While I was away I reread a book I hadn’t touched since I was 12, Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger. One of the reasons I hated writing my only YA book The Curse of Snakes, was because I had to write within a dictated restrictive-material space, and that is not how kids read. At school we all read Fleming’s James Bond, because they were lying around in our homes. There was nothing we failed to understand or appreciate.
So, with Sky Atlantic’s new series ‘Fleming’ about to air, I thought now would be a good time to reassess.
It was a strange doppelgänger experience, but there are lessons to be learned from the text. Bond is obsessed with alcohol and cigarettes; they get a detailed mention in every chapter, often to a hilarious degree. And Goldfinger is at first a very small fish indeed, cheating at cards in Miami, although he doesn’t kill Jill Masterton for failing him. Much later we are told that he painted her gold, but the scene isn’t actually there. Instead we first get the card game in immensely boring detail.
Bond reports to M with suspicions about his opponent and they decide to go after Goldfinger. This involves Bond driving a DB III through Kent and then Ramsgate and Herne Bay, places I can’t ever imagine finding the superspy. I’m only surprised he doesn’t stop for an ice-cream on his way, but England’s South coast is portrayed as being on a par with that of France or America, as perhaps it once was.
Much is made of the act of travelling (probably a fifth of the book involves it) and you start to realise how complicated it was to move about back then, with a tryptique (car passport) needed, and endless routes to and from small local airports like Lydd and Biggin Hill.
Bond’s second bout with Goldfinger is the golf game, which goes on forever, over several chapters, and we sense we are just tagging along beside Fleming as he pursues his favourite leisure activities.
But interestingly, by this time we are hooked because it’s a game between two men for an unknown outcome, and the stakes slowly escalate, as if Fleming only just thought of them during the act of writing. He provides wish-fulfilment for the males of the time with descriptions of car interiors, meals and women, but he’s also a good enough writer to paint scenes well, siting his characters firmly in known locales, and providing enough edgy intrigue to keep you page-turning. Bond’s attitude to women is of course hilarious. He bemoans the loss of femininity and lack of subservience in the female, and blames it on the rise of New Man. At one point in France he tells a girl to ‘Get me six inches of Lyon sausage, a baguette, butter, a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem – and something for yourself.’
The plot gears gradually change upwards, with Bond remaining Goldfinger’s supposed ally for most of the book. Goldfinger unveils his ludicrous Fort Knox plan and introduces Pussy Galore, explaining that she’s a Lesbian (with a capital L). Galore is painted flatteringly but is so aggressively predatory that she picks up Bond’s girl (who seems willing to comply, as if hypnotised) and also offers to shag 007 because she’s never had a man and finds him handsome. So that’s alright, then.
The plan to get the gold from Fort Knox is explained in great detail but the event itself is virtually dismissed. Goldfinger intends to kill everyone in the state by poisoning them. Fleming recognises how boring it is to read and write action scenes, so he skips to the cavalry arriving in the form of US and UK intelligence troops. From here it’s onto the plane for the final confrontation, and home.
The film works so well because it upgrades all the key moments that Fleming, who was more interested in the card and golf games, barely bothered to think through, and it does so without compromising the original. So in the movie, golden-girl Masterton is found by 007, and the ‘ape-like’ Korean Oddjob has his steel hat but it’s he who is sucked out of the plane, not Goldfinger, who is merely strangled. Bond no longer drives around the miserable seaside resorts of Southern England but gets glamorous locations. The one gangster to refuse a part in Goldfinger’s scheme is crushed in his car, whereas in the book he’s merely pushed down some stairs. And the original scheme to rob Fort Knox is trumped twice by the film, first by the ingenious idea of a dirty bomb wrecking the gold market (instead of absurdly using an atom bomb to blow up the safe, as it is in the book). Second, by handcuffing Bond to the bomb.
What stopped the book of Goldfinger being regarded as just another pulp novel? The plot begins in normality but escalates quickly. The detailed fantasy world of the unfettered male must have been very appealing. The women are not as easily won as in the films, and are mostly interesting in their own right. And there’s snobbery, so very much of it, the chance to feel that in this world you’re above the common man (of which there are very few).
But I think it’s important not to write Fleming off – he’s a terrific scene-setter and creates genuine tension by majoring on opposites, Bond as a general force for decency against villains driven by greed. I may even revisit a few more volumes.