Goldfinger is the James Bond film that set the standard for most of the Bond films that followed, to say nothing of the hundreds of cheap (and often enjoyable) knock-offs that came out during the 1960s. Although Doctor No and From Russia with Love were both big successes, it was Goldfinger that seemed to resonate most with copycat filmmakers around the world. Goldfinger the novel comes late enough in the series that it isn’t the historically important work that the movie was, except perhaps for being the source material for the movie that had to be made before people like me would ever be allowed to enjoy Kommissar X films or Lightning Bolt. And once again, we find out that the movie follows the book very closely, with the only major changes being an increased role in the movie for iconic Bond girl Pussy Galore (who, in the book, is overtly referred to as a lesbian, where as her sexual orientation is just barely hinted at in the movie) and a different death for main villain Auric Goldfinger and equally iconic henchman Odd Job.
After being sent through the ringer physically during Doctor No, a book which sees Bond abused by everything from hot plates to giant squid, he gets to take things relatively easy this time around, as the bulk of the story involves Bond doing little more than embarrassing eccentric millionaire and suspected SMERSH operative Auric Goldfinger in a series of encounters. The opening of the book is very similar to the opening of Moonraker, as Bond is approached by an acquaintance who thinks he is the victim of a card cheat. In this case, the location of the game is Miami and the cheat is Goldfinger. This chance meeting coincides with a lengthy lecture from an Ian Fleming stand-in about the global gold markets. As I’ve said before, I’m pretty sure every Bond novel is structured around some conversation about someone else’s profession that Ian Fleming had during a party. The ins and outs of the gold business are a marked improvement over the last book’s in-depth look at guano markets.
The Bank of England suspects Goldfinger of being a big time gold smuggler; Bond and M suspect additionally that said gold might be going to finance SMERSH activities. Bond tails Goldfinger across Europe in an attempt to ascertain exactly what it is the man is up to and eventually uncovers a plot he finds almost too far-fetched to believe: with assistance from the elite of the American criminal underworld (including the members of some gangs we last saw in Diamonds Are Forever), Goldfinger plans to rob Fort Knox. It is a pretty outrageous scheme (more than a few characters say so), but Goldfinger is adamant that despite its reputation, Fort Knox is still just a bank — and any bank can be robbed.
Some of Goldfinger feels like a refined version of something from a previous book. The gold smuggling reminds me of the diamond smuggling in Diamonds are Forever, while the Bond versus Goldfinger card confrontation is, as I said, similar to the showdown between Drax and Bond in Moonraker. Similarly, I thought the golf match between Bond and Goldfinger was slightly reminiscent of the baccarat game in Casino Royale but with considerably smaller stakes. Really, I might just be making that last one up. It is a bit of a stretch. After all, Bond seems to love besting his opponents at games far more than he does simply solving the case. One almost gets the impression that if Bond could spend an entire holiday motoring around Europe and randomly showing up to best Goldfinger at golf or cards or Twister, then he would be satisfied with that and forget entirely to solve the case to which he was assigned.
But if parts of Goldfinger seem retooled from previous books, it’s easy to roll with it since Goldfinger is just so much fun. It strikes a fine balance between the grueling action of Doctor No and the breezy touring holiday feel of Diamonds are Forever. Goldfinger is a fine villain, and what he lacks in the way of physical intimidation is more than made up for by the seemingly indestructible Odd Job. Not since Red Grant has Bond faced so imposing a foe, and not since Live and Let Die has Fleming’s description of a minority character been so cringe-worthy. I can’t remember if he states that Koreans are a step above or a step below apes, or if he just says they are on the same level. Whatever the case it isn’t going to win him many Korean fans.
The other key player in the drama is the improbably named Pussy Galore. The biggest difference between the book and the movie manifests itself primarily in the treatment of Pussy Galore. She’s a minor character in the book who happens to play a key role in the finale. She’s also flatly identified as a lesbian, where as in the movie it’s hinted at but never overtly stated. Where the book and movie coincide, of course, is in the firm belief that be ye lesbian overt or implied, all you need is James Bond to come swaggering by to set you straight. Odd, isn’t it, that Fleming’s lesbian is so into Bond yet his two openly gay characters (Wint and Kidd from Diamonds are Forever) showed no sexual interest in him? So in the world of gay rights according to Ian Fleming, we can’t assume that all gay men lust after all men; however, all lesbians just need a roll in the sack with a real man. Or something. Honestly, Pussy Galore’s lesbianism isn’t all that an important part of the story. It’s just an excuse for Fleming to vent some curious beliefs and delay the inevitable while he surrounds Bond with lesbians and wannabe lesbians.
If Goldfinger has a weak point, it’s the same one that slightly marred Doctor No, and that’s the lead female character. Pussy Galore is the interesting female this go-round, but she’s not the lead. That title falls upon Tilly Soames, a character so forgettable that, well, I forgot all about her and had to look up her name. Fleming was unsurprisingly hit or miss with his female characters, and Tilly is definitely a mark in the “miss” category. She sure as heck isn’t Gala Brand or Tiffany Case. And neither, for that matter, is Pussy Galore the equal of either of those women, though Fleming attempts to infuse her with the same sort of tough talking femme fatale traits he used to far greater success with Tiffany Case.
Other problems keep Goldfinger from being as strong as the past few books had been. Goldfinger’s scheme to rob Fort Knox never seems the least bit believable, and one wonders that anyone ever thought he could pull it off. This was apparently the result of Fleming not understanding the logistics of how Fort Knox works (a problem Sean Connery was vocal about, to the benefit of the film, during the shooting of Goldfinger). The reader never gets the sense that Goldfinger might succeed. I mean, we know he’s not going to because these villains never succeed, but you shouldn’t go through the whole book without feeling some suspicion that he might pull it off. We knew Hugo Drax wasn’t going to blow up London, but his scheme was still believable. Same with Julius No. Fleming was at his best when he kept the aspirations of his villains tied to some semblance of reality. The plan to rob Fort Knox is so half-baked and forced down our throats as believable, that it crosses into the realm of fantasy. I get the idea that the entire book really was based around some article Fleming read about international gold markets, and while he was working on that he heard something about Fort Knox and decided to cram that in as well. The book would have been better served had Goldfinger been confined to being a major funder for SMERSH operations — but then, I guess that book was called Live and Let Die, which is why as of Goldfinger, Katanga from Live and Let Die was still Fleming’s best villain.
Still, none of this is to imply in any way that I didn’t enjoy reading Goldfinger. It’s a good book; just not a great book. It’s a fun, if a bit outlandish, adventure. Fleming is in good form. Goldfinger boasts an expert pace and an engaging plot. I know as an author he struggled with Bond burn-out early in his career, but for this go-round his familiarity with the character really works to the story’s advantage. We don’t get much in the way of new insight into Bond, but we do get an expected character well executed. Even the extended golfing showdown was a lot of fun. And as I said earlier, after sending Bond through the meat grinder in Doctor No, it’s nice of Fleming to give him a bit of a respite this time around. Not that he’s going to get off totally scot-free, mind you. Odd Job is waiting around to beat him senseless from time to time. Despite that though, most of the book feels like it’s another “Bond on a lark” adventure. Goldfinger is a breeze. On its own, it might seem a tad weak, but when you read it immediately after finishing the darker, more violent Doctor No, it works well as a counter-balance.