Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)

Moscow was a low city. From the river it almost disappeared into its own somnolent ether. (p.65)

Tall, gaunt Moscow criminal investigator Arkady Renko is a disappointment to his father, the cranky old war-hero general; a disappointment to his bitch of a wife, Zoya, who is openly having an affair with a colleague and trying to divorce him; and a disappointment to his friends, who don’t understand his lack of ambition.

Three bodies are found dead in Gorky Park, the pleasure park complete with funfair and ice-skating ponds which borders the river Moskva in central Moscow. They have been shot at close range, then had their faces removed with a skinning knife and the tips of their fingers cut off to prevent identification. The three had been skating and are still wearing their skates.

Gorky Park is the long, densely written, fiercely imagined account of Arkady’s investigation into the bizarre murders, a thread which – in the best thriller tradition – leads to the unravelling of a bigger conspiracy which draws in the KGB and CIA. Along the way we are introduced to a large number of colourful and persuasive secondary characters, but the book’s main achievement is to take you right inside a brilliant depiction of Cold War Soviet Russian society. (It is set in the spring and early summer of 1977.)

The Russian background

is stunningly authoritative, deeply researched, totally convincing. It is not just the organisational structure of the KGB or Moscow militia, the relationship with the Ethnographical Institute or city prosecutors and lawyers – the kind of organisational knowledge an author like Len Deighton is so expert at – It is the way Smith inhabits the tired, jaded, everyday relationships between the workers in all these places, captures the mundane routines and tips and tricks and bypaths of such a society. It takes the kind of repartee you get in familiar American cop shows and sets it in a completely alien environment, utterly there.

I don’t know whether ‘Fuck your mother!’ is a common Russian expletive or whether there really is a ‘Siberian Dilemma’ (You are in Siberia fishing on a lake through a hole in the ice -the ice breaks and you fall in – do you stay in the water and freeze to death in a few minutes or get out into the -40 degree air and freeze to death immediately? p.214) or whether urka is the name for Russia’s tattoo-covered professional criminal class (p.75) – but every aspect of the novel’s Russianness – from the street layout of Moscow, the description and feel of different parts of the city at different times of day and night, the crunch of the snow and then the spring flowers breaking through, the taste of the cheap vodka, the squalor of state apartments, the constant bugging and surveillance, the horrible food in the cheap cafes, the fear and tension surrounding the presence of KGB officers, above all the Russian repartee of all the characters – all of it is thoroughly persuasive.

Characters

Arkady is a sort of hero: but although as honest and upstanding as Philip Marlowe, he is also cold as a fish, continually calculating, trying to read the runes and uncover the true murderer. In the early part of the novel Smith artfully surrounds Arkady with a penumbra of related characters:

  • Zoya, his cold wife, full of hatred for him, openly having an affair with a colleague, Schmidt, then later interrupting tense moments in the narrative to bother him about the divorce she is instituting
  • Pasha, his foul-mouthed competent assistant investigator
  • Flet, another investigator imposed on him and pretty obviously a KGB stooge reporting back to…
  • Major Pribluda, the stocky, aggressive KGB man who hates Arkady from when the latter correctly accused him of murdering a pair of dissidents two years earlier, as a result of which Arkady was beaten up by mysterious assailants, and the case quashed.

The plot – part one

Arkady gets little Professor Andreev, so short he compares himself to a dwarf, head of Moscow’s Ethnographic Institute, to reconstruct the face of one of the victims, a ticking process which accompanies the early investigation and promises much. Meanwhile, forensics show that a) one of the corpses had dental work of a type only done in America b) the corpses’ clothes carried traces of gold and gesso associated with religious paintings and icons, as well as specks of chicken blood and meat.

When Arkady puts out an all-Russia alert for missing persons a call comes through from distant Siberia that a local hoodlum, Kostia, and his moll, Valerya Davidova, have been missing for a while. Meanwhile, the female corpse’s skates have a name inside, that of Irina Asanova, who reported the skates stolen a few months earlier and works on the set of the Moscow film studios. In a separate strand, Arkady is taken by his boss, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, to an elite sauna and steam-room for the exclusive use of KGB and senior officials. Here he is introduced to the smooth, suave John Osborne, a tanned, silver-haired American, who swaps barbed comments with him.

As he delves deeper he discovers Osborne has been in and out of Russia since the War when, as a young man, he was involved in channeling support to America’s brave ally against the Nazis. Even in those early days he was making important contacts with influential Russians, especially in law enforcement and the KGB. Things begin to come together when photos emerge of Osborne in Siberia at a farm for sables, the slinky wild mammals whose fur is tremendously valuable. Then the police in Siberia reveal that Kostia and girlfriend at one time worked in a local sable farm.

Via his underworld contacts Arkady finds black marketeer, Golodkin, who complains that John Osborne commissioned him to find an icon chest, an antique covered in religious imagery and containing distinct drawers, only to dump him at the last minute and not buy it. Does Arkady want to buy an antique icon chest? No. But when Arkady orders his colleague Pasha to go with Golodkin to his apartment, they are both shot dead. Arkady is clearly on the right track…

The plot is complicated (very complicated) by an unprovoked attack on Arkady while he is back in Gorky Park one night, re-imagining the murders. He is badly beaten then narrowly escapes being shot by a well-disguised assailant. KGB? Underworld mobster? Foreign agent? Takes a number of further twists before Arkady discovers it is one William Kirwill, a New York detective. He has traveled from the States to investigate the murder of his younger brother, James.

A further distraction/complication is the way Arkady finds himself – upset and hurt by his wife’s abandonment – falling for the angry but vulnerable Irina – and then discovering she has some kind of relationship with the sleek American Osborne.

Through the mesh of numerous further twists, turns and nailbitingly intense scenes Arkady pieces together the story.

Memorable scenes

include:

  • Irina being mugged in the Moscow underground and placed on the railway lines with 2 minutes till the next train as Arkady does battle with her two assassins
  • Arkady driving out to meet his father, the General, old and frail but still seething with anger
  • Arkady smuggling himself out of Moscow on a train north packed like a cattle truck with stinking, smoking, leering convicts heading for Siberia (pp.256-249)
  • His convalescent home is threatened by a sudden forest fire and Arkady finds himself thrown into the chaotic fiery confusion of trying to fight the flames (pp.282-285)
  • Kirwill killing a KGB agent with his bare hands by battering his skull to pulp (p.229) The book is not for the squeamish

The story is

American John Osborne has made a lot of money using his important contacts stretching back to the war to conduct various import-export deals to Russia. But his secret plan has been to get hold of and smuggle live sables out of Russia – the fur-exporting capital of the world – and set up his own breeding programme in the States. Given how quickly sables breed, and how much their pelts are worth, within five years he will have a sustainable multi-million dollar business.

Kostia and Valerya brought him the live sables stolen from a Siberian farm, but they wanted more. In exchange for supplying an icon chest big enough to smuggle the sables in, they also wanted to be smuggled to the west, to freedom. James Kirwell was a young born-again Christian Osborne came across in his travels and brought to Moscow to show Kostia and Valerya how easily he could move people in and out of the USSR. Thus assured they gave him the sables and the chest and set off with James for a happy afternoon skating, before a rendezvous when Osborne was to meet them with vodka, sausage and details of their escape route. Instead, he shot all three of them quickly, with a gun hidden inside the bag of food and drink, the final victim, Valerya, so paralysed by fear she couldn’t run.

But Arkady’s unravelling of the mystery is hampered throughout by the heavy-handed interventions of the KGB. His boss, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, is fully supportive of him and invites Arkady out to his dacha in the country where, in a vivid scene, we watch him call eider ducks across the frozen lake and feed them while pledging Arkady his support. Later, as the net tightens, Iamskoy calls him in and reprimands him for the increasing number of corpses (Pasha and Golodkin, his childhood friend Misha) he’s leaving in his wake and tells him to hand over the case. Arkady refuses and, in the climactic scene of part one, he is ambushed by Osborne’s sidekick, the German Unmann, and badly stabbed in the gut before himself stabbing Unmann then drowning him as they both fall into and struggle in a pool in the grounds of Moscow University where Osborne has lured him.

Unable to break free, Unmann tried to bite, and Arkady fell back, carrying the man down into the water with him. There the German sat on top, squeezing Arkady’s throat. He looked up from the bottom of the pool. Unmann’s face grimaced, fluttered, divided, ran back together and split apart like quicksilver, each time less coherently. It broke into moons and the moons broke into petals. Then a dark cloud of red obscured Unmann, his hands went slack and he slid out of view. (p.260)

With Unmann dead, Arkady, bleeding badly, surfaces from the pool only to find his superior, the man who has backed him without hesitation, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, pointing a gun at him. Goodbye Arkady, he says, you were always my best investigator: there is the bang of a gunshot but it is Iamskoy who collapses, the top of his head blown off. It is Irina who has shot him. Run, says Arkady – and collapses…

Part two

The 70 pages of part two take the novel beyond ordinary intense, fast-paced thriller territory into a strange place, for Arkady takes a long time to recover from his severe belly wound and this section follows his recuperation in tremendous detail, the days and nights watching the ceiling of his hospital room as he drifts in and out of drugged sleep; then the increasingly aggressive visits of various KGB agents to question him.

And then he is moved out to a rest home in the country where, of all people, Major Pribluda is assigned to stay with him. Slowly the two men, while continuing to hate each other, form an edgy respect. When Arkady is well enough to walk he accompanies Pribluda, who is of true peasant stock, down to the garden of the house where the Major sets about creating a vegetable garden, taking off jacket and tie to labour long and hard for days on end to prepare the soil, hoe and turn it, before planting seeds of radish and lettuce, then creating an elaborate irrigation system and weeding his plot. All the time the pair exchange memories of life in Soviet Russia, clash over the pair of dissidents Arkady knows Pribluda murdered, discuss the details of the Gorky Park case.

Throughout this section Arakdy overhears nurses, KGB men smoking and playing cards, and even Pribluda saying – it doesn’t matter what you do or think, Renko. You are going to be shot.

Part three

Except he isn’t shot. To his (and the reader’s) surprise he finds himself on a plane to New York. The KGB have spared his life so he can do a deal with Osborne, now safely back in the States. I must admit, at this stage I stopped understanding what was going on. What deal? Osborne is safe in his own country with the sables, he doesn’t need anything. It emerges that Irina is with him; they let her go; she has been sleeping with Osborne all along and she ‘made’ them let Arkady come to her. Why? So they can be together because she loves him. OK. But why is Osborne letting her have Arkady? And why are the KGB letting Arkady go to the States? So he can track down the sables and kill them?

And why, then, do the KGB hand Arkady over to the CIA who set him up in a cheap whore’s hotel and follow him about, while they figure out what their deal is with Osborne.

Free to come and go as long as he returns to the hotel, Arkady meets up again with Kirwill who squires him around the Big Apple. In a bit of a plot hole, out of the entire vast pullulating city, it is rather a stroke of luck that a drunk lowlife trying to sell a black polecat he trapped in a remote part of Staten Island comes to Kirwill’s attention. It is a sable and Kirwill immediately realises Osborne must have set up his sable farm not far away.

It is the CIA operatives – Wesley, George and Ray – who take Arkady out to Osborne’s sable farm the next day. Here, at the sable farm on Staten Island, there is a bloody shootout.

For a start the arriving CIA and Arkady find Kirwill’s body bound to a tree and eviscerated, his guts hanging out his belly (p.357). Osborne did it. ‘He shot my dogs,’ he yells, more than a little demented on his home turf. A little later Arkady finds the crook who was trying to sell the sable, himself shot through the head. But as they approach Osborne over the snow, with no warning he shoots dead two of the CIA agents, one flees, Arkady throws Irina to the ground and runs off into the farm buildings.

Thus begins a deadly cat and mouse game between Arkady and Osborne between the cages of the mewing, screaming sables. George, the remaining CIA agent, pops up to try and shoot Arkady but Osborne shoots him. Then – in a wild surprise – one of the more friendly KGB agents, Rurik, appears looming over Arkady with a gun. He, too, is shot dead by Osborne who is using a hunting rifle with a scope. Nobody who knows about the sables is going to be allowed to escape alive.

Except that, although shot himself, Arkady manages – like all thriller heroes – to have the luck, energy, stamina – and the author’s helping hand – to nail Osborne, by this stage epitome of decadent, capitalist greed and evil. He uncages the sables and as Osborne shouts ‘No’, flings one of the creatures at him and in that moment drops to his knees and fills Osborne full of lead. How very OK Corral the whole scene has been. How very American.

In the final pages Irina pleads with Arkady for him to stay in the Free World she has always dreamed about. No. I am a Russian. I am going home, says Arkady. Home to star in the five sequels Smith wrote to this classic, long, involving and thoroughly imagined masterpiece.

Style

American prose is quicker, American writers pack more information into their sentences and paragraphs. At its worst – as in a lot of contemporary US fiction – this means depth or resonance of language or psychology disappear from the texts which become, as a result, worthless. But, at their best, American writers are confident to skip, jump and compress language to get to the nub of the matter without a lot of the preliminary throat-clearing and harumphing which (older) British writers mistakenly think of as ‘fine writing’.

In this respect Smith is a poet. He continually reminded me of the English poet WH Auden for the insouciance with which he throws off casually striking metaphors and imagery in snappy sentences, dense with charged similes and metaphors.

Levin caught up at the elevator and slipped into the car with Arkady. He had been a chief surgeon in Moscow until Stalin shook Jewish doctors out of the trees. He held his emotions like gold in a fist. (p.13)

Almost all Russia is old, graded by glaciers that left a landscape of low hills, lakes and rivers that wander like the trails of worms in soft wood. (p.120)

After Kirwill beats Arkady up in the park –

Arkady pulled himself out of a drift and staggered, holding  his chest. Trees and snow sucked him down to a stone wall… Truck lights sailed along the sweep of the quay road. He could see no one walking. No militiamen. Streetlamps were furry balls, like the bubbles of air he gagged down. (p.64)

Sometimes a wind catches a parade banner and the face painted on the banner, with no change in expression, shivers. In Osborne’s eyes Arkady saw such a tremor. (p.148)

In the communications room, two sergeants with loosened collars typed out radio messages that came in snatches, bits and ends, invisible litter from the outside world. (p.178)

By about half way through (in an evolution which reminded me of something similar which happens, as the tension builds up, in Ira Levin’s thrillers) Smith’s style allows itself to become more and more impressionistic and poetic. Frederick Forsyth, say, remains journalistic to the end, reporting clinically, factually, accurately. But in the fight in the bloody pond which ends part one, throughout the dazed diary entries of Arkady’s long painful recovery in part two, and then in the intense final scenes set in a New York as seen by a complete outsider to everything western or American, Smith’s prose is liable to splinter into intensely imagined, hallucinatory fragments.

Pribluda was the one man who didn’t speak, the one who was content with silent menace, a warted brooding under wetted hair. (p.266)

Arkady said nothing. Over the field were the triumphant screams of small birds mobbing a crow; they were like a bar of music moving through the air. (p.277)

The fire was unpredictable. One bush would catch slowly like a biscuit of fuses. (p.283)

The density of a lot of the language, its charge and intensity, the clipped brevity with which it throws out drastic insights, radical perceptions, added to the complexity of the plot, make for an intense and – unusually for a thriller – sometimes quite a difficult read. Difficult to read at speed. And worth rereading whole sections, maybe in a year or two, the whole book.

The movie

The book was quickly turned into a movie (1983), directed by Michael Apted with a screenplay by Dennis Potter. William Hurt is well-cast as the flat, unemotional Arkady, Lee Marvin is charismatic as the rich killer Jack Osborne, Brian Dennehy is big and mean as William Kirwill and Joanna Pacuła is pretty but unconvincing as Irina Asanova. There is an enjoyable supporting cast of British character actors including Ian McDiarmid, Michael Elphick and Ian Bannen.

Like all movies, this one massacres the plot of its source novel, completely deleting part two where Arkady recovers from his knife wound – there is no fight in the university pool and no wound -and transferring the final section from New York – where Kirwill is at home and shows Arkady round, which thus balances the Kirwill-in-Moscow scenes – to the much cheaper and easier-to-film-in countryside around Stockholm. The whole thing screams ‘limited budget’.

The direction is flat, not one frame stands out for beauty or care of composition, it often has the rough ‘that’s good enough’ feel of a TV adaptation. The music, by James Horner, starts with an effective and chilling set of stabbing rattles on some kind of bamboo-sounding percussion, but the majority of the film is disfigured by the fashionable 1980s sound of thumping synthesised drums and banal one-note synthesiser rock, until the final ‘heartbreaking’ scenes of Arkady parting from Irina are served up in a syrup of sub-Doctor Zhivago strings. Judge for yourself.


Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Agnes Martin @ Tate Modern

Potted biography

I’d never heard of Agnes Martin – knowing nothing about an artist being the best reason to go to an exhibition of their work. Turns out she was an American abstract painter who lived from 1912 to 2004, a long life. She was originally from Canada, went south to the States and took to painting late, not completing her Master of Arts degree till she was 30. Her early work shows the influence of all the contemporary currents (surrealism, Picasso and so on) in paintings of biomorphic loops and striking abstract sculptures. She moved to New York in the early 1950s just as the Abstract Expressionists were taking off – grouped together in a cheap area of south Manhattan were living and working Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman and a lot of other guys inventing a distinctly American form of painting.

She always lived frugally and at one point in the later 1960s packed in art altogether to go traveling for five years. She finally settled in New Mexico where she built her own adobe house and studio, living in primitive simplicity (no electricity, no running water) and she died there, far from the bright lights and the big city, full of years, fame and the praise of her contemporaries.

[Her biography is amply told in the Wikipedia and Tate web pages, listed below]

Potted career

The exhibition, in 11 big rooms, starts with Martin’s early zoomorphic work, along with some striking abstract sculptures, but it was in the later 1950s that she abandoned all figurative art to work in the repeated patterns, the mathematical grids, which were to become her trademark. In the early 1960s she found her voice, creating a series of grid patterns in square canvases 72 inches by 72 inches. The size would vary, but the addiction to grids of straight lines lasted the rest of her life.

Over time her colour palette became more muted. By the 1970s it was very pale pastels. The show has one room devoted to massive grids coloured only with grey. Another room has one of her few ‘series’ – 12 big square canvases painted white with such faint pencil lines creating rectangles and squares, that you can’t see them from across the room. The net effect is very relaxing. In fact the exhibition as a whole is very calming, muting, slowing, meditative. I heartily (no, I quietly) recommend it.

1963

Agnes Martin, Friendship 1963 Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, Friendship (1963)
Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1973

Agnes Martin, On a Clear Day (1973) Parasol Press, Ltd. © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, On a Clear Day (1973)
Parasol Press, Ltd.
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1974

Agnes Martin, Untitled #3 (1974) Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, USA © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, Untitled #3 (1974)
Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, USA
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1977

Agnes Martin, Untitled (1977) Private collection Photograph courtesy of Pace Gallery © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, Untitled (1977)
Private collection
Photograph courtesy of Pace Gallery
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1999

Agnes Martin, Happy Holiday (1999) Tate / National Galleries of Scotland © estate of Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin, Happy Holiday (1999)
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© estate of Agnes Martin

2003 – Just at the end of her very long life, Martin returned to non-grids, albeit still mathematical shapes, but more colourful and non-griddy than anything she’d done for 50 years.

Agnes Martin, Untitled #1 (2003) Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, Untitled #1 (2003)
Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Interpretations

Tate have made a short film featuring Martin herself and curators commenting.

Her dealer, Arne Gimcher, suggests a good approach when he says the paintings reflect the viewer (Art is in the eye of the beholder, sure, but rather more than usually for Martin). As I walked around these big white rooms hung with abstract grids and patterns in pastel colours or no colours at all, I could feel my heart beat slowing down and my thoughts wandering. The commentary/guide labels on the wall suggested different phases of her work and mentioned aspects of her biography. These were enough to plant seeds of thought, interpretation, speculation, idly flowing, projecting onto her empty canvases…

Lesbian

She was, apparently, a lesbian, though she never, apparently, formed a permanent relationship [Wikipedia: ‘She lived alone all her adult life.’]. Her gender, possibly, explains the absence of forcefulness, or drive, of tiresome grandstanding and showing off, which you find in many male artists of the mid-century, from Picasso to Pollock.

But insofar as she didn’t seem to form any private attachments – with no husband or lovers or children, with no ties of any sort – Martin was free to follow her private vision. And her art is a kind of logic set free: rows and columns and lines and rectangles silently inhabiting their own space, with no distractions.

Zen Buddhism

At Columbia University where she studied art, Zen Buddhism was taught by scholars and professors and becoming better known. She was interested in it for a while. As far as I can tell she didn’t become a devotee or practitioner, but you could argue that her entire oeuvre is an invitation to sit in silence and meditate.

This is especially true of the series she titled The Islands, twelve large square paintings in white acrylic paint and graphite, each with a unique use of horizontal lines to divide the surface, but so pale as to be barely visible from across a room. They’re there, but not there. They appear as you move forward, vanish as you retreat. They are what you make of them…

Schizophrenic

‘Throughout adulthood, Martin suffered from schizophrenia.’ This striking piece of information is revealed in room 5, and can’t help influencing the viewer. Were these tremendously ordered grids a way of controlling and managing a troubled mind? There is absolutely none of the stormy angst of a Jackson Pollock – the extreme reverse, emotionally flat surfaces laced with an orderly, patterned serenity.

In the film about her, Martin says we experience all kinds of emotions which we don’t express. Do these paintings express any emotion at all? I found the opposite: they are orderly empty spaces into which we project what we want.

Nature

The most misleading interpretations offered by various commentators seemed to me the several artists and colleagues who think Martin’s work captures ‘Nature’. For example, artist Ann Wilson is quoted from 1974 saying, ‘The colour in Agnes Martin’s work can be like the colour in rock at dawn, at noon, at sunset, depending on where your perceptions are when you see.’

Of course the colour of some of the pale reds in some of the grids may be the colour of sunset light on rock. Or a newborn baby. Or a weak Bloody Mary. But I find the griddiness of the grids outweighs any reference to nature. Nothing in nature is like this. Martin’s paintings have a purity, a mathematical fixity which is entirely unnatural, a unique product of the human mind.

Techno 1960s

As it happens I went for a walk in the countryside around Milton Keynes last weekend, the archetype of a planned urban environment, which was designated a ‘new town’ in January 1967. I was struck, like any visitor, by the preciseness of the geometric grid the central streets are laid out in, an obsession with squares, rectangles, right angles, grids and matrices reflected not only in the street layout but in the design of almost every building, whether brutalist concrete, or 60s and 70s office blocks, or the shiny facade of the long glass-fronted train station itself, built in 1982, and which extends down to the decorative detail of mosaics, air conditioning extractors, ducts and grilles and vents and vast areas of rectangular paving stone.

The 1960s was the decade of technological innovation – in England this took the form of Harold Wilson’s rather laughable ‘white heat of technology’, of the Post Office Tower and Concorde – in America of the space programme, and an explosion of ‘space age’ gadgets – and all around the world new towns, cities and capitals were being created in rational, mathematical grid layouts, visions of a brave new, rational, liberated society.

To what extent were Martin’s grids a reflection of this broader culture vision, specifically of the optimistic rational architecture, of the 1960s? And, if not directly influenced by contemporary grid-like thinking, to what extent did her work become successful because it replicated in oil and canvas the architecture of the day?

And did the transition from the bright grids of the 1960s to the quieter – and eventually colourless, grey – grids of the 1970s reflect the transition from the psychedelic 60s to the more internalised 1970s, the Me Decade, obsessed with self-improvement, cults, fads and self-expression?

Computers

Like most modern people, a lot of my time is spent sitting in front of a computer (as I am now), and I happen to deal with the obvious programs, Excel spreadsheets, Powerpoint, Word, Microsoft Project. Could the modern world be any more griddy?

If you take the worldwide web as an archetype of a network or matrix, would it be true to say we live in an Agnes Martin world now? (Another way in which, I think, her vision is the opposite of ‘natural’ or organic).

Pencil

Last point: the grids weren’t created by machine or computer. She used a metal rule and masking tape and graphite pencils to draw her lines herself. All very manual and personal. Seen close up, really close up, you can see the imperfections, the wobbles, nubs and bumps of the pencil over uneven canvas. This most mathematical and abstract of painters is, paradoxically, when seen close up, touchingly imperfect, subject to happenstance and contingency, wonderfully human.

This is a great, a liberating, calming, stimulating, refreshing show.

Related links

Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene (1982)

‘Your glass, monsignor.’
‘I have asked you not to call me monsignor.’
‘Then why not call me comrade – I prefer it to Sancho.’
‘In recent history, Sancho, too many comrades have been killed by comrades. I don’t mind calling you friend. Friends are less apt to kill each other.’
‘Isn’t friend going a little bit far between a Catholic priest and a Marxist?’
‘You said a few hours back that we must have something in common.’
‘Perhaps what we have in common is this manchegan wine, friend.’
They both had a sense of growing comfort as the dark deepened and they teased each other. (p.51)

Father Quixote is a good-natured Catholic priest in the sleepy town of El Toboso in the sleepy province of La Mancha in south-central Spain, jokily aware of his fictional predecessor, the great Don Quixote, who was supposed to have lived in the same area 400 years earlier.

One day he helps out an Italian bishop whose car has broken down on the main road to Madrid, giving him lunch and wine before sending him on his way. A few weeks later he is astonished to receive a letter declaring that the same bishop (back in Rome) has recommended Quixote be promoted to monsignor. His own Spanish bishop (who has never liked him much) is taking advantage of this surprise development to suggest the new monsignor Quixote is despatched to preach to a wider congregation (ie to get rid of him).

Around the same time the communist mayor of El Toboso is voted out of office and rendered unemployed. Though named Enrique Zancas, Father Quixote jokingly calls him Sancho. Over a drink or two they commiserate being ejected from their respective cosy jobs and hit on the idea of taking a prolonged holiday and going touring in Quixote’s battered old Seat 600 which he jokingly refers to as ‘Rocinante’ (after the fictional Don Quixote’s donkey).

Thus this unlikely pair find themselves motoring around rural Spain, bickering about Catholicism and communism (‘What about Stalin?’ ‘What about the Inquisition?’) and quite closely echoing the adventures of their famous fictional forebears.

Spain as land of archetypes

Greene wasn’t the first or last writer to come from a complex, industrialised, north European country and fall in love with the ‘simplicity’ of arid, backward Spain. The novel was published seven years after General Franco – the Fascist dictator who devoted his life to preserving Spain’s peasant Catholic culture – had died and little had changed. The ideological opposites of communism and Catholicism still had the kind of primeval power they enjoyed during the Civil War (1936-39) and Greene’s novel is appropriately simplistic, pitching the two mid-century ideologies against each other in a terrain denuded of most other people (apart from monks and religious processions) and almost every indication of messy, mundane 20th century life – reminiscent sometimes of the stripped-back landscapes of a Samuel Beckett play.

The impact of the modern world with its package holidays, tourist buses, industrial estates, roaring 747s, flashy sports cars, with its schools and offices and newspapers – none of that is in evidence here. Instead Sancho and Quixote drive around a Spain of the mind, visiting shrines, sleeping in the fields or cheap hotels or monasteries, all the time carrying out a kind of fifth form debate about the rights and wrongs of communism and Catholicism:

Is it better to live with faith or doubt? Is honest disbelief better than shallow faith – or vice versa? Was Torquemada worse than Stalin? Is Das Kapital a better guide to living than The Dark Night of The Soul? Is it better to read Lenin or Marx? Was it insulting of Our Lord to refer to his human flock as ‘sheep’? Was Marx a prophet like Isaiah? And, because it’s a novel about Catholicism, there are, inevitably, some rather sordid conversations about Catholic teaching on birth control (coitus interruptus versus the Rhythm Method… God these Catholics and their genitals, what a lifelong obsession: who knew there were so many activities which come under the category of ‘onanism’?) And so, charmingly, ramblingly, on…

‘Oh, you can’t beat those moral theologians. They get the better of you every time with their quibbles.’  -Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas (p.84)

‘Among the reflections and resolutions it is good to make use of colloquies, and speak sometimes to our Lord, sometimes to the Angels, to the Saints and to oneself, to one’s own heart, to sinners, and even to inanimate creatures…’ -St Francis de Sale, as read by Monsignor Quixote just before he goes to sleep.  (p.106)

‘How happy you must be with your complete belief. There’s only one thing you will ever lack – the dignity of despair.’ -Quixote (p.112)

‘”There is a muffled voice, a voice of uncertainty which whispers in the ears of the believer. Who knows? Without this uncertainty how could we live?”‘ -Sancho, quoting Unamuno (p.112)

Occasionally Quixote in particular is prey to the kind of religiose self-pity which Greene made his own throughout his career:

‘I don’t pity him. I never pity the dead. I envy them.’ -Quixote (p.120)

Sometimes he envied the certitude of those who were able to lay down clear rules – [the theologian] Father Heribert Jone, his bishop, even the Pope. Himself he lived in a mist, unable to see a path, stumbling… (p.134) -Quixote

How can I pray to resist evil when I am not even tempted? There is no virtue in such a prayer… O God, make me human, let me feel temptation. Save me from my indifference. (p.141) -Quixote

He felt as though he had been touched by the wing-tip of the worst sin of all, despair. (p.182)

I believe what I told her… I believe it, of course, but how is it that when I speak of belief, I become aware always of a shadow, the shadow of disbelief haunting my belief? (p.197) -Quixote

The true voice of the most depressive of English writers, the poet laureate of failed suicides, ruminating on his imperfect faith at interminable length.

Part one

Sancho and Quixote’s peregrinations are modelled on those of their fictional forebears. The book is in two parts: in part one, after being introduced to the couple, we motor off with them towards Madrid, then visit:

  • General Franco’s extraordinary tomb at Valle de los Caídos
  • the city of Valladolid
  • the city of Salamanca and the tomb of Unamuno

But as they do so a snowball of trouble grows around them. They are parked by the roadside enjoying cheese and wine and, for a joke, Quixote passes Sancho his clerical collar to try on at the precise moment some officious Guardia approach and note that the monsignor is lending a communist his Clothes. Later, at a loss while they wait for old Rocinante to be fixed at a garage, Sancho takes the innocent Quixote to the cinema for the first time. Quixote chooses to see The Maiden’s Dream, neither of them realising it is a porn film. As they emerge Sancho cracks a joke and Quixote is seen laughing and joking emerging from a porn cinema. Lastly and by far the worst, the pair are stopped again by a Guardia who warns them about a robber who’s just done a bank robbery with a gun and is in the neighbourhood. Quixote is oddly shifty and when the Guardia is gone, shows Sancho that he had encountered the robber five minutes earlier who assured him it was all a mistake. Now the robber does in fact pull a gun, makes Quixote give him his shoes and forces them to drive him to the nearby town where he disappears into the crowd. Sancho takes Quixote to a shoe shop to buy new shoes where the shop assistant notices his clerical garb and, it turns out, informs the police. By this time they have captured the robber who tells them he was helped to get away by Quixote. Late that night, after they have drunk a lot of wine and fallen asleep under the stars after their usual bicker about Stalin or Torquemada, or Faith versus Doubt, Sancho wakes up to find Quixote gone.

Part two

Quixote wakes up back in his priest’s house in El Tobaso. He has been kidnapped by the town doctor, acting under the instructions of his officious young replacement Father Herrera, himself acting under orders from Quixote’s bishop. All of them are trying to contain the scandal of a priest seen coming out of a porn cinema then helping a bank robber. Quixote is so indignant at being kidnapped then held prisoner he gets angry and insulting which confirms the priest and doctor’s belief he has gone mad. They lock him in his room. Soon Sancho turns up and with the help of Quixote’s outraged housekeeper liberate him, they clamber into Rocinante and set off on part two of their adventures.

The highlight of this is coming to a region in Galicia inhabited by lots of natives who emigrated to Mexico, made a lot of money, and have come back to dominate the countryside. Quixote is outraged at the money-grabbing corruption they have introduced to the region and interrupts a Catholic procession where the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been covered in dollar, franc and peseta bills, pulling it crashing to the ground. Sancho drags him away, bundles him into Rocinante and they drive full pelt for the Trappist monastery of Osera.

Just as they arrive some Guardias ambush them, pulling guns and shooting the tyres of Rocinante so she skids and crashes into the monastery wall. Sancho is mildly injured but Quixote is concussed. He is carried to bed by the outraged monks and treated by a local doctor who turn on the poor Guardias who were only obeying orders to stop the now-thought-to-be-deranged escaped priest, bank robber-protector, and religious processions attacker.

In the final scene Quixote rises from his bed in a dream, sleepwalks to the altar of the cathedral and carries out a sleepwalking Mass, witnessed by a devout monk, a sceptical visiting American academic, and Sancho, torn between love and respect for his old friend and his ancient disbelief.

Quixote places a dream Host on Sancho’s tongue, followed by dream wine, then collapses and dies. The last words describe Sancho, left haunted by his experience and (Greene the Catholic makes sure) oppressed by the dawning of the True, Deep and Terrible idea of Faith.

Why is it that the hate of man – even of a man like Franco – dies with his death, and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Father Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence – for how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue? And to what end? (p.256)

None of this rings true for me. Greene’s popularity seems to come out of the murk of the late 1930s, then the film noir 1940s and on into the Cold War of the 1950s, and his stricken landscape of flawed men aspiring to nobility and religious faith, only to be clawed down by their own weakness or the fickle hand of fate, seem very much part of the black-and-white existentialist 1940s and 50s. He is from the world of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux, an intensely serious world which can’t take a joke. To his fans he was one of the great writers of the 20th century who described the angst of the human condition in a world threatened with annihilation.

In fact the agonising over the stereotypical alternatives of Doubt or Faith which take centre stage in almost every Greene novel make me think of him as the Last Victorian, carrying the earnestness of his father, the headmaster’s, sermons forward from his Edwardian childhood into the twentieth century. ‘Doubt’ is the great Victorian theme, the core, for example, of that age’s poet laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Greene is his sex-obsessed, adulterous, despairing heir.

Looking back

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and all the Eastern bloc countries 25 years ago, almost everything written about Marx, Lenin and their great achievements became irrelevant overnight. Bang goes Sancho’s part of the couple’s numerous discussions… And almost all the Catholic side of the conversations boils down to one question, repeated in a thousand variations: Is it alright to be a bit of a doubting Catholic? Seen from 2015, both ‘sides’ of this 250-page long debate seem dustily irrelevant.

In fact, looking back from 2015 – with the planet threatened by global warming, Europe racked by what might become a permanent refugee crisis, the Middle East collapsing into chaos and spawning an endless threat of terrorist atrocities, worried by the end of the 20-year-long China boom, anxious about the fragility of the global banking system, and uneasy that everything we say, write and do is being recorded on vast, secret databanks, while the seas are poisoned, the coral reefs die out and infectious diseases develop immunity to antibiotics – these undemanding chats about two almost vanished value systems seem as remote as a pamphlet about repealing the Corn Laws. A charming memento of a lost age.

It is an odd, distinctively Greene affect that he has to put a stab or sting into even his most charming novels (as he did, unnecessarily with the equally entertaining Travels With My Aunt) as if aware of his Time magazine status as ‘writer of the century’, as if afraid of providing simple entertainment, as if conscious his fans expect some ‘deep’, ‘religious’, ‘philosophical’ message. It mars all his books. Now that the Victorian earnestness of that whole existentialist world has disappeared, it is like having a gang rape at the end of an episode of Dad’s Army. It seems wilful and inappropriate.

The movie

Greene collaborated on turning the novel into a TV movie, directed by Rodney Bennett, starring Sir Alec Guinness and Leo McKern and broadcast in 1985. This clip, from YouTube, appears to be from a VHS copy of a version dubbed into gutteral Spanish.

Related links

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

Vintage Stuff by Tom Sharpe (1982)

Either I’ve changed or Sharpe’s novels have changed, but I haven’t enjoyed the last few as much as the earlier ones. The farce seems forced.

The setting

For authors who went to public school, public schools hold an infinite fascination, hence the number of novels about them from a profession dominated by former public school-educated pupils. Funny how many of them are comedies or gruesome memoirs of cold showers, buggery, incompetent masters and compulsory games. Funny how many authors of these diatribes then send their own children to the same schools.

Sharpe went to Lancing College then Pembroke College, Cambridge. The Oxbridge part of his education is satirised in Porterhouse Blue; it took till his ninth novel to get round to sticking the boot into public schools.

The plot

According to Wikipedia, Groxbourne, the very minor public school where the novel is set, is based on Bloxham school which Sharpe attended before progressing to Lancing. The masters are a bunch of freaks, the headmaster is only bothered about money and the school’s reputation, there is compulsory games and lots of buggery among the boys. Matron gets caught shagging Major Featherstone. And so on…

One particular master, Slymne, hates another one, the slightly freakish one-eyed Glodstone (he has a glass eye and is fond of wearing a monocle over the other one). Glodstone is a besotted fan of boys adventure stories – Rider Haggard, Henty, Buchan, Bulldog Drummond – which Slymne uses to cook up a witty prank. He forges letters from one of the posher mothers, a certain Comtesse de Montcon, resident at the chateau Carmagnac, addressed to Glodstone, claiming she is in great danger, that her son has told her how brave and bold he is, that only he can rescue her.

Inspired with chivalrous thoughts, obsessed with re-enacting the derring-do of his heroes, Glodstone determines to rescue her. Term has just ended, almost everyone has gone home except for one odd pupil, Peregrine Clyde-Browne, an unusually dim, literal-minded boy who was meant to go on an outward bound course which has been cancelled. A pupil in Glodstone’s form, Peregrine had taken to borrowing from Glodstone’s large library of boys stories, had been infected by these tales of derring-do, and now asks to be taken along.

The result is mayhem. Slymne had gone to great trouble to drive across France a few weeks earlier leaving clues and letters at hotels on the way, and now arranges for Glodstone and Peregrine to find them. Abruptly he has second thoughts and tries to cut them off and the middle of the novel is a quite frankly confusing list of small towns in central France which the two characters race between, writing faked letters and finding them, and re-arranging their plans.

But eventually Glodstone – who has been getting colder and colder feet – and Peregrine – who in a teenager way has become more and more over-excited by the mission – arrive at the chateau Carmagnac. By a series of farcical accidents Glodstone falls into the nearby river and is saved and taken into the chateau to be tended. Peregrine thinks he has been captured by the baddies who are holding the beautiful Comtesse prisoner and so breaks into the chateau, creeping along corridors and terrifying at gunpoint the innocent guests he meets.

For the chateau has these days become a conference centre where a cross section of international intellectuals have gathered to discuss world peace. [This gives Sharpe an opportunity to satirise the attitudes of a whole range of national sterotypes circa 1982 – the oil-rich Arab, the Israeli, the ex-Nazi German, the over-intellectual Frenchman, the suave Brit, and especially the Soviet spokesman and the gung-ho American. It is useful to be reminded that clever people were wringing their hands about international terrorism and third world poverty 35 years ago…] After scaring the guests witless Peregrine escapes out of the chateau via the roof and considers his next move.

The delegates call the police who arrive and set up guard with a police van on the only bridge across the river to the chateau. Next night, determined to rescue his master (and the beautiful Comtesse) Peregrine slips under the van and lights the calor gas stove he and Glodstone had been using to cook with, placing it under the petrol tank. BOOM! Several of the French cops are set alight and the van flies into the river gorge.

The international intellectuals pause mid-argument at the moment when a masked assassin bursts in, starts shooting and all hell breaks loose. In that excess which differentiates farce from comedy, the disguised school boy, fired up on 1930s fiction, shoots the American professor dead and nips the penis of the Russian attendee. Delegates run everywhere screaming, Peregrine eventually finds Glodstone and the terrified Comtesse and hustles them down the road to ‘freedom’.

The Comtesse

Except she isn’t a Comtesse. She is a con artist, born Constance Sugg in Croydon, who was a beauty queen, then hussled her way to America, landed in Las Vegas where she got involved hustling marks for the Mafia, until she hussled and blackmailed the Conte de Montcon and ended up marrying him and moving to his chateau, where a little later he died leaving her penniless. Nowadays she works in the kitchen alongside the staff, as well as organising the conferences which are her only source of income.

Their high-falutin’ romantic dreams pretty crushed, Glodstone and Peregrine find themselves taken under the control of this bossy, manipulative woman. Once back at their car she takes charge. While the French police are activated and begin a nationwide search, Constance navigates the boys in their vintage Bentley back to England.

Not a minute too soon because the French police – convinced they have an international assassin at large – find their own security services trumped once the CIA arrive to sort out the murder of their delegate at the conference. Unfortunately, something of the truth of Peregine and Glodstone’s absence had come out ie Mrs and Mrs Clyde-Browne arrived home from holiday to find a letter saying Peregrine’s outward bound course was cancelled but no Peregrine in sight. When they motor to the school and confront the headmaster, he calls in Slymne and Major Fetherington (who runs the school’s Officer Training Corp and manages the school’s armoury) and the shocking truth emerges that Glodstone has gone on a hare-brained mission to France and taken the psychotic simpleton Peregrine with him.

Slymne’s fate

The headmaster instantly orders Slymne – the master who originated this jolly prank – and the Major to motor non-stop down to the chateau to stop Glodstone and Peregrine causing any trouble. They are, of course, far too late to do that but arrive just in time to be caught and questioned by the French police. Then French security. Then the CIA. The cocktail of drugs these three Forces use on Slymne means he never again fully recovers his sanity.

Glodstone’s fate

Back in England, the Comtesse takes the terrified Glodstone to a plastic surgeon on Harley Street who makes him completely unrecognisable – then marries him, thus ensuring an alibi and she can keep her eye on him.

Clyde-Browne’s fate

Constance/the Comtesse confronts Peregrine’s parents (he is a solicitor who loathes his son) with the fact their son is a murderer and terrifies them with the threat of blackmail, until Mr Clyde-Brown agrees to call in his brother, something in Whitehall. This gives rise to a particularly incomprehensible conference involving the British police, Foreign Office, MI5 and Prime Minister on how to defuse the international incident which is brewing…

And the net result is that MI5 show the visiting American CIA officers a man they claim is Peregrine and a top secret SAS operative. For reasons I didn’t quite follow, this appears to placate them and to close the incident for the Yanks and the French.

Peregrine’s fate

The novel ends rather forcefully, I thought, with a last few pages describing Peregrine’s new job as an undercover agent in the British Army in Northern Ireland. Living wild off the land, killing, gutting and cooking his own livestock from his base in a disused well, he is living the Buchan-Rogue Male-Bulldog dream, and has already assassinated five IRA men, two poachers and an off-duty RUC officer, such that the entire neighbourhood lives in fear.

Parting thought

Although a lot of the plot doesn’t make any sense at all, although people behave like imbeciles and shout and swear at the slightest provocation, although the violence seems forced and excessive and the central part of this novel – Slymne chasing Glodstone round central France – was confused and boring — still, there are moments with a kind of Swiftian intensity which leap out and clutch your throat, and which make this book just about worth reading.

But if I was recommending a Sharpe novel for a newbie to read, this one, along with The Wilt Alternative and Ancestral Vices, would be bottom of the list.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of Vintage stuff with illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Vintage Stuff with 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 one-eyed schoolmaster Glodstone at the wheel of his vintage Bentley with psychotic schoolboy Peregrine Clyde-Browne next to him. Top right is the French chateau, scene of so much violence, including an American professor being thrown from the battlements into the river, the French police van being blown up on the bridge to the chateau, and the English holidaymakers’ car flipping over.

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.

Spy Sinker by Len Deighton (1990)

This the third and final novel in the second trilogy of books about 40-something British intelligence officer Bernard Samson.

In the first trilogy (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match) his gorgeous, clever wife Fiona was exposed as a high-level ‘mole’ in the Department and forced to flee in a hurry to East Berlin.

In the first two novels of this set Bernard began to suspect – and then had it abundantly confirmed – that Fiona was in fact a double agent and had been working for us all along.

But the rainswept night of her final escape back from East Berlin to our side turned into a bloodbath: Samson and Fiona manage to escape but the agent accompanying Bernard – and Fiona’s sister, Tessa – are shot dead, as are the East German agent Stinnes and another man, Harry Kennedy.

The ex-CIA hitman masterminding this carnage burns Tessa’s body in the car, and throws the British agent, Stinnes and Harry into a deep ditch – part of the roadworks where the whole shambles took place – and where they will be covered with concrete and never found… Leaving the reader in shock.

What next?

Up until this bloody shootout the main appeal for me of the Samson stories was the generally light, mocking tone of the first person narrative and the relaxed, almost sitcom, feel to Samson’s generally humdrum round of work, meetings, files and reports, and his similarly mundane domestic life, hanging with his kids, with the girlfriend Gloria he took up with after his wife defected, and the numerous drinks parties and dinner parties where we meet and remeet the cast of recurring characters who populate the novels in an almost Dickensian teeming.

I found this social scene far more convincing and solidly imagined than the often far-fetched and abruptly violent elements of the ‘spy stories’. Especially as the spy stories boil down to such a simple narrative arc:

  1. Fiona defects (Berlin Game)
  2. Interlude while a KGB officer we thought was defecting, Erich Stinnes, turned out to be a spy so we sent him back (Mexico SetLondon Match)
  3. But Fiona isn’t a traitor after all, but a triple agent (Spy Hook, Spy Line).

In the last few pages of Spy Line we see Bernard and Fiona flown to Bret Rensselaer’s luxury safe house in California for Fiona to be debriefed at length. The Department has accounted for Fiona’s disappearance by making it look as if she died in the car conflagration (though I still don’t understand why the opposition are going to believe the car burst into flames; specially since it was a night of heavy rain).

But she saw her sister murdered in front of her and realises that was done to protect her. How can she avoid having a massive nervous breakdown? How can she ever go back to her ‘normal’ life? And the Department has put word out that Bernard has run off with Tessa, to explain their joint disappearance. How can that ever let Bernard return to London, where his mere presence will expose the falsehood? I really like the character of George Kosinski, the rough-and-ready East End used car salesman Tessa was married to. He will be devastated Tessa has run off with Bernard.

How can any of these people return to their happy-go-lucky lives or the novels return to their amiable, chatty tone?

Third person narrator

Deighton deftly sidesteps all the problems he had created for himself with the biggest surprise of the series so far – by switching narrative voice to a third person narrator, and by leaving our heroes’ present dilemma altogether to travel back in time and recap the entire narrative of the previous five novels from other people’s points of view! It is a bold and sometimes bewildering move because the net effect is to undermine and question everything we thought we knew.

So Spy Sinker commences back in September 1977, before the start of the first novel – Berlin Game – with the story of Fiona’s recruitment and the hatching of the plan to make her a double agent, showing the earliest genesis of the plan in conversations between Bret Rensselaer – whose idea it is – and the Director General, Sir Henry Clevemore – who is persuaded to sanction it. Both know she’s married to Samson and both agree to keep Samson completely in the dark whatever happens.

Thus we realise almost everything Samson tells us in the first person narratives of the previous five books has been flawed, half-informed, and often completely wrong. We, the reader, have been ‘had’ just as much as Samson.

Seeing Samson’s world from the outside, and having events we’ve seen through his eyes retold by an omniscient narrator, is a revelation – or a series of revelations. The dominant effect is to show how thoroughly deceived and lied to he’s been by absolutely everyone: by his wife, his colleague Bret Rensselaer, his old friend Silas Gaunt and by the Director General of the Department – they were all in on the deception and kept it from him for five years.

At the end, and particularly bitterly, even his closest and oldest friend Werner Volkmann is let in on the secret and keeps it from him.

Same scenes, drastically different perspectives

Incident after incident from the earlier novels is retold showing us what really happened. To give a small selection:

  • When he was hijacked by a black nurse in Mexico Set in order to pick up Fiona, it turns out it wasn’t Fiona but an agent impersonating her in an operation set up by Moscow thug Moskvar. He wanted to provoke Samson into pursuing the black agent back to the Department safe house in Bosham, where they would capture, torture and then murder him. Samson, as intended (and as he tells us) believes the impersonator is his wife (improbably) but then sends a junior operative to track down the black woman, and it is he who is tortured and murdered. The failure of his plan badly damaging Moskvar’s reputation back in the East.
  • The whole plotline which dominated the end of Spy Hook – the Department’s growing suspicion that Bret Rensselaer is a double agent – created and fostered by the two-timing KGB defector Erich Stinnes — we see this from the East Berlin point of view, how the KGB plan it and plant suspicion of Bret via his handling of the Stinnes defection. Which eventually leads to a commission of enquiry in which Stinnes bluntly incriminates Bret. Their case is helped by the fiasco in the laundrette in Hampstead where Bret had insisted on being in the field with Samson when the KGB men turning up to collect some money turn nasty with shotguns: Bernard is forced to shoot them both. [As so often with outbreaks of violence in Deighton, despite having read two different accounts of it, I still don’t understand why Bret and Samson were waiting with money to pay KGB agents and have no idea why the latter started the violence.] But this and other incidents are all a backdrop to Bret suddenly fleeing in a panic to Berlin which is the point, in Spy Hook, where we saw him – from Bernard’s point of view – abruptly turning up on the latter’s doorstep.
  • At the end of London Match there is a prolonged shootout in the streets of Berlin following the hostage exchange of Samson’s friend Werner Volkmann for the ‘defector’ Stinnes, in which the brutal Moskvin is forced to flee through the streets, exchanging gunfire with the following agents until shot by his own side, not before shooting and badly wounding Bret. (As with the laundrette scene, I still don’t really understand why his own side wanted to kill Moskvin, even after two explanations, in London Match and here. Like the other bursts of violence, it seems illogical, unnecessary and amateurishly done.)
  • Bret, severely wounded in Berlin, is flown to the luxury ranch in California which – we now learn from this book – he uses as a base to continue receiving information from Fiona, cleanse it and pass it onto the CIA.
  • To my astonishment, Fiona recruits Werner Volkmann, just before his exchange  the exchange back to the West, to become a direct conduit between her and the DG Sir Henry. a) It seems immensely risky to hire a non-employee of the Department for such an incriminating role b) so Werner is let in on the secret that Fiona is a double agent and keeps it from his best friend, Bernard, for the next 4 years!
  • At various points we watch old Silas Gaunt and the DG of the Department callously making plans which toy with other peoples’ lives and it is upsetting the way they tinker with telling Samson Fiona still loves him and is loyal to her country and him, before deciding not to, and leaving his life in ruins. Possibly all this is permissible for the importance of the mission they’ve given her. But they cross a line when, towards the end, we watch them orchestrating Fiona’s escape back to the West and deliberately acquiescing in murder.
    • It is Silas who hires an ex-CIA hitman, Thurkettle (who Samson had run across in Spy Line) and makes him the murdering orchestrator of the bloodbath. In a manouevre which I didn’t understand it is arranged for Fiona to be at the rendezvous at the motorway works with Erich Stinnes – now, very implausibly, caught up in drug smuggling.
    • Thurkettle will arrange the meeting for the now-drug-running Stinnes to hand over a consignment of heroin. But I have no idea why Fiona, Stinnes’ boss, would be with him on what sounds like a criminal act. I have no idea why Fiona couldn’t just get in a car and drive down the Autobahn into West Germany then be spirited away. The reason given is that, if the KGB think she is dead, they will leave their security setups as they are, allowing us to exploit Fiona’s inside information for a while longer; if they knew she’d defected back they’d change all their arrangements. But is this intelligence really worth the murder of Fiona’s sister, Tessa – which is what it leads to? For Thurkettle goes to great lengths to arrange for a body like Fiona’s to be found burned to a crisp in a burned out car, and whose body will that be – her sister’s.
    • And I still don’t understand what the KGB are to meant to make of all this: why was the car ever meant to have caught fire? It’s parked stationary off the motorway so it’s not in a crash. Is this the best British Intelligence can come up with?
    • A ghoulish element is introduced because Tessa’s head must be sawn off so that her skull can be replaced with another skull with Fiona’s dental work to persuade the KGB it really is her. But won’t their forensic scientists notice that this corpse has had its head sawed off? Might they wonder why the corpse of their former East Berlin chief is found with its head cut off in a car parked by the side of a motorway which has burst into flames for no good reason?
      • It just seems like a rubbish plan, too random, contrived and unnecessarily complicated
      • I just don’t believe the two old Etonians, Silas and Sir Henry, can calmly sit drinking whisky and smoking cigars in their nice country house and planning the murder of an innocent woman, one they’ve met socially several times. I don’t believe it.

Another big shocker in the first half of the book is the discovery that, for some time before she defected, Fiona was having an affair with a Canadian psychiatrist, a sustained sexual infidelity to her husband. This completely changes the framework of the preceding five novels. Fiona’s betrayal of Samson is even more personal than we’d thought. He’s called Harry Kennedy and, like all Deighton characters who do so, he falls almost immediately into a trance-like and perfect epitome of ‘love’: ‘I love you darling.’ ‘I know, darling.’

[All Deighton characters fall in love the same way and then talk in the same lovey-dovey way: Fiona and Harry’s love talk sounds just like Bernard and Gloria’s and just like Jamie Farebrother and Victoria’s in Goodbye, Mickey Mouse.]

In a further revelation, towards the end of the novel Fiona, the DG and Bret back in London (and we the reader) discover that her Canadian lover in fact comes from a Ukrainian family, was a member of the Communist Party at university and has done bits of small work for the KGB in the past – a discovery which stuns and amazes Fiona, leaving her feeling even more paranoid and lonely in her isolated double role in the terrifying East. Was Harry set to spy on her? Is he a glorified minder? Yes. Is there anyone she can trust? No.

Lowering

The net effect is, I think, depressing. Samson who in the first five books is the virile, confident and amusing narrator – is now revealed as entirely fallible, misled about everything. This applies not only in his immediate life but the book also refers to the events at the end of World War Two in which his father’s career in the SIS was tarnished, and shows how unfair that accusation was (specifically, the killing of the two Winter brothers which concludes Deighton’s epic novel, Winter, which provides historical background to the Samson books). Thus Deighton makes the trail of doubt and deceit goes back indefinitely into the past…

Depressing because Samson is partly a symbol of all of us. Fictions, novels, give us the entirely spurious impression we understand what is going on in the world. Fictional characters’ lives are laid out in generally schematic ways, as they interact with a small and manageable number of people in sequences of events known as ‘plots’ which have a convenient beginning, middle and end.

That’s why the first five Samson novels are so reassuring and warm (despite the occasional outbursts of violence each one contains). The amused tone of the ever-confident Samson is buoyant, reassuring company. But this sixth novel systematically devastates our understanding of what went before, making us realise we’ve understood almost nothing. And along with the events it undermines, go the warmth and security the other books had created. This book destroys those feelings. We are alone on a darkling plain.

Skipping

Deighton speeds up the overview in the last 100 pages. An author who normally takes ten pages to describe two people chatting over a drink or in a bedroom or on a country walk, suddenly skips big sections of time. As when he begins to show us the investigation committee set up to review Bret’s management of Stinnes’ defection in great detail, showing the members arriving at the safe house in the country where Stinnes is being kept, describing each of the men sitting round the table, and beginning with verbatim accounts of what is being said, as if this scene alone will, characteristically, take another ten pages… But then – it is almost as if Deighton is bored with his own thoroughness – the text suddenly reverts to a high-level summary:

When Bret faced the wall of opposition which Moskvin and Stinnes had between them constructed brick by brick, he did something that neither of the Russians had provided for. Rensselaer went to Berlin and pleaded for the aid of Bernard Samson. (p.321)

In the last 100 pages there are several occasions when the narrative tires of its own detail and simply jumps mid-paragraph to a completely new scene. Some sections repeat or introduce characters we already know. Overall the text gives the impression of having been written at different times – maybe the objective scenes were written at the same time that Samson’s point of view was being written for the earlier novels – and not fully integrated into a seamless whole.

It is very bitty, jumping between the key scenes of the earlier novels, relying on our memory of them to give the narrative coherence.


Undermining the East German economy

In the scene early in the novel, set in 1978, when Bret suggests his plan of creating a triple agent to fool the East Germans – a plan they eventually name Operation Sinker, hence the title of the novel and, by extension, of all three novels in the sequence – it is explained how Fiona’s infiltration is designed to undermine the East German state in two ways:

  • to identify key engineers, scientists and intellectuals who can be enticed to the West creating a ‘brain drain’
  • to identify opposition groups, dissidents from left or right, church and human rights organisations and so on, which the West can tacitly support and thus undermine the communist regime

The DG and Bret are seen speculating wildly that if the operation succeeds, they’ll have the Berlin Wall crashing down in ten years time, by, ooh, say, 1990.

Now, as we all know, Soviet domination of Eastern Europe did crumble in the second half of 1989 and the Wall was knocked through in November of that year (even if it didn’t begin to be formally demolished till June 1990). This novel was published in 1990 by which time not only was the Wall down, but we knew how it came about – the final collapse of the Soviet model of the Command Economy under Gorbachev whose efforts at selective loosening of the reins of state control (perestroika) only hastened its decay, along with the rapid growth of civic groups opposing the regime (given more freedom of expression under glasnost) – including dissidents and especially groups based in churches. Then the final straw of Hungary’s decision to open its borders and allow free passage for any East European citizen to the West, which at a stroke made the Wall redundant.

I would dearly love to know whether Deighton had conceived Fiona’s mission in terms which so closely predicted the actual course of events right from the start and before the first novel in the series was published in 1983 when everyone thought Soviet domination, the Wall and all the rest of it would last indefinitely? Or was the alignment to historical fact, and the timescale, only introduced after all this came to pass? Was Len a prophet predicting the future – or a dab hand at cutting and pasting actual events into a long-pondered narrative?


Related links

Granada paperback cover of Spy Sinker

Granada paperback cover of Spy Sinker

Len Deighton’s novels

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

Spy Line by Len Deighton (1990)

This is the second novel in the second trilogy about 40-something British intelligence agent, Bernard Samson. At the end of its predecessor he was on the run in Berlin, an arrest warrant issued by his own side for treason, presumably because he had been investigating (and publicising) a top secret slush fund which his wife – Fiona, who we saw defecting to the Russians in the first trilogy – helped set up and administer.

Summary

To cut a long story short, in this novel we find out that his wife is what he had come to suspect, a triple agent – working for British Intelligence for ten years, while all along pretending to be a KGB spy and sending the Russkies important information, then (at the climax of the first novel) pretending to be forced to flee after her own husband ‘outed’ her as the senior ‘mole’ in the Department – but secretly continuing to work for us from the senior position she is given in the KGB’s East Berlin office.

The Plot

Deighton is much more attracted to cosy domesticity than life on the edge. It’s a little disappointing that his ‘life on the run’ amounts to simply holing up in a dirty squat in a rundown part of Berlin for a week or two. There’s a colourfully seedy scene of Samson sitting drinking with Rudolf Kleindorf, ageing owner of a dance and strip club where old lags come to exchange gossip and information. And we accompany him back to his dirty, noisy squat. But we and Bernie have barely experienced the lowlife for more than a few pages before the head of Berlin Office, Frank Harrington, sends a man to fetch him to witness an interrogation. Oh. They knew where he is all along.

Rather puzzlingly, Samson goes along to watch this interrogation, the questioning of an East German operative. The only bit of interest being when he indicates a photo of Erich Stinnes (a KGB agent who featured largely in the first trilogy) and makes a throwaway reference to seeing him using a ‘white powder’. Drugs? More to the point, security is so lax that Samson overhears a remark which makes it clear this isn’t a defector but an ongoing agent who is about to be sent back to the East. Why did Frank invite him to watch this? Were a few snippets of information mentioned in the session somehow important? Who to?

Teacher

The Department employee who took him there – Teacher – drives him back to his own apartment to meet his wife and have lunch. Much more energy goes into describing the Teachers’ apartment and his wife, Clemmie’s, unhappiness at the coldness of Berlin and the rudeness of Berliners, than did painting Samson’s life in hiding. Domesticity and marital relations, soft furnishings and food are more persuasively described than jeopardy. (Later, we learn from one of the countless gossipy conversations Samson spends the book having, that Clemmie has run off with an American record producer who was passing through Berlin.)

His old mate Werner says, ‘This is silly, why don’t you come back and stay at Tante Lisl’s boarding house?’ and so Bernie moves back into his old room at the top of the building and sees for himself the ‘improvements’ Werner is making to the old place. And realises that Werner has fallen in love with Lisl’s rather stern niece, Ingrid, daughter of her sister Inge. (We learned a lot about the backstories of these two ladies in Deighton’s epic novel about Germany 1900 to 1945, Winter). Zena, Werner’s tough, young, self-centred wife, appears to have flown the coop.

Rehabilitation

Soon enough Head of Berlin Office Frank Harrington drops by and says London Central have made Samson an offer: sign all the official secrets stuff and resign: he can work out his notice in a menial job but retire on a full pension. They’ve never trusted you, Frank explains, since your wife was exposed as a KGB spy.

But Bernard refuses; resigning would admit some degree of guilt and collusion. ‘Well, go back anyway, the charges have been dropped,’ Frank says. Just like that. On the run, hiding out — oh you can go back now. It’s all very anti-climactic. No chases, no shootouts, no tension. Samson flies back to London, is reunited with his girlfriend, Gloria, and his kids, Sally and Billy, then goes back to the office where everyone treats him as if nothing had happened at all. Bit puzzling.

He’s called into the office of a previously unmentioned character, the Deputy Controller of Europe who turns out to be a tough, balding Australian, Gus Stowe. In the usual roundabout, tortuous way these conversations take place, Bernard realises he’s being sent on a hush-hush mission to Vienna, code name Fledermaus.

Stamps in Salzberg

He flies to Vienna and then on to Salzburg where, amid all the Mozart kitsch, he meets his contact, Otto Hoffmann, who turns out to be a stamp collector attending a big five-day philatelic auction. There is a lot – an awful lot – of detail about stamp collecting. (There is a lot of detail about stamps sent from Zeppelins before the war, which may or may not be a reference to the involvement of the Winter family with zeppelins, as described in Winter.) Bernard is given money and told to bid for one particular lot, an envelope with rare stamps on it.

In the actual auction, Samson is surprised when someone else bids getting on for double the price he was instructed to offer and wins the envelope. Samson tracks down the American collector who made the successful bid, Bart Johnson, and they both go to the cashier where you pay and collect your item, only to find someone else claims to have paid more and made off with it. Johnson is furious. Samson tags along with him out of curiosity (what’s going on?) and they go back to the hotel where they’re both staying and make a date to meet for drinks and dinner. Bernard is back in his room freshening up when he hears a (small) explosion, runs along the hall and finds Johnson has been the victim of a particularly nasty type of bomb, planted in the hotel electric shaver. It has blown his hand and face off. As other guests come pouring in, Samson makes good his escape wondering (like the reader) what the hell is going on.

The man who had given him the instructions about bidding for the envelope had also given him instructions about who to take it to in Vienna, one Baron Staiger. Bernard flies to Vienna, takes a cab the scheduled apartment and walks up to meet Baron Staiger who turns out to be – no other than Otto Hoffmann.

In another of the surreal scenes which litter these novels, Staiger is holding a super-refined party for Vienna’s upper crust in which Bernard feels very out of place, and which climaxes with the arrival of the triumphant soprano from the nearby opera house. Only when the party is quite over does Staiger talk to Bernard and declares himself pretty relaxed about the loss of the envelope – because he has it right here in his pocket! He had heard the Americans were going to bid for it so he was the other, mystery, bidder on the phone who drove the price way beyond Bernard’s limit, and ducked in to claim it before Johnson made it to the claims desk.

Staiger opens the envelope and it contains Czech security passes for himself and Bernard. Why, the reader asks, was this ridiculous charade necessary, except to pad the novel out with colourful scenes in Salzburg, a surreal stamp collecting convention, and the utterly unnecessary murder of an American?

Into Czechoslovakia

Next day Staiger drives Bernard across the border into Czecholsovakia (lots of local description, lots of Deighton-esque history of the Sudetenland under the Nazis and then under Stalin) accompanied by a Czech security car and then up to a mountain cabin which is crawling with security men, guns and ferocious guard dogs, before depositing Bernard outside a farmhouse.

Bernard goes in to find his wife Fiona who proceeds to confirm all his suspicions: she is a triple agent, she is so sorry for all the deceit and worry but they couldn’t tell him, her life depended on him acting genuinely outraged (the KGB have been tailing and watching his reactions to her desertion), and now she is coming back, in just a few weeks she’ll be back in the UK: ‘Oh I do love you darling,’ ‘and I love you, darling’.

This is even more surreal than the stamp collecting convention. If she’s such a professional, if this is the climax of 10 years of planning, why oh why is she risking it all for a rushed sentimental meeting with her husband? In full sight of about twenty Czech security police who will report every centimetre to their KGB bosses? Isn’t the room bugged? Won’t they guess what she’s doing? Did this clandestine meeting really require all the rigmarole of the stamp collecting convention and bidding? Why doesn’t she simply complete her mission and arrive back in London safe and sound, without the exploding stamp collectors and high risk tryst?

Gratifying though it is to have Bernard’s (and our) suspicions confirmed, this whole scene blows an enormous hole in the novel’s credibility. The one thing she asks him to do is get back from her sister, Tessa, the expensive fur coat her father bought her. The reader immediately thinks it must contain some microfilm or equally precious artifact.

Part two

Staiger drives Bernie safely back to Vienna and he flies back to London, to the embrace off his girlfriend Gloria, and the children, but inside is in complete turmoil. He tells no one about seeing his wife.

Instead the next 30 pages or so describe Bernard and Gloria attending a carefully choreographed dinner party at his boss, Dicky Cruyer’s house, complete with detailed description of every course of the meal and Dicky’s difficulties ‘carving’ the enormous poached salmon which is the opening course. It’s in this chatty, gossipy, homely surrounding that, as so often, a number of the guests (who are all ‘in the business’) discuss recent events and broach new ventures. Thus Samson finds himself asked to help the CIA in the form of Posh Harry, the Hawaiian fixer we met in the first trilogy and who played a central role in the odd Californian excursion in Spy Hook.

Parties

No sooner is this dinner, complete with cigars and port for the men, more or less over than Gloria begs Samson to be allowed to go on to a party his brother-in-law George Kosinski (the used car salesman) and wife Tessa, are going to. Very swanky place in Pimlico and a swanky party hosted by a German prince, known to all and sundry as Joppi.

Later, driving Bernard home, his brother-in-law confides that he thinks Tessa is on drugs: did he notice the slightly hysterical atmosphere at the party? People were taking drugs upstairs. And did he notice the sinister guy with a beard fringing his chin? Tessa’s been getting friendly with him; George thinks he’s a dealer and is selling her the stuff.

Rolf Mauser

The next day Samson meets Rolf Mauser, yet another ageing survivor of the war, who tells him Kleindorf, the nightclub owner we met in the first chapter, is dead. He was smuggling drugs. The official cause of death is suicide by overdose but Mauser has information one of his dancers injected him with raw heroin. Mauser explains the raw heroin arrives in East Berlin, then is smuggled West to be refined, before being smuggled back again for sale.

So is the novel about drug smuggling between East and West Berlin?

Thurkettle

Samson goes for the boozy lunch with Posh Harry that was arranged at Dicky Cruyer’s party but, on returning, begins to be questioned and then interrogated by Harry’s boss, John Brody. Turns out Johnson, the American stamp enthusiast in Salzberg, was a CIA man tasked with bringing in another ex-Company man, one Thurkettle, a hardened murderer and hit man who has gone rogue. Almost certainly it was Thurkettle who murdered Johnson. The Americans are suspicious of Samson’s involvement. He realises the description of Thurkettle fits the man George thinks is peddling drugs to Tessa.

Silas Gaunt

Next Samson motors out to the Cotswolds, to the country house of long-retired old Silas Gaunt, who, like so many of the characters, knew his father. In a refreshing bit of plain speaking the ailing Gaunt – warned by his doctor he is at death’s door – confirms all Samson’s suspicions: Fiona is a triple agent; she was recruited at Oxford; only old Gaunt, the doddery DG and Samson know the truth. If they all died, Fiona would be trapped. Gaunt makes Samson witness him signing a long document which he says is a detailed account of Fiona’s case which will exonerate her.

Over the next few days Samson has to process this devastating information. So his wife is a heroic agent, good. But she hid it all from him for ten years, and deserted him and his children without a qualm. Did he ever really know her? Could he ever trust her again? What are his feelings for her and how does effect his feelings for young Gloria, who is making such an effort to be a good lover and surrogate mother to his two children?

A few days later his boss, Dicky Cruyer, orders Samson to accompany him on a trip to Berlin. Dicky is actually hoping to make it a dirty weekend with Tessa, and Samson is cross at being pulled in as some kind of accomplice, but the jaunt is justified by meetings with Frank. After the usual lengthy chat, reminiscence, drinks and cigars, Frank eventually comes out and tells Samson he is being instructed to drive a van which is going to pick up an agent from the other side, accompanied by the young desk officer Teacher who we met early in the novel. If there is a problem, Teacher has instructions to kill the agent rather than let him fall into the hands of the opposition.

The reader begins to have a bad feeling the agent will be Fiona and that something will go wrong and he will have to shoot her…

Finale

The novel does climax in a bloody mess. Werner, his old friend, organises a big fancy dress party for the opening of the new, repainted Tante Lisl guesthouse. 150 guests are fired up and dancing as a fierce thunderstorm breaks outside. In the middle of the noise, Teacher comes looking for Samson: he’s received the signal – they must go to the rendezvous. The only catch is Teacher has come to the party in a joke gorilla costume and no-one has a suit for him to change into; in fact, he almost comes to blows with Werner trying to nick one of the latter’s suits, and is eventually forced, very unhappily, to drive on this important mission wearing his gorilla costume. And, at the last minute, Tessa, in a flighty yellow dress and stoned out of her mind, insists on climbing into the back of the van and no-one can persuade her out.

Shootout

Teacher, Samson and Tessa drive slowly in the transit van in the thundering rain along the West-heading Autobahn looking out for a parked car. Eventually they see lights and a darkened car parked by a load of giant earth-moving machines in an area roped off for repairs. It is pitch black and pouring down with rain. Teacher gets out and is moving towards the car when lights go on, there are shots, Teacher hits the car a few times before being himself shot down. Tessa comes floating out the back of the van and waltzes towards the German car when she is shot twice with a shotgun which tears her apart, blood pouring over her dress. Another woman’s voice shrieks, it is Fiona. In the drenching rain and darkness and confusion Samson has made it up onto the tracks of a giant digger and uses its raised shovel to steady his aim as he shoots and kills the two East German men. One of them is Erich Stinnes; Samson shoots him in the neck and watches a great spurt of blood shoot up against the motorway lights.

But there was a third man, now hidden, who had used a silencer. Samson stands stock still in the pouring rain waiting for something to happen. The man shouts over to Samson in an American voice. It is Thurkettle the assassin. Samson shouts to Fiona to move from the East German car to the van and start the engine. When she’s done so, he makes a run for the other van door. There are no shots. They’re being allowed to escape. They pull away from the scene of the shootout and Fiona drives through the rain and into West Germany in silence, her knuckles white against the wheel. In the rear view mirror they see a great gout of flame and hear an explosion: the East German car has been blown up along with all the evidence. Thurkettle has stage managed the whole thing…

Soldiers greet them at the checkpoint. Fiona is sedated, and they are loaded aboard a plane headed for America.

Aftermath

The novel ends with Samson and Fiona holed up in the luxury safe house-cum-prison on the California coast which we first saw in the previous novel. It is owned by millionairess Mrs O’Raffety, and the base where Bret Rensselaer is undergoing his long, painful rehabilitation after being shot at the climax of London Match. Turns out the whole thing – the Fiona defection – was his scheme and now it falls to him, as her case officer, to debriefing her. Days, weeks, and months go by. They are both trapped. Samson gloomily realises they might be there for years.

Samson learns the story being put about is that he has run off with Tessa. This explains their joint disappearance. Fiona slowly thaws out and talks to him. He tells her he thinks Tessa’s drug addiction was fostered as part of the plan. Tessa was lured to Berlin by a combination of Dicky and Thurkettle (who Samson is now certain he saw at Joppi’s party and who George warned him about), and encouraged to get into the van. Then she was deliberately murdered, so that her body would be found in the burnt-out car, and the enemy think it was Fiona.

Can the Department have done that? Murdered one sister to save the other? Bernard and Fiona huddle under blankets one cold Californian night looking out past the security fence into the darkness of the ocean with no hope.

This is a decisive shift in the tone of these novels. Whatever happens now, the murder of her sister will cast a long shadow over Fiona’s mental health, their marriage and numerous other characters. Will they ever be able to get back to England, their children and a normal married life? It seems impossible.


Atmosphere of old

I was too old for rough stuff: too old, too involved, too married, too soft. (p.37)
I was too old to get angry twice in one day. (p.219)

So many of the characters are old old old:

  • Tante Lisl and her sister Inge, into their 80s
  • Frank Harrington past retirement age in his middle 60s. ‘Frank was too old to be involved with Operations. Too old, too squeamish, too weary, too good-hearted.’ (p.271) ‘Frank was past retirement, soon he would be gone.’ (p.272)
  • John ‘Lange’ Koby in his seventies (p.44)
  • local fixer Kleindorf in his 70s
  • harsh old Wehrmacht officer Rolf Mauser in his 70s
  • Bart Johnson looks in his 60s
  • London CIA man John Brody, ‘He was old, a bald man with circular gold-rimmed glasses…’ (p.209)
  • Silas Gaunt, long since retired colleague of his father’s, ‘… was old and becoming more exasperating every time I saw him…’ (p.221) ‘… now he was old and he’d withdrawn into his own concerns with ageing, sickness and death.’ (p.224)
  • ‘Some people – including me – had said that Bret Rensselaer was too old ever to become a full-time Departmental employee again.’ (p.301)
  • ‘Mrs O’Raffety, the artistic old lady who owned the place…’ (p.303)

It is the central aspect of Samson’s character, indeed the main premise of the whole series, that Samson is the son of a man who was at the heart of British Intelligence in Berlin immediately after the war, and grew up among his father’s friends and colleagues, who provide the novel with its sense of breadth and historical depth.

But it inevitably means that, by the later 1980s, a lot of these characters are due to die off and with them will go the emotional background, the memories of his Berlin childhood and everything which makes Bernard Samson such a unique character.

Soon – very soon – Silas and Whitelands and all they meant would have vanished from my life. My mother was old and sick. Soon Lisl would be gone, and the hotel would be unrecognisable. When that happened I would no longer have any connections with the times that meant so much to me. (p.239)

Insofar as he is the nexus of all these relationships, a product of this history, Samson’s character – and the worldview of the novels which relies so heavily on the long shadow of world war two – has a limited shelf-life.


Related links

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Line

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Line

Len Deighton’s novels

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

Spy Hook by Len Deighton (1988)

No matter where I went or what I did, Berlin would always be home for me. My father had been Resident long ago… and Berlin held all my happy childhood recollections. (p.43)

The previous trilogy (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match) featuring just-turning-forty British spy Bernard Samson all took place in the space of a few months, interlinked as all three novels were by the sensational defection of Samson’s wife, Fiona – who turned out to have been a KGB spy – and its repercussions.

Spy Hook is the first in a new trilogy featuring the same characters, also told in the first person by Bernard, but represents a break with the first set in a number of ways.

  • It is set three years since the action of the previous set (p.47), Samson is now 43 (and it is, of course, three years since publication of its predecessor, 1988 to 1985). [In a note to the sequel, Spy Line, Deighton explains that this novel takes place ‘at the beginning of 1987’.]
  • On the personal front, Fiona is long gone; his girlfriend Gloria has supervised his move from his convenient Notting Hill house to a bigger, but drabber, semi in the boring, commuter-belt surroundings of Raynes Park; the children – Billy and Sally – are older and unhappier (14 and 11).
  • And in the ‘Department’ of British Intelligence where he works, there have been notable changes:

Dramatis personae

  • Bret Rensselaer – after years of treatment, has – according to Frank and others – died of the wounds received when he was shot in Berlin at the end of London Match.
  • Dicky Cruyer – still Samson’s boss, careful to avoid making any decisions which might compromise himself, but the Deputy DG has told him to stop wearing Medallion Man faded jeans and cheesecloth shirts; now he wears a suit like everyone else.
  • Frank Harrington – head of the Berlin Field Unit, knew Bernard Samson’s dad during the war, has been persuaded to stay on in Berlin after his official retirement age.
  • Director General Sir Henry Clevemore, depicted as senile in the first trilogy, he is still DG but has been sidelined by the new Deputy DG.
  • With his sidelining goes the power base of the vile creep Morgan, who was his toady.
  • The newly prominent Deputy DG, Sir Percy Babcock, is a successful barrister, brought in to run things better (description on page 19).

The ambience

Like the first trio there is less a plot than a likeably chatty depiction of the daily round of Samson’s life: his reaction to the new house, the pain of the commute into central London, the boredom of trying to make sense of Dicky’s meetings or wade through wordy, pointless research files. His sexy young girlfriend Gloria is good with the children but rubbish at cooking, which prompts a tearful shouting match after she makes burned sausages, lumpy mash and dripping wet spinach for dinner. Being still in her early 20s she is determined to take up a place at Cambridge where she’ll stay during the week and Bernard suspects she will fall in with the young students and, eventually, leave him.

We see Bernard chatting to other characters over pub lunches, at dinner parties, in pool halls, in hotel rooms; he pokes at hotel food, airplane food, dinner party food, pub food. He mooches.

These domestic, humdrum scenes a) distinguish Deighton’s writing from the hi-tech, glamour Bond tradition, continuing the low-key tone established in his early Ipcress novels b) are very likeable. Feels like we’re getting to know Bernie, his kids, their nanny, his girlfriend, his bosses and colleagues at work, his moans and worries. All designed, of course, to root the ‘spying’ – and the occasional outbreaks of violence – in a ‘real’ world.

The plot

In among all these homely descriptions are laced scenes relating to his work as an employee of British Intelligence, threads which come together to force Samson to a grim conclusion:

  • He is sent to Washington to interview one Jim Prettyman (who once worked for the Department and is now retired) about some fund which the accountants say has gone missing, probably a cock-up. Jim denies knowledge.
  • Back in London he hears that Bizet, a network of agents in Poland, has been uncovered by the KGB, and there is speculation at various meetings about what can or should be done about it: undertake a rescue mission; do nothing?
  • His old friend Werner Volkmann flies in from Berlin to confide that his wife Zena smuggles between East and West and he’s worried Frank Harrington is going to betray Zena to the Stasi in exchange for the Bizet agents.
  • Jim’s divorced wife, Lucinda ‘Cindy’ Mathews, contacts Bernard, invites him to a seedy south London pool hall to tell him Jim has been shot dead, 6 times, and the body cremated. Jim was on to something: he was a signatory to some secret fund: the Department had him murdered Bernard! Samson goes away confused and concerned.
  • In Berlin Werner tells him that he is going to step in to run Frau Lisl’s guesthouse, the ramshackle old place where Bernard always stays when he’s in Berlin. Lisl, in fact, has said she’d like to leave it to Werner after her death: but Lisl has a sister in France, could Bernie go speak to her about the inheritance?
  • Bernard takes Gloria and they visit Frau Inge in her mansion in the south of France – she is old and her house decorated with photos of Hitler and all the other leading Nazis. Bernard is monitored by her strict, spinsterish daughter, Ingrid.
  • While they’re there Gloria – who is in fact of Hungarian parentage – takes him to see her ‘Uncle Dodo’, an extraordinary old man who lives in ramshackle squalor, gets so drunk over dinner he passes out and, apparently, produces top class art forgeries. Bernard notices some photos of Dodo among faces he recognises, not least John Koby aka Lange, who ran a network of ex-Nazis after the war.
  • In a bizarre sequence a motor cycle courier delivers tickets and instructions for Samson to fly to Los Angeles. Here he’s met by a cowboy who drives him far up into the hills, to a heavily guarded luxury mansion with heated swimming pool and all the trimmings. He is introduced to the owner, 60-year-old Mrs O’Rafferty who is an offshoot of the Rensselaer family and then, to his amazement, his former colleague Bret Rensselaer, the one everyone told him is dead who is, admittedly, not looking very well. Bernard asks him about the money and the secret account and Bret hisses at him to shut up and cease poking into matters which don’t concern him. But Bernard is motivated by the prompts of Jim Prettyman’s widow to get to the bottom of Jim’s murder.
  • After an uncomfortable night in the luxury ranch Bernard is driven back towards LA airport by one of the Mexican ranch hands, when fog and rain close in and they find the way blocked by a jack-knifed lorry and traffic cops. One of them points out a black limo also heading off to LAX, why doesn’t Bernard  hitch a ride? To his surprise – and the reader’s frank disbelief – the limo contains Posh Harry, a spiv and fixer and – now, apparently – CIA employee. He takes Samson to the airport, along the way heavily hinting that the CIA are behind Bret: when he says back off, back off: drop your investigation.
  • Back in England Bernard motors all the way to the Cotswolds house of ancient Silas Gaunt, a retired eminence of the Department who knows everyone and everything. Here again Samson meets a brick wall as Silas refuses to clarify his suspicions about a vast slush fund. In addition he warns him not to go speaking to ‘Uncle Dodo’ who has now relocated to London.
  • Which prompts the obstinate (and foolish) Bernard to drive straight to the house Uncle Dodo is renting, near Hampton Court. Dodo reluctantly lets him in and then, with no warning, punches him, karate chops him, and slips out a flick knife with the obvious intention of eviscerating him. There follows an intense fraught fight around the rooms packed high with precious antiques as Barnard just about fights Dodo off, but is visibly losing strength when – someone creeps up behind Dodo and coshes him; the lights go on; there are men everywhere collecting evidence, carrying off Dodo’s body and – leading them all is Jim Prettyman! Hang on, you’re supposed to be dead… Jim says he’s under deep cover, tell no-one, and keep your nose out of what doesn’t concern you.

‘Bernie, it’s time you realised that the Department isn’t run for your benefit. There’s nothing in Command Rules that says we have to clear everything with Bernard Samson before an Operation is okayed.’ (p.238)

Safely back home, over the next few days Bernard’s suspicions grow. He becomes convinced his defector wife Fiona and Bret were running some kind of big secret slush fund, Jim has something to do with it – now his girlfriend Gloria cheerfully tells him the bank in Berlin which appears to be the site of the fund – is owned by the Rensselaer family, bought before the war.

Finally, Bernard blags his way into the gentleman’s club where the ancient decrepit DG has a room-cum-office. Worryingly the DG gets him confused with his father, Brian, but eventually Bernard gets to present before him the complete list of evidence he has that a vast slush fund exists, deeply covered up but he’s tracked it down to this bank in Berlin and wants to expose his wife’s involvement with it.

Then Bernie catches a flight to Berlin with his pal Werner, incongruously carrying some china houseware that Werner’s bought in his capacity of renovating Frau Lisl’s old boarding house. At the airport military police step forward to arrest Samson and his old friend saves him by saying he‘s Samson; the police lead Werner away and Bernie undertakes a complicated journey across Berlin and through the Wall – then doubles back into the West by another route – all to decoy and pursuers and buy him time.

Time to make it out to Frank Harrington’s big country pile outside Berlin. Disconcertingly, Frank is expecting him, and delivers the knockout blow: ‘Yes, Bernie, maybe there is a top secret slush fund containing millions, and maybe Fiona and Bret did manage it; because maybe Fiona is a triple agent, pretending to work all these years for the KGB while actually working for us; and maybe all this investigating and shouting your mouth off to all and sundry – has put your wife’s life and her top secret mission at risk. And that is why London have issued an Orange File on you. That’s right, Bernie: you are wanted for treason!

And it is on this bombshell, this cliffhanger, that the novel ends.


Winter

Between the first trilogy and this first of the next trilogy, Deighton published Winter, the enormous novel following a Berlin family from 1900 to 1945, covering the major historical, political and military events of the era from the German point of view, and extending out to portray a cast of as many as 50 characters.

Part of his motivation in writing it was to show the enjoyably convoluted back stories of many of the characters who appear in the Samson books, not least Bernard’s dad, Brian Samson as a young man parachuted into Berlin just before the war ended.

Spy Hook contains knowing references to characters and incidents in Winter, which are explained and could stand alone, but gain significance, resonance, if you’ve read the longer work:

  • Frank repeats Bernard’s dad’s story about being stuck in a Berlin flat with a sympathetic German waiting for news of Hitler’s assassination which doesn’t come, instead a Nazi official arrives. This is a reference to Peter and Paul Winter, the brothers and central characters in Winter and to scenes described in that novel.
  • As usual, when in Berlin Samson stays with old Frau Lisl in the grand home she turned into what is now a run-down boarding house. Lisl is so crippled with arthritis that Werner Volkmann, Bernard’s best friend, plans and then begins to take over running it. We are taken to meet Lisl’s sister, Inge, and reminded of the history of the three sisters who we meet, in Winter, and see as girls before the Great War and growing up to marry Erich Hennig, the concert pianist (Lisl), and Paul Winter, the Nazi bureaucrat (Inge).
  • In a thread which doesn’t, on the face of it, have anything to do with the main plot about Fiona and the missing bank account, Ingrid tells Bernard that her mother is insistent that Bernard’s father, Brian, was responsible for killing the Winter brothers. In Winter we had been told that the brothers escaped from custody and headed south to the family home in Bavaria. Brian Samson was with the American troops tracking them down, but it was those soldiers who shot the escaping brothers. Could it be that the account in Winter is a lie? Could it be that a number of events in Winter are not as reported? Could it be that the novels contain multiple levels of deception?

Grumpy old man

Bernard Samson is 43 but he moans a lot. Having recently read novels by Kingsley Amis, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, David Lodge and the Reggie Perrin novels, I have come to the conclusion that  one of the thing the male novelists of the 1970s and 80s have in common is their moany dislike of the modern world: women’s lib, scruffy teenagers who speak no known language, punks and rockers and hookers on the streets, developers who rip out characterful buildings and put up glass and steel horrors from which landlords screw high rents and government high taxes, package tour operators, horrible plastic food in airports and airplanes and hotels, the frequent moans about England’s weather and culture make it sound like the world is coming to an end.

On page 219 there is a reference to AIDS, and I googled the fact that the famous (to those alive at the time) government advertising campaign featuring an enormous tombstone made a big impression in 1987 when this novel was, presumably, being written.

The heady, optimistic, carefree days of the 1960s feel long gone in these novels.


Atmosphere of age

Why did he have to be such an old woman? (p.261)

And cheek by jowl with the moaning is an almost oppressive atmosphere of age. Lisl is old, crippled with arthritis. Bernard visits her sister Inge who is even older, surrounded by photos of Hitler and Nazi luminaries, a bedroom made for her on the ground floor because she can no longer manage stairs. Uncle Dodo, though he turns out to be a savage killer, lives in a rundown ramshackle dirty house, wearing tatty threadbare clothes. Frank Harrington in Berlin is well off but chooses to wear knackered cords and smoke rancid old man tobacco. Back in London the Director General is so old he rarely comes into the office any more, can’t remember anyone’s names, survives in a room absolutely crammed with souvenirs, relics, books and manuscripts. Even in youth-worshipping America, Mrs O’Rafferty, owner of the luxury West Coast ranch, is well-reserved but can’t conceal she is 60 and sometimes looks haggard; and Bret Rensselaer has been reduced to a shadow of his former self by illness.

We’re old fossils. We’re part of another world. A world of dinosaurs. (p.91)

Old characters His lover Gloria and Werner’s hard-edged wife Zena, are the only people in the novel under the age of 40 (apart from Bernard’s kids) and neither of them are quite believable.

World War Two It’s something to do with the war and the Cold War. The war because Winter made it abundantly clear that a lot of the contemporary events and people have their roots in the activities of the previous generation during and after the war. But by 1988 these people are ageing. Deighton’s imagination, his writings – both factual histories and the spy stories – were all heavily dominated by the second world war and its legacy. As the world moved into the 1990s this legacy must have seemed more remote.

The Cold War And the clearest legacy of world war two – the domination of half of Europe by Russian-imposed communist dictatorships – evaporated half way through this second trilogy – 1988-90. How will Deighton cope when his main subject matter – the antagonism between the communist world and the free world – and its crux, its anvil, its focus – the bizarre never-never land of West Berlin – evaporate like morning dew with the collapse of the communist regimes, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the joyful reunification of Germany?

Related links

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Hook

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Hook

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.

Juggernaut by Desmond Bagley (1985)

I strolled in the night air over to the rig and stood looking up at the great slab of the transformer. Over one million pounds’ worth of material was being trundled precariously through Africa by a company on the verge of going bankrupt, with a civil war possibly about to erupt in its path, and what the hell was I going to do about it? (p.64)

This is the second of the two novels left in manuscript form at Bagley’s untimely death in 1983, and completed and published with the help of his wife, Joan.

Neil Mannix

It’s a pacey first-person action adventure told by Neil Mannix, an American troubleshooter working for big multinational corporation British Electric. BE have the contract to build a massive power station in the northern, desert region of the (fictional) west African country, Nyala. The first of the vast transformers involved in the build is already being shipped out there, and scheduled to be transported from the docks to the northern destination by the sub-contracting haulage firm, Wyvern Haulage.The flat-bed transporter will be pulled very slowly by three trucks accompanied by supply lorries and cars – quite a convoy. In addition the Nyalan government has tasked a platoon of soldiers in jeeps and lorries, led by a Captain Sadiq to guard it.

Mannix’s job is to cover every aspect of a multi-million pound operation like this, gauging risk and anticipating problems. As the operation gets under way, he discovers this is the haulage company’s first job – though the individual truckers are very experienced, they’ve only just formed the company; and it quickly becomes plain there are problems with the quality of maps, roads and bridges on into the remote desert region where the station is to be built. So a bit of worry…

Civil war

But all this is eclipsed when the political tensions Mannix has also got wind of suddenly erupt into full scale civil war, with the Nyalan air force attacking sections of the army and our heroes (Mannix, the 20 or so riggers and drivers and the 50 or so Nyalan troops) find themselves smack in the middle.

If this was a Frederick Forsyth novel we would be given a panoptic, God-like overview of events, with successive chapters taking us into the presence of the leaders of the coup, the head of the government and army, and a clinical analysis of the power politics involved. If it was a classic Alistair MacLean there would be an enemy agent in among the crew, and a big, game-changing surprise half-way through.

But this old-fashioned novel is a more straightforward adventure in the tradition of Hammond Innes: a competent but fairly ordinary guy is thrust into a perilous situation and has to cope with a series of crises which unfold with no higher scheme or rationale.

Thus almost immediately radio contact is lost with the outside world and Mannix is left in charge of the transporter and crew with no idea what’s going on. The result is a series of chaotic events: the town they are slowly heading towards, Kodowa, is heavily bombed by the Nyalan Air Force. When they arrive they find it on fire with plenty of dead and dying scattered around. A light airplane, damaged by army fire, crash lands in the scrub not far away and turns out to contain Wingstead, the head of the haulage firm who had been determined to fly up to be with his team, though his pilot Max Otterman, is badly injured in the crash.

They make camp just outside Kodowa and are astonished when a nun blunders into their camp, revealing that not far away is a hospital swamped with casualties. They drive the transporter over to the building so that its generator can supply power and their fridge be used to store medicine, but it is not a long-term solution for either party.

A mobile hospital

In a slightly bizarre turn of events, the nun and black doctor in charge say there’s another hospital 50 miles north – along the route the transporter is taking anyway – could the rig itself and the accompanying tractors and trucks carry the hospital’s 100 patients and nurses and supplies to it? After a hurried conference our guys say yes and so the sick and dying are arranged over the transporter, tractors, lorries, cars etc and the now rather odd-looking convoy slowly lumbers off north. Only to discover the once remaining bridge between them and the northern hospital has been bombed and the river is impassable.

More discussions and they decide to turn south back to the bombed-out town and then west back into the edge of the jungle towards a fork on the big local river which forms the border with the neighbouring country. For two reasons: The village there has cotton warehouses which could be converted into some kind of building for the sick; our crew would then have the option of getting across the river and eventually being repatriated to Blighty.

Characters and confrontations

Unlike Night of Error there’s quite a large cast of characters, maybe 40 named people, who are initially a little hard to keep track of, but certain key players emerge. Mannix develops tremendous respect for the captain in charge of the Nyalan army unit assigned to protect them, Captain Sadiq; for the black hospital doctor, Dr Katabisirua (‘a man dedicated and inspired’ p.306), and for the tough-minded nun, Sister Ursula, who is assisting him.

He learns which of the dozen or so crew he can trust and which are twisters. Five crew rebel against Mannix’s decisions and leadership and, after harsh words, are sacked and told to make their own way to freedom. They leave after stealing some supplies but the next day four come crawling back. One returnee takes Mannix aside to tell him that the tough Irishman, McGrath, tracked them down, harangued them to return and, when the dissident ringleader refused, shot him dead on the spot. Mannix confronts McGrath about it and after some shouting, decides uneasily it’s better to have him working for the team than against.

Some oil riggers – two Americans, some Russians, a French – isolated by the bombed town and blown-up bridge attach themselves to the convoy. Mannix is forced to confront one of them, the angry and violent Russ Burns. In a showdown scene the two are squaring up for a fight in front of the rest of the men when McGrath appears out of nowhere, pushes Burns back against the transporter and starts to cut his throat until Burns swears allegiance to Mannix. Mannix has mixed feelings: McGrath is dangerous; but it’s very handy having him as his enforcer.

Juggernaut

All the time they are managing the slow (ten miles an hour or less) progress of the transporter covered with about 100 sick patients in makeshift beds under makeshift awnings, and slowly this begins to have a strange effect. In the background the bush telegraph circulates among the natives rumours of the giant lorry with a vast load, covered in sick people and white magicians performing healing and curing; and gradually the team acquires a following of blacks, of poor, homeless men, women and children who accompany the convoy on its tortuous route, stopping and camping when they camp, waking and moving on when they do.

The transporter comes to acquire a kind of magical importance, not only for the natives, but even for Mannix and his team: it becomes a psychological fetish, a symbol that will see them safe through the harrowing chaos of civil war. As one of the characters points out, rather like one of the big wheeled carts of the Indian god Juggernaut (Jagannath), under which his crazed devotees threw themselves to be crushed to death.

The rebels

The civil war finally catches up with them and the convoy is seized by rebel army forces. About fifty men and two Saracen armoured cars led by a callous Colonel Maksa – the kind of African soldier who wears enormous shades and enjoys intimidating people. Just before their arrival Captain Sadiq and his men withdraw silently into the jungle and Mannix tells his people to act innocent as the rebels enter the camp. Despite this the soldiers aggressively round everyone up into the cotton warehouse, bullying and poking the sick on the transporter – we later learn they kick to death Max the wounded pilot. They are brutal. It is scary. Mannix notices McGrath has managed to elude the round-up.

Colonel Maksa wants to know where Sadiq and his men are, and questions each one of the crew in turn. When the argumentative Russ Burns foolishly says he won’t be pushed about by some goddam rebel, Maksa simply shoots his head off. A nun faints, one of his crew throws up, Mannix is petrified with fear. At that moment McGrath appears, shoots Maksa and, in the confusion, the only soldier accompanying Maksa inside the warehouse is overpowered and knocked unconscious.

Now McGrath comes into his own, planning how they’ll lure the remaining officers into the warehouse by pretending to be Maksa, and take them out one by one. Then they’ll fan out across the compound to take on the soldiers, while he and one of the crew take one of the tractors (whose back panels are made of steel and concrete to give them ballast, making them more effective at pulling the transporter) and drive it backwards towards the remaining Saracen holding the small nearby bridge.

McGrath had liaised with Sadiq so that at an arranged signal Sadiq’s men will begin lobbing mortars and firing into the rebel troops. And this is what happens – though it turns out more confused and chaotic than it sounds, with both sides firing wildly and mortars going off all over the place. But McGrath does manage to ram the 10 ton Saracen with the 40 ton towing tractor, Sadiq’s mortar and gunfire decimates the rebel soldiers who, deprived of any officers (lying unconscious and trussed up in the warehouse) turn tail and run across the bridge and off west.

In the morning our guys bury the dead – soldiers, three of our crew, some of the African patients, the murdered pilot. Then they hook up the damn transporter, tend to the patients still positioned all over it and in the lorries, and set off at the customary crawl along the road west, towards the river and the border followed, as usual, by the crowds of native worshippers. These had melted into the forest when the soldiers came; now they reappear to worship their god, Juggernaut.

About page 240 of this 320-page book the bizarre caravanserai finally arrives at the junction of rivers, so wide it looks like a lake. Mannix and the other leaders discuss with some locals the best way to cross into the neighbouring country. They think their troubles are over…

The raft

They aren’t. Turns out the official ferry is a few miles downriver and in the hands of the rebels. The road they’ve followed leads down to a primitive pontoon at the riverside. Back along the way is a general store run by a scared local who tells them about the nearby dumps of old oil cans, tyres, bits and bobs, along with a repair shop for fixing the pontoon and boats which run from it.

Sizing up all the resources, Mannix gets excited: with boyish enthusiasm he sketches out to his audience of truckers, riggers, mechanics, electricians and fixers how they could probably create a raft from the drums, rope, and planks and use it to seize the proper ferry by attacking at night from the river. Once secured, the ferry could take the crew and all the patients across the wide river to freedom. What, about it lads? Shall we give it a go? They say yes and set about designing and building a raft and the text is full of details about the design, buoyancy calculations, raw materials, fitting and shaping and hammering and roping together which are involved.

Men working together as a team. Male camaraderie. Problems arise, are discussed and solved; relevant experts make suggestions and improvements to what turns into a production line. Technical specifications, tools, processes for building and assembling. The text conveys the simple warm feeling of men working together on a technical task…

Manliness

Most novels feature novelists, writers, journalists and associated soft trades. But this adventure yarn features ‘real men’: Mannix is an action man, his job to sort out everything that can happen on dangerous and demanding assignments in extreme environments and the men he’s working with are tougher than him, physically and mentally – truckers, oil riggers, soldiers, good at fixing and repairing heavy machinery, able to look after themselves in a fight.

When the crisis strikes Mannix appoints himself top dog and has no hesitation confronting the rebel soldiers, stroppy civilians, and beating down claimants to his throne among his crew. He is very much the alpha male, as the big confrontations with McGrath and Burns and sundry smaller fry continually affirm.

From one point of view it is like a wildlife documentary about a pack of lions or other big predators: only by continually facing down his rivals can the alpha male establish and keep his position. Seen this way the narrative has almost zoological or anthropological interest.

Key among all these rivalries is the ambiguous relationship which grows between him and McGrath, ‘the odd, unwanted rapport that I sometimes felt between us…’ (p.259), ‘the common thread that sometimes linked our thoughts and actions’ (p.292).

The latter is clearly no ordinary trucker and, in his several confrontations with this laconic and violent man, it dawns on Mannix that the Irishman is on the run from ‘the Troubles’, probably a former member of the IRA. Certainly his fearlessness allows McGrath to take complete control during the firefight with the rebels, though (sardonically) acknowledging Mannix’s ultimate authority. His plan and his fearlessness win the day – but leaving Mannix to wonder how and when McGrath will finally rebel, and whether a violent confrontation with this scary man can be avoided…

It dawned on me that Mannix’s respect for McGrath’s total ability but fear of his amorality has a Freudian or psychological aspect: McGrath is Mannix’s id, the unstoppable, amoral, super-violent man Mannix could become, or deep down, is; and on the other side is his superego, the quiet capable figure of the African doctor, Dr Katabisirua, avoiding all conflict, superhumanly committed to his patients. But it’s the Mannix-McGrath dynamic and its strange ambivalence which drives the book:

Despite myself I felt a nagging touch of understanding of McGrath and his ruthlessness. He’d manoeuvred us into doing the one thing he knew best; fighting and killing. He’d done it all for the most selfish of reasons, and without compunction. And yet he was brave, efficient and vital to our cause… I would never know if he had killed Ron Jones, but the worst of it, and the thing that filled me with contempt for myself as well as for him, was that I didn’t care. I prayed that I wouldn’t become any more like him. (p.233)

In fact McGrath embodies the manly virtues of total efficiency in the name of killing, maiming and triumphing over rivals, which are vital to humans to survive situations of war and chaos – but must be risen above, expunged and repressed, if the hero is to return to ‘civilised’ society.

McGrath was a maverick, intelligent, sound in military thinking and utterly without fear. I felt that he might be a useful man to have about in a war, but perhaps on the first day of peace he ought to be shot without mercy… (p.233)

Death of the juggernaut

Our boys finish making a raft big enough to carry a lorry – the one belonging to the French man they picked up outside Kodowa – which has a load of gelignite aboard. In the dead of night they float the raft down to the ferry station, approaching from the river and taking the (it turns out) handful of disorganised rebels by surprise, driving them off and seizing control. They free the pilots of the ferry from their makeshift prison in a shed, and over the next few hours bring the enormous transporter-cum-hospital lumbering round by road from its hiding place, along with its crowd of devotees.

For the next few hours they load onto the ferry all the patients, the nuns and nurses and doctors and supplies, and watch it set off on the several mile journey across this wide wide stretch of African river to the free country on the other side. It’s at this moment that another group of rebel soldiers attack, shooting mortars and firing guns at the ferry though, mercifully, it is just out of range.

But they capture Mannix and our boys and overpower Sadiq and his men. How are they going to get out of this one? It’s at this moment that the unstoppable Principle of Action McGrath appears behind the wheel of the gelignite lorry, driving it off the ferry and through the mass of confused soldiers, while Mannix and others attack and overpower the rebel officers. Up through the shooting soldiers McGrath drives to the edge of the road overlooking the ferry point where the transporter is parked and where the lorry explodes. The blast fatally undermines the poor local road which gives way and the enormous transporter with its vast transformer slowly tips sideways and then comes tumbling, rolling over and over downhill onto the panicking soldiers, crushing them to a pulp, just like the original Juggernaut, the angry god of vengeance, crushes his devotees in his native India.

As the dust settles Mannix realises he and most of his crew are alive; most of the rebel soldiers are dead, as is their leader. And McGrath himself, the spirit of Total Violence which must be exploited but then dismissed before Civilisation can recommence, is also obliterated.

Before the big ferry set sail its pilots showed off their toy, a six-wheel amphibious truck or DUKW. Mannix rounds up all the survivors into the DUKW and they set off across the river to freedom.


Common decency

This unreconstructed, unquestioning attitude to masculinity has a dated, not unpleasantly old fashioned feel.

But maybe the biggest thing which sets it apart from more modern thrillers is the simple acceptance of the notion of decency among the male leads. Mannix beats up Russ for referring to the natives as ‘niggers’ and bans all insulting language. He and the haulage boss, Wingstead, unquestioningly go to the  aid of the hospital, put their supplies, food and fridge at the disposal of the local doctor: race doesn’t enter the picture, there is an obvious humanitarian need and these men unhesitatingly go to help.

More modern thrillers (books and movies) revel in the way these moral values have collapsed, enjoy describing the most cynical betrayals possible, celebrate treachery, corruption, decadence, unpleasantness and evil. The terrifying 2003 movie Tears of the Sun, set in Nigeria during a coup, portrays rape, torture and dismemberment. What makes Juggernaut, set in a similar situation, feel so old fashioned is – despite some of the awful scenes it depicts – the fundamental decency and moral innocence of its lead figures.

Map

A lot of time in the text is spent discussing the options of where the convoy should go next, north, west, to which town, crossing which rivers etc. I appreciate Nyala is a fictional country but a map would have been good.

Novels about African coups

  • A Man of The People (1966) by Chinua Achebe ends with a coup
  • The Dogs of War (1974) by Frederick Forsyth
  • The Coup by (1978) John Updike

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Juggernaut

Fontana paperback edition of Juggernaut

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.

No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth (1982)

A collection of ten short stories. No first publication dates are given, which is a shame because it would be interesting to know which are from the 1970s (or even the late 1960s) and because so many are quite different in tone from his book-length thrillers. In that so many of them are, unexpectedly, comedies.

The stories

1. No Comebacks (29 pages) Mark Sanderson is a rich property developer with all the trappings of a playboy millionaire lifestyle – apartments in New York, south of France, sports car, yacht, endless dolly birds. At a party he meets a stunningly beautiful woman (we never get her name) who resists his charms. He becomes infatuated. She says she can’t divorce her weedy bird-spotting husband back in Spain (Major Archie Summers) because he needs her (which rather prompts the question, What is she doing swanning round cocktail parties in London? but never mind).

So, possibly over-reacting a tad, Sanderson hires a hitman (Calvi) to kill the weedy husband. This, the core of the text, is an interestingly detailed and precise account of how to contact the kind of foreign mercenary you’d need for the job and then how the hitman goes about planning and organising the hit – especially the methodology of smuggling a firearm from France into Spain. (There is a long description of how to glue together a book’s pages, then carve a hole in the centre, then insert a plastic mould to contain the disassembled sections of a gun.)

In this, heavily procedural, respect it is an offshoot of Forsyth’s massive ‘novel’, The Dogs of War – itself more like a 400-page manual on how to hire mercenaries to mount a coup in an African country than a traditional novel. Forsyth’s descriptions of organisations, procedures and hardware are always compelling.

A silencer on an automatic is never truly quiet, despite the efforts of the sound-effects men in television thrillers to pretend it is. Automatics, unlike revolvers, do not have a closed breech. As the bullet leaves the barrel the automatic’s jacket is forced backwards to expel the spent cartridge and inject a fresh one. That is why they are called automatics. But in that split second as the breech opens to expel the used shell, half the noise of the explosion comes out through the open breech, making a silencer on the end of the barrel only 50 per cent effective. (p.31)

Everything is planned down to the last detail, including the detail that the beautiful woman had told Sanderson that she goes swimming & sunbathing every afternoon between 3 and 4. The twist is that, on the day the assassin arrives at the isolated villa in Spain, a freak rainstorm breaks out. Calvi shoots the weedy husband alright but – as he tells Sanderson back in London as the latter is handing over the cash for the job – unfortunately, some bird caught him at it. Rather a good looking lady, too. But don’t worry. He shot her, too. ‘There’ll be no comebacks!’

Boom boom.

2. There are no snakes in Ireland (31 pages) Harkishan Ram Lal is a medical student from the Punjab studying at the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast. He takes a vacation job with a cash-in-hand bunch of ‘demolition experts’ who are being paid to knock down an old brewery by an unscrupulous property developer. The enormous, rough foreman of the group, Big Billie Cameron, relentlessly bullies Harkishan, not just calling him ‘darkie’ and ‘nigger’, but giving him all the dangerous jobs (such as perching on collapsing walls etc). When Harkishan rebels, Billie attacks him, knocking the student to the ground. The others in the gang, sympathetic but scared of the bully, tell him to stay down…

So that evening Harkishan sets up a little shrine in his Belfast flat to the goddess Shakti and prays for guidance, and the drizzling rain on the windowpane leads his eye to the corner of the room where the belt of his dressing gown lies huddled in the shape of… a snake!

Aha. So now – and this is a classic example of the preposterousness of the stories – Harkishan goes to a Sikh he knows, borrows the money for an air fare, flies to Bombay, and takes a taxi to ‘Mr Chatterjee’s Tropical Fish and Reptile Emporium’, where he buys the most venomous snake available – Echis carinatus, the saw-scaled viper – slips it inside a cigar box with airholes cut into it, which he wraps in towels and puts in his luggage, which he has loaded into the return flight to Dublin, collects it all innocently from the baggage carousel at Dublin airport, strolls through Customs and returns to his cheap digs. First part of the mission accomplished!

Here he transfers the snake to a coffee jar and returns the next day to the building site. When asked to get something by Big Billie, Harkishan surreptitiously empties the snake into the pocket of Billie’s jacket, which the big man has hung up as usual on a nail in a wall apart from the main demolition site.

Then Harkishan waits anxiously for lunch break to come round, for he has noticed that Billie always puts his hand in his pocket to get his tobacco. Harkishan watches surreptitiously, waiting, expecting the big man to be bitten. But lunchtime comes and Big Billie rummages around in his jacket pocket and fills his pipe with impunity. Harkishan, on tenterhooks, sees a wiggling in the fabric and realises the snake has escaped and is loose in the lining of the jacket! Damn!

There follow a tense 48 hours as Harkishan trails Billie back to his cheap terrace house and agonises that his wife or children might be bitten and killed by the snake. Instead, the family find it as it slithers across the kitchen floor one mealtime and, more by luck than judgement, pick it up in a pair of oven gloves and pop it in a jar. None of them realise it is a snake; after all, everyone knows ‘there are no snakes in Ireland’. Billie’s son, a bright schoolboy, says it must be a harmless slow-worm.

Billie decides to play a cruel joke on Harkishan by taking it to work and slipping it into the ‘darkie’s’ sandwich box. And so, the next Monday, when Harkishan opens his sandwich box and sees the snake Billie has slipped into it, he jumps out of his skin, throwing the whole lot across the waste ground where the crew are eating.

Harkishan hysterically insists that it is a real, deadly poisonous snake, but none of the navvies listen to the crazy ‘darkie’, and Big Billie laughs till he cries, leaning back in the grass as he finishes his lunch and puffs his pipe. He doesn’t pay attention to the two scratches on his wrist he seems to have picked up over lunch – what’s a few more among so many scratches, cuts and grazes? And so an hour or so later he collapses of a massive haemorrhage brought on by the bite of the saw-scaled viper! Harkishan’s revenge has been achieved. Everyone thinks it was hard work on a hot day and then maybe the laughing fit brought on by Harkishan’s terror. A fitting misunderstanding.

There follows an odd epilogue, a scene of peculiar veracity, for the bully boy Big Billie turns out to have been a member of the illegal paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Very hard men from this organisation insist on knowing whether there was foul play and so force the authorities to hold a second, in-depth post-mortem and inquest to decisively ascertain the cause of death – which I thought Forsyth might use to somehow implicate Harkishan, who would then come to a very sticky end at the hands of the UVF.

But it doesn’t. He has got away with, effectively, murder – scot free – and reassures himself with the thought that the snake, having no mate, will live eventually die and his secret will be safe forever.

But in the final paragraph, Forsyth introduces a final ironic twist, as he reveals that the snake is in fact a female, was in fact pregnant when Harkishan illegally imported it – and has made itself a nice snug hole near the demolition site in which it is even now laying no fewer than twelve eggs!

Comment

The story is an extremely uneven mix of content and styles: there is the gritty realism of the hard men and their tough banter on a building site, a compelling description of impoverished family life on a Belfast council estate – and over the whole tale blows the chill wind of the Troubles, with the appearance of the UVF hard men. And yet the core storyline of the Punjabi immigrant who flies back to his homeland to collect a poisonous snake at the suggestion of his god, could come from the Arabian Nights or Kipling or any collection of children’s fairy stories. And then the final vision of the snake multiplying and, in effect, repopulating Ireland with a new species of highly poisonous snake, has the ominous threat I associate with many a science fiction short story.

3. The Emperor (47 pages) A timid bank manager, Mr Murgatroyd, wins a competition held by his bank (the Midland) and, along with lucky winners from other branches, goes on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday to Mauritius. His wife Edna accompanies him, a fat, pink-fleshed, blue-rinsed, nagging monster. Despite her constant abuse, Murgatroyd begins to unwind and enjoy the warm weather, the swimming in the warm sea, the young people in their gaily coloured outfits.

A few days into the week, he is buttonholed by a colleague who says a group of Americans who’ve paid for a deep sea fishing trip have pulled out and it’s on offer at half price. Eventually, ‘Murgatroyd from the Midland’ is persuaded to go.

The tone then significantly changes as Forsyth goes into technical mode, describing in clear, effective prose the whole process of going game fishing in a hired boat – from a description of the battered boat, through the wizened old captain, ‘Monsieur Patient’, who’s done this all his life, his grandson Jean-Paul who is the ship’s boy, and the lean South African, Andre Kilian, who is along to coach Murgatroyd and his colleague.

The description of the successive catches and hauling in of fairly small fish is told with documentary accuracy, typically thorough Forsyth and very enjoyable for readers who like factual accounts of technical processes. But these pages are just the prelude to the core of the story, which is that Murgatroyd, by complete luck, hooks a notorious marlin known to all the local fisherman, the twenty-foot-long monster they call ‘The Emperor’.

There then follows an extremely compelling description of the gruelling endurance test as Murgatroyd, strapped into the ‘fighting chair’, expends every ounce of his strength for seven and a half hours, becoming badly sunburned, his hands developing blisters which burst then bleed, his lips cracking and bleeding, tearing muscles in his shoulder, wringing himself to the uttermost, as he wrestles and reels in the monster on the end of the line.

Finally, as the marlin gives up and allows itself to be reeled in, Murgatroyd, barely capable of walking, frees himself from the ‘fighting chair’, collapses forward onto the stern where the South African and the boy are handling the metal rods caught in the marlin’s mouth, with a view to tying him to the boat before they head back to the harbour – Murgatroyd leans over them and, with a pair of wire cutters, cuts the fish free, to make a last bound on the wave and disappear into the depths.

There is an immense power in Forsyth’s description of the struggle, and a clichéd but effective dignity in the action of this modest suburban man thrown into a completely unexpected situation, who rises to it with unexpected strength and dignity.

Unfortunately, Forsyth has a way of embedding even his most powerful sequences in crass and bathetic anti-climaxes.

And so, after the boat has docked and the South African taken Murgatroyd to the local hospital where he is covered in anti-burn cream, his hands bandaged, his shoulder put in a sling and generally fixed up after his ordeal – Murgatroyd returns to the hotel to find the story of his exploit has preceded him and he is greeted like a hero, cheered by the crowd of holidaymakers all the way to the steps to his apartment.

And this is where he is confronted by his disapproving gorgon of a wife, the fearful Edna. She launches into a tirade, telling him how cross she is that he disappeared without a by-your-leave etc, when he cuts right across her and, for the first time in his life, tells her to SHUT UP. And not only to shut up, but that he is divorcing her, she can go and live with her sister in Bognor as she always says she wants to, she can have the house and car – he is going to cash in his investments and life insurance policy and stay in Mauritius, buying the boat, learning the trade, and himself becoming a deep sea fishing instructor.

Cheers from the surrounding crowd.

Comment

The stereotype of ‘the mouse who roars’, the timid official who finally stands up to his nagging wife, strikes me as dating from seaside postcards of the 1930s or back to Victorian times. The nagging wives in these stories remind me of Sibyl in Fawlty Towers. And yet the description of being out at sea, of the roll of the boat and the green walls of the high waves, is totally compelling and the long account of man against fish is obviously reminiscent of Hemingway’s late masterpiece on the subject, The Old Man And The Sea.

This is the contradiction at the heart of Forsyth’s fiction, between the utterly compelling handling of physical or technical, procedural or weaponry subjects – and the crass, flat-footed handling of character and psychology.

4. There Are Some Days… (23 pages) Innocent long distance truck driver Liam Clarke arrives in Dublin from France and his articulated lorry promptly springs a bad oil leak in the Customs Shed, delaying him by 24 hours while his company send an engineer to fix it.

The next day, soon after the next day’s ferry has docked, he drives out of the Customs Shed, a bit irritated, but the company paid for him to put up at a B&B, so no harm really done. What he doesn’t know is that a criminal gang was lying in wait for a lorry from the same haulage company to arrive on this, the next day’s, ferry. They have been tipped off that this lorry will be carrying 9,000 bottles of French brandy which they are planning to sell to a gang from the North of Ireland for a tidy profit.

So the gang of small-time criminals, led by scrap dealer and seller of dodgy second-hand cars, Murphy, proceed to dress up as traffic cops and pull over and kidnap Liam and his lorry. They drive it to a rendezvous with a gang of scary crims from ‘the North’, but when they open the trailer, instead of lucrative bottles of brandy they find packs of fertiliser. The Northern gangsters take one look and are not amused at all. They all turn on the poor Clarke who, once they’ve taken his gag off, explains the mistake ie they shanghaied the wrong lorry. the tough Northerners leave the hapless Murphy stammering and stuttering. Fortunately, they don’t kill or even hurt him and his colleagues, just disappear off into the night.

Murphy now drives the lorry up into the hills with a view to abandoning it, but – it just isn’t his day – accidentally crashes into a tractor coming the other way in the dark. The police arrive on the scene before he can flee and, when they examine some of the bags of fertiliser which have tumbled out of the trailer – discover the snouts of a bazooka and machine guns poking out of the bags. Aha.

In a flash Murphy, who has by now emerged as the bumbling lead in what has turned out to be a broadly comic tale, realises the truck driver Liam – probably in all innocence – had been carrying this consignment of weapons for the IRA in the North.

Now, through the concatenation of accidents, it would look very much to the IRA as if he, Murphy, had hijacked their arms shipment. It is unlikely he would survive the ‘questions’ they would ask. All things considered, Murphy realises it might be better to plead guilty to arms smuggling and get to spend some time in the relative safety of prison.

Comment

This story typifies Forsyth’s sense of humour. Ultimately, it is meant to be a comedy, but the comedy depends on you accepting as a premise an underworld of tough criminals, armed gangs and terrorists, and the possibility that cock-ups among these groups can be wryly amusing.

5. Money with Menaces (24 pages) Mr Samuel Nutkin is a timid insurance broker who catches the 8.31 from Edenbridge to Charing Cross every day, sitting in the same carriage opposite the same commuters doing the same crosswords. One day he finds a magazine stuffed under his seat which advertises the services of, ahem, women of ill repute. Now, Mr Nutkin’s wife (Lettice) has been bedbound for a decade and never gave him much physical pleasure anyway. Taking a big risk he writes to one of women advertised – ‘Sally’ – and receives a letter back a few days later, inviting him to come to her flat in Paddington. So a few days later he goes, with the requisite £20 in cash. She invites him to hang up his jacket and remove his other clothes and accompany her into the bedroom.

A few days later he receives a large format letter containing photos of himself and Sally in the act. Horrified, he then gets a phone call from a threatening man who gives no name, and realises he is being blackmailed. He must bring a package containing £1,000 cash to Battersea Park on a certain day at a certain time.

So far so expected – but then the story takes a twist, as timid Mr Nutkin goes on an extended shopping trip, buying a battery, fertiliser, copper wire and so on. Hmmm. He assembles and wraps up his package, then takes it to the rendezvous in Battersea Park, where a masked man on a motorbike relieves him of it quickly. Ho hum.

Some days later a policeman, Detective Sergeant Smiley of the Criminal Investigation Department comes knocking at Mr Nutkin’s house. He tells Mr N that his name and address were found at the flat of a couple who were obviously luring men to sleep with ‘Sally; and then blackmailing their ‘customers’. His was just one out of hundreds of names, addresses and photos they found: had he received a threat of blackmail?

Nutkin perfectly feigns horror and embarrassment and shame and says, No, nothing – oh how horrible! Smiley is completely deceived, but reassures him he won’t be getting any blackmail threats now, for the couple have met a sticky end. ‘Oh how dreadful,’ Mr N gasps.

After the policeman has left, Nutkin dusts off a photograph in its old frame. It shows himself and a colleague from the war, when they worked for the Royal Army Engineers and made up one of the most successful bomb disposal teams in the country. Ha! Amateurs.

Comment

The whole thing reminds me of umpteen Monty Python sketches about the timid commuter with his bowler hat (‘Are you a man or a mouse, Arther Pewty?’). The fear of ‘respectability’ and the furtive shame about sex strongly brings back the twitching curtains of the 1970s, when English people seemed obsessed by, but unable to even mention, this terrible awful thing, ‘sex’. And the sudden ironic reversal at the end of the story looks forward to other unexpected reversals in Forsyth, specifically when timid or non-descript men turn out to have a powerful and violent Army past – notably the twist in the tail of The Veteran, from 20 years later which, despite myself, I found myself liking.

6. Used in Evidence (39 pages) Dublin, the Mayo Road along the side of what used to be a huge slum called the Gloucester Diamond. All the squalid terraces have been razed to the ground and the inhabitants shunted off to new high-rise hutches in the sky. Only one old geezer remains in his squalid slum, refusing to leave. Finally, the rainy morning comes when the police, local authority, council, social workers and wrecking crew assemble with final permission to evict Mr Herbert James Larkin from his home and demolish it.

As usual, when it’s anything to do with officialdom, Forsyth is formidably knowledgeable about every rank of every one of the numerous organisations and companies involved (the demolition crew tasked with knocking the house down, the removal men who will cart the wreckage away, the builders who’re commissioned to cover the area in tarmac to create a shiny new municipal car park).

Supervising it all is Forsyth’s hero, Chief Superintendent William J. Hanley. Hanley is, of course, a gentle giant with a heart of gold. He was ‘the best lock forward to ever come out of Athlone County’ and part of the best rugby team the country ever produced. He is precisely the kind of solid, experienced, by-the-book official that Forsyth reverences in story after story.

Hanley shepherds the bewildered old man off to a local caff and pays for him to have probably the first hot meal in months.

But then this mundane event is transformed when the demolishers find the body of a woman stuffed into a space behind the fireplace. Suddenly it becomes a murder enquiry and Forsyth launches into another detailed account of all the personnel and procedures who are now called into action (forensic police, coroner, more police to cordon the area, murder squad, and so on).

To cut a longish story short, every conceivable police procedure is followed and described, which turn up the anomalous facts that Larkin’s young, vivacious wife disappeared sometime in 1963, after a series of rows about her flirting with other men. Hanley thinks he’s got a cut and dried murder on his hands – until the forensic scientist comes through with the strange news that the corpse discovered in the building died during the 39-45 war. Can’t have been done by Larkin who was, in any case, out of the country, a prisoner of war of the Germans.

Hanley, puzzled, releases Larkin – who still hasn’t said a word and who wanders back to the site of his now-demolished house, where he sees the tarmac contractors squabbling about a broad slab of concrete they’ve discovered in the foundations. When the contractors fail to break or move it and just go ahead and pour tarmac over it, Larkin turns from the building site, and for the first time has an expression on his face – he is smiling with relief.

The implication being that he did murder and bury his wife in the house – but the body they found was his predecessor’s murdered wife. A gruesome sense of humour.

7. Privilege (26 pages) Bill Chadwick is a small businessman. He’s awoken by a neighbour phoning to see if he’s seen the article about him in the Sunday paper. Turns out the article, in the Business section, strongly implies he was in league with a company of crooks which went out of business. Chadwick is livid since it is a complete falsehood. He writes to the paper, tries to see the editor to present his case, but is fobbed off. Then goes to visit a solicitor and here begins a lengthy explanation and critique of the libel laws of England, hopelessly skewed towards the rich and powerful, and how extremely unfair they are to the ordinary punter who is defamed by a newspaper.

Chadwick goes to research the law himself and comes up with a humorous solution. He tracks down the author of the article (Gaylord Brent) in his nice house with a nice wife in a nice part of Hampstead – knocks on the door and biffs him on the nose. Then he finds the nearest police constable and turns himself in, insisting at the police station that a crime has been committed and insisting he is charged.

So Chadwick is charged with common assault and pleads not guilty to ensure that Brent must attend the resulting court case, along with a prosecuting council. He then phones the editors of every national and local newspaper in London, suggesting they send a journalist to the court for an entertaining session.

And then he uses the law of privilege (which is that a witness may not be charged with libel or defamation for anything he says in open court) to mount a stinging attack on Brent in front of the massed ranks of his colleagues – calling him a drunk who listens to bar room gossip instead of doing his research, and so on. When Brent tries to interrupt proceedings the magistrate threatens to have him thrown out. After Chadwick has quite finished his character assassination – to the glee of all Brent’s rival scribes who have scribbled it all down – he is fined £100 with £50 costs by a now-sympathetic magistrate. Well worth it.

Outside the court Brent comes up to him and says, ‘You can’t call another man things like that.’ ‘Why not?’ said Chadwick mildly, ‘You did.’ (p.235)

Comment It is another comedy story, and another story on one of Forsyth’s favourite themes, poetic justice, administered with childish glee.

8. Duty (19 pages) This is only story told in the first person; all the others are told in Forsyth’s robust journalistic third-person voice.

It is narrated by an Irishman who tells the story of a cheap holiday in France he took in a beaten-up car with his girlfriend Bernadette, in the early 1950s. Somewhere in the unspoilt Dordogne the car breaks down and a friendly parish priest a) says he’ll get the garagiste out the next morning to look at the car b) recommends they put up for the night at the farm of a friendly old farming couple, and arranges a lift to the farmhouse.

The plump farmer’s wife makes them lovely potato soup and then the farmer enters the kitchen, a giant of a man who is amazingly slow. Very slowly indeed it emerges that he is not French but Welsh, was badly wounded in the Battle of the Marne in the Great War, and fell in love with the pretty nurse who looked after him – and here they are.

He then goes on to reveal that he was stationed in Ireland during the early part of the war, in fact in Dublin. And then the whole atmosphere changes abruptly, when the giant goes on to say that he took part in an execution firing squad.

The narrator feels his girlfriend stiffen and grow tense – her uncle and brother both died in the civil war and in the Troubles since. Coldly and quietly Bernadette asks if the giant can remember who it was he helped to execute, but the big man can’t remember.

Eventually the meal is over and it is obviously bedtime. The narrator and Bernadette go to bed troubled. The next morning, as they are leaving in their car which has been fixed and delivered to them at the farmhouse, the big strong slow farmer comes running up with a smile on his face – he’s remembered who he executed. Some poet called Pearse! [This was Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the Easter 1916 Irish Rising against British rule which led, eventually to Irish independence ie a really famous Irish patriot, hero of the independence movement, and martyr to the detested British authorities.]

The giant is upset when his hard work in remembering the name doesn’t trigger the gratitude he was expecting. As the couple drive off, Bernadette remarks that the giant is a brute, a beast, a swine. No, says our narrator sagely: just a soldier doing his duty.

Comment This story didn’t work for me, perhaps because it is trying to be genuinely moving and tragic, whereas almost all the others are played for laughs. As any reader of his books knows, Forsyth has a highly developed sense of the honour and dignity of soldiers and policemen and along with that goes a respect for soldiers on both side of any conflict, professional men doing a professional job. I think this story of duty performed by an ‘enemy’ is meant to evoke the tragedy and pity of all conflicts, but it doesn’t have the depth to do it for me.

What most sticks out is how many of these stories are set in Ireland. Why? Does Forsyth have family roots there?

9. A Careful Man (37 pages) Timothy Hanson is another multi-millionaire, like Mark Sanderson in the first story. His doctor tells him he has incurable bowel cancer and 6 months to live. It is repeated several times that he is ‘a very careful man’. Now he makes elaborate – very elaborate – plans for his death and his will.

It is another comedy, like so many comedies surrounding rich men’s wills. Briefly, Hanson dislikes his sister and brother-in-law and their spoilt son, Tarquin. He stipulates in his will that he must be buried at sea in a lead casket which he has had manufactured specially. So on a blustery day they all take a trawler from Brixham which heads into the depths of the English Channel and tips his casket overboard.

Only then is the solicitor allowed to begin searching for Hanson’s money and discovers all his assets were liquidated in the last few months of his life and converted to cash. The family hire a private detective who tracks down the evidence to show that Hanson spent all the ready cash from his assets on platinum, which he converted – in a workshop built at his Kent mansion – into a casket of great weight… at which point the sister and brother-in-law and awful son realise the dreadful truth burst out shouting and wailing — the sadistic so-and-so made them throw his fortune away: the casket they tipped into the sea wasn’t made of lead but of rare and valuable platinum! To the value of over £3 million! Hanson’s solicitor, who has taken a strong dislike to the greedy sister and her family, stifles a grin.

But in fact there is a further twist: for, the text goes on to explain, unbeknown to investigator, solicitor or sister, Hanson had not had his casket made from platinum; he only made it look that way in order to punish his sister.

In fact Hanson spirited the cash into a bank account in the Channel Islands. And now an incident from the very start of the story becomes relevant. Just after he’d been given the news he was going to die, Hanson had been riding in his chauffeur-driven car to his stately home in Kent, passing along the Old Kent Road in shabby south-east London. A crocodile of schoolkids from a Catholic school for orphans happen to cross in front of the car which comes to a halt, and one naughty boy thumbs his nose at Hanson. To his own surprise the silver-haired tycoon finds himself thumbing his own nose right back at the grubby child – and they both burst out laughing.

Now a banker from the Channel islands arrives with a tax-free charitable donation of over £3 million at that very same orphanage, giving the Mother Superior in charge the biggest shock of her life! Hanson has managed to both drive his sister distraught with grief and anger, and give all his money to help orphan children. He really was ‘a most careful man’.

Another example of Forsyth’s central theme – poetic justice trumps the dead hand of laws and empty obligations.

10. Sharp Practice (24 pages) It is 1938 and we are on the slow train from Dublin to Tralee. In a nice quiet compartment is sitting Judge Comyn hoping to do some work, but into it comes first a short, nervous, wispy-haired man and then at the last moment, as the train is pulling out, a breathless priest. To cut a long story short the other two are confidence tricksters who inveigle the judge into getting involved in a game of poker in which he ends up losing £50. Next day he sits in the Assizes and is surprised then not so surprised to see the very same wispy-haired man brought before him, charged with carrying out just such a card-based confidence trick on another passenger on another train.

Why are so many of these stories set in Ireland, and historic Ireland at that? And who’d have guessed the author of the sensationally gripping thriller, The Day of The Jackal would turn out in his spare time, as it were, to be the author of humorous short stories.


Stories for children

These are almost stories for children. The ‘psychology’ is naive and bathetic. It is like watching old Morecambe and Wise or Two Ronnies sketches – funny maybe, but predictable, and from a simpler world, a world free from adult nuance or complexity, a world of stereotypes – the heartless millionaire, the cruel assassin, the timid bank manager with his nagging wife, the timid insurance broker with his nagging wife, the lean, tanned manly South African guide, the sturdy, unflappable six foot Irish copper, and so on and so on.

Every character is like a stereotype from a sketch. This doesn’t stop them being enjoyable. Just don’t expect any depth.

Stories from the 1970s

The shallow effect may partly be because the stories are so dated. Neither the paperback edition I’m reading nor the Wikipedia article about the collection give dates of publication for individual stories, but it’s a fair bet most of them were written in the 1970s. Thus the hen-pecked husband stereotype who appears in two of the stories seems a creature from another world, and his nagging, blue-rinse wife in each case like something from Monty Python or a Donald McGill cartoon. Types from the now remote world of the 1970s.

This gives the collection a sociological interest, making it a window into a world of lost attitudes and expectations.

Absurd

Many of the stories’ plotlines are laughably absurd. It’s another way in which they’re childish. You have to be prepared to swallow the complete implausibility of the events, to enjoy the climactic scenes they lead up to.

Technical grip

When Forsyth describes technicalities he’s completely convincing. Thus the hiring of the hitman in the first story reads like a manual on how to do just that. Similarly, the long description of the game fishing in The Emperor is highly detailed and hypnotically absorbing. This is the paradox at the heart of Forsyth’s writing. A lot of the plots are absurd. The characters are paper thin. A lot of the payoffs are cheap and silly. But along the way, there are often sections of clear, intelligent and informative prose which are totally gripping and persuasive.

Lucid prose

His prose style is wonderfully clear and lucid. It is like eating sweets. There is no complexity. Everything is laid out in a crisp, neat stylee, both the gripping technical descriptions and the lamentably shallow psychology. Which makes these stories, like the novels, ideal pool-side reads for holiday makers dazed by the sun and too relaxed to read anything demanding.


Credit

No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth was published by Hutchinson Books in 1982. All quotes are from the 2011 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

Night of Error by Desmond Bagley (1984)

[Clare] moved to the liquor cabinet. Several bottles had broken in the roll, and she picked one up and stared at the jagged edges. She said slowly, ‘I’ve seen them do this in the movies.’ (p.289)

Quick summary

This is a rip-roaring, old-fashioned action adventure, with good guys and bad guys competing to follow a dead man’s cryptic clues to find mineral treasure on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. There’s a no-nonsense hero helped out by his tough ex-Army minder, a rich patron and his beautiful daughter, a ruthless adversary and his psychopath henchman, all played out against stunning South Sea scenery. What’s not to like?

Plot

Mike Trevelyan is a research oceanographer. So’s his disreputable brother Mark, but Mike has just learned his brother has died in obscure circumstances on a South Sea Island. A rough Australian named Kane calls on Mark’s wife to tell her, and then calls on Mike. He tells a long story about himself and a sailor partner, Hadley, finding Mark alone and dying of appendicitis on a small island. They fetched a doctor who operated but the wound went septic and Mark died. Kane makes his apologies and leaves… Only then does Mike remember that Mark had his appendix out when he was a boy… And there was no mention of the Swede Mark was meant to be working with, one Norgaard – what happened to him?

Mark’s effects are flown back to London, a suitcase full of clothes, notebooks and some geological samples which turn out to be manganese nodules. As Mike explains to his ex-Army mentor and friend, Geordie Wilkins (sergeant in his father’s commando during the war), these lumps of manganese and iron litter the ocean floor in their billions, generally too deep to recover, and the manganese and iron these lumps contain are easier and cheaper to mine on land.

But when the pair come back after a drink and a meal they find Mike’s flat being burgled. The burglars turn nasty, pulling knives and even a gun in the ensuing fight. Our boys just about win, the burglars fleeing in a car, but this crystallises Mike’s feeling that something is badly wrong. The gang have made off with his brother’s suitcase and all the samples – all except one, which fell under the bed – and except for Mark’s notebook, full of writing in cryptic shorthand.

At his lab the next day Mike analyses the nodule and is astonished to discover the lump is 10% cobalt – and cobalt is a vital ingredient in rocket-building. At normal concentrations of 2% or less it wouldn’t be worth bothering with. But at 10% it becomes a potentially very lucrative source. Now Mark’s notebook becomes of consuming interest: Can the shorthand be deciphered? Does it tell where this rich treasure is located? Is it near the island where Mark is supposed to have died? Why did Kane lie about his brother’s cause of death? Was foul play involved?

Usefully, Mike’s old friend Geordie owns a large yacht which he makes money out of renting and just happens to be between jobs at the moment. He says he’ll roundup some of the ‘lads’ ie the commando from the War. Mike knows his brother worked for a while for a canny Scottish mineral millionaire, Jonathan Campbell. Mike goes to see if Campbell can be persuaded to fund their trip if he’s let in on the exploitation of the cobalt. Campbell immediately sees the potential profit and agrees. And it just so happens that Campbell has a beautiful daughter, Clare, and she wants to come along on the expedition too. Handy.

The scene is set for crime and skulduggery (and a bit of snogging) leading up to a volcanic climax amid the beautiful South Sea islands.

Posthumous

According to a note at the start, Bagley wrote this novel in 1962 but put it aside to revise it, making his debut as a novelist the next year with The Golden Keel instead. After Bagley died (aged only 59, in 1983) his widow and publishers incorporated his notes into the manuscript and published it. Well done them.

Simple, clear

The novel follows the pattern of Bagley’s other novels which is that there’s a violent incident to kick start it and then a long section with the fairly peaceful making of plans, holding of conversations and eventless sailing across the Atlantic. Only in the second half are there some violent incidents and then, at the very end, things rise to a genuinely gripping and thrilling finale: they have barely discovered the location of the cobalt-rich nodules before the baddies’ vessel appears out of the mist and rams them; and both sides are still fighting it out when nature steps in with the eruption of the undersea vent which had been the source of the nodules. The resulting pandemonium makes for a gripping final thirty pages.

1962

The novel has the imaginative and moral simplicity of an earlier age. Finished in 1962 it describes characters who radiate the decency of the 1950s. It reminds me of the protagonists of Hammond Innes’ many adventure yarns or John Wyndham’s ‘cosy catastrophe’ novels from the 1950s – not the subject matter but the tone: white, middle class, decent types battling against dastardly foreigners/monsters. Even the names have a four-square cleanliness: Mike Trevelyan the hero; John Campbell the millionaire; Clare Campbell his daughter; ‘Geordie’ Wilkins the tough, reliable helper – he has a nickname because he’s working class. And the dastardly baddie is, naturally, a foreigner – Ramirez.

Environmentalism

Mildly surprising to realise that green and environmental concerns have been around since the early 1960s. This speech is put into the mouth of the industrialist Campbell:

‘For centuries people like me have been taking metals out of the earth and putting nothing back. We’ve been greedy – the whole of mankind has been greedy. As I said the other day we’ve been raping the planet.’ His voice grew in intensity. ‘Now we’ve got hold of something different and we mustn’t spoil it, like we’ve spoiled everything else that we’ve laid our greedy hands on.’ (p.259)

Fortunately mankind has learned these lessons in the past 50 years and the environment is now safe and protected for our children.

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Fontana paperback cover of Night of Error

Fontana paperback cover of Night of Error

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.

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