Let me be clear from the offing, I love me some James Bond.
I find Ian Fleming’s colorful lead character consistently compelling, notwithstanding the fact that he’s sexist, racist, condescending, narcissistic, and sometimes a bit cruel. Despite his flaws, or perhaps because of them, Bond always seems very human to me. He doesn’t always make the smart decision. He sometimes gets tripped up, either by a wily foe or by his own shortsightedness. He falls in love, quite regularly. He gets the ever-living-hell beat out of him, quite regularly. Yet he always manages to come out on top, by relying on his wits, his training, or just plain dumb luck.
*Beware of Spoilers*
One of the things I appreciate about the Bond books is that the storylines don’t usually depend on ridiculously cartoonish plots or characters. In Goldfinger, Bond is up against Auric Goldfinger, a crafty gold smuggler who is using precious English gold to help finance SMERSH (the Russian syndicate dedicated to the eradication of spies like James) AND has a diabolical plan to rob Fort Knox. Okay, when you put it like that it DOES sound a bit outlandish, but it’s a tribute to Fleming’s storytelling abilities that the story feels almost plausible. True, Goldfinger is a bit larger than life, and his plan is pretty daring in its scope. But as Fleming explains it:
To Bond there was nothing fantastic, nothing impossible about Goldfinger since he had heard the details of Operation Grand Slam. The theft of a Stratocruiser, as Goldfinger explained it, was preposterous, but no more so than his methods of smuggling gold, his purchase of an atomic warhead. When one explained these things, while they had a touch of magic, of genius even, they were logical exercises. They were bizarre only in their magnitude.
That, to me, is part of the reason why the books are so much better than the movies (although, those are good, as well). At the core of each book is generally a very ordinary crime or theme (smuggling, gambling, larceny, code breaking, counterintelligence, etc.) that has been pushed to the extreme level of plausibility. And, thankfully, there are very few gadgets or gizmos, almost no lasers or missiles (aside from Moonraker), and no corny puns or zingers.
And then, there are the women. In Goldfinger, I was exceedingly amused to discover that the female leads, damsel-in-distress Tilly Masterson and tough-as-nail crime boss Pussy Galore, were BOTH lesbians. I actually cackled out loud. What a great plot twist! Poor, old, lovelorn James! Of course, my initial glee was ruptured in the last few chapters. After Tilly’s untimely demise at the hands of Oddjob, Bond’s reaction is “Poor little bitch. She didn’t think much of men.” That line could very well be the lowest point for me in all the Bond books I’ve read thus far. I thought it encapsulated the very worst in Bond (see those traits listed earlier). I mean, WTF? A bitch? Why? Because she had the gall not to trust the man she (perhaps rightly) blames for the death of her beloved sister? Or perchance it was more because she had no interest in Bond’s legendary lovemaking skills? Either way, I thought it was harsh and very nearly ruined my enjoyment of the book. Still, there’s Pussy right? Nope. Turns out that, in the end, James’ powerful alpha-maleness was more than enough to convince Pussy to give up both her life of crime and her sexual orientation. *sigh* Not the old “all a lesbian needs is a good man” trope! How disappointing.
So, in the end, Goldfinger was much as I expected it to be: a thoroughly entertaining, though nonetheless flawed, secret agent escapade. I only wish it had been a little less predictable. But then, it IS Bond.
P.S. Did I mention the play-by-play account of Bond and Goldfinger’s golf game? It was quite possibly the longest chapter I have ever read. It felt like I was reading it for daaaays. Merciful heavens, how I hate golf.