Thursday, 4 August 2016

What Bond villains are reading

I'm reading – or rather re-reading – PG Wodehouse's 1913 novel, The Little Nugget, at the moment. If the title is familiar to you, it may because it's mentioned in the novel of From Russia, with Love. The book is in a pile of other 'membership badges of the rich man's club' next to SMERSH killer Donovan 'Red' Grant, who's lying prone in the garden of a Crimean villa, waiting for his regular masseuse.

Wodehouse's comic tale set within a private school, featuring romance, detectives, gangsters, and plots to kidnap a repulsive schoolboy, might seem an odd choice for a psychopath (although the kidnapping element might be of professional interest to Grant). But then again, the book is the sort of volume that SMERSH would make Grant read as part of his training to develop the persona of a wealthy, sophisticated man, allowing him to enter English society and intelligence circles. (Such methods were standard for Soviet spy agencies. The Penkovsky Papers, for example, include a manual that instructs Soviet agents operating in the USA how to behave without raising suspicion – see The Cold War Spy Pocket Manual, by Philip Barker.)

Moving inside the villa, we get a glimpse of Grant's preferred reading: stacks of 'garish paperbacks and hardcover thrillers'. A selection of pulp fiction about seductive heroines, sultry femme fatales, and hard-boiled detectives, I shouldn't wonder.

There is a similar whiff of pretence in Goldfinger's reading. In the hall of the Grange, Goldfinger's pile in Kent, James Bond peruses a copy of The Field, a magazine for country squires and the hunting, fishing and shooting set. The magazine, placed where it can be seen, displays Goldfinger's credentials as a respectable member of the community. 

Photo: New Yorker Books
We get a different picture of Goldfinger in his bedroom, as Bond discovers in the drawer of Goldfinger's bedside table a copy of The Hidden Sight of Love, a salacious novel that is Goldfinger's 'solitary indiscretion'. (I imagine Bond uttering 'dirty bugger' to himself at this point.) The book does indeed exist, and if you're interested, a New York bookseller currently has a copy listed on eBay. According to the description, the book is a piece of classic Victorian erotic fiction reprinted by Palladium Publications in January 1958, which means that it was hot off the press when Ian Fleming sat down to write Goldfinger that month in Jamaica (the novel was published in 1959). Well, Fleming did have an interest in promoting 'lost books', as we see from his championing of Hugh Edward's All Night at Mr Stanyhurst's.

We know the sort of books James Bond reads – manuals, golf books, thrillers, inspiring books about politics and the intelligence community – but in two of the Bond novels, we also get a sense of the books that the villains read. In contrast to Bond's library, there's something not quite honest about the villains' choice. Just what we'd expect, of course, but I also wonder whether it reflects Fleming's own tastes, just as Bond's library does.

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