Horse Under Water by Len Deighton (1963)

‘Your job is to provide success at any price. By means of bribes, by means of theft or by means of murder itself. Men like you are in the dark, subconscious recesses of the nation’s brains. You do things that are done and forgotten quickly.’ (p.141)

The Ipcress File made Len Deighton famous overnight. It sold out repeat reprints and there were high hopes for this, the sequel. Ipcress had identified itself as ‘Secret File No.1’ and Horse Under Water had ‘Secret File No.2’ prominently displayed on the cover suggesting a direct link, but it is not so much a sequel as part of a series of novels about the same British spy (unnamed in the novels, though given the name Harry Palmer in the series of movies starring Michael Caine). Ie a spy series like the Bond books which started in 1953, or le Carré’s Smiley series which started in 1961 (and like numerous others I’m probably not aware of). Apparently, Deighton planned five novels but only four were published before he moved on to other things.

Paratextuality and presentation

As well as the supposedly official stamp on the flyleaf (saying the text has been ‘Downgraded to unclassified’), and the letter placed before the narrative and dated 1941, which is meant as a clue to the plot, and the customary footnotes throughout as well as longer appendices explaining references in the text, there is another page before the main text, titled ‘Solutions’ with 58 numbered words on it. It took a few chapters for me to realise it’s another Deighton game – each chapter title is a cryptic crossword clue, the ‘Solutions’ page gives the one-word answers, and these answers sum up the matter of the chapter.

(Crosswords In Ipcress the Narrator very conspicuously fusses over a crossword from page 40 to page 140; similarly, in this book he starts a crossword about three-quarters the way through and his worrying over the clues mirrors the slotting together of the ‘plot’.)

Inconsequential detail

Jean and I spent a lazy Saturday afternoon. She washed her hair and I made lots of coffee and read a back issue of the Observer. The TV was just saying ‘… a Blackfoot war party wouldn’t be using a medicine arrow, Betsy…’ when the phone rang. (Ch 4)

The text is packed with inconsequential detail, overheard snippets of conversation, fragments (like the fragments of demotic life quoted in the classic Modernist texts of Joyce or Eliot).

The rain beat heavily against the car windows. Outside Woolworth’s a woman in a plastic raincoat was smacking a child in a Yogi Bear bib. Soon we stopped at Admiralty Arch. (Ch 13)

These are all alienation techniques – foregrounding the trivial, repressing the important, a continual textual self-consciousness which:

  • shows the Narrator’s mind is permanently registering every detail of his surroundings, like a trained camera
  • keeps the reader alert to the fact that we are reading a fiction
  • is a running commentary on the trivia of consumer culture

He mentions cubism at one point and I wondered if the novel could be compared to cubist technique. In many places the sentences don’t follow as a train of thought but jump from one facet to another, like an attempt to see all the angles of a situation at the same moment.

Something similar can be said about the very short chapters, often only a page long, like facets of a diamond, scores of shiny surfaces refracting the light – the secret – at the core of the gemlike plot. On the other hand, they don’t seem short because so much is conveyed by them. I’d hazard a guess that Deighton put a lot of work into cutting back his texts, paring away till they are as clipped and allusive as possible.

Super detachment

In a more conventional spy story the protagonist would be thinking through his issues and problems with us. The majority of text in the Alistair MacLean novels I’ve been reading consists of the hero thinking through very thoroughly all possible avenues of action, sharing and involving the reader in his high-tension predicament, then doing it all over again as the situations change and plans have to be adapted.

The exact opposite, Deighton very deliberately eschews almost all inner thinking by his protagonist. He is at pains to show how detached and clinical his protagonist is and, since it is the detached clinical protagonist telling the story, the narrative itself comes over as clinical and detached. For example, a colleague who’s been helping out on the Portugal job gets into our man’s car at the London Airport car park to drive it over to him and the car explodes, killing this colleague, as our man watches.

Joe was at the far end of the enclosure; he opened the door of my VW, got in and switched on the main lights. The rain tore little gashes through the long beams. From inside the car came an intense light; each window was a clear white rectangle, and the door on Joe’s side opened very quickly. It was then that the blast sent me across the pavement like a tiddly-wink. ‘Walk, not run,’ I thought. I jammed my spectacles on to my nose and got to my feet. A cold current of air advised me of an eight-inch rent in my trouser leg. (Ch 20)

‘Advised.’ The text evinces training, self-discipline, no emoting. It tags our man as he follows standard procedure ie we follow who he calls, what code words he uses, and so on. Our man steals a taxi and calmly drives away. The last sentence, the parting thought of the sequence, the thing the author wants to imprint on your mind about the whole incident, is: ‘I soon mastered the knack of double-declutching the crash gearbox.’ Cool, in the sense of absolutely unflustered and not admitting to any feeling.

Always with the vivid detail; rarely with the thought; never any emotion.

Description instead of plot

A lot of effort is gone into puzzling and confusing the reader. Puzzles, like the crossword clues. Deighton gives description instead of exposition. Much of this description is vivid and brilliant, sharp snapshots of people and places and scenes.

I watched the waves moving down on to the shore. Each shadow darkened until one, losing its balance, toppled forward. It tore a white hole in the green ocean and in falling brought its fellow down, and that the next, until the white stuffing of the sea burst out of the lengthening gash. (Ch 15)

Worth remembering that, before his writing career took off, Deighton studied at Saint Martin’s School of Art, won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, worked as an illustrator in New York and as an art director in an advertising agency. He has a good eye, very good. Possibly this contributes to the tendency for detail not discourse, pictures not ideas.

There is a point on the A3 near Cosham at which the whole of Portsmouth Harbour comes into view. This expanse of inland water is a vast grey triangle pointing to the Solent. The edges are sharp serrated patterns of docks, jetties and hards enclosing the colourless water. (Ch 3)

A bit like a Paul Nash landscape. And since a lot of the novel is set in Portugal this gives plenty of opportunity for painterly descriptions.

We walked through the fish market. The flat concrete benches were ashine with bream and gilthead, pilchards, sardines and mackerel. Outside the sun reflected off the sea with a million flashing pinpoints of light, as though every bird was sitting there on the ocean top flashing angry white wings. (Ch 15)

Page after page of vivid – if often rather mannered – description. Sunday supplement subject matter – wow! the exotic destinations! The Algarve! Marrakesh! – done in Modernist-lite style. All very enjoyable.

The scrawny old houses [of Albufeira] stared red-eyed into the sunset. Two or three cafés – houses with a public front room – opened their doors, pale-green colour-washed walls were punctuated with calendar art, and crippled chairs leaned against the walls for support. In the evening the young bloods came to operate the juke box. A small man in a suede jacket poured thimble-size drinks from large unlabelled medicine bottles under the counter. Behind him green bottles of ‘Gas-soda’ and ‘Fru-soda’ grew old and dusty. (Ch 43)


And all the brighter and more exotic by contrast with sorry smoggy London. Fog, smog, bedsits, rented flats, threadbare carpets, shillings for the meter.

The airport bus dredged through the sludge of traffic as sodium-arc lights jaundiced our way towards Slough. (Ch 6)

Anti-Bond, anti-London clubs, swish apartment and best hotels. The narrator’s offices are in unglamorous Charlotte Street, he lives in a flat in Southwark and his beady eye registers all the shabby details of modern life.

I leaned upon the gravy-stained tablecloth as Paddington slid past. Soot-caked dwellings pressed together like pleats in a concertina. Grey laundry flapped in the breeze. Past Ladbroke Grove the small gardens suffocated under choking debris, only corrugated iron and rusty wire remained of things collapsed. (Ch 39)

Reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s famous downbeat poem of observations from a train, Whitsun Weddings, which was published just around this time, in 1964. But London is big and varied, and there are also numerous bursts of knowing sarcasm.

Number 37 Little Charton Mews is one of a labyrinth of cobbled cul-de-sacs in that section of Kensington where having a garage as a living-room is celebrated by planting a rose bush in a painted barrel. (Ch 48)

The Welsh countryside in winter comes alive under his pen.

On the horizon bare branches grew across the grey skyline like cracks in sheets of ice. Foraging around the snow patches of rooks fluttered and flopped until my arrival sent them climbing into the moist air, their black wings richly pink in the light. (Ch 40)

There are lots of paragraphs worth reading and rereading and savouring for the pure pleasure of their prose. In these early books Deighton is a wonderful stylist.


He’s not Oscar Wilde. There’s not a lot of repartee and back-chat. But what there is fits the overall style in being pithy, smart, wry, detached.

Joe MacIntosh drove me to one of the married-officer accommodations along Europa Road past the military hospital. It was 3.45am. The streets were almost empty. Two sailors in white were vomiting their agonising way to the Wharf and another was sitting on the pavement near Queen’s Hotel.
‘Blood, vomit and alcohol,’ I said to Joe, ‘it should be on the coat of arms.’
‘It’s on just about everything else,’ he said, sourly. (Ch 7)

Do these two government agents discuss the mission? Do they swap notes or catch up on information? Nope. Instead there is signature Deighton inconsequential detail, indirection and smart repartee. Very snappy, very with it, very 1963. Of course, the Narrator is cocky with his superiors, that’s part of his schtick. Thus Dawlish, his boss, gives him a snippet of his personal life.

‘Present from my son. He’s very fond of quotations by Wellington. Each year on the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo we have a little party, and all the guests have to have an anecdote or quotation ready.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I do the same thing every time I pull on my Wellington boots.’ Dawlish slid me a narrowed glance. (Ch 39)

‘Slid the narrow glance’ has Raymond Chandler’s feel for exotic ways of describing looks, his obsession with eyes. Similarly, Deighton’s snappy take on the trials and tribulations of everyday life, such as gas meters and payphones.

He took me up to a room on the third floor back. It had an antique gas-meter that looked hungry. I fed it some one-franc pieces. It liked them…I dialled a Bayswater number. The phone made the noises associated with making a phone call in England. It buzzed, clicked and purred; it had more tones than a chromatic scale. After two or three tries it even rang at the other end. (Ch 31)

Witty comparisons

I don’t know whether Chandler invented the smart-alec simile, but it seems to be part of the humorous self-consciousness of the thriller genre. It is flashy. The text is showing off its savviness with language just as the protagonists show off their knowledge of guns and cars and (in Deighton’s case, especially) good food. The whole genre is supremely confident and knowing. It is letting you into its secrets. Look, I can handle a .38 Smith & Wesson hammerless 6-shot. Look, I know how to prepare authentic stifado. Look, I understand how to play off competing government intelligence agencies. Look, this is how vividly I see everything:

Dawlish was a tall, grey-haired civil servant with eyes like the far end of a long tunnel… Dawlish nodded, removed his spectacles and dabbed at his dark eye-sockets with a crisp handkerchief. Behind him on the window ledge the sun was rolling dusty documents into brandy snaps. (Ch 2)

The old man switched off the motor. It spluttered like a candle, and there was a brief silence before the sea began its background music. Left to the disposition of the ocean the little boat was handed from wave to wave like a rich patient between specialists. (Ch 12)

HK lived a long way down the Praca Miguel Bombarda. It was a simple house with a red-and-white tiled entrance hall. The dark furniture did a heavy dance as we walked across the uneven plank flooring. From the entrance hall one could see right through the house to where the light-grey sea, dark clouds and whitewashed stone balcony hung like a tricolour outside the back door. (Ch 14)

Dawlish took out a handkerchief and lowered his nose into it, like he was going from a seventh-storey window into something held by eight firemen. (Ch 19)

A little finger of grey cloud rubbed the tired eye of the moon. (Ch 24)

I sat down. I was as limp as a Dali watch. (Ch 45)

He closed his eyes, gulped down his claret and leaned against the wall like a worn-out roll of line. (Ch 50)


Deighton’s style incorporates a wide array of prose strategies: very clipped factual; poetic prose, specially nature scenes; brief dialogue snippets; technical specifications; English posh (upon, whilst, amongst), quoting newspapers, TV adverts. But in the second half of Horse I noticed more Americanisms. During the interview with the American drug smuggler, HarryKondit, in the heroin factory, the Narrator becomes briefly American, using Damon Runyan or Raymond Chandler argot, telling HK he can ‘fade’. On the boat, in the next scene, he is afraid lying on the deck ‘could earn me a slam on the kisser, too’ (p. 176.)

(I noticed that the puffs on the cover of Funeral In Berlin include one from the San Francisco Chronicle saying Deighton is ‘the Raymond Chandler of the cloak and dagger set.’)

And the plot?

Diving There is a plot, of course, quite a few plots in fact, which keep our narrator (and us) confused right up to the end of the text. Number one, our man is instructed to recruit divers to investigate a WWII German submarine sunk off the Portuguese coast. The plan is to retrieve counterfeit Nazi money the sub is reported to have been carrying, and use it fund Portuguese revolutionaries who are planning to overthrow the Salazar dictatorship. If they come to power, they will owe a debt to HMG. Which HMG will have achieved at no cost, thus pleasing the accountants.

Albufeira The first half of the book is dominated by diving: the Narrator’s (comic) diving instruction by the Navy at Portsmouth; then the flight to Gibraltar, picking up Joe MacIntosh, Our Man in Spain, and an Italian named Girgio, the Best Diver In Europe; then the drive to the fishing village of Albufeira and setting up base in an apartment there. Then the unexpected arrival of two ‘helpers’ from the British Embassy in Lisbon, pukka Clive Singleton and good-looking Charlotte Lucas-Mountford, quickly nicknamed Charly. Then the settling into a routine of morning dives to the U-boat.

Strangers Here they are approached by the charming American, Harry Kondit (aka HK) who knows everyone in town including a weaselly 40-year-old fixer, Fernie, and the highly suspect Big Man of the region, Senhor Manuel Gambeta do Rosario da Cunha. The Narrator is deeply suspicious of all of them.

Back in London As diving operations proceed, the Narrator makes a lot of short trips back to London to check on a number of other strands: first, a light-hearted one about a scheme he and his boss have, to set up a new network of informants; second, on his return from the diving training in Portsmouth he was followed by cars, one registered to Cabinet Minister, Henry Smith. What is Smith’s interest? While the Narrator is supervising the diving off the Portugal coast, what is going on behind his back in England? Who are his English enemies? What is the deep history of these English foes ie is there a long-term conspiracy?

Then the third element is the assortment of foreigners he meets in Portugal, who each seem to have their own agendas. There are several distinct threads:

  • scientific breakthrough – one of the cars that followed the narrator back from his training course in Portsmouth was owned by a certain Ivor Butcher, the man who sold Intelligence what appear to be worthless plans for converting ice into water instantly by interfering with the molecular structure (ie useful for missile-firing submarines cruising under Arctic ice sheets). References to it crop up in houses of suspects etc: does it work, after all? Is this what the plot is about? The Narrator meets Butcher at the bar of the Ritz, where he buys off him the diary of Henry Smith which happens to have been nicked by one of Butcher’s burglar contacts – in it the Narrator finds coded messages which seem to refer to smuggling industrial components to Red China.
  • drug smuggling – about two-thirds through the Narrator gets an analysis back from Forensics that the canister they extracted from the U-boat had traces of heroin attached. He makes a trip down to Cardiff, to the FO Forensics Lab, and spends an evening with our drugs expert in his chilly Welsh home, being briefed on the drug world circa 1962, including the large amount of acetic acid generated as a by-product of heroin production.

A vivid description of his first dive into the U-boat ends with Giorgio suddenly appearing with his arm badly ripped, bleeding. The Narrator takes him to the surface, and brings him ashore where he dies of shock and blood loss.

Soon after discovering the canister which Giorgio extracted from the U-boat has traces of heroin in it, the Narrator finds from the Research Dept that da Cunha is in fact a former German naval officer and the shifty Fernie is a renegade British Navy officer and frogman. Aha.

Back in Albufeira, with Giorgio and Joe dead (blown up in the Narrator’s car at Heathrow), Singleton requests leave, and, left to themselves, Charly seduces the Narrator. Over a post-coital cigarette she mentions HK runs a big cannery factory, which generates lots of acetic acid, hence the vinegar smell. Double aha! The Narrator immediately goes over to the factory with Charly and a gun and catches HK red-handed refining heroin.

Confronting HK Long chapter in which the Narrator finds out a lot: Fernie found heroin in the old sub; encouraged HK to set up a refinery, which then became a business; the raw material is thrown overboard on buoys from passing ships, collected by Fernie, processed by HK, sealed in sardine cans and attached to the hulls of ships bound to the States; recovered by frogmen their end. Da Cunha is an ex-Nazi, but not directly involved: HK pays him protection money, and da Cunha borrows HK’s big pleasure boat whenever he wants to. Fernie knows Ivor Butcher who’s visited a few times: but does this make Butcher a messenger from Smith, or back to Smith? After HK has said everything the Narrator lets him go but Charly, unexpectedly, pulls a gun and shoots him, only wounding him. The Narrator intervenes, takes the gun, allows HK to flee. Turns out Charly is a US Narcotics agent.

On the boat HK flees but leaves a note saying Fernie’s going out on the boat for another pick-up. The Narrator gets Charly to row him out and hides on the boat. Fernie turns up and, along with the 14 year-old street urchin Augusto, goes out to pick up the next drop of opium. The Narrator gets the drop on them but only after they’ve failed to collect the merchandise. He beats Fernie in a fight and establishes it wasn’t dope Fernie was after, but the Weiss List. The Weiss List is a list of high-placed individuals in England who were ready to collaborate when the Nazis invaded. Fernie knows da Cunha has it hidden in a sunken buoy.

(Fernie’s life story Fernie tells his life story ie fighting for Franco during the Spanish War, volunteering as a Navy diver, being captured by the Germans, and recruited into The League of St George which would have become the Nazi Party in occupied Britain, led by Graham Loveless, Henry Smith’s nephew. As the Allies advanced he and Loveless photocopied the list and buried it, before being arrested. Loveless threatened to reveal all the names on it and was hanged for his troubles; Fernie lived. But when Fernie returned to Hanover to dig up the list, a block of flats had been built on it. Meanwhile, the man now known as da Cunha had secured the only copy and was using it liberally to blackmail eminent Brits, a small part to fund HK’s heroin factory, but mostly to support a network of Fascist parties across Europe.)

As the boat approaches shore again, HK shoots Fernie dead using the rifle with telescopic sights. He uses up all his bullets allowing the Narrator to get ashore, hook up with Charly and visit da Cunha’s villa – long abandoned – but where he finds another, and much larger, laboratory. Aha. He orders Singleton to pack up all the diving gear and return it to London. And then the Narrator returns to London himself.

Dawlish and the Narrator get their intelligence committee off the ground. Dawlish signs ‘Closed’ on the Albufeira file but the Narrator refuses to let it lie. It feels like the story is finished to me, but it in fact continues for another 30 pages of densely packed narrative. Da Cunha makes the mistake of leaving some equipment in his old lab and then ordering it to be shipped to him. The Narrator has put surveillance on the villa and follows the equipment to a small airfield where it’s loaded onto a plane heading south. He gets air traffic control in Gibraltar to follow the plane as it flies across the Med to Marrakesh.

Marrakesh Here there is a bizarre scene where the Narrator uses influence with the local police to track down da Cunha, and interview him. Da Cunha is now openly the former Nazi Knabel, and he confirms that the expensive lab is to continue working on his (madcap) scheme to turn ice into water for military purposes, before beginning to froth at the mouth (literally) about the rebirth of a Europe-wide Fascist movement. The Narrator patronises him about this because all the time Ossie, a professional burglar we met earlier in the novel, is breaking into da Cunha’s quarters and stealing the transmitter set to the frequency of the buoy at the bottom of the sea off Albufeira which contains the Weiss List.

Helicopters Cut to the Narrator and divers spending several days criss-crossing the sea off Portugal until they pick up the beacon signal, then transmitting the call which makes the buoy rise to the surface, where it is easily retrieved. the Narrator opens it on board a naval vessel and, sure enough, it contains detailed correspondence with high ranking British Nazi sympathisers. Da Cunha had been using it for years to blackmail money out of men like Smith. Now the Narrator sees why he was tailed, and why Smith was interested in him. It was to hide the existence of the Weiss List, not to cover the heroin smuggling that his car was blown up at Heathrow.

We knew When the Narrator presents all this as new evidence to his boss, Dawlish, the latter pulls out a big file marked Young Europe Movement. He’s known about it all along. They were just using the Narrator because they knew he’d flush out the list itself. So the heroin was a side issue, after all. The ice-to-water device was moonshine. It was all about the Weiss List, but will any of the Nazi sympathisers be arrested? Of course not. Though Intelligence will let it be known that the full list is now in their hands…


The narrative is often confusing because the plot is confusing because the basic premise of the series is that spying is confusing. As the Narrator tells the Minister on page two of The Ipcress File, the story is confusing because he’s in a confusing business. Similar sentiments here:

‘It’s so confusing, isn’t it?’ Charly said.
‘Confusing,’ I replied. ‘Of course it’s confusing. You involve yourself in industrial espionage and then you complain about it being confusing.’ (Ch 44)

Cleverer people than me have been completely flummoxed by Deighton’s plots. Having read all the early ones, I’ve realised the best thing is to relax and enjoy the view – the style and presentation – and let the plot look after itself. Not, in fact, unlike the Narrator who is often as perplexed as we are.

I walked to the beach trying to arrange the facts I had access to. As I look back on it I had enough information then to tell me what I wanted to know. But at that time I didn’t know what I wanted to know. I was just letting my sense of direction guide me through the maze of motives. (Ch 43)

And, in keeping with the fundamental worldview of the books that the world is vastly more complicated and fractured than any one narrative can capture – ‘There would always be unexplainable actions by unpredictable people. (Ch 47) – some loose ends are never tied up.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘OK but don’t ever hanker after tidiness. Don’t ever think or hope that the great mess of investigation that we work on is suddenly going to resolve itself like the last chapter of a whodunnit… After we’re all dead and gone there will still be an office with all those manilla dust-traps tied in pink tape. So just knit quietly away and be thankful for the odd sock or even a lop-sided cardigan with one sleeve. Don’t desire vengeance or think that if someone murders you tomorrow we will be tracking them down mercilessly. We won’t. We’ll all be strictly concerned with keeping out of the News of the World and the Police Gazette.’ (Ch 21)

Dramatis personae

  • The Narrator – 40-something British Intelligence agent
  • Dawlish – his boss
  • Jean – his secretary and lover
  • ‘Tinkle’ Bell – 17-stone employee of British intelligence
  • Henry Smith – Cabinet Minister whose car was used to tail the narrator back from his diving course in Portsmouth and who he suspects of masterminding something. Smith tries to use his influence to get the diving operation cancelled but two thirds of the way through the book the Narrator confronts Smith in his immensely posh club. Firstly, he refuses to obey the order to abandon the diving; secondly, he bluffs Smith, saying he knows about his component-smuggling-to-Red-China operation, something he has deduced from other sources. Smith appears genuinely taken back by the Narrator’s knowledge of this and for a while we are left wondering whether this is what the story is actually about.
  • Giorgio – Italian diver they hire to investigate the sunken U-boat. He becomes nervous and the Narrator spots him heading off one night for a secret rendezvous; then, when accompanying the Narrator on the latter’s first dive to the U-boat, Giorgio is murdered, his diving suit shredded, his arm badly mauled, he dies of shock and blood loss as the Narrator just about manages to bring him ashore.
  • Joe MacIntosh – intelligence man in Portugal, fixes up the flat in Albufeiras for the Narrator and Giorgio. In a shock scene is killed when he gets into the Narrator’s car at Heathrow airport and it explodes. Who planted the bomb? Why did they want to kill the Narrator?
  • Clive Singleton – from the British Embassy in Portugal, turns up at the Narrator’s flat in Albufeiras, which the Narrator is not happy with. Good swimmer, is soon assisting Giorgio in his daily dives to the U-boat.
  • Charlotte Lucas-Mountford aka Charly – accompanies Singleton to the Albufeira apartment, quickly settles in as the home help, shopping at the local market, cooking, cleaning, washing shirts. She has a striking figure which she shows off in various bikinis and micro-skirts. 1960s sexism, if you choose to object. Against his better judgement the Narrator is seduced by her, whereupon she tips him off about HK’s heroin factory. N promptly raids it and interviews HK, is prepared to release him but Charly shoots HK, though not fatally. She is a US Narcotics agent, and drops out of the story at this point.
  • Harry Kondit, known as HK – loud American who approaches them on the beach and quickly is inviting to them to dinner, knows all about the diving. Suspicious. Turns out to be a heroin processor. Shot by Charly but escapes, they think he’s fled town. But he is hiding and shoots Fernie dead with rifle with telescopic sights from the clifftops.
  • Senhor Jorge Fernandes Tomas aka Fernie – 40-year-old local fixer. Highly suspicious. Turns out to be renegade Royal Navy officer and frogman, Bernard Peterson. Loses a fight with the Narrator on the motor-boat, then spills the beans: he has been using the Weiss List to blackmail, as well as helping HK run the heroin operation. HK shoots him dead.
  • Senhor Manuel Gambeta do Rosario da Cunha – (allegedly) the leading man of the district: HK introduces him to the narrator who goes for a long intricate dinner at his palace, where the narrator acquiesces in the suggestion that he is a good friend of ‘Mr Smith’.
    • ‘You are in contact with Mr Smith?’
      ‘Of course I am,’ I lied quickly. (p.69)
  • After dinner Senhor da Cunha hands him a package claiming it was washed up with a body from the U boat: N takes it back to London where it is identified as a good quality die for forging British sovereigns. N suspects da Cunha is a fake, the story about a washed-up body is baloney; the die is some kind of bribe – but he doesn’t know what for. Da Cunha turns out to be ex-German Navy officer, using the Weiss List to blackmail eminent Brits, and using the proceeds to fund European Fascist movements. The Narrator tracks him to Marrakesh where he steals the transmitter used for retrieving the underwater container which holds the Weiss List.
  • Ossie – world-class burglar and underworld contact – tells the Narrator that the Portuguese revolutionaries he’s been ordered to give the Nazi counterfeit money to have signed a contract with a British arms manufacturer who’s got wind of being paid with counterfeit money and therefore wish to remove the Narrator. Is it they who planted the bomb in the Narrator’s car? In a second appearance at the end of the book, Ossie is commissioned by the Narrator to steal the transmitter used for retrieving the underwater container which holds the Weiss List.
  • Ivor Butcher – crook who sold British Intelligence the duff information about the ice converter (for £6,700!); also an underworld contact whose a middle-man passing messages from Smith to da Cunha.
  • Kevin Cassell – in charge of Intelligence records: reveals Henry Smith MP’s heavy involvement in arms companies, in backing the Nazis, Fascists, foreign dictators etc. Ends up in possession of the Weiss List.


Pop culture dates fantastically fast. These books have the quaintness of another era, 50 years ago. The narrator references a Jayne Mansfield calendar and the latest Miles Davis disc playing in the American’s yacht (‘Miles Davis began to pump the cabin full of sound,’ p.98), the Aldermaston marches and Tio Pepe sherry, Charlie Mingus, Elvis Presley, Omo soap powder. HK’s luxury yacht has a 17-inch TV set! But nothing dates it quite as dramatically as seeing the cars these guys were driving and regarded as the height of style.


Listing the initialisms is one way of viewing the text, of taking a specimen slice. For what it’s worth, to out-Deighton Deighton, I give them in the order they appear in the text, as clues to the direction the story takes, the foreign and glamorous right next to the mundane and banal.

  • WOOC (P) – the intelligence unit the narrator works for; initials never explained
  • VNV – Vós não vedes – ‘You do not see’, name of Portuguese revolutionary movement
  • FO – Foreign Office
  • HMG – Her Majesty’s Government
  • PST – Permanent Secretary to the Treasury
  • FST – Financial Secretary to the Treasury
  • QM – Quarter Master
  • PO – Petty Officer
  • CPO – Chief Petty Officer
  • HO – Home Office
  • WM – Weekly Memoranda sheets from the JIA (Joint Intelligence Agency) at the MoD (Ministry of Defence)
  • C-SICH – Combined Services Informati Clearing House
  • DNI – Director of Naval Intelligence
  • CIGS – Chief of Imperial General Staff
  • PUS – Permanent Under-Secretary
  • LEB – London Electricity Board
  • FSL – (Home Office) Forensic Science Laboratory
  • PSL – Papavar somniferum Linnaeus, the species of poppy which yields opium
  • SD – Sicherheitsdienst
  • SS – Schutzstaffel
  • ARP – Air Raid Precautions
  • BUF – British Union of Fascists
  • ITMA – It’s That Man Again (radio show)
  • PIDE – (Portuguese) Internal Police for the Defense of the State

Organisations and acronyms are another way of avoiding the issues, as anyone who’s worked in a big organisation knows.

Related links

Cover of the 1963 Penguin paperback edition of Horse Under Water

Cover of the 1963 Penguin paperback edition of Horse Under Water

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

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