Wednesday, February 20, 2013

007 Reloaded: Goldfinger

Goldfinger said, ‘Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.”’

Goldfinger opens with an unexpected reference to Casino Royale, the first James Bond adventure. It starts with Bond running into a man he met during the events at Royale-les-Eaux: Junius Du Pont was one of the men at the card table on the night when Bond memorably cleaned out Le Chiffre’s funds. Now, seeing Bond at the airport by coincidence, Du Pont leaps at the chance to make conversation. And before long, he makes Bond a job offer.

It turns out that Du Pont has been losing heavily at cards with a man named Auric Goldfinger. This man Goldfinger is incredibly rich; he’s simply rolling in money. He’s one of the richest men in the world. Yet he consistently beats Du Pont in canasta, and Du Pont is a pretty good card player. He’s convinced that Goldfinger must be cheating somehow, but he can’t figure out how. And so he hires Bond to investigate. And thus, with the simple affair of a man cheating at cards, James Bond is launched into his wildest adventure in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger.

Of all the Bond novels, I think Goldfinger is my favourite one. I think the reason is obvious: Goldfinger is one of the best Bond villains. He was memorably played onscreen by Gert Frobe, but the Goldfinger of Ian Fleming’s novel is just as magnetic a personality. The entire book is constructed as a duel between Goldfinger and Bond, divided into three parts based on Goldinger’s dictum (which prefaces the book). And thus Bond discovers how Goldfinger is cheating Du Pont, and he turns the tables on him. In the second part, Bond and Goldfinger face each other in a game of golf. And in the third part… well, spoiling anything about this part would just be criminal.

But Goldfinger just has this aura of pure evil surrounding him. The schemes he constructs are meticulous and quietly brilliant in their own way. Even something as inconsequential as beating Du Pont in a few card games is ingeniously planned and executed. And then there’s Oddjob, Goldfinger’s Korean servant. He is practically unstoppable: a martial arts master with incredible strength and undying loyalty to Goldfinger. He’s also got his signature weapon: the lethal hat which he throws as a projectile. Oddjob is also largely silent: his cleft palate makes his speech unintelligible for all but Goldfinger. This silent killing machine is one of the deadliest opponents Bond ever faces.

But Bond is also introspective in this novel. In this respect, Fleming rather brings Bond back to the man he was near the start of the series: a man who doesn’t enjoy his job but who realizes that someone has to do it. Bond doesn’t like killing others, and he is plagued by self-doubt. His plans don’t go off smoothly and he has to improvise on more than one occasion. He can’t save everyone, and this is brought home to him most painfully. Some of the things he does in this novel make him look like an idiot. He’s a flawed human being, and this is the aspect of Bond that continues to fascinate me.

(Here’s a fun fact about Goldfinger: the title and name of the main villain is a reference to Erno Goldfinger, an architect who was related to Fleming’s golf partner, John Blackwell. Blackwell was not fond of Goldfinger, and this may have inspired Bond’s use of the name as a villain. When Goldfinger found out he threatened to sue, and in response, Fleming proposed to alter “Goldfinger” to “Goldprick” and explain the reason for it to readers in a preface. The matter was settled out of court, and obviously, Fleming was allowed to go ahead with “Goldfinger” after all.)

Overall, Goldfinger is a brilliantly entertaining novel. This is the best Bond villain, the wildest and most imaginative story, and the deadliest duel. The book never offers a dull moment and is plenty of fun to read. Even Anthony Boucher, who positively despised the work of Ian Fleming, conceded that “the whole preposterous fantasy strikes me as highly entertaining”. It’s true, the story is preposterous, and there’s one obvious objection to Goldfinger’s plot. (So obvious, in fact, that in the film adaptation the plot is altered and Sean Connery brings up the objection to the book’s plot. Although the objection is raised in the novel, Goldfinger dismisses it with a general “I-have-foreseen-everything” answer.) But Fleming manages to make the preposterous story seem like it could happen, and it makes for a wildly entertaining romp. If you’ve only seen the film, then brother, are you missing out. The film really launched Bondmania, but it had some of the best source material in the entire Bond canon – and it’s personally my very favourite.

Notes on the audiobook: Goldfinger was read by Hugh Bonneville. He’s actually got a small part in the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and brings it up in the post-audiobook interview. It’s basically a cameo, but it’s a really nice touch to have actors from the Bond series come back and do the books. Bonneville does a terrific job with the voice of Goldfinger. Gert Frobe’s portrayal is so iconic that it’d be tempting to simply do an impression of his portrayal, but Bonneville does not do this. I loved this touch because, after all, Goldfinger in the novel is a naturalized Englishman who came from Latvia or someplace like that as a young man. As a result, it makes sense that his English would have only a trace of a foreign accent, and Bonneville does a really neat job of getting this across. He also gets across the excitement of the duel of the two titans, Bond and Goldfinger. His take on Pussy Galore is pretty interesting and entirely different from the film. I really liked his voice for Bond, and I find it fascinating to hear all these different actors take on the roles of Bond and his American friend Felix Leiter.

I try to avoid book/film comparisons in these reviews—I’ll do those when I get to the film— but the film is so famous that bringing it up seems inevitable.

6 comments:

  1. I'd forgotten about the link to CASINO ROYALE! To me this is the last of the great Bond books after which Fleming seemed to need to rely mostly on gimmicks (Bond gets married, Bond goes to Japan, Bond seen from the POV of another person, Bond in stories originally developed for movies and TV shows etc etc). Great review Patrick.

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    1. Glad you liked it Sergio. I'd have to disagree with you, though -- I think Fleming's last great Bond effort is ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. While you could consider the book's major event a "gimmick", I think Fleming does it beautifully. The romance is tender and loving, and he really does a splendid job of bringing the Bond girl to life. Blofeld is at his most threatening, and he has a truly nasty sidekick in Irma Bunt. I like the book's quiet opening and how it begins as a very touching human story, rather the inverse of the bitterness to be found in QUANTUM OF SOLACE. And as I remember it, my eyes genuinely teared up at the conclusion. It may not be as wild as GOLDFINGER, not as ingenious as the death-plot in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, but it's the human element that elevates OHMSS for me. I'd argue that it's one of the best of the entire series, but of course I'll go into more detail on that when I get to that book review.

      It does seem, though, that starting with DR. NO, many of the novels are more or less the same plot recycled several times: a maniacal villain bent on some sort of massive destruction, and only Bond can save England. (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME digresses from this formula, but doesn't do it very well.) But Fleming manages to make each novel feel fresh and different -- his villains are always colourful ones who command attention. Even in the lame MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, Scaramanga is a delicious villain. I look forward to seeing what Kenneth Branagh does with the character.

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    2. I think Fleming did in fact state pretty much directly that he thought he had found the right formula in DR NO and that he would be using it from then one - really looking forward to your review of OHMSS (a book I remember liking a lot and the movie is one of my faves) after this tantalising preview

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  2. I should really be managing my own blog, but I have been enjoying commenting on yours lately, so I'll go ahead anyway. So..."Goldfinger." I have to say this one of the few Bond novels I have yet tot get around to, and I am frankly rather upset about it. I have heard glowing reports from everyone who read the book, and I do enjoy the movie so one of these days I will have to return to my collection of Bond novels, which are sadly sitting on my bookshelf without much attention.

    By the way Patrick, where can I find "007 Reloaded?" Your reviews of the Bond novels and the audio series have been very interesting, and I was wondering if there is a place to buy the recordings. Thanks and looking forward to "For Your Eyes Only" (which I think has one of the greatest Bond titles of them all).

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    1. Nick, it depends. If you live in the UK you can download them direct from AudioGo. However, living in the wasteland known as Canada, I was turned down by AudioGo. I practically threw my money at them but no dice. I had to get these from Amazon's .co.uk site. Worth every penny, though -- in fact, I think David Tennant just won the "best recording" sweepstakes with his brilliant OHMSS reading.

      But be aware that the short story collections are not available yet. Lucy Fleming produced these recordings, and an interview I saw on YouTube, she said that she had narrators in mind for these two but that nothing was set in stone yet and she didn't want to jinx anything by naming names.

      What's so fascinating about this series of audiobooks is that the narrators are truly cast for each of the books, and all of them deliver at the very least a good performance. Most of them are brilliant ones. Rosamund Pike even makes THE SPY WHO LOVED ME bearable. But Dan Stevens, Toby Stephens, Hugh Quarshie, David Tennant, and Kenneth Branagh (off the top of my head) seem like they are perfectly suited for the books they were chosen to read.

      As for FOR YOUR EYES ONLY... I like the book a lot, but I always felt the titular story would have been better named A VIEW TO A KILL because of Bond's mission in that story. Both are terrific titles, though.

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  3. I think that one could make a good case for this being the best of the novels. By this point, Fleming had pretty much worked out what his strengths as a writer were, and he really plays to them. There is plenty of action and suspense, but the opening, with 007 mulling over life and death, is amongst the best pieces of writing that he ever did. As Kingsley Amis realised, Fleming makes you believe in the craziness of the plots by making the small detail so credible. You swallow Goldfinger's absolutely barking scheme because you're suckered into the highly credible card cheating scenes at the opening. I'm not certain, but I think that this may be the longest of the books. Actually, I wouldn't have minded it being a little longer, as it does seem in a bit of a rush at the end. This is especially sad, as Pussy Galore strikes me as one of Fleming's potentially more interesting characters. We never really learn very much about her, and all of her scenes are in the last quarter of the book. There's a very engaging, tongue-in-cheek element to parts of this Bond outing, and the author attempts to subvert at least one of the regular elements of the series. At first, Tilly Masterson comes across as one of his regular, slightly damaged, heroines. She rebuffs all of Bond's advances, and one thinks that at some point she will fall head over heels for him. However, when Bond and Tilly meet Pussy for the first time, it becomes apparent to him exactly why he isn't going to get anywhere with Tilly. Shortly afterwards he privately throws what comes across as a childish tantrum about women. It's a lovely little scene, and all at the expense of Bond. Bond has been seen as Fleming's dream version of himself, and there is something to that, but we see here that he was quite happy to poke fun at his hero.

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