The Golden Keel by Desmond Bagley (1963)

‘It’s like something from the Spanish Main,’ she said, ‘or a Hammond Innes thriller.’ (Ch 1, 6)

This is a ripping yarn, a gripping tale, a cracking story, the best of the four Bagleys I’ve read so far.

Like the author, the hero Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran makes his way across Africa after World War II and ends up in South Africa. Here he becomes a successful boat designer and builder and one day meets a drunk in a bar who assures him he fought with the Italian partisans and tells a long story about how he and a few others ambushed a convoy of Nazis which turned out to be carrying a fortune in Italian government gold, jewels, currency and papers. The partisans hid the lorries bearing the treasure in abandoned mine workings and blew up the entrance but have been pondering on and off for the last 15 years how to get their hands on it.

This turns out to be much more complicated than you’d think as you can’t just carry four tons of gold through airport security. Hal’s idea is to sail from SA to Italy in a yacht of his own design and manufacture, melt the gold down into the shape of a keel, and swap it for the lead keel they’ve sailed there with – then sail home with a golden keel!

Except things become much more complicated than they expect – as they fall foul of a criminal mastermind in the stopping-off point of Tangiers, then are forced to take into partnership survivors of the Italian partisans who know about the treasure, and then are subject to an all-out attack by Italian mobsters who have discovered the scheme. All this before they make the final nerve-racking voyage across the Med into the teeth of a ferocious storm and chased by an enemy gunship.

Bagley’s expert knowledge of boat building and sailing are well to the fore but highly relevant and dramatically convincing. Many of the characters are stereotypes – the smooth-talking gangster, the noble Italian patriarch, the weak alcoholic who fouls things up, the angry Afrikaaner who turns out to be a pillar of strength, not to mention the little girl who helped the partisans but 15 years later has blossomed into a raven-haired beauty – but they work here, in the context of a fast-moving thriller, the whole thing is well-handled and immensely enjoyable.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Keel

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Keel

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

Ice Station Zebra by Alistair MacLean (1963)

In the year Len Deighton published his second spy novel, Horse Under Water, and Ian Fleming his 11th, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, MacLean published his 10th thriller, Ice Station Zebra. Reading MacLean against Deighton brings out their relative merits and shortcomings.

Where Deighton is brief and clipped to the point of obscurity, MacLean is explicit and obvious to the point of repetitiveness and diffuseness. Where Deighton gives situations in a phrase, MacLean takes pages, chapters.

Heavily factual

The first fifty pages of Ice Station Zebra consist of the first person narrator, Dr Carpenter, being given a tour of the US nuclear submarine Dolphin, and meeting the impeccably dressed, disciplined and intelligent crew. He is immensely respectful of them and their unflappable captain, Swanson. Maybe he actually was shown round a US nuclear sub and is returning the favour. It is almost a Sunday supplement article more than a fiction, with page after page of boys’ own technical detail, like a Top Gear special.

Hansen said thoughtfully: ‘Fifteen feet of ice is a helluva lot of ice. And that ice will have a tamping effect and will direct 90 per cent of the explosive force down the way. You think we can blow a hole through fifteen feet of ice, captain?’
‘I’ve no idea,’ Swanson admitted.
‘Nobody ever tried to do this before?’ I asked.
‘No. Not in the U.S. Navy, anyway.’
‘Aren’t the underwater shock waves liable to damage the Dolphin?’ I asked.
‘If they do, the Electric Boat Company can expect a pretty strong letter of complaint. We shall explode the warhead electronically about 1,000 yards after it leaves the ship – it has to travel eight hundred yards anyway before a safety device unlocks and permits the warhead to be armed. We shall be bows-on to the detonation and with a hull designed to withstand the pressures this one is, the shock effects should be minimal.’ (Ch 4)

Not even dialogue as exposition, more dialogue as prolonged technical manual into which a slender sliver of ‘plot’ is occasionally inserted. Reading this book you learn a lot about all aspects of underwater navigation as well as a large amount of information about Arctic conditions, the behaviour of ice packs and so on. Thoroughly researched. All research on display.

Verbose

Where Deighton conveys a situation in the briefest possible number of words or sentences, Maclean piles on the agony to a level of obviousness and beyond.

For the most part, standing as we were on the bridge twenty feet above the level of the ice – the rest of the Dolphin might never have existed as far as the eye could tell – we were above this billowing ground-swell of ice particles; but occasionally the wind gusted strongly, the spicules lifted, drumed domonaically against the already ice-sheathed staroard side of the sail, drove against the few exposed inches of our skin with all the painfully stinging impact of a sand-blaster held at arm’s length; but unlike a sand-blaster, the pain-filled shock of those spear-tipped spicules was only momentary, each wasp-like sting carried with it its own ice-cold anaesthetic and al surface sensation was quickly lost. Then the wind would drop, the furious rattling on the sail would fade and in the momentary contrast of near-silence we could hear the stealthy rustling as of a million rats advancing as the ice-spicules brushed their blind way across the iron-hard surface of the polar cap. The bridge thermometer stood at -21° F. -53° of frost. If I were a promoter interested in developing a summer holiday resort, I thought, I wouldn’t pay very much attention to this place. (Ch 4)

Where Deighton has highly-worked smart similes, MacLean has a peculiar kind of laboured jokiness, as in that last sentence. Cringeworthy, but peripheral to the core purposes of the text: a) technical expertise b) physical extremity c) intense suspense.

Plots

On the plus side, where Deighton’s plots are often difficult to follow, MacLean’s are very obvious. Although there are twists and turns in the plots, and the narrator generally turns out to be different to what he seems in the first half of the text, and there are further revelations down the line, these revelations, when they come, are fully explained and worked through for the reader. Not so in Deighton where it is often difficult to figure out what the plot is even about!

So, in Ice Station Zebra, a British government weather station high up in the Arctic has suffered a catastrophic fire and is sending out pitiful mayday signals. The narrator, Dr Carpenter, arrives at the US naval base with authority from the highest level to be carried to the base to rescue the survivors. For the first hundred pages or so there is textbook level of detail about the working of a nuclear submarine, about sonar and ice-depth detectors and radio in high latitudes and so on which powerfully convey the difficulties of the mission. Eventually they surface through one of the rare available thin areas of ice, and three naval volunteers accompany Carpenter through a devastating ice storm to the burnt-out wreckage of the base, and the handful of burnt, frozen survivors huddled in the unheated cabin.

But of course, this is where the plot thickens, where we learn there is more to Ice Station Zebra than we have so far been told and that, in fact, the fire was no accident! Someone is up to no good. Who? Why? Bang. Crash.

‘Three men have been murdered on Zebra. Two shot, one knifed. Their bodies were burned to conceal traces of the crime. Four others died in the fire. The killer is aboard this ship.’
Rawlings said nothing. His eyes were wide, his face pale and shocked. (Ch 8)

And now like a classic tennis match, like a Grand Prix, we enjoy the sport, we relish watching a professional at work, as MacLean makes our hero pit his wits against the murderer or murderers, as there are (just as we expect) many more unexpected twists and turns in the plot. And MacLean, in his pomp, is knowing about it what he’s doing. In the midst of the horrors there is grim humour. Thus, after Carpenter has given the captain a long detailed explanation of what’s ‘really’ going on at Zebra, the captain says:

‘I and the crew of the Dolphin are at your complete disposal. You name it, Doctor, that’s all.’
‘This time you believe my story?’
‘This time I believe your story.’
I was pleased about that, I almost believed it myself. (Ch 7)

Extreme physical endurance

Whereas Deighton’s texts, with their puzzles and rebuses are allusive and aloof, frequently leaving the reader detached and uninvolved, MacLean’s always arrive quickly at a level of physical punishment for the protagonist and superhuman endurance in prolonged situations of extreme danger, which almost physically grip the reader. He makes you feel the tremendous cold, the pain of frostbite, the taste of blood in your mouth after you’ve been shot etc, which makes his texts thrilling and compelling.

Death must have been swift, swift for all of them. Theirs had not been the death of men trapped by a fire, it had been the death of men who had themselves been on fire. Caught, drenched, saturated by a gale-borne sea of burning oil, they must have spent the last few seconds of life as incandescently blazing human torches before dying in insane screaming agony. They must have died as terribly as men ever die. (Ch 5)

And once again he is back in the pitiless location of the deep North, setting of HMS Ulysses and Night Without End, an extreme and unforgiving environment which he paints so well, and so terrifyingly.

The wind, shrieking and wailing across the bridge and through raised antennae, showed at consistently over 60 mph on the bridge anemometer. The ice-storm was no longer the gusting, swirling fog of that morning but a driving wall of stiletto-tipped spears, near lethal in its ferocity, high speed ice-spicule lances that would have skewered their way through the thickest cardboard or shattered in a second a glass held in your hand. Over and above the ululating threnody of the wind we could hear an almost constant grinding, crashing and deep-throated booming as millions of tons of racked and tortured ice, under the influence of the gale and some mighty pressure centre, heaven knew how many hundreds of miles away, reared and twisted and tore and cracked, one moment forming another rafted ridge as a layer of ice, perhaps ten feet thick, screeched and roared and clambered onto the shoulders of another and then another, the next rending apart in indescribably violent cacophony to open up a new lead, black wind-torn water that started to skim over with ice almost as soon as it was formed. (Ch 4)

High tension

Will Carpenter and his companions make it through the blistering Arctic storm to the base? Once there they discover the radio no longer works, how the hell are they going to get the sub to rescue them? Someone sabotages a torpedo tube so it read shut but is in fact full of water, and so opening it causes a catastrophe in which sailors die and the entire ship plunges deeper into the ocean than ever vessel has ever done before; will they survive? And then the same saboteur and spy sets a small fire which then gets out of hand and threatens to kill the crew by smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.

The reader skips over the hammy comparisons and the repetitive and hyperbolic style because these situations really are intense and nerve-racking. MacLean himself was the first to acknowledge he wasn’t a great writer, but he was a wizard at conceiving high-tension, white knuckle scenes and scenarios which keep you thoroughly gripped to the last page. And then you want another one.

Movie

Most of MacLean’s novels were made into movies, mostly rather low-budget and unsuccessful. Ice Station Zebra, made in 1968, was properly funded and secured some A-list stars – Rock Hudson as the submarine captain, Patrick McGoohan (in his The Prisoner heyday) as the doctor-cum-agent Carpenter, and Ernest Borgnine as the sneaky Russian.

MacLean himself worked on the script and it is significantly more dramatic and rounded than the novel (in the same way the implications of the The Satan Bug are more fully worked-out in the movie than in the book). The addition of the Russian spy onto the submarine at the start, and therefore a sequence of ‘unexplained’ sabotages to the sub, make for much more dramatic tension.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Ice Station Zebra, price 5 shilling

Fontana paperback edition of Ice Station Zebra

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

Funeral In Berlin by Len Deighton (1964)

‘What I’d like is an interest-free loan of eight hundred quid to buy a new car’, I said.
Dawlish gently packed tobacco into the bowl of his pipe with a match. He put the pipe into his mouth before looking up at me.
‘Yes,’ he finally said.
‘Yes I want it or yes I can have it?’ I said.
‘Yes, everything they say about you is true,’ said Dawlish. ‘Go away and let me work.’ (Chapter 13)

Funeral In Berlin, the third novel of the Ipcress File tetralogy, strikes me as being more relaxed and funnier than its predecessors.

‘Do you ever imagine what it would be like to be on the moon?’ Sam said.
‘Nearly all the time,’ I said. (Ch 15)

The humour works better and the disconnected, angular style is, initially at least, less impenetrable than in The Ipcress File. Several times I even thought I knew what was going on.

‘I never joke, Chico. The truth is quite adequately hilarious.’ (Ch 13)

Street smart

Just slightly pre-Swinging Sixties, when people still talked about ‘beatniks’ and hang out in Soho coffee bars and the most raucous sounds seem to come from loud jazz. A world where the nameless narrator is keen to demonstrate his street smarts, his cool, his savvy.

Charlotte Street runs north from Oxford Street and there are few who will blame it. By mid-morning they are writing out the menus, straining yesterday’s fat, dusting the plastic flowers and the waiters are putting their moustaches on with eyebrow pencils. (Ch 13)

The colour and detail of ‘pads’ which are about to feature in colour supplements about Jean Shrimpton or Burt Bacharach.

I walked into the lounge. It was about thirty foot of ankle-high carpeting from silk wall to silk wall. The cocktail cabinet was in the corner. I opened it and was socked in the head by pink neon. (Ch 14)

And yet, as I’ve noted before, the cool of Deighton (b. 1929) is combined with what later generations, or even the Beatles generation (b.1940) would think of as still very high-brow intellectual pursuits: when he wines and dines the sexy American girl he’s picked up – or who’s picked him up – they agree to go to a concert at the South Bank of Charles Ives, Berg and Schoenberg. In fact the Schoenberg piece – Variations for Wind band – appears three times, in different places, like a leitmotiv.

Security Service savvy

Deighton does a very good job indeed of conveying how we imagine the Security Services to actually be ie a pettifogging bureaucratic cross between the Army and the Civil Service, snowed under with paperwork, fussing about pay and pensions and expenses, thrilling to little perks like luxury lunches at the club – except that the petty jealousies and rivalries which plague all bureaucracies in this context overlap with very real plots and conspiracies to frame each other (as in Ipcress) or to hamstring each other’s projects to double-cross or treble-cross the Russian or German or Israeli secret services.

Textual apparatus

The security savviness is reinforced by more of the elaborate apparatus surrounding the text that was deployed in Ipcress and Horse Under Water:

  • each short chapter has a date stamp (eg Berlin, Monday, October 7th)
  • plenty of footnotes explicating obscure Security Service or military practice, 18 in the first 60 pages alone
  • half a dozen appendices at the end of the text giving longer explanations of key aspects
  • as Ipcress File had horoscopes at the head of each chapter, so each of Funeral‘s 52 chapters has an epigraph which is a rule or tip about chess. I play chess pretty well so was mildly interested in some of them, but they added nothing to my enjoyment and, as far as I could see, nothing to the meaning of the story so, like the horoscopes, I learned to ignore them

The plot

The same unnamed, first-person narrator from The Ipcress File, same boss – Dawlish – as in Horse, same secretary and staff in the same dingy Charlotte Street office. He’s in and out of Cold War Berlin handling the defection of a Russian scientist, Semitsa, reputedly an expert on enzymes, the deal being arranged by their Berlin fixer and chancer, Johnnie Vulkan.

Slowly it appears this is a red herring and the plot is really about the legacy of the war, about the fate of a German murderer who was in a concentration camp during the Nazi era and who has survived into post-War Berlin, although wanted by both the Communists and the Israelis.

The progress of the plot and of the Narrator’s efforts are closely monitored by the Russian General Stok, who pops up throughout the book, initially hinting that he himself wants to defect and that Semitsa’s passage will be a dry run for him; later, coming clean that he just wants to keep an eye on everything. Stok is a broadly comic character, permanently making toasts with vodka and caviare, engaging in witty banter with the wryly understated Narrator. Though there are a couple of sinister moments when he is pulled over by police in East Germany, then in Czechoslovakia, and thinks he might be about to be arrested – only for Stok to emerge from the shadows with a big grin and a bottle of vodka!

In Ipcress the narrator says plots aren’t as easy to define or tie up as writers of spy fiction would have you expect. He has some 600 files open at any one time, each of which is highly complex and may not even be a definite ‘case’, may just be an accidental overlapping of circumstances, while real ‘cases’ ie interconnected purposeful events, are going undetected.

All three novels enact this sense of uncertainty. It’s difficult to know what’s going on because in the ‘real world’ which the spy inhabits, everyone is lying, everyone has multiple identities and concealed agendas, you’re not even certain what your ‘own’ side wants, let alone the other official agencies, let alone the numerous freelancers you continually meet and are continually making dubious offers.

Thus for most of the novel it’s difficult to know whether this is:

  • a true case of a Russian scientist defecting
  • something to do with the Grehlen Group, a branch of German Intelligence – creepy Teutonic types we meet a couple of times – do they have a cunning plan to hijack Semitsa, or something more concealed?
  • a dummy run for General Stok’s plan to defect. Turns out he doesn’t want to. Is he willing to help Semitsa’s defection? In the event – No.

The main love interest is the gorgeous Samantha Steele, who seduces the Narrator while posing as an American agent. In the final quarter she is revealed as an Israeli agent and for a while it seems the plot might be about the Israelis tracking down a concentration camp guard who was responsible for murders in the death camps, and is still alive, therefore deserves punishing…

Only towards the end does it become clearer, that Johnnie Vulkan has taken British money to facilitate the smuggling of the Russian scientist Semitsa, across the Berlin Wall hidden in a coffin – hence the title – but double crosses the Narrator and the British by selling Semitsa on to Sam and Israeli Intelligence. But when Vulkan and the Narrator open the coffin as delivered to them in a West Berlin garage, they find no scientist, just a load of propaganda pamphlets. It seems this is a joke the ubiquitous Colonel Stock has played on them; not only did he never intend to defect himself, he never intended to supply any Russian scientist – all along he simply wanted to poke and pry into British Intelligence methodology.

But, in any case, Vulkan doesn’t give a damn about Semitsa or the Israelis – all along Vulkan had insisted the papers for the ‘corpse’/coffin be made out in the name of one Brouma. For a while it seemed to be merely a coincidence that, upon deeper investigation, this Brouma had been a real person who had survived for a while in Treblinka concentration camp before being murdered on the long walk West escaping the advancing Russians. Or maybe had lived on – maybe his death/murder were really a story and Brouma was in fact Vulkan or one or other of his dodgy underworld contacts.

The Narrator probes this murky history on a vividly described trip to Prague where he meets two ageing Jews who survived the camps and knew the real Brouma. It is typical of the novel (and of ‘reality’?) that they give sharply differing accounts of his character and fate…

But it’s simpler than that. Brouma did exist and did die but his family had left him a fortune in Swiss bank accounts. Therefore the entire scientist-smuggling operation was, for Vulkan, purely a pretext to get his hands on a set of British government-authenticated identity papers in the name of Brouma. He would then use these to reclaim Brouma’s fortune. It is a straightforward criminal scam.

However, after the Narrator and Vulkan open the coffin and discover it contains no Russian scientist, they argue and fight. Through sheer (bad) luck the Narrator knocks Vulkan backwards onto a rack of drills and Vulkan dies a horrible agonising death from a punctured lung. The Narrator promptly packs him into the coffin in time for the Israeli agents to arrive and collect it at gunpoint. This team is led by his brief one-time lover Sam Steele, also known as Hannah Stahl, who explains to the Narrator that they need Semitsa because his innocent-sounding work on enzymes is in fact into nerve gases, and this information will be vital when the next Arab-Israeli War breaks out.

Boy, is she in for a surprise when she opens the coffin and finds no Russian scientist, just the embarrassing corpse of a Berlin playboy and chancer.

And then there’s the departmental politics back in dear old London, where the narrator can never be sure whether his boss is backing him up or framing him, or whether other departments like the War Office or Foreign Office or Home Office are helping whatever it is he’s trying to do, or are playing completely different games in which he is only a pawn.

As with the previous novels, the plot felt like it was over with the failure of the Semitsa defection, but there is one last act, where the homosexual official in the Home Office, Hallam, who had made out the documents in Brouma’s name which were destined for Vulkan, turns nasty. He takes the Narrator to a fireworks night display in a bombed-out vacant lot near Gloucester Road. Here, amid the bangs and crashes, and in an impenetrably thick London fog, Hallam tries to shoot the Narrator, confirming the Narrator’s hunch that he was in on Vulkan’s scam and is now after the Broum documents (worth quarter of a million pounds).

Only in the final wind-up conversation with his boss does it emerge that they both knew that Hallam was on the verge of being sacked for his ‘homosexual tendencies’. This is what drove him to throw in his lot with Vulkan and then to make a rather panicky attack on the Narrator – the latter avoids his shots while throwing fireworks at him until Hallam’s long flamboyant scarf catches fire then ignites the bottle of booze in his pocket – whooosh!


What gives the novel its peculiarly Deightonesque quality, is that the narrator – who holds all the cards ie has his suspicions and is calculating the angles on all the scenarios mentioned above – does not share this knowledge with the reader. In this novel, as in Ipcress, it is only at the very, very end that any kind of order or pattern emerges from the events described, and then only in laconic conversations with his secretary or boss – and even this ‘final roundup’ still leaves holes in the narrative and motivation.

Multiple points of view

In a technical development over the previous two novels, some of the chapters take the perspective of characters other than the main narrator. These chapters are told by an omniscient third-person narrator who allows us into these other characters’ thoughts. This is a small mercy and makes Funeral easier to enjoy, if not exactly to follow, than Ipcress, which is so dominated by the concealing, allusive style of the narrator. Deighton relaxes (slightly) and draws extended pen portraits of other key characters and these are enjoyable in their own right. (It is one of them – Hallam the homosexual – who gives us a brief description of the anonymous narrator: ‘An upstart from Burnley – a supercilious anti-public school technician who thought he was an administrator.’ (Ch 2))

Smart similes

In this slightly more forgiving book the similes also seem less incongruous, more of a piece with the humour. Similes, like metaphors, are after all, a kind of joke, a revelation of incongruous similarities.

‘Ha ha ha,’ said Stok, then he exhaled another great billow of cigar smoke like a 4.6.2 pulling out of King’s Cross. (Ch 6)

Damp leaves shone underfoot like a million newly struck pennies. (Ch 15)

Now the powdery skin [of his face], sun-lamped to a pale nicotine colour, was supported only by his cheek-bones, like a tent when the guy ropes are slackened. (Ch 16)

Though some of the comparisons, as in Ipcress, strain a little harder than others.

From underfoot the sweet smell of damp grass rose like perfume. Birds were still singing in the trees that stood across the major surgery of sunset like massed artery forceps. (15)

Inside the semi-precious light of the stained glass softly dusted the smooth, worn pews, and a complex of brass candlesticks glinted like a medieval oil refinery. (15)

These last two betoken the fundamentally anti-Romantic, unsentimental stance of his no-nonsense Narrator: he dumps his girlfriend/secretary of the first book, Jean, to have an affair with the leggy American agent, Sam Steele; then arranges for her flat to be burgled to establish who she really is, confirming his hunch that she is an agent. He mistakenly beats up an elderly messenger in the street in Berlin and has no regrets (Ch 19). He kills two more major – and rather sympathetic – characters (Johnnie Vulkan and Hallam) with no qualms. And this hard attitude extends all the way down to small descriptions and casual phrases.

In Horse Guards Avenue and right along the Thames Embankment, hollow tourist buses were parked and double-parked. The red-cloaked Horse Guards sat motionless clutching their sabres and thinking of metal polish and sex. In Trafalgar Square pigeons were enmeshed in the poisonous diesel gauze. (Ch 17)

I walked out along the moonlit sea front. The phosphorescent breakers crumbled into shimmering lacework and the moon was an overturned can of white paint that had spilled its contents across the sea. (Ch 24)

This tough but humorous tone is the distinctive feature of the novel’s worldview and of its prose. Tough but humorous also characterises Raymond Chandler’s innovative style in the detective genre, and it is probably the humour – along with the impenetrable plots – which are Deighton’s big contribution to the spy novel. A tone of underplayed humour which is perfectly captured by Michael Caine’s performance in the movie adaptations of these books.

‘I wish you would try to understand,’ said Stok. ‘I am really sincere about giving you my allegiance.’
‘Go on,’ I said. ‘I bet you say that to all the great powers.’ (Ch 5)

The anxiety of influence

By 1964 there was quite a boom of spy TV shows and movies:

  • The Avengers TV series started in January 1961
  • The Modesty Blaise cartoon strip started appearing in the Evening Standard in May 1963
  • The Man From UNCLE TV series started in September 1964
  • Bond movies – Dr No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964)

which is reflected in the text. When the Narrator is arrested in East Berlin and taken to a police station, he reflects: ‘I knew there must be a way out. None of those young fellows on late-night TV would find it any sort of dilemma.’ (p.34). The Narrator gets a bit riled when ordered to give Hallam some money to establish his identity:

Who the hell is he going to think I am if I don’t give him four half-crowns – James Bond?’ (p.57)

Then his employee, upper class twit Chico, comes in.

‘I’ve got a file from A.E.A.S.D.’
‘What?’ I said.
‘Atomic Energy Authority, Security Department,’ Chico said.
‘That’s better,’ I said. ‘You’ve been watching those spy films on TV again.’ (p.68)

Spy fictions went from a minority genre to becoming big business in books, films and TV in the early 1960s, so that by the late 1960s TV schedules were full of special agents and the cinemas bulged with Bond lookalikes. Why? Is it as simple as that the genre is desperately romantic? Handsome capable men defeat baddies, bed willing dollybirds, get to drive fast cars and play with guns. Fulfilling every adolescent boy’s fantasies?

Homosexuality

Hallam the Home Office official is gay – the narrator teasing him for his campness from the beginning – but then his chief significance becomes that his homosexuality has made him a ‘security risk’ and led to his early retirement – and it is this, the official attitude, which drives him into criminal behaviour. In the final pages, the hero and his boss discuss the stupidity of anti-gay laws which make it easier to turn closet gays into security risks. It was only in 1967 that homosexual acts in private between two men over the age of 21 were decriminalised.

Cars

Quite a lot of driving around. Only when you look up the cars mentioned in the text do you realise how antiquated they are, how distant that world is, how long ago it all was.

The movie

Michael Caine was signed up to reprise the role of Harry Palmer he first played in the film version of The Ipcress File. The movie was released in December 1966 and was directed by Guy Hamilton, who had directed Goldfinger in 1964 and went on to direct three other Bond films in the early 1970s.

‘Girls always make passes at spies who wear glasses.’

Related links

Cover of the 1964 Penguin paperback edition of Funeral In Berlin

Cover of the 1964 Penguin paperback edition of Funeral In Berlin

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.

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)

Downbeat

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.

Repartee

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)

Americanisms

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…

Confusing

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.

Cars

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.

Initialisms

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 Informatihttps://astrofella.wordpress.com/?s=chandleron 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.

The Ipcress File by Len Deighton (1962)

‘It’s a confusing story,’ I told him. ‘I’m in a very confusing business.’ (p.2)
‘You’re a cool young man,’ he said. (p.293)

This is Deighton’s début, his first and still most famous novel (partly because of the great success of the iconic movie version made just a few years later – in 1965 – starring Michael Caine in one of his earliest roles). The book made Deighton a household name overnight. Having never read it before, I was very surprised to find how arty, elliptical and detached it is; funny, stylish, poised tiptoe on the verge of ‘Swinging London’ and hugely enjoyable.

The Narrator

The story is told in the first person by an unnamed Narrator (the name Harry Palmer appears to have been invented for the film – the Narrator specifically says his name is not Harry in chapter 5). He is 5 foot 11 inches tall, dark-haired, round-faced with a jutting cleft chin. He has deep-sunk blue eyes with bags under them and wears horn-rimmed glasses. He’s from Burnley, where he attended grammar school. He is a male employee of British Security and old enough to have had experience of World War Two – there is an implication he was born in 1922 or 1923, thus turning 40 when the series begins.

The immediate and enduring impression is that our man is intelligent and cultivated, knowledgeable about food and clothes and music – he references Kierkegaard and Brecht and Xenophon, he likes the jazz of Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz but also recognises Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.

And he knows his food and drink. He describes the coffee made in various Soho coffee bars in loving detail, is precise about his sandwich fillings, notes exactly how their Lebanese contact prepares his kebabs:

The smell of Dgaj Muhshy (chicken stuffed with nutmeg, thyme, pine nuts, lamb and rice, and cooked with celery)… First sambousiks (small pastries containing curried meat served freshly baked)… (Ch 7)

And he is cocky, stroppy, facetious and sarcastic in a post-Angry Young Men way. His Burnley origin (in Funeral in Berlin he is described as ‘an upstart from Burnley’) contrasts with the various public school-educated intelligence officers he has to deal with. Humour is his weapon; insubordination is what the Army calls it. He is sardonic about the Army and its tangled bureaucracies, keen to avoid paperwork, grumpy about his back pay and delayed expenses. He rarely misses an opportunity to answer back, or to be smarter, dryer, wittier than his ‘superiors’.

Detached and elliptical

And distanced from the action, even when it involves his own beatings and imprisonment – an Asperger’s syndrome level of alienation from himself and events around him. Everything is described in a wry, elliptical style. For example, I only realised that he had slept with his attractive secretary, Jean, when he casually says, ‘While standing still, her smooth body would move – slowly and imperceptibly – under the thin summer uniform fabric, and I would think of the small circular gold ear-ring of hers that I had found in my bed-clothes on Wednesday morning’ (Ch 21). At least, I think that means he slept with her. Almost no other reference is made to it, certainly there is no description of the lead-up to the event or the event itself. That is what I mean by ‘elliptical’. There is a lot of up-front detail, but the ‘important’ facts are frequently deliberately buried.

This is his description of a band playing at a party.

Three army musicians moved coolly and mathematically within the modal range of ‘There’s a small Hotel’ and linking modulated inversions walked around the middle eight with creditable synchronisation. Here and there a laugh walked up the foothills of noise. (Ch 21)

This is how clever, stylish and self-conscious the narrative is throughout. One of the many gimmicks is his habit of recounting snippets of overheard conversation, fragments of speech. Touch of James Joyce.

I left the Horseguards Avenue entrance, and walked down Whitehall to Keightly at Scotland Yard. Inside the entrance an elderly policeman was speaking into a phone. ‘Room 284?’ he said. ‘Hello Room 284? I’m trying to locate the tea trolley.’… (Ch 15)

These ‘overheard fragments’ occur frequently and their inconsequentiality does… what? Reinforces that he’s a spy who notices everything? Are examples of dry humour? Or that his world is made up of fragments which have a hole at the centre, where the Narrator’s character should be.

In a similar spirit of decentring the narrative, he opens a newspaper and spends a page summarising all the main stories – or lists the offers in the junk mail which has come through his letterbox this morning:

Tuesday was a big echoing summer’s day. I could hear the neighbour’s black Airedale dog, and they could hear my FM. I sorted the letters from the mat; Times magazine subscription dept said I was missing the chance of a lifetime. My mother’s eldest sister wished I was in Geneva; so did I, except that my aunt was there. A War Office letter confirmed my discharge from the Army and told me that I was not subject to reserve training commitments, but was subject to the Official Secrets Act in respect of information and documents. The dairy said to order cream early for the holiday and had I tried Chokko, the new chocolate drink that everyone was raving about. (Ch 14)

Mordant commentary on our times? Satire? Plain laughs? There’s lots of this dead-eyed observation and it is deliberately deployed to almost completely conceal any sense of the Narrator’s feelings or emotions, and also to obscure numerous crucial moments in the plot.

(This wilful obscurity is the opposite of the breathless physical involvement created by Alistair MacLean’s intensely physical thrillers – the breathless The Golden Rendezvous and The Satan Bug were published this same year, 1962 – or the minute descriptions of Bond’s tribulations – 1962 saw publication of the ninth Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me.)

Plot

The plot is long and convoluted. The story opens with the Narrator (N) being transferred from his one-time boss, Colonel Ross’s part of military intelligence, to the newer, smarter so-called WOOC(P), run by younger man, Dalby. Whereas le Carré’s Circus is a rather vague organisation, populated by ageing men who meet in their various London clubs, Dalby’s small defined team have their offices in Charlotte Street. The Narrator spends a lot of time going to a small screening room to familiarise himself with the appearance of one Jay, a man with a long history of espionage, working for Polish government in exile, then returning to work for the Polish communists. He was with the exposed spies Burgess and MacLean when they made their flight abroad. He doesn’t really know why and we, like the Narrator, are in a fog of confusion. He makes the point he has some 600 files open on his desk, any of which require further action.

Dalby tells him Jay is involved in the abduction of top-ranking scientists, one (Raven) has just gone missing. The Narrator is ordered to find Jay and offer him £18,000 for Raven’s return. N meets Jay in a Soho bar, and then pursues him upstairs where he sees, through a window, the unconscious body of the scientist laid out on a roulette table. As he’s pondering his next move Raven is picked up and carried out by Jay’s bodyguard, nicknamed Housemartin. The Narrator breaks through the window to give chase but Housemartin gets away and the Narrator blunders out of one of the exits of the club to find the police closing in, for some reason; maybe they’d been tipped off, too.

Lebanon Dalby orders the Narrator to accompany him to the Lebanon where they ambush a car carrying Raven into the interior, a violent scene where they use a sticky bomb which burns and melts the baddies, who they shoot just to be sure. They then hole up in the safe house of a Lebanese drug smuggler who HMG now use as an agent, before flying him by helicopter to a nearby ship, then N and Dalby fly home.

The empty house Back in London, Housemartin is reported as having been arrested by enterprising police after he crashes a car. But by the time the Narrator arrives at the police station, Housemartin has been visited by other ‘officials’ and killed. (I never really understand why – simply to stop him talking? Surely he was tough enough to withstand a British interrogation.) Housemartin had been seen leaving a darkened house in a suburban street, so the Narrator orders a large-scale assault on the house and leads it, breaking in with a colleague, before the other police advance. But they find it completely, stripped and abandoned – empty except for a large glass tank which turns out to contain a tape machine and some old tape.

Soho Back to the office and the daily routine: managing the wise old lady who knows everything, Alice; wangling a pretty young secretary, Jean; dealing with the toffee-nosed twit Chico; listening to Carswell’s complex statisticical analyses of where the missing scientists worked, correlated with other aspects of their lives; worrying about various other ‘cases’.

Tokwe atoll When, out of the blue, Dalby, the Narrator and Jean are ordered to an atoll in the Pacific as guests of the Americans to watch the explosion of a new nuclear device. The setting is vividly described in its surrealness, thousands of American soldiers in a home from home on a barren rock. However, things turn odd: The Narrator receives warnings from old friends in the CIA that he is being set up. Jean, also, tells him that Dalby has told the Yanks the Narrator is a double agent. (It seems a long way to go to set him up.)

In a difficult-to-follow sequence Dalby invites the Narrator to drive with him to a part of the island where his old friend Barney is reported as having had an accident, but at a crucial place, a massive flare goes up blinding him, it is near a watch-tower to which a high-powered cable has been attached frying the American soldier inside, and the Narrator discovers in his car high powered insulation gloves and cutter. He is being framed for murdering the guard, and somehow sending high-speed TV images of the test site to a Soviet submarine which had surfaced and fired the flare. I think that’s what happens, it is written very obscurely and doesn’t quite make sense.

American interrogation He is thrown in a cell and beaten up the Americans, before being interrogated at length for weeks, given physical tests, forced to tell his life story etc. Nothing he says can clear him: all the evidence implicates him. Then he is told he is being exchanged with American spies the Hungarians are holding (?). He is injected with anaesthetic and has woozy memories of being loaded aboard an ambulance and a plane and an ambulance, again, and then –

Hungarian prison He awakes in a Hungarian prison cell. For the next 35 days or so he is fed little or nothing, and routinely beaten and roughed up, with very little purpose, just to reduce him to a state of complete incapacity. He is visited by a junior official from the British embassy but doesn’t really believe in him. Finally, he manages to escape by knocking the kind old man who sometimes visits him unconscious, making his way to an empty office, tripping the fuses for the entire building, thus opening the window without setting off the alarms, making it across the garden and over the wall.

On the run He blunders into the allotment of a grumpy old geezer who tells him he is in Wood Green, north London. The whole thing has been a deception. He has no idea who put him there or why. He makes a coded call to the dad of a colleague from the War who gives him a place to stay in London and some old clothes, while he collects money, passports, a gun, from safe locations he had set up earlier. He returns from one outing to find the dad murdered and his house turned upside down, and goes on the run again, switching taxis and buses to shake any tail. Then hires a private detective and a car and drives down to Dalby’s house. He has no idea what is going on but Dalby is his immediate superior and must be able to help.

Dalby Dalby welcomes him into his Surrey home without batting an eyelid. He tells him he had been kidnapped by Jay who was demanding a ransom of £20,000. Glad you’ve escaped, old chap, now we’ve work to do back in Charlotte Street. Reassured, the Narrator returns to his car and is about to return to London when the private detective who’s accompanied him says, what about the other men surrounding the house? What? The Narrator goes back and through the window sees Dalby talking to Murray, one of his colleagues – and to Jay!! Is Dalby a double agent after all? As he’s pondering all this, he feels a gun in his back – it is his colleague Murray, the one who was in Dalby’s living room a few moments earlier – happening to be in the kitchen he heard Dalby’s alarms being set off and came out to warn the Narrator – and to tell him that he (Murray) is himself an under-cover intelligence agent pretending to be on Dalby’s side. He has just started doing this when, unfortunately, the private detective the Narrator brought with him from London clobbers him, knocking him out.

Jay Really confused, the Narrator and detective hide until Jay gets into his car, then tail him back to London and the Cromwell Road, turning off near the Brompton Oratory. They walk up to the door Jay entered, pondering their next move, when two of his goons corner them from the rear – they have themselves been tailed and are now forced up to Jay’s hyper-modern flat at gunpoint. There is a surreal scene with Jay, the master-crook, who chats to the Narrator while he spits and prepares a lobster – with typical Deighton élan the Narrator minutely observes the culinary details. Jay explains the brainwashing technique he’s been perfecting. He says some 300 people have passed through the technique to date. Someone called Henry phones him and tips him off that the police are closing in. Jay remains calm and unflustered and tells his goons not to shoot.

Resolution The Narrator’s first boss, Ross, reveals all – well, nearly all, and the Narrator fills in the remaining gaps in a long exposition at the end. Jay had been kidnapping scientists and other top chaps and selling them on to whoever bid for them, with the help of traitor Dalby. But in the past year he’d been developing a new line in brainwashing – wearing down people using a number of different techniques – they were subjecting the Narrator to it in the fake Hungarian prison; another approach was to submerge victims in a big tank of water with earphones clamped to their head to aid disorientation and ‘softening up’: it was this tank and bits of the tape which were found in the abandoned house which the Narrator arranged to be raided. Some 300 eminent persons had passed through the technique and rounding up all Jay’s accomplices, and identifying the victims of the scheme, takes some time.

The odd scene in the nightclub where the Narrator sees Raven’s body on a roulette table is explained as an early attempt to frame the Narrator – they were going to plant a hypodermic needle on him, and the police were closing in on the club on Dalby’s orders with a view to finding the Narrator red-handed. But he was impatient, followed Housemartin and broke out of the building just before the police broke in.

Ross takes the Narrator to meet an Eminent Person who congratulates N on doing such a splendid job – at the same time, by implication, demonstrating that Ross can be trusted – but the Narrator ruins the moment by demanding to know who the ‘Henry’ is who rang Jay to tip him off. It must have been someone very high up indeed. The atmosphere turns frosty. The Eminent Person says they are trying to track him down. The Narrator wonders… is there a cover-up?

And Jay, is he thrown into prison for his crimes? No, he is paid £160,000 to co-operate with British Intelligence.

The American brigadier who had supervised the Narrator’s interrogation on the atoll appears and confirms that, with a lot of help from  Jean, the Americans eventually figured out how Dalby framed him. He’s in the clear.

In a sly last two pages, the Narrator gives false passports and money to the old man who had acted as his gaoler in the fake gaol, and tickets to Prague, and tells him that he is in fact working from Russian intelligence. ‘This, too, was a spy’s insurance policy.’ (p.326)

Humour

The book is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and almost always maintains a dry ironic humour – a tone established on the first page.

      They came through on the hot line at about half past two in the afternoon. The Minister didn’t quite understand a couple of points in the summary. Perhaps I could see the Minister.
Perhaps. (p.1)

‘Perhaps’ is a one-word paragraph. It a) satirises the absurdly periphrastic circumlocutions of the Civil Service b) captures at a stroke the narrator’s amused and satirical attitude. It is playing with language and with the layout and formatting of texts. This playfulness continues throughout the novel.

A lot of the humour is in the dry dialogue, mostly too long to quote properly. I like this exchange at the big party the Americans throw on the atoll. Dalby is talking about the American brigadier they’ve just met.

‘Wanted to borrow you for a year,’ Dalby said. We both continued to look at the dance floor.
‘Did he get me?’
‘Not unless you particularly want to go. I said you’d prefer to stay with Charlotte.’
‘Let me know if I change my mind,’ I said, and Dalby gave me the slanted focus. (p.217)

A writer like le Carré gives you very long passages of dialogue in which you can observe the characters subtly and astutely positioning themselves. Deighton feels the opposite. From whole conversations just a sentence is selected as the sassiest, most oblique or telling. When Ross raids Jay’s house and brings the Narrator’s wayward flight to an end, Deighton selects only two sentences of dialogue. (Bear in mind that the Narrator has just spent half an hour chatting to Jay while the latter very elaborately prepared lobster in champagne – all the time wondering whether he was going, eventually, to be bumped off. Finally Ross and his men arrive.)

Ross made a joke then. He said, ‘Do you come here often?’
‘I do,’ I said. ‘I know the chef.’ (p.299)

He is smart and sardonic about the people he works with. But he has a flashy way of describing nature, too, of backgrounds and settings and environment.

The rain dabbed spasmodically at the glass pane, and another plane ground its way across the sky. (p.113)

‘It’s OK,’ I told him, ‘and thanks.’ Outside the clouds had put dark glasses on the moon. (p.221)

Uneven style

The prose is, then, a funny mix of tones and voices, the most consistent of which is a very dry wry sense of humour and a tremendous understatement. But there are unexpected patches of poetic prose, and sections of technical specification. No wonder contemporary reviews called the novel ‘zany’ or referred to Deighton as an ‘oddball’.

Though some of the text is zippy and smart, others parts have an oddly formal voice: given a choice he will always say ‘upon’, ‘within’, whilst’ instead of on, in, while. He cordially dislikes the chinless public schoolboys he works with but sometimes the prose adopts their patrician tone.

As Adem finished speaking a radio somewhere within the house pierced the grey velvet twilight with a needle of sound. The polished opening notes of the second movement of the Jupiter. It seemed that every living thing across the vast desert space heard the disturbing chilling sound. For those few minutes of time as the wire edge modulated to a minor key and as the rhythm and syncopation caught, slipped and re-engaged like a trio on a trapeze, there was only me and Adem and Mozart alive in that cruel, dead, lonely place. (Ch 7)

From inside the house the crick-crack of freshly ignited fruit-tree wood proclaimed the approach of dinner-time.

The window swung open and Murray dived head first through. I saw the soles of his hand-made shoes (eighteen guineas) with a small sticky rectangular price tab still affixed under the instep. (Ch 12)

No-one answered, and here and there an unkind grin clearly stated the social alienation that his success had wrought. (Ch 20)

There was a smell of freshly ground coffee, a spitting of grilling bacon, and a big coal fire that had reached that state of perfection that the manufacturers of plastic fronts for electric ones seek to emulate. (Ch 27)

‘Seek to emulate.’ He’s a late-1950s Soho coffee bar author using a late-Victorian idiom to… to do what precisely? To mock the modern world? To mock himself? On every page it feels like the text is very knowing about being ‘a spy novel’, in fact about being a fiction at all. The ostentatious correctness of passages like these are part of the performance.

Grumpy

Although the Narrator enjoys undermining the public school world of clubs, school ties and official culture, yet he is not in full-throated rebellion against it. In fact, as noted above, in some places he seeks to outdo it in punctiliousness, as he frequently outdoes his superiors – Ross and Dalby – in general, technical and cultural knowledge.

In fact, he has an ambivalent attitude towards ‘pop’ culture – liking it as rebellion, but despising so much of it as kitsch rubbish. By the time I read them in the 1970s the once Angry Young Men of the 1950s had become grumpy old men, complaining how standards had slipped, everyone was scruffy, no-one had any manners. In among the self-consciously cool attitude, there are signs of incipient Kingsley Amis grumpiness here:

Behind Jay’s voice I could hear the radio playing very quietly. An English jazz singer was even now Gee Whizzing, Waa Waa and Boop boop booping in an unparalleled plethora of idiocy. (Ch 30)

Steady on, grandad. He’s in the Soho coffee house and Notting Hill bedsit-land world enough to write about it, and vividly, but he hasn’t embraced it to the exclusion of all else, as the pop artists and pop culture would just a few years later; in his mind he is rising above it. He writes scornfully of Chico, the upper-class twit in his office who parades an endless list of relatives in high places with spiffing country estates, or his boss the public-school-educated Dalby with his bourgeois tastes; but is himself scornful of plebeian culture, of pop music and strip clubs and the daily papers. He is a grammar school boy, caught between public school toffs and the roughs from the secondary modern. But in the world he moves in, it’s mainly toffs that he meets and so are the most prominent subjects of his satire.

The iced Israeli melon was sweet, tender and cold, like the blonde waitress. Corrugated iron manufacturers and chinless advertising men shared the joys of our expense-account society with zombie-like debs with Eton-tied uncles. (Ch 8)

(The Establishment, the nightclub hosting jazz and satirical comedy acts, had opened in Greek Street, Soho, three months before the novel was published. Satire – sending up the MacMillan government and chaps in bowlers and umbrellas – but satire which itself wears a tie and is fussy about the cut of its suit.)

Similes

The smart savviness of tone is exemplified in numerous exuberant, sometimes rather far-fetched, similes and metaphors:

His profusion of long lank yellow hair hung heavily across his head like a Shrove Tuesday mishap (Ch 1)

The Colosseum – Rome’s rotten tooth – sank behind us, white, ghostly and sensational. (Ch 5)

He was about in his mid-sixties; gentle and humorous with a face like an apple that’s been stored through the winter. (Ch 7)

Like a clumsy Billy Bunter the machine heaved itself hand over hand into the sky. A touch of rudder had the tail rotor slip it sideways, and, silhouetted against the five-o’clock-shadowed chin of twilight, they hedge-hopped in 100 mph gallops across the sea. (Ch 7)

Outside, the driver of a wet fish van was arguing violently with a sad traffic warden. The traffic had welded itself into a river of metal… (Ch 16)

She came into Led’s old broken doorway and into my life and like the Royal Scot, but without all the steam and noise… Her face was taut like a cast of an Aztec god. (Ch 16)

Tokwe Atoll was a handful of breakfast crumbs on a blue coverlet. (Ch 18)

The enormous juke-box glowed like a monkey’s bottom, and the opening bars of a cha cha cha rent the smoke. (Ch 18)

Wriggling away from the legs of the tower, black smooth cables and corrugated pipelines rested along each other like a Chinese apothecary’s box of snakes. (Ch 19)

The sun was a two-dimensional magenta disc, and the sunset lay in horizontal stripes like finger-nails and torn gold lacerations across the ashen face of the evening. (Ch 20)

Outside the clouds had put dark glasses on the moon. (Ch 21)

It is confident and brash. Look at me, watch me write!

Jean stopped and turned back to me; across her gold face a strand of black hair hung like a crack in a Sung vase. (Ch 20)

Paratextuality

Complementing the elliptical and often puzzling approach is the paraphernalia surrounding the text. The novel is presented as an official report to give us readers the sense of being given privileged access to this top secret world – and yet with strange contradictions which confused me:

  • the fly leaf says The Ipcress File / Secret File No. 1 as if we are about to read a sequence of secret files and this is the first – but there is no other file (readers had to await the next book in the series, Horse Under Water, to realise that that was File No.2)
  • the text purports to be an official intelligence agency report and includes a graphic of the header of an official War Office document
  • there are numerous footnotes explaining espionage-related references, initialisms etc throughout the text, and
  • the novel proper is followed by 20 pages of appendices, very thoroughly following up on references in the text, with detailed explanations of events in history, the neutron bomb, Indian hemp, secret operations, an excerpt from a manual on handling guns etc etc

So the novel is presented masquerading as an official report – BUT

  • Nothing could be less report-like than its self-consciously writerly style. I thought there was a tremendous clash between the would-be bureaucratic format in which it’s laid out and the jokey, angled style it is actually written in.
  • This report scenario – The Ipcress File / Secret File No. 1 – is contradicted on the very next page by the brief prologue which describes the Narrator going for a meeting with a Minister who says ‘Just tell me the whole story in your own words, old chap.’

So the text simultaneously claims to be a spoken verbatim account and an official report with appendices, notes etc. Which is it?

Horoscopes

Furthermore, how do we square its presentation as official report with the fact that almost all of the 32 chapters have, as epigraph, the horoscope for that week (they’re all for Aquarius so presumably that’s the star sign of the Narrator):

Aquarius Jan 20-Feb 19: If you are a stick-in-the-mud you’ll get nowhere. Widen your social horizons. Go somewhere gay and relaxing.

(This particular one jokily/ironically prefaces the short chapter where the Narrator has escaped from prison and makes a rendezvous with an old friend who gets him clean clothes and puts him up at his place.)

I suppose the horoscope thing is meant to be a joke, a witty commentary on the text, a dig at the trashiness of contemporary culture (joining the slighting references to beatniks, loud music, junk mail etc) or just stylish and witty – though I confess I was struggling enough just to figure out what was going on in the main story and so quite quickly stopped reading them.

Reveal

In the end, the puzzling pieces of jigsaw are more or less pulled together to explain what happened and it is part of the book’s cool appeal that not all the loose ends are tied up or even explained. In terms of plot I was astounded that the trigger for the dénouement seemed so simple: Dalby is exposed as a double agent because he has invited the kidnapper-baddy to his house for cocktails, and the Narrator sneaks up and sees them through the window. After all the divagations and confusions, the plot isn’t solved by elaborate cerebration or cunning calculation, but by sneaking up and looking through a window: Famous Five!

But the plot is only one element in this remarkably fresh, original, elliptical, funny and hugely enjoyable spy novel.

The movie

is a 1960s icon starring a young and gorgeous Michale Caine as the hero (here named Harry Palmer) with a classic score by John Barry and supporting appearances by umpteen London buses. Wisely, the screenwriters drop the atom bomb atoll sequence and other distractions to make the plot more straightforwardly about the brainwashing technology and the slow revealing of Dalby the double agent.

Related links

Papaerback cover of The Ipcress File

Paperback cover of The Ipcress File

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.

The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean (1962)

In the pale wash of light from the lamp I still held in one hand, we all stared at each other, one half of our senses and minds outgoing and screwed up to the highest pitch of intensity and perception to detect the first signs of death in another, the other half turned inwards to detect the first signs in themselves.

‘Ian Stuart’

Although MacLean was phenomenally successful in terms of book sales he was irked by the critics who lined up to denigrate his prose style, the clunkier bits of plot, the melodrama etc. One criticism was that readers were just buying books with his bestselling name on them so, as an experiment, MacLean wrote two novels under the pen name Ian Stuart (his brother was called Ian), namely The Dark Crusader and this one. They didn’t sell as well as his named ones. Not sure if it was a conclusive experiment either way… In fact, this one is a bit different from the others: it takes a lot longer for the by-your-throat, panic-stricken tension to kick in, but without documentary evidence (letter, biography) it’s impossible to say whether that was a deliberate part of the test or just the way this story was always going to go…

Maimed hero

Pierre Cavell is the maimed hero, left leg crushed by a tank at Caen, exploding gas canister scarring his face, permanently damaging his left eye. As such attracted the beautiful Mary who looks after waifs and strays and she marries him. After the War has various jobs in security, getting kicked out of all of them for insubordination. This all establishes his credentials as a tough, non-nonsense he-man. The novel opens with him in the pokey office of his unsuccessful private detective agency, been open three weeks and had precisely no clients. Hard not to hear Raymond Chandler and the eternally down-on-his-luck Philip Marlowe in this scene. But his visitors that morning quickly establish the plot: the top secret germ warfare research institute at Mordon in Wiltshire has been broken into, scientists murdered, something stolen. Just so happens Cavell was head of security there till a few weeks before so is Number One Suspect until he clears himself, whereupon he becomes Number One Help to his visitors from Special Branch.

Married

Unlike the other novels, the hero doesn’t fall in love with the only nubile women in the cast in the course of the book; he’s already married. His references to his wife and the scenes where she helps him question various employees of the laboratory, in their homes with their doting family members around them, are calm and domestic and wildly at odds with the actual plot, which is that a madman has stolen a doomsday virus, an infectious virus so powerful it could wipe out all life on earth.

Cosy

This contrast, the discrepancy between the extremity of the science fiction plot and the cups of tea with Dr Hartnell’s nice old mother, reminds me of John Wyndham’s sci-fi novels in which decent English middle class people have to cope with the end of the world. Brian Aldiss famously described them as Wyndham’s ‘cosy catastrophes’ and that term could be applied to the first half of this novel. Reinforced when we learn his wife, the fragrant Mary, is also the only daughter of his Boss, Head of Intelligence, The General.

The volta

About a third of the way into the book, there is the twist or revelation scene common to most MacLean novels, where Cavell goes to meet the head of MI6 and it is revealed that he wasn’t booted out of Mordon for insubordination but all that was part of an elaborate plan or ruse, along with planting other agents at the Institute, because the security forces had been tipped off that something fishy was going on there for a while. From this point onwards there are a succession of exposes revealing that it is not the Communist conspiracy all the characters had thought it; not the threats of an end-of-the-world madman, and so on.

A robbery, not a plight

Unusually for MacLean, you are not plunged into a panic-stricken situation early on. The first half of the novel is essentially about a burglary – someone got into Mordon, killed two staff and stole the virus – and the sedateness with which Cavell investigates this along with Special Branch and then reports it to his Boss in London is more like an Agatha Christie novel than an echt MacLean: not at all like Eight Bells opening with a gun pointing at the hero, or Night which opens in the howling Arctic storm, or Fear which almost immediately becomes a high-speed car chase. In fact, the Christie-style comparison holds for a surprisingly long time because the first three-quarters of the book consist of Cavell trying to figure out which of the eight or so possible suspects is his man. There’s a brief interlude where he’s kidnapped and imprisoned in the cellar of an abandoned house but, as soon as he’s released and makes it back to the police, the text goes back to being an elimination game, with Christie-style red herrings eg was the scientist with massive debts being blackmailed into stealing the viruses? or is the one with the suspiciously luxurious house and lifestyle being paid by the Communists to steal secrets? etc. I think this is the flaw in the book which makes it significantly less successful than all the others I’ve read: the theme, the impact of germ warfare, and the existence of a virus which could kill all life on earth, is not matched by the treatment, ie several bumbling policeman interviewing people in their nice Wiltshire village, and a standard MacLean solo hero getting beaten unconscious, broken ribs, mangled hands, smashed-up face – who works it all out and saves the day in an, admittedly gripping, twenty-page finale in a blacked-out, evacuated central London. It just isn’t believable that, with the entire resources of NATO at their disposal, the British and other governments let everything depend on one beaten-up maverick. And at the end there is a final twist and revelation which, instead of upping the ante, lowers the tone, and makes the entire plot seem rather banal. For once, the movie version is better – it can’t convey the swift, pressurised calculations and gambles of the hero, the core of all these MacLean texts – but it does capture the real terror, the nerve-tingling horror of the notion of germ warfare and it does – significantly- drop the novel’s final, ill-advised plot twist.


Repetition

Several articles inform me that MacLean’s later novels became repetitive in character name, plot, even down to individual sentences. I rather like the idea that he gave up thinking up new names for the love interest and just called them all Mary. I think that would contribute positively to the sense of the formulaicness of the texts; after all everyone likes Homer repeating his epic epithets. Anyway, I spotted it happening here:

I fell heavily through the doorway on to the concrete passageway outside. If there was anyone waiting out there with the hopeful intention of clobbering me, he’d never have a better chance. No one clobbered me because there was no one waiting there to clobber me. (The Satan Bug Chapter 8)

I prised open the hatch cover. Nobody shot me. Nobody shot me because there was nobody there to shoot me. (The Dark Crusader Chapter 2)

These are the two novels he published under the Ian Stuart pseudonym and both in 1962. Good bet he was writing them simultaneously, and explains why phrases from one drifted into the other.

The beaten and battered hero

This is in the first half of the book. Cavell gets more of a beating later, as all MacLean heroes do, part of the formula and part of the masochistic pleasure men take in their fantasies.

It took ten minutes to saw through the PVC binding my wrists. I could have done it in far less time but as, with my hands tied behind my back, I couldn’t see what I was doing, I had to go easy: I could have sawn through an artery or a tendon just as easily as through a wire and I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. My hands were as lifeless as that. They looked pretty lifeless too, when I’d severed the last PVC strand and brought them round to the front for examination, swollen to a size half as much again as normal with smooth, bluish-purple distended skin and the blood swelling slowly from the torn skin on the inside of both wrists and most of my fingers. I hoped that the dark flaking rust on the blade of the hacksaw wasn’t going to give me blood poisoning…

I pulled up my shirt to have a look at the right-hand side of my chest and just as quickly and roughly stuffed the shirt back under the waistband of my trousers. A prolonged inspection would only have made me feel twice as ill as I was already: in the few clear patches in the thick crust of blood that covered almost all of the side of my body the grotesquely swelling bruises were already turning all the kaleidoscopic colours of the rainbow…

It took me over an hour to cover the two miles to Netley… and finally I reached the main road where I sank down, half-kneeling, half-lying in a ditch behind the screen of some bushes. I felt like a water-logged doll coming apart at the seams. I was so exhausted that even my chest didn’t seem to be hurting any more. I was bone-chilled as a mortuary slab and shaking like a marionette in the hands of a frenzied puppeteer, I was growing old. (Ch 8)

The death penalty

Many things date these books, which are over 50 years old now. The entire Cold War/nuclear standoff background is now dead and gone, ancient history to my kids. Another aspect which is mentioned in many of them is judicial execution by hanging, reminding me that the death penalty for murder was suspended in 1965 and abolished in 1969. But in MacLean’s early novels it is still a very real risk that all the baddies take and a threat which can be used against them.

If this madman wipes out part of the country the nation will demand revenge. They’ll demand a scapegoat and public pressure will be so terrific that they’ll get their scapegoat. Surely you’re not so stupid as not to see that? Surely you’re not so stupid that you can’t visualise your wife Jane with the hangman’s knot under her chin as the executioner opens the trap-door. The fall, the jolt, the snapping of the vertebrae, the momentary reflex kicking of the feet – can you see your wife, Hartnell? Can you see what you are going to do to her? She is young to die. And death by hanging is a terrible death – and it’s still the prescribed penalty for a guilty accessory to murder for gain. (Ch 9)

Old cars

Because the psychological impact of the text – especially in the gripping final thirty-page chase and fight in an empty London railway station –  is so intense, it feels modern. But it isn’t. Something that’s really brought home when you look at the cars mentioned in the book:

And in the Wiltshire town of Alfringham, home of the fictional germ warfare research institute, there is just one set of traffic lights and it is hand operated by a white-caped traffic policeman. In fact this story belongs – technologically, culturally, psychologically – to another world.

Related links

Fontana paperback cover of The Satan Bug

Fontana paperback cover of The Satan Bug

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

The Golden Rendezvous by Alistair MacLean (1962)

Another slick, effective and completely compelling thriller. Starts a bit slowly and has an Agatha Christie tinge to it, as it concerns a collection of very rich passengers on an exclusive cruise around the Caribbean, and takes a while to name and characterise each of them. As soon as possible, though, bodies start turning up and we know something bad is afoot, especially since we’ve been none-too-subtly told that an international mastermind has stolen a brand-new nuclear fission bomb from an American research facility. Could the two incidents by any chance be connected?

MacLean is such a master: despite the clunky prose and hammy emotions, the core of these texts is the swift pacing of plots which deliver a steady stream of unexpected twists and turns, shocks and surprises. Doesn’t matter that you can see some a mile off (you mean the first person hero First Officer John Carter will end up falling in love with the young woman he initially thinks a spoilt rich brat?) or that we know the protagonist will survive (since he is obviously alive to tell the story we are reading). Doesn’t change the fact that for long stretches my heart was racing and at some moments I almost stopped breathing from the physical sense of panic and tension the text generates.

All the hallmarks are here:

  • blandly named hero: First Officer John Carter
  • woman he initially dislikes but ends up falling for – Susan Beresford
  • baddies, evil, wicked, heartless, inhuman baddies
  • international espionage – as so often to do with Cold War weapons: an intercontinental missile in The Dark Crusader, a top secret missile guidance mechanism in Night Without End, a new type of nuclear fission bomb here
  • a very concentrated sequence of events told against a detailed timeline, with harsh and sometimes grotesque murders
  • once the plot’s in train, 150 pages of high-tension first-person non-stop thinking, worrying, planning, calculating, scheming

The psychological element

His fans acknowledge MacLean as a master of unexpected twists and reversals, as baddies turn out to be goodies or vice versa, people with incredible disguises turn out to be completely different from expected, or the entire plot turns out to be about something we hadn’t anticipated. But there is a higher level of the same thing, not unexpected events, but unexpected thoughts.

Part of the excitement is following the hero’s breathless, under-pressure thoughts as he tries to devise strategies and tactics against the baddies, and it is a key part of the pleasure to follow his plans only to see them abruptly overthrown or someone else pointing out the flaws in them, or events overcoming them and new plans having to be devised. As my son pointed out to me the other day, predators are the most intelligent of all animals because they are continually calculating the odds vis-avis their prey. Man the predator is no different, continually assessing and planning how to reach his objectives.

This mental aspect of the books, the continual drawing up and revising of plans, is as much a part of the enjoyment as the actual plot, the actual events which occur. In a scene towards the end the hero is searching for a map of the gold during the ten minutes he thinks it will take the baddies to supervise the professor arming the bomb, code name the Twister. Ten minutes and counting to find the vital diagram!

Where, where, would he keep it? Think, Carter, for heaven’s sake think. Maybe the professor was getting on with the arming of the Twister faster than anyone had thought possible. How did anyone know, as the radio broadcast had said, that it took all of ten minutes to arm it? If the Twister was such a secret – and until it had been stolen it had been such a top priority hush-hush secret that no member of the public had known of its existence – how did anyone know it took ten minutes to arm it? How could anyone know? Maybe all it required was a twist here, a turn there. Maybe – maybe he was finished already. Maybe —

I put these thoughts to one side, drove them out of my mind, crushed them ruthlessly. That way lay panic and defeat. I stood stock-still and forced myself to think, calmly, dispassionately. I had been looking in all the obvious places. But should I have been looking in the obvious places? After all, I’d gone through this cabin once before, looking for a radio, I’d gone through it pretty thoroughly, and I hadn’t seen any signs. He would have it hidden, of course he would have it hidden. He wouldn’t have taken a chance on anyone finding it, such as the steward whose daily duty it was to clean out his cabin, before his men had taken over the ship. No stewards on duty now, of course, but then he probably hadn’t bothered to shift it since the take-over. Where would he have hidden it where a steward wouldn’t stumble across it? (Ch 10)

A good deal of the text is like this, a first person narrator forcing himself to think calmly in a desperate, panic-stricken situation, and you are right inside his mind and you can smell the fear and the stress and the adrenaline. What’s often described as the paciness of the novels, their unputdownableness, is directly connected to the high-octane, stream-of-consciousness immediacy of the text. You can’t put the book down because you daren’t.

Alas it’s this, the psychological or SoC part of the texts, that tends to be jettisoned in all the film versions of MacLean’s novels, where the scriptwriters are forced – by time pressure and by the limitations of film as a medium – to go for the explosions and shoot-outs. It is jettisoning the mental aspects of the plots, precisely the part which makes them so gripping, which results in so many of the film adaptations of MacLean’s thrillers ending up as lame collections of clichéd situations. It isn’t the situations, the shoot-outs and sneaking-up-on-the-sentry-in-the-dark, which grip – it is the narrator’s panic-stricken, under-pressure response to the situations. It is the thoughts, it is the words.

Decency

Something I haven’t emphasised enough is these books’ essential decency. The goody is always all good. Maybe the fallibility bits, the bits where he retrospectively realises his blunders, are there to add a little shade, to stop him being Perfect. But morally speaking, the heroes of these books are perfect, they are polite and considerate under normal circumstances, and go out of their way not to hurt people when the bullets start flying, they swear but the swearwords are never transcribed, they fall in love with the heroine but there is no hanky-panky at all and even when the women are referred to as having stunning figures, there’s no crudity or vulgarity.

And they win. Always.

Referring to himself in the third person

‘But certainly, Señor Carreras.’ Carter, that rough-hewn Anglo-Saxon diamond, not to be outdone in Latin courtesy. (Ch 1)

And the captain sent for me, I thought. Send for old trusty Carter when there’s dirty work on hand. (Ch 2)

I waited till the cabin stopped swaying around and the red-hot wires in my neck had cooled off to a tolerable temperature, then climbed stiffly out of my bunk. Let them call me stiff-neck Carter if they wanted. (Ch 4)

The narrator jocularly refers to himself in the third person in this book as often as in its predecessor, The Dark Crusader. I think it humanises him; it makes him seem more fallible; it is also an aspect of the sometimes questionable humour in the books; and it is a mannerism, a part of MacLean’s style.

The mirror

The hero’s unexpected reflection in the mirror causes (yet another) moment of panic. Also another way to compound the hero’s sense of fatality, woundedness, fatedness.

I had one bad moment when I entered Carreras’s own sleeping cabin and saw this desperate hooded, crouched figure, dripping water, hands clenched round weapons, with wide staring eyes and blood dripping down beside the left eye. Myself in a looking-glass. (Ch 10)

The shapeless dead

A thriller needs bodies, needs descriptions of bodies. Having read Chandler it is difficult to escape the rhythm and word painting of the master. This description reminiscent of descriptions of corpses in Raymond Chandler.

We’d found Dexter all right, and we’d found him too late. He had that bundle of old clothes look, that completely relaxed huddled shapelessness that only the dead can achieve. (Ch 5)

Prolepsis / regret

Three or four times in each novel the hero, writing in a hypothetical present, looks back with bitter regret that he didn’t anticipate some key aspect of the plot, and that this mistake cost lives. They are a rather clunky way of making the hero seem more human, and they add to the reader’s experience of tension, of anxiety, foreboding.

And my guess was completely wrong. But the thought that this fake Marconi-man might have employed himself in another way during his stay in the wireless office did not occur to me until many hours later: it was so blindingly obvious that I missed it altogether, although two minutes’ constructive thought would have been bound to put me onto it. But those hours were to elapse before I got around to the constructive thought: and by that time it was too late. Too late for the Campari, too late for its passengers, and far far too late for all too many of the crew. (Ch 5)

Heavy humour

The first MacLean I reread in 30 years was When Eight Bells Toll and I was susprised by the facetious wit which runs through it. Now I realise it is a definint characteristic of his style, for reasons given above. Sometimes it works and I’ve laughed out loud – sometimes it’s close – sometimes it falls to the ground with a thud.

I made a mental note, in the not unlikely event of Lord Dexter turfing us both out of the Blue Mail, to turn down any suggestions by Captain Bullen the we should go into a detective agency together: there might be better ways of starving, perhaps, but none more completely certain. (Ch 5)

With that she banged the door and was gone. The door didn’t splinter in any way but that was because it was made of steel. (Ch 5)

I’d never before realised that auburn hair and green eyes were a combination that couldn’t be matched, but possibly that was because I’d never before seen an auburn-haired girl with green eyes. (Ch 10)

‘It’s not all over, Susan.’ I’d never make a salesman, I thought drearily, if I met a man dying of thirst in the Sahara I couldn’t have convinced him that water was good for him. (Ch 10)

Related links

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Rendezvous

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Rendezvous

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

Making Colour @ The National Gallery

This is one of the most purely didactic exhibitions I’ve been to. Usually, the curators tell you lots about the movement or biography of whoever’s featured, but you are essentially left to decide whether you enjoy the art by yourself.

Making Colour is more like a lecture, or a short degree course, compressed into half a dozen rooms. It is a fascinating, thorough and rather exhausting explanation of how coloured oil paints were and are made, where the raw ingredients came from in medieval and renaissance Europe, and then how discoveries by chemists throughout the 19th century introduced new shades and tones to the artist’s palette which are still in use today.

There are several strands or themes:

The growth in scientific understanding of how the human eye sees colour, how it is detected by the cones and rods in our retinas – there is a short film about perception in a cinema to one side of the gallery, which goes into colour blindness and the dramatic difference the ambient light we see a painting in has on our perception of it: thought-provoking as, for most of their history most of these paintings will have been seen either by partial daylight or candlelight – certainly not by the flat fluorescent light of modern galleries.

Theories of colour ie how colours complement each other. It was only in the late 1600s that Isaac Newton broke white light up into the spectrum, and placed the study of light and colours on a scientific basis. Various art theorists produced lists or descriptions of spectrums, often arranged into colour wheels.

Illustration from 'The Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular and beautiful Order and Arrangement, Arising from the Three Primitives, Red, Blue and Yellow, The manner in which each colour is formed, and its Composition by Moses Harris (1769 2nd edition 1776)

Illustration from ‘The Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular and beautiful Order and Arrangement, Arising from the Three Primitives, Red, Blue and Yellow, The manner in which each colour is formed, and its Composition by Moses Harris (1769 2nd edition 1776)

Complementary colours Apparently, the most influential work on colour was published by the dyer Michel Eugène Chevreul in 1839, not only containing colour wheels but systematically showing how colours opposite each other on the wheel complement or enhance each other. These ideas had a big impact on the Impressionists and post-Impressionists and the show demonstrates how with two very different paintings embodying the theory.

Renoir’s The Skiff (1875) deliberately contrasts blues of sky and river, with the vibrant orange of the boat. You can see from the colour wheel above that these colours are directly opposite each other, and this helps understand why the colours of both seem so bright and vibrant. (The other example is Van Gogh’s Crabs, see below.)

The Skiff by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1875) © The National Gallery, London

The Skiff by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1875) © The National Gallery, London

Chemistry Turns out to have played a vital role: during the 19th century industrial chemists in particular were researching ways of generating effective dyes etc for industrial purposes and these discoveries – often complete accidents – were quickly translated into new shades available as paints. Thus Renoir is using two new paints, cobalt blue and chrome orange, which were invented in the 19th century.

Paint availability Until the mid-1700s painters had to mix powdered pigments with either oil or egg themselves, to create the paint they were going to use. This was a fiddly business and not suited to doing outdoors where paint often dried too quickly and so almost all painting was done inside, in studios or churches etc. In the mid-1700s there was a breakthrough of sorts when ready-mixed paints became available in pig’s bladders, allowing greater outdoor painting. But it was not till the mid-1800s that ready-mixed paints became available in tin tubes which were light and easy to transport anywhere.

This technical breakthrough in paint’s portability and convenience contributed to the movement in France to paint out of doors, the movement which came to be known as Impressionism.

A room per colour

How to tackle such a massive subject? Well, the National Gallery has given a room to each of the major colours and in that room explains the history of how those colours were made, from earliest times. And each of these colour rooms has a selection from the full breadth of the National Gallery’s collection, illustrating the different shades of blue, red, green etc as actually applied by the world’s greatest painters in a wide selection of paintings from the 1400s to around 1900.

A personal selection

Rather than rewrite the entire exhibition catalogue, I’ve made a personal selection of favourite paintings, with what they tell us about the sources and uses of colours in their time.

Purple This medieval painting is used to demonstrate a few aspects of colour. 1. It was part of an altar piece on public display in a church, therefore the brightness of the colours helps bring out the clarity of the composition, making the image easier to read (almost like a cartoon). 2. The image uses purple, usually associated with royalty, for the executioner’s dress. At this early period purple was made by mixing ultramarine with red ‘lakes’ and white.

The Beheading of Saint Margaret (?) about 1409 by Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina © The National Gallery, London

The Beheading of Saint Margaret (?) about 1409 by Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina © The National Gallery, London

Blue This is a stunning use of the main source of blue in the early Modern period, ultramarine. As the name indicates this was sourced from lapis lazuli rock mined in what is now Afghanistan and brought to Europe along trade routes. By the time it reached Europe this material was more expensive than gold, and is therefore an indication of the wealth of the sponsor of the painting. Its value led to its association with the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven.

But these raw pigments could only be converted into paint by mixing with a medium of which there were two common ones:

  • mixing pigment with egg creates tempera which gives a flat matt affect
  • mixing pigment with oil produces varieties of glaze

The stunning blue of this painting is testament to Sassoferrato’s mastery of the techniques of mixing as much as to his eye and ability at composition.

History of blue Early painters who couldn’t afford ultramarine used Azurite, cheaper but with a greenish hue, or smalt, a blue glass pigment, more affordable but unstable. In the early 18th century Prussian blue was discovered and could be manufactured in bulk, but ultramarine remained the gold standard of blues. In the early 1800s a method was developed for creating a synthetic cobalt blue, and then an artificial version of ultramarine was developed: French ultramarine is still used to this day.

The Virgin in Prayer (1640-50) by Sassoferrato © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin in Prayer (1640-50) by Sassoferrato © The National Gallery, London

Yellow Yellow was sourced either from earth ochres or or from compounds of lead tin and antimony. In this Gainsborough from 1756 the dress of the painter’s daughter on the right is done with a shade called Naples yellow, mixed with lead white to create the lighter areas. The panel tells us Gainsborough mixed it well and it has lasted, but Naples yellow contained impurities that, over time, can turn orange or even pink.

The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly (about 1756) by Thomas Gainsborough © The National Gallery, London

The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly (about 1756) by Thomas Gainsborough © The National Gallery, London

The show includes the paintbox of JMW Turner, found in his studio after his death in 1851. It is a fascinating insight into the actual practical tools of the painter’s trade, showing the pigment bottles and the oils he used to mix them with. Incredible to believe Turner created his marvellous, transcendent works with such a small range of pigments available to him.

Paintobx belonging to Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) © Tate, London

Paintobx belonging to Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) © Tate, London

Green Green was sourced from verdigris, a kind of clay, or from green earth, a tarnishing of copper. It is fascinating to learn that Renaissance painters often used green earth in  particular as the underlay for skin, but the whites and pinks painted on top sometimes fade to reveal the underlay and this is why the faces of many renaissance paintings have a greenish tinge. Later artists were able to take advantage of the inventions of emerald green and viridian.

This stunning painting by Van Gogh of two crabs is used to show a) the vibrant greens and ready-made oil paints available to a late Victorian artist and b) the artist’s application of colour theory. As well as the depiction of its subject, it is a study in complementary colours, for the vivid greens of the background lie opposite the reddy oranges on the colour wheel.

It is striking to see how the same colour theory has been applied with radically different results by Renoir (1875) and van Gogh (1889). Figurative though the image is, it’s clear that for van Gogh experimenting with colour has become the prime focus. He is quoted as saying, ‘a painter had better start from the colours on his palette rather than the colours of Nature’, and that sounds.

Two Crabs (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Private Collection

Two Crabs (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Private Collection

Right at the end of the 19th century Dégas was experimenting with colour as this fantasia in red demonstrates. It uses bright red vermilion for the dress and curtain, along with red lead and orange-red, with Venetian reds for the background and the brusher’s blouse made from red ‘lakes’ mixed with white.

The painting can be analysed in terms of colour theory, in terms of the way the actual available paints have been mixed by the artist. Also biographically, as towards the end of his life Dégas was losing  his sight before going completely blind, and the intensity of the reds is possible over-compensation for his failing sight. And psychologically, for the contrast between the theoretically relaxing atmosphere of a woman having her hair combed, contrasting with the emotional impact the image actually makes on the spectator, of the scene being somehow intense and highly charged.

Combing the Hair (1896) by Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas © The National Gallery, London

Combing the Hair (1896) by Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas © The National Gallery, London

Conclusion

Most people, me included, stroll round a gallery or exhibition deciding whether I like something on the basis of its subject matter, or on its immediate visual impact, its form and design.

The take-home message from this thorough and fascinating exhibition is that there is a huge extra dimension to art appreciation, a whole realm of appreciation based on a real understanding of the physical components of a painting; of the actual paints, the colours and pigments – and the theory of colours – which were available to the artist, which makes the attempt to understand their achievements a lot more complicated and demanding.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

The Dark Crusader by Alistair MacLean (1961)

This is a cracking thriller, but with a significantly different tone from the earlier books. It seems like Fear Is The Key is the first of MacLean’s thrillers to adopt self-deprecating humour in the first-person narrator which would become a trademark. In The Dark Crusader, the next in the series, the same lighter tone is present in spades, along with a snappier writing style, using facetiousness, self-deprecation and repetition for comic affect.

‘OK, friend,’ I said. I meant it to sound cool and casual but it came out more like a raven – the hoarse one – croaking on the battlements of Macbeth’s castle. ‘I can see it’s a gun. Cleaned and oiled and everything. But take it away, please. Guns are dangerous things.’ ‘A wise guy, eh?’ he said coldly. (Ch 1)

I prised open the hatch cover. Nobody shot me. Nobody shot me because there was nobody there to shoot me, and there was nobody there to shoot me because no one but a very special type of moron would have ventured out on that deck without an absolutely compelling reason.  Even then he would have required a suit of armour… Enormous cold drops of water, so close together as to be almost a solid wall, lashed the schooner with a ferocity and intensity I would not have believed possible. (Ch 2)

Less than three hundred yards further on I found the end of the tunnel. I rubbed my forehead, which had been the part of me that had done the finding, then switched on the tiny pencil-beam of light. (Ch 6)

‘Some Hong Kong beer before we go?’ ‘Sounds fine, Professor.’ So we went and drank his beer and it was as good as he promised. We had it in the living room where he’d first taken us and I looked at the various exhibits in the glass-fronted cases. To me they were only a mould collection of bones and fossils and shells, of stone pestles and mortars, of charred timber and clay utensils and curiously shaped stones. It was no difficulty at all not to show any interest and I didn’t show any interest because the professor had shown signs of being wary of any person interested in archaeology. (Ch 4)

My jaw seemed alright. It hurt, but it was still a jaw. (Ch 6)

I turned the operating screw of the shark-repellent canister and a darkish evil-smelling liquid – it would probably have been yellow in daylight – with extraordinary dissolving and spreading qualities spread over the surface of the sea. I don’t know what the shark-repellent did to the sharks, but it certainly repelled me. (Ch 7)

The humour, the facetious tone, make it more bubble-gum, more fun. The Last Frontier felt very earnest, the experience of the book heavily affected by the ‘serious’ political and philosophical discussions, but more so by the simple facts of what the people of Hungary went through between the wars, during the Nazi occupation, during the Soviet era, which are recounted by various characters. No laughing matter.

But this novel – about a dastardly plot to capture the Navy’s new secret weapon rocket – is good-natured hokum, the cutting-edge-of-British-science theme, along with the jokey, facetious tone of the Secret Agent hero, and his pairing with a stunningly good-looking agentess, all reminiscent of Ian Fleming’s Thunderball, published in the same year, 1961.

Some of the Bond novels were serialised as comic strips in the newspapers. These could be the same. In six short years MacLean has moved a long way from the earnest tragedy of HMS Ulysses and Navarone to a light, bright style which anticipates the 1960s bubblegum antics of TV series like the cool but ridiculous Man From UNCLE. The Fontana cover features a long-legged dollybird in a colourful 60s miniskirt being protected by a knife-wielding dude with a more than passing resemblance to Steve McQueen, even down to McQueen’s Bullit-era hush puppies.

‘Mind if I rip this sleeve off?’
‘Go ahead,’ I said. ‘But mind you don’t rip the arm off at the same time. I don’t think there’s a great deal holding it in place.’ (Ch 8)

The third person

A noticeable part of the routine is for the protagonist to think or talk about himself in the third person, generally in exasperation or self-criticism.

‘Good old Bentall,’ I said savagely. ‘Never misses a thing… Ten to one he had a concealed mike down in that hold which let him know whenever Bentall, the Einstein of espionage, made such shattering discoveries.’ (Ch 6)

It was then that I heard the singing. This was it, Bentall’s tottering reason had gone at last, the shock of what I’d just seen and done had overstrained more than the facial muscles. Bentall unhinged, Bentall round the bend, Bentall hearing noises in  his head. What would Colonel Raine have said if he knew his trusty servant had gone off his trolley? (Ch 6)

Good old Bentall, I thought bitterly, nothing of the common touch about him, whenever he wishes for something it has to be really unattainable. (Ch 7)

The evidence was all before me now, Bentall with the blinkers off – at last – and I knew the truth, also at last. Counter-espionage, I thought bitterly, they should never have left me out of the kindergarten, the wicked world and its wicked ways were far too much for Bentall, if he could put one foot in front of the other without breaking an ankle in the process that was all you could reasonably expect of him. On flat ground of course. (Ch 10)

God, I should have known this was coming, I thought of her face twisted in pain, the hazel eyes dark in agony, it was the most obvious thing in the world. Only Bentall could have missed it. (Ch 10)

This tendency becomes epidemic by towards the end where our hero, seriously beaten, bitten, shot and whipped, blames himself for everything which has gone wrong. Not sure I’ve read another book in which the protagonist spends so much time beating himself up.

Raymond Chandler influence

I was wondering where this breezy light-hearted tone had come from when I read the following sentence:

I became vaguely aware that Anderson and the red-faced man, whom he addressed as Farley, were talking together and then the vagueness vanished. I heard a couple of words that caught and transfixed my attention the way a tarantula in my soup would have done. (Ch 8)

Possibly the most famous of Raymond Chandler’s many colourful similes is this:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food. (Farewell, My Lovely, chapter 1)

I’d already noticed some Americanisms in among MacLean’s usually very British prose, and some of the wisecracking had an American tone. This small clue clinched it. Consciously or unconsciously, it seems to me MacLean is paying homage to the master of snappy, thriller prose. Now the surprising thing about Raymond Chandler, for anyone new to him, is how funny he is, what a wise-cracking joker his protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is, mostly at his own expense, mostly at the expense of the mistakes and errors he makes in all his cases, often blaming himself for the (generally fatal) consequences. Chandler demonstrates that you can write quite noir material about kidnaps and drugs and murder – and be stylish and witty about it too.

Seems to me MacLean has swallowed Chandler whole and is attempting his own version of it, in the light-hearted, self-deprecating tone which is to become the characteristic of the first person narrators of his all thrillers from now on.

I grunted something appropriate and as short as it could decently be and went for that dirnk like a thirst-stricken camel for the nearest oasis. (Ch 3)

I didn’t expect to find anything there that I wouldn’t have found in any other kitchen, and I didn’t. But I found what I was after, the cutlery drawer. (Ch 5)

Three yards ahead of me a bush moved. Shock froze me into involuntary and life-saving immobility, no relic dug out by the professor was ever half so petrified as I was at that moment… I lowered myself back to the ground like a gambler laying down the last card that would lose him his fortune. I made a mental note that all this stuff about oxygen being necessary for life was a tale invented by doctors. I had completely stopped breathing. (Ch 5)

It would be ridiculous to deny that I was frightened, and so I won’t. I was scared and badly scared. (Ch 7)

‘Take a good look,’ LeClerc said. ‘That’s all you’re here to do – to take a good look.’
I took a good look. (Ch 10)

My left arm and the left side of my face were engaged in a competition to see which could make me jumpmostr and the competition was fierce, but after a while they gave it up and the whole left side of my body seemed to merge into one vast and agonising pain. (Ch 10)

Heavy-handed

However, unfortunately, MacLean is not the master of English prose that Chandler is, and along with the new note of humour goes a new kind of overcomplex sentence, a new heavy-handedness in the prose, which wasn’t so noticeable in Ulysses or Navarone where he had focused on describing the action as curtly as possible. Generally, he can’t resist adding a second clause where one would be enough, or adjectives where they would best be cut.

He broke off as a side door opened and a girl walked into the room. I say ‘walked’ because it is the usual word to describe human locomotion, but this girl didn’t locomote, she seemed to glide with all the grace and more than the suggestion of something else of a Balinese dancing girl. (Prologue)

No pickpocket ever lifted a wallet with half the delicate care and soundless stealth that I used to lift one of these baulks out of position and lean it against its neighbour. (Ch 6)

The lights still burned in the professor’s window, I would have taken odds that he has no intention of going to sleep that night, I was beginning to know enough of his nature to suspect that the exhaustion of a sleepless night would be a small price to pay for the endless delights of savouring to the full the delightful anticipations of the pleasures of the day that was to come. (Ch 7)

And humour is difficult. Unless you have done it with impeccable timing, nothing dates as fast as strained jocularity.

I looked awful. One horrified glance at me would have had any life assurance salesman in the land jumping on his fountain pen with both feet. (Ch 6)

I’d get no Oscars for counter-espionage, but as an arsonist I was neck and neck with the best. (Ch 7)

‘Good Lord! A female!’ Although biologically accurate enough it struck me as a singularly inept term to describe Marie Hopeman. (Ch 8)

If it wasn’t for the fact that my nervous system seemed to have completely stopped working, I’d probably have jumped a foot. If I’d the strength for any gymnastics like that, which I hadn’t. (Ch 8)

Great read

Aspects of style sometimes interest me more than the subject or plot, but it’s worth emphasising that The Dark Crusader is a gripping and exciting thriller, which moves fast and puts its hero into a satisfyingly varied range of perilous situations – it’s about a very contemporary (to its date) issue (inter continental missiles and nuclear armageddon) – and which had one big surprise left at the end which I hadn’t anticipated at all. As usual the reader is conscious of the absurdities and illogicality of the plot but these are over-ridden by the sheer page-turning excitement of the steady succession of twists and turns and jeopardies which MacLean is such a master at constructing.

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Dark Crusader

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of The Dark Crusader

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.

Bad

1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

Truth and Memory @ Imperial War Museum

The Imperial War Museum London re-opened in July after a £40 million refurbishment. Part of the new layout is a FREE permanent exhibition of some of the best British art works from the Great War. In fact the IMW claims it is ‘The largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years.’ The display is titled Truth and Memory and it turns out to be divided into two separate galleries on the third floor, each addressing one of these concepts.

Truth

What is artistic truth? In 1914 various forms of artistic Modernism were only just stirring in Britain, against a long Victorian tradition of noble and dignified realism. The rooms in the Truth gallery highlight the new young artists, often dismissed as artistic Bolsheviks but they and their supporters argued that the grotesque and unprecedented conditions of the War required new means of expression.

Many of these paintings were familiar to me both because I’m a fan of this kind of art and because I saw a number of them at the recent exhibition A Crisis of Brilliance at Dulwich Picture Gallery and read about them in the related book, which I reviewed here. In addition, I recently saw some of them or paintings by the same artists at the National Portrait Gallery’s recent show, The Great War In Portraits.

So I enjoyed seeing again the familiar and thrillingly ‘modern’ works by Nevinson, Nash, Spencer and Wyndham Lewis – but I was specially pleased to encounter works of people I’d never heard of before – Delf Smith, Spare, Clausen, Lamb and the two women artists, Norah Neilson-Gray and Anna Airy.

CRW Nevinson, the enfant terrible who was displaying his wonderfully stylish Futirust paintings and drawings within a year of the start of the War.

Paths of Glory (1917) by CRW Nevinson © IWM

Paths of Glory (1917) by CRW Nevinson © IWM

Paul Nash preferred landscapes to people and transferred the technique he’d developed for English pastoral to the blasted landscapes of the Western Front.

We Are Making a New World (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

We Are Making a New World (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

William Orpen was an older, established artist and developed an approach which used motifs from the Western tradition – he also did a number of lush traditional portraits, on show here are some spiffing fighter pilots – but also strange and haunting images of civilians, including the Mad Women of Douai.

Percy Delf Smith is so obscure he doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry. He is represented here by a set of engravings titled The Dance of Death, powerful, haunting realistic images of soldiers in various plights, all accompanied by the shrouding figure of death, including Death marches.

Austin Spare, a strange and haunting symbolist painter, represented by an image of one Tommy helping another.

Gilbert Rogers has several paintings, including Gassed.

Gassed. 'In Arduis Fidelis' (1919) by Gilbert Rogers © IWM

Gassed. ‘In Arduis Fidelis’ (1919) by Gilbert Rogers © IWM

Memory

How did people remember and commemorate the Great War – in its immediate aftermath, in the generations that followed and now, 100 years later? The Imperial War Museum itself has played a role in the shaping of perceptions, as it was founded in 1917 to collect and house artefacts relating to the War while it was still ongoing.

I’m not sure the arrangement of paintings makes perfect sense, as there is a room here dedicated to the Vorticists, who I’d have thought should have been over with the young Turk Modernist painters in the Truth wing. there are half a dozen wonderful Wyndham Lewis’s including the surprisingly enormous A Battery Shelled, covering a whole wall.

A Battery Shelled (1919) by Percy Wyndham Lewis ©IWM

A Battery Shelled (1919) by Percy Wyndham Lewis ©IWM

There was also a room devoted to Stanley Spenser, including Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916. I’m not sure these have much to do with memory, or only as much as any other painting or sketch does.

Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916 (1919) by Stanley Spencer ©IWM

Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916 (1919) by Stanley Spencer ©IWM

Hung next to the Spensers were works by Henry Lamb, who I’d never heard of but worked in a similarly naive style. the standout piece is Irish Troops in the Judean Hills Surprised by a Turkish Bombardment.

Arguably Lewis and Bomberg, Spenser and Lamb should have been over in the Truth gallery. I think this gallery makes its point about Memory when it a) shows works by much older artists, people too old to fight in the War, works which therefore try to find symbols to convey the suffering such as George Clausen’s enigmatic, symbolist-style Youth Mourning…

Youth Mourning (1916) by George Clausen © IWM

Youth Mourning (1916) by George Clausen © IWM

… Or b) shows  the larger number of works which follow directly on from late Victorian realist paintings and sculptures, using the established and traditional vocabulary, the epitome of which is probably William Orpen’s To the Unknown Soldier in France. Are institutional, formal and ‘official’ paintings like this somehow a betrayal of the rawer, horrendous experiences of the troops? Or do they accurately reflect the, after all, military training and mindset of the majority of the  soldiers who fought?

To the Unknown Soldier in France (1921-1928) by William Orpen ©IWM

To the Unknown Soldier in France (1921-1928) by William Orpen © IWM

Factories and Women

Though included in the Memory gallery this room struck me as being a massive subject in its won right: it contains ten or so paintings about the vast industrial effort that went on to supply the troops with everything they needed and, strikingly, some good, strong paintings by women artists I’d never heard of. Again, female artists of the Great War is a subject crying out for its own dedicated exhibition, certainly I’d like to see more by, and learn more about, about these two women artists.

Anna Airy

©IWM ART 2271 Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells: Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow (1918) Anna Airy Oil on canvas

Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells: Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow (1918) by Anna Airy. ©IWM

Norah Neilson-Gray, represented by a large painting The Scottish Women’s Hospital.

The assertion of tradition

Off to one side is a room which contains the traditional stuff, by the traditional artists of the day. Lots of busts of the military leaders, maquettes for formal war memorials and, dominating a whole wall, John Singer Sargent’s enormous and very moving  Gassed.

©IWM ART 1460 Gassed (1919) John Singer Sargent Oil on canvas

Gassed (1919) by John Singer Sargent © IWM

The information panel on the wall explains that much of the modern modern art acquired or commissioned by the IMW was lent to Tate Britain, a move which tended to leave the IW Museum with the more traditional, the more Imperial, the more jingoistic and paternalistic works.

This room gives a good impression of how technically good and effective these paintings and busts are, but also – how stifling, how conformist and so, ultimately, how untrue to the unique and horrifying experience so many millions of men and helpless civilians were forced to undergo during those nightmare years.

Related links


Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: