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.

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