Diamonds are Forever was a bit of a sightseeing vacation for our intrepid 007, an enjoyable breather Ian Fleming took in between more substantial books. From Russia with Love finds Bond and the Bond books back in top form for one of the best-loved stories in the entire franchise, both films and books. From Russia with Love deserves its lofty ranking, though to be honest, at the end of the adventure, we have another sightseeing excursion for Bond, who operates here as more of a supporting character along for the ride while everyone else does all the work.

When people talk about Bond films that follow their literary source closely, two titles always pop up at the top of the list: From Russia with Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The film From Russia with Love does follow portions of the book very closely, but it adds an explosive shoot-out between Bond and a helicopter, and an even more explosive boat chase to the finale (neither is present in the book) while the book dwells at considerable length on the origins of the rock-hard SMERSH assassin Red Grant (where as the movie provides no real back story for him). In fact, nearly the first third of From Russia with Love is concerned with the lives of two Russian agents. First there is Grant, a disaffected Brit who enjoys the act of killing a little too much, bringing him into conflict with superiors in the British army during WWII. Bored with life on the Western side of the Berlin Wall, he orchestrates a defection and, after a series of brutal trials and tribulations, becomes an assassin working for the feared Russian agency SMERSH (unlike the movie, there’s no SPECTRE in the book). In time, he becomes their number one killer, while moonlighting (literally, in a sense, as he is thrown into fits of severe rage by the full moon) as a sadistic prison executioner when he’s not on assignment (and the Soviets never send him on assignment during a full moon, as he loses his otherwise calculated cool and can’t be depended upon during that time).

The second Russian is a timid desk jockey named Tatiana Romanova, whiling away the hours as a faceless cog in the Soviet Machine until SMERSH director Rosa Klebb choses her for a special mission: seduce British agent James Bond. Romanova thinks she’s going on a simple, harmless intel gathering information. She’s unaware of the machinations behind the scenes at SMERSH and the true nature of the plot surrounding Bond. The Russians have been bested too many times at the game of espionage, and now they are looking to pull off a job that will disgrace the West and embroil their secret services in a demoralizing scandal. They’ve decided that orchestrating the death of James Bond — ornamented with a frame-up of treason, double-crossing, and jilted lovers — is just the ticket. Tatiana will be the bait, and unstoppable killing machine Grant will deliver the death blow.

It’s only after this lengthy but interesting set-up that we finally catch up with Bond, relaxing after his foray into the world of diamond smuggling and American mobsters. Tiffany Case has left him, and Bond is looking for a little something to take his mind off the humdrum grind of daily life as Britain’s top assassin. When M calls him in and spins the tale of a Russian code jockey (Tatiana) who wants to defect and is offering a working LEKTOR code machine as proof of her sincerity, it looks like Bond’s life is about to get interesting again. When M further reveals that the woman refuses to meet with anyone other than James Bond, with whom she has fallen in love after seeing his name and face in so many dossiers, it’s off to Turkey for Bond, to meet this woman who works in the Russian embassy in Istanbul. Bond suspects the whole thing to be a trap, but the potential pay-off is worth playing the game.

Bond enlists the aid of Turkish secret service director Kerim, who quickly becomes one of the series’ most endearing members of the long parade of “local help.” Kerim is a barrel-chested, deep-voiced man’s man who manages to provide some genuine comic relief while also being an imposing, intense character. While in Turkey, the brunt of the action falls on his shoulders to carry, while Bond sort of tags along and admires the guy’s bravado. This includes a foray into the sewers beneath the Russian Embassy and a book-making visit to a gypsy camp. Whenever Kerim is on the page, he commands the story, and Ian Fleming is wise to let Bond take the back seat.

It seems at times that Fleming considers the world of Bond more interesting than Bond himself, and that the shadowy cloak and dagger world of espionage is itself the main character. It happens to come with Bond as our tour guide or as our set of eyes, but Fleming is too restless to stick with 007 for the entire series, fearing that readers — and undoubtedly he himself — would grow bored with James Bond. In Casino RoyaleMoonraker, and Live and Let Die, Bond is the focus of attention. In Diamonds are Forever, he’s still the focus of attention, but it operates more as James Bond’s Guide to an American VacationFrom Russia with Love relegates Bond to the position of supporting character for much of the book, allowing us the revel in the details of Grant and Romanova, first, and Darko Kerim for the middle third of the book.

The final third of the book finally shifts the focus to Bond, as he meets Tatiana and they make their getaway from Istanbul on board the Orient Express. Bond is wary of Tatiana’s sincerity, though he leans toward accepting her story at face value, as he almost always does with a woman (the number of times over the course of the series Bond thinks “either she was telling the truth or was the greatest liar Bond had ever met” is staggering). Tatiana, on the other hand, begins to truly fall in love with Bond because, well, what do you think? He’s James Bond, for crying out loud. As far as Bond, Kerim, and Tatiana know, they have a few Russian agents to deal with on board the train. No one, Tatiana included, knows about Grant, who boards the train under the guise of an agent sent by M to assist Bond. Bond, sucker that he is, never once suspects Grant until the inevitable and, frankly, slightly unsatisfying showdown between the two.

I say unsatisfying because Fleming lapses into some pretty contrived writing that makes little or no sense as anything other than a way to propel the plot toward the conclusion. Bond is completely taken in by Grant, trusts him implicitly even though he doesn’t particularly like him. And when Grant does his big reveal, he does it a full twenty minutes before the point at which he is supposed to kill Bond (there’s a very precise plan as to when and where the hit is supposed to happen). Grant’s act has been convincing up until this point, so why, with Bond asleep in front of him, would he wake the man up only to announce that he is, in fact, SMERSH’s top axe man and intends on killing Bond in twenty minutes? He’s never shown the need to feed his ego that is the standby explanation for why the villains explain their plans to James Bond. So why would he do this?

That said, this is still a great book. Up until this point, it seemed like Fleming was writing each Bond novel under the assumption that it would be his last Bond novel. From Russia with Love, however, looks to be the point at which Fleming realized he had an enduring franchise on his hands. It ends with a cliffhanger meeting between Bond and the diminutive Rosa Klebb, which also introduces one of the most famous gadgets from the Bond stories: the knife-shoe.

Although Fleming continues to hone his skill for pacing, the real thrill of this book is in the characters apart from Bond. Kerim is a wonderfully realized character — the sort of ass-kicking, macho espionage agent you always think Bond should be. Kerim’s equal on the other side is Red Grant, the most fully fleshed out and menacing Bond villain yet. Drax and the Diamonds are Forever villains like the mafiosos and the Lavender Mob hitmen Wynt and Kidd were cartoon characters, fun but also a tad over the top. Grant is a return to the likes of Mr. Big in Live and Let Die: ruthless and efficient and completely believable as a guy who could kick Bond’s ass. Grant also has the most fully realized back story, and in a way, we know even more about him than we do Bond himself, whose history before Casino Royale is murky, at best.

Tatiana Romanova however is a bit of a let-down after Tiffany Case and Gala Brand, but those are two of the best Bond girls in the series, so we can’t blame Tatiana for not measuring up. Bond himself is pretty much as we’ve seen him in the past few books: a good agent, but also prone to sentimentality despite thinking himself tough. His failure to suspect Grant is less a comment on Bond’s ongoing inability to spot an enemy agent than it is a testament to the care Fleming puts in crafting Grant’s plot line. Although as readers we may frequently roll our eyes at Bond’s inability to be suspicious of the right people, it really is a lot more believable than a spy who can instantly spot another spy and knows exactly what to do. The books never set Bond up as the best of the best, merely as one of the best. Not being able to spot the undercover assassin just reminds us that, at least in the books, James Bond inhabits a world where other agents are just as good and sometimes better than him. We all want James to be infallible, but it’s a lot more tense knowing that he can be bested.

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