The fifth Bond book is far and away the best I've read of the series. Much of its strength comes from an excellent beginningóalmost a quarter of the book passes before Bond appears. The story starts in Moscow, where the Soviet intelligence community has decided it needs to pull off a major coup in order to maintain its prestige. The SMERSH division (for those who are new to the series, or for whom it's motto of "Death To Spies" isn't clear enough, SMERSH is in charge of eliminating internal and external spies) is tasked with killing that perpetual thorn in the side of international communism, James Bond. All the major villains are introduced in this early section, from the psychotic ace hit man (alas, his full-moon madness is an unnecessary and silly element), to the deviant older woman who runs the operation, to the chess mastermind who plans it, and finally, the beautiful and more or less innocent honey pot who will be set in front of Bond as bait. Two of these scenes are mini-masterpieces, the very first, where the naked hit man lies by his pool and gets his massage, and then later, when the planner is met in the middle of the Moscow city championship match.
Only after all the pieces are in place, does Fleming finally pull away the curtain to reveal the object of all this attention, 007. This is a brilliant technique for heightening interest in a character and building suspense (Hitchcock was the master of it), and it sets the stage beautifully. We find Bond more or less indolent, having recently broken up with Tiffany Case (his girl from Diamonds Are Forever), and growing surly with inaction. The Soviet plot lures him to Istanbul, where he is met by another vivid character, Darko Karim, who is head of British intelligence in Turkey. After minor adventures thereónotable is a lurid gypsy catfightóthey make contact with the female lure, and the trio steal away on the Orient Express. The rest of the story takes place on the train, as it makes the four day trip through Europe, across Greece, and through places like Llubljana, Belgrade, Trieste, Venice, and on to Paris. It's an extended cat and mouse game, as the reader waits for the Russians to spring their trap.
The one complaint I would have with this otherwise gripping book is that, as in many of the Bond series, the super spy is a bumbling idiot who manages to escape death only through the most unlikely actions of his foes. As in earlier and later books, he manages to miss rather obvious clues and lets others do the heavy lifting for him, only to walk into a rather simple trap. In this instance, Fleming makes an attempt to account for this by continually noting that Bond's senses are dulled from inactivity and that he's not sharp, and so forth. This grumble aside, its a very entertaining work,and definitely the best Bond I've read. Oh yes, Fleming does commit one gaffe with Bond's history that seems a little strange. At one point, it is mentioned that Bond has never killed in cold blood; which makes no sense, because it is explicitly stated in the very first book (Casino Royale) that he did! His shooting of a Japanese spy in New York, and knifing of a Dutch double-agent are what earned him his 00 ("Licensed to Kill") designation, so it's strange that here Fleming would suggest otherwise. In any event, if you only read one Bond book, make it this one.