‘Look, caterpillar,’ said Silas. ‘I’ve been around a long, long time, and one thing I’ll tell you true; there isn’t a man, woman or child in this world who can say they have never conned someone out of something. Babies smile for a hug, girls for a mink, men for an empire. No one, I promise you; no one, caterpillar.’ (p.147)
This, Len Deighton’s sixth novel, marks a decisive switch from the five elliptically-written and dazzlingly confusing spy novels which made his name. This is a plainly written, easy-to-read comic novel about three confidence tricksters: Silas, ex-Army major and the boss; Liz, good-looking young woman in love with him; Bob, young working class chancer.
Introducing our heroes
Part one describes a sting to extract a cheque for $250,000 from two American businessmen, by hiring an empty suite in a high-rise and pretending to be CEO of a multinational which needs just a little investment. The two ‘marks’ – or victims – hand over a cheque then wait while the boss pops out to meet some vice-presidents and in fact slips down in the lift, meets his assistants who have already cashed the cheque and packed the money into a briefcase, they all take a taxi to the heliport, on to JFK and the flight to London. Ta-dah!
Interwoven first-person narratives
Each chapter is a first-person narration by one of the three. In the previous two novels, Deighton had begun to experiment by interleaving the unnamed narrator’s first-person narrative with a third-person narrator’s sympathetic view of several other key figures. So this book represents a continuation of these experiments with narrative: interweaving three first-person narratives, frequently giving their different perspectives on the same events. This allows for lots of dramatic irony, in small details, or set pieces like chapters 10 and 11 which describe the setback at the Magazarian embassy, first from Silas’s point of view – wherein he is the hero who saves the day and pledges his love for Liz – then from Liz’s POV, as she deflates Silas’s exaggerations. Comparing the characters’ often sharply differing takes on events is one of the book’s many pleasures.
Each of the three has a back story and/or interests which colour their sections:
- Silas’s memories of his war years, the high point of his life
- Bob’s interest/obsession with ancient history and archaeology – at the drop of a hat he’s talking about Mohenjodaro or the Babylonians
- Liz’s rather more diffuse emotions and feelings about her two accomplices and this odd job she’s ended up in
As with all hobby horses since Tristram Shandy, the recurrence of these familiar trains of thought become prompts for humour, like mechanical catchphrases of popular TV – ‘Don’t panic!’, ‘And now for something completely different’.
Sudden transitions One of the most interesting features of the prose is the way these themes, especially Silas’s war memories, kick in with no warning: one moment he’s larking about with Bob, the next sentence he’s with his men in the Desert War again, then, just as you’re getting into the wartime scene, he’s putting his drink back on the bar in ‘the present’. The abruptness of these transitions is pleasingly disconcerting.
The Desert War As the book continues Silas’s memories of the Desert War intrude more and more frequently, with no warning, as gruesome counterpoints to current events. And as they progress, they begin to reveal a truth completely at odds with the established version. Turns out he knows Liz because he served with Colonel Mason in the War, and Liz was Mason’s little daughter. Silas was the only survivor of a sudden Jerry attack which knocked out the colonel’s tanks. He claimed the colonel was killed trying to save his driver and on his evidence the colonel was awarded a VC. However, the flashbacks slowly reveal another story: seems Silas was stealing some tankers full of petrol won from the Italians and was driving them in convoy to a middleman they knew near Cairo, when they quite literally ran into the British tanks, parked across the road without lights. The whole lot exploded, killing Silas’s companions and many of the tank crews. Seems Silas was so solicitous of Liz and her mother because he knew he was responsible for Colonel Mason’s death. One more, and a rather upsetting, deception.
This slow revelation changes your opinion about Silas, about Liz, and makes you question the nature of conning, of tricking and deceiving people: how it can be a habit, a necessity, an art, a joy and a cruelty. Behind the flashy effects and larky skits, the novel becomes subtly thought-provoking.
The con tricks
Magazaria After the prologue in New York a good deal of the first half is taken up with a plan to con the Defence Minister of a (fictional) African country (Mr Ibo Awawa of Magazaria) by selling him crates of what will be labelled Army scrap. Awawa will be led to believe the crates really consist of nearly-new weaponry siphoned off by crooked ‘Brigadier’ Silas, and he is benefiting from the scam. However, the crates really will contain Army scrap, the gang will have collected their money and be long gone by the time he finds out.
Unfortunately, there is a coup in Magazaria and, in a macabre scene, when Silas and Bob are next invited to the embassy, they are wined and dined by new hosts before being shown Mr Awawa bound and gagged inside a packing crate which is about to be shipped back to their country. The terrifying African host reveals that he knows all about their cheap scam, and has them thrown off the premises.
Swinging Sixties There is a prolonged interlude where the trio live it up in Swinging London. Bob, as the working class cockney, hooks up with an old mate from the Scrubs – Spider – who happens to be a waiter at the hotel they’re staying in, and they take the Rolls Royce Bob bought with his money from the New York job and cruise round Swinging London, one evening in Soho picking up a couple of brightly dressed tarts from Liverpool – a prolonged scene of low comedy.
Lebanon Spider puts them on to a posh boy, Gerald Spencer, and they work out an elaborate scam to con him out of nearly a million: Bob pretends to be an international financier who is himself going to do a fraud, handing over counterfeit bonds worth a million pounds to ten banks in the Lebanon, getting the cash (total £10 million) in exchange, then fleeing. He doesn’t want to deal with each bank in person so offers Spencer the opportunity of being the person to hand over the bonds and take the cash, for a cut of 10% ie £1 million. The hook is that Spencer will have to seed the scam with his own money – and it’s this money the trio plan to disappear with.
The final chapters deal with the con in Lebanon in considerable detail, as well as Silas’s memories of his wartime experiences there. They also describe the shifting relationship between the three, as Liz falls out of love with Silas – who feels himself old and possibly past his prime in this game – and in love with cocky young Bob who, for the first time, takes the lead in organising this con.
Only When I Larf is clearly intended as a comedy but, although good humoured, not that much is actually funny, and long stretches describing the practical arrangements of the cons are more like the action sequences you see in heist or sting movies ie slick and impressive, but not funny. Hence its categorisation as a comedy-thriller.
What did make me laugh out loud are the sequences when Silas and Bob, though they cordially dislike each other, fall into schoolboy sketches and impersonations while Liz looks on like a long-suffering mother: for example, the sequence in which they were racing their Rolls Royces through the countryside and Bob drove his into a ditch and Silas pulled up alongside and they both immediately began calling to each other in the Scottish accents of Clydeside engineers lamenting the poor quality of your modern steam-driven ship as compared with the merits of traditional sail.
And I particularly liked the one where Silas pretended to be the pilot of a damaged bomber returning from a WW2 raid and ran round their London flat making engines-on-fire noises while Bob held a pretend microphone to his mouth and talked him down until Silas did a chancy landing across the sitting-room rug and crashed into the fireplace with a broken wing.
I’ve rarely if ever read anywhere else prose which really captures the feel of funny lads larking around, putting on voices and ad libbing extended sketches. The climax of the novel requires Silas to put on fake tan and an Arab costume, and he is continually whipping it off, in front of the others, or even on his own, and declaring to his mirror: ‘Good God, Colonel Lawrence, it’s you!’. Very fresh, very funny.
In order to convey the character’s discursive thoughts the prose is generally more relaxed and flowing than the taut, elliptical Ipcress novels, and thus often a bit nondescript. Nonetheless Deighton’s prose periodically becomes tauter, tighter, as it describes action sequences (especially Silas’s war memories, or the thriller sequences of the cons in action) and is still sprinkled with lovely turns of phrase.
The wind came down the railway tracks like an express train and we had to go stepping over the rails and trying to avoid the puddles that wore thin crusts of grey ice and snapped like dinner plates under foot. (p.117)
A slight wind stirred along the valley trying to get home before nightfall, and along the rim of the second mountain range – the anti-Lebanon – the last sun drilled the rocky molars and gave them gold fillings.’ (p.250)
Africa in thriller fiction
The Nigeria-Biafra War broke out in May 1967 and lasted until January 1970. Some one million Nigerians died during the conflict, mainly due to the appalling famine. I don’t know whether there’s a direct link, but it is from this period onwards that African coups and civil wars became a location for thriller writers. Eric Ambler’s Dirty Story, published in 1967, is set during a small border conflict over minerals featuring two fictional African countries. Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War, about a coup in an African state was published in 1974.
The novel was made into a rather cheap-looking 1968 movie, directed by Basil Dearden and starring Richard Attenborough, David Hemmings and Alexandra Stewart. You can’t currently get it on Amazon or even on Ebay, which suggests it has sunk without trace.
(The movie version was produced by Deighton himself. It was the prelude to Deighton buying the film rights to Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop’s stage musical Oh, What a Lovely War! for which he wrote the screenplay of the film version which was released in 1969.)
- Only When I Larf (book) on Amazon
- Only When I Larf (book) Wikipedia article
- Only When I Larf (movie) Wikipedia article
- Only When I Larf article on the Deighton Dossier website
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.