Box Of Paperbacks: Goldfinger

Box Of Paperbacks: Goldfinger

(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 42.)

In writing about Ian Fleming's James Bond novels I've tried to avoid talking too much about the film series. The bulk of Fleming's novels preceded the films and had an audience all their own, even if it would take the movies to make Bond into an international icon. Separating the two hasn't been that hard. The Bond I read on the page is different from the one Connery brought to the screen. For want of a better term, he's a bit simpler. Connery portrays Bond with a suggestion of an inner-life that Fleming never spends that much time dwelling on. Emotions, when the come to Bond at all, come as a surprise. Both Bonds have a powerful sex drive, but I don't see the lecherous twinkle in Connery's eye when I read about Fleming's Bond. Nor do I sense the reserve of hate that drives Connery's Bond. Even when the literary Bond commits violent act, he seems motivated more by the need to get a job done. I had a little more trouble with Goldfinger, however, since I've seen that movie many times over the years. The little differences were a bit more distinct and while I think it's one of the best of the Bond movies, it's simply another solid entry in the book series. The disappointing Dr. No aside, Fleming knew what he was doing at this point and he knew how to do it pretty well. Sometimes that meant repeating himself. Just as Moonraker opened with a long sequence exposing a card cheat who would later reveal himself as an even greater villain, so does Goldfinger. Here the contest comes down to Bond and the eponymous Auric Goldfinger, a man whose near-infinite riches don't keep him from cheating Bond's acquaintance Junius Du Pont at cards. (Bond first met Du Pont in Casino Royale. When Du Pont casually mentions that his country club doesn't allow Jews, it's not enough of a turn-off to prevent Bond from helping him. Whether Fleming meant this as commentary or not I'm not sure but it's not the last regretful bit of prejudice the book has in store.) Goldfinger achieves this by positioning a woman (beautiful, of course) to spy on the game from a distance, a scheme Bond uncovers with some ease. When writers of literary fiction repeat themselves it's called a theme. When genre writers do it they get called lazy. Here I think it's a bit of both. As in Moonraker, Fleming suggests that anyone who cheats on trivial matters can't be trusted. A bit of rot on the outside of the apple invariably hides a deeper flaw within. Today's card cheat has within him or her is tomorrow's backstabber. It's a simple, even priggish point of view. It's also one I largely share. What I don't share: Fleming's increasing confidence with his own ugly xenophobia. Here it's Koreans who get the worst of it. As in the film, Goldfinger employs a hulking bodyguard named Oddjob. Unlike in the film, he gives him a cat to eat as a reward for good service with the words, "I am tired of seeing this animal around. You may have it for dinner." But the hateful stereotyping doesn't stop there. Goldfinger employs Koreans because they "are the cruelest, most ruthless people in the world." To wit:

"When they want women, street women are brought down from London, well remunerated for their services and sent back. The women are not much to look at, but they are white and that is all the Koreans ask–to submit the white race to the grossest indignities. There are sometimes accident but –" [Goldfinger's] pale eyes gazed blankly down the table – "money is an effective winding sheet."

Now that's ugly. The book's also famous for Bond's conversion of a lesbian to proper, heterosexual behavior. Pussy Galore, much less a presence here than in the film, is the leader of a lesbian criminal gang called "The Cement Mixers," part of a rainbow coalition of underworld figures Goldfinger recruits to help him rob Fort Knox. She turns just in time to save Bond from death. And then to go to prison, where she'll obviously never revert to her old, lesbian ways. And where, Mr. Bond, do lesbians come from? Here's Bond reflecting on Tilly Masterson, his vengeful sidekick for a good chunk of the book:

Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterson was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up. He knew the type well and though they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and "sex equality." As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits–barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had not time for them.

At this point I should probably reiterate that Fleming remains a pretty terrific read. Specifically, Goldfinger is a tightly plotted and smoothly written thriller. At this point the hero has ossified a bit, but he's still a congenial protagonist and, as before, a lens into a way of seeing the world that was fast growing obsolete. Even in the great film version of this book, he was starting to look a little dusty. There's a scene where Bond jokes about needing to listen to The Beatles with earmuffs. He has no idea that the ground had shifted from under him.

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