Kate Mosse on Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

Trigger Mortis, the new Bond novel by Anthony Horrowitz, is set two weeks after the events of Goldfinger and features iconic characters from the original thriller. In this extract from our Classics edition of the seminal novel, author Kate Mosse looks at the techniques used by Ian Fleming to bring such vivid characters to life

There are a handful of literary characters who are so successful, so much themselves, that they step out of their novels, their plays, and into the wider world. Hercule Poirot is one, the Artful Dodger another. Shylock, Moll Flanders, Long John Silver, Emma Woodhouse. And, of course, the spy of all spies – James Bond.

In Ian Fleming's fifth novel, From Russia with Love, the Soviet organisation smersh describes him thus:

Height: 183 centimetres; weight: 76 kilograms; slim build; eyes: blue; hair: black; scar down right cheek and on left shoulder; all-round athlete; expert pistol shot, boxer, knife-thrower; does not use disguises. Languages: French and German. Smokes heavily (NB: special cigarettes with three gold bands); vices: drink, but not to excess, and women.

And that's all you need to know. But they might have added 'calculating', 'sense of duty', 'loyal'. And in Goldfinger – the seventh of Fleming's 14 James Bond novels – we start to see a reflective 007. The dirty business of Her Majesty's Secret Service isn't clear cut. He becomes thoughtful about what he is called upon to do and why.

The novel starts with a scene at Miami Airport. Bond is troubled, thinking about the man he has just executed. The novel ends at Fort Knox where Bond appears to collude with the arch-villain, Auric Goldfinger, in mass murder. There is more doubt and something of Rider Haggard's unglamorous Allan Quatermain than in the slap-bang-wallop superhero of some of the other Bond novels.

Despite all this, Goldfinger was published in 1959 with all the classic hallmarks that Fleming had trained his readers to expect: pace and violence; great locations; suspense; sex. There was also the celebrated, razor-sharp attention to detail, almost what we would today call 'product placement' but not for financial reward. The products Fleming placed were there because they were – still are – emblematic of the extraordinary fictional life he was working to create.

The well-chosen details add to the realism, but also to the sense of opulence. Bond might be in deadly earnest – even in mortal danger – but he enjoys the glamour of the 'cruel game'. Work almost becomes leisure – or at least a kind of high-octane adrenaline sport. About one particularly dynamic chase, he says: 'It was going to be fun playing hare and hounds across Europe.' Goldfinger is a worthy adversary.

Kingsley Amis called this accumulation of compelling visual detail 'the Fleming effect'. He described it as 'the imaginative use of information, whereby the pervading fantastic nature of Bond's world... [is] bolted down to some sort of reality, or at least counter- balanced.' Specifics of particular restaurants, particular booze, particular cigarettes. Detailed appreciations of watches, types of carburettor, marques of champagne.

Bond never just gets his gun, but rather takes out a thick book – The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature – inside which he hides his Walther PPK in a Berns Martin holster. In his suitcase is 'an M3 Leica, an MC exposure meter, a K2 filter'.

Another classic Fleming technique is the tense, self-contained drama. Goldfinger is no exception. The plot has two long set-pieces, the first a classic of high living among the dangerous and wealthy – a game of Canasta for high-rolling gamblers. Auric Goldfinger himself is introduced as a villain – and a ruthless cheat.

The arena of sport is important. It is a place where conflict can be played out without mortal danger – a kind of warm up for the desperate combats to come.

It allows the author to reveal character – to show how enemies are different but the same. In the 19 page squash match in his novel Saturday, Ian McEwan the author seems very present.

And perhaps moments like this golf match are places where Fleming himself allows his own character to peek through; it's worth noting that he devotes two chapters to describing it.

The course at which Bond and Goldfinger play their famous match – Royal St Mark's in Kent – is a thinly disguised version of the Royal St George's Club at Sandwich.

If sport gives structure to drama, it can also give structure to life. It is said that the friendly and avuncular Bing Crosby died of a massive heart attack, remarking: 'That was a great game of golf, fellas.' Fleming was different – by turns courteous, patrician, cold or affectionate. A heavy smoker and drinker, on 11 August 1964 he walked to his golf club for lunch and, later, dined at his hotel in Canterbury with friends.

He suffered his own heart attack shortly after the meal and died in the early morning of 12 August 1964 — his son Caspar's 12th birthday. His last recorded words were, apparently, an apology to the ambulance drivers for having inconvenienced them.

In the second, a long drawn-out round of golf, Bond beats Goldfinger at his own game by cheating in order to win. They are deeply competitive masculine scenes, made up of a mixture of bravado and a thin veneer of etiquette and fair-play.

But to dwell on death wouldn't suit Fleming. Or Bond. I'm sure that 007, like Archie in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, would say: 'He's dead. It's very sad, but it's not as if the alternative were immortality.' And get on with the chase.

Goldfinger is a proper, old-fashioned, Secret Service adventure. Auric Goldfinger is cruel, clever, frustratingly careful. Of course he cheats at cards. Of course he's a crook on a massive scale – a man without empathy or charm, except the dangerous charm of the wealthy and powerful.

As my old copy put it, he is 'the kind of man Bond hates'. And Bond is tasked by both the Bank of England and MI5 to discover what this, the richest man in the country, intends to do with his ill-gotten gains – and what his connection is with smersh, the feared Soviet spy-killing corps.

Once inside this deadly criminal's organisation, 007 finds that Goldfinger's schemes are more grandiose – and lethal – than anyone could have imagined. Not only is he planning the greatest gold robbery in history, but mass murder as well.

This is another brilliant Fleming technique – escalation. At first, Bond might simply be investigating a gold smuggler, albeit a very successful one. It is the deep- thinking M. who suspects the connection to smersh, wondering if Goldfinger could be financing their western networks. Then the stakes are raised.

As so often, Fleming allows his hero to stumble into danger. In no other way can he gather the full facts; in no other way can he prevent disaster. So Bond is captured, and forced to oversee Operation Grand Slam, the daring theft of the entire United States gold reserves.

Although a lone wolf, Bond has allies. In Goldfinger, he manages to alert the US authorities through his friend, Felix Leiter. The novel sits alongside Live and Let Die and Dr No as adventures in which a British agent has to sort out an American problem, so it is only right that the C.I.A. man lends a hand.

Leiter is perhaps Bond's only real male friend in 'the business'. But, along the way, he also comes to rely on some powerful female allies.

Often referred to as 'Bond girls', these women are almost all strongly motivated characters in their own right. Jill Masterson works for Goldfinger, helping him to cheat, but is murdered for helping Bond.

Jill's sister Tilly enters the action, out for revenge. It's hard not to think that, for Fleming, she represented some kind of ideal:

Although she was a very beautiful girl she was the kind who leaves her beauty alone. She had made no attempt to pat her hair into place. As a result, it looked as a girl's hair should look – untidy, with bits that strayed and a rather crooked parting. It provided the contrast of an uneven, jagged dark frame for the pale symmetry of the face, the main features of which were blue eyes under dark brows, a desirable mouth, and an air of determination and independence that came from the high cheek-bones and the fine line of the jaw.

Despite being natural allies, Bond and Tilly Masterson do not at first trust one another, leading to the virtuoso sequence of a dual car chase across Europe, with both Bond and Masterson following Goldfinger and playing cat-and-mouse with one another along the way. And this energetic, purposeful woman stands in counterpoint to the rather stereotypical (not to say sometimes dodgy) views expressed about women. Bond's female allies and enemies are enduring because they aren't passive or feeble.

Bond's women are always adventurous, (though perhaps only out of desperation whereas he is coldly clinical), and brave. Tilly Masterson is an excellent driver, as good as Bond himself. She is a skilled marksman. In many ways, she is the forerunner of the contemporary American breed of gung-ho private detectives – enterprising characters like V. I. Warshawski or Kinsey Millhone.

I suppose the key is that these women have their own motivations – they aren't just adjuncts to Bond. The man who, in a brief outing from spy stories, came up with the brilliant children's novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, no doubt had views of women and men that were shaped by his upbringing and time. But there is still a sense of equality in their dealings. Not least, because Fleming allows his characters to breathe and grow.

How else could you explain the wonderfully bonkers Pussy Galore, leader of an all-female hit squad of acrobats and trapeze artists? Men and women fall in love with her. She explains to Bond that she became a lesbian because her uncle abused her at 12 years old. She is the one person who manages, unequivocally, to outwit Goldfinger – a double agent who leaves all others standing.

Another vivid secondary character is the intimidating and silent Korean heavy, Oddjob. He has a cleft palate and extraordinary hands: 'big and fat with muscle. The fingers all seemed to be the same length. They were very blunt at the tips and the tips glinted as if they were made of yellow bone.' He can use his bowler hat to lethal effect with a 'blow [that] would have smashed a man's skull or half severed his neck.'

Fleming has often been criticised for stereotypical depictions of women or ethnicities or homosexuality. We are not fooled – as Fleming perhaps was – when in Goldfinger Bond's machismo is challenged by eating a sumptuous dinner with Du Pont, served with opulent grace by 'a pansified Italian'. His novels are as much a product of their times as, say, Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles in which Poirot refers to Bauerstein disparagingly as 'a Jew of course'.

Novelist Louise Welsh says that Live and Let Die 'taps into the paranoia that some sectors of white society were feeling' as the civil rights movement challenged prejudice and inequality. A smart remark, because any work needs to be judged in the context of its own times.

To apply current attitudes can only be self-defeating. Not only do we deny ourselves the pleasures of a beautifully crafted work of art, but we fail to look closely at the society that produced such ideas.

In the end, for me, what distinguishes Fleming's Bond novels and gives them their charm is the dynamism of the plot, the vivacity of the characterisation and the sly humour. Bond gets things wrong. Fleming often tips us a wry wink. The violence is cartoon violence.

There is no more chance of Bond, strapped to a table and attacked by a circular saw, being sliced in two as there is of him marrying Pussy Galore and living in the suburbs. This is entertainment, not tragedy – a rollicking read, not social analysis. Well put together, carefully structured, books to enjoy.

In a 1962 article – 'How to Write a Thriller' – Fleming wrote: 'There is only one recipe for a bestseller and it is a very simple one. If you look at all the bestsellers you have read you will find that they all have one quality: you simply have to turn the page.'

Quite, Mr Fleming.


Ian Fleming (and others)


‘You’re stale, tired of having to be tough. You want a change. You’ve seen too much death’

In Fleming’s seventh 007 novel, a private assignment sets Bond on the trail of an enigmatic criminal mastermind – Auric Goldfinger. But greed and power have created a deadly opponent who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

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