Review by C.J. Bunce
Goldfinger. It’s surprising that a novel, a word, a song, and a character James Bond is so well known for didn’t arrive until Ian Fleming’s seventh novel in the series. Goldfinger is a novel to revisit, one of the better of Fleming’s efforts, defining so much about what we know as James Bond today. That prolonged car chase. The requisite run-through of the spy agency’s cutting-edge techno-gadgets. The over-the-top situations. Already locked in 60 years ago when Goldfinger arrived on paperback racks in 1959 were the franchise’s womanizing, the liquor and dinner delicacies, Fleming’s ability to offend select groups with each subsequent novel (this time his target is Koreans and lesbians), and that same, cold-hearted, hardened spy. Its film adaptation five years later would become one of the most popular, the third film to feature the British spy, the one that would cement a theme for Bond thanks to a song by John Barry (with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, memorably performed by Shirley Bassey), and a story most faithfully adapted in the popular comic strip of the 1960s (see our review of that version of the story here).
Although all the Bond novels can be read in any order, Goldfinger is a direct sequel to his first, Casino Royale, spinning a character out of the key baccarat game and a chance encounter at an American airport. The first half of this novel parallels Casino Royale so much readers may think Fleming literally superimposed sections of this over his first. In Goldfinger we view Bond in a lengthy, and fascinatingly compelling golf game, matching the import and stakes of his famous baccarat game in Casino Royale. Who knew the anger and strategy that could go through the mind of Bond over a game of golf? And both novels begin with a similar cold, detached kill by Bond. Chance and coincidence are focal themes. One of Fleming’s clever strengths here, being aware of including so many coincidences that the story hinges on, is highlighting that fact unapologetically, even acknowledging it through the dialogue of Bond and his foe.
For those who viewed the movie version first, they should be pleasantly surprised as the stories track better than most Bond titles. We meet this incredible villain, Auric Goldfinger, fascinated with and addicted to gold, bent on being the richest man in the world, a master architect of destruction and planning, yet also dumb enough to leave a brand on his own gold bars, and idly wasting his time duping a hotel guest on a game of canasta, which proves to be his downfall. We also meet his henchman, Oddjob, the short, rotund Korean man with a rather sharp-brimmed bowler hat.
The highs and lows in the novel are on par with the movie. The introduction in the novel of the baccarat game player is a more interesting set-up than what was arrived at for the film (which brings CIA pal Felix Leiter in early), but Bond girl Pussy Galore is more compelling on the big screen than in the book, with Tilly Masterson getting better coverage in the novel. The full-body, gold-painted murder of Tilly’s sister is better explained in the novel, and we learn she wasn’t the first subjected to this bizarre act by Goldfinger. The chase scenes are expertly crafted–Fleming knew his cars, and his streets of London. The second half of the novel loses ground as Bond and Tilly get reeled into a plot to break into Fort Knox–to steal all the gold, while the movie made the idea only slightly more plausible by irradiating the gold and making it worthless (thus increasing the value of the rest of the world’s gold, which he possessed in great quantity). This event rings more of Mission: Impossible and modern action movie fare than the more stealthier plans of earlier and later Bond villains. And if that weren’t enough, another unlikely event takes over as the characters collide one last time in an airplane explosion, adding a cheesy final scene the films would begin to carry forward.
The first half is great Fleming writing, so Goldfinger is worth your time. For Fleming’s seventh novel, Goldfinger is an amazing demonstration of keeping ideas fresh in a series, providing new, insightful details of the character’s thoughts and actions, while also revealing a character whose adventures may have been starting to wane. Look for one of the best rundowns of Bond gadgets here, albeit without Q.
So if you’re keeping score, in the positive camp, check out my review of Fleming’s first Bond novel Casino Royale here, the third Bond novel Moonraker here, the fifth novel From Russia With Love here, and the sixth novel, Dr. No here. Goldfinger comes next, followed by more middle of the road stories including his fourth novel, Diamonds Are Forever, good but not great, reviewed here, followed by the all-out misfires in the series: the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die, reviewed here, and the ninth novel in the series, The Spy Who Loved Me, reviewed here. Next up: Thunderball.