Goldfinger is the seventh book in the Bond series. It was written in its initial form in the first two months of 1958 and was published in early 1959. The story takes place in May and June of 1958. In 1964, it was made into the third* Bond film.
Similar to the film that preceded it, Goldfinger benefits both by being one of the earlier conversions and from being a near contemporary to the written source. This movie also I haven’t watched in quite some time, but I recall that I didn’t like it quite as much as the first two. Was it still better than what followed? I guess I’d need to watch them all again.
Like all of the works so far, the novel is considerably more serious than the movies that adapted them. In this case, the plot’s key crime – stealing the gold from Fort Knox – is itself like a punch line for some kind of gag. Maybe kids don’t make the connection these days, but back then it was synonymous with an impossible caper. That bit aside, Goldfinger follows in the footsteps of the series’ predecessors, doubling as a travelogue through the world of the ultra rich. In this case, it is a high-stakes Canasta game and a very expensive wager on golf which pivots on cheating all around. Now that I think about it, that sounds like another punchline to a joke.
Goldfinger also brings together threads from the previous stories. The titular villain joins forces with the Diamonds Are Forever mobsters to the benefit of the Soviet’s SMERSH. Having made so many enemies in the service to his country thus far, it is a wonder that Bond isn’t (gold)fingered sooner than he eventually is. Highlighting the sharp contrast between the book and film Bonds, James saves the day in the written Goldfinger, not by action sequences and high tech gadgetry, but by passing a message off by way of a private jet’s toilet. Seriously.
Apparently, and I’m using Fleming’s story line as my source because historical information doesn’t seem to be readily available, while England abandoned the gold standard in 1931, they continued to manage gold reserves as a guarantee of currency value through the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The dates when this novel is to have taken place may also mark the peak gold reserves of both the United States and the United Kingdom. Given how much international banking has changed since 1958, key aspects of the plot are difficult to understand today.
Goldfinger (this time the man, not the book) runs afoul of British authorities because he is smuggling gold from England to India. In England, the exchange rate with the pound sterling is set by the government. In India, one can obtain market rates. While the pound’s value is no longer determined by England’s gold reserves, in 1958 it is apparently guaranteed by England’s gold reserves. Thus England has an incentive to artificially increase the amount of gold that can be exchanged for a given amount of currency and, as a result, creates a lucrative arbitrage relative free markets in gold. The only way to square this circle is to enforce a policy restricting the export of gold. As policy this might be difficult to understand. As economics, its simpler (although it exposes the stupidity of the policy). By fencing off the English gold market and prohibiting export outside of its borders, England can maximize the quantity of all gold subject to their fiat rate of exchange.
Within a decade (1966), England would prohibit its citizens from owning more than four gold coins or from purchasing gold that they didn’t already possess. Even in Fleming’s novel, the government is already policing the “hoarding” of gold, but Goldfinger can skirt this effort because, as a jeweler, he legitimately holds a certain quantity of precious metal. The United States also underwent its own round of gold confiscation (1933, in theory – it wasn’t much enforced) and Australia prohibited private gold ownership in 1959. The U.S. still dictated a fixed exchange rate for gold, but that too would be abandoned by Nixon in 1971.
Also incomprehensible to today’s minds is the ability for Goldfinger to make millions worth of gold simply disappear. The government apparently could go in to inspect his gold holdings, but had no means to compare that with transaction receipts to verify that the gold that he held matched that which he had accumulated through the conduct of his business. Of course, this is a work of fiction so I wouldn’t know whether it accurately reflects limitations of government knowledge of a business’ details or not. At some point, historically, one could expect some privacy with respect to one’s business dealings – an expectation that is, mostly, no longer there. When did that actually change?
To me, Goldfinger represents an important transition in the Jame Bond world. The next book would be a series of short stories, breaking up the sequence of the novels and back-filling some of the fictional details. The next full-length novel, Thunderball, was originally created with the big screen in mind. Although this wasn’t a first (Dr. No, also, was originally conceived as a television series), Goldfinger was the last novel published before the film machine began rolling. Thunderball, also, will come to introduce SPECTRE as Bond’s arch-enemy, distancing Bond from the reality of Cold War politics and creating the Bond world which we’ve come to know. As I started out, for me and (I’d assume) many of my age and younger, James Bond exists first and foremost as a film character and the novels are there as a mere footnote.
*Thunderball was intended to go forward first, but copyright disputes were holding up production.