A lot of folks consider Goldfinger to be the best of the James Bond novels. I disagree — it is undeniably iconic, but to my mind, that status is achieved largely as a result of conflating the book with the film (which is hands-down the best of the Bond films), but I find it lacking when compared to gems like Casino Royale. “Iconic” doesn’t always translate into “excellent,” and while I find Goldfinger to be a great entry in the best run of books in the series, there are flaws which keep it from true excellence.
Interestingly enough, the flaws are actually addressed in the slight changes made from the book to the film — so obviously the producers felt the same way that I did about some of the rather large holes in the plot, which often rely upon coincidence stretched to the breaking point. In the novel, Bond encounters Goldfinger in Miami, and disrupts his card-cheating (in a set-up similar to the introduction of Hugo Drax in Moonraker), with the assistance of Goldfinger’s secretary, Jill Masterson, whom he then sends back to her employer. Afterward, Bond coincidentally is assigned by M to investigate Goldfinger, and we discover via later exposition from the secretary’s sister Tilly that Jill was killed by epidermic asphixiation when Goldfinger had her painted gold. The film forgoes this structure by having Bond assigned to investigate Goldfinger from the beginning, and Jill being killed in Miami, with Bond discovering the (rightfully iconic) gold-painted corpse.
The coincidences and odd choices (For example, Tilly stays in the story long after she serves any purpose, while in the film is killed off early) lend a strangely meandering air to much of the novel — the trademark Fleming pacing seems almost absent in this book. Interestingly, though, the book spends a great deal of time in Bond’s head — perhaps more so than any other novel — almost a Chandler-esque internal monologue (although forgoing the first-person narrative of that trademark style) which gives us more insight into Bond’s thoughts and personality than we’ve had before, one of the real strengths of this novel.
Among the other strengths: Two of the best villains ever created for adventure fiction.
Auric Goldfinger is perfect — a true grotesque, combining an obsessive sexual fetish for gold (downplayed significantly in the film) with some of the best urbane dialog ever — My personal favorite being: “I have had many enemies in my time. I am very successful and immensely rich, and riches, if I may inflict another of my aphorisms upon you, may not make you friends but they greatly increase the class and variety of your enemies.” A villain who combines the criminal principles of organized crime (using previously-encountered gangs like The Spangled Mob from Diamonds Are Forever as subordinates, for example) with the threat of international communism (Goldfinger serves as the treasurer/launderer for SMERSH, using his smuggling operations to fund Soviet operations). In many ways, the perfect Bond villain.
In his employ, we are presented with Oddjob — a character who nearly defines the bloodthirsty henchman in adventure fiction. The Korean bodyguard is subject to some fairly nasty and unfortunately period-common racial stereotyping — for example Goldfinger hires Koreans because of his gold fetish (they’re “yellow”, you see), and he is described as eating a cat (as a reward from Goldfinger). With his razor-brimmed bowler and judo skills (despite judo being Japanese, not Korean — but still pre-dating the western pop-cultural fascination with Marital Arts by quite some time), Oddjob is an imposing threat, and given a wonderful death (sucked out through an aircraft window due to decompression — a death so great that they producers of the film chose to give it to Goldfinger, rather than having Bond choke him to death, as in the novel).
No discussion of the book would be complete without mention of the iconic (there’s that word again) Bond girl, the eye-rollingly-named Pussy Galore. In the novel, Galore is a lesbian, who runs a gang of female acrobats, cat-burglars and the like (“Pussy Galore and her Abrocats”, a concept which wasn’t used in the film — they went with a “flying circus” of pilots — but was used later in the film version of Octopussy.). Yet again, we see Flemings rather unfortunate (but at the time, common) view of homosexuality — Pussy is lesbian because of sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle when she was 12, but completely turns around from her criminal ways because of Bond’s attentions (Bond says “They told me you only liked women,” to which she replies “I never met a man before…”). Yeah. Not exactly a shining example of enlightened thought there, but even beyond that, her sudden change in allegiance stretches credulity even within the mores of the time.
Still, though — the novel’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. If the pacing isn’t up to Fleming’s standard, the trademark attention to detail is there in spades, especially in the descriptions of the canasta game in Miami and Bond’s golf game with Goldfinger at the Royal St. Mark’s club, which actually makes the world’s most boring sport into a tense and exciting duel.
Next week, the first collection of James Bond short stories — 1960’s For Your Eyes Only.