The book is certainly Fleming’s longest and James Bond doesn’t even make an appearance until about a third of the way in The structure of the book means that by the time 007 is finally introduced we are definitely ready for him as the set-up is often rather ponderous. When they came to making the film, the second James Bond movie by EON Productions, they did away with this long exposition as well as change some smaller details – such as handing the plot over to SPEC TRE rather than SMERSH – and Bond is thrown into the plot without the entire plot being revealed.
Sent to Istanbul, where Fleming had visited to research the book, Fleming’s writing easily evokes what the city was like in the 1950s, taking Bond on a taxi ride from his hotel across the city to the local secret service man’s headquarters. He is also taken to the spice bazaar, where we get a taste of the local cuisine; and a gypsy camp where another meal is sampled along with plenty of raki, a Turkish liquor similar to ouzo, and where he witnesses and fight between two gypsy girls who are fighting for the same lover. The fight is interrupted when the camp is attacked, apparently by the Bulgarians. Kerim, Bond’s contact in Istanbul, goes in revenge and shoots the leader of his rivals.
All this is a sideline to the real show, which is to meet a pretty KGB cipher clerk who claims to have fallen in love with Bond’s photo from the files they have on him and wants to defect. Of course it sounds far fetched and a trap is suspected. However, the bait on offer is the SPEKTOR decoder, which would allow the British to intercept Russian coded traffic. The SPEKTOR coding device was based on the Enigma machine, which Fleming was familiar with due to his wartime intelligence role and his links with Bletchley park during the war. During that time he had hatched a plot to capture the Enigma – operation Ruthless – to get the Naval machine. Although given the go ahead the plot never took place.
Bond spends a few days in Istanbul waiting for the girl to make her move. When she finally does, he is surprised to find her in his hotel bed dressed in nothing but a black velvet choker; they make love without knowing that behind the mirror of the honeymoon suit are two Russian cameramen capturing all on film as part of their plot.
The girl – Tatiana – has already planned on how to leave Istanbul – aboard the Orient Express. While Bond isn’t so keen to do so, she insists and is fairly unsurprised to find that there are a number of Russian agents on the same train when they leave. On board the train the atmosphere is sometimes claustrophobic as it chugs relentlessly through eastern Europe on its way to Paris.
When Captain Nash joins the train Bond is irritated that he has been sent an assistant, but puts up with him. It is only when it is too late that he finds out that Captain Nash is working for SMERSH and turns out to be their chief assassin, Red Grant. Sat in their carriage while the girl has been drugged, James Bond faces one of the most difficult foes he has had to face. While he has a few tricks up his sleeve, so does “Captain Nash” in the shape book with a built in pistol; when they enter the Simplon tunnel he plans on squeezing the trigger, with the noise from the tunnel disguising the gun’s retort. Of course James Bond comes out on top, but when making his rendezvous in Paris he is poisoned; the last we see of James Bond is his vision fading as he loses consciousness and many readers thought that Fleming had put an end to James Bond.
In summary while many people claim that the book is the best James Bond book, the truth is that it takes too long to get going and the first third of the book just isn’t gripping enough. However, as well as being Fleming’s most ambitious book, it is probably also his most traditional novel as the majority of his books throw the reader straight into the action and then take a look at what had happened to get to that point in time.