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)

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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.

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