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…

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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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