Review of Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, including James Bond’s sexism. Not one of the best books of all time, but a time capsule of 1950s homophobia which also highlights some of Bond’s positive qualities.
‘Are the James Bond novels any good?’ a friend asked me the other day.
‘They are anachronistic, homophobic and sexist,’ I replied. ‘But James Bond himself is a splendid creation and some of the novels tell a terrific yarn.’
The cover of my Folio Society edition of “Goldfinger” is almost parodic
Unfortunately, Goldfinger is my least favourite Bond book so far (I have read, this time round, Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds are Forever and From Russia with Love – reviews below). The narrative is short on drive and tension and the plot makes no sense. Why, for example, when (no spoilers here) Bond has driven villain Auric Goldfinger to a paroxysm of suspicion, does the latter suddenly trust him for a key task? The climax is plain silly; the gangsters Goldfinger enrols to carry out his evil plan are beyond parody. One senses that Fleming’s editors must have pointed this out, as Bond reflects: ‘The theft of a Stratocruiser, as Goldfinger had explained it, was preposterous, but no more so than his methods of smuggling gold, his purchase of an atomic warhead.’
The sexual politics of Goldfinger sink beyond even the depths of previous volume, as Bond repeatedly addresses women as “good girl”; converts a lesbian to heterosexuality: [Bond] ‘They told me you only liked women’. She said, ‘I never met a man before’; and pontificates about how votes for women (sic) have led to “a herd of unhappy sexual misfits” – see below.
The book has some strong points. Oddjob, Goldfinger’s Korean henchman, is a brilliant creation – so evil he even eats a cat. I liked the way Goldfinger cannot remember Bond’s name, referring to him as Mr Bomb. The account of a golf game between Goldfinger and Bond at the “Royal St Marks course” (based on the Royal St George’s course in Kent where Fleming used to play) is thrilling, even to a non-golfer. Bond reveals further depths of knowledge – not only what to eat for breakfast in Turkey (From Russia with Love) or how to mix the perfect Martini (Casino Royale) but women’s scents or a delicious-sounding set of French picnic ingredients.
Some quotations from Goldfinger:
- Prohibition is the trigger of crime.
- [A remarkable example of Bond and alcohol: Bond sits down to dinner with Mr Dupont after consuming three double bourbons. Dupont orders] ‘Two pints of pink champagne. The Pommery ’50. Silver tankards. Right?’ ‘Vairey good, Mr Du Point. A cocktail to start?’ Mr Du Pont turned to Bond. He smiled and raised his eyebrows. Bond said, ‘Vodka martini, please. With a slice of lemon peel.’ ‘Make it two,’ Mr Du Pont said. ‘Doubles… bring two more in ten minutes.’
- Bond always mistrusted short men. they grew up from childhood with an inferiority complex. All their lives they would strive to be big – bigger than the others who had teased them as a child. Napoleon had been short, and Hitler. It was the short men that caused all the trouble in the world.
- Bond smiled wryly. He’d never liked being up against the Chinese. There were too many of them.
- [Bond:] ‘I don’t drink tea. I hate it. It’s mud. Moreover it’s one of the main reasons for the downfall of the British Empire. Be a good girl and make me some coffee.’
- A quotation had come to Bond’s mind as his cab moved out of Pennsylvania station: ‘Some love is fire, some love is rust. But the finest, cleanest love is lust.’ [Comment: similar to the line in the Rocky Horror Show: “Lust is so sincere…”
- Bond sat back. he was prepared to listen to anyone who was master of his subject, any subject.
- ‘Here – ‘ Goldfinger took the cat from under his arm and tossed it to the Korean who caught it eagerly – ‘I am tired of seeing this animal around. You may have it for dinner.’ The Korean’s eyes gleamed.
- English girls made mistakes about scent. [Bond] hoped it would be something slight and clean. Balmain’s Vent Vert perhaps, or Caron’s Muguet.
- ‘Please buy us lunch – anything you like for yourself. For me, six inches of Lyon sausage, a loaf of bread, butter, and half a litre of Mâcon with the cork pulled.’
- [Goldfinger] ‘Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.” I propose to wring the truth out of you.’ Goldfinger’s eyes slid slowly past Bond’s head. ‘Oddjob. The Pressure Room.’
- [Goldfinger] ‘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.’
- Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterton was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up. He knew the type well and thought 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 the 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.
- [Bond seeks something to read at the airport:] He bought Ben Hogan’s “Modern Fundamentals of Golf” and the latest Raymond Chandler…
A puzzle: Bond says to Goldfinger: ‘I’ll give you one last aphorism for your book, Goldfinger: “Never go a bear of England.”‘ Does anyone know what this means?
Although I have found many Bond movies and novels disappointing, I find the character of James Bond outstanding; and keep hoping that the next one (book or film) will be better (cf my blog Spectre: five reasons to miss it & five reasons you’ll see it). You can read about my full reviews of the James Bond books here:
- Diamonds are Forever: civil servants and “shills”
- Casino Royale: the book so far
- From Russia with Love: sexist, homophobic cold war time capsule
- Spectre: another reason to miss it: women