agent Darko Kerim, former circus strongman and formidable stereotype:
‘Do you like your coffee plain or sweet? In Turkey we cannot talk seriously without coffee or raki and it is too early for raki.’
Darko and Bond get involved in some spy vs spy romps in Istanbul, including a few scraps with the Bulgarian agents of Russian Intelligence, and a notably gratuitous naked-gypsy-girl fight.
Finally Tatiana makes contact, and at her insistence, Bond joins her on the Orient Express to Paris, rather than taking a quicker and more secure route home. Darko soon spots the three MGB men who have joined them on the train. Bond knows there’s a plot, Darko knows there’s a plot. But Bond, the inveterate gambler, can’t leave the train without playing the game out to the end.
And the end is extremely surprising.
I’m not a great fan of the Bond films, and this was the first of the books I’d read. I was pleasantly surprised to find it better than I expected – although to be honest I don’t think I’ll rush to read another. Bond is a long way from the superman of the more recent films. He gets as nervous as I do during aircraft turbulence, for a start. For most of the book he’s simply along for the ride, traipsing around Istanbul after his friend Darko, or hiding out in a railway carriage waiting for the inevitable ambush.
Something else interested me. I’m anosmic (can’t smell – yes, that’s a thing), and I noticed the smells in this book more than in almost anything I’ve ever read. At one point, Darko takes Bond into some rat-infested tunnels, smelling like ‘a mix of monkey house and chicken battery’. In Moscow we meet the smell of the Metro on a hot evening – cheap scent concealing animal odours. The Balkans smell distinctively of ‘very old sweat and cigarette smoke and cabbage’. Bond is quite a delicate flower when it comes to pongs – ‘he wondered how many more kinds of dreadful stench he was going to run into during his present assignment’.
Coincidentally, From Russia with Love was one of the films on the plane I was trapped on last week. The basic plot was the same but with the criminal organisation SPECTRE laid on top – in this version, Klebb and Kronsteen have left SMERSH and work for faceless cat-wielder Ernst Blofeld’s empire of evil. The assassin Grant lives on SPECTRE Island, with 20 other blokes practising flame-throwing in a confined space. The film retains the set-pieces of the book, but adds a bit at the end where Budgie the Helicopter tries to run over a stuntman. And the title sequence is a masterpiece of understatement compared to later Bond openers – just project some words across a wibbling cleavage and job done.
Final destination: Greenmetropolis
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.