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VCH Book Review # 2--From Russia, with Love

With Spectre soon to be released in the US as the next installment of the Bond phenom on November 6th, we thought this was the perfect time to review that greatest of all Bond novels—From Russia, with Love.

The storied novel’s plot follows a Soviet scheme to assassinate Bond and discredit him, using a beautiful Soviet cipher clerk for bait, and a Soviet code machine called the Spektor as the MacGuffin.

The MacGuffin is what Alfred Hitchcock termed the plot device that fuels a thriller’s storyline. It is the thing that everybody is after…think of the mysterious briefcase in Pulp Fiction that had the golden glow when finally opened. Hitch said the MacGuffin was largely irrelevant after being established. It’s just an excuse to let interesting characters do interesting things.

Bond wants the Spektor code machine (based on the WWII Nazi Enigma code machine, the secrets of which Fleming had tried to steal for British Intelligence) and the Soviets want Bond dead. So much for a complicated plot.

What Fleming does so well this time around is make Bond seem more human—like when he is fearful when the plane he is taking to Turkey experiences severe turbulence, and when he questions the “soft life” he has been leading and wonders if he is losing his edge.

This soft life is hinted at when we first meet Bond in the book, having breakfast with his housekeeper, May. The snatches of home life in From Russia flesh out his character and make him seem more real.

What else do we like about From Russia? For one thing, the bad guy is a particularly scary, albeit stylish one.

On the first page of From Russia, we meet Red Grant, the psychopathic SMERSH assassin (who gets really crazy whenever there’s a full moon) who goes after Bond.

British Army deserter-turned-Soviet killer Grant wears tailored clothes and a complicated gold Girard-Perregaux moon phase watch on a crocodile strap. He carries a money clip fashioned from a Mexican fifty dollar coin, and lights his cigarettes with a gold Dunhill lighter. He looks almost like the perfect gentleman…

His English gentleman act is convincing enough to fool Bond into believing he’s another MI6 agent sent by M to help him after Bond's almost overpowered by three M.G.B agents on the Orient Express.

Bond notes, but then decides to let slide, the fact that Grant wears a Windsor-knotted tie, something he's previously thought to be a sign of vanity and all too often the mark of a cad.

"Bond mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor knot."

But Grant's scuffed brown shoes and brown tweed jacket and Macintosh win out. He looks the part.

Bond's new-found easy going acceptance is almost his undoing. But we won't divulge any more. If you haven't read this book and you are into Bond, you're missing out.

The Sunday Times reviewer wrote of From Russia, with Love:

"If a psychiatrist and a thoroughly efficient copywriter got together to produce a fictional character who would be the mid-twentieth century subconscious male ambition, the result would inevitably be James Bond.”

No other Bond novel channeled that secret attraction of Bond better than this one. Perhaps that helps explain why John F. Kennedy listed the book as one of his ten favorite reads in a 1961 Life Magazine feature. It was the only work of fiction on his list, the rest all being biographies and history books.

Fleming himself seems to have preferred this over all his other Bond efforts.

“Personally I think from Russia, with Love was, in many respects, my best book,” he said.

Then, there's that great cover art

Fleming was inspired by Rayond Chandler's Trompe-l'œil (three-dimensional looking) style cover on The Simple Art of Murder, and wanted something similar for From Russia. He enlisted the services of top trompe-l'œil painter Richard Chopping for the jacket illustration.

But wait, there's more. The story of the cover's creation is almost as fascinating as the book itself. It seems that Fleming's firearms expert friend Geoffrey Boothroyd loaned Fleming his pet customized .38 Smith & Wesson Military & Police revolver so Fleming could send it to artist Dickie Chopping to use as a model.

It just so happens that shortly after Fleming sent the gun to Chopping, a similar one was used to commit a triple murder in Glasgow. Boothroyd was consulted by the police about it, and this led the police to Fleming, who evidently had an interesting time explaining why Boothroyd's Smith & Wesson had been mailed to an artist...who didn't have the required firearms certificate to possess it.

A sympathetic police sergeant in C.I.D. allowed the matter to quietly drop there, persuaded the gun would soon safely arrive back in the hands of its rightful owner.

Fleming repaid Boothroyd the kindness of his loaner and firearms expertise (he's the one who suggested a .32 caliber Walther PPK replace Bond's original .25 caliber Beretta) by naming the armorer in Dr. No after him, Major Boothroyd.

VCH is lucky enough to have an early British Book Club Edition of From Russia, with Love. Its slightly tatty but complete dust jacket is still a thing of beauty, and has this to say about the cover art:

Jacket devised by the author and executed by Richard Chopping.

The revolver is a Smith & Wesson Military and Police Model in .38 S & W calibre. Barrel cut to 2 3/4 in., stock modifed and front of trigger guard removed to facillitate use as a close-combat holster weapon. Also fitted with a 'quick draw' ramp foresight and adjustable rear sight for aimed fire. Modfied by, and the property of, Geoffrey Boothroyd.

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