Friday, August 15, 2014

Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger

Goldfinger was the seventh of Ian Fleming’s James Bond spy thrillers. The popularity of the Bond books had grown steadily since the publication of the first, Casino Royale, in 1953. By 1959, when Goldfinger was published, they were well on their way to being an international rather than a purely British publishing phenomenon. 

The Bond novels started out as reasonably realistic espionage thrillers but by the time Goldfinger appeared they were starting to become rather more fantastic and to feature villains who were more in the diabolical criminal mastermind mould rather than the evil super-spy mould. It could be argued that this tendency first became apparent in the third book, Moonraker.

Goldfinger begins with Bond conducting a very minor investigation of his own. Waiting for a flight out of Miami he encounters a wealthy American businessman named Du Pont with whom he had become acquainted a few years earlier. Du Pont has been playing cards with a mysterious British millionaire named Auric Goldfinger. He is convinced that Goldfinger has been cheating him and he wants Bond to find out how it is being done. The curious thing is that Goldfinger is fabulously wealthy and has no reason to be cheating at cards for relatively insignificant amounts of money. Bond is intrigued by the psychological implications of this.

Bond and Goldfinger are destined to cross swords again. Soon after the events in Miami Bond finds himself assigned to investigate gold smuggling. The Bank of England is concerned that this is going on on a very large scale and they suspect that Goldfinger is involved.

Bond’s next meeting with Goldfinger sets up a characteristic Ian Fleming literary set-piece. Games play a key role in many of the Bond stories. Most often the games involve gambling on the grand scale. In some cases (as in Casino Royale) the games are crucial to the plot. More often these games have a psychological importance. They are the means by which Bond takes the measure of his opponents. They are tests of will power and nerve as well as skill. They are in fact bloodless duels, and they are usually the prelude to actual duels. In this case the bloodless duel takes place on the gold course, for very high stakes. It was a literary device that Fleming utilised with immense skill and it produced much of his best, and most gripping, writing. 

Goldfinger has another game in mind, for stakes that stagger the imagination. He is planning a robbery on a scale that no criminal in history had ever contemplated. It will require the co-operation of half a dozen of the world’s most notorious organised crime organisations, including the infamous New York lesbian gang leader Pussy Galore.

Auric Goldfinger himself is one of Fleming’s great creations, an outrageously larger-than-life criminal genius whose obsession with gold is both a strength and a potential weakness. His chief henchman Oddjob is equally memorable.

The Bond novels are remarkably politically incorrect and Goldfinger may well be the most politically incorrect of them all. It’s not just a matter of a few details - the  political incorrectness is woven into the very fabric of the novel. It is Fleming’s entire worldview that will upset the PC crowd. There is absolutely no way such a novel could ever be edited to make it PC. You can either take it or leave it. 

I would not consider this book to be top-flight Bond. It has breath-taking imaginative scope but I felt that the climax was just a little contrived. I think Live and Let Die and Moonraker are better and more completely satisfactory novels. Nonetheless Goldfinger is a great deal of fun. Even second-tier Fleming is very very good. Highly recommended.

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