Audiobook Review: Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love

Audiobook time!

So yeah. Theoretically, I’ve wrapped up the big road-trippy stuff … at least for a little while. Depending on how my scheduling works out, and how ambitious I get, I may be traveling a little more, but, well, we’ll see.

The other thing about audiobooks is a matter of length. I tend to listen to just a few chapters at a time before switching back to just listening to music– especially if I’m getting tired and don’t need somebody’s soothing voice putting me to sleep. Great big thick books, unabridged, can go on for over 24 hours. Seeing as of how I’m thankfully not driving THAT much, I went for something shorter.

Hence, Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love.

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Eight hours is a little more manageable. 

I’ve also been binging on Archer lately, so that may have influenced my choice.

So yeah. Bond. James Bond. You know the drill. Unflappable and English. Played by a bunch of different actors over the years. Dry martinis (shaken, not stirred). No-Oddjob matches while playing Goldeneye with your friends.

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Amusingly enough, FRWR was the second Bond flick, despite the fact that the novel actually preceded Dr. No. 

It’s interesting, then, to go back to the roots and read the original Fleming to see where this cultural juggernaut is coming from. Given that the Bond novels were written in the 50’s, at the height of the actual Cold War, there’s a lot more actual espionage at play than fancy cars with machine gun headlights and such. In fact, the only real gadget Bond uses over the course of the book is a briefcase that’s been specially modified to conceal some weapons and other gear.

Another surprising thing about the novel is that James Bond himself doesn’t even make an appearance for the first third of the novel. The first ten chapters or so center around a bunch of devious Russian officials putting together a plan to make the West look bad. Naturally, they conclude the best way to do this is by killing James Bond, who everyone knows is the best spy ever. The job falls to SMERSH, Russia’s ‘execution service.’ (Which, I was surprised to learn, was an actual thing).

SMERSH’s plan boils down to “distract him with a beautiful but naïve Russian girl, and then send a scary assassin to kill them both.” There’s a little more to it than that, but not by much. And so, James Bond is sent to Istanbul (not Constantinople– I’m required to make that joke), where he makes his rendezvous with the girl (eventually) and absconds with her on the Orient Express, only to have the Evil Irish Turncoat Assassin come after him. The funny thing is, Bond walks straight into the trap, to the point where he even gives his gun (a Beretta .25– not the Walther PPK he carries in later books) to Evil Irish Turncoat Assassin ’cause the guy’s in disguise. Oops.

Honestly, From Russia With Love is almost a travelogue. Fleming pays a lot of attention to description of the scenery, the food, the drinks, the cigarettes, and all the other stuff Bond consumes during his adventures. There’s a definite luxury-porn aspect to the books (and, well, arguably porn-porn with the various Bond girls in various states of undress) that’s a lot stronger focus than the movies. Then again, after 50+ years of Bond flicks, I guess we’re more used to seeing the Hollywood glitz in those. It helps that Fleming is really good at luxury-porn description as well.

Of course, the other thing about the original Fleming novels is that they’re terribly, nigh-hilariously racist. And classist. And Misogynist. And … well, probably a lot of other ‘ists’ if you look at them too hard. Sifting through the prejudices of the time is something you have to do in a lot of older literature, but Fleming lays the snobbishness on ridiculously thick. Basically, every character in a Fleming novel will fall into one of three categories.

  1. A square-jawed, hard-drinking manly-man who can only find true fulfillment in killing people and/or boning sexy ladies.
  2. A grotesque racial caricature.
  1. A woman. And therefore prone to deviousness and/or fainting hysterics.

The thing about an Audiobook is that I can’t really go back and look up some of the particularly insulting passages very easily, but they’re there. Fleming is openly disdainful of anything that isn’t English– and even then, it’s only the upper crust of England that will do.

Then again, lurid spy novels aren’t exactly known for their progressive political stance. (And heck, given the subject matter and the short length, I dare say Bond novels fall in the “Men’s Adventure” category, now that I think about it). Things get to their most gratuitous during a couple of chapters where Bond visits a gypsy camp (Fleming’s term, not mine), where he’s given the ‘honor’ of getting to watch two women battle to the death over a matter of love. Oh, and they wind up catfighting each other’s clothes off, of course. It’s that kind of novel.

On the Audiobook side of things, Simon Vance does a solid job reading the book. He’s good with dialects, to the point of using “HEAVY RUSSIAN ACCENT” for the Russian characters. Otherwise, his narration has a somewhat dry tone to it, which fits the source material. He’s got a nice sense of pacing, too, reading faster as the action heats up. A glance at Vance’s website tells me he’s done over 700 Audiobooks over the last 20 years, which is a damn impressive number. Good on him. The recording doesn’t bother with any special effects or other silly extras, but again, that’s fine.

All and all, From Russia With Love is a decent enough novel, once you get past Fleming’s glaring prejudice against anyone who had the gall not to go to Oxford. This said, I think it may be awhile before I dig up another Bond novel, even if this one ended on a cliffhanger. Go fig.

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