Published in 1957, 256 pages
Every major foreign government organization has a file on British secret agent James Bond. Now, Russia's lethal SMERSH organization has targeted him for elimination. SMERSH is the Soviet organ of vengeance, interrogation, torture, and death. James Bond is dedicated to the destruction of its agents wherever he finds them.
Far away in Moscow, SMERSH has laid a death-trap for Bond with an enticing lure: the irresistible Tatiana Romanova, who lures 007 to Istanbul promising the top-secret Spektor cipher machine. But when Bond walks willingly into the trap, a game of cross and double-cross ensues -- with Bond both the stakes and the prize.
In From Russia with Love, SMERSH wants to kill James Bond "with ignominy" to send a message to other intelligence agencies that SMERSH rules and MI6 drools. There is a lot of internal cutthroat politicking as the Russians decide who they're going to target, but eventually they settle on Bond and concoct a scheme to implicate him in a sex scandal. They recruit a naive young clerk, the beautiful Corporal Tatiana Romanova. Romanova is to pretend that she has fallen in love with James Bond after having read through his files and seeing his picture. (This "crush" is explained in a little more detail in the story, so that it almost -- almost -- becomes something you could kinda sorta believe that MI6 might buy.) She contacts the head of MI6's Turkish branch, tells him she wants to defect, and that she'll bring a top secret Soviet decoding device with her if James Bond comes to take her back to England personally.
Naturally, MI6 suspects that the story is a load of crap, but the prize of the decoding device is great enough that they decide the small possibility that she's genuine is worth the risk, and so Bond is off to Istanbul.
Of course Tatiana really does fall in love with Bond, and violent sexy hijinks ensue.
James Bond doesn't even appear in this book until Chapter 11. The first ten chapters are all about the machinations of SMERSH, the Soviet counter-intelligence agency. Fleming claims in the foreword that his description of its operations and its leaders is accurate. It may or may not be, but it's certainly dark and twisted, and working in the grim and joyless corridors of power in a police state is accurately represented here, far better than in most SF dystopian novels, probably better than in any other novel I've read except Orwell's 1984. Fleming's characters can be noble bastards or honorable monsters, but he portrays the struggle between East and West as black and white, and it's most apparent in the internal workings of rival spy agencies. British secret agents meet their bosses worried that they're going to get chewed out; Soviet secret agents meet their bosses worried that they're going to get sent to Siberia. Few sci-fi dystopias can match the cold, gray dread of the USSR, where even its most favored minions are constantly living under threat of arbitrary, capricious erasure.
One of the things I like about reading Fleming's novels is that Bond on paper is not the same as Bond on film. Okay, he's not totally different: he's still a violent, sexist, racist asshole, but pretty much everyone in the spy game is. He's also not without emotions. He screws up, he feels fear, he doesn't enjoy killing, and he also develops sincere feelings for Romanova. In the movies, the Bond girls are entirely disposable eye candy, but in the books... well, they're still mostly disposable, but Bond isn't quite as callous about them.
Now, to be sure, James Bond is manly-man fiction for manly-men who claim they read Playboy for the articles. Even for spy thrillers written in the 50s it's unapologetically sexist and racist as hell and steeped in nostalgia for the good old colonial days of empire, rum, and the lash, masked beneath Fighting for Democracy. Karim Bey, the Turkish head of MI6's operations, is a big, friendly fellow we're supposed to think is a hell of a guy, even after he shares with Bond some jovial manly anecdotes like how he abducted this one girl and chained her naked under his kitchen table until she fell in love with him. He takes Bond to visit some gypsies who are working for him, where they witness a catfight between a pair of women who both want the same guy, so they settle it by stripping down to the buff and having a knife fight, described in lascivious firelight-reflecting-off-her-well-oiled-b
Fleming is actually not a bad writer, and the Bond books are fast-paced and great fun, even long after the end of the Cold War, but you cannot help but wince at all the sneaky, oily foreigners with their funny eyes and sinister skin tones and the women who with few exceptions all want to ride Bond's dick. (The few exceptions are the old, ugly, evil ones who prance around in hideous lingerie and turn out to be lesbian torturers.) If Fleming had an iota of social awareness, he didn't show it in his writing, and if you can't turn off certain critical parts of your brain while reading his stories, you're going to blow a lobe.
Bond stories are of course all cut from the same cloth, so the tension comes from Fleming revealing just how the evil SMERSH assassin Red Grant (a sociopath who has no desires except to kill and who becomes particularly murderous during full moons) will finally confront and try to kill Bond. Grant is as scary and implacable as Anton Chigurh, but since we're talking about James Bond, there is of course no doubt about the outcome for the reader. The only thing we don't know until the end is whether or not poor Tatiania Romanova will survive, since the life expectancy of Bond girls is not great.
Of course they included the (semi-)naked chick fight in the movie
The 1963 movie was Sean Connery's second Bond film. Unlike many of the later Bond films, it more or less follows the plot of the book, and preserves most of the key scenes (in highly abbreviated form). The only major change is that it's SPECTRE (a fictional non-state syndicate that did appear in Fleming's novels, but not in this one) rather than SMERSH trying to kill Bond, and the primary motivation of their scheme is to capture the decoding device, with Bond's death being just a bonus. The film version adds a little more action and a lot more secret agent gadgets, and the story is a lot dumber with most of the exposition removed. It's still one of the more tightly-plotted Bond films, with the exception of the ending, where there are a couple of totally pointless chase scenes added with boats and helicopters made of Explodium.
From Russia with Love does not have the cartoonish superheroics, orbital space lasers, and submarine cars that took over the later movies. Sean Connery is more of a wise-cracker and less thoughtful than Fleming's Bond, but he does capture Bond's asshole qualities perfectly. It's worth watching the second film in the franchise just because at this point they had not yet perfected the Bond movie formula, and so the movie was a little bit less formulaic.
Verdict: If you like James Bond films, you should read the books, because they're just as fun and have better stories. If you think the Bond films are misogynistic tripe, well, the books aren't any better. From Russia with Love is a quick and entertaining Cold War spy story, and while it's the fifth Bond novel, there's no need to read the previous ones; Bond is as unchanging as Superman.
See also my review of Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories.