I, Lucifer by Peter O’Donnell (1967)

There was no hint of doubt on the faces of Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin. They were absorbed and speculative. Tarrant knew he could not have called them off the scent now anyway. The caper was real, no matter how baffling its operation, and they were fascinated by it. (p.102)

Having read some short, punchy spy novels recently makes me realise how these Modesty Blaise novels, by contrast, are rather leisurely in style and pacing – this one is 286 pages long. The time is spent in a slow build-up to the eventual plot or ‘caper’, dwelling at length on scenes which establish character rather than forwarding the story. This explains why, although it is of course a novelisation of a comic strip, I feel I’ve got to know and like the characters, especially the old world courtesy of Modesty’s ‘control’ at British Intelligence, the elderly, fatherly and eminently polite Sir Gerald Tarrant.

Plot

As with Sabre-Tooth, the novel opens by pitching us straight into the enemy camp. We are introduced to the bizarre menagerie of Dr Bowker the discredited psychiatrist, wizened old Seff the marionette-maker, his creepy wife Regina, Mr Wish the ex-Mafia killer, and Lucifer.

Lucifer

‘Lucifer’ is a young man with remarkable psychic skills: he can predict when people are going to die. Seff has latched onto this and turned it into a scam: they give Lucifer the profiles of a number of VIPs and he selects those he knows will die of natural causes. Then they add in half a dozen figures Lucifer hasn’t predicted; these are the targets for extortion. They write to both groups, warning them that they will die if they don’t pay the money demanded (around £60,000), and include in the letter the list of everyone who’s been threatened.

Invariably, most don’t pay, but keep an eye on everyone mentioned in the letter and are terrified to see a large number of them dying in the three months or so after receiving the letter. The survivors quickly cough up. Thus, over the previous year or so, an increasing number of high-profile government targets, in the UK and abroad, have been paying large sums to Seff and his colleagues.

It was the psychiatrist Dr Bowker who first identified ‘Lucifer’ as a man with very special and genuine psychic powers, but why the name? Because, after suffering a catastrophic breakdown brought on by a failed love affair, ‘Lucifer’ developed the psychotic delusion that he is in fact the Prince of Darkness and those around him are his slaves and that periodically he descends into Hades to glory in his Kingdom.
The narrative gives us sporadic descriptions of these terrifying delusions seen from Lucifer’s point of view, as he flies over the Lake of Fire watching the Damned in their torments, another example of O’Donnell’s highly enjoyable and vivid way with words.

Seff, Bowker and Regina and Mr Wish all encourage ‘Lucifer’ in his delusions because his paranormal power of ‘precognition’ – ie his money-making talent – seems to be somehow linked to them, although even Bowker can’t explain why.

It is, in other words, a straightforward criminal scam – extortion, or demanding money with menaces – but with a bizarre and way-out twist, well suited to a psychedelic episode of The Avengers or… a Modesty Blaise novel.

Saving Vaubois

Into this strange scenario come Modesty and Willie, at first asked to help by Sir Gerald Tarrant, their contact in British Intelligence, who fills them in on the story of the threatening letters and the mysterious deaths. Then they become directly involved in saving the life of their friend, head of France’s Deuxième Bureau, René Vaubois, after he receives one of the gang’s letters. Because, it turns out, Lucifer isn’t always correct: about twenty percent of the people Lucifer predicts will die, don’t, and so Seff has to send in assassins to kill them anyway, to keep up the fear on the others. This is what happens to Vaubois and we see Modesty and Willie save him from these assassins twice in one action-packed night.

Steve Collier

There is a whole sub-plot which consists of Modesty sleeping with a guy named Steve Collier, who claims to be a metallurgist. He witnesses her and Willie sorting out the assassins and asks Modesty, not unreasonably, ‘Who the hell are you?’ But now that the ‘caper’ is in full swing, she is a woman on a mission – they have one last night of passion before she bids him adieu and disappears from his life… (Is it empowering that it is a woman taking the lead in initiating and ending affairs to suit herself?)

Denmark

After saving Vaubois’s life, M and W use their former underworld contacts to track down the gang to the house they’re renting in Denmark, and Modesty goes in to investigate… but as she walks in, pretending to be the landlord’s agent, who should walk into the hallway at just the wrong moment? Steve Collier! Turns out he’s not a metallurgist at all, he is expert in precognition! Bowker and Seff had begun to worry that Lucifer’s powers are failing so they had invited world-famous psychologist Dr Collier as an expert in the field to fly out to their house and interview and assess Lucifer.

Collier blurts out ‘Modesty!’, blowing her cover in front of the gang. She manages to take out Mr Wish but then has a gripping unarmed fight with Lucifer who beats her because he effortlessly predicts what her next move will be and anticipates it.

Cyanide shackles

Modesty and Collier are removed at gunpoint to a yacht, then by charter plane, then another plane to a remote island on the Philippines. Here Seff demonstrates what a callous baddie he is by getting Bowker to make incisions in their shoulders and inserting tiny radio-controlled cyanide capsules, which he can detonate from a hand-held device if either of them steps out of line. Creepy Regina has a spare. No way out!

It is here – while an anxious Willie and Sir Gerald are trying to track her down – that Modesty has to come up with a plan of escape. Part of which involves her seducing … Lucifer, which she successfully does, thus achieving a sort of security in the house of crooks (and giving rise to some odd scenes and droll dialogue – ‘Don’t wait for me, Lucifer, I just want to fix my hair.’)

John Dall

Meanwhile, Sir G reports that the latest recipient of a Lucifer Letter is none other than John Dall, the brash American multi-millionaire we met in the last adventure, Sabre-Tooth. They let him in on the whole caper, and inform him that the baddies have got Modesty. He agrees to help out with his own private battleship and army!

It’s Willie who does the clever stuff, deducing the gang’s location from the nature of the sea-borne pick-ups and the latest drop zone specified in the letters. He has spent a long time trying to figure out the peculiar method by which the buoys containing the ransoms are collected and now comes to the far-out conclusion that they are collected by a pair of trained dolphins with a belt stretched between them; the dolphins swim up to the floating buoy, the belt tugs it free of its moorings, and then the dolphins return to the dolphin pen and their trainer towing the treasure behind them. And so John Dall’s rescue ship anchors off the tiny Philippines island where we know the baddies are based.

In commando kit with blacked-up face, Willie sails ashore in a small dinghy to evade the radar. He sneaks up to the house, finds Modesty’s room, breaks in, removes the cycanide from her shoulder and patches her up. But then she insists on staying so she can help Steve and even Lucifer who, after all, is a seriously sick young man.

Willie and she argue about it and Modesty wins and Willie claimbs back out the window and sneaks off to cover. Unfortunately, as he slips his bag over a mound, it sets off an old Japanese mine which blows him up, concussing him, and he wakes up a prisoner in the house, tied up and surrounded by the villainous local pirates Seff has hired to guard them.

Clifftop duel

Seff concocts the sadistic idea of making Modesty and Willie fight a duel – if she refuses he’ll detonate the cyanide or just have them both shot. So the scene shifts to a dramatic cliff-top location where they choose their weapons, Modesty a revolver, Willie his knives. As Seff counts the seconds out, they draw and Modesty shoots Willie in the guts. Blood spurts from his guts and his last words are a curse on her as he plummets to the rocks below and then is washed out to sea by the tide…

… Whereupon he starts swimming for the dinghy he’s stashed a few miles along the shore. It was all a set up between him and Modesty, using their trusted secret signals, and Willie – Mr Knife – deliberately cut himself as he threw his knife wide, so that blood spurted from the cut as if from a bullet wound.

From the dinghy Willie sends a radio signal to Dall’s American forces waiting offshore to come in at dawn. And then Willie sets off back to the house to rescue Modesty and Steve, breaking in, giving Modesty time to remove Steve’s cyanide device and dope Lucifer, and all four of them retreat to the rooftop of this old colonial mansion, and commence the long shootout with the gang and also the 30 or so pirates they’ve recruited, which constitutes the climax of the story.

After hours of shooting have deteriorated into a standoff, Seff and Mr Wish decide to set the whole house on fire, which makes the rooftop no longer defendable. So our heroes toss gas grenades over the parapets and leg it down a rope ladder.

Seff has already killed Bowker in familiar mad psycho fashion. As the fire gets going he sends Regina down to the dolphin pen to (rather horribly) kill their nice native trainer. But in doing so, she tangles her foot in some rope and, at the sound of the shots, the terrified dolphins swim off across their pen and drag the screaming Regina into the water after them where she drowns.

Confident that Modesty and Willie are being burned to a crisp on the roof top, Seff and Mr Wish arrive at the dolphin pen looking for Regina only for there to be a quick draw of guns between Modesty and Mr Wish and – well, guess who wins — at which point the dazed and confused Lucifer emerges from the shadows, strides over to wizened old Seff, picks him up and dashes him to pieces on the rocks below.

The surviving pirates are making their way to their ships in a panic, and it is not long before Dall’s Americans arrive. Willie and Steve join them by the dolphin pen and the last scene in the novel is Willie struggling to undo the belt tying the two dolphins, before liberating them to swim free out to the ocean. Caper over.

Bizarreries

Half way between camp and kitsch and silly and intriguing, pulp thrillers often feature some grotesque angle and this one sports several humdingers:

  • Lucifer the whole concept of a young man whose mental breakdown is so drastic that he thinks he’s the Devil
  • ESP the once-fashionable notion of clairvoyance and ‘advanced precognition’
  • the dolphins turns out the money the blackmailees cough up has to be packed into buoys. These are to be found in crates at warehouses where the blackmailees are told to collect them. Then they are instructed to fill them with the loot (diamonds, gold) before sailing to specified locations and dropping them overboard. To be, as Willie the clever engineer works out, collected by a pair of trained dolphins, named Belial and Pluto!

Clothes

O’Donnell always describes the furnishings and fixtures of the many rooms the characters find themselves in and is also very precise about what they’re wearing.

Modesty Blaise lay on her back, a hand shielding her eyes. She wore a pale blue silk summer dress, sleeveless, and flat shoes. A blue suede handbag stood beside her. (p.81)

The bald man in the white coat was talking with quiet enthusiasm to an audience of two, a dark and very striking girl in a wine-coloured cashmere dress with three-quarter-length sleeves, and a big fair man with a cockney accent. (p.102)

She wore a cream linen suit with camel shoes and handbag. Her only jewellery was a pair of deep amethyst drop earrings. (p.133)

Modesty lay on a towelling-covered mattress of foam rubber, a beachbag beside her. She wore a black one-piece swimsuit. Her hair was loose and clipped back at the nape of the neck. Willie dropped down beside her. He wore tailored slacks and an expensive shirt with a cravat at the throat. (p.145)

She wore dark slacks and a cream tunic with a round collar. The tunic was loose and fell to a few inches below her hips. Beneath it, belted higher than usual, she wore the Colt .32. (p.146)

In the darkness, John Dall and Willie Garvin stood by the rail. Dall wore a navy blue shirt and wrinkled slacks, with a peaked cap pushed back on his head. Willie Garvin was in black. (p.192)

The easy confidence with which O’Donnell describes the clothes and with which the two good-looking lead characters wear them, reinforces the swinging London vibe, beautiful people wearing beautifully-made, stylishly casual clothes – Jean Shrimpton and Terence Stamp.

Related links

US paperback cover of I, Lucifer

US paperback cover of I, Lucifer

Modesty Blaise novels

  • Modesty Blaise (1965) Introducing Modesty and sidekick Willie Garvin, as they protect government diamonds from a fiendish international criminal, Gabriel.
  • Sabre-Tooth (1966) Modesty and Willie get involved with a small army of hardened mercenaries who are planning to overthrow the government of Kuwait.
  • I, Lucifer (1967) An eccentric bunch of crooks have got hold of a mentally ill young man who thinks he is the Devil but has the useful knack of being able to predict natural deaths: they are using this to blackmail VIPs, until Modesty and Willie intervene.

The Dolly Dolly Spy by Adam Diment (1967)

‘I think the sexy spy’s going out of vogue, don’t you, Bill, darling?’
Brentridge laughed a bit.
‘Yes, worse luck. It’s all computers these days.’ (p.167)

Adam Diment

The mysterious Adam Diment was 23-years-old when this, his first novel, was published. It shot him to fame, he appeared in all the right Sunday supplements, and contracts were drawn up to make it into a movie starring David Hemmings… which didn’t quite come off. Diment knocked out three more larky, swinging London spy novels then disappeared without trace in 1971, never to be seen again.

Potted plot

It’s narrated in the first person by Philip McAlpine, a lazy, bolshy, sex-mad, pot-smoking special agent. He worked in security for a big firm for a while, and the novel opens as he is cordially blackmailed by a camp high-up at MI6 – Rupert Quine (to rhyme with ‘swine’) – to work for them. If Phil refuses – they’ll tell the cops about his dope habit and the lump of hash they found in his flat and he’ll get five years in the Scrubs.

OK, he agrees. The plan is he’ll make himself available for recruitment by Charter International (CI), a charter plane company that does mostly legitimate business but intersperses it with flying wanted criminals, dodgy politicians and ‘hot’ merchandise around the Mediterranean. MacAlpine is well placed since he already has a pilot’s license.

McAlpine duly applies for a job, passes an entertaining interview, is shipped off with other recruits for intensive training flying a variety of planes in the American South-West, then returns to work full time for Charter International. The deal is he’ll be handsomely paid by CI and do whatever is asked of him, but also be on a retainer from British Intelligence and tasked with taking short holidays at various places round Europe where he’ll be contacted by agents and offload everything he’s done and heard about.

All goes well, Phil gets permission from CI to fly out his equally sex-mad girlfriend Veronica (‘Ronica) and they spend many rest days and nights getting stoned and making love – until one particular mission which triggers the novel’s climax and conclusion. CI ask him to fly a senior ex-Nazi from Egypt to Alla Surait. (Interestingly, Egypt is here described as a hotbed of ex-Nazis who are helping with various anti-Israeli military plans: this is precisely the premise of The Odessa File, published some six years later; maybe it was true.)

However, the MI6 man, Rupert Quine, emerges spookily out of the undergrowth while Phil is enjoying a little party time with Veronica at a villa in Majorca, and orders him to double-cross CI and fly this Nazi – Detmann – not to Alla Surait but to a British base in Cyprus. Detmann knows all about Egypt’s atomic research and other nasty goings-on, and MI6 want that knowledge. (There are a couple of vivid flashbacks to Detmann’s grisly career in the SS during the war, murdering women and children, which go a long way to denting the happy-go-lucky stoner tone of the novel up to this point.)

Back at Phil’s Charter International base on the (fictional) island of Dathos, someone sneaks into his apartment at night and takes a pot shot at him before he rips the assassin apart with the handy Schmeisser machine pistol he keeps by his bed. ‘Ronica is distraught. The CI authorities are impressed he has such homicidal enemies – and that he handled himself so well. But who was the assassin?

Later, just as he is about to set off for the airfield to carry out the double-cross mission, Phil is surprised to be waylaid by one of the American CI pilots who says he’ll fly the trip and offers Phil $1,600 cash down to make the switch. By this time our hero has realised that a) the Americans want Detmann b) someone told the Americans Phil was a traitor, hence the CIA attack on his life c) the leak probably came from his own boss in London, ‘the bastard’.

Angry, Phil knocks the Yank pilot out with a scotch bottle, ties him up, flies off to the rendezvous in the desert with Detmann – a scary vision in full SS Nazi regalia – and plies him and his henchmen with beer and schnapps heavily laced with sleeping pills. Then he flies to a tiny Greek island only he knows about, lands and unloads the unconscious Krauts, handcuffing them to the walls of a peasant hut.

Phil takes off again and flies to a neutral airfield where he bribes the flight control to let him grab some sleep. From which he is brutally woken by two enthusiastic British soldiers hitting him. Who he foils and locks up, flying on to the British airfield at Cyprus. He had planned to extract money out of Quine to let him know where Detmann is but Quine refuses to pay, vehemently denies he leaked Phil’s identity to the Yanks and tells him, to his horror, that the buxom dollybird Veronica he’s been sleeping with for the past two years is – guess what – also an MI6 agent, and has been spying on Phil and reporting to Quine.

He does something you rarely see tough secret agents do – our hero has a good cry – in fact he has two – at this betrayal of his finer feelings.

‘Miss Lom [Veronica] has worked for the Department for two years,’ he intoned like a kindly ghoul…
She nodded, hair swaying briefly across her face, a black curtain across a quiet night….
I nodded and stared and stared at the floor. Then slowly and inexorably I began to cry. People should cry sometimes – when life becomes too complicated. It gives you a fresh start and a new, flat emotional angle. And this, for me, had been too much. Or maybe it was just exhaustion and the drug-props I had used collapsing…. I stopped after a time and blew my nose. When you get this peace you can face anything – say anything because for a few moments you see the total futility of life – yours in particular. (p.152)

McAlpine turns on his heel and walks out on Quine and ‘Ronica, promising to deliver the Nazis. He flies back to the island where all does not go according to plan, leading to a shootout and an explosive finale – and then to the surprisingly upbeat ending at yet another swanky London dinner party.

The swinging 60s

It is 1966 and London is swinging.

I flicked my cigarette out of the open window and watched it bounce, in a parabola of sparks, from the roof of an adjacent mini. (p.179)

McAlpine is James Bond’s dissolute younger brother. Or maybe nephew. He plays tracks by the Stones and Dylan. He smokes dope at every opportunity, rolling big joints and sharing them with ‘Ronica or houseguests at the various villas he dosses at, lovingly detailing the affects of the first rush, then the spaced-out perspective it gives on everything.

‘You’ll have to roll one yourself, ‘Ronica, I just can’t make the effort.’ She kissed me and began to make a couple of joints. To my time-distorted senses she seemed to be moving with extreme deliberation. I leaned forward slightly and began, gently, to massage her right breast. The texture of her blouse and the firm compactness of flesh underneath took on novel sensations in my current state. I was still swinging on the up curve. (p.32)

He constantly eyes up and evaluates all the talent he sees. Beside sleeping with sexy ‘Ronica he appears to have quite a few other dolly birds available.

One [of Quine’s two secretaries] is an orange-haired, grimy-toothed bird called Avril, who has been with the Department as long as me… To be fair to the old cow, she has an excellent figure, especially if you dig your women well-developed of dug, and when I backed her into an empty office one dull day last July, proved to have solid talents in other directions. (p.14)

He is camp and bitchy when required, calls everyone ‘luv’ and is prepared to be reasonable unless they start shooting. ‘Roll me another joint, will you, luv. Have you got any Scotch?’ The MI6 man Quine is surprisingly camp and he and Phil riff arch sentences, all luv and dahling and sweetie:

‘Philip McAlpine,’ he made it sound like a statement from a deity. ‘Do sit down, luv.’ His hair was going, but his light green suit, with turnup cuffs, was a real wow. The impression he gave was of a dandified moulting stoat. (p.18)

I don’t think I believed any of the ‘hard’ plot but I was captivated by the persona, the posh stoned layabout and his reckless improvident voice, for whom nothing is serious for very long. The voice of one of the lads, a laugher, a joker, a midnight smoker, from 50 years ago, as bright, cool and antiquated as a Jimi Hendrix album cover.

The cab crawled round Hyde Park Corner and tottered off towards Victoria. After shuttling through the quiet streets where even the diesel fumes smell expensive, along the dolly mews with their tubs full of dwarf trees and shining brass coachlamps, our driver eventually found the street and stopped outside, predictably, number 13. Painted virgin white with an old ship’s bell hanging outside the nail-studded, plain varnished, teak front door. One up to Rupert for the bell. God knows where he got it but the engraved ship’s name was Titanic. Funnee. (p.181)

At a brisk 180-pages-long this book was bloody good fun and I’m looking forward to reading the other three.

Nervously knowing

Simon’s Rule of Self-Consciousness: the cheesier the spy novel, the more nervously aware it is of its own clichés:

Brentridge reached the door, flung it open and leapt inside – he had his gun out in the prescribed secret agent fashion. A grenade in the other hand and a stiletto in his teeth would have completed the picture. (p.169)

The view from 1966

Quine was right. This country is, for the time being, a whore. Our Empire has gone and our people remain lazy. We are clever, original, class-ridden and small. The sooner we can get back to being another small country and forget our now useless role of world arbitrator the better. Nobody has listened to our advice for years; it is just accepting this fact which is painful. Meanwhile we export fashion and trend to the rest of them, like a good little whore should. I had been the ponce scurrying round for Britannia among the rumbling power blocks who now run the world. (p.189)

Related links

1968 Pan paperback cover of The Dolly Dolly Spy

1968 Pan paperback cover of The Dolly Dolly Spy

Adam Diment’s novels

  • The Dolly Dolly Spy (1967) Introducing Philip McAlpine, dope-smoking, randy and reluctant secret agent who is blackmailed into going undercover with a dodgy international charter air firm, then kidnapping a dangerous ex-Nazi.
  • The Great Spy Race (1968) A retired masterspy organises an international spy competition, where agents from every country’s Intelligence agencies have to follow a trail of clues across Europe and out to the Indian Ocean to win a complete breakdown of Red China’s spy network, with our man McAlpine reluctantly out in front all the way.
  • The Bang Bang Birds (1968) Our man is bullied (once again) into undertaking a mission in Sweden, to infiltrate an elite club-cum-brothel and retrieve top secret information which is being seduced out of its powerful clientele. Cue an acid-fueled orgy, a duel in a speedboat, a helicopter getaway, a high-speed car chase, lots of sex, and some rather sober and bitter killings.
  • Think, Inc (1971) Stoner spy Philip McAlpine is back in his last adventure, blackmailed into joining the ranks of an international crime syndicate based in Rome and working on three crime capers which turn out disastrously. In a new departure for the series, McAlpine falls in love, with a black Londoner named Chastity and dreams of escaping, from filthy horrible London, from his former life of promiscuity, and from his career as a spy and hit man – dreams which are horribly crushed in the novel’s final pages.

Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album @ The Courtauld Gallery

In my opinion Goya is not a great artist in terms of technique: his portraits of the Spanish royal family or our own sainted Duke of Wellington are pretty flawed, are not figurative painting of the first order. His large body of work is very uneven.

What he does undoubtedly have is an extraordinary intensity of vision. This is why he is more remembered for the famous Disasters of War series than any of his ‘official’ works – they have an intensity and inwardness, a sympathy with the grotesque and horrifying, an obsession with experiences at the border and over the edge of what it means to be human which has echoed down the ages to our own violent times.

Regozijo (Mirth) byFrancisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 4 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink with traces of red chalk and scraping. New York, The Hispanic Society of America, A 3308

Regozijo (Mirth) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 4 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink with traces of red chalk and scraping. New York, The Hispanic Society of America, A 3308

Potted biography

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes lived from 1746 to 1828 ie a long life, dying aged 82. Professionally, he was a great success, rising to become official Painter to the Spanish Court in 1790, aged 43.

In 1793 he suffered an unknown illness from which he recovered but which left him profoundly deaf. In his convalesence he began to paint small pictures for himself, exercises of the fantasy and invention which could find no outlet in the formal portraits he was commissioned to make. He also began to create albums of drawings, small intensely-felt images of people, which he was to keep up for the rest of his life. We know about eight of them. Rather than conventional sketchbooks which might contain quick sketches of things observed for later use, angles and aspects of the world, the albums explore thoughts, ideas, feelings and fantasies in fully-finished images.

The Witches and Old Women album was the last one he made, between 1819 and 1823, when he was aged 73 to 77. An old man. After his death, the albums were cut up and the images filed into larger books, before being sold off in job lots by his descendants and scattered to the winds.

This is the first time all known 23 images from the Witches and Old Women album have been gathered in one place; in fact, it’s the first time the complete contents of any of the eight albums have been reunited for 150 years. It is a triumph for the patience and scholarliness of the curators involved.

There are just two rooms in this small exhibition.

Room one sets the scene, using 20 or so images from other albums and sources, images of nightmare and fantasy including Goya’s greatest hit, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters from the album Los Caprichos, to give context to the Witches.

The second room contains the 22 images from the Witches album, complete with page numbers and titles written in by Goya himself – alongside another dozen or so images from other albums, and lithographs from other sources, to give ongoing context.

The Witches and Old Women album

For a start they aren’t all witches or old women, there are a number of old men too and a number of figures who could be either sex. The title was given to the images well after Goya’s death and, I think, restricts ways of responding to works which are much more varied and strange than it suggests.

A large amount of scholarship has gone into analysing the album and the individual images, evident in the notes to each image and in the exhaustive book of the exhibition. As an amateur trying to make sense of what I saw in front of me, I divided the 23 images into four groups:

  • Visionary (people flying)
  • Humane (the pity of old age)
  • Types (stereotypical types eg the miser, the crone, the madman)
  • Horror (eating babies)

My view

For me the dynamic flying figures are best. They convey a ballet of grotesques, visions of dynamically interlinked flying human forms. Goya is great at depicting the human figure in movement and your eye is drawn to the attractive patterns and shapes of moving bodies (as in number 4, above, or number 1, below) – to their energy and strange grotesque enthusiasm.

Bajan riñendo, (They descend quarrelling) by Francisco de Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 1 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. Private Collection

Bajan riñendo (They descend quarrelling) by Francisco de Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 1 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. Private Collection

Conversely, the more static the image is, the more it reveals Goya’s shortcomings as a draughtsman, especially as a depicter of human faces. I’d rank number 15, below, as one of the three or four ‘Horror’ images, in which babies are being taken away to be sacrificed, tortured or eaten (we know this because other images show an old woman preparing to eat a baby).

Obviously the image is gruesome and macabre – my point is that it’s also a bit cack-handed. Look at the woman(?)’s face, typical of a range of badly drawn faces throughout the exhibition.

Sueno de buena echizera (Dream of a good witch) by Francisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 15 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer, Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, kdz 4396

Sueno de buena echizera (Dream of a good witch) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 15 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer, Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, kdz 4396

Look at all the faces in the half dozen images in this review: they are very hit and miss, but I think they miss most often in the static images where the poses are simpler, boring almost, and therefore you look for human expression and human meaning in them, which they often don’t provide.

Sexy?

In one or two places the commentary on the wall labels by each image seemed to me to incongruously and inappropriately raise the issue of sex.

In one image two figures are shaking tambourines, one of them with a dark blotch in the middle, maybe string or dirt or simple damage. The commentary says: ‘The hole in the tambourine may allude to sexual penetration.’ Really?

In image 20 an old woman seems to be carrying two skinny old men entangled on her shoulders. It strikes me as another variation of Goya’s obsessive theme of poor, decrepit humanity contorted into bizarre shapes of suffering or torture. Images which are deeply personal expressions of his unknowable but obviously bleak and comfortless thoughts and feelings. The commentary surprised me with another sexual interpretation: ‘This unwieldy tower evokes a circus act but the figures’ energy may also suggest lasting sexual vitality.’ Hmm.

Pesadilla (Nightmare) by Francisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 20. c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 19.27

Pesadilla (Nightmare) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 20. c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 19.27

Similarly, number 3 is a strange image of an ugly middle-aged-looking woman playing a guitar and howling while levitating over another figure, an old woman. Strange, grotesque and – in my opinion – badly done, not one of the ‘good’ images. Anyway, the old lady on the ground is looking up and holding her nose. I would have thought this is because of the awful smell emanating from under the levitating woman’s skirts – a rare outbreak of human reality in a ‘work of art’ and quite a comic image in a Chaucerian vein.

The commentary says: ‘The object on the ground might be a bowl with a spoon, implying that the woman’s levitation is caused by magic. It could also refer to a mortar and pestle, underlining the sexual dimension of the upward gaze.’ Is that the main thing going on here?

Cantar y Bailar (Singing and dancing) by Francisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women Album' (D), page 3. c. 1819-23. Brush and black and grey ink with scraping. London, The Courtauld Gallery, Samuel Courtauld Trust, D. 1978, PG256

Cantar y Bailar (Singing and dancing) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women Album’ (D), page 3. c. 1819-23. Brush and black and grey ink with scraping. London, The Courtauld Gallery, Samuel Courtauld Trust, D. 1978, PG256

Unless you’ve spent time caring for elderly relatives or working among the very old it is maybe difficult to grasp the misery and shame of being doubly incontinent, impotent, paralysed – the horror of being trapped in an utterly derelict, malfunctioning body.

Literary theory, certainly, and art theory, maybe, are saturated with psychological or psychoanalytical interpretations which dwell on sex, images of sex, wishes about sex, denials of sex, unconscious revelations of sex, as well as plenty of biographical scandal about the artist’s sex lives, all of which are immediate and present issues to the people in their prime who are the leading academics in these fields.

But being 70 years old in the 1820s must have meant something a lot different and a lot worse than being 70 in 2015, and Goya knew it and felt it and depicts it in these images.

No doubt there is much interesting interpretation to be written about the stereotyping of old women or about the long lineage of the way the figure of ‘the witch’ was used to define, control and demonise old women – and, from another angle, the album certainly also includes images of horror which are direct descendants of the famous Disasters of War and speak to us about man’s inhumanity to man.

But this time round, on this viewing, I was:

  • delighted by the half dozen images of figures flying, falling, twisting and dancing through the air (as in Regozijo and Bajan riñendo, above), which I found uplifting
  • and moved by the stoic images of poor suffering humanity, which I found humbling

Does the final plate, number 23, depict an old woman or a man? Surely it doesn’t matter. Surely the point is that it’s a deeply sympathetic image of old, old age and the burden and weight and frailty and pathos of suffering humanity. A burden more people in my generation are going to experience than any previous generation in history…

No puede ya con los 98 anos (Just can't go on at the age of 98) by Francisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 23. c. 1819-23 Brush, black and grey ink. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.GA.646

No puede ya con los 98 anos (Just can’t go on at the age of 98) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 23. c. 1819-23
Brush, black and grey ink. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.GA.646

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Beard @ Somerset House

Beard
A pogonophile photography exhibition by Mr Elbank

Brock Elbank is an award-winning photographer who began his career shooting women’s fashion working for, among others, the Sunday Times Style, developing a distinctively super-colourised approach to male styling and portraiture, for clients like Nike, Coca Cola, San Pellegrino, Toyota, Dove and Snickers.

For nearly a decade he lived in Sydney where his work became more art-based. While there he shot a mens’ concept editorial for Kiwi magazine Black on Beards – one of the first to recognise the rise of the bearded look which is now a fashion marker around the developed world.

On the back of the commission Elbank had begun to make a series of portraits of men with beards when he met campaigner Jimmy Niggles. Niggles had set up a charity publicising skin cancer after the death of a close friend. He named it Beard Season and the idea was to grow a beard as a conversation starter in order to spread the word about this preventable disease, share his friend’s story and encourage people to go and get tested.

Jimmy Niggles © Mr Elbank

Jimmy Niggles © Mr Elbank

To support Niggles’ cause, Elbank started up #Project60, in which he would photograph 60 people with beards and raise awareness of the charity by posting them on social networking sites. He received over 1,200 applications from around the world and selected sitters to come to his Warwickshire home to be photographed.

This exhibition displays large colour prints of the 60 portraits of beards, as well as 20 other works on the same theme commissioned for Somerset House.

Miles Better © Mr Elbank

Miles Better © Mr Elbank

The show includes the famous facial hairs of actor John Hurt and models Ricki Hall and Billy Huxley, but also other interesting characters such as tattooist Miles Better and British woman Harnaam Kaur, who has been growing a beard since the age of 16 after being diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition which causes excess hair growth.

There are also two sweet and funny pics of Elbank’s little daughter, Elkie, sporting an impressive ‘full set’.

John Hurt © Mr Elbank

John Hurt © Mr Elbank

Three short thoughts

Men What a pleasure to see an exhibition of visual art dedicated to men, a welcome relief from the diet of scantily clad or naked women, in photos or art, which dominate so many media and exhibitions.

Tattoos Lots of the subjects are ‘bohemians’ or ‘hipsters’, which means lots of them have tattoos. In fact the tattoos are often more impressive than the beards.

Billy Huxley by Mr Elbank

Billy Huxley by Mr Elbank

Eyes All the images look as if they have had their colour enriched, but something has been done to make the eyes particularly piercing. Bright blue or warm brown, after you’ve got over the beard and the tatts, it’s often the eyes which emerge as the strongest part of the image. Surely John Hurt is wearing brown contacts?

Stefan Bostrom © Mr Elbank

Stefan Bostrom © Mr Elbank

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Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)

Levin was a professional writer who produced half a dozen novels, nine plays – including the fifth longest-running play on Broadway (Deathtrap) – as well as ten or so film scripts and adaptations, in a career which lasted from the early 1950s to the early 2000s.

It is a real achievement for a writer to create one archetype of imaginative power, one avatar, one story or figure which is a permanent addition to the cultural store. One obvious measure of their success is the number of times they’re reworked into movies by the fiercely competitive and money-driven film industry.

On this criterion – movie success – Levin’s novels score high: Rosemary’s Baby (1 classic movie and several spin-offs), The Stepford Wives (2 movies and several spin-offs), The Boys From Brazil (1 movie), A Kiss Before Dying (2 movie versions), Sliver (1), with his hit play Deathtrap also made into a 1982 movie starring Michael Caine. This is success, big success, in the popular realm.

Of all of them Rosemary’s Baby, his second novel, is probably best known and most influential, often credited with begetting the contemporary horror story. The Devil isn’t depicted as a character in historical fiction, in Biblical epic or in some foreign land – He is here, now, in a Manhattan apartment block, among people like you or me.

According to his Wikipedia article, Levin later regretted how RB opened the way for a wave of horror stories and movies – namely, The Exorcist (novel 1971, movie 1973) and The Omen (movie 1976) – which gave a new realism and cultural presence to Satanism and which, he speculates, provided ammunition for the rise of US evangelists and the Christian Right. Maybe.

Short plot summary

A group of satanists in New York select a fertile young bride and arrange for her to be drugged and raped by the Devil, and then groomed and cared for while she brings the baby to term. The text is artfully constructed so that it starts in the humdrum world of tenancy agreements and bad plumbing and only slowly, through hints and glimpses, allows you to realise the true nature of what’s going on.

Before the movie came out, the novel had already sold two and a half million copies and, after the terrifying film (1968), directed by Roman Polanski and starring John Cassavetes as the creepy husband and Mia Farrow as a wide-eyed Rosemary, sales soared to over 5 million.

So what accounted for it success? How does it work?

Rosemary’s Baby

1. Commonplace setting

A young married couple, Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are looking for an apartment in New York so he can pursue his budding career as an actor and she can fulfil her dream of being a successful actor’s wife. Aged just 24, Rosemary has left her Catholic family back in Omaha to come to the big bad city and marry a non-Catholic, and oh how she longs for a baby.

Apparently by chance, they get the opportunity to rent an apartment in an old Gothic building, the Bramford, where an old lady has (conveniently) passed away. Again by chance, they get chatting to the old couple across the hall – Minnie and Roman Castevet – and, to Rosemary’s surprise, her husband becomes firm friends with them, until he is regularly popping round for chats with the old man who knew a lot of the old Broadway greats.

So far so innocent. Levin’s technique is to intersperse the text with odd moments, inexplicable events, ominous anecdotes – slowly at first. Rosemary meets the young woman, Terry, who the Castavets have taken in, in the laundry room in the dingy basement. She shows Rosemary an odd necklace the Castavets have given her, containing a foul-smelling substance. Days later the Woodhouses are walking home to find the sidewalk cordoned off where Terry has leapt to her death. A few days later, after the customary commiserations, Rosemary finds Minnie Castevet forcing the same necklace on her as a gift…

The apartment walls are thin, allowing Guy and Rosemary to overhear the old couple next door in their bedroom. Initially they hear comic old person nags – ‘Roman, will ya bring my cocoa!’ But in a repeated device, Levin shows us Rosemary’s thoughts as she falls asleep and dreams, mixing up genuine dream elements (meeting the Kennedys) with things heard through the wall – Roman and Minnie arguing about using such a useless young girl (the suicide), they must find a fresh, fit young woman for… what?

2. Precision and economy

The writing is crisp and precise. The use of dialogue is particularly telling, making quick cool leaps, just the telling phrase or snappy gag which gives you a flavour of the young couple’s irreverent humour.

Only as much detail and description and dialogue is given in each scene as is required to move the story along. All superfluous matter is cut. This makes the opening stretches a little colourless, as the mundane atmosphere is created by describing genuinely inconsequential things, quite a lot of Rosemary’s plans to redecorate the flat and what she’s cooking for Guy etc.

However, after about 50 pages and the reader starts to suspect something is wrong, the slow drip-drip of suspicion and coincidence begins to give every little incident a sinister dimension. And following chapter 8, the Sex-With-The-Devil scene, when we realise something is very very wrong, then every event, every remark from the husband, every look, every knock at the door or ring of the neighbour’s bell, becomes part of a closing trap, creating a genuine sense of claustrophobic fear.

3. The key

Rosemary has a friend named Hutch, an older man, a long-time New Yorker. He acts as a chorus, implicitly commenting on the action and providing the key to the dénouement.

Early on he outlines to Guy and Rosemary the Bramfield’s bad reputation: a history of suicides, murders, and association with one Adrian Marcato, who was accused of Devil worship and lynched in the lobby of the building. Later Hutch offers Rosemary use of his cottage in the country when she is feeling disoriented after the Sex-With-The-Devil chapter, barely accepting the cover story that her husband and she were both drunk and he took her violently while she was unconscious.

Guy learns that Rosemary has planned to meet Hutch when she is well on into her pregnancy, suffering constant pain, losing weight and looking awful. He tips off the Castavets and, when Hutch doesn’t keep his appointment, Rosemary is distraught to learn he has suffered a stroke and is in a coma.

At the very end of his life he regains consciousness long enough to get his nurse to promise to hand Rosemary a package. It is a book about witchcraft which is the key to opening her understanding about the conspiracy. Structurally, Hutch is vital to the plot, revealing the backstory, exposing secrets and unlocking understanding and meaning for both Rosemary and the reader.

4. American prose

After reading scores of English novels from the 1950s, 60s and 70s it is an enormous relief to read some American prose. It is free. It is unconstrained. It is unburdened by the wretched class system ie the grovelling belief of English writers that to be classy they must write stiff Augustan prose – the guests with whom we arrived, whilst I opened the window – all the markers of ghastly good taste.

Levin’s prose is simple and unadorned and just gets on with it. At a party:

Mike wig-wagged over heads and mouthed Congratulations. She smiled and mouthed Thanks. (p.141)

No fussing about style and elaborate periphrasis. The language is always inflected towards Rosemary’s point of view and (initially at least) fresh, happy, simple tone of voice.

She went to upper Broadway for swordfish steaks and across town to Lexington Avenue for cheeses; not because she couldn’t get swordfish steaks and cheeses right there in the neighbourhood but simply because on that snappy brightblue morning she wanted to be all over the city, walking briskly with her coat flying, drawing second glances for her prettiness, impressing tough clerks with the precision and know-how of her orders. (p.71)

When Levin wants us to hear her thoughts, he just puts them in italics.

Rosemary hung up and then lifted  the receiver again, but kep a hidden finger on the hook. She held the receiver to her ear as if listening, so that no-one should come along and ask her to give up the phone. The baby kicked and twisted in her. She was sweating. Quickly, please, Dr Hill. Call me. Rescue me. (p.189)

And to convey Rosemary coming round from a drugged sleep after she had given birth, he uses not Joycean stream of consciousness or a wordy attempt at a lush description. Keep it simple, really simple.

Light.

The ceiling.

And pain between her legs.

And Guy. Sitting beside the bed, watching her with an anxious, uncertain smile.

‘Hi,’ he said.

‘Hi,’ she said back. (p.205)

If it works, do it.

5. Faust and feminism

What emerges is that Guy has sold his soul and made a bargain with the Devil. The Castavets have offered him success in his career if he gives the Satanists his wife’s womb. The day after his long chat with Roman the actor who was Guy’s rival to get a plum new theatre role inexplicably goes blind and the role is offered to Guy. Further ‘accidents’ smooth his path to parts in high-profile TV ads and then a Hollywood studio comes calling. Earthly success beckons.

Two thoughts immediately arise:

  • Faust The novel is a version of the Faust myth, but with a spin; instead of his own soul, Guy has sold his wife’s womb. What’s interesting is what’s missing from this version of the myth – the theology. There is remarkably little theological paraphernalia, no priests or angels, no weighty discussions of God and right and wrong and the afterlife; let alone the more superficial layer of horror effects, like things going bump in the night. It is all kept within the world of a happy young couple and their eccentric neighbours. The Faust myth always ends with Justice being done, the protagonist realising the full implications of his deed, before being dragged down to hell screaming. None of that here. Guy remains a two-dimensional character, ready to sell his wife to the devil to get a good part in a play. –There is quite a lot of satire here on contemporary American values.
  • Feminism Lots of feminist tropes meet here, the one that strikes me being the way a man has sold his wife’s body for his gain. Without any effort Rosemary’s body becomes a metaphor for the Patriarchy or Capitalism’s use and abuse of the natural functions of the female body. It’s nowhere mentioned, but it’s just one of the issues which naturally arises from a novel dedicated to one woman’s pregnancy.

6. Pregnancy

Is there a human condition more fraught with meanings and anxieties and mystery and concern than that of a pregnant woman? The mechanism of existence, the way we all came into the world, the fragile slender means of our survival. The novel is cleverly contrived, expertly paced, written as if half way to a screenplay and works as a gripping read. But its theme also taps into archetypal fears –

  • taking the reader inside the mind of a panic-stricken woman who thinks she has been possessed by a demon and is carrying an alien body inside herself
  • tapping every reasonable person’s concern for the frailty and vulnerability of the pregnant woman ie the story has an added layer of terror because its main figure is a universal symbol of helplessness

The tale of the exploitation and hunting down of a particularly frail, vulnerable, naive pregnant woman brings into sweaty focus a world of conscious and unconscious anxieties which all contribute to its tense finale.

7. The Jewish view

Levin was a Jewish man. Rosemary is a (lapsed) Catholic woman. There are a number of ways you could take issue with his depiction of her gender and religion. For the purposes of the fiction I was persuaded by both – though she didn’t seem to carry the full burden of Catholic guilt experienced by many of the women I’ve known who’ve abandoned their faith. More interesting, I think, is the possibility that the whole thing is an elaborate Jewish joke about the stupidity and vulgarity of Christians. I don’t think it is, but at moments, especially towards the end, it certainly could be.

The final pages tread a very fine line between horror and the ridiculous – the Satanists crowd round the cradle with the little baby Satan in it, chanting ‘Hail Adrian! Hail Adrian!’ You could burst out laughing. This and some other details of the Satanism border on the risible; what holds the book together and gives it its hurtling, breathless tension in the final chapters is the immediacy of the portrayal of a vulnerable pregnant woman driven to a state of complete panic.

I didn’t necessarily buy the horror. But I was completely convinced by the terror.

The movie

Roman Polanski’s taut and terrifying film of the novel, made in 1968, and starring Mia Farrow, was shot in the Dakota Building in New York using a cast of venerable American character actors, and it is these – Sidney Blackmer and the terrific Ruth Gordon as the Castevets, Maurice Evans as Hutch, Ralph Bellamy as Dr. Sapirstein, Elisha Cook – as much as Cassavetes and Farrow, who root the outrageous story in an all-too-believable everyday reality.

Having just watched it, I’m struck by how very faithful the script (written by Polanski) is to the novel. Or how readily adaptable the novel was into a screenplay. The post-birth scene quoted above is shot exactly as per the novel, starting with the white ceiling and panning down to reveal Guy looking anxious and he and Rosemary both saying a blank ‘Hi’. The movie confirms your sense of the slick efficiency of the book.

Related links

Cover of the 1967 first edition of Rosemary's Baby

Cover of the 1967 first edition of Rosemary’s Baby

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife who is desperate to have a baby to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then try to keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the conspiracy.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972)
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976)
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)

Sabre-Tooth by Peter O’Donnell (1966)

‘You’ve arranged fine weather,’ she said, and handed him the glass. ‘I didn’t realise the Foreign Office had such influence.’
‘We sacrificed two Civil Servant maidens under a full moon last night,’ said Tarrant. ‘It seems to have worked better than some of our other operations recently,’ he added in a dry tone. (p.25)

Why shouldn’t a thriller be fun? I mean really enjoyable, full of amusing characters and preposterous plots and wacky gadgets and dastardly baddies and urbane toffs? Why shouldn’t it keep a smile on the reader’s lips for hours at a stretch? Why shouldn’t books, in other words, be as childishly pleasurable as James Bond movies?

In 1966 the Beatles released RevolverTime magazine announced that London was ‘swinging’, and Peter O’Donnell published the second novel based on his successful comic strip character, the stunningly beautiful secret agent and crime-fighter, Modesty Blaise.

The first hundred pages

The opening scenes reintroduce us to Modesty, the splendidly sexy but awesomely intelligent and competent master criminal-turned-agent, and her sidekick, Willie Garvin, expert killer, schemer, babe magnet and creator of Bond-ish gadgets; and their contact with ‘The Department’, Sir Gerald Tarrant.

Sir Gerald meets them in Modesty’s penthouse flat overlooking Hyde Park, where he also meets the little girl, Lucille, rescued by Willie after her entire family were killed in some foreign hell hole, and who he has been funding through school. The servant, Weng, looks after little Lucille while the three adults drive in their Rolls Royce to enjoy an afternoon’s fishing on the Thames near Maidenhead, before repairing to Willie’s waterside pub, The Treadmill, where Sir Gerald watches Modesty and Willie work out, practicing armed and unarmed combat in the special ‘workhouse’ behind the pub. All the time Sir G is wondering when’s the best moment to present his proposition…

Meanwhile, in a secret valley somewhere in the Arab world, we are introduced to a small mercenary army recruited from the roughest, toughest, meanest freelance killers the world can offer. They are being assembled by the fearsome Karz, and whipped into shape by his lieutenant, Liebmann, watched by a clutch of new and old recruits – Hamid, Sarrat, Carter – through whose eyes we are introduced to aspects of the tough training and harsh discipline of the camp.

The Twins

Every spy romp has its evil genius but is not complete without a psycho sidekick (Goldfinger and Oddjob). O’Donnell gets top marks for creating Chu and Lok, two enormous killers who were born Siamese twins and only separated well on in life, and who now choose to go around joined by a leather strap joining their chests. Tied together psychologically and physically for life, the twist is that they loathe and hate each other. But not as much as they hate anyone in the mercenary camp who is found out to be ‘Unsound’ ie questions Karz’s orders: any such fool is thrown to the Twins to be torn to pieces in the camp’s amphitheatre, before the drooling audience of hired killers.

***

Back in Berkshire Sir Gerald slips into conversation with Modesty and Willie how he’s been keeping an eye on a political figure of fun, Es-Sabah Solon, leader of the so-called ‘Free Government of Kuwait’, who is doing the rounds of social events, speaking at fringe meetings, popping up on TV. And finally, Sir Gerald begins to outline his problem to them. Word has it there might be a coup against the government of Kuwait. Rumours there’s a mercenary army assembling somewhere. Would Modesty and Willie mind infiltrating it?

After some thought, they agree and begin to concoct a plan. Willie will put it about that Modesty is bored in retirement. Modesty will pretend to have a gambling problem, on a massive scale, enough to bankrupt her, enough to put her on the lookout for a money-making proposition…

The next hundred pages

Modesty fixes it with a friendly casino owner to lose an astronomical sum of money in a well-publicised card game against an American millionaire. Very Casino Royale.

There is then a detailed account of a complicated heist they mount to steal a priceless Watteau painting from a French art gallery; they are smuggling it out of the country when, whoops, the truck crashes and the painting is recovered. As in the previous novel Modesty has a tactical affair with an old flame – the cartoonishly named Mike Delgado – and lets him just close enough to witness her desperation at losing all that money and then, alas and alack, the Watteau caper being foiled.

Of course, it is a cover story, all fabricated to make the mercenaries think she and Willie are available and looking for paid work. And a few days later, they are indeed lifted from the beach by some thugs and locked up in an abandoned villa. Turns out this incarceration has been carefully arranged by the abductors to contain an obvious escape route – cleverly arranged as a test, like something from The Prisoner (1967).

But Modesty and Willie excel expectations by making a hammer and weapons out of the lead piping to the sink, breaking through the roof, knocking out their guard with a lead attached to a strip of blanket, and then taking out the restroom full of armed guards. This is the scene where Modesty deploys ‘The Nailer’ ie appears topless to a room of astonished goons, thus giving herself and Willie a vital 2 to 3 seconds to move into optimum positions to take out the baddies, him with his leaded weights, her with her trusty kongo, before grabbing guns, knives etc to finish them off.

In a scene typical of the broad humour of the whole book, there is no car to escape from the villa but there is an old Victorian carriage rotting in the stables. So, at gunpoint, Willie harnesses the surviving baddies to bridles and traces and gets them to pull them back into town.

A few days later they are relaxing by the pool at Modesty’s house in Tangiers when a phone call tells them the Baddies have seized Lucille and will kill her unless they join the mercenaries. Aha. That changes the tone. They expected to be offered the job for money, that had been their plan. The abduction of Lucille means the army are much more ruthless than they expected – now they’re playing for real stakes. And a qualm enters the reader’s mind: threatening children – even in fiction – leaves a sour taste…

The last 80 pages

So Modesty and Willie are kidnapped and taken to the secret base of the mercenary army, high in the Hindu Kush, north of Afghanistan.

Here they put on another act, pretending to have fallen out as a result of their imprisonment and Modesty’s gambling ‘addiction’. A tad implausibly, they are both allotted squadrons to command. We’d been warmed up for this since it was in conversations about the lack of intelligent captains in his army, that the Evil Genius Karz and his lieutenant, Liebmann, had first mentioned Modesty and Willie as possible recruits.

There’s a great scene where Modesty has to confront her group of 20 or so murdering psychopaths and assert her authority. She does this quickly by identifying the alpha male in the pack and knocking six bells out of him; and then, shrewdly, picking him up and dusting him off and appointing him her second in command.

But when Modesty and Willie grab some time together they assess the scenarios: jointly break out – Lucille dies; alert Britain – Lucille dies; go along with the military coup, in which case a lot of innocent children die and maybe Lucille dies anyway, given how ruthless Karz has shown himself to be. Modesty comes up with a self-sacrificing plan.

She breaks into the radio shack, knocks out the operator and sends a coded radio message to Britain with details of the planned assault on Kuwait. Then arranges for the operator to come round to witness Willie and Modesty fighting, making it look like Modesty is the traitor and Willie caught her at it. They stage manage it that Willie and the operator overcome Modesty (as if!) and then haul her before Karz who, inevitably, condemns her to death.

Which sets up a great scene in the amphitheatre the next day, as the crowd of cheering thugs watch an epic fight between Modesty and the Twins. Guess who wins? But, like all the fight scenes in these books, it is described clinically and precisely and persuasively. Willie pleads for Modesty’s life, using the grim reason that Modesty can be used in the seraglio, the comfort rooms, as one of the army’s sex slaves.

Hmm. In my review of the first MB novel I mentioned the unspoken pact between O’Donnell and the reader: we promise not to burst out laughing at the preposterous plots and cartoon characters, and he promises not to be cheap, vulgar or degrading about his heroine. This pushes the agreement right up to the brink. But I think it works and the novel emerges the stronger for it and even gains a measure of depth and true dignity.

For three hard nights Modesty is made a sex slave in the harem, and Willie has to put up with the taunts and boasts of the men who’ve had her. I think it’s well and persuasively done that Willie suffers most. When his allotted evening comes round, and he goes into her cell/bedroom, the pair keep up the pretence of animosity between them until they’ve disabled the inevitable bug, and then he quickly releases her.

But it is Willie who has suffered. Modesty was raped and abused as a child and is still able to turn it off, to leave her body, making it happening to someone else. It is Willie’s mental torment at knowing what was being done to his ‘princess’, the woman he has pledged to protect with his life, that is dwelt on at length. It isn’t exactly ‘literature’ – but it isn’t pulp played just for exploitation, either. And this new tone lasts to the end of the book, adding a measure of depth to Modesty and Willie’s characters and really bringing to life the special bond they enjoy – much deeper than love or sex or friendship.

Long story short, they find Lucille is being held in the same building as the sex slaves, rescue her, go under dark to the airfield, kill the guards (who just happen to be the ones who boasted about ‘having’ Modesty – ah justice is done).

They mine the huge arms cache hidden in a cave by the side of the dam (yes, dam!) holding back the enormous lake (enormous lake!), set the fuses – oh and there’s just time for them to be caught and held at gunpoint by Modesty’s lover from the early stages of the book, big Mike Dalgado, and some goons – before they take them out, run to the plane, and just manage to take off as the rest of the army comes running up with machine guns. Phew.

As the plane circles over the valley they see the arms dump explode big time, demolishing one wing of the dam and letting the vast lake of water flood through the camp, drowning half the army and wrecking their base.

They crash land in Afghanistan among American contractors building a road, are treated for their wounds and then flown back to Europe. In the final scene Sir Gerald meets them at Modesty’s home in Algiers. She is being courted by the American millionaire to whom she lost at cards in the rigged game at the casino. And now Sir Gerald arrives to apologise for putting her through such a horrendous ordeal.

Dignity

On the drive up the hill Sir Gerald tells Willie that he doesn’t know if he can even face Modesty, knowing what his initial suggestion ended up putting her through. Willie stops the car and explains there is no guilt: he and Modesty went into the ‘caper’ with eyes wide open and it was her plan all along. They’re professionals and they’ve put it behind them and so should Sir G.

O’Donnell conveys real delicacy and sensitivity in both the characters in that scene, and then builds up Sir G’s nervousness and embarrassment as he finally arrives at Modesty’s house – so that there is a real sense of relief and release when she welcomes him in the old polite and civilised way, going out of her way to reassure him and put him at his ease. It is a psychologically important moment in the story, which Modesty, and her author, meet with panache.

Tarrant stood very still, watching the dimly seen figure in white moving down the broad stairs which led up from one side of the living-room. He heard a series of clicks, and wall-lights sprang up in different parts of the room. She was just turning at the angle of the staircase, moving quickly and lightly down the last few steps into the room.

She wore a very simple sleeveless dress in white nylon. It was short, with the hem just above the knees. Her brown legs were bare and she wore open pale-blue sandals with small heels. Her hair was loose and gathered back at the nape of her neck by a jet clip.

She was smiling at him, moving towards him with both hands extended.

‘Sir Gerald.’ Her eyes were warm with welcome. (p.281)

In a number of scenes throughout the book, O’Donnell’s characterisation achieves a kind of dignity and depth which lift it far above its comic-strip origins. I really like these characters. Crisply written, with a good steady pace, a comprehensible plot, and a warm feeling throughout, this is a hugely enjoyable and uplifting novel.

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Paperback cover of Sabre-Tooth

US paperback cover of Sabre-Tooth

Modesty Blaise novels

  • Modesty Blaise (1965) Introducing Modesty and sidekick Willie Garvin, as they protect government diamonds from a fiendish international criminal, Gabriel.
  • Sabre-Tooth (1966) Modesty and Willie get involved with a small army of hardened mercenaries who are planning to overthrow the government of Kuwait.
  • I, Lucifer (1967) An eccentric bunch of crooks have got hold of a mentally ill young man who thinks he is the Devil but has the useful knack of being able to predict natural deaths: they are using this to blackmail VIPs, until Modesty and Willie intervene.

Levkas Man by Hammond Innes (1971)

‘You don’t think about the world you live in, your species. You’re just a healthy, normal human animal. That’s why I need you. To keep me from thinking about my own species – the explosion of its populations, the massing in concrete jungles, the destructive assault upon the balance of nature which can only lead to nature’s retaliation – a long, slow, terrible battle of disease, famine and war.’ (p.192)

After the bright fluorescent modernity of Len Deighton, Innes reads almost like a Gothic writer, with his lingering on ancestral curses and implacable fates. As with the doomed relationship between the brothers in Atlantic Fury (1962) and the even more ill-fated relationship between father and son in The Doomed Oasis (1960), this is another tangled family saga.

Two things filled my mind – the way this house drew those who were connected with my father, as though his brooding personality were a living force within its walls, and the extraordinary pattern that was dragging me almost against my will into the area of his activities. (p.49)

Moreover, this novel is dominated by a gloomy early-1970s feeling that the world is coming to an end, that Man is destroying the environment and himself.

Levkas Man

The first-person narrator, Paul (28) is the adopted son of a famous Dutch archaeologist – Dr Van der Voort. The relationship was a stormy one, with much anger and beatings, until he ran away to become a merchant seaman. The narrative opens as, back from a long sea journey and fleeing some kind of waterfront brawl, Paul comes sneaking ‘home’ one night to the tall, dark, empty house in Amsterdam which is so full of memories and ghosts.

After wandering through the empty rooms and letting the memories flood back he is visited by his father’s young housekeeper/secretary, Sonia, and then, over the next few days, by two archaeologist colleagues of his father’s. Both want his father’s journal, the account of his current expedition out in Greece – although the trip has reportedly run into trouble, with stories of money shortages and fights.

The narrator could escape: the next morning he walks down to the docks and meets a seaman who introduces him to a captain who needs a mate for a voyage to New Zealand. It is everything Paul wants: flight to the other side of the world, escape to sea. But he turns it down and goes to a meeting with an international antiquities smuggler who wants him to move valuables between Turkey and Greece. Why? Because his father is in Greece… and he feels himself being pulled into what he repeatedly describes as the ‘pattern’.

I’d been given the chance of escaping from the pattern and, God knows why, I had rejected it. (p.51)

Stasis

As I’ve noted before, Innes has a trick or habit of mind of rendering long static scenes rather than dramatically active ones. People brood and stare off into the distance, stop speaking in mid-sentence and there is a general air of things unsaid, actions untaken, truths unexpressed, a paralysis which grips the characters and eventually the whole plot.

I sat there for a long time, the papers in my hand (p.40)… an awkward pause that held us silent (50)… He seemed resigned to my inability to help him and gave a little shrug (74)… He gave a shrug (78)… He stared at me, not saying anything (80)… He hesitated (81)… She hesitated, frowning (91)… She turned away (92)… He half rose as if to say something.. but then changed his mind (94) She had withdrawn into herself (97)… ‘I don’t know… It’s just a feeling.’ (98)… I think I must have stood there for quite a long time (103)… He was silent for a long time (105)…

There was nothing I could say and I stood there silent (107)… He just sat there silent, lost in his own thoughts (108)… He gave his habitual little shrug (117)… She hesitated as though about to say something… then she turned abruptly and went back (118)… He was not very communicative… we walked on in silence (123)… I hesitated… I didn’t say anything (128)… The intensity of his frustration… He hesitated (129)…

His open, honest features had reflected his own puzzlement as he searched for words to express his feelings (142)… For a time he seemed lost in his own thoughts (149)… He wouldn’t give me a straight answer to that (161)… We didn’t talk much, both of us wrapped in our own thoughts. (162)… he had withdrawn inside himself… He stared at me, his eyes suddenly blank (165)… The brooding look had returned to his face and  his mind was far away… a mood of withdrawal (167)… My father had withdrawn into himself (169)… Silence then, a silence that dragged. (188)… He was staring through the windshield, his mind on something else… He hesitated, staring at me (240)… I didn’t say anything. What could I say? (267)

It cannot be over-emphasised how much this atmosphere of blockage and constriction dominates the obscurely doom-laden text.

The plot

The plot, as in most Innes novels, is a concatenation of procrastinations.

Paul takes the smuggling assignment, flying to Malta where he meets up with the boat that’s been chartered for him to pick up the merchandise. But as soon as he and the husband-and-wife crew arrive in their first port in Greece, Paul is picked up by the Greek police who drive him to the dig, at a place called Despotiko.

  • The police (in the shape of a Greek Intelligence officer) want to know if his father is really a Communist spy – based on the fact he was a Party member in the 1930s and some of his expeditions were funded by Russia.
  • Meanwhile, it  becomes clearer that at least one of his father’s archaeologist rivals wants to steal his father’s discoveries, but why.
  • And at the site of the dig, up in the mountains, Paul asks the two assistants, Carpenter and Winter, why there was a fight, why the Doctor went mad, attacked one of them, then stalked off into the night.

And the answers to these questions? Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know.

The novel proceeds through a sequence of incidents none of which clarify what’s really going on or where we’re heading, creating a fog of uncertainty and indecision – and it’s a long one for Innes, 280 pages in the Fontana paperback edition.

So either you become quite frustrated at the lack of answers or you decide to sit back and enjoy the ride, savouring the saltily evocative description of sailing from Malta to Greece, or the sound and smells of evening in the square of a small mountain-top village.

There’s an Aegean Interlude in the middle of the novel, where Paul and the charter guys pull off the simple bit of antiquity-smuggling which, after all, is why he went out there – and this interlude contains wonderfully expressive descriptions of sailing along the Greek coast and out to the islands off Turkey. Sailing was Innes’ passion, and it shows.

Climax

Paul has a brief encounter with his father at the Despotiko dig, long enough to realise he is exhausted and at the end of his tether in obsessive pursuit of his theories, before decoying the police away from him. Drawing a blank there, the Greek Intelligence officer instructs the police to move their search to the locations where Dr Van der Voort was seen the previous year, specifically some caves on the island of Levkas.

Here they discover Dr Van der Voort has been exhausting himself for months, obsessively digging away at the rockfall at the back of the cavern, taking little food or drink at his feeble camp, in pursuit of the proof for his theories. But he is nowhere to be found. The Greek police, the other archaeologists, Paul and Sonia, all assemble here and realise the Doctor is missing because he’s trapped behind the rockfall, caused by a small earth tremor all of them felt a day or two previously, not big enough to be reported or cause any damage, but enough to trap the Doctor somewhere behind it.

In the final scenes, while the archaeologists go to work to remove the fallen rocks, Paul makes a tense and dangerous undersea dive along the shoreline directly beneath the cavern and finds a secret way up into it. In the climax to the various plot strands he discovers that:

  • his father has murdered his rival, Professor Holroyd, who had stolen some of his earlier discoveries and made the mistake of getting through the rockfall into the cavern at an earlier moment when a gap opened and before a further rockfall closed it
  • his father is now alone in a vast cavern covered with precisely the kind of prehistoric cave paintings which prove his theories about the migration of ancient man, about the triumph of Cro-Magnon Man, but above all confirm his view of Man as an irredeemably psychopathic killer

Themes

This brings us to the themes which are sprinkled throughout the text. They start out as being Dr Van der Voort’s theory, or theories:

  1. The sea was once 200 or 300 metres lower than it is now. The entire Mediterranean was then a vast savannah covered with the kinds of mammals you find in Africa. An enormous volcanic explosion (like the one which tore apart Santorini) blew up what are now the islands around Levkas. The ice melted and sea levels rose, making all sorts of places inhabitable by Stone Age man now underwater, hence the diving element in the plot.
  2. Prehistoric man came up into Europe from Africa, not Asia. (Since this is now the near universal view, it’s difficult to take seriously the idea that this is a Major Breakthrough, over which rival archaeologists are prepared to argue and even fight).
  3. ‘Modern man’, homo sapiens sapiens exterminated the heavier-browed, ape-like Neanderthal Man who he discovered inhabiting Europe, until only hss survived. (I think this is also the modern view, though disputed.)
  4. The Doctor’s personal theory that man is not the tool-making creature, but the weapon-making creature. Throughout the novel it is asserted that this insight is reinforced by his own personality and sudden rages, which have apparently included killing a man in Russia and (as narrated in the novel) attacking his assistants on the Despotiko dig. And the Doctor frightens his son, the narrator, by asserting that he, Paul, has inherited the old man’s violent tendency: hence the event before the text began, where Paul is meant to have killed a man in a waterfront fight. (Obviously a personal view of human nature.)
  5. Modern civilisation is sick, we are destroying the planet, maiming Nature, killing off each other, at a terrible rate. (See the quote at the top.)

Maybe the aim was to establish Van der Voort as a rather deranged version of someone like Laurens van der Post. The 1970s saw the rise of a number of ‘gurus’, people with a generally critical view of our consumer culture and a wider perspective on history or the cosmos, who were looked up to because they promoted ‘spiritual values’. Now that we know life is entirely about making money and buying the latest Apple iPhone, the alternative culture of the 1970s, with its aspirations to escape slavish consumerism, to bring peace and to protect the environment, seem utopian and naive.

Redemption in the end

As with the last few Innes novels I’ve read, you have to wade through several hundred pages of essentially mundane events, hundreds of frustrating non-communicative conversations, while some lonely obsessive leads the other characters a seemingly pointless dance – until the conclusion of the book, which in every case is a dramatic or imaginatively intense coup de théâtre which eclipses the preceding frustrations and leaves you with a powerful after-memory.

Same here: all the meandering plot and irritating non-conversations fade from memory by contrast with:

  • The scene where Paul confronts his father in the vast buried cavern completely covered in amazing prehistoric cave paintings of slaughtered animals which both can only see by the flickering light of Paul’s dying flashlight, which it has taken to many trials and adventures to discover, where Paul is oppressed by an almost tangible sense of prehistoric violence and evil, and where his father admits that he murdered the rival archaeologist, brutally staving in his skull.
  • Several scenes later, after Paul has burned his bridges by refusing to tell his potential lover, Sonia, the truth, and then beaten and tied up the Greek Intelligence officer who had been shadowing him – he steals the charter boat and heads south to freedom and new adventures. Man may be a murderer who is destined to fight countless wars and destroy his environment but, for this moment, for one man – Paul – there is the (very Innes) exhiliration of being at sea, at one with the elements, master of his own destiny, free. Not only is it powerful in itself, but comes as a tremendous psychological release after the sense of oppressive constriction which dominates most of the text, building up to the terrifying confrontation scene in the cavern. The narrator and the text are freed, liberated, newborn in the motion of the waves and the smell of the salt spray and the wide sky above.

Although the first two-thirds of a Hammond Innes novel are often a trial and a torment to read, it is almost always worth it because of the imaginative power of these final climactic scenes, for which the preceding pages are merely a sort of scaffold which can be kicked away and forgotten once the Big Scene has gripped your imagination, whose power lingers and forms your lasting memory of the book.

TV series

The novel was made into 6-part TV mini-series by ABC, the Australian TV channel. I think this must be the very of-its-time theme tune of the series.

Related links

1971 Fontana paperback edition of Levkas Man

1971 Fontana paperback edition of Levkas Man

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy by Len Deighton (1976)

I should have obeyed orders. I didn’t, and what happened subsequently was all my fault. I don’t mean that I could have influenced events, it was far too late for that, but I could have protected myself from the horror of it. (p.183)

All Deighton’s narrators wear glasses, presumably a jokey reference to the author’s own trademark specs. The third of his 1970s spy novels, Twinkle features another first-person narrator, unnamed but no relative of the Ipcress narrator, who is working closely with loudmouth American Intelligence officer, Major Mann (a clone of loudmouth American Intelligence officer Colonel Schlegel, from the previous novels).

Be warned: this plot is long and convoluted and deeply confusing.

In the desert of southern Algeria, the pair along with their local guide and old Algeria hand Percy Dempsey, rendezvous with a Russian defector – scientist Professor Andrei Bekuv, an expert in masers (?) and a member of the secretive 1924 Club (supposedly set up to research the possibility of extra-terrestrial life). To remind us we are in a spy novel a Russian helicopter gunship pursues them and blows up the car Bekuv had been driving up until he transferred to the one with the narrator and American, who all escape unscathed. Phew.

Cocktails in New York

They take Bekuv to New York, where the English and the American agent (who are paired for the duration of the novel) chaperone and guard the defector. There is a lengthy cocktail party at Tony Lowak’s in which a room is set aside for serious backgammon playing, and where the narrator meets Red Bancroft, a dazzlingly beautiful brunette and international backgammon champion (‘So pleased to meet you, Mr Bond’). In its relaxed social observation, it’s reminiscent of the long and urbane dinner party scene in Spy Story. Just in case we thought we were in a Kingsley Amis or maybe David Lodge novel, the scene ends in violence as the narrator, Red and Bekuv are held up in the foyer by three armed men. Fortunately, they’re rescued by one of the other party guests with a handy gun, who shoots the muggers. Was it a ‘normal’ crime, or were they KGB assassins waiting for Bekuv?

More interrogating Bekuv – our guys want to find out where security leaks from US science are coming from – but he refuses to talk without his wife, left behind in Russia. The narrator goes to meet the slippery CIA operative Gerry Hart and, during a tricksy conversation, discovers that Bekuv’s wife is already here. After some horsetrading between agencies, they are reunited.

Christmas in the Catskills

Mann decides he must take the Bekuvs, his own wife, the narrator and Red somewhere safe, so they drive to an obscure resort in upstate New York for Christmas. There’s more affable low-key banter for a score of pages until the Russians want to go to the local church for Midnight Mass when, caught in the exiting crowd, they are attacked by someone with a flick knife who badly wounds Bekuv’s wife.

But not before she’s passed on to them that Bekuv’s contact in the 1924 Club was one Henry (Hank) Dean. Turns out, in the kind of coincidence that only happens in fiction, that this Hank was a good friend of Mann’s – they grew up in the same town, Hank had a promising career as a baseball player, cut short, transferred to the military then CIA career. This ended badly in Berlin, after which he turned to drink and retired to a shabby old house in France.

Hank in France

Which is where the narrator and Mann promptly fly to confront him. After drinking and reminiscing with Hank they find him in the middle of the night trying to burn large amounts of foreign currency. He’s arrested by the French police. Either the currency is payment for betraying his country, or someone is framing him to make it look like he’s betraying his country. He disappears from the narrative and we never find out what happens to him.

Without stopping to clarify just what this retired drunk could be selling, our heroes quiz the locals and get a list of registration numbers of the cars which used to come visiting Hank. They trace the most persistent caller to a Frenchman in a slum part of Paris. Surprisingly, it’s Hank’s son, in his twenties. In a completely unconvincing scene, his much older fiancée reveals to the son that Hank’s first wife – ie the son’s mother – called round just yesterday on a trip from America, leaving a number at a Paris hotel. Coincidentally, our pair receive a CIA coded message that this woman and her husband, one Douglas Reid-Kennedy, had been staying in Ireland, near Drogheda, and that this location was the source of the leaks from the 1924 Club. Aha.

Buried in Ireland

The duo fly to Dublin, rendezvous with local police and motor out to the farm, on the face of it owned by a local family but leased out to a consortium of German investors, where Douglas Reid-Kennedy was reported to be based. It has been completely abandoned. The fire is warm where the inhabitants have tried to burn all incriminating papers. But still in it is a wodge of half-melted microfilms containing US scientific secrets. The narrator suddenly realises the dogs howling outside in the rain are howling at the graves of the family who own it. They have been murdered and buried.

Death on the yacht

The duo fly on to Miami, to the luxury home of Mr and Mrs Reid-Kennedy ie Hank’s ex-wife and the man she fell for. In a confusing scene the wife tells a long complex scenario about being married to Hank and lonely in Berlin and ‘comforted’ by Doug who inherited a successful electronics company from his dad, about Hank being kidnapped by the East Germans and held for ransom until Doug promised to spy for them. But Major Mann counters with an anti-account which matches the first one for facts but with a completely different interpretation of who promised to become a spy for the communists.

So where is Doug, anyway? Doug is dead in the luxury yacht in the dock at the bottom of the luxury lawn, his head blown off by a powerful semi-automatic gun. While the narrator checks the crime scene, Mann interrogates Mrs R-K. I think the idea is that she killed him, possibly because she, Mrs R-K, is the Soviet spy; certainly Mann threatens her with life in prison. She incriminates Gerry Hart, the smooth Washington operator we met earlier.

Meet the senator

Cut to the duo in the luxury office of a US Senator who chairs a high-powered Senate Committee on Science. They try to persuade him Gerry Hart is a KGB spy but he throws them out on their asses. News comes through that Bekuv has tried to commit suicide. Mann has been acting without consulting the English narrator because, as he now reveals, the woman he’s fallen head over heels in love with, Red Bancroft, is herself a high-ranking CIA operative.

Mann has separated the Russian couple, Bekuv in a safe house, his wife taken to a separate location and supervised by Red. The narrator promises Mann to forget about Red and fly back to Miami to continue the investigation. He completely disobeys (see quote above) and drives to the safe house containing Red and Mrs Bekuv to find out what the hell is going on.

My lesbian lover

When the narrator arrives at the safe house in the middle of nowhere, guarded by numerous CIA security heavies, and is frisked and goes into the house, he hears cries from upstairs, runs up and discovers – his one true love on her knees pleasuring the naked Mrs Bekuv sprawled across the bed. Hmmm. Didn’t expect that. Not only is his love for Red crushed at source, but the entire investigation is thrown into a new light.

Red follows him downstairs (now wearing a kimono) and explains that all of the duo’s traipsing around Europe and Florida was a red herring, purely to distract from Red and Mrs Bekuva being alone together long enough for Red to seduce her. By doing so she has confirmed that Mrs B is a hard core KGB agent and Gerry Hart is also a KGB agent. Hence his ability to swing it, back before Christmas, for Mrs to come out to join her husband. Hence the way – which everybody noticed – that as soon as she arrived, Mrs B took the whip hand over her husband: the Soviets let her leave and come to his side in order to muzzle and control him.

Shootout at the airport

Suddenly the narrator is called to airport where Hart has taken the senator hostage and is insisting on the Bekuvs joining him on a flight to Algeria. Mann is there supervising the CIA side, as the Bekuvs arrive and are handed over to Hart, who makes his way across the airfield with a gun in the Senator’s side. Of course it all goes wrong, with a rooftop sniper letting off a shot which misses and, in the ensuing chaos a) Mann makes a run for it and is shot in the head b) the narrator fires but misses everything c) Hart fires and shoots the Senator in half d) Mrs Bekuv seizes the gun and shoots Hart. Mrs and Mrs Bekuv scramble up the steps into the plane which takes off overhead. Ooops.

Back to the desert

A patched-up Mann and narrator fly back to Algiers where they hook up with pukka old Brit Percy Dempsey, who we met in the opening chapter. The Air Algeria flight was forced to refuel in London, which has given our guys the time to fly direct to Algiers and be ahead of them. Percy has hired a car and they wait at the airport. The baddies have their own people there, who smuggle them out the back way and into a LandRover which sets off at speed into the desert, pursued by our team.

A high-speed chase through the desert, tricky slippery driving at a hundred miles an hour, leads to the inevitable end of all high-speed chases ie they turn a corner and head straight into a flock of sheep blocking the road, take evasive action, crash against rocks, lose their wheels, hurtle down a precipice, mangled metal, breaking glass, juddering to a halt, moans of pain, sound of petrol gurgling etc.

More chase

The narrator comes round in an Arab hospital where he finds all of them have survived and been patched up. As soon as Mann is conscious he insists on hiring another car and setting off in pursuit. They finally reach the point where the Bekuv team turned off into the desert and follow their tracks till they are intercepted by armed guards just before reaching a vast camp in the middle of nowhere. It’s a former Roman fort which has been reinforced and modified and is bristling with aerials and antennae.

The narrator meets and talks with Bekuv: he realises Bekuv did a deal with the Soviet authorities: he got his money to build a vast centre capable of sending and receiving signals to outer space (in pursuit of Bekuv’s cranky belief that he can contact alien civilisations) and in return Bekuv promised to use the resources created for him to intercept signals from all the West and NATO’s spy satellites. That’s where the leaked science information was leaking from – not a human contact: the entire chase to the south of France, Paris and Miami, all of it with its trail of human wreckage seems irrelevant.

Ends with a bang

The narrator points out that, after the débâcle at Washington airport, the Russians will want to close down the centre, in fact to obliterate Bekuv and all his activities. Bekuv refuses to believe him. In a final rather strained betrayal, Red persuades Mrs Bekuv to pretend to her husband that she, Red, is dead, murdered on his orders. While they’re having a big scene in the main square of the compound the narrator and Red – who now have only sad, non-lover feelings for each other – slip out a back window and catch up with Mann and Percy, who are trudging over the sand back towards the main trans-Sahara Highway.

In the last sentences of the novel they see a flash of light and then hear the bang – as the narrator expected, a Soviet plane has vapourised the tracking centre, taking Professor and Mrs Bekuv along with it.


For once a Deighton novel doesn’t end with a chuckle. Improbable and tangled though the plot has been, the tone has been far more business-like, sober and hard than in the previous books. The appearance of a lesbian sex scene might be interesting to historians of LGBT themes in literature, or novels. But the entire ‘love story’ between Red and the narrator, like almost all the human relationships in the text, are thin as cardboard.

Looking back I don’t understand lots of things which happened and don’t know what became of all kinds of supporting characters, such as Mrs Reid-Kennedy, or Hank or his son in Paris, in the headlong rush to get to the final pages. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But then, why care about any of it?

Related links

Paperback edition of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy

Paperback edition of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy

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.

Yesterday’s Spy by Len Deighton (1975)

I looked at him for a long time. ‘The days of the entrepreneur are over, Steve,’ I told him. ‘Now it’s the organisation man that gets the Christmas bonus and the mileage allowance. People like you are just called “heroes”, and don’t mistake it for a compliment. It just means has-beens, who’d rather have a hunch than a computer output. You are yesterday’s spy, Steve.’ (p.49)

Backstory

The improbably-named Steve Champion was a successful British spy in Nazi-occupied France during World War Two, where he ran one of the few resistance networks that lasted, based in Nice, in the south of France. A 19-year-old newbie SIS agent was secretly landed from a British submarine to join the group and work undercover, eventually witnessing the arrest of Champion and other key members, who are tortured or killed.

The present day

Thirty years later, that newbie is the narrator, Charlie, who is meeting Champion for drinks in a London club. All very sociable and chatting about the old times – but from there he goes to report to his superior, Major Schlegel, an American seconded to British Intelligence. (This is the same Schlegel who we met in this novel’s predecessor, Spy Story, but this narrator, with his war spent in the French Resistance, is definitely different from the narrator of the Ipcress novels and Spy Story.) For whereas Champion left the Service, the narrator didn’t, and he has been tasked with investigating rumours which have begun to circle around his old idol.

The first half of the novel consists of a series of encounters with figures from Champion’s and Charlie’s pasts:

  • Charlie travels to Wales to meet Champion’s ex-wife, Caty, and son Billy (Champion married her partly out of guilt because she was sister to Marius, the Catholic priest who was in their cell but who was eventually caught, tortured and murdered by the Nazis).
  • In Champion’s London flat he joins Schlegel and Special Branch men stripping it for evidence that Champion has killed and disposed of his girlfriend, Melodie Page…

Then, traveling to the south of France, specifically Nice, location of their wartime cell, Charlie meets:

  • Pina, the embittered daughter of one of the members of the cell, whose husband and two children were murdered in Algeria
  • Claude l’avocat, part of the wartime cell who is revealed as having been a German spy all along, and has continued on into peacetime, now working for German Intelligence
  • Serge Frankel, a passionate Jewish communist

Through this network of characters Deighton is able to explore the way wartime loyalties have evolved and changed and cost their characters very dearly. Frankel in particular has made the long journey from committed communist to avowed Jew and supporter of Israel, prompted by the vicious anti-semitism of the Soviet Union and the USSR’s support of the Arabs in their wars against Israel. Now, he tells a surprised Charlie, Champion is working to supply the Arabs with a nuclear warhead. He has even accepted a military rank in the Egyptian Army; a fact apparently confirmed when Charlie travels to Geneva to meet a high-ranking Egyptian diplomat who is, in fact, a double-agent for British Intelligence.

So far, so rational but, in a confusing sequence, Charlie is ‘arrested’ by two French Security policemen who drive him to the abandoned quarry a) where the wartime cell used to hide out b) which Champion bought, along with the neighbouring house, after the war and has made his home. As they pull into the quarry, there’s an unexpected shoot-out between Pina, who was being held hostage in a quarry building, and her captors. The French ‘security’ men join in, at which point Charlie pulls his gun and shoots them. Pina and Charlie survive, hide the bodies, and beat a hasty retreat in the car. The whole thing was a set-up but why? Were they going to frame Charlie for murdering Pina? Why?

Barely has he returned Pina to her flat, than, back at his hotel, Charlie is arrested by real French police but – in the deus ex machina manouevre which we’ve encountered in numerous previous Deighton thrillers – an authority figure (either good old Colonel Stok or, as here, his boss Major Schlegel) intervenes to persuade the French that Charlie is wanted for the murder of Melodie Page back in London.

Hiatus in prison

What happens now is a little improbable. The Department agrees with Charlie that he will be prosecuted for Melodie’s murder and sent to prison, but in a case so badly managed that his appeal lawyer should be able to get him released. And this is what happens. He outs up with a few weeks in Wormwood Scrubs before his (frustratingly incompetent) lawyer gets him release. And then Charlie goes on the tramp, sleeping rough, hanging out with other vagrants.

Why? Well, this unconvincing charade is designed to signal to Champion that Charlie has now well and truly severed his ties with the Department. Hmmm. a) I don’t believe it, it seems a wildly elaborate and unconvincing strategy b) Champion does contact him after a week or so, but he doesn’t believe it either c) the whole agent-going-to-prison-to-prove-he-no-longer-works-for-the-Service thing was done much better by John le Carré in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold ten years earlier.

Working for Champion

So Champion picks him up in his chauffeur-driven car and says, ‘Right boyo, do you want to come and work for me?’ The narrator melodramatises this as him ‘disappearing from view’ and ‘going off the grid’ which also doesn’t make much sense because as soon as Charlie is ensconced in Champion’s base (the big house by the Tix Quarry outside Nice) he immediately starts using his days off to pop in on his old mates – Serge, Claude, the Falstaffian restaurateur Ercole and, of course, his boss and ‘control’, Major Schlegel. All in all, the opposite of disappearing.

Charlie spends his time running low-level chores for Champion, the most interesting of which is handling low-grade intelligence from a worker at the nearby French Army test range; playing with Champion’s son, Billy; and screwing the nanny with the James Bond name Topaz, who one night came to his bedroom wearing only a skimpy shift which, in James Bond fashion, fell to the floor…

It’s on one of these visits that Frankel surprises Charlie by announcing Champion is scheming to get hold of a nuke and sell it to the Arabs. Can that be right? Or is it Frankel’s anti-Arab paranoia? Either way, travelling back from Nice in the chauffeur-driven car with Champion and Billy, the car is pursued by a motorbike rider with a pillion passenger who abruptly shoots the driver, causing Champion et al to have a very high-speed crash. Charlie crawls from the wrecked vehicle, rescues Billy, then saves Champion’s life by unobstructing his windpipe and giving him the kiss of life. Who the hell did it? And why?

Few days later, and back at the mansion where the comatose Champion has been transferred, Topaz arrives in Charlie’s bedroom at dusk and offers sex but when Charlie demurs pulls a gun and keeps him under guard while lots of Arabs clump around the house. Are they kidnapping Champion? Removing precious documents or jewels or what? Into the darkened room comes an Arab and when Topaz talks to him, he opens fire with a shotgun and blasts the sexy Topaz in half, while Charlie keeps absolutely still in the blacked out room…

When things have quietened down he sneaks down to the garden where he finds Billy hiding, and drives the back way into Nice, where he deposits Billy with Pina and tells her to fly to London then travel to Wales to be with Caty.

Then Charlie continues on to Frankel’s flat, where he finds Claude l’avocat in attendance as French police deal with Frankel’s corpse. And that of the low-level contact from the Army base. More murders. By who? And why? It is here that Claude tells Charlie that although he, Claude, was a double agent within the wartime cell, it wasn’t him but Champion who betrayed them all, the betrayal which led to the arrest and death of Marius.

Finale

The ending is also confusing. Charlie finds himself summoned and flying by helicopter to the German border, there to find Schlegel interrogating two hitch-hiking hippies who are carrying detonators and ammunition across the border. After some chat they realise this is a diversion. Schlegel tells Charlie five heavy-duty superlorries unloaded a large consignment from Nice docks and are driving up the Autobahn into Germany. Is the hitch-hiker thing a ploy by Champion to distract from that? Is there a plot to carry out some kind of Arab terrorist outrage in Germany? They helicopter over to where the trucks have been pulled over by French police at the border. No. The trucks are empty.

Maybe both were ploys, two levels of distraction, to decoy away from the real scam which is happening back in Nice? Cut back to the Tix mansion which Schlegel and Charlie find full of lights and activity. Charlie creeps in, using his knowledge of the house, and discovers a secret lift in a room he was never allowed to enter. It goes down into the old mine workings. After a few scrapes, Charlie follows a tunnel which emerges into the main bowl of the old quarry to find it filled with the inflated body of an airship! Melodie Page had sent messages back to the Department on postcards with images of airships crashing in flames. Topaz, the randy nanny, had a PhD in thermo-chemistry. Lots of pieces of the puzzle start clicking together. Sort of.

In a very James Bond climax, the floodlights go on and Charlie is caught like a rat in a trap. ‘Put down the gun, Charlie.’ Champion then comes forward and, while his minions make the final preparations to the airship, explains the whole plot. They have tunnelled under and up into the French Army base stores and stolen nuclear shells (not bombs). These they are going to load into the airship which will carry them across the Med to an Arab country. ‘It is too late, Mr Bond, nothing can stop me now.’

Charlie suddenly realises Champion has been bluffing him, they have already loaded the shells and are about to take off. With sudden desperation he pushes Champion down the stairs and empties all the bullets from his gun into the petrol tanks of the engines of the airship, then runs as fast as he can back into the tunnel and up the mine workings before he hears an enormous explosion and the blast and flames follow him up the tunnel, lifting and burning him. The airship is destroyed, all the Arabs and Champion incinerated.

Epilogue and explanation

Recovering in hospital (just as the narrator of the previous novel ends up recovering in hospital) Charlie explains it all to Schlegel. Champion never even broke into the French Army store, never touched a nuke. He was going to fly to an Arab country and claim to have sold them to Egypt, which would confirm the sale. The more the French authorities denied it, the more no-one would believe them. Champion would technically have committed no crime and been free to return to France, but the Egyptians would have gained a big psychological bargaining chip with Israel.

I don’t believe a word. It just isn’t convincing, in a world and a milieu which thrives on real threat and violence, I don’t believe Champion’s plan was feasible. To put it mildly, Israel would check. And the French would devise some way of throwing Charoie in prison. All this cunning and violence has been expended on what seems like a very dumb scheme.

I think the complex of double crosses, the description of the way wartime loyalties had been compromised, the revelations of past and present betrayals, as well as the deaths of Topaz and Frankel, were meant to move the reader. But they don’t. They feel like lifeless tokens being moved about on a Monopoly board.

Deighton’s novels have many virtues – namely his understated humour and technical expertise – but genuine tension and psychological depth are not among them.

I opened the car door, and began to get out. I said, ‘I’ve no inclination for all this play-acting, late-night TV spy stuff.’ (p.140)

Related links

1979 paperback cover of Yesterday's Spy

1979 paperback cover of Yesterday’s Spy

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.

Spy Story by Len Deighton (1974)

Dawlish collected my empty cup. ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Pat! You’re dripping blood all over the carpet.’
‘It won’t show,’ I said. ‘Not in that lovely humming bird pattern.’ (p.193)

Hooray! The anonymous protagonist of Deighton’s Ipcress novels is back! We know (well, suspect) this because the narrator recognises jovial, plump Soviet agent, Colonel Stok who pops up at various key points of the plot, just like he did in Funeral In Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain – and because Dawlish, his boss in the Ipcress novels (head of WOOC(P)), crops up here as the narrator’s ex-boss. And because he has the same cheeky chappy approach to his job, his wife and life. Surely it’s the same guy?

The plot

He appears to have escaped (retired, been pensioned off) from the Secret Service and now, under the name Pat Armstrong, is working at a computerised war games simulation centre in a Gothic revival house in north London. It’s still a bit hush-hush but he is no longer an agent in the field, he has a flat and a nice wife, Marjorie, who is a doctor — even if his and his colleagues’ lives are disturbed a bit by the arrival of brashtalking US Marine Colonel Schlegel, who has been seconded from the States and put in charge of the war games centre.

BUT strange things start to happen after he’s returned from the latest in his routine trips out with nuclear subs under the ice. The car he and his colleague are travelling in is rammed and nearly driven off the road. Then, back in London, when his car breaks down he makes an unscheduled visit to his old flat (for which he happens to still have the key) and is astonished to find it is still full of clothes like his, books like his, photos of him, except looking slightly different – as if in every way someone is impersonating him.

Strangest of all, he uncovers a fake back to the wardrobe which leads into the next door flat, the first room of which has been converted into some kind of medical facility with machines. He goes home and doesn’t mention it to his wife…

A few days later, after his wife has left for work, the door is kicked open and he is attacked by East European goons who are in a fair way to killing him before they are called off the last minute by Colonel Stok, the same stocky, genially thuggish Soviet agent we have met in the Ipcress novels. But they continue to ransack his flat and blow up the old wall safe looking for something, before leaving without any explanation.

A few days later there is a big set-piece dinner party at the enormous house of Armstrong’s very upper-class colleague, Ferdy Foxwell. An MP, a professor, a philosopher, some Lords etc. Over port they discuss current affairs in a right-wing kind of way. Also attending is Armstrong’s old boss, Dawlish, who we know from the Ipcress novels to be head of WOOC(P), a part of British Intelligence. He smoothly invites Armstrong to rejoin the Service. Armstrong bluntly refuses.

But the strange thing is that, later that night, he’s called to the police station to collect one of the guests, a publicity-seeking MP named Ben Toliver, who had hogged the limelight at the dinner party but then been involved in an obscure car crash with East European heavies driving a lorry. Toliver completely denies the acccident took place and is backed up by the young lady who was in the car at the time.

What is going on?

Turns out a renegade group of right-wing Brits led by the egregious MP Ben Toliver has concocted an elaborate plan to smuggle a willing Soviet Navy Admiral into the country and keep him safe for a while in Armstrong’s old flat using his identity. Hence the old clothes, books, possessions and lightly doctored photos which he found there. And hence the medical room containing a dialysis machine, since the Admiral has kidney disease and the clique are luring him to the West with the promise of better medical care and a kidney transplant.

Armstrong’s snooping takes him to a chi-chi French restaurant where he eyes up the sexy young owner and the gawky unwell waiter; she says come back at lunchtime. He picks up his wife Marjorie and takes her there for lunch only to find it completely abandoned. To his wife’s horror, Armstrong breaks in. Every scrap of paper or evidence is gone, along with the girl. Outside he realises the place is under surveillance. His wife catches a cab back to her hospital work, then a Special Branch car pulls up and asks Armstrong to get in. Reluctantly he does and is driven to a heliport, from which a helicopter flies him to an airfield from which a small plane flies him to a tiny island off the Scottish coast.

Here he is greeted by Toliver and his crew, an eccentric circle of huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, right-wing types who are all involved in the conspiracy. Quite honestly, I didn’t understand why they brought Armstrong there. It seemed obvous to me he would betray them and he does. Are they that dim?

After a predictable grand meal with much port and right-wing chat, Armstrong goes up to bed to find a piece of paper slipped under his door indicating a rendezvous in the dilapidated greenhouse. When he goes there he is surprised by none other than the sexy restaurateur who turns out to be the loyalist daughter of one of the conspirators and tries to shoot him with a shot gun, wounding him in the arm and side on her second attempt.

Badly injured and losing blood, Armstrong has a nightmare escape around the precarious clifftops of the island in a howling blizzard, at one point disturbing a vast colony of gulls which attack him like a scene from The Birds. Finally he makes it across the ramshackle derelict footbridge to the mainland and stumbles into the nearest village more dead than alive.

Where, in a scene reminiscent of a 1950s farce, he encounters not only soldiers prepped for action, but his bosses Dawlish and Schlegel in an outlandishly garish holiday camper trailer where they offer him a cup of tea and cake and then complain that he’s bleeding on the carpet (see quote at top).

Unsurprise

This is a distinguishing feature of Deighton’s fiction, the lack of surprise, the understatement, the dry wit, the playing-it-cool. Some pretty strange things happen – your whole life is being replicated in your old flat by complete strangers, you get beaten up by Russian thugs – yet he carries on making coffee in the morning, going to work, arranging to go out with his wife, ho hum.

On the ice

The final 50 or 60 pages are completely different in feel from everything which preceded them, as big Ferdy, the narrator and Schlegel ship out on a nuclear submarine under the Arctic. In a move which makes less sense the more you think about it, the bosses (Dawlish and Schlegel) seem to have quietly accepted that this renegade team led by Toliver can go ahead with their madcap scheme of getting hold of a Soviet Admiral; despite the attempt of one of them to murder the narrator. They make no attempt to cross to the island or capture the gang.

Instead they put the narrator up with a hoary old Scotsman who nurses him back to health over the next few days. Then Schlegel arrives with Ferdy and they all drive along to the nearby nuclear sub base where they are accepted aboard a nuclear sub for the next patrol under the ice.

The journey under the ice is conveyed with Deighton’s trademark technical knowledge and provides the only real stretches of tension in the book, as Schlegel forces the captain to navigate genuinely dangerous routes under the pack ice, before compelling him to surface so that Schlegel can receive a radio call.

It is a pre-arranged signal from the Russian conspirators and prompts Schlegel, Ferdy and the narrator to walk a mile or so across the ice with the corpse. Corpse? Fifty pages back Armstrong’s wife had recounted seeing Toliver at her hospital arguing with the morgue people: presumably he was arguing about getting hold of a corpse which had recently died of kidney disease. The plan is to give the Admiral’s people the corpse, so they can dress it in an Admiral’s uniform and crash the helicopter and burn the corpse or in some other way pretend the Admiral has died. Thereby covering his defection. By this stage I was confused about the extent to which Schlegel and his team are going along with Toliver’s plan. What has happened to Toliver and co?

But in a move which is now becoming quite familiar, Ferdy, Schlegel and the narrator are greeted at the Soviet helicopter on the ice, not by the Admiral’s people but by – guess who? – Colonel Stok. That guy turns up whenever Deighton’s plot has painted itself into a corner.

He is accompanied by the same toughs who beat Armstrong up in his flat and a fight breaks out, before the helicopter takes off with the toughs holding on to Ferdy, and Armstrong foolishly grabbing Ferdy’s legs. Up into the air they fly till Armstrong fires into the cockpit, wounding the tough holding Ferdy who lets go, and he and Armstrong plummet to the ground. Ouch. Some time later Armstrong regains consciousness and begins a gruelling march across the ice to where he hopes the submarine is, supporting the injured and incoherent Ferdy all the way.

Deighton doesn’t really do tragic or intense. He is far too suave and knowing. Colonel Stok’s appearances have an element of pantomime about them and defuse any tension. Poor fat Ferdy ‘dies’ on the long march back to the submarine, but this doesn’t appear to dent anyone’s mood.

Compare & contrast with the intense, totally serious and viscerally thrilling account of surviving on the ice in Alistair MacLean’s riveting novels The Longest Night or Ice Station Zebra to see how essentially lightweight, comic and entertaining Deighton is.

What happened

Armstrong wakes up in a Norwegian hospital bed, having been found by a search team from the sub and brought back under sedation to civilisation. Again, this final scene is played for comedy, with Schlegel explaining what the whole cockamamy mission was about while Dawlish comments archly between slowly eating the grapes he himself brought Armstrong (in a gag I’m sure I’ve seen in countless old movies).

Turns out the Department allowed Toliver’s silly plan to go ahead because they knew it would fail and Stok and his KGB colleagues would foil it – at which point the Admiral would be arrested and sent to Siberia and so would all of his family, and this includes his sister. And his sister was about to head the Soviet delegation to the Reunification of Germany talks which have been mentioned intermittently throughout the novel, glimpsed in newspaper headlines or overheard on the radio.

So everything that happened, the beatings and violence and deaths and deceptions, were all part of a calculated plan to scupper the Germany reunification talks, which would have had a devastating impact on NATO and Western security. Aha.

The novel ends on a belly laugh as, once Armstrong has digested this rather mind-bending scenario – and is swallowing the fact that he’s lost his job, his cover, his girl (she leaves him half way through the book) and nearly his life (twice) — Dawlish tentatively wonders if he would consider helping them out with a little problem they’ve got… small security thing… would he be interested?

Conclusion

My son looked at the book and said, ‘Has he given up on titles, then?’ Surely Len could have thought of something a bit more inventive.

Just like the Ipcress novels, each chapter opens with a themed epigraph – here, they are excerpts from the War Studies book of rules eg

The actions of the civil power will not be included in the TACWARGAME.
RULES. ‘TACWARGAME’. STUDIES CENTRE. LONDON

which have a similarly cool, tangential relationship to the actual plot as in the earlier novels i none that I could discern.

But, in a way that is hard to define, the thrill has gone. The style is a lot more open and readable than the Ipcress novels and, well, more boring. It allows you to follow the plot and spot what seemed (to me, anyway) to be great yawning holes of improbability. These also occurred in the earlier books but were masked by the dazzlingly elliptical presentation.

Ten years into his (prolific) writing career, Deighton’s style has married, settled down, had kids and got a mortgage. Despite flashes of brilliance, and the same highly knowledgable, urbane tone, he’s not the flashy young joker he used to be…

Related links

Paperback cover of Spy Story

Paperback cover of Spy Story

Len Deighton’s novels

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

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