Mexico Set by Len Deighton (1984)

‘That bloody Werner has been seeing Stinnes,’ said Dicky. He was pacing up and down chewing at the nail of his little finger. It was a sign that he was agitated. He was often agitated lately. Sometimes I wondered that Dicky had any nails left.
‘So I hear,’ I said calmly.
‘Ah,’ said Dicky. ‘I thought so. Have you been going behind my back again?’
I salaamed; a low bow in a gesture of placation, ‘Oh, master. I hear this only from Harrington sahib.’
‘Cut out the clowning,’ said Dicky. (p.173)

Mexico Set is the hugely enjoyable second volume in the Bernard Samson trilogy, following immediately on from Berlin Game, what seems to be a matter of weeks or a month or so later, and with almost all the same characters. In the first novel Samson exposed his wife as the senior ‘mole’ in the Department, a part of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), forcing her to flee to the East (arranging his release from East Berlin Stasi headquarters in the process).

The continuity of plot and the familiarity of almost all the characters makes it seem a little like a soap opera or long-running TV series like Friends or Scrubs. It feels like Deighton himself is confident and at ease enough with the characters to muck about, to play, to experiment with their behaviour, to explore their hinterlands more.

Bernard Samson’s private life

Samson’s private life is a mess. He is now single, in charge of two school age children and living in a sizeable house in West London with a nanny and a Portuguese cook. On his SIS salary he can’t afford to keep this up any more without Fiona’s income and trust fund, as his wealthy father-in-law is quick to brutally remind him (chapter 10), threatening to take him to court for custody of the children. the threat of a court case would bring Samson’s bosses into the picture, leaning on him to reach a settlement (ie cave in to his father-in-law) in order to avoid publicity about Fiona’s defection, which they have so far successfully suppressed.

Berlin childhood

Worth emphasising again that Samson’s big selling point, his distinctiveness as a character, comes from the fact that his father before him was in British Intelligence, based in Berlin – and that his dad didn’t send him back to England to a pukka public school. Instead Bernard went to school in Berlin a) making friends with a number of Berlin boys, many of whom have turned out to be handy contacts in adult life, b) coming to know Berlin like the back of his hand c) speaking German like a native and with an acute awareness of different accents and dialects.

We are told that he left school at 16 and didn’t go to university, hence the other consequence, d) his ingrained contempt for his public school and Oxbridge-educated colleagues in the Department, an amused contempt which is identical to the attitude of the narrator of Deighton’s early Ipcress novels.

Mexico

Why Mexico? For the slender reason that Werner Volkmann, Samson’s ‘oldest and closest friend’ (p.16) from his Berlin childhood, is on a second honeymoon there with his gimlet-eyed wife, Zena (the cynical 22-year-old who was briefly the mistress of Frank Harrington, the ageing head of the Department’s Berlin office, in the first novel). While there they spot the Berlin-based KGB officer who interrogated Samson at the climax of the first novel, one Erich Stinnes, in the club frequented by the German emigré community. This is enough, apparently, to prompt Samson and his boss, Dicky Cruyer, to fly to Mexico City where Cruyer – in the usual way of characters in this book – takes some time getting round to explaining to Samson that the Department want Samson to invite Stinnes to defect.

Volkmann has found out that Stinnes is connected to a well-off German businessman, Paul Biedermann. Samson schlepps out to Biedermann’s mansion by the ocean, only to find it deserted, to break in, and then a few hours later hide when Stinnes and a goon arrive. He (conveniently) overhears their conversation which amounts to an explanation that Biedermann is working for the KGB, before they get impatient and leave.

Based on all this, a few days later, Samson arranges via Biedermann to meet Stinnes again, at his seaside mansion, before the two men take drive out to sea in Biedermann’s luxury boat, and it is here that Samson makes his offer to Stinnes – money, a house, a new identity, what does he think? Stinnes says Yes, give him a month to round up the kind of information he knows London will want him to bring, and which will ensure his VIP treatment.

Back in Mexico City Samson’s shallow boss, Dicky, is well pleased with this result and goes sight-seeing and shopping for presents before they both fly back to London. But Samson, as ever, has misgivings. It was – as in the previous novel’s quick identification of the traitor Giles Trent – too easy.

In fact a third of the way into the book (p.132) the characters leave Mexico never to return and the action returns to the familiar office and home locations in London, and the guest house and various bars in Berlin which we are familiar with fro the first book.

Dramatis personae

Personal life

  • Bernard Samson – 40-something intelligence agent, sardonic, clever, tough.
  • Fiona – his wife who also worked in the Service and was revealed, in Berlin Game, to be a KGB agent, fled behind the Curtain.
  • Tessa – Fiona’s younger sister, posh, feisty, her marriage to George an art dealer is on the rocks, she fancies Bernard like mad.
  • George – Tessa’s husband, a self-made Polish immigrant used car salesman who Tessa has been serially unfaithful to.
  • Gloria Kent – luscious young secretary who Samson gets transferred to his office, as a joke takes to a dinner party at Dicky’s, who is initially very cross that she’s been manipulated but when Samson carries on being strictly professional over the following weeks, well, she falls in love with him 🙂

The Department

  • Richard ‘Dicky’ Cruyer – Controller of German stations, Oxford man, Samson’s immediate boss, fussy, self-interested.
  • Frank Harrington – pipe smoking, 60-year-old head of the Berlin Office (the job Bernard’s father had), in this novel we are told he regards himself as a kind of guardian to Samson.
  • Bret Rensselaer – mid-fifties, confident American (an American high up in MI6?), head of the Economics Intelligence Committee of SIS, sleek, suspicious. His plans took a knock with the defection of the agent called Brahms Four in the previous novel, upon whose steady flow of economic intelligence about the Russkies Bret had built a little empire within SIS.
  • Henry Tiptree – contemporary of Dicky’s at Balliol college, Oxford, and now SIS’s man in Mexico where he lends Dicky and Samson a notably clapped-out car, before mysteriously appearing 150 pages later in the Berlin boarding house Samson routinely stays in. Is he following Samson? Is he investigating him?
  • MacKenzie – the probationer in the Department, tasked by Samson with finding out who the nurse was who hijacked him, and who is discovered dead in the safe house in Bosham.
  • Sir Henry Clevemore – Director-General of the Department, who Samson thinks is more or less gaga.

His room was dim and smelled of leather chairs and dusty books that were piled upon them. The D-G sat by the window behind a small desk crowded with family photos, files, trays of paperwork and long-forgotten cups of tea. It was like entering some old Egyptian tomb to chat with an affable mummy… I suppose everyone had the same protective feeling when talking with the D-G. That’s no doubt why the department was something of a shambles. (p.323-324)

Sir Henry is made to be such a clapped-out figure of fun it slightly risks derailing the novel altogether into Carry On Spying territory. Odd.

Other characters

  • Werner Volkmann – Samson’s oldest friend from his Berlin childhood, big, bearlike, he runs a successful if unofficial import-export agency into East Berlin but is keen to work for (and be paid by) the Department.
  • Zena, Werner’s wife, young tough, ambitious. Show me the money.
  • Erich Stinnes – thin professional KGB man who was itching to ‘interrogate’ Samson in Stasi headquarters in Berlin in the first novel, but was restrained by the defecting mole, obviously his superior who, in the big revelation scene, turns out to be Samson’s wife, Fiona.

The plot

Like a game of chess the plot revolves around this key move of getting Stinnes to defect and what it would mean. We only actually meet him and hear him speak briefly. The vast majority of the narrative is given over to different permutations of characters discussing at great length whether: Stinnes is genuine KGB; whether he genuinely wants to defect; whether he is genuinely alienated by Fiona taking over as his boss in the East Berlin KGB, or whether Fiona is arranging for him to defect and take with him a load of misleading information.

While the will he/won’t he debate goes on, another layer of meaning opens up as colleagues suggest to him that Stinnes might defect and incriminate him, Samson, as in some way supporting and collaborating with his wife. He might be framed. Assuming he is innocent. Samson is shocked to realise that almost the whole department suspects him. In fact, it is obvious that Fiona’s defection will contaminate him; during 14 years of marriage, surely he suspected something. Samson is shocked when Frank Harrington, the man who keeps telling him he feels like a father to him and has tried to protect him – nakedly offers him encouragement to go now, leave from his Berlin house now, to the other side, before London traps him. Even Frank thinks he is a traitor.

But then the whole tenor of the book, the whole experience of reading it, is to be immersed in this wilderness of mirrors where absolutely everyone suspects everyone else all the time, and Samson is wandering through it, lying and deceiving like the others, simultaneously trying to read his colleagues multiple motives.

There are a handful of colourful events.

1. Samson offers a pretty young nurse struggling with her broken down car a lift to her hospital when she pulls out a hypodermic syringe full of poison and orders him to drive to Heathrow where he is astonished when Fiona gets into the back of the car. She offers him a deal: keep his hands off Stinnes and she will leave the children be, and not try to contact or snatch them (something which has been worrying Samson ever since her departure). When nurse and Fiona exit the car he is so stunned he needs time to work out the implications and so fails to report the incident to his bosses. Big mistake.

2. Samson tasks a keen young colleague to track down the nurse. This he does too well because Werner calls him from a safe house in Bosham, Sussex, where Samson arrives to find various female paraphernalia – definitely connected with the nurse (the syringes) possibly a place where Fiona has hidden and altered her appearance – and the corpse of the young apprentice who has been brutally and repeatedly shot.

3. Just after Frank Harrington makes his sheepish suggestion to Samson that he defect, now, while he still can, Harrington receives an official call that Biedermann has been stopped at Orly airport, Paris, carrying top secret NATO documents. Samson flies there and is allowed to see Biedermann and begins to realise it is a set-up. Bidermann had never seen the documents, the driver of the taxi which took him to the airport for a normal domestic flight to his Italian holiday home, came running after him and said Monsieur you left these in the taxi, thrusting them into Biedermann’s hands and he was going to turn them over to the cops or someone when he was himself arrested ‘on a tip-off’. Samson is pondering all this when a junior cop gives him sandwiches and a coffee to take into Biedermann which he does, then returns to the French inspector’s office who yells, sandwiches? coffee? for a suspect? And when they race down to the cell Biedermann is very dead from cyanide poisoning.

Prime suspect

Samson is recalled to London where he is subjected to a prolonged grilling by Bret, with Cruyer and Harrington and others in attendance. Their accusation is that he knew about Fiona. He is a fellow KGB spy. He has deliberately slowed down ‘enrolling’ Stinnes to in fact make it fail because Stinnes would incriminate him. Similarly, Biedermann knew too much about him which is why he murdered him. This long chapter airs all the possible permutations, all the ways of interpreting events up to this point though Samson eventually wriggles free by shouting them all down, shouting his innocence, and asserting the rule that a case officer continues with his case until formally dismissed. He is going to bring Stinnes in, and he gets up and walks out.

Mexico two

On page 345 (of the 380-page novel) we arrive back in Mexico City for the finale ie the planned defection of Stinnes. First Samson rendezvous with Werner and Zena: he is worried by how they both refer to Stinnes by his first name, Erich and Zena in particular seems fond of him. Then he meets up with Henry Tiptree, the upper class desk johnny who infuriates Samson by saying that he, Tiptree, has been given authority to manage the defection. To his horror he’s changed the rendezvous with Stinnes from busy Garibaldi Square to a private bank nearby.

Up rickety backstairs and through a steel door into a setup which is more a money-laundering racket than a bank, go Tiptree and Samson, the latter not at all surprised to find Zena there, assuming she’s come to get her claws on the money. This is counted out by the crooked owners of the bank as per Tiptree’s instructions but things go wrong with the sudden appearance of the big hood who accompanied Stinnes to Biedermann’s oceanside house all those weeks previously and has appeared by his side periodically, the brute Moskvin.

He and a sidekick pull out automatic weapons and tell everyone to put their hands on their heads. He is KGB and he has been ordered to execute Stinnes when he walks in. Is this Fiona’s doing, reaching out to kill her deputy all the way from Berlin? Zena reveals her part in the betrayal by pleading with Moskvin, saying they promised not to harm Stinnes. So it turns out she has been reporting back to the KGB all along. Steps slowly and ominously mount the stairs towards the steel door but Zena flips and attacks the kid with a machine gun like a wild cat. Moskvin steps over to punch her which gives Tiptree the opportunity to pull out a Browning pistol and shoot him in the leg.

The ominous footsteps turn out, comically, to be those of a little boy sent by Stinnes to find Samson and tell him he is waiting at the place they arranged. Samson grabs the money, leaving Tiptree pointing a gun at the others and with some explaining to do as and when the police arrive. He hops over the back wall ducks along an alley and finds Stinnes waiting in a taxi, and off to the airport they go, job done.

As this is the middle instalment of a trilogy, I imagine the full implications of this will become clear in the next book (as many of the implications of the first book only unfolded in this one).


Describing Mexico

Deighton’s descriptions of the sights and sounds and smells of Mexico City are full and persuasive: the oppressive humidity, the surrounding mountains and melodramatic scenery.

From [the balcony of Werner’s flat] was a view across this immense city, with the mountains a dark backdrop. The dying sun was turning the world pink, now that the stormclouds had passed over. Long ragged strips of orange and gold cloud were torn across the sky, like a poster advertising a smog-reddened sun ripped by a passing vandal. (p.15)

Or his impression of the jungle as he drives through it to Biedermann’s ocean front mansion.

The jungle stinks. Under the shiny greenery, and the brightly coloured tropical flowers that line the roadsides like the endless window displays of expensive florists, there is a squelchy mess of putrefaction that smells like a sewer. (p.30)

But dominating everything is the size and noise of the vast metropolis, the appalling smog, the vast tides of people, the canned music spurting from a hundred cheap radios, the garish street markets and the appalling food: Samson the foodie has an amusing prejudice against hispanic cuisine with its countless ways to recycle the same boring tacos and awful reheated bean sludge (in London Match he says: ‘my dislike of Spanish and Portuguese cooking is exceeded only by my dislike of the fiery stodge of Latin America’ (p.185)) , though even here he is never at a loss when it comes to food facts.

[Dicky] read the sign. ‘What are carnitas?’
‘Stewed pork. He’s serving it on chicharrones: pork crackling. You eat the meat, then you eat the plate.’ (p.61)

He may not have realised his wife was a KGB spy, but about food – as about German accents, the map of Berlin, guns, computers and the minutiae of KGB and wartime Nazi organisations – Samson is never wrong.

Expertise

Man of the world As pointed out in my review of Berlin Game, the thriller writer or his protagonist, need to show us he is a man of the world, an expert in many forms of knowledge, and so the text is dotted with offhand insights and knowing asides.

She had that chin-up stance that makes so many Mexicans look as if they are ready to balance a water jug on their heads. (p.23)

Paul Biedermann had become unreservedly American in a way that only Germans are able to do. (p.49)

It was, of course, that sort of evasive temporising that armchair psychologists call ‘displacement activity’. (p.51)

He stubbed out his cigarette. He had that American habit of stubbing them out half smoked. (p.294)

They all kept their hands on their heads, and they all had that patient and passive visage that makes the people of Latin America so recognisably different from the Latin people of Europe. (p.375)

Foodie We know Deighton has special knowledge and expertise when it comes to cookery and cuisine because of his successful cook books. No surprise, then, that his narrator is a knowledgable guide to the food of Mexico, and even more so, the tastes and aromas of Europe.

It was an old German custom to offer schnapps with the eel and use the final drain of it to clean the fingers. But like lots of German customs it was now conveniently discontinued. (p.240)

[The coffee] had that bitter smell of the high-roast coffee that the French like so much. (p.295)

War knowledge And as we know from his deeply researched histories of World War Two and the novels based on them, Deighton has an extraordinary knowledge of WWII history, weapons and hardware and, especially, organisational structures.

[The Russians had] gathered together the scattered remnants of SS unit Amt VI F, which from Berlin’s Delbruckstrasse – and using the nearby Spechthausen bei Eberswalde paper factory, and forgers housed in the equally nearby Oranienburg concentration camp – had supervised the manufacture of superb forgeries of everything from Swedish passports to British five-pound notes. (p.260)

Bureaucracy There are countless references to the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Whitehall, to the endless delays of Civil Service bureaucracy, references to characters being worried about their pensions, and so on – the same humorous, long-suffering attitude of the Ipcress narrator.

Then there is the permanent thread of resentment Samson has against public school desk men, and the Oxbridge mafia – ‘those stony-faced Oxbridge men in London Central’ (p.298). There are frequent references to the nepotism and string-pulling which got a lot of their colleagues their jobs (unlike him, of course). It’s not a pose – Samson really doesn’t like these guys.

Morgan was a white-faced Welshman whose only qualification for being in the department were an honours degree in biology and an uncle in the Foreign Office. He looked at me as if I were an insect floating in his drink…. On the day I leave the department I’m going to punch Morgan in the nose. It is a celebration I’ve been promising myself for a long time. (p.309)

And office politics Almost more fatal than anything the KGB can pull is the complex backstabbing, alliance making and breaking, the manoeuvring and manipulation within his own little department, which is going on all the time and which actually makes up a lot of the text. In a sense very little happens in these novels, apart from a few florid scenes – kidnapping by the nurse, the dead body in the safe house, Biedermann poisoned in the cell. Only at the end is there a shootout and positively no car chases.

It is much more psychological than that. The book, both these books, are almost entirely about the rotating ever-shifting relations, the mistrustful probing and evasive conversations between Samson, Cruyer, Rensaeller and Harrington – all the rest is local colour or the minimum amount of events necessary to create a satisfying sense of conspiracy and skulduggery.

And cutting through it all is Samson’s resolute non-Oxford attitude, his contempt for the pipe-smoking, donnish desk jockeys who rule over him, and his sometimes comically crude assessments of what is really going on in the innumerable meetings, conversations and interrogations which the book is full of.

Good old Dicky… He’d realised that this might well turn out to be the opportunity he’d been waiting for; the opportunity to dump a bucket of shit over Bret’s head. (p.311)


Related links

Granada paperback edition of Mexico Match

Granada paperback edition of Mexico Match

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.

Berlin Game by Len Deighton (1983)

I’d been trying to read other people’s minds for most of my life. It could be a dangerous task. Just as a physician might succumb to hypochondria, a policeman to graft, or a priest to materialism, so I knew that I studied too closely the behaviour of those close to me. Suspicion went with the job, the endemic disease of the spy. For friendships and for marriages it sometimes proved fatal. (p.82)

Samson trilogy

After six books about the Second World War, Deighton returned to the world of espionage with Berlin Game, introducing the 40-something spy Bernard Samson. I imagine he planned it as a trilogy with its sequels, Mexico SetLondon Match but I wonder whether he realised he’d go on to write another six novels about Samson, making a trilogy of trilogies, nine novels in all.

Overview

This is a very enjoyable spy novel. As you’d expect from Deighton, the depth of research and knowledge shine through on every page, in two ways in particular: his description of working for British Intelligence, its central London offices and security procedures, the organisational structure, the paperwork, the office rivalries and politicking, are all convincingly portrayed (who knows whether they bear any resemblance to ‘the truth’). But the main arena for Deighton to display his knowledge is Berlin, the city, its geography, the U-Bahn and seedy back streets, the river and lakes, the people, their customs and their characteristic German accent. Though over half the novel is set in diesel London, Berlin is the imaginative heart of the book.

Bernard Samson

When the novel opens Bernard Samson is just short of his fortieth birthday. He works for Britain’s Intelligence Service – like his father before him, who brought him up in Berlin after the War. Samson is past active field duty and has been safely driving a desk in London for the past five years. He is married to Fiona, herself quite senior in the Service – which struck me as unusual: a husband-and-wife MI6 team! She is from a well-off family and brought a lot of money to the marriage so they live in style – they have a Portuguese cook and two children, Billy and Sally, 10 and 8 years old. In what is presumably the author’s in-joke, Samson is described as wearing horn-rimmed glasses (p.13), as virtually all Deighton’s spies do, and as Deighton himself did in those stylish photos of him from the 1960s.

First person narrator

The novel is told in the first person, from Samson’s point of view (reminding this reader of the first person narratives of the Ipcress novels). The choice of a first person point of view is important because it gives the author all kinds of means of control. In a book told by a third person narrator, like Deighton’s previous novel, Goodbye, Mickey Mouse, there is an expectation that the narrator is being straight with you, telling you the facts, and that they know the facts, as confidently and completely as a historian or a policeman giving evidence. Part of the pathos of GMM comes from the plain, factual style of presentation of what, in the end, become horribly upsetting events.

Samson’s first-person point of view creates a completely different effect. Now we don’t know what the facts are, we don’t really know what’s going on, for two reasons: a) because Samson doesn’t know what’s going on and has to piece it together b) because (just like the Ipcress narrator) at essential moments he skips over key bits of knowledge. The glaring example is towards the end of the book, where he tells the escaping spy von Munte that he knows who the mole in the Department is without even looking at the evidence von Munte has just risked his life to extract from his office (in East Berlin). In fact, he tells von Munte, but he doesn’t tell us – like a crossword, we are meant to have solved the mystery by ourselves with a limited number of clues.

The plot

The plot is complicated but can be summarised quite simply: there’s a communist spy in Samson’s Department of British Intelligence.

It all starts when a high-profile agent working for us in East Germany for decades – codename Brahms Four (who, we eventually learn, is one Dr Walter von Munte, p.266) – announces that he wants to quit and come West. There is debate in the Department about who should be sent to a) check what’s happening b) if necessary, facilitate his escape. From early in the novel it’s clear that Samson, with his background growing up as a child in Berlin and his wide web of local contacts, is the man for the job. But as he makes a few preliminary trips to Berlin, and meets various of his contacts – prompting numerous reminiscences about his childhood there, as the son of a father working for British Intelligence immediately after the war – he (and we) get a sense of far more complex wheels-within-wheels, of a bewildering matrix of relationships which bind together various players. Through this miasma of conversations, hints and tips Samson begins to suspect there is some kind of leak our end.

Rather like John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, most of the emphasis is on a small number of personnel within the Service who we see in a variety of meetings, conversations, dinner parties, in their clubs, at the office, and so on, as they all probe and suspect each other. It’s more like a detective story than a thriller. There are no car chases or shootouts – though there are a few tense moments with guns in pockets – there is one murder (a mistake, as it turns out).

A lot of time is spent by Samson meeting his old contacts in Berlin and piecing together events from five years or so back, when there was a particularly flagrant security leak from the Berlin office. Who was in the office at the time? Who could it have been? The head of the Berlin Office, ageing Frank Harrington, who Samson discovers has squirreled away a foxy young mistress in a house in the Berlin suburbs? But this young woman turns out to be the wife of Werner Volkmann, one of Samson’s schoolboy friends who’s gone on to set up a network in East Germany, ostensibly supporting the work of Brahms Four and a wider network of agents but who, Samson comes to realise, has been using British funds to build up a profitable black market import-export business.

Is it Samson’s immediate boss, Dicky Cruyer – no, too easily confused and panicked, with no German language skills. Or the only American working for the Department, smooth-talking Bret Rensselaer? He had access to the secret information on the night of the leak, and he has certainly built up a nice little empire in Economic Information: maybe he was placed there by the Soviets?

Then again, what about Giles Trent, the nervous bachelor who Samson catches meeting a KGB agent in a Soho chess club, and is making further enquiries about when he makes the surprise move of trying to kill himself (pills). Dicky is on the scene quickly, followed by Samson who is authorised to take Trent to a safe house. Here Samson establishes that Trent has been passing information to Russian contacts, in a complex blackmail set-up which started with his spinster sister being enticed into a love affair with a Russian man, who then started strong-arming Trent into working for them.

Samson has his doubts. It’s all too pat. Letting himself be overheard in the Soho club was amateurish, as were the incriminating bits of equipment (secret radio etc) found in Trent’s flat when it was searched. Almost as if he is a patsy, a deliberate decoy, to distract attention away from the real, much higher-placed, mole. At the safe house Samson bullies and threatens Trent with gaol, not for him but for his sister, unless he co-operates in a plan Samson cooks up to get Trent to continue passing intelligence to his Russian contacts, and offer them a comprehensive breakdown of the whole East German network. The idea being this will flush the high level spy from cover…

Unfortunately, word gets back to the Brahms Four network (ie Trent tells his Russian controller he is about to pass on a goldmine which will blow apart the East German networks, which the East German networks find out about and take seriously) and one of them comes over to London, ostensibly to meet Samson, but in fact to assassinate Trent. With Samson’s gun, borrowed for the purpose. It is an embarrassing moment when Samson has to tell one of this old Berlin friend, when he returns a day or two later with a now-used gun, that he has murdered Trent on a misunderstanding, in fact contrary to Samson’s own cunningly contrived plan, in fact… partly because of him.

Last, and hardest to contemplate, there is Samson’s own wife. In the first half of the novel Deighton plants seeds of doubt about whether she is having an affair. Rich, attractive, younger than him, she has worked her way up in the Department on her own merit. Having done modern languages at Oxford she speaks good German and Russian. She has access to high level information and, on several occasions when he calls late at night, doesn’t answer the phone. Does she get lonely during his frequent trips to Berlin? Has she started to have an affair? A colleague at the Department reports that he saw her being taken out to dinner by smooth-talking Bret Rensselaer: is she sleeping with him?

Deighton shows us plenty of domestic scenes, as they drive with the kids out to Silas Gaunt’s big Cotswold house for a posh weekend party or go to their son’s sports day, or make dinner, eat, drink, watch the telly or go to bed together, during which there is the usual to-and-fro of married banter, but slowly more interspersed with tougher questions, until Samson eventually accuses her flat-out of having an affair…

they negotiate that difficulty (she flatly denies it) but behind the (possible) personal betrayal, a far worse doubt is growing in Samson’s mind: the possibility that she, his wife, may be the high-level mole. Now he thinks about it, she was introduced to him at a party all those years ago when he was already a junior officer in the Department and he helped his new love to get a job within the Department (he seconded her application): was it all a set=up? Fro the very beginning was the entire affair, and then marriage, planned by a cold-hearted, scheming KGB agent and her controllers? Has he spent the past 14 or so years providing the perfect cover for her treacherous spying?

Could it be Fiona? It’s got to be one of them…. hasn’t it?

(If crime thrillers seeking to identify the murderer are ‘whodunnits’, then spy thrillers which are about tracking down ‘moles’ and double agents, are ‘whoisits’.)

Dramatis personae

In the service

  • Bernard Samson – 40-something intelligence agent, sardonic, clever, tough.
  • Fiona – his wife who, quite early on, he starts to suspect is having an affair with…
  • Bret Rensselaer – mid-fifties, confident American (an American high up in MI6?), head of the Economics Intelligence Committee, is he having an affair with Fiona? They were see together in a restaurant; when confronted she replies that he was vetting her, all senior personnel are having private interviews… maybe…
  • Tessa – Fiona’s younger sister, posh, feisty, married to George an art dealer who’s always away so she’s having an affair with Samson’s boss, Dicky Cruyer, in between teasing Bernard.
  • Sir Henry Clevemore – very pukka old fogey, Director-General of the Department who Samson thinks is almost gaga (p.52).
  • Richard ‘Dicky’ Cruyer – Controller of German Stations, Samson’s immediate boss, who he thinks is permanently confused and too dim to be the mole. He agrees with Dicky to keep the Trent suicide attempt secret for the time being…
  • Giles Trent – nervous, older operative in the Department who Samson tails to confirm he is meeting a KGB agent at a Soho chess club but before he can be hauled in for interrogation, Trent tries to kill himself. Revived he is kept in a ‘safe house’ where Samson bullies him into continuing to feed information to the Russians, including a bogus plan to blow the entire East German network, a plan which results in Trent being assassinated by one of that network, a man Samson knows well.
  • Frank Harrington – fussy, worried head of the Berlin office, 60, about to retire, is he a double agent?
  • Silas Gaunt – retired, fat bon viveur with an enormous house in the Cotswolds where he holds ‘weekends’, himself a former member of the Department, so the weekend described in the novel turns into an unofficial meeting with Cruyer and Rensselaer on how to handle the Brahms Four situation.

Other characters

  • Werner Volkmann – old friend in Berlin who Samson grew up with, allegedly doing badly in business after being boycotted by the Department, but who Samson finds flourishing, and who turns out to be a vital help in the book’s final tense scenes in East Berlin.
  • Zena, Werner’s wife, supposedly run off with a Coca Cola salesman, Samson finds her shacked up in a love nest paid for by none other than Frank Hutchinson, head of Berlin office! But when Samson spooks her, then watches the house to see what she’ll do, he is surprised to see her leaving in a car driven by her supposedly cuckolded husband, Werner. What are they up to?
  • Rolf Mauser – an ageing member of the East Berlin network, who visits Samson in London very mysteriously, not telling him he’s about to carry out the ill-judged execution of Trent – and who puts Samson up on his last, tense mission to East Berlin.
  • Dr Walter von Munte – the agent codenamed Brahms Four who, although he has been supplying information from the Deutsche Notebank, through which came banking clearances for the whole of East Germany, to Bret Rensselaer’s section for twenty years – helping Bret’s empire-building and rise to power – is actually only known by name and sight to Samson. Twenty years earlier Munte came back to save Samson when he was about to be caught by the Stasi in Weimar, which is why Samson is honour-bound to go back to Berlin and save him, now. (There is a good overview of von Munte’s role in London Match, page 48.)

Finale

All these complicated strands – and Deighton’s encyclopedic knowledge of Berlin – are pulled together when Samson takes it upon himself to get Frank Harrington (who he now knows is not the spy) to smuggle him into the East (through Berlin’s underground tunnels at midnight). The plan is to co-ordinate the Brahms network (with help from Rolf and Werner) to smuggle out von Munte and his wife.

These final thirty or so pages are tense to start with, but Deighton piles on the pressure when it becomes clear the Stasi have been tipped off about his mission and are one small step behind him, arriving to arrest Rolf Mause while Samson himself is in the (long, unlit) hallway of the same building, before he is whisked away by the dependable Volkmann, but then nearly caught by the Stasi when he rendezvous with von Munte’s wife at their East Berlin allotment hut, before the climax – a chase through the woods next to the Müggelsee, a lake to the east of Berlin, on a public holiday when the area is crowded with singing, jostling drunks, Samson weaving through the crowd trying to draw the pursuers away from old von Munte as he runs to the safety of Volkmann’s waiting car.

In decoying the Stasi agents away from von Munte, Samson lets himself be captured and taken to Stasi HQ in Normannenstraße. And this is the final scene of the novel, as his captors – and Samson – wait for the high-level KGB colonel who is the mole, the spy in the Department, to arrive. We know now that the mole knows that Samson has got hold of the evidence which clinches their identity, a hand-written document, part of the security leak back in 1978 which found its way to the KGB files and which von Munte risked his neck to go to his office to secure. Thus alerted that their identity is known, they have had to flee from London and, Samson is confident, will be forced to make a deal to release him.

Who will it be? Will the betrayal turn out to be bitterly personal as well as professional?

Prose

To say that Deighton has a number of prose styles might be overstating it; but he has a number of prose strategies which he deploys on different occasions and with varying degrees of success:

Plain Most of the text is in flat, plain, unadorned prose. Functional. I speculated in my reviews of his histories Blitzkrieg and Fighter that the enormous amount of research he put into them, presumably reading thousands of pages of bureaucratic documents, administrative papers, official histories and so on, all written in dead, flat, factual style, had had a flattening, deadening impact on Deighton’s fictional prose.

I sipped a little beer and looked round the room. It was a barren place; no books, no pictures, no music, no carpet. Just a TV, a sofa, two armchairs and a coffee table with a vase of plastic flowers. In the corner, a newspaper was laid out to protect the floor against oil. On it were the pieces of a dismantled racing bicycle that was being repaired to make a birthday present for his teenage son. (p.137)

No colour, no metaphors or similes, no interpretation, no overview or opinion about the scene. Just the facts. The bare facts.

After I rang off, I returned to my desk. When I unwrapped the pistol, I found a series of holes in the woollen scarf. Rolf Mauser had wrapped the gun in it before shooting Trent. A revolver can’t be silenced any other way. I had to use a magnifying glass for a clear sight of the marks left on the bullet cases by the process of hand-loading. There was no doubt that the bullets had been specially prepared by someone with gunsmith’s tools and powder measure. (p.249)

Facts. Technical knowledge. Spycraft. Delivered in plain, colourless prose.

Dry humour The welcome return to the first person narrator allows humour to re-enter Deighton’s world. Samson’s voice is a repeat or an echo of the cocky, sardonic narrator of the Ipcress novels, and there are some very funny moments when he deflates his bosses’ pretentions.

His visit to the estranged Mrs Volkmann in the house where Frank keeps her and where, it turns out, she is in charge of a kennel full of aggressive Alsatian dogs, combines vivid description of the setting with the main purpose – to try and establish what, if anything, Frank has been betraying to her, and whether she is working for the Russians or for the Brahms network – gilded with sly jokes.

I could see a wired compound and a brick outbuilding where some dogs were crowding at the gate trying to get out. ‘Good dog,’ I said, but I don’t think they heard me… She looked at my face. Whatever she saw there amused her, for she smiled to show perfect white teeth. So did the dog. (p.144)

Class consciousness One comedic, or sardonic, running thread is Samson’s permanent awareness/grudge that his superiors in the Department all went to public school and Oxford (notably Balliol college, famous to this day for its course in Politics, Philosophy and Economics). He has the same chippy, contemptuous attitude to this upper class mafia as the Ipcress narrator had. Right at the end his East German Stasi interrogator says:

‘How lucky you are not having the Party system working against you all the time.’
‘We have got it,’ I said. ‘It’s called Eton and Oxbridge.’ (p.318)

Relationships In my review of Goodbye, Mickey Mouse I argued that a new type of discourse had entered Deighton’s fiction, surprisingly obvious and banal truisms about relationships, about human psychology, and dodgy generalisations about gender. They crop up here, too.

I turned to go, but women won’t let anything end like that. They always have to sit you down at the table for a lecture, or write you a long letter, or make sure they have not just the last word but the last thought too. (p.324)

The Ipcress narrator had girlfriends but the nuts and bolts of the relationships – in fact sometimes almost everything about them – was only slyly hinted at. I liked that. These last few novels have become more middle-aged, with frequent generalisations about men and women and married life and parents and children which I found not only otiose, but worked against the illusion that the protagonist is sharp and clever. They make the characters look dull and predictable.

Knowledge Not only must the thriller writer display his (vastly) superior knowledge about spy organisations, the police, hardware and so on, but about the more devious aspects of human nature. He must display his knowledge of men, of the ways of the world.

He had the compulsive desire to drink and nibble that is often a sign of nervousness. (p.114)

His face was tanned in that very even way that comes from sun reflected off the Pulverschnee that only falls on very expensive ski resorts. (p.84)

We want to trust the thriller writer, to put ourselves in the hands of a vastly more worldly-wise, far-travelled, and sophisticated mentor. And so…

Old It is obligatory for all thrillers to refer to the protagonist suddenly feeling old, the implication being that living such a rough, tough life ages you, weighs you down with experiences, feelings, knowledge we ordinary mortals (the readers) just can’t understand. Samson is at his son’s sports day.

I watched the race. Good grief, the energy those kids had; it made me feel very old. (p.211)

I’d forgotten what it was like to be a newly ‘deposited’ field agent with false papers and a not very convincing cover story. I was too old for it. (p.257)

TV adaptation

The entire trilogy was adapted for TV by Granada, starring Ian Holm as Samson. Full details on Wikipedia. I’d love to see it. What a drag it’s not available in any format. All I can find is this trailer copied from what looks like a VHS recording of the Australian broadcast.

Related links

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.

Goodbye, Mickey Mouse by Len Deighton (1982)

The throttle was against the fire wall; emergency power. Dive steeper, and steeper still. The white airspeed needle chased round the clock. Faster – 350, 400, 450 – the white needle caught up with the slower red danger line and Farebrother knew that his airframe was in jeopardy as he used all his strength to pull at the stick. Both hands couldn’t hold it still. He braced his feet and pulled so hard that he expected the column to break in his hands. He could feel a dull pain in his belly, his legs were as heavy as lead. There was an insupportable pressure on his head, forcing him down into his seat until he thought his spine would snap. His vision clouded and darkened as the centrifugal effect drained the blood from his brain. He felt the airframe shaking; just a vibration at first and then a pounding, now it was jolting him about in his seat as the wings tried, and failed, to deflect the engine from its chosen trajectory towards the earth. He looked out and saw his wings flapping as if to break off. (p.338)

It is December 1943. A new flyer, Jamie Farebrother, joins the American 220th Fighter Group, based in windy East Anglia, flying P51s (‘Mustangs’) as cover to protect the US heavy bombers raiding Germany almost daily. He falls in love with a pukka local English girl. We meet a cross-section of the other pilots, officers and admin staff at the base, the flyer’s well-placed dad, his girlfriend’s posh Cambridge parents etc, and slowly get to know them, their hopes and fears etc as the novel follows them all over the next six months or so into spring 1944.

Factual research

There’s no doubting the book’s earnestness. It is 433 pages long. It has a three-page acknowledgements section which says it was six or more years in the researching and writing, and goes on to thank 20 US pilots and veterans, six US veterans’ newsletters, half a dozen British veterans, three WWII writers, two British newsletters, the Imperial War Museum and its experts, four more US fighter generals and colonels, as well as press officers from British government departments and local government archivists, historians of Cambridge, and a professor from Guy’s hospital who, presumably, checked information about wounds. The book is backed up by and displays in abundance Deighton’s awesome knowledge of the period, the men and the machines.

No questioning the breadth and depth of Deighton’s background knowledge and factual research.

Catch-22

But the trouble with any novel about the US air campaign in Europe is that Joseph Heller wrote one of the greatest novels of all time – Catch-22 (1961) – about the same subject, a novel which took writing about war into a whole new territory of demented satire, creating an entirely new prose style to convey the mad (il)logic of wartime (dis)organisation and attitudes.

Any rival treatment of the subject tends to look tame by comparison. (I had the same feeling about the movie Memphis Belle (1990), full of good intentions to tell us about the futility of war, but doing so via a collection of entirely predictable American stereotypes and so dull and predictable.)

If the similar (but not the same – Catch-22 is about bombers, Goodbye, Mickey Mouse about their fighter escorts) subject matter hadn’t reminded me of the comparison, Deighton almost forces the issue by using the same structure as Heller, to wit, naming each chapter after a character in the story, so that we jump between episodes focusing on the named person, slowly building up a kaleidoscopic group portrait of them all.

  • Captain James (Jamie) A. Farebrother – clean-cut all-American boy, newest member of the squadron, pilot of Kibitzer, son of…
  • Colonel (then General) Alexander J. Bohnen – hard-case, very successful businessman, mover and shaker, divorced Jamie’s mother who remarried (hence his different surname)
  • Victoria Cooper – on their second date she sleeps with Jamie Farebrother. Is that how posh English women behaved in 1943?
  • Lieutenant Z.M. Morse aka Mickey Morse aka MM – smooth-talking pilot, commander A Flight (four Mustangs), pilot of Mickey Mouse II, falls in love with already-married Brit Vera Hardcastle, star-crossed affair which precipitates disaster
  • Winston – his dog
  • Vince Madigan – squadron Press Officer, opera fan and classic horny Yank, boastful of his countless girlfriends
  • Colonel Dan Beaver – head of the squadron, pilot of Pilgrim
  • Major Kevin Phelan – likeable Group Operations Officer
  • Major Tucker – squadron commander, a ‘tense thirty-something West Pointer’, who learns to lighten up during the novel
  • Boogie Bozzelli – Italian, plays the piano at parties and in the mess, shot down early on
  • Earl Koenige – strapping blonde farmer’s boy, pilot of Happy Daze, shot down
  • Rube Wein – dark-haired, intense, rumoured to be studying for a PhD, pilot of Daniel, runs out of gas and turns back to bail out over Holland; never heard of again
  • Sergeant Gill, crew chief

War

Needless to say, coming from the author of Fighter (Deighton’s compelling history of the Battle of Britain) and backed by Deighton’s trademark research and microscopic attention to detail, the novel convincingly portrays every aspect of life on the windswept East Anglian airbase: all the equipment, the organisation, the ranks and duties, the American slang and jokes and pass-times, and of course everything about the planes and the experience of flying them, the discomfort, the faulty cockpit heaters, the kick as the machine guns start firing, the change in tone as the planes taxi from smooth tarmac to squares of concrete, everything is powerfully and persuasively imagined, you really are there.

And then there are the descriptions of aerial combat – not many of them, maybe four in total – but what there is, is thrilling and totally believable, edge-of-your-seat stuff (see opening quote).

Love and psychology

What is surprising is the extent to which the plot is not about the war. Obviously it is the dominating backdrop, but the text is mostly about the relationships between a dozen or so key officers on the base, their jostling rivalries and animosities and tremendous camaraderie, and with the love affairs of the two women, Victoria Cooper and Vera Hardcastle, surprisingly central to the plot.

1. Romantic love There have been women in Deighton’s previous novels (obviously), but I think this is the first one to so prominently feature not one but two love affairs.

Posh, tall, Cambridge-educated Victoria Cooper and handsome Yank Jamie Farebrother 1) are introduced by a mutual friend at a restaurant, 2) then he takes her to a chaotic drunken party which she leaves early, takes a bath and is just taking her make-up off when there’s a knock on the door and it’s Jamie, who’s walked all the way to her house in the rain to apologise. She invites him in, they go to bed and that’s it, they’re an item, swiftly telling his estranged dad, the first star general, and her parents, a professor of psychology and his wife.

Meanwhile, the young, competitive flyer Lieutenant Morse, widely nicknamed Mickey Mouse, or MM, needing just a few more kills to become this top USAAF fighter ace, falls heavily for thirty-year-old Vera Hardcastle, preferring to repress the knowledge that she’s married (to a husband off fighting in Burma) and has also had flings with a number of Yank flyers before him, notably the squadron’s press officer, opera-loving Vince Madigan.

In describing these two love affairs running in parallel, Deighton, for the first time in his oeuvre, writes explicitly about the psychology of romantic love with, I think, questionable results.

He laughed. ‘I love you.’
‘I love you, Jamie. Let’s never quarrel again.’
‘Not ever. I promise.’
They were childish promises, but only childlike pledges are proper to the simple truth of love. (p.78)

I found it difficult to believe that both couples had gone from complete strangers to head-over-heels lovers in a matter of days. And then was very surprised that Deighton broke cover to fill whole sections about them with some pretty ordinary reflections on life and love and human nature etc.

2. Humdrum insights This is from a chapter named after Victoria’s father, Dr Bernard Cooper, giving his perspective on a family dinner Dr and Mrs C host for Victoria, Jamie and his father, the rough but loving one-star General Boehnen.

General Bohnen was a compulsive, if not to say obsessional, personality, conditioned by the business world in which he found the sort of peer-to-peer respect that such men need. But now his ‘duty’ had become a rationale for demanding too much from others, and far, far too much from his own limited emotional resources. Was there within him some deep-felt desire to sacrifice what he loved most – his son – upon the altar of war? And did the son, in some dreadful fashion, perceive it, as all sons instinctively share the mental states of their fathers? Bohnen loved his son, as every father must love his child, and the son could not respond with equal love, for that is the fundamental and tragic truth of human biology. For if children did love their parents with that same consuming passion, they would never leave home, and the world would end. (p.199)

It is not necessarily untrue, it just seems rather sweeping and obvious, a little trite (definition: ‘lacking originality or freshness’), and expressed in clichéd language: ‘the altar of war’.

‘It smells like spring,’ Cooper agreed. It was a day that brought to mind no end of schoolbook poems that extolled the power of nature awakened in slumbering earth and bud. And yet the arrival of the time for the seeding of the land brought also the inescapable reminder that, before Europe’s crops were gathered, there was to be a terrible bloodletting that would bring a harvest time of tears. (p.311)

‘A harvest time of tears’. This is laughably bad, isn’t it? Both these passages come in sections about the psychologist Dr Cooper. Are they meant to indicate that he is a doddery old geezer given to banal, threadbare platitudes, as prosey as Polonius? Or – bad thought – has Deighton created this preachy old man under the impression that he is a mouthpiece for profound and interesting insights into human nature and history? Because he really isn’t.

I was tempted to skip both the lovey-dovey and the ‘insights into human nature’ passages, but resisted and read through quite a few love sections that verged on a Mills-and-Boonish, breathlessly naivety – and several ‘Dr Cooper-lectures-about-parents-and-children’ passages, which I found pretty unconvincing. Cooper, it is claimed, studied with Freud and Adler in Vienna, but he shows no signs of sharing Freud’s profound and unsettling views of human nature, contenting himself with cosy truisms – for example, parents can sometimes be too protective of their children. Well, my mum could tell you that and she’s not a Cambridge professor of psychology.

3. Doubtful generalisations about gender And a lot of this ‘psychology’, and especially the writing around the two love affairs, is based on, or is made up of, very sweeping and not very persuasive generalisations about men and women.

‘She’s one of those women who get married for ever and ever. It wouldn’t make any difference what Reg did or said, or whom she met – she would always be Mrs Reg Hardcastle till death do them part. Some women are like that.’ (.244)

Aren’t men extraordinary, she thought; even the most dedicated lecher could be made uncomfortable by such casual references to his sex life. (p.246)

It made no great demand on her feminine intuition to discern when men were speaking heartfelt truths and when they were wishing for things that were evidently not so. (p.250)

I think generalisations like this are supposed to have you nodding in agreement and thinking, ‘Yes, that’s so true’, but for me they had a repelling effect, working against my absorption in the story, leaving me standing outside it. Don’t know whether it’s just me, or whether 33 years later, our culture is less tolerant of sweeping generalisations about gender.

The plot

So, everything about the base, its men, the planes and the combat totally convincing – everything about the love affairs and the father-and-son plotline about General Boehnen and Jamie, not so convincing.

But what actually happens? Well, the men fly their missions, each time losing one or so of their number, arriving back sweaty, dirty and stressed to spend the time between flights arguing, drinking, attending dances at the social club, bickering about paperwork and office politics and worrying about their planes.

Powerful as this all is, much of it feels like a backdrop to the evolution of Jamie and Victoria’s love affair – for example the longish chapter where Victoria takes Jamie off for a ‘break’ to a windswept cottage in rural Wales, or Jamie’s first dinner party with Victoria’s parents, or a sequel dinner party with Jamie’s parents and the general invited along, with the general and Dr Cooper becoming unexpected pals and swapping thoughts about parenthood.

There is a sub-plot about an old pal of Jamie’s, Captain Stigg, who flies bombers and we meet at a meal with Jamie, Victoria and one of his crew at a London restaurant and dance hall. The crew member leaves the completely drunk Stigg in the lobby to come back and warn Jamie that his pal’s nerve is breaking, he can barely manage to handle the flights any more. And then, 100 pages or so later, a chapter consists solely of the letter the crew member sends Jamie telling him that Stigg has killed himself, detailing the request to fly one more mission which pushed him over the edge. The novel is made up of multiple threads like this, weaving in and out and resurfacing hundreds of pages later, with great skill on Deighton’s part and great enjoyment for the reader. The longer it went on, the more I became drawn into this world of young men asked to place themselves in mortal danger on a daily basis.

Towards the end of the book a lot of time is spent unpacking a plotline wherein Lieutenant Morse (MM) is about to become the fighter pilot with the most kills in the USAAF, and Madigan, the press officer is lining him up for big coverage in the media – until word gets out to General Boehnen that MM is sleeping with the wife of a British soldier serving overseas (ie Vera). Ooh bad. The general immediately grasps that the Top Air Ace story – which would certainly make lots of newspapers in the States and Britain – risks turning into the ‘Top Air Ace Screwing British Soldier’s Wife’ story, which could seriously damage troop morale, and even effect relations between the Allies in the run-up to the invasion of the Continent which everyone knows is coming that year.

So the general strong-arms both MM’s boss, Colonel Dan, and Madigan’s boss, the Group Head of Press & Publicity, to have MM grounded, pending being shipped off somewhere obscure and out of the way. Colonel Dan, reluctantly, because he knows how much flying means to him, tells MM he’s grounded and MM understandably is livid. Over the next few pages Colonel Dan and his Exec are shown cooking up ways to circumvent the ban, when the whole storyline is completely overtaken and eclipsed by ‘Bad Monday’, the subject of the last 40 pages or so and the climax of the novel which draws the whole narrative to a close. On that day:

1) Press Officer Madigan is torn away from a busy morning shepherding journalists round the base by an urgent, life-or-death phone call from Vera. On getting to her house he is disconcerted to find the much-talked-about husband, Reg, has returned from the war in Burma and somehow discovered his wife was having an affair with a Yank. Vera used an old photograph she had of Madigan to persuade the husband that the press officer is her lover (thus concealing the identity of her real lover, MM – and saving his life). Now Madigan is horrified to learn that Reg has murdered Vera, stabbing her to death with a kitchen knife, before he pulls out a revolver and, despite Madigan’s pleas, shoots him dead.

2) As it is taking off, one of Jamie’s Mustang’s tyres explodes, the plane slews to the side, the wing tip hits the ground, and the nose is forced inwards. Jamie is pinned against his seat by half a ton of steel, unconscious and hemorrhaging.

3) News comes in that the popular Group Leader, Colonel Dan, was killed instantly on that day’s mission, colliding in mid-air with a Messerchmitt.

In his absence the Group Exec, Colonel Scroll, takes charge, having Jamie carefully extracted from the plane by the rescue crew, supervised by the group doctor, and phoning Jamie’s dad, General Boehnen, who immediately flies in. Despite their best efforts Jamie dies of his injuries. Victoria is at home with her father when a police detective arrives to tell her Vera has been murdered and to ask her to identify Madigan. And we know, though we don’t see it, that soon afterwards she will learn that her lover, Jamie, and the father of her child (for she has just discovered she is pregnant) is dead.

As I knew it would be from the moment I picked up the book, the end is guttingly sad.

Epilogue

The novel has a prologue and an epilogue (anticipating the Spielberg movie Saving Private Ryan) in which a coachload of USAAF veterans has returned to the now-abandoned airfield in 1982. In the opening pages we see one particular couple consisting of an English-speaking woman and her husband walking to the perimeter fence. Now, in the epilogue, we learn, to our surprise, that they are Victoria and MM. MM broke the news to her that Farebrother was dead, saw some more of her, and proposed to her, adopting Jamie’s yet-unborn son as his own. Do I believe this? All through the book he had been madly in love with Vera; even more prominently, Victoria had been truly, madly, deeply in love with Jamie. Maybe I am meant to be moved that the depth of their passions and the intensity of their lives required an outlet, a coming-together, and moved that they name their little boy Jamie after his dead father…

A final conversation with one of the other veterans lets us know what became of the American characters we’ve met in the book, most of whom survive, flourish and prosper in the way Americans do.


Bernàrd

General Boehnen pronounces Dr Cooper’s first name the American way, emphasising the second syllable – Bernàrd. This would be a trivial detail, were it not that the next nine novels Deighton was to write feature his spy protagonist, Bernard Samson, and his American boss, Bret Rensellaer, pronounces his name the American way (Mexico Set p.150).

Related links

Paperback cover of Goodbye, Mickey Mouse

Paperback cover of Goodbye, Mickey Mouse

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.

Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain by Len Deighton (1977)

For new pilots the high-altitude battles could be a frightening experience. It was very, very cold at 25,000 feet, and the Spitfires slipped and skidded through the thin air, as the propeller blades failed to bite. Invariably the Perspex misted over and reduced visibility. Only slowly did the aircraft add a few hundred feet, and for this reason the throttles remained wide open. It meant that if a pilot dropped back from his formation through lack of flying skill, he could never catch up with them again. And above them were the Bf 109s, watching and waiting for just such a straggler. This was the way that many young men died: alone and cold in the thin blue air, peering through the condensation into the glare of the sun, unable to see the men who killed them. (p.244)

This is a totally gripping, impressively researched and comprehensive history of a key moment in British and world history and showcases the incredible depth and range of Deighton’s knowledge of the subject matter and period.

I read Blitzkrieg, the later book first, because that is the sequence of events. Both books are divided into five parts, with a long central section about the technical developments in the key weapons (tanks in Blitzkrieg, airplanes in Fighter) followed by an equally long section describing in detail the key events (of the German invasion of France in May 1940, of the Battle of Britain July-October 1940) ending with a fairly short epilogue or summary.

Fighter’s strengths

Fighter is the more enjoyable book, becoming steadily more gripping and exciting as you read on. I think it’s because:

  • Fighter planes are more beautiful and inspiring than tanks.
  • The planes were more directly the creation of inspired genius designers, who are more interesting to read about than the designers of tanks (Willy Messerschmitt, Reginald Mitchell the Spitfire, Sydney Camm the Hawker Hurricane).
  • The history of manned flight since the Wright brothers is more interesting than the history of putting metal plates and a machine gun on a lorry chassis and calling it a ‘tank’, and understanding how airplanes actually fly is more interesting, and more broadly applicable, than understanding how tank tracks work.
  • The fighter plane part of the battle concerns dashing and heroic individuals who Deighton names and describes in detail – Peter Townsend, Josef Frantisek, Adolf Galland – there are photos of them – unlike the largely anonymous and massed ranks activity of the Battle for France, led by a handful of rather imposing generals (Rommel, Guderian).
  • Later in the war, it all got vastly bigger. While Britain was producing 400 new planes a month, towards the end of the year President Roosevelt ordered his factories to begin producing planes, 50,000 planes a year! Later in the war the Luftwaffe was to lose in one day as many aircraft as it lost in the entire Battle. The Battle of Britain represents a moment when individuals still counted – Deighton calls it the last romantic battle in history.

Learnings

I learned that:

  • Lord Beaverbrook’s contribution to victory – put in charge of Fighter Command logistics by Churchill, cutting through lots of bureaucracy to maximise factory output and set up roaming repair squads – was as important as Air Chief Marshal Dowding’s contribution, and that Dowding said so. I was virtually cheering the Beaverbrook passages. I like his motto: Organisation is the enemy of improvisation.
  • The Germans didn’t have a plan. Hitler wasn’t much interested. Operation Sealion (the invasion of Britain) was conceived too late in the year (August) and Göring never gave clear strategic guidance to his marshals. The Germans fundamentally didn’t know what they were trying to achieve and Deighton lists four possible outcomes which included: destroy Fighter Command to give Germany control of the air and enable a cross-Channel invasion; bomb London into submission; destroy Britain’s war machine ie factories. They did some of each but none completely and all historians agree that they were on the verge of destroying Fighter Command – reducing airfields, planes and pilots below an operational minimum – when, early in September, they switched to the second strategy and bombed London for 57 consecutive nights. Though the population of London wouldn’t have agreed Dowding and Park considered this ‘the miracle’ for it gave them time to rebuild the fighter force.
  • When summer slipped into autumn and the weather worsened making a seaborne invasion impossible, Hitler shrugged his shoulders and got out his maps of Russia. Britain was effectively neutralised, the war in the West essentially over: he was interested in new adventures.
  • Deighton powerfully dislikes the bureaucrats at the British Air Ministry whose main contribution was to hamper Fighter Command with stupid orders, come up with pointless hare-brained schemes, and treat Dowding and Park, the two men whose masterly strategy won the Battle, appallingly. Both were sacked at the end of the year. Dowding was given 24 hours to clear his desk.

Robust views/detailed knowledge

As in Blitzkrieg, Deighton is confident in his opinions. Discussing one of the countless machinations of Air Field Marshall Erhard Milch, Deighton writes:

Milch’s allegations are nonsense. (p.301)

These kind of confident assertions are based on Deighton’s incredibly in-depth knowledge of the entire period, from the technical spec of the planes, through the organisational structure of both air forces, detailed profiles of the key players on both sides, to an understanding of the changing tactics developed by each side, down to precise descriptions of uniforms, medals, hats, parachutes and so on.

For example, his captions to many of the 62 photos in the book not only point out the figures in a picture but name the medals the pilots and generals are wearing; there are few photos of planes without additional information about their markings or pointing out details of design and construction to look for. As in his other books, he shows a special interest in organisational structures:

Geschwader was about 100 aircraft, give or take twenty according to circumstances. It consisted of three Gruppen, always designated by Roman numerals I, II or III. Finally there was the Staffel, about twelve aircraft. Staffeln were numbered from 1 to 9, in arabic numerals, to make a Geschwader. Thus, III/JG 26 means the third Gruppe of Jagdgeshwader (fighter Geshwader) number 26. While 8/KG 26 is the eighth Staffel of Kampfgeschwader (bomber Geschwader) number 76. (footnote on page 129)

Towards the end of the book, Deighton makes the very broad claim (repeated in Blitzkrieg) that, without Hitler’s anti-Semitism – which forced many of Germany’s best scientists and engineers abroad – the Nazis would probably have developed atomic bombs and the long-range missiles to deliver them and would quite possibly have taken over the world. From the minutiae of medals to grand sweeps of alternative history, this is a fascinating and rewarding book on countless levels.

Conclusion

After the first four Ipcress novels Deighton’s fiction changed – his prose became more obvious and functional while he experimented with new subject matter: comedy, a novel set in Hollywood, and then his devastating documentary novel about a World War II bombing raid, Bomber. When he returned to the spy genre in the early 1970s, the three spy novels leading up to Fighter feel much weaker than the Ipcress set.

Could it be that the time and mental energy Deighton expended researching his WWII histories, visiting key locations, months spent at the Imperial War Museum and other archives, and the correspondence and meetings he had with key players in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain (both books contain photos ‘taken by the author’ and refer to letters and conversation with eye witness participants) – could it be that this massive expenditure of time and effort and immersing himself in bureaucratic records and organisational archives, permanently damaged his imaginative prose style and weakened his fiction?

Related links

Paperback cover of Fighter

Paperback cover of Fighter

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.

Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk by Len Deighton (1979)

Blitzkriek does what it says on the cover – gives a swift account of the rise of Hitler to power, then skates quickly over the years of crisis which led up to the start of World War Two, in order to focus on what really fascinates Len, the theory and practice of Blitzkrieg itself, and then its implementation in the Battle for France.

This hinged on the battle for the river Meuse, a few key days in May 1940 when the German army surprised the world by using tank divisions supported, not by lumbering artillery which would have slowed them down, but by agile fighter-bomber airplanes which could keep up with them as they tore through France’s supposedly impregnable defences. The German panzer divisions deliberately avoided confrontations with France’s strongpoints (the major error of World War One), instead racing for the Channel ports and effectively cutting off the French Army and British Expeditionary Force in the north from their supply routes and surrounding them, before closing in for the kill.

What the German Army failed to achieve in 4 years in 1914-18, it achieved in 5 weeks in 1940 using this new Blitzkrieg strategy (Blitz = lightning, Krieg = war) , made possible by modern developments in tank and plane technology. This is what Deighton’s book sets out to analyse and explain in detail.

The book is divided into five parts:

Part one – Hitler and his army (the rise of Hitler): 68 pages
Part two – Hitler at war (reclaiming the Ruhr, Anschluss, invading Czechoslovakia etc): 47 pages
Part three – Blitzkrieg: weapons and methods: 94 pages
Part four – The battle for the river Meuse: 83 pages
Part five – The flawed victory (Hitler’s flawed victory ie Dunkirk): 36 pages

The overall story is too well known and too long to repeat here. Nor am I tempted to quote any of the hundreds and hundreds of surprising facts, figures and shocking events which it describes; any account of the war (of any war) contains them. Nor am I qualified to compare and contrast Len’s theories and emphases with other historians of the period, nor to point out the ways in which 36 years of research and books by the numerous professional historians of the period have doubtless changed our understanding of various aspects of this vast subject.

I’m more interested in the light it sheds on Len’s practice as a novelist.

Opinionated

Len is not afraid to be boldly opinionated:

A Nazi regime without anti-Semitism would probably have had some form of atomic warhead and V-2 rockets to deliver them by the late 1930s. Thus I am of the opinion that but for his anti-Semitism Hitler might have conquered the world. (p.86)

A disproportionate  number of senior German generals came from the artillery… M. Cooper in his book The German Army, attributes this to the brains required for gunnery and the much lower casualty rate that gunners suffer in war. I cannot agree… (p.103)

It is partly the forthrightness of his opinions which makes this narrative more readable than other, more scholarly and tactful accounts, might be.

Some histories tell stories of German freighters in Norwegian ports, filled with infantry, waiting like ‘Trojan horses’ for zero hour to disgorge their invaders. One history says that such freighters sailed but were sunk in transit. This is incorrect. (p.120)

As the book progresses Len’s anger at the incompetence of the Allies – France and Britain – mounts, resulting in open displays of sarcasm. Remember, Len had produced and written the screenplay of the searing anti-war film, Oh! What A Lovely War ten years earlier, in 1969, and was to publish an overview of war’s stupidity 14 years later – Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II (1993).

The French High Command, which already had the worst system of command in the world – many different HQs far apart, with commanders not certain where their authority ended – was able to integrate into this, the worst air force command system. (p.221)

In the latter parts of the book there is some fierce criticism of the wholesale inadequacy, laziness, stupidity and then self-serving defeatism of the leaders of the French Army. ‘Cheese-eating surrender monkeys,’ seems to be a simple statement of fact. Len quotes a military commentator:

‘The Maginot Line was a formidable barrier, not so much against the German Army as against French understanding of modern war.’ (p.351)

And when the pathetically defeated French Army ended up, by the irony of politics, taking over the French government in the shape of the 84-year-old puppet figure, General Pétain, one French minister wittily commented:

‘The republic has often feared the dictatorship of conquering generals – it never dreamed of that of defeated ones.’ (p.360)

Still, Len goes out of his way to give credit to the units of the French army which did fight bravely and gallantly and, in particular, to the French soldiers who held the perimeter at Dunkirk thus allowing almost all the British Expeditionary Force to be evacuated. But the French High Command and senior politicians… dear oh dear.

The Deighton paragraph

Len’s prose comes in crisp paragraphs. Some stories or moments are dwelt on in detail, for example the Night of the Long Knives. In other places, particularly in the hasty second section which skims over the diplomatic history around Hitler’s confrontations with the Allies as he bullied and blustered his way to seizing the Ruhr, Austria, the Sudetenland etc, Len’s connecting paragraphs cover big subjects in a handful of taut sentences, which feel almost like notes.

Poland was a huge parcel of land which had emerged periodically from the mists of European history, but never in exactly the same place. Three times already Poland had been divided between Germany and Russia. Now it was to happen for a fourth time. (p.101)

Everywhere the Luftwaffe submitted the Poles to machine-gun fire and bombs. Every account of the Polish fighting has to be read bearing in mind this German command of the air. It was a war of continuous movement; no front formed for more than a few hours. (p.109)

Reading his style in a factual book sheds light on his fiction, which shows the same tendency to blithely skip over explanations when they’re boring. In the early Ipcress novels this produces the attractive, cool, ellipticism of the style ie it often misses out so much you’re not sure what’s going on. Even in the later, more ordinarily written novels there are still moments where a door opens and someone comes into the room and starts talking and the reader has to stop and figure out who from earlier clues, rather than Deighton being so mundane as to simply name them and describe them entering.

Boys with their toys

The long middle, Blitzkrieg, section revolves around interesting discussions about the origin and development of the tank and fascinating accounts of the between-the-wars ‘tank theorists’, with learnèd speculation about their influence on the man who emerged as a leading proponent of the Blitzkrieg strategy, Panzer General Heinz Guderian. This, the heart of the book, contains some formidably thorough technical descriptions of tanks, half-tracks, artillery and so on – if you like technical specifications, these pages are for you:

The two German battle tanks were given entirely different armament. The PzKw IV carried the stubby 7.5cm gun, one of the largest-bore tank weapons on the battlefield, but its muzzle velocity was only 1,263 feet per second (fps). The short range of  this weapon made it particularly unsuited to tank-versus-tank combat. But if it got as near as 500 yards to an armoured target, it could penetrate 40mm armour (and few tanks had thicker armour than this) and the missile from this 7.5cm KwK L/24 weighted 15 pounds. Compare this to the 3.7cm KwK L/45 that was fitted to the PzKw III tanks. This small-bore gun had a muzzle velocity of 2,445 fps, with all the characteristics of the high-velocity gun, but of less use against infantry or anti-tank batteries. (p.190)

These sections are accompanied by wonderfully lucid, innocent line drawings by technical illustrator Denis Bishop – 23 in all, with titles like ’12 ton Sd. Kfz.8 half-track towing 15cm sSH. 18 heavy gun’. Bishop illustrated numerous other books about World War Two weaponry.

Depth of research

Maybe the most obvious point of relevance to Deighton’s practice as a novelist is the phenomenal depth of research his history books reveal, in a number of ways:

  • there is the sequence of events themselves and his interpretation of them, standard territory for a historian
  • there is great attention paid to the arms and equipment used in the war, with Bishop’s drawings – less often found in ‘pure’ histories
  • there are references to Len’s personal expeditions to visit all the major sites connected with the battle, and the book includes photos taken by him of key locations
  • and the reference sections at the back mention the many conversations, letters and correspondence he had with men who played major roles in events

Reading this history goes a long way to putting in context Deighton’s war fiction eg Bomber or SS-GB or the wartime background to XPD. Each of these texts is obsessed with pursuing into minute detail the precise organisational structures of the, generally, Nazi organisations involved in the stories, as well as displaying a profound grasp of the inter-departmental rivalries among the jostling, competing Nazi departments: this is especially true of SS-GB where a good deal of the plot boils down to the scheming rivalry between two senior Nazi policemen who belong to different and rival parts of the SS.

The paradox of war hobbyists

I always find it paradoxical that so many men who are otherwise kind and gentle husbands and fathers, delight in the technical spec of wartime tanks, planes, guns and grenades, attending military shows and vintage air displays, collecting guns and wartime memorabilia. As I read page after page about armour-piercing shells, howitzers’ explosive capacities, lighter, more efficient machine guns, the use of new short-fuse hand grenades — I am continually thinking that absolutely all these devices, so cunningly designed and crafted, are designed for one thing only, which is to murder human beings: to eviscerate, blind, maim, blow up, vaporise and destroy human beings, and I can’t help shuddering.

Conclusion

If the book has one message it is that, whatever the term’s precise origins (which he discusses in detail) and whatever the word exactly meant (there were and are different definitions), Blitzkrieg was only actually put into practice this one time, in the Battle for France, where conditions were perfect for it: good road systems, relatively small battlefields, failure of the French Army and Air Force to make a coherent stand, pre-emptive strikes on enemy airfields giving complete air superiority, lightning speed and efficiency at achieving definable goals (crossing the river Meuse, racing to the Channel ports, thus splitting the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force from their supply lines).

Few if any of these factors were to apply in the subsequent theatres of war, in North Africa and then, fatally, in the attack on Russia.

Related links

Granada paperback edition of Blitzkrieg

Granada paperback edition of Blitzkrieg

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.

Fighting History @ Tate Britain

The title is slightly misleading. It, and the poster of British redcoats in a battle, suggest the show will be about depictions of war (a thorough investigation of how artists have depicted war would have been very interesting) – but it isn’t. There are some depictions of war scenes and there’s an entire room dedicated to the so-called Battle of Orgreave during the 1984 Miners’ Strike, but there are as many or more depictions of non-war-related, if dramatic, scenes from history and literature, and an entire room dedicated to the Biblical flood – neither of them involving fighting or battles.

Like a lot of Tate shows in recent years, this show takes a provocatively eclectic, pick’n’mix approach to the subject which, ultimately, leaves the visitor more confused than when they arrived. There are good and interesting things in the jumble, but the visitor is left, again, with the strong impression that Tate has to find themes or topics to justify displaying lots of second-rate paintings (usually kept in its enormous archive) and livened up with a handful of greatest hits to pull the punters in.

Word of this must have got around: when I arrived (Friday 10.30) there was one other visitor in the whole show; when I left this had shot up to four visitors. People must have read the reviews (see below).

There are six rooms:

1. Radical history painting

The first room points out that history painting, considered the peak of artistic achievement in the 18th and 19th centuries, fell out of favour in the Modernist 20th century and became widely associated with conservative, old-fashioned, patriotic tendencies. But the exhibition seeks to show that artists can still ‘engage’ with historical subjects, with ‘anti-establishment’ events, demonstrating ‘resistance’ to established authority, in ‘radical’ ways. In other words -history painting can be cool.

  • Dexter Dalwood – The Poll Tax Riots (2005) I watched this riot on TV and was caught up in a poll tax riot in Brixton around this period. I see the cleverness of imposing the Berlin Wall on either side of Trafalgar Square and this painting is very big, but I don’t find very appealing, powerful or persuasive.
Dexter Dalwood, The Poll Tax Riots (2005) Private collection © The Artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London & Hong Kong

Dexter Dalwood, The Poll Tax Riots (2005)
Private collection
© The Artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London & Hong Kong

  • Jeremy Deller – The History of The World (1997-2004) Placed in the first room to maybe deliberately subvert the visitor’s expectations of a show about history painting, this instead confirms the visitor’s expectations that this will be another Tate show designed to display the curator’s eclectic vision and street-cool radicalism. Connected to the art work, Deller made recordings of a brass band playing acid house tracks, a fun idea though it seems a bit dated now.

2. 250 years of British history painting

History painting in the 18th century involved taking a pregnant or meaningful moment which demonstrated heroic virtues and patriotism, figures were grouped to create a dramatic tableau (and to highlight the artist’s knowledge of anatomy) with stylised and symbolic gestures, the whole thing often referencing classical predecessors to add artistic and cultural authority.

In fact remarkably few of the 12 paintings in this room reflected any of that, only the last three really fit the description.

  • Richard Hamilton – Kent State (1970) Image of one of the four students shot dead by State troopers taken, as was Hamilton’s Pop practice, from a TV still.
  • Walter Sickert – Miss Earhart’s Arrival (1932) I’ve never liked Sickert’s murky, muddy style.
  • Richard Eurich – D-Day Landing (1942) Superficially realistic, this painting apparently used diagrams, maps and charts of the landing to create a slightly more schematic image.
Richard Eurich, The Landing at Dieppe, 19th August 1942 1942-3 Oil paint on wood Tate

Richard Eurich, The Landing at Dieppe, 19th August 1942 (1942-3)
Oil paint on wood
Tate

  • Stanley Spencer – The Centurion’s Servant (1914) Early Spencer, an example of standard English anti-Romanticism/naive style. Not that attractive.
  • Sir John Everett Millais – The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870) A lollypop. A greatest hit. An Abba classic. Churlish not to love it.
  • Henry Wallis – The Room In Which Shakespeare Was Born (1853)
  • Steve McQueen – The Lynching Tree (2003) McQueen was scouting locations for his movie 12 Years A Slave and came across this still-surviving lynching tree, surrounded by graves of the black people murdered on it.
  • Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – A Silent Greeting (1889) I like the ‘Olympians’, the group of late Victorian artists who painted scenes from the classical world. Alma-Tadema was often compared to the painters of the Dutch enlightenment eg Vermeer, for his attention to the detail of quiet domestic scenes.
  • Charles Holroyd – Death of Torrigiano (1886) The commentary points out that the death of Torrigiano was taken by Protestant Brits as an example of the repressiveness of Catholicism, which prompts the thought that this is a vast subject -you could probably fill an exhibition on the theme of the fighting Protestantism of British identity since the Reformation – which goes almost untouched in this exhibition about British history.
  • Johann Zoffany – The Death of Captain Cook (1798) Not a good painting, though demonstrating the arch and stylised gestures to be found in ‘history painting’.
  • Colin Morison – Andromache Offering Sacrifice to Hector’s Shade (1760) An episode from Virgil’s Aenieid, with badly-painted classical figures arranged artfully around the canvas engaging in stereotyped expressions of emotion.
  • Benjamin West – Cleombrotus Ordered into Banishment by Leonidas II, King of Sparta (1768) A stylised simplicity of gesture and lack of decoration which anticipates the French neo-classical painter, David.

3. Ancient history

Antiquarians and painters interested in history transferred the dignity of setting and classical attitudes to myths and legends of ancient Britain, lending the aura of classical authority to our island story.

  • Sir Edward Poynter – A Visit to Aesculapius (1880) Poynter was director of the National Gallery and an important theorist of late Victorian painting. The gestures of the women seems modelled on statues of the three graces, but are also saucy naked women which eminent Victorians could view without moral qualms.
  • Sir John Everett Millais – Speak! Speak! (1895) Millais was a painter of genius as various recent exhibitions of the pre-Raphaelites have highlighted. This appears to have been an entirely invented situation: the male figure reaching out is hand is corny, but the figure of the commanding woman in white is majestic and haunting when you see the actual painting, reminiscent of other late Victorian powerful women eg John Singer Sargent’s extraordinary painting of Ellen Terry playing Lady MacBeth.
  • James Barry – King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia (1786-8) Once taken deadly seriously, this looks like a cartoon now.
  • Gavin Hamilton – Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1765) Another chaste, neo-classical canvas, the unrealistic figures displaying stylised gestures. I think the purpose is to emphasise wifely fidelity and humility, neither of which strike a chord in our times.
Gavin Hamilton, Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1765-72) Tate

Gavin Hamilton, Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus (1765-72)
Tate

4. British history

The trouble is there is a lot of British history, an enormous amount. This selection is so random, such a miscellany, that it’s hard to extract any meaning or ideas from it.

  • Allen Jones – The Battle of Hastings (1961) A bracing doodling semi-abstract, jokey 60s-style.
  • William Frederick Yeames – Amy Robsart (1877) Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, stood a strong chance of marrying Queen Elizabeth, the only problem being he was already married. He conveyed his wife, Amy Robsart, to a country house and there his servants asphyxiated her with a pillow then threw her down the stairs as if killed by an intruder. This painting shows the killer and other servants coming across her body. I like the simplicity of the painting and the simple but effective trick of having the innocent woman illuminated by a glow with the murderous servants in gloom at the top of the stairs.
  • Michael Fullerton – Loyalist Female (Katie Black) Glasgow, 3rd July 2010 (2010)
  • Richard Hamilton – The Citizen (1981) Taken, as was Hamilton’s practice, from a still of a TV documentary about the ‘dirty protesters’ in H block. A large, striking and, I think, very successful painting due to its composition, the balance of the two panels, the abstract swirls (made out of the inmate’s faces) and the haunting Jesus-like figure of the prisoner, Hugh Rooney.
Richard Hamilton, The citizen (1981-3) Oil paint on two canvases Tate © The estate of Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton, The citizen (1981-3)
Oil paint on two canvases
Tate
© The estate of Richard Hamilton

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds – Colonel Tarleton (1782) A wonderful composition showing what a genius Reynolds was as the posed portrait.
  • John Singleton Copley – The Collapse of the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords, 7 July 1778 (1779) To be admired for the sweep and flow of the composition and the use of light to highlight the heroic figure of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, who made a great patriotic speech against granting America its independence, and promptly collapsed and died. Apparently, Copley exhibited the painting privately and charged visitors a shilling a view.
  • Philip James de Loutherbourg – The Battle of the Nile (1800) It was displayed with a key naming the ships depicted, which the guidebook to the exhibition usefully quotes.
  • Malcolm Morley – Trafalgar Waterloo (2013) Modern construction piggybacking on two famous portraits of Nelson and Wellington.
  • John Minton – The Death of Nelson (1952) Though obviously a modern recasting of the vent, it’s interesting to see how Minton uses the same highlight effect to focus on the hero as all his predecessors.
  • John Singleton Copley – The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 (1783) French forces tried to invade Jersey. Peirson was in charge of the British defenders, refused to give way, and was shot dead by a sniper. It’s notable how contemporary many of these history paintings were, depicting events still fresh in the public memory.
John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 (1783) © Tate

John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 (1783)
© Tate

5. The Battle of Orgreave

An entire room dedicated to the 1984 miners’ strike, focusing on the so-called ‘Battle of Orgreave’ coal mine. Part of the room is showing on a permanent loop the 62-minute documentary reconstructing the battle with eyewitness accounts and interviews, produced by artist Jeremy Deller (and directed by Mike Figgis) in 2001. The shouting and the angry Northern accents are very penetrating and spill over into the surrounding rooms, distracting me from thinking about the Battle of the Nile or Trafalgar or any of the subjects in the preceding room.

I felt sorry for the poor security guards who must have to sit here and listen to the same angry Northern voices hour after hour, day after day. It must drive them mad.

For me the fact that every shot in the documentary was a reconstruction fatally undermined it, no matter that many of the re-enactors had been there. It’s 31 years ago now. A friend at school’s sister was going out with a policeman who told her how much fun they were having: spirited away from boring trudging the beat, to live in barracks, with exciting opportunities for fighting on a regular basis and getting paid triple time – perfect!

Next to the video is a room whose wall is covered with a comprehensive timeline of the miners’ strike, as well as display cases of journals, diaries, newspapers, a police shield, a big map of the UK with coal mines and power stations indicated, a TV showing a video of Confederate re-enactors in the US (?), a shelf of books about Thatcher and the strike.

If you want to relive those bitter days and the crushing sense of defeat many people felt at the eventual capitulation of the miners, it’s all here to wallow in.

Jeremy Deller, Jacket from The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to one is an Injury to All) (2001) Tate. Commissioned and produced by Artangel, film directed by Mike Figgis. Presented by Tate Members 2005. The Artangel Collection at Tate © Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller, Jacket from The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to one is an Injury to All) (2001)
Tate. Commissioned and produced by Artangel, film directed by Mike Figgis. Presented by Tate Members 2005. The Artangel Collection at Tate
© Jeremy Deller

6. The deluge

The final, very large, room is dedicated to the subject of the Deluge, the Biblical flood, nothing – you might think – to do with history or fighting. It was interesting to be told that, as a subject, it gained a new relevance in the mid-19th century with new discoveries in Geology which shed light on the deep history of the planet, with a school of scientists using the story of the Flood to explain the presence of fossils of seashells on the tops of mountains etc. All the paintings in this room were poor – big, yes, melodramatic, yes, and a bit silly.

  • William Westall – The Commencement of The Deluge (1848) Rough thick Constable-esque crests of white paint. Looked better from the other end of the room.
  • Francis Darby – The Deluge (1840) A powerful, smooth, heroically bad painting.
  • JMW Turner – The Deluge (1805) A bad Turner.
  • Dexter Dalwood – The Deluge (2006)
  • Winifred Knights – The Deluge (1920)
Winifred Knights, The Deluge (1920) Oil paint on canvas Tate © The estate of Winifred Knights

Winifred Knights, The Deluge (1920)
Oil paint on canvas
Tate
© The estate of Winifred Knights

The commentary gives the room a bit of factitious ‘relevance’ by claiming that, with scientists warning of sea level rises due to global warming, the subject may be taking on a new relevance.

Not really – warming won’t produce the flood which these paintings all depict, it will be slow if inexorable. If it happens at all. Rather than a sentence in the guide it would have been good to have an actual work making this connection. For example, one of Maggie Hambling’s sea-related works, the You are the sea installation or the Wall of water paintings which I reviewed in April.

Related links

Windfall by Desmond Bagley (1982)

Like its predecessor Bahama Crisis I found this an enjoyable read, not particularly thrilling, but civilised and nicely paced and intelligently plotted with a tidy line in humour and rising to a couple of exciting action scenes at the climax. It features Max Stafford, the first person narrator of Flyaway, the only repetition of a protagonist in Bagley’s oeuvre, and it was the last of Bagley’s novels to be published during his lifetime (the final two being published posthumously).

The plot

The plot starts in America, moves to London and then most of it is set in Kenya.

Ben Harden is ex-CIA like a lot of other guys in Gunnarsson security agency. He’s instructed to find out if an old guy in England, Hendrykxx, has any American relatives and finally tracks down some hippy kid in California, Hank Hendrix. As he drives away someone takes a pot shot at Hank which wings him in the shoulder, why? And when he gets back to New York, his fat rude boss, Gunnarsson not only doesn’t thank him but refuses to pay a bonus, provokes a fight, and abruptly fires Harden. Disgruntled Harden carries on digging and discovers the client for the search is a British law firm, and that Hendrix has an English cousin, Dirk Hendrick (note the different spellings of the name depending which country they live in). With nothing better to do he flies to London to visit the lawyer and then the cousin, to figure out why he got shot at and why he got fired.

Enter Max Stafford, ex-British Intelligence, now head of a large and successful private security firm. By vast coincidence he is friend to Alix Aarvik, the woman married to Dirk Hendrick, the English cousin. (Alix was sister to the main figure in Flyaway, Paul Aarvik, whose quixotic quest for his father is the narrative engine of Flyaway. Stafford and Alix nearly got together, but it didn’t quite happen and then she married Hendrick. She has just given birth to a bouncing blue-eyed baby boy and is still friendly enough with Stafford that she’s named the baby Max, after him.) After this American, Harden, comes visiting, asking her a load of questions, Alix calls Max. We meet Max and his tough, ex-Marines manservant, Sergeant Curtis, who quickly establish themselves as a tough but humorous double act.

The novel is 320 pages long and has many twists and turns. Briefly, Max discovers that Hendrykxx’s will, filed in Jersey for tax reasons, left a total of £40 million, £34 million to go to the Ol Njorowa charity in Kenya, the remaining £6 million to be split between living heirs (Dirk Hendrick and Hank Hendrix), provided they spend a month a year working at the charity.

Harden eventually meets Stafford who realises he is a useful guy to have around, especially when he tells the news that Gunnarsson has arrived in London, with a young dude he claims to be Hendrix, taking him to meet the various London lawyers involved in implementing the will – but it is not the same man Harden collared in California, it is an imposter!

In Kenya

The scene shifts to Kenya as Stafford, Sergeant Curtis and Harden fly out to investigate the charity. Almost immediately Sergeant Curtis introduces Stafford two local ‘fixers’, Peter ‘Chip’ Chipende and a Sikh, Nair Singh who come in very handy. Stafford takes a trip to the Ol Njorowa charity, which is an enormous compound surrounded by a ten foot barbed wire fence. Hmm, suspicious. He befriends one Alan Hunt, a research scientist, and his sister Judy, who show him round.

The abduction

When Gunnarsson arrives with the fake Hendrix, Stafford and Harden keep tabs on them, following them from a distance. That’s how they find out when the Gunnarrson tourist party is kidnapped by bandits from Tanzania, who often kidnap tourists, strip them bare, and release them into the wild. Stafford, Chip, Nair and Curtis trail the abductors into the bush, watching but not interfering as they carry out the usual stripping and stealing the tourists’ goods. But they are surprised when Hendrix is taken off a distance by two soldiers who then take out their guns and are on the point of executing the young dude when Chip and Stafford intervene, shooting the soldiers.

Stafford, Curtis, Chip, Nair and now Hendrix, make it back to the car and back to civilisation ie their tourist compound and hotels, knowing the other hostages will be released unharmed and told to walk home and that their Kenyan tour guide will be sure they get to safety. Meanwhile, under interrogation, the imposter ‘Hendrix’ reveals he is computer hacker Jack Corliss and that Gunnarsson blackmailed him into pretending to be Hendrix, he’s not even sure why. Chip places Corliss safe and secure in a police cell.

Reveal

About half way through the novel there is a scene between Hendrick and Brice, the head of the charity, in which both are revealed to be South African spies. The charity is a front, as Stafford immediately suspected. Hendrick is in the psychopath league: having worked for South African intelligence for some time, he became intrigued by his long-lost grandfather and, using his contacts, tracked him down and found him to be a mafia-style businessman who’d amassed a fortune but was ill and going senile. Hendrick had the old man brought to Jersey and guarded by a couple of ‘carers’, while he suggested to his bosses rerouting the old man’s ill-gotten fortune into an operation to destabilise Kenya, by arming and motivating some of the many rival tribes and ethnic groups in that country. He gets the senile old man to sign a will that he, Hendrick, has created, as a token leaving money to living heirs, but really leaving most to ‘the project’.

It was bad luck the London lawyers followed their brief a bit too zealously and hired an American detective agency to track down a rumoured American cousin, very bad luck that they found him. Hendrick and Brice want to eliminate him as a wild card who will interfere with the operation, so it was they who organised for Gunnarsson’s party to be abducted by South African operatives posing as Tanzanian bandits, the sole aim being to execute Hendrix to get him out of the way.

But they hadn’t counted on the presence of Stafford and Chip to rescue Hendrix. And they also had no idea that greedy Gunnarsson from the States was himself operating a scam. Scenting a lot of money in Hendrix, Gunnarsson sacked Harden, murdered the remaining members of his ‘commune’ who would recognise him (in a house fire), and then murdered the real Hendrix himself (sealing his corpse in cement and dumped in Long Island Sound) before blackmailing Corliss to impersonate him.

Brice and Hendrick, and Stafford, have no part in this scam, which takes a long time to come to light, and confuses everyone including the reader, as we all think it must be part of an elaborate double-bluff by one of the conspirators.

Security agencies

There’s a light, comic element to the thriller, partly stemming from the jokey relationship between Stafford and Curtis, but the plot itself becomes faintly farcical when we learn that Chip and Nair are themselves working for Kenyan Intelligence who have long suspected something fishy about the Ol Njorowa charity. When Harden looks up old CIA contacts at the US embassy and Stafford finds himself being politely grilled by a ‘senior figure’ from the British embassy, Stafford himself points out that we appear to have members or ex-members of the CIA, MI6, BOSS (South African intelligence) and Kenyan intelligence all swimming in the same murky pool.

Interlude in a balloon

As part of the polite hospitable showing-round of the facilities, the ‘innocent’ scientist Alan Hunt and his sister ask Stafford if he’d like to accompany them in one of their balloon rides, which they do to photograph and research local land patterns. He says yes and there is a delightful description of a flight in a balloon – I would be surprised if it isn’t a straight description of something Bagley had experienced himself.

The plot justification is that Stafford takes aerial photos of the compound, which he gets the Kenyans to develop and analyse – he is particularly interested in the mystery building, the one where the research into animal migration is carried out, but most of the other researchers have never entered – but for the reader it’s pure fun, of a kind of carefree type you don’t get in the corralled, relentlessly focused and logical thrillers of, say, Frederick Forsyth or Robert Ludlum. It’s these rather extraneous details and ‘colour’ which makes Bagley’s thrillers feel more relaxed and enjoyable than their more modern, unforgiving counterparts.

Two climaxes

1. The island Towards the end of the book the two Kenyan agents set up a temporary base on an island in a lake not far from the charity compound. Here Stafford brings Hunt, the innocent scientist from the charity, to let him in on the secret and ask him to be their eyes and ears on the ground. But things start to get messy when Curtis, acting as lookout, spots Gunnarsson approaching in a hire boat. Gunnarsson comes ashore and is throwing his weight around about being tailed and watched and lied to when, unexpectedly, Nair arrests him and puts handcuffs on him. There is a big reveal where Gunnarsson explains that he knows nothing about the compound, he just switched Hendrix, hoping to stick with the impersonator and sooner or later get his hands on the £3 million. Aha. At last we understand the Hendrix impersonation is not part of the main conspiracy, just a sort of accidental detail.

Barely has this settled before another boat is seen approaching, which turns out to carry Brice, head of the charity, and Hendrick, with a handful of goons from the charity compound. The others hide while Nair and Gunnarsson put on an act for the visitors, pretending that Nair has just arrested Gunnarsson for fraud and embezzlement. But Brice suspects it’s a play-act and trips big clumsy Gunnarsson and, as he falls, the handcuffs come off, showing they were never locked, as Brice suspected.

Nair and Gunnarsson turn and run, pursued by Brice and goons. Stafford, Curtis, Harden and Hunt, watching from cover, make a break for it, cosh the goon guarding the boats, and quickly fire them up and cruise along the side of the island to rescue their team, despite errant gunshots from Brice’s boys.

Nair turns and hits his pursuer, then makes it out into the water, wounded by a gunshot but is hauled safely into one of the boats. Gunnarsson comes to a grotesque end as his blundering disturbs an enormous hippopotamus which chases him into the water and, in one movement, bites him in half. Yuk.

2. The base On impulse Stafford says now is the time to raid the compound, while Brice is away marooned on the island. He gets Hunt to smuggle him, Curtis and Harden into the base in the trailer of his Land Rover and to park outside the mystery building, the one where the research into animal migration is carried out and where Hunt and the rest of the researchers have rarely if ever been.

Briefly – our guys enter and find everything disappointingly innocent-looking, until someone takes a pot shot at them. This alerts Stafford to the trapdoor in the floor. He persuades Hunt to get the burner from the balloon and, carefully lifting the trapdoor from behind, to fire it into the cellar; there are more shots from the cellar which stop when the awesome and terrifying flame thrower gets going. Our team seem on the verge of success when there are shots from behind them – Brice and Hendrick have gotten off the island somehow and entered the building all guns blazing. Pandemonium! Shots are fired in all directions, then Curtis (who had been acting lookout on the roof) appears behind one baddy and disables him, when – BOOM! – everything goes black.

Epilogue

Stafford wakes up in hospital. Their flame thrower gimmick set off some of what turns out to be the big stockpile of arms and ammunition which was in the concealed basement. Harden was burned, Hunt wounded, Sergeant Curtis survived unscathed and pulled our guys to safety, Brice got a broken arm, Hendrick and the man in the basement were both killed, Stafford was badly concussed. Chip from Kenyan intelligence brings him grapes and ties up all the loose ends; the Kenyan authorities will hush it all up but use their knowledge of this secret South African operation as a bargaining chip.

In a final and very odd few paragraphs, Stafford reflects that every time he gets involved with Alix Aarvik he gets into serious trouble.

He made a mental note that the next time Alix appealed for help or advice was the time to start running. (p.320)

Neither Bagley nor Stafford take any account of the fact that his friend Alix has just lost her husband. We know he was a rotter, a ruthless amoral South African spy, willing to murder his own grandfather and other innocent bystanders in the cause – but all Alix will know is that her husband – and the father of her newly born baby – is dead, and he life will be in ruins.

Therefore, it is disconcertingly unthinking and heartless of Bagley/Stafford to end the book on such a light-hearted note. A jarring indication, perhaps, of the disregard for emotions and feelings which characterises the thriller/adventure genre as a whole.


Computers

Seems almost as soon as they were invented computers started to be hacked. When Hardin is kicked off the Hendricks case, he asks a colleague at the detective agency to hack into the company’s computer to find out who commissioned the case. There follows a conversation where the colleague points out that Gunnarsson boss checks the log of computer use and would spot the query and know it’s from him, so no dice.

Later we discover the young dude brought in to impersonate Hendrix is really Jack Corliss (p.148), a computer worker for a New York bank who was fiddling the books but discovered by Gunnarsson and blackmailed into impersonating Hendrix.

Computers, hacking, and security issues – all well-known in 1981.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Windfall

Fontana paperback edition of Windfall

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

XPD by Len Deighton (1981)

XPD combines three areas of Deighton’s expertise – World War Two history, spy fiction and the world of Hollywood movies.

It’s a long novel – 431 pages – and interesting and convoluted enough, but nowhere really gripping. Deighton takes the decision to explain what it’s ‘about’ in the first few pages, and shows us all the key meetings between the various protagonists, so there is little or no ‘mystery’ for the reader to unravel, no dastardly conspiracy for us to slowly uncover via hints and tips. Everything is out in the full light of day from the start, it’s simply a question of what’ll happen to the secret documents (see below) – which isn’t really enough to sustain interest over such a long text.

The plot

The head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service explains that at the end of World War Two Hitler ordered all the Nazi gold, art treasures and vast archives of documents to be hidden in salt mines in Thuringia. Almost immediately the advancing Americans found the mine and loaded all the loot into lorries to be sent to Frankfurt. Except some of the lorries never made it. Instead, a small group of American soldiers set up a bank in Switzerland soon after the war ended with a surprising amount of gold bars; one soldier – Colonel Pitman – stays on to run it, the others return to the States to pursue their post-war lives with a healthy amount of financial help and support.

The novel is set in 1979 and all the key players assume the incident is long forgotten so that now – 24 years later – alarm bells go off when a small-time American film producer places adverts in the trade mags saying he’s producing a movie about a group of Americans who steal Nazi gold, and that he’s willing to pay anyone who can send him documents shedding light on this interesting historical episode.

The unsecret secret

Why alarm bells? Again, there is no need for the reader to guess, because Deighton has the head of MI6 – Sir Sydney Ryden – tell a meeting of other security chiefs (and us) that it’s not the gold – it’s the documentation which was included in the stolen loot which matters, for it includes the so-called ‘Hitler Minutes‘, which are the detailed proposals Churchill sent direct to Hitler for a peace in May 1940.

These list the amazing concessions Britain was prepared to make to secure peace with the Nazis and include: creating a joint Anglo-German administration of Ireland, giving the German navy bases at Cork and Belfast as well as all Britain’s other bases from Gibraltar to Hong Kong, restoring to Germany all her pre-Great War colonies in Africa, persuading the French to co-operate, allowing the Nazi fleet free run of the North Sea and so on: almost complete capitulation (chapter 16). Further, SIS agent Boyd Stuart, who is assigned to the case, digs around in the archives and discovers that all the records indicate that Churchill flew to meet Hitler in person in June 1940 (chapter 35) – a stunning revelation.

The premise of the novel is that, if this information was made public, it would ruin Churchill’s reputation (and do big domestic damage to the Conservative party) but also ruin Britain’s reputation abroad, from black Africa (where the British Prime Minister is struggling to conduct tricky negotiations over Rhodesia) to the USA, which would rewrite its opinion of its brave ally.

So what’s at stake in the novel is never a mystery. We know it all. And, as we all know that these ‘secrets’ never came into the public domain back in 1979, there is no real tension about their revelation. Instead, the novel focuses on a small number of interested groups circling around the missing documents, and what ‘interest’ the novel possesses simply comes from wondering which of these various groups will achieve their ends, and which of the 20 or so named characters will be bumped off in the process.

The key motor of the narrative is a small group of Germans, operating on behalf of some ‘Trust’. They put into practice ‘Operation Siegfried’, a sting with two strands: they pull an elaborate international con trick to swindle the Swiss bank the Americans set up out of almost all its funds, thus placing them in a weak position; then they concoct this story about a film being produced about the incident and the adverts put in American papers by a ‘film producer’ inviting people to come forward who have any relevant documents  – tempting the Americans to sell the (to them, largely worthless) papers in order to make good their losses.

But the Americans, in the shape of Chuck Stein, prove more reluctant than the Germans expected. And what are the Germans’ motivations, anyway? A mad idea to restore the Third Reich? Do surviving Nazis need the money? In fact, Deighton shows us a meeting of the Trust where the leaders say they actually want to destroy the documents in order to protect the successful, stable Democratic West Germany; no-one in their right mind wants to go back to the Nazi era (chapter 23). So their motives are surprisingly innocent. Why, then, go about it in such a cloak-and-dagger manner?

But there is also a suspicion that one or more of the leaders of this ‘Trust’ may be Soviet agents, using the Trust’s resources to get hold of the docs, which will immediately be smuggled to the East and publicised with the devastating repercussions for Britain outlined above…

Characters

MI6

  • Boyd Stuart is the nearest thing to a ‘hero’, a 38-year-old SIS field operative, he is married to the head of SIS’s daughter – a bad decision for all concerned, since she’s left him and wants a divorce. He is tasked with flying to LA and finding out more about this ‘film producer’, Max Breslow. Here he dines with the producer and the lead American character Charles ‘Chuck’ Stein and watches fascinated while Chuck produces a sample of the documents – detailed medical records of the Führer showing just how much medication he was on by the end of the war. But behind this affability is violence: an assistant sent out from the Washington embassy is killed in an engineered car crash. Back in London he meets some computer hackers who’ve penetrated a German bank and stumbled across details of the Nazi loot, and who are brutally murdered and dismembered. Boyd begins to wonder whether his own side are bumping off witnesses and asks to be removed from the operation. Permission refused…
  • Sir Sydney Ryden, the aloof, standoffish head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), deliberately vague and non-committal in his briefings to Boyd, who often sets off rather puzzled as to his instructions. In chapter 24 we see him having his regular lunch with the head of German intelligence in Britain, where he gives a bit much away about the two hackers. Later we learn this German is a double agent working for the KGB, who tipped off his bosses, who instructed Kleiber (see below) to murder them. Only right at the very end do we discover that Ryden himself played a key role in the Hitler-Churchill negotiations…

The American soldiers

  • Chuck Stein, enormous fat Yank living in Los Angeles who played a key role in guiding the little platoon which stole the gold and documents, given, like all the war veterans, to reliving entire scenes from those chaotic days in May 1945. He is probably the second male lead, travelling to Geneva to hear from Colonel Pitman about trouble at the bank, and then returning with a faked passport to take the Colonel to safety. Alas, as Colonel Pitman is driving them to the airport Pitman has a fatal heart attack and their speeding Jaguar crashes, killing Pitman, and giving Chuck bad concussion. Despite which he hitches a lift to the airport and makes it onto a flight back to LA, only to be abducted at the airport by Parker, the Russian agent, and held hostage while they extract the whereabouts of the Hitler Minutes from him…
  • Billy Stein, Chuck’s all-American Californian son, a dim playboy who he sends on a mission to London to meet the two computer hackers who’d left a message for Chuck that his name is on the list of people involved with the loot which they hacked from a big German bank. But when Billy arrives the hackers are dead and dismembered, and Boyd Stuart barges into his hotel room with a gun and holds him incommunicado in a ‘safe house’ in north London, hoping to find out where the documents are, or bringing pressure to bear on his father to reveal their whereabouts.
  • Colonel Pitman, the most senior of the gold stealing US soldiers, who now lives in a fine mansion in Geneva and runs the Swiss bank the robbers set up with their swag. He calls Chuck Stein to visit him to explain how thoroughly they’ve been stung in a complex international scam: almost all the bank’s credit was tied up in a pharmaceuticals deal with Yugoslavia which went badly wrong, the intermediary disappeared, the consignment was empty, they’re left with worthless letters of credit. The Brits and CIA leak the information that the Minutes are at Pitman’s house which leads (Russian-spy-working-for-the-Germans) Willi Kleiber to organise a military assault on the Geneva mansion. The raid never goes ahead but it would have found the house empty, anyway, as Chuck Stein, on a second visit, realising things are hotting up, arrives a few hours before the planned attack, persuades the Colonel to meet him at a safe tea rooms in town, where he has the minutes, a stash of money and fake passports. Pitman is driving them both to the airport, at top speed, when he has a fatal heart attack and is killed in the resulting high-speed crash.

The Germans

  • Willi Kleiber, ex-Nazi whose been called in by the ‘Trust’ to flush out the documents. The Trust itself (we see a meeting of the old ex-Nazis in chapter 23) and Max Breslow in particular (see below) are unhappy with Kleiber’s methods, which are violent. When an American producer, Lustig, seemed to find out about the plan, his body turned up in a car boot; when an assistant from the British embassy in Washington is sent out to LA to help Boyd Scott, his car goes up in a fireball; when the Trust learns that two English hackers have penetrated the account with details of the Nazi loot, money and contacts, the two hackers turn up very dead with their heads and hands chopped off. All this is Kleiber’s work. But Kleiber is in fact a Soviet agent, run by Ed Parker (see below). The Brits and CIA leak the information that the Hitler Minutes are at Colonel Pitman’s house in Geneva which leads Willi to organise a military assault on the mansion, planning to hold Pitman hostage till he hands over the Minutes, revelling in assembling a team of heavies and thugs with machine guns to carry out the assault (it’s just like the good old days). However, in the early evening of the planned attack, Kleiber is inveigled into meeting a rich client and slipped a mickey finn by people who turn out to be CIA agents, who have been taping his meetings with Parker and therefore know he is a Russian spy. He wakes up in a safe house in Carolina to discover the CIA know everything about him and Parker, and have enough evidence to send him to prison for 100 years; therefore, would he like to become a double agent?
  • Max Breslow, ex-Nazi and now small-time Hollywood producer, more at home with TV movies, but finds himself called upon by the Brotherhood of ex-Nazis to pretend to be staging a movie based closely on the actual events of the gold heist, in order to flush any Yanks with information or documents out of the woodwork. Against his better judgement he is thrown into partnership with the brutal Willi Kleiber, climaxing in the set-up in Geneva where he is shown the small army Kleiber has assembled, pops out for lunch, and returns to find them all being rounded up by the Swiss police who have been tipped off about them (by the Brits or the Yanks). He evades arrest and flies back to Los Angeles only to find himself, in a bizarre scene, pursued through the sets of Hitler’s Reichs Chancellory which have been created for the film, by a concussed and crazed Chuck Stein with an antique WWII pistol.
  • Franz Wever, ex-Nazi, captured by the English and a POW in East Anglia he never went back but settled and became an impoverished farmer. Boyd Stuart goes to interview him and Wever’s memories of being called in Hitler’s presence and being given the instructions about taking the gold to the salt mine are probably the most vivid part of the novel (chapter 13). As Stuart’s car trundles down the track from his farm, the farm abruptly explodes. Stuart goes back to find Wever dead, and a wall safe exposed from which he extracts a small sample of the Nazi documents. Stuart realises that, had he left even five minutes later, he also would have been killed. Who is trying to kill him?

The Russians

  • Yuriy Grechko, top KGB man in America.
  • Edward Parker, a Russian sleeper, based in America for 12 years, outwardly a respectable businessman, in fact Russia’s leading spymaster and Kleiber, the ex-Nazi killer, is one of his agents.
  • General Stanislav Shumuk, very senior in the KGB. Arranges to meet Boyd on neutral territory in Denmark and reveals all about Grechko, Parker and Kleiber to him, on condition he murders Kleiber for him. Which Boyd agrees to do.

The CIA

Chapter 30 introduces us to various officials in the CIA, with some Frederick Forsyth-esque explanations of the duties and powers of the various sections and departments etc. The point is that they’ve detected that Parker is a senior KGB agent and want to entrap Kleiber. They’re not that interested in the gold or the documents and so make a gentleman’s agreement with Sir Ryden that both intelligence services will carry out their respective projects without stepping on each others’ toes.

  • Melvin Kalkhoven, tall, thin, age 35 (p.271) is the main figure, who bugs the safe house where Parker and Kleiber meet then leads the team which drugs and abducts Kleiber on the eve of the latter’s planned assault on Colonel Pitman’s Geneva mansion, and flies him back to the States where he is made an offer he can’t refuse ie to become a double agent.

Thoughts

The fundamental problem is I didn’t much care: I didn’t care whether this supposedly earth-shattering secret was revealed, and therefore didn’t care which of the competing groups (MI6, Germans, Russians, Americans) got their hands on it.

The most compelling sections were the reminiscences of the war by the various veterans, Wever’s encounter with Hitler being the standout, but also the various battlefield memories of Stein, Pitman and others of their comrades, flashbacks to the intense situation in the war’s dying days which are used to explain how the robbers came together and carried out the heist.

As for the plot, it just got more and more byzantine and around page 350 I wondered if it was deliberately meant to be turning into a kind of Ealing comedy, deliberately comic in its top-heaviness. But in the final 30 pages there are some last-minute plot twists, further revelations about the Hitler-Churchill meetings, and it ends on an unpleasantly cynical note which quashes any comic feelings.

Quite apart from the lack of ‘grip’ or ‘thrill’, I found an unevenness of tone a problem: not with the prose which is solid and serviceable enough, though I did notice repetition of some phrases as if it hadn’t been completely proof-read. I mean the ‘moral tone’. Some scenes are played for macabre laughs, some are deadpan, some contain blank factual content about Nazi bureaucracy, like an encyclopedia fascistica, and then some parts or cruel and cynical, like the ending. This unevenness of tone is there in the early Ipcress novels but concealed, or is part of, the cool, humorous detached style of those early books. In Deighton’s later, less cool and elliptical, more factual novels, it comes over as simply a moral vacillation, an attitude that’s neither full-blown cynical, nor warm and humane, but an uneven gallimaufry of both, with other fragmented attitudes in between.


Details

It’s a cliché of the thriller genre that the protagonist is made to feel old, tired and jaded by his experiences:

  • Suddenly he felt tired and rather old. (p.314)
  • ‘I sometimes think I’m getting too old for this sort of work. Do you ever have that feeling?’ ‘Almost every day,’ said Boyd Stuart. (p.367)

XPD

XPD stands for Expedient Demise ie murder by the security services. Boyd grumbles about the SIS and worries whether his own side might be setting him up. But at the very end of the novel, having ascertained the full story from Kleiber, certain that the Hitler Minutes are safe with SIS, and at the last minute demanding the only photographic evidence of the Hitler-Churchill meeting which it turns out Kleiber had all along, Boyd then prepares to inject Kleiber with poison to eliminate him.

Having seen him flirting with his girlfriend and arguing with his ex-wife, Deighton has gone out of his way to make Boyd an attractive and very human protagonist. It is a deliberate slap in the face, then, to learn right at the end that he is willing to murder under orders.


Computer hacking

Deighton was an early understander of the power of computers, after all the Billion Dollar Brain at the centre of that novel is a super-computer, programmed to carry out a massive war plan and that was 50 years ago, in 1966.

This novel features the first reference I know to computer hackers. In chapter 23 two young men in London hack into a big German bank where they stumble across the details of the Nazi gold/Operation Siegfried and, as Chuck Stein’s name is prominent, they contact him in distant Los Angeles. As Chuck is out they leave a message on his answerphone, which the SIS themselves are tapping, and so which leads Boyd to the hackers’ shabby flat near King’s Cross. They explain that they call themselves COMPIR, computer pirates, and do it for fun. It is their bad luck that the head of SIS refers to them in his conversation with the London head of West Germany’s spy agency, who is a double agent, passes it onto the KGB, who pass it on to Willi Kleiber, who proceeds to murder them gruesomely.

The hackers hacked.

Related links

Granada paperback edition of XPD

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.

Ancestral Vices by Tom Sharpe (1980)

Insanity could, with the help of modern medicine, be cured but dead dwarves were beyond any form of aid. (p.137)

This is the first Sharpe novel I’ve read which I didn’t find funny. Grotesque, yes, but it lacked the compelling (il-)logic of the previous novels.

Plot summary

Lord Petrefact is a wicked old capitalist mill owner, confined to a wheelchair, and whose main pleasure in life is abusing his personal assistant Croxley. He hates his family and (for no very compelling reason that I could see) decides to commission a priggish, unimaginative left-wing academic historian to write a warts-and-all history of the family’s long achievements of exploitation and abuse, venomously hoping it will drag in and humiliate as many of his relatives as possible.

And so we are (rather randomly) introduced to the university of Kloone, with the brand new computer Lord Petrefact has gifted to it (nicknamed ‘Doris’), and the impenetrably jargon-ridden and high-minded Marxist academic, Walden Yapp, the wholly unsuitable economic historian Lord Petrefact offers a fortune to write the scandalous family story.

Fiasco at Fawcett Hall

Petrefact invites Yapp to his country seat, Fawcett Hall, where he insists on serving an eight-course dinner to revolt the puritanical socialist. There is a lot of fuss about his request for a sucking (or suckling ie very young) pig, traditionally cooked whole and presented with an apple in its mouth. When the local butcher can only get hold of a mature boar, Croxley and the Italian chef conspire to cut away most of the body and serve the head and rear end (grotesquely) sewed together.

At the end of the meal Yapp is shown to an ancient bedroom (where the wicked colonialist King Leopold of Belgium once stayed – to provoke the left-wing academic). But when Yapp tries out the very old shower/bath it goes mad, spraying water in every direction, rocking, shaking and eventually smashing its way through the floor – causing lumps of plaster to fall onto Lord Petrefact’s electric wheelchair in the bedroom below, which promptly goes haywire, charging around the room, smashing priceless vases etc before tangling up in Lord P’s pyjama cords and dragging him out into the hall and down the stairs, screaming for help.

The petrified housekeeper calls the police and we have a familiar-feeling scene of a perplexed copper being shown round the wrecked bedroom, bathroom and bloodstained hallway, jumping to all the wrong conclusions – reminiscent of the idiotic coppers in Sharpe’s first two South African novels and the exasperated Inspector Flint who appears in the Wilt novels. There is a running gag about the sucking pig, with the Italian chef giving the dim copper the impression Lord P used it for sexual perversions, as its name rudely suggests.

This all seemed to me very laboured, without the fresh, outrageous verve and the demented logic of the earlier books.

In the midst of this mayhem Yapp signs an amazingly generous contract with Lord P to produce a full economic history of the family and is sent off to the small town of Buscott in the Midlands, there to start work researching the cotton mill where the family fortunes all began. Lord P rubs his hands with glee at the thought that Yapp will discomfort and hopefully humiliate his son, Frederick, and his spinster sister, Emmelia, who both live in Buscott.

Buscott

In Buscott Yapp finds himself advised to board with a certain Mr and Mrs Coppett. She is a simple-minded, buxom woman who has been told by an idiotic marriage guidance counsellor to get a bit of extra sex. Which explains why she crudely tries to seduce Yapp who rejects her obviously imbecile initial advances but then finds himself, when alone, or alone with her, reluctantly aroused by her. Her husband is Willy Coppett (presumably a joke name – ‘will he cop it?’ ie die), a dwarf who works in the local abattoir and carries a wicked-looking ten-inch blade everywhere with him.

Yapp has come to research the history of the Petrefact mill in the town, expecting to find it cruelly exploiting a down-trodden workforce and is disconcerted to find the town prosperous and the inhabitants all very happy. This is rather crude satire on the fatuousness of left wingers’ blinkered preconceptions. In the novel it is because Lord P’s wayward son, Frederick, has made it into a very successful manufacturer of sex toys and erotic lingerie, which makes good profits and pays everyone well.

(There is a sequence where rather sheltered spinster Miss Emmelia Petrefact, insisting on seeing her nephew, ends up blundering through the factory floor witnessing all kinds of sex aids being assembled, including the lifelike veins being painted onto plastic penises: somehow this doesn’t feel as transgressive, shocking or outrageous as the same kind of thing did in earlier novels. Maybe the reader has become blasé.)

Frederick pays Willy the dwarf to tail Yapp as Yapp tours the pubs of Buscott trying to find the alienated and radical proletariat his left-wing textbooks tell him about, but instead finding a pretty contented and well-paid workforce. Presumably this is satire on the shallow ignorance of left-wingers.

After giving Mrs Coppett a lift home one evening and receiving a thank you kiss, Yapp has to go out for another spin because he has had a spontaneous ’emission’ brought about by her proximity. He parks on the hard shoulder of a main road and slips through bushes into a nearby wood to take his semen-stained pants off. Meanwhile, Willy the dwarf has got drunk tailing Yapp round the town’s pubs and, on the way home, slips and drops his precious knife into the road. Clambering into the road to reclaim it he is promptly squashed flat by a tractor being driven without lights by a drunken farmer. Oops.

Terrified at killing the town’s favourite dwarf, the farmer picks up the mangled corpse, tiptoes back to an abandoned car he saw parked a bit further up the road, and slips the corpse, wrapped in farm cloth, into the boot. It is Yapp’s car.

The trial of Walden Yapp

The truth about the dead dwarf; the truth about the porn factory; Mrs Coppett’s lust, Yapp’s shame, the dim police, Lord Petrefact’s revenge – the scene is set for another hundred pages of farcical revelations and tangled imbroglios and it should all have been very funny – I certainly found loads of passages in Sharpe’s previous novels howlingly funny. But not this one.

Instead I was surprised that the comic potential of the porn factory and opportunities to satirise Yapp’s trendy lefty views were all pushed to one side as the narrative (in an eerie copy of Wilt) instead turns to focus on the arrest and lengthy interrogation of Yapp for the murder of Coppett. We know it was not murder and that Yapp didn’t commit it, but all the circumstances conspire to make him look guilty of (just as circumstances conspire to convince the police of Wilt’s guilt) and the novel now sets itself to submit him to the full indignities and absurdities of the British legal system.

Even Lord Petrefact’s plan for a candid history about the family – the starter motor for the whole novel – is more or less forgotten as the narrative zeroes in on Yapp’s trial, overseen by a crusty old judge who is a relative of the Petrefacts’ so that the whole thing becomes a predictably farcical fiasco.

And then the book develops in a wholly unexpected way as the hitherto fairly minor character of the elderly Emmelia Petrefact has a supposedly life-changing realisation. Attending a family gathering where they all agree the best thing is for Yapp to be locked away before he can write anything incriminating, and then watching Yapp being railroaded at his trial, Miss Emmelia comes to realise that she is a smug, rich, protected old lady, that Yapp is innocent, and that she ought to do something about it.

For the first time she glimpsed a world beyond the pale of wealth and privilege where people were poor and innocent for no good reason and others rich and evil for even worse… (p.198)

Simultaneously Yapp in prison, buggered and abused by his tough cell-mates for being a dwarf-molester, realises his whole life has been an intellectual lie: if there is no Historical Inevitability about the coming Communist Revolution, if Capitalist Society isn’t one great Conspiracy run by the Ruling Classes with the Police and others as their Parasites – then maybe the world just is meaninglessly chaotic and unpredictable.

Without a conspiracy to sustain him there was no rhyme or reason for his predicament, no certain social progress or historical force in whose service he was now suffering. Instead he was the victim of a random and chaotic set of circumstances beyond his powers of explanation. For the first time in his life Yapp felt himself to be alone in a menacing universe. (p.195)

This universal theme and the development of these two characters are almost serious; Sharpe is in danger of almost treating them as proper human beings – a significant and odd break from Sharpe’s glorious universe of freaks, grotesques and wild improbabilities…

True, Emmelia’s solution to Yapp’s dilemma is to put on a disguise and kidnap other dwarves in a bid to show that the dwarf-killer who topped Coppett is still at large and therefore can’t be Yapp – a strategy which results in a further concatenation of farcical consequences… But it feels forced: the real power comes from this odd eruption of real feeling into the narrative and lingers after you’ve finished the book.

In the end Yapp is released, a much changed man, widowed Mrs Coppett goes to live contentedly with Emmelia, and the narrative winds up in a happy, if rather disconcerting, ending.

Related links

Pan paperback edition of Ancestral Vices showing the cover illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback edition of Ancestral Vices showing the cover illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story.

The cover above shows the priggish figure of Walden Yapp, with the vengeful wheelchair-bound Lord Petrefact receiving the sewn-together sucking pig on the left, a cameo of Yapp struggling with the shower at Fawcett Hall in the top left window, the Buscott Mill producing its sex shop accessories in centre top, the alluring figure of the retarded Mrs Coppett and, by Yapp’s right foot, the tiny figure of the dwarf, Willy Coppett, red with blood from the abattoir and carrying his little dagger.

You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World @ Tate Britain

This is the largest retrospective of English woman sculptor Barbara Hepworth in nearly 50 years.

Hepworth (1903-1975) was born and raised in Leeds, where she met Henry Moore, a lifelong colleague, at art school. She moved south to London where, after her first marriage broke down, she married artist Ben Nicholson. They were both Christian Scientists and their love letters include a great deal about love and God and spirit, as well as bien pensant left-wing sentiments of the day.

Along with other young sculptors in the 1920s Ben and Barbara practiced ‘direct carving’ (the ‘new movement’), unlike the older generation which moulded shapes in clay and had them cast in metal by artisans; this ‘direct carving’ of the material (wood or stone) being a much more intimate (and difficult) relationship with the medium.

The first room shows Hepworth’s small sculptures from the late 1920s among those of contemporaries, including Jacob Epstein. Lots of these small early carvings are exquisite.

Barbara Hepworth, Doves (Group) 1927 Parian marble Manchester Art Gallery © Bowness

Barbara Hepworth, Doves (Group) 1927 Parian marble Manchester Art Gallery © Bowness

Nicholson and Hepworth were leading exponents of the English branch of International Modernism, very consciously staging and arranging their works in exhibitions and via magazines and articles showing their studios full of paintings or photos or textiles by other contemporary artists. This exhibition displays a number of the couple’s photo albums giving a good sense of the artful staged quality, as well as a whole wall of excerpts from the little art magazines their work appeared in.

The 1930s was a golden decade with refugees from Nazism like Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Breuer, Gabo etc fleeing to Britain bringing with them a wave of confidence about modern art, reflected in a host of small art magazines, new exhibition spaces and little groups and movements creating a sense of community among the embattled artists. Hepworth’s sculptures become more abstract, Nicholson painted his famous white paintings, as well as numerous paintings of the couple in incised, cartoon outline borrowed from Picasso. In 1934 Hepworth bore Nicholson triplets. Away from the artistic scene, domestic life must have been difficult and demanding for her.

Hepworth’s sculptures in the 1930s leave behind the figuratism of the 1920s to become more abstract, smooth and round. The show features a set of mothers and children with the child figure separate but balanced on the smooth flowing mother figure. A cool Modernist abstraction.

Barbara Hepworth, Large and Small Form (1934) White alabaster The Pier Arts Centre Collection, Orkney © Bowness

Barbara Hepworth, Large and Small Form (1934) White alabaster The Pier Arts Centre Collection, Orkney © Bowness

String makes its first appearance in sculptures from the 1940s, for example Pelagos (1946), carved from one block of wood and then strung. The Greek word relates to sea and it is entirely up to us whether we visualise a wave or waves breaking, or see the purpose of the string to create and define space, or whether the light blue Mediterranean azure of the interior indicates the sea. But it is a striking object. It feels finished, achieved, the product of a definite vision and style.

Barbara Hepworth, Pelagos (1946) Elm and strings on oak © Bowness

Barbara Hepworth, Pelagos (1946)
Elm and strings on oak
© Bowness

In the early part of the war Hepworth had nowhere to work and exhibitions were thin on the ground. The show jumps to after the war and a series of drawings of surgeons in an operating theatre (1948), a testimony to their craft and professionalism, and also a left-wing tribute to the creation of the NHS. In style reminiscent of Henry Moore’s drawings of people in the Underground during the Blitz.

By the 1950s Hepworth had become an international star, winning prizes at biennales and art festivals around the world. Her work became larger. An entire room is dedicated to just four sculptures made of wood, given Greek names as inspired by a trip to Greece to recover from the death of her son, aged just 23, in a plane crash. The wood is guarea which a voice on the audioguide accurately describes as ‘conker-like brown’, with the interior coloured that same off-white colour that you get at the top of conkers. Does the string make it a Greek lyre (bit obvious)? Create and define space? Or was it a tic of the period, something to do with the 1950s and equally used by Moore and in the mobiles of Calder and in other artists’ work?

It is one of the exhibition’s claims that this is the first time all four pieces have been in the same place since their creation and it makes for an impressive room to stroll around and mull over.

Barbara Hepworth, Curved Form (Delphi) 1955 © Bowness

Barbara Hepworth, Curved Form (Delphi) 1955
© Bowness

In 1955 Hepworth was given the opportunity to design the costumes and sets for Michael Tippett’s opera, The Midsummer Marriage. The exhibition features photos and designs for this, along with much other documentary evidence: from the early photo albums, excerpts from numerous small art magazines she appeared in and wrote for, articles and photos about her increasingly public works, and the ‘documentary room’ is dominated by a massive video screen showing an old arts documentary profile of the artist.

By the 1960s Hepworth was a Big Name and given major public commissions. The exhibition features photos of the Winged Figure she created for the outside wall of John Lewis, Oxford Street (1962) and the Single Form commissioned to stand outside the United Nations building in New York (1964). What’s notable about these later works is they are big and cast in metal, enabling many copies to be made and transported around the world, unlike all hear earlier work which was limited in size by form (if it was wood) and direct carving. These later works are deliberately monumental in scale.

The last room in the exhibition dramatically recreates the Rietveld Pavilion in the Netherlands where a pavilion was built amid dense woodland for her bronze castings to be displayed against a backdrop of walls made from brieze blocks, unadorned and unfilled-in, themselves quite a striking statement about the bluntness of material and very much of their time.

Barbara Hepworth, Oval Form (Trezion) 1961-63 Bronze Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collections Photograph courtesy The Kröller-Müller Otterlo, The Netherlands. Photograph by Mary Ann Sullivan, Blufton University © Bowness

Barbara Hepworth, Oval Form (Trezion) (1961-63) Bronze Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collections Photograph courtesy The Kröller-Müller Otterlo, The Netherlands. Photograph by Mary Ann Sullivan, Blufton University © Bowness

Thoughts

I respect Hepworth’s achievement. She was a woman in a man’s world who triumphed on her own terms, not only creating in a wide range of media but writing insightful articles and commentary about her practice, founding the beautiful sculpture garden in her final home in St Ives, achieving worldwide renown, made a CBE then a Dame, about as successful as a British artist could be.

But none of the many pieces on display here really lit my fire. They’re all good, some are very good: I liked the doves and the smooth mothers and children from the early years, and the stringed hollow shapes from the 1940s and I sort of like the big metal figures from her last period. It’s all respectable, inoffensive, calm – and lacks the fire and energy and enthusiasm I tend to like in my art.

I’m afraid my favourite piece in the whole show was in the first room where Hepworth’s small carvings are set among her contemporaries and the standout piece for me was Doves by Jacob Epstein (1914) – something to do with its pagan primitivism or Egyptian sharpness of line, to do with the energy and incisiveness of its carving: all qualities I miss in Hepworth’s calm, Christian, feminine and, for me at any rate, rather bland works.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: