From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

Vintage, 2012, 358 p plus i p Author’s Note and vii p introduction by Tom Rob Smith. First published 1957.

I did not have great hopes for this. If it hadn’t been on the list of the 100 best Scottish Books I would never have picked it up, still less paid for it. It was, however, available from a local Library – these need as much patronage as they can get – I therefore borrowed it. Even so my expectations were not met. The novel is written in journalese, the prose fails to rise even to the utilitarian, the characters are barely one-dimensional, never mind rounded. And info-dumping is rife.

Then there is the implicit racism. “It was a strong Western handful of operative fingers – not the banana skin handshake of the East that makes you want to wipe your fingers on your coat-tails.” The casual misogyny of the time, too, is shown by the sentences, “All women want to be swept off their feet. In their dreams they long to be slung over a man’s shoulder and taken into a cave and raped,” and, “I got her to my place and took away her clothes and kept her chained naked under the table.” True, Fleming puts these into the mouth of a Turk but it’s still misogyny. Unexamined misogyny, to which Bond does not demur. An organised fight between two gipsy girls over a man (which reads as merely an excuse to describe their clothes sequentially coming off) is misogynystic and racist both. Bond’s right wing attitude – so by extension Fleming’s? There is nothing in the text that would contradict this – is exemplified by him saying, “As for England, the trouble today is that carrots are all the fashion.” That is, as opposed to sticks.

Moreover the structure is a bit odd. Bond isn’t mentioned till page 61 and does not appear himself till page 151. Tom Rob Smith’s Introduction regards this as a strength but the focus of Part One, Donovan Grant, a half-German, half-Irish psychopathic hitman employed by Smersh through expediency rather than approval of any sort, does not reappear till the climax (and then instead of just killing Bond this supposed total psychopath Grant explains to him the nature of the plot against him thus giving Bond some time to formulate a way out.)

That plot concerns the supposed falling in love with Bond via his photograph of Tatiana Romanova, in order to entice him into a trap – the additional bait being her bringing to Bond a Spektor cryptographic machine – whereby he will be disgraced. The egotist Bond cannot quite work out why this is a red flag. Cue, though, many goings-on in Istanbul and a trip back west on the Orient Express; a singularly unlikely escape route.

I suspect these things work much better on a film screen than on a page. Whatever, this book certainly is not worthy of a place on any list of 100 best Scottish books.

Pedant’s corner:- a masseuse is described as having tufts of fair hair in her armpits but has short coarse black hair (genetics doesn’t work like that and there was no mention of dyeing,) “one of the men-servants” (the word is manservant, the plural is surely manservants,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, long-chassied (the word is chassis, so long-chassised,) “there was a diminishing crescendo” (crescendos rise to a climax, they do not descend. A descent is a diminuendo.)

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