Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson (2004)

The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 as a result of the 9/11 attacks. It invaded Iraq in March 2003 in response to the alleged threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

These acts prompted an unprecedented flood of articles in newspapers and magazines, TV documentaries, conferences, seminars, papers and hundreds of books speculating whether America was now, finally, at last revealed to be an ’empire’ with nakedly ‘imperial’ ambitions.

British economic historian Niall Ferguson entered the debate with a Channel 4 TV series and book on the subject – which also neatly complemented the C4 TV series and book he had published in 2003 about the British Empire.

When I bought it I thought, from its subtitle (‘The rise and fall of the American empire’), that it would be a history, maybe a chronological account of the growth of American power.

But it isn’t. Even more so than the British Empire book, this book is really an extended argument with historical examples. It is a polemical interpretation of history, written with a very strong point of view, which starts in the present day – the Preface, written in 2005 is full of references to contemporary events in Iraq, to ongoing debates in the media, policy statements by the Administration, learned articles etc – and, no matter what incidents from the past it describes, Ferguson is always emphasising their relevance to the present situation.

However, time has a way of advancing at a steady pace: it is now 12 years since the book (11 years since the preface) were published, and we have the usual benefit of hindsight, both on America’s strategic decisions, and on Ferguson’s interpretation of them.

The book can therefore be read and enjoyed on at least three levels:

  1. As a snapshot of contemporary thinking about US policy in Afghanistan/Iraq in 2003/4
  2. As an extended argument about the role of the US in global affairs, with which to agree or disagree
  3. For the illustrations of that argument which include a succession of fascinating accounts of episodes from US history which shed light on the empire thesis (and other things too)

An empire in denial

Ferguson’s thesis can be stated very simply: the US is an empire; despite all protests to the contrary, it always has been an empire; in fact it would be a good thing for the world as a whole if the leaders of America just accepted the fact and began to act more like an empire; instead of which America’s rulers have a long tradition of intervening for short periods in foreign countries, then withdrawing in a hurry and letting them revert to chaos/civil war/instability. Ferguson’s thesis is that Americans should stay in the countries they invade, and be prepared to pay the cost.

The way he puts it is that America is an ’empire in denial’. In reach and power, in its conviction of being a torch bearer of civilised values – freedom, democracy, free market capitalism etc – in the sheer fact that its armed forces outnumber the next ten or so nations’ armies put together, and that it has military bases in half the nations of the earth – America is an Empire in everything but name.

The book is – maybe intentionally – comic in the way it lines up quotes from US presidents and senators and commentators from the late 19th century onwards, all saying the US is not an empire and carrying on vowing it does not have imperial ambitions etc, through the Second World War – notably the fiercely anti-imperial Franklin Roosevelt, who played a large role in undermining the British Empire – and right up to the present day, asserting, ‘No empire, no way!’

Then follows all these denials with an account of

a) how America was created ie by killing Indians, seizing territory, fighting neighbouring countries, buying land
b) once the continental boundaries were settled, reaching out to acquire colonies in the Pacific and Caribbean, by sometimes pretty underhand dealing
c) the growing chorus of commentators who, especially after WW2, simply recognise US behaviour for what it’s been – stepping in to fill the power vacuum left by the bankruptcy of the British Empire and feeling free to intervene in conflicts anywhere in the world to influence them in the ‘right’ direction. The American direction. Korea, Suez, Iran, Vietnam, Iraq.

Not new

That America is an empire is not a new thought, in fact it is a cliché of our times. You only have to Google ‘American empire’ to be appalled at the amount of learned ink and journalistic hype which has been spilt debating the point back and forth for the past 15 years. Ferguson claims that what makes him stand out from this vast sea of discourse is that he thinks an American Empire would be a good thing, and that the Americans, alas, don’t go far enough. For Ferguson the Americans have, like it or not, become the world’s main guarantor of peace, liberty, democracy, capitalism and free trade – but are continually shooting themselves in the foot by not doing it properly.

For my money what makes Ferguson stand out from the scrum of people in this arena is that 1. very few of the political commentators have the breadth and depth of knowledge he brings to bear as a professional economic historian – and 2. not many of his fellow historians have a taste for writing such partisan and polemical pieces with such verve and confidence.

Structure

In the introduction Ferguson outlines the structure of the book in eight chapters:

  1. The imperial origins of the USA ie the way the Founding Fathers themselves (surprisingly) used the term ’empire’, and the way the young nation bought, fought and conquered its way across the continent and beyond.
  2. A fascinating account of America’s successes (Hawaii and Puerto Rico) and failures (the rest of central America and the Caribbean): drawing the conclusion that it has been most successful where it directly and permanently intervenes and governs, and repeatedly failed when it intervenes to overthrow a dictator and quickly withdraws (Panama, Nicaragua), leaving the fundamental problems of poor governance unchanged.
  3. Showing how 9/11 represented a culmination of decades of mismanagement of the Middle East and of growing Islamic terrorist organisations which the US did little to tackle.
  4. How the failure of the UN in the Yugoslav civil wars and the Rwanda genocide showed the US it could and should go it alone, proving that all decisive action in the post-Cold War world requires is a ‘coalition of the willing’; and how the disasters of small-scale US intervention in Somalia and Lebanon suggested that the US should only intervene in situations with a clear end-goal and then only with overwhelming force.
  5. Assesses the costs and benefits of America establishing a true empire, ie permanently occupying failed states.
  6. This is a detailed essay which could easily stand alone, assessing whether the US has the capacity, know-how or staying power to remain in Iraq long enough to build a viable nation state, cheekily comparing its quick-fix approach to the history of Britain’s long stay in Egypt. The British officially stated no fewer than 66 times that they would clear out of Egypt, starting within weeks of their unofficial ‘conquest’ in 1882; whereas they ended up staying for 72 years, Ferguson controversially argues, much to Egypt’s economic and legal benefit. Another element in America’s weakness is the reluctance of Americans to serve abroad. Most get postings to the Middle East for a year and are soon back home among the hamburgers and soccer moms. This makes you appreciate rather more the selflessness of lots of British administrators who devoted their entire lives to ‘serving’ in often very remote parts of the world, with little thanks at home or from the native peoples, stiffened by the ethos of service and self-sacrifice which had been drummed into them in Britain’s public schools. There is simply no equivalent in American culture.
  7. This chapter also feels like a stand-alone essay on the simple question: Is the European Union a viable new ’empire’ capable of asserting western values through unified force in a way which can challenge the United States? Well, No. Ferguson very thoroughly demolishes the idea and confirms one’s sense that the EU is a ramshackle bureaucracy dedicated to guaranteeing its employees a fabulous lifestyle and protecting French farmers, while completely failing to act decisively in any kind of emergency, from the Yugoslav civil wars to the the current Refugee Crisis via its wise and fair treatment of the defaulting Greeks.
  8. Many critics and commentators predict the American Empire will be brought low by what Paul Kennedy called ‘imperial overstretch’ and go bankrupt like the great empires before it. Ferguson brings his grasp of historical economics to bear to argue that the real threats to the US economy are in fact internal. The largest elements in the US budget are not military but the vast obligations of Social Security (pensions) and Medicare. Politically, the threat is not of over-stretch but of over-hasty withdrawal of forces form trouble zones, under pressure from domestic public opinion and ever-recurrent US isolationism. Once again, leaving the job half-done.

And this concern does seem to have been justified. As the Wikipedia article on the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq makes clear, President Bush held out against a Congress and public opinion calling for the troops to come home from 2007 onwards, signing an agreement that the last ones would leave in December 2011. Since that time the main development in the region has of course been the popular uprising in neighbouring Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, which led to a civil war, which, along with a power vacuum in northern Iraq, led to the swift emergence of a new force, Islamic State.

Whether the rise of ISIL could have been prevented by maintaining US forces in Iraq is something historians will debate forever. How many forces, exactly? And for how long?

Insights and stories

As with Empire, a lot of the basic story is familiar, especially the recaps of the disasters of the 1990s (Yugoslavia, Rwanda) and the detailed account of the diplomatic pussy-footing to get the UN resolutions and allies needed to invade Iraq. I feel like I’ve read hundreds of articles and books on the subject.

By contrast, his chapters on the early history of the American republic, and then its interventions in Latin America, the Philippines, Hawaii etc, were mostly new to me. Certainly the way they are interpreted in light of Ferguson’s thesis – ie from its earliest days the US has been imperial in ambition, and that its best interventions have been the most complete and overt ones – were new and thought-provoking.

  • The Louisiana Purchase (1803)
  • War of 1812 I hadn’t quite realised the States started this war simply to grab land, nor that the small British forces fought back so effectively that they pushed the Yanks back to Washington where – in the war’s most famous incident – they burned down the White House. Nor that the war helped create a sense of Canadian nationhood among the people that pushed back the Americans.
  • Mexican-American War (1846-48) resulting from the US annexation of Texas and leading to the acquisition of more land ie southern California and New Mexico.
  • Overthrow of Hawaii’s rulers I didn’t know how completely imperial the seizure of Hawaii was, with the overthrow of the native royal family by a small group of white businessmen. The reluctance of the authorities back in Washington to back the obvious greed and illegality of the men on the spot is like many episodes in the British Empire, where the central government was in fact more protective of native rights than the self-interested businessmen who behaved so high-handedly.
  • Spanish-American War (1898) On a trumped-up pretext the US invaded and annexed Cuba from Spain.
  • Philippine–American War (1899-1902) As part of the Spanish-American war, the US seized the Philippine Islands from Spain, on the other side of the world. Military victory was straightforward but followed by a prolonged counter-insurgency which the Americans tried to solve by driving the general population into concentration camps and shooting everyone found outside the camps without identification. Guerrilla war phase
  • Panama In the early 1900s the US supported Panama independence from Colombia so that it could instantly sign a treaty with the new ‘country’ to build, own and run the Panama Canal in perpetuity.
  • Puerto Rico is currently ‘an unincorporated US territory’. Reading the Wikipedia article about its ‘acquisition’ by the USA gives powerful evidence of the imperialist mind-set and language used by American leaders at the turn of the century.

And so on…

Is it or isn’t it?

So is America an empire? The obvious answer is, Who cares?

Well, who does care is the thousands of analysts, pundits, professors and think tank geeks, military experts and geopolitical strategists, who are paid to write and debate this kind of question ad nauseam. For them it means publication, reputation, careers to be made debating the finer points of the matter, creating subtler and subtler definitions of empire, making more and more ornate comparisons with previous empires, publishing sophisticated and thought-provoking prognostications, most of which turn out to be wildly wrong (eg Paul Kennedy’s predictions that the American Empire would soon collapse in his popular best-seller The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers of 1987).

A slightly more engaged answer would be: Since I have just read the views on the matter of some 50 people, from various Founding Fathers, through politicians and commentators in the 19th century, the Great War, the Second World War and right up to the present day, who themselves disagree wildly as to what an empire is and whether America is or isn’t one – how can I reasonably be expected to decide?

From the evidence in this book, the United States both is and isn’t an empire: it is by virtue of its military power and reach and it has a track record of annexing land (in the 19th century) and military intervention in other countries (in the 20th). BUT, as Ferguson points out, it rarely stays. It is obviously NOT in the business of seizing new colonies and permanently inhabiting them, as the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, British, Germans, Belgians or Russians did with their empires. Hence: the US is and isn’t an ’empire’.

Whether any of this ocean of interpretation makes a blind bit of difference to the actual course of events, to the working out of US geopolitical strategy, seems unlikely. American politicians are trapped in the tight cycle of elections to the Senate, Congress and Presidency, which tend to prevent any long-term thinking and favour melodramatic gestures and simple-minded sound-bites (eg Donald Trump). From one point of view it was a triumph that President George W Bush managed to keep US troops in Iraq for so long, before giving in to domestic pressure, bringing them home, and letting the country collapse into fragments and then fall prey to a murderous new movement, ISIS.

Thirty years ago I attended a seminar which featured Ian Jack of the Observer and other foreign correspondents and experts debating whether Imperialism should be revived, whether the West should intervene – mainly in Africa – to overthrow brutal dictators or help collapsing states, and run them properly. Everyone there – white, middle-class intellectuals all – agreed it was obviously the best solution for a number of pitifully poor countries. But also agreed it was impossible in practice – because of the fierce opposition there’d be from the populations of the recolonised countries, from the UN and international community, from the surrounding nations and related bodies like the Organisation of African Unity, and from the Western countries’ own populations. Faced with opposition on all fronts, the idea of recolonisation was a non-starter: the West would have to resign itself to working through the various UN agencies, the IMF or World Bank, and its armies of NGOs and aid charities to make the best of a bad job. Direct intervention to ‘save’ collapsing or dictator-led countries could never again be a long-term possibility. Failed and chaotic states are on their own and can never again expect to be taken over and helped to rebuild.

Nothing I read in Ferguson’s book contradicts those conclusions.

Criticism

The most obvious criticism of this book, as of its predecessor, Empire, is that it gives little or no place for human experience, for the psychology of colonisation and oppression. An imperial colony’s legal system may be updated, its tax regime overhauled and its GDP improved by imperial control – and Ferguson gives plenty of examples of this in a wide range of countries, run by the British or Americans – but he takes hardly any account of people’s feelings, or of the cultural impact of being ruled over – and more or less overtly patronised by – an alien elite. For this absence of feeling, of compassion maybe, Ferguson has been criticised, especially by writers who come from former colonies and who have experienced the humiliations of empire.

My view would be that this high-level, heartless approach is hardly unique to Ferguson: all economists are like that. While Britain’s state industries were shut down, while the mining communities were thrown on the scrapheap during the Thatcher years, generations of culture were trashed, alcoholism and suicide rates soared among unemployed men, the Financial Times and its ilk were full of reports by economists discussing theories of money supply, the finer aspects of ‘Monetarism’, and the balance of payments deficit as if there was no connection between the graphs and pie charts and ruined lives. Or read how the plight of Greece was described in the Financial Times.

Economics isn’t called ‘the dismal science’ for nothing. Its fundamental strategy is to drain the humanity and life out of any situation and to reduce it to bone-dry, bloodless and – quite often, it turns out, laughably unreliable – numbers.

At least, unlike most other economic historians’, Ferguson’s books are thought-provoking, crisply written and hugely entertaining.

Related links

Bibliography

1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

Every room in Tate Modern

Tate Modern, housed in the famous converted power station building on the South Bank near London Bridge, contains six levels. But as levels 0 and 1 are shops and cafes, and 5 and 6 are, respectively, the members’ level and restaurant, that leaves only 2, 3 and 4 to actually display art. Level 3 is given over to temporary exhibitions (currently Alexander Calder and The World Goes Pop) and some small, one-room displays (currently George Baselitz) – which leaves floors 2 and 4 to house the permanent collection.

Each level is divided into two wings, west and east, grouped around a broad theme and housing 10 or 11 rooms: thus level 2 west is Citizens and States, level 2 east is Making Traces; level 4 east is Energy and Process and level 4 west is Material Worlds.

So Tate Modern contains about 42 rooms, plus 3 or 4 one-room displays between each wing, say 46 in all.

Audio guide

The audio guide costs £4.25 (£3.75 for concessions eg students). It has audio commentary on a relatively small number of selected works. The woman selling it said it lasts 45 minutes but that can’t be true. My one had one or two minute-long items on 38 works, and half or more of the entries consisted of more than one track eg 90 seconds on the art work, with an additional quote from the artist, and then maybe some music (the Mark Rothko item has two pieces of music, one of which was five minutes long). Surely more than 45 mins – and very useful…

Personal highlights

As with my recent trips to the British MuseumNational Gallery and Tate Britain, the following are obviously not any kind of official highlights, just a list of things that made me stop and think or admire or want to make a note.

I used to think I knew about modern art, but this visit confirmed my feeling that I have been completely overtaken by the explosion of post-modern art since the 1980s. There has been a vast expansion in the numbers of artists and artworks and types and styles of practice over the last thirty years, as well as a massive expansion in the types of discourses available to make sense of new movements and artists from around the world.

Also there has been a significant movement to reconsider and revalue the past, especially as regards rediscovering or rehabilitating women artists – a process exemplified by the current The World Goes Pop exhibition, which is designed to promote hitherto little-known artists from around the world, and goes out of its way to foreground women artists and gender issues.

So this attempt to visit every room at Tate Modern felt like it shed a bit of new light on some old favourites and familiar faces, but mostly introduced me to new names. A lot of new names.

1. Citizens and States

  • Who doesn’t love Piet Mondrian? But I didn’t know he was a theosophist nor that the calm grids of black lines dividing rectangles of white or red or yellow or blue are representations of an ideal society. A psychologist was interviewed to say they’ve done experiments turning Mondrian squares onto the diagonal and people really don’t like them: there’s something powerful about horizontal and vertical lines, our brains react to them more deeply than to diagonals. Compare the impact, the pleasing sense of order and clarity in any Mondrian, with that of fellow De Stijl member Theo van Doesburg’s Counter-Composition VI (1925). Not nearly so pleasing.
  • Composition B (No.II) with Red 1935 The cool structured grids can be interpreted as a way of establishing order on a chaotic world. That aim reminded me of the images I saw recently in the British Museum, the wall paintings of Nebamun hunting and the friezes of king Ashurbanipal of Assyria’s lion hunt. In both, hunting is a way for aristocratic or royal man to establish order out of nature’s chaos and the painting re-enacts that function. Striking that the same impulse links painting from 800BC and 1940AD.
  • The movement he belonged to in Holland, de Stijl, is pronounced ‘dare stale’.
  • When Barbara Hepworth moved to Cornwall, ovals replaced circles in her work, which gave them two centres or focal points, instead of one, making them more complex and interesting. Oval Sculpture (No. 2) 1943, cast 1958
  • Tate had an exhibition of Hélio Oiticica back in 2007, which I was fool enough not to go to. The three abstracts by her here, from the 1950s, show not quite perfect geometric shapes jostling and balanced on plain backgrounds, creating a lovely impression of jazzy movement. Metaesquema 1958
  • Tate also had an exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair a few years ago, another show by a woman artist which I should have gone to. In room two I liked Composition with Two Ovals 1951. On the audio guide we hear her insisting her work comes from Islamic, not Western, sources of inspiration. A couple of her works were included in 2015’s Adventures of the Black Square show at the Whitechapel art gallery last year, where I liked Poem (1965).
  • Joseph Beuys was one of the dour Germans who put me off contemporary art in the 1970s and 80s. There are not one but two whole rooms devoted to him at Tate Modern, mainly documenting his tireless activities as an educator, organiser of student events, giver of marathon interviews, supporter of alternative political parties, green enthusiast and so on. How tiresome all that 1970s student politics looks now; how ultimately futile. The main artwork is the massive Lightning with Stag in its Glare (1958-85). The audio commentary usefully explained Beuys’s cryptic personal mythology: the metal sheet is the lightning, the ironing board is the stag, the clay lumps represent lumpish unintelligent creatures.
  • A lot more up to date, Theaster Gates’s Civil Tapestry 4 (2011) is a tapestry made of vertical strips taken from the fire hoses which were turned on civil rights protesters in the deep south of America in May 1963. Reminded me of Ai Weiwei’s enormous sculpture made of steel poles salvaged from the wreckage of schools destroyed in the Szichuan earthquake. A similar sense of unimpeachable righteousness.
  • Artur Zmijewski (b.1966) has made various films, including the one featured here, Democracies (2009), splicing together footage shot at a variety of political rallies in his native Poland, from feminist and environmentalist campaigners, to right-wing nationalist rallies. Watching the Catholic nationalist rallies, I recall political commentators interpreting last October’s election of the Law and Justice Party to government in Poland as a ‘lurch to the right’. Zmijewski’s film shows you why. It is an interesting documentary film but, like all film and video, I wonder about its relevance as ‘art’.
  • A room devoted to Latin American Photobooks, testament to the turmoil in Latin America throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, collected by British photographer Martin Parr.
  • I saw Richard Hamilton’s The Citizen (1981-3) in Tate Britain’s recent Fighting History exhibition. The audio commentary here made the neat point that the patterns the dirty protesters made with their own faeces on their prison walls echoed the patterns of Celtic designs – although what Celtic art is turns out to be hard to define, as the British Museum’s exhibition on Celtic Art and Identity showed. How genuinely subversive it would have been it Tate had bought an actual prison wall covered in IRA prisoner shit, and exhibited it, smell and all.
  • Sheba Chhachhi b.1958, was represented by Seven lives and a dream, photos inspired by the rape of an Indian woman in the 1970s, and other large b&w photos of Indian women.
  • Teresa Margolles (b.1963) is represented by Flag I, a big flag coloured with blood, earth and other matter from the murder sites of various people killed in Mexico’s bloody drug wars, a death rate which currently runs at around 20,000 a year.

Reflections on Citizens and States – ie the failure of radical politics

It is my belief that the forces for radical change have everywhere been comprehensively defeated and, in fact, that even moderately liberal bourgeois democracy is itself under attack from religious extremists at one end and home-grown nationalists at the other. Neo-liberal capitalism defeated and buried not only the communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe but the very idea of any kind of socialist / communist alternative.

The student radicalism of the Joseph Beuys rooms, and in evidence throughout the Pop Art exhibition from the heady 1960s, is irrelevant to the world of Putin, growing right-wing forces in eastern Europe, to the Refugee Crisis, to the permanent collapse of big parts of the Middle East and the state of terrorist threat which we are going to have to live with indefinitely.

The economic engine of the world, China, whose meteoric industrialisation has been underpinning rising standards of living throughout the West for the last generation, is coming stuttering to a halt. If you haven’t done well over the past twenty years, that was a one-off golden age and chances are you’re going to get a lot worse off in the coming era.

And underlying everything is evidence that man-made climate change is kicking in now, unchangeable and unavoidable, with unforeseeable but potentially cataclysmic consequences.

Against this backdrop it’s hard to avoid thinking that much of the art in this section is trivial or, at best, irrelevant. Nothing is going to stop Mexicans (or Colombians) murdering each other over drugs. President Nixon announced his nationwide War on Drugs as long ago as 1971: how’s that war progressing? Nothing is going to stop Indian men raping Indian women. Sheba Chhachhi’s photographs were sparked by rapes in the 1970s but gang rapes by Indian men have been in the news for the past few years. And Theaster Gates’s sentiments about historical injustices in the Alabama of the 1960s might be impeccably correct, but seem irrelevant in light of the ongoing inability of American police to stop their officers beating up and shooting dead a seemingly endless stream of unarmed black men.

Activists have been protesting these issues for decades and not only has nothing changed, lots of things have got worse. Considered as political activism, then, most of this art is a complete failure. Considered as art, it relies so much on the worthiness and impeccable liberalism of its credentials, that the failure of its causes in the real world makes it almost comical. Nice flag. Shame even more Mexicans will be murdered his year. Nice hoses. Shame even more black men will be shot by police.

It was a relief to emerge from the politically charged, fraught, upsetting and ultimately depressing Citizens and States wing and cross over to the less contentious Making Traces.

2. Making Traces

  • Magda Cordell (Hungary 1921-2008). Woman artist, her Figure (Woman) is, according to the wall label, ‘an image of heroic femininity’.
  • Korean woman artist Lee Bul’s Untitled (Craving White) (2011) is a gargoyle assembly of sacks of fabric, with wood and steel, twisted into weird shapes. She wore it to do performances, the weird bulges and squiggles intended to ‘deconstruct ideals of the female body’.
  • Avis Newman, woman artist born 1946, is represented by The Wing of the Wind of Madness (1982).
  • Lee Krasner, woman artist apparently overshadowed in her lifetime by her husband, Jackson Pollock, is now being rediscovered with works like Gothic Landscape (1961).
  • Woman artist Hilla Becher (1931-2007) spent most of her adult career travelling with husband Bernd around Europe and America taking series of b&w photos of industrial buildings eg Coal bunkers (1974). I wonder whether they inspired the b&w photos of abandoned nuclear bunkers and wartime defences by Jane and Louise Wilson?
  • Woman artist Hedda Sterne made lovely semi-abstracts, including NY No. X (1948).
  • Joan Miro is a big name from the modernist mid-century and represented here by the large and colourful Letter from a friend. After the post-modern works in the previous gallery, this type of Modernism looks reassuringly old-fashioned.
  • At the heart of this display is the big room showing Mark Rothko’s Seagram paintings (1958-60). Rothko was commissioned to decorate the restaurant in the new Seagram building in New York and was half way through making them when he went along to the restaurant himself, and was horrified to find it full of ‘rich bastards’, as he described them, eating dinner. What did he expect? He turned down the commission, returned the money and was contacted by various museums who wanted to buy them, of whom he favoured Tate because of a sentimental fondness for British art. He committed suicide the same day in 1970 that the paintings arrived in London. The audio guide plays Perilous Night by John Cage, favourite composer of so many modern artists. Of the 8 or so works here, my favourite was Red on Maroon, Mural Section 4 (1959).
  • By complete contrast, woman artist Rebecca Horn (b.1944) specialised in making strange imaginative extensions of the human body, for example Cockfeather Mask (1973). A room is devoted to her strange inspiring creations. A film shows cockfeather being used to do a sort of fan dance-cum-striptease over a man’s penis, a rare appearance of the male member in these galleries.
  • Simryn Gill (b.1959) has a whole room devoted to a series of large colour photos he took in the Malaysian town of Port Dickson, A Small Town at the Turn of the Century (1999–2000) showing its citizens in normal or portrait style poses but with large fruits concealing their faces. I liked number 5, number 34, number 24.
  • The American artist Mark Bradford (b.1961) is represented by Riding the cut vein, an entrancing large image, owing something to the street layout of Los Angeles where, according to the wall label, freeways cut through the city dividing rich neighbourhoods from poor ones.
  • The last room in this mind-bending tour of 20th century art is devoted to six massive paintings by Gerhard Richter (b.1932) Cage I-VI, named after the American composer and philosopher John Cage, ever-popular with the avant-garde. Prepared for them to be dirty smears, I was in fact entranced. There’s a film showing Richter at work using a metre-wide squeegee to smear the paint across the surfaces, which sounds unpromising, but the results are actually full of countless details, imperfections, unknown unnameable elements, insights and peculiarities. Close up.

3. Energy and Process

The wall labels explain that this suite of rooms is based around the 1960s Italian art movement, Arte povera, which used industrial by-products, or found materials, to create large, generally abstract sculptures. It was deliberately distinct from the grandiosely ‘heroic’ American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, but also different from the American Minimalism of the 1960s, which is smooth and cerebral. The main works are in the big, well-lit room 3:

  • Lynda Benglis Quartered meteor (1969) This woman artist’s lump of dull lead is a deliberate riposte to the smooth geometric shapes of American minimalism.
  • Kishio Suga’s Ren-Shiki-Tai
  • Giuseppe Penone’s Tree of 12 Metres (1980–2)

According to the wall labels, Arte Povera ‘upset traditional ideas’ about how art should be distributed and displayed. Well, here they are being displayed in an international art gallery. Doesn’t seem to have upset or challenged that pretty traditional idea.

  • Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) was a groovy French woman artist whose website shows the full range of her colourful imaginative oeuvre and who is represented here by one of her ‘shooting paintings’. She filled bags with colour pigment, attached them to a canvas and covered the lot in white plaster, hung the canvas outside on a wall and then invited friends to shoot it with .22 rifles. The colour bags exploded and spurted colour over the work. Shooting Picture (1961)
  • Michael Baldwin is represented by a board with a mirror attached, Untitled Painting (1965). The commentary tells us with a straight face that this work is ‘questioning a long-held action of painting transcending reality’. OK.
  • In a similar radical, subversive, revolutionary etc vein is the anti-art tea tray of Július Koller (1939-2007), Question Mark b. (Anti-Painting, Anti-Text) 1969. Here it is in a major art gallery, subverting away like mad. Funny in its way, but also funny in its quaint utopianism.
  • Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) experimented with lots of slits in otherwise untouched canvas. Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ (1960).
  • In room ten is the rather marvellous motor engine covered in crystals of copper sulphate, known as Untitled 2006 by Roger Hiorns, born in 1975.
  • Nicholas Hlobo is a gay black man, born in 1975 in South Africa. I enjoyed the works where he’s used embroidery or sewing using pink ribbon onto canvas to create shapes and flows, although I was disappointed that the curators instantly say this work ‘challenges gender-based assumptions about the division of labour’. Does it? Really? Ikhonkco (2010)
  • A small room is devoted to Emilio Prini (b.1943), who took countless experimental b&w photos in the 60s and 70s. According to the label, ‘Throughout his career Emilio Prini was engaged intensively with photography and photographic processes.’ Not ‘experimented with photographic techniques’, but was engaged with… And not just engaged. Engaged intensively. Lots of photos of parts of his body.

In these rooms, as in various other exhibitions of 20th century art, you get a powerful feeling from the wall labels and commentary of the curators’ nostalgia and regret for an era when art really meant something, when it was part of wider social movements genuinely upsetting old traditions and assumptions.

Now, when there is more art and more artists than ever before, more women artists, more artists from around the world, working in every conceivable medium, all trying to establish a marketable brand which can be sold to Saudi oil and Russian mafia and Colombian drug lord investors, it is impossible to recapture the heady idealism of, in particular, the 1960s and early 70s.

These galleries reek not of revolutionary exhilaration, but of the mournful nostalgia for, and the comic over-excitement about, the truly ‘revolutionary’ art of a bygone era, on the part of a generation of curators and critics born too late to experience it.


Related links

Other museums

Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson (2004)

Sir Richard Turnbull, the penultimate Governor of Aden, once told Labour politician Denis Healey that, “when the British Empire finally sank beneath the waves of history, it would leave behind it only two monuments: one was the game of Association Football, the other was the expression ‘Fuck off’.” (p.365)

Niall Ferguson is a bit of a rock star among historians – youngish, good looking in a rugged Scottish way, he’s been the presenter of a number of TV history series for Channel 4, writes combative articles for newspapers and magazines here and in the States, has been a contributing editor to Newsweek, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, has actively helped US Presidential campaigns, appears regularly as a pundit on TV shows – all logged and available on his busy website.

Three things make him stand out:

1. He is an economic historian He has an impressive grasp of the economic and banking and business aspects of history. Most history books rely on government and administrative documents and interpret policy in terms of political parties or the individual psychology of a Disraeli or Churchill, with a smattering of culture (quoting poems) thrown in. For their part, most economic historians are dry specialists, working deep in the bowels of Treasury or corporate archives to produce very technical tracts.

But in the book which brought him to general attention, The Pity of War, Ferguson combined his economic perspective with a popular style and approach, taking a detailed look at defence budgets, steel production, armaments output and so on, to present the Great War from a purely economic point of view, resulting in a number of surprising insights & conclusions.

Ferguson’s unique selling point is his ability to cut through political discourse to show the economic realities – the profit and loss, the problems of issuing bonds, obtaining credit, securing loans, paying back interest, finding new markets, keeping down overheads – the sheer business of the Empire, and the challenges it threw up and the difficult decisions political and business leaders had to take as a result.

2. He is an unashamed capitalist He’s not a Marxist or a socialist or a liberal, he isn’t into cultural studies or feminism or post-colonial studies, as so many contemporary historians are. He is an unabashed Thatcherite capitalist. He has been employed by New York investment banks and has worked for Republican presidential candidates. Despite its obvious inequalities, he defends free market capitalism as the bringer of prosperity and freedom to all the countries which embrace it. After all – look at the alternatives.

3. He is a populist Three of his books are based on Channel 4 TV series which he wrote and presented – this history of the British Empire, another on the Rise of America, and the third on reasons why the West beat the Rest to world domination (all handily available to view on YouTube). He is not shy of tackling the Big Subjects.

Having worked for Channel 4 myself, I know that they value controversy above anything else, they like to encourage contrary and unexpected viewpoints, they like to feel they are stimulating debate. Ferguson, with his confidently conservative views, his brash way with economic statistics, and his Celtic good looks (it is a visual medium, after all) was perfectly placed to present the series and write the books on these epic subjects. He will have mapped out the overall approach or message – broken it down into hour-long episodes / chapters, which are built around key (ideally, controversial and ‘against received opinion’) propositions. Then teams of assistants will have been despatched to assemble the material required to fill them out. ‘We want striking locations, powerful stories, strong messages!’

This, the first of the three books-of-the-series, is hugely enjoyable, fluently written, full of deliberate provocations and journalistic summaries, pithy phrase-making and telling stories (I liked his quip that if Britain was a nation of shopkeepers, Australia started out as a nation of shoplifters) – liberally studded with graphs and diagrams displaying impressive-looking arrays of figures for the economically illiterate. It is designed to impress and persuade a broad popular audience, of which I am one.

Empire is a solid-looking Penguin paperback of medium length for such a vast subject (380 pages) and divided into six chapters which summarise the narrative arc of the story – Why Britain?, White Plague, The Mission, Heaven’s Breed, Maxim Force, Empire For Sale.

The British Empire A Good Thing

The biographical background sketched above helps to explain why Ferguson’s history ruggedly and abrasively declares the British Empire was a Good Thing. It had its fair share of atrocities, terrible behaviour, oppression and subjugation. But overall, on balance, from a high-level perspective, Ferguson in his Introduction asserts the British Empire was a civilising, globalising influence, and then spends the rest of the book going into detail to back his assertions.

The Empire was a good thing because it:

  1. Imposed free market capitalism around the globe, encouraging the free movement of goods, capital and labour on a vast scale.
  2. Spread the rule of law, specifically English common law, fairer, quicker, more efficient than other systems.
  3. Spread English forms of land tenure, which encouraged investment and development.
  4. Spread representative democracy: this has survived in eg India, to the ex-colonies’ lasting benefit.
  5. Spread the idea of a small, incorrupt state: its critics may have criticised Imperial administrators for arrogance and sometimes criminal neglect; but they weren’t venal and corrupt, and the administration was astonishingly small: at its height, the Indian Empire of 250 million was administered by a civil service of 1,000.
  6. Spread the English language.
  7. Spread Anglican Protestantism.

British ideals

Lastly, he emphasises the way the Empire disseminated English ideas of personal liberty. Critics immediately reply, ‘How could an Empire devoted to freedom have made so much money out of slavery?’ Ferguson doesn’t underplay the cruelty or neglect of the Imperial authorities. There are strong passages about slavery, including his description of visiting the slave cells on the West coast of Africa. But the history of the Empire can be split into two parts, Slavery and post-Slavery. Anybody who condemns the British Empire for its use of slavery needs to be reminded that it was the British who were the first nation anywhere in the world to outlaw the slave trade (1808), to abolish slavery altogether (1833), and then to enforce that ban on other nations. The Americans, famously, fought to defend Slavery into the 1850s.

Ferguson makes the profound point that, no matter how rapacious, violent or unjust its activities abroad, there was always a strong party at home which tried to hold the Imperialists to account against the highest standards. Even if the ideal of liberty was betrayed again and again in practice, it was nonetheless an ideal that a significant number of Britons aspired to, and the anti-slavery movement is proof of its power. (After all, a generation earlier, the American colonists had rebelled against their king in the name of a higher ideal than monarchy, in the name of Freedom, and a lot of 18th century Englishmen sympathised with them.) Thus, throughout the nineteenth century, economic and political Liberals criticised the idea and the implementation of Empire, against a range of higher ideals about freedom and national independence.

It was the very power of this British notion of liberty, holding the Empire’s rulers to account against nobler ideals, which meant the Empire’s days were always numbered. By about 1900, as domestic discourse became divided between shrill Imperialists (Kipling, Rhodes) and even shriller opponents (Gladstone’s heirs like John Hobson, author of the stinging critique, Imperialism) the whole idea of Empire was becoming difficult to defend, when it was dealt a body blow by the stupidity of the Boer War.

The alternative empires

The grossest, the most obvious defence of the British Empire is – Look at the alternatives. Empire critics tend to base arguments on the notion that, if the British hadn’t arrived, the ‘native’ red Indians, or Indians or Africans or Maoris or Aborigenes would have continued living their environmentally-friendly, spiritual lives. But no they wouldn’t have. They would have been colonised by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, or God forbid, the Belgians or Germans. And, after the Great War, in the 1930s, the new empires were the totalitarian ones of the Japanese, the Russians and the Nazis. Without a shadow of a doubt, much much worse.

The Soviet Union, the Nazis, the fascist Japanese did not emphasise the rule of law, did not have powerful parties at home holding the Imperialists to account. Critics of their totalitarian policies were shot. Opponents in colonised countries were shot. Anyone complaining about British rule in the 1930s should spend a few minutes reading about the Japanese Rape of Nanking, or the way Germany behaved in its new East European colonies after 1939.

The economic end of empire

Ferguson is perhaps deliberately controversial, when he asserts that what ended the British Empire wasn’t the various rag-tag nationalist movements which agitated in their countries (Sinn Fein, the Indian Congress, Mau Mau) it was that in a few short years Britain comprehensively bankrupted itself fighting off other empires which were significantly worse, undoubtedly evil.

He gives pages of figures showing the collapse of Britain’s economy in the 20th century, begun in the Great War and ruined in the second. We were only able to continue fighting after 1940 because of huge American loans. Whatever the military or diplomatic facade, the baton for policing the world and combating evil empires had been handed on to America, an America reluctant to take on the role.

How the British made the modern world

Despite listing the things the British Empire gave to the 25% of the world it governed, I thought the book didn’t really address its subtitle, ‘How the British made the modern world’. In the introduction and again in the conclusion, Ferguson repeats the roll call listed above, but I don’t think that’s quite the same as showing how Britain made the modern world. All kinds of other things made the modern world as well. Oil. Coffee. Cars. Airplanes. Computers. Some Brits might have had a hand in some of them, but so did Germans, French, Americans.

Instead, the lion’s share of the text is taken up with a fairly traditional narrative of the key events in the Empire’s history, with a kind of running economic commentary. Insofar as it is a chronological narrative, it covers an awful lot of familiar ground, albeit littered with entertaining stories and stunning stats. So we get:

  • The early years, the Elizabethan settlements in Ireland and America.
  • A history of the East India Company as it takes over pieces of India piecemeal, fights off the French, in the 1700s, develops its own army.
  • The Slave Trade: the triangle of trade taking slaves to Africa, sugar from the Caribbean to Britain, then gewgaws to buy more slaves back in West Africa, from the 1600s until  the rise of the Evangelical anti-Slavery movement in the 1790s.
  • As we move into the Victorian era, the narrative thickens, becomes slower and more detailed, as:
    • Britain invents loads of stuff, better maps, theodolites, the steamship, the steam engine, iron, coking coal, factories, the telegraph – and sends explorers deeper into Africa.
    • The Indian Mutiny (1856) transforms Imperial power in India from its old relaxed amateurish basis, onto a more formal, hierarchical affair.
  • And thickens further in the era of High Imperialism from the 1880s onwards, as we fought small wars all across Africa and northern India – the era of the Great Game, Kipling, Pomp and Circumstance etc etc.
  • Then the twin catastrophes of the Boer War which sowed the seeds of doubt about the morality of the whole thing, and then the catastrophe of the Great War.
  • The odd twilight between the wars when we still had an Empire, in fact it reached its widest geographical extent, but somehow nobody took it seriously any more, except pompous administrators collecting gongs.
  • And then the hurried decolonisation between 1947 and the 1960s, marred by last-minute crackdowns in Cyprus, Malaysia, Kenya.

An over-familiar story?

A lot if not all of this is familiar from other books I’ve read, like Robert Hughes’ harrowing history of Australia, The Fatal Shore (1986), Robin Blackburn’s The Making of New World Slavery (1997), Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble For Africa (1991), Lawrence James’s The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (1994), The Crisis of Imperialism by Richard Shannon (1974), Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica trilogy (1968–78), Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (1987).

Like these predecessors Ferguson takes this well-worn story and tries to make it new by studding it with telling anecdotes or accounts of significant figures, garnished by sections on the economics of imperial trade or slavery or the East India Company etc. These economic sections, frequent though they are, somehow don’t have the same impact. A graph about, say, English net migration 1601-1801, while mildly interesting, has little or no impact compared to the 40 or more pages he devotes to a long biographical sketch of David Livingstone, from his impoverished childhood, through his training as a doctor and missionary, and then a thorough account of his adult explorations. Or the long account of Indian Viceroy Lord Curzon, seen as epitomising the cultural moment of high Imperial pomp in India.

Imperial legacy?

In this book and in the Tate Britain exhibition about Artist and Empire I went to recently, I read that the legacy of Empire is ‘all around us’. Hmm. I don’t really agree. My daily commute to Clapham Common, travelling by Tube to Old Street, walking through dirty streets to a 1970s concrete tower block where I work for part of the NHS – not much of that strikes me as a legacy of the British Empire. It all happens to take place in the capital city of the same country, but none of those things were created by or for the British Empire. (Indeed, Ferguson points out that the cost of the NHS and the new welfare state, created after the Second World War, was one of the reasons running an empire became unaffordable.)

To me the most obvious and by far the most important legacy of the British Empire is America. America is the world’s superpower. We founded it, gave it its language, religion and political ideals, and then it grew up and went its own way.

The next most important thing we gave the world was the Industrial Revolution: coal and iron and steam power, railways, electricity, the telegraph and telephone, preparing the way for the oil economy – cars, airplanes and computers. These are the real and immediate physical and technological presences in the life of me and most Londoners. The fact that Indians have parliamentary democracy or Ghana’s judges wear British wigs or Australians play cricket are nice aspects of the world, but as irrelevant to me as the statues of all the generals and viceroys who line Whitehall.

Grace notes

In such a densely researched account, packed with stories, quotes, biographical accounts, facts and figures about such a vast undertaking over such a long period, a number of thoughts stood out, things I never knew or had forgotten, twists or turns in the familiar story:

  • The composer of the hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton, became a slaving captain after his born-again religious conversion.
  • Obviously I knew about David Livingstone: I didn’t know (or had forgotten) that Livingstone’s explorations were based on an economic theory ie mid-Victorian laissez-faire capitalism. Livingstone was a life-long opponent of slavery but he completely failed to make Christian converts among the Africans he visited or to persuade the African and Arab slavers to cease trading. Therefore, he switched his activities to a messianic mission to ‘open up’ Africa, to carve trade routes into deepest Africa, in the belief that, once British traders and businesses could be persuaded to set up trading posts, to start to grow coffee or cotton or whatever in the areas he opened up, free trade would kill off the slave trade. It would simply become more profitable to let Africans do honest labour in their own regions and rake in a profit, than to capture them and drag them down to Zanzibar in chains.
  • By the 1830s and 1840s 40% of the total value of Indian exports took the form of opium. The fact of the Opium Wars against China in which we stole Shanghai and Hong Kong never ceases to amaze me.
  • The very Evangelical Christians who powered the anti-slavery cause and successfully abolished the slave trade, then set their sights on converting the heathen in India, but the rapid growth of missionary societies and missionaries in the field trying to convert Hindus and Muslims was to have a disastrous result. Ferguson says that one of the main contributory factors of the Indian Mutiny was that the soldiers of the Indian Army felt their religion was under threat from the floods of missionaries.
  • The Indian Army was a vital support of the Empire. By the 1880s 62% of all the soldiers of the Queen were Indian. In autumn 1914 about a third of British forces in Flanders were from India. By the war’s end a million Indians had served, as much as the four white Dominions put together.

The Channel 4 TV series

Related links

Bibliography

1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past @ Tate Britain

In six rooms the curators of this exhibition have gathered a jumble sale, a hodge-podge, a gallimaufry of maps and flags, oil paintings and watercolours, photographs and sculptures, swords and spears from all over the vast territorial range of the British Empire, dating from the 1500s to the post-colonial art of the present day. These objects, quite obviously, can only represent a tiny fraction, a miniscule sampling of the vast, overwhelming multitude of artefacts and stories which remain or could be told about the largest empire in history.

Thematic arrangement or jumble sale

On the one hand, it probably makes sense to try and arrange such a vast subject into themes or topics; and so the exhibition is organised into six rooms each with a distinctive theme, with a room each of maps, of portraits, of history paintings and so on, giving each piece at least a conceptual context.

The drawback of this approach is its randomness – so you get a portrait of Laurence of Arabia (1918) next to a Van Dyck of a Stuart explorer (1635) next to some Indian miniatures from a prince’s court during the Raj (1860). The leaps in time and space and context and meaning between different objects are breath-taking.

Another drawback is that the wall labels explaining each object have only two or three paragraphs to do so and in which to cover sometimes large topics; they risk being rather superficial. Thus we learn that the Empire involved some violence. There were acts of suppression. It involved ‘unequal power relationships’. Hmm.

(Given that the creation and running of the Empire was such a massive event in world history and that, as the commentary points out, the repercussions of the Empire are still with us in many places, maybe there should be a Museum of the British Empire, a really big museum, dedicated to telling the story of the central administration, along with galleries for each subject country or colony, galleries which could explore in detail the histories of trade and barter and war and invasion and resistance and administration and rebellion and independence for each of the 50 or so countries the Empire once ruled.)

There is a chronological underpinning of sorts to the exhibition, with the first room – the map room – containing some of the earliest objects and the last room clearly set apart for post-colonial and contemporary art by artists from former colonies. But otherwise, you have to be quite alert to bits of Empire popping up in scattered places.

For example, did you think the British colonisation of Ireland was a complex and important story? In the first room there’s a primitive map of Enniskellen from Elizabethan times, in the last room a contemporary art work showing a map of Ulster overshadowed by the Troubles. And that’s your lot on Ireland. Not much to get your teeth into. Next it’s native statues from Sierra Leone, an 18th century portrait of Joseph Banks, 19th century wood carvings of Queen Victoria, a 1937 photo of John Buchan in Red Indian head-dress, a chess set from India. And so on.

The Empire in art

The curators claim the exhibition ‘looks at the British Empire through the prism of art and explores some of the ways in which Empire has shaped practices and themes in British art from the early colonial period to the present day.’ In an obvious way, everything here – maps, flags, portrait painting, sculpture, history paintings – references Imperial subject matter – battles, rulers, land. But to say the Empire shaped practices and themes in British art is a more ambitious claim. The portrait, the landscape, animal paintings, history paintings, watercolours of plants or ancient ruins – surely all these existed in other European countries too, including those which never had an Empire.

What the British emphatically did do, and uniquely well, was trade -trade and expand, sometimes by war, sometimes by negotiation, buying land, acquiring land, conquering land, replacing corrupt local rulers with British law or just defeating them in countless ‘small wars’, introducing accurate maps and renaming places, carrying out censuses, introducing new crops, new landholding patterns and then – after the Industrial Revolution – bringing in steam trains, telegraph cables, metal warships to bind it all together.

Of this – the administrative, trading and commercial, the deal-making and buying and selling, the technological and engineering underpinnings of Empire, what amounted in fact to the main engines and sinews of Empire – there was little or nothing. I missed depictions of the economic, technological and military might which made the British Empire so unstoppable for centuries. After the map room, the exhibition features a few pictures of plants and animals, a few spears and native carvings – but overwhelmingly it consists of pictures of people and their stories.

British indifference to Empire

One of the most interesting things about the British Empire was the way it was largely ignored in the country which supposedly ran it. The English syllabus I studied at university included Dryden and Pope, Dr Johnson and Fielding, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Jane Austen and George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Which of them was the cheerleader for Imperialism? Which of them even mentioned the British Empire? There are occasional references to the snobbish, nouveau riches nabobs who come back from India and offensively flaunt their wealth (in Thackeray). Mr Micawber goes off to Australia at the end of David Copperfield (1850); Magwitch returns from Australia in Great Expectations (1861). But for the most part the Empire is a distant place where people go to and sometimes return from or just not mentioned at all.

It’s only at the very end of the nineteenth century, in the age of Kipling and the boys’ own adventures of Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard, from the 1880s onwards, that a really triumphalist Imperial Jingoism asserts itself in British culture and that its remote and exotic locations start to feature in fiction and the broader culture. And this had barely got going before it was called into question by the national humiliation of the Boer War (1899-1902). There was another decade of pomp and circumstance, and then the Great War shipwrecked the whole thing. Then you have the troubled inter-war years, with increasingly shrill hard-core Unionists and Imperialists on one side, pitched against outraged liberals and socialists who support the growing independence movements. The cataclysmic second war when the Dominions rally round Britain while she stands alone against Hitler and bankrupts herself in the process. Then, between 1945 and 1965, a flood of independences and ‘liberations’.

The truly Imperial Moment was a very short period in British history. A few weeks ago I systematically visited every room in Tate Britain, looking at every painting and sculpture. I can’t remember a single work ‘about’ the British Empire. There must have been a few history paintings touching on imperial battles, but what’s really remarkable about the British Empire is its absence from British culture.

For most of our history it was an offshore enterprise, a bit like North Sea oil, employing a small number of people very intensively, bringing massive profits to a small number of companies. You might have read about it when something went wrong (some military setback or other), but most people here just got in with their lives. That’s what the literature records (Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, Hardy, James) – a sublime indifference.

Anti-imperialism

The curators refer a few times to the notion that the Empire is still viewed by the British people as a wonderful achievement. Their stated aim is to probe and question this supposed attitude of patriotic pride. But I would have thought it’s the opposite. My children were taught from infant school all about the horrors of slavery, they know more about Nelson Mandela than Admiral Nelson, they are quick to jump on any suggestion of sexism or racism, which they have been fully trained to recognise and denounce. I’d have thought the commonest view was embarrassment shading into shame about the Empire.

In any case, Britain had a long history of internal criticism of Empire throughout its history. The 18th century economist Adam Smith thought it was a bad thing. Victorian free traders like Cobden thought it would ruin the home country. Gladstone dedicated his life to opposing Imperial adventurism (and its wily advocate, his opponent, the slippery Disraeli). Some of the most stinging critiques of Empire were published immediately after the Boer War. Conditions in the concentration camps created during that stupid struggle were widely publicised at the time (surely a rampaging feminist movie could be made from the heroic campaigns of Emily Hobhouse to publicise their evils?). The nakedness of the greed, the futility of the fighting undertaken to enrich a handful of Rand millionaires, was well publicised at the time. By the 1930s George Orwell was writing of his disgust at the Empire, Evelyn Waugh was taking the mickey.

I’d have thought most educated people are very well aware of the shameful aspects of Empire, the brutality of British rule in India, our wicked involvement in the slave trade. Who hasn’t seen Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi with its depiction of the Amritsar Massacre? That was released in 1982. 34 years ago. To claim that any Briton anywhere has an uncritically patriotic pride in the British Empire is to set up a straw man.

Individual stories

Once you realise the exhibition isn’t attempting a coherent narrative, or a sustained analysis, of the British Empire it becomes easier to enjoy it for what it is – a potpourri, a salmagundi, a miscellany and medley of objects large and small, old and new, each with its own ‘Oooh gosh’ story behind it. These are the very spears Joseph Banks collected in 1763! Those bronze heads were looted from Benin City in 1898!

Watching the elderly, grey-haired (and 100% white) visitors shuffling from one interesting artefact to another reminded me of The Antiques Roadshow. I couldn’t help smiling at the incongruity between the curators’ use of post-modern critical language – where art works are always ‘questioning’ and ‘subverting’ and ‘interrogating’ colonial ‘practice’ – and the chatty, antiquarian enthusiasm of the elderly visitors with their walking sticks and glasses, their taste for intriguing objects and historical gossip. And I was happy to be part of that oohing and aahing audience, too.

The rooms

Room one: Mapping and marking

A room full of maps, with some flags hanging from the ceiling, five flags created by Fante artists from the former Gold Coast. How many flags do you think were used during the entire British Empire? A million? Five seems a small selection. The big map of the world hanging on the wall with the Empire marked in pink wasn’t nearly as impressive as I thought it would be. If anything it emphasised how America, South America, a lot of Africa, all Russia and China weren’t in the Empire.

There were two splendid paintings:

  • Triple portrait of Thomas Cavendish, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins Note the globe: Drake was only the second man to sail round the planet (presumably with some other sailors involved). What lads they look! Drake was a pirate, remembered in South America as a crook and privateer, and was second-in-command of the fleet which held off the Spanish Armada. Hawkins is fingered as one of the Elizabethans who began to dabble in the slave trade. The slave trade was a bad thing, children. And so Hawkins was a Bad Man.
  • Sir John Everett Millais The North-West Passage (1874) In my old age I’ve given up fighting a taste for cheesy Victorian narrative paintings. If it’s OK to enjoy realistic Victorian novels, why not enjoy their realistic paintings? If you’ve cared for old family members this has added poignancy.

Room two: Trophies of Empire

My recent tour of the British Museum, especially room one, devoted to housing and explaining a selection of 18th century collections, showed me the huge importance of collecting, of the urge to collect and compare and contrast artefacts, which became fashionable in the 18th century and formed the basis of our Western knowledge in a huge range of subjects, from archaeology to botany. The existence of the Empire, of course, enabled the collecting of all kinds of artefacts from all around the globe, especially flowers and plants.

  • Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians The two paintings in this room by George Stubbs seemed dire to me. Portrait of a Large Dog (The Dingo) They’re here to demonstrate the impulse to record, log and record the fauna of new exotic destinations (India, Australia).
  • Best painting was the imposing portrait of the great naturalist Joseph Banks by Benjamin West. Banks was a founder and one of the earliest directors of Kew Gardens. He accompanied Captain Cook on his voyages of exploration. To his left are a Maori paddle and quarterstaff and almost identicial examples are hung either side of the painting, creating an impressive and haunting effect.
  • Talking of Kew, there’s an oil painting of an Indian temple by the prolific Victorian artist Marianne North. At Kew an entire gallery is dedicated to her hundreds of detailed pictures of exotic flora.
  • There were some wonderful botanic prints by Shaikh Zain-ud-Din, one of the many ‘native’ inhabitants taught and trained by the schools the British set up.
  • My favourite works in the British Museum are the ‘bronzes of Benin’, extraordinary works of art which were looted after our troops seized Benin City at the end of the 19th century. Obviously they should be returned to their country of origin (like the Elgin marbles and lots else). On show here are Head of an Oba and Head of a Queen Mother. In one way these were quite the most perfect, complete, finished and powerful exhibits in the show.
  • These and some of the other ‘primitive’ sculptures by native artists struck me as vastly more exciting, compelling, vibrant and alive than something like the dull and dreary Tomb and distant view of the Rajmahal hills by William Hodges.
  • The poster for the whole show is one of the three oil portraits by Austrian artist Rudolf Swoboda painted for Queen Victorian, namely Bakshiram (1886).

Room three: Imperial heroics

A room of big oil paintings depicting heroic moments from Imperial history. The commentary makes the interesting point that Imperial history paintings tended to select moments of solo heroism or martyrdom or depict our chaps facing overwhelming odds – glossing over the many times we and our machine guns massacred the natives. This explains:

On the other hand, there were a lot of military disasters in the history of the Empire. We did get massacred at Isandlwana (1,300 killed), in the retreat from Kabul (nearly 17,000 killed or captured). In fact the history of the Empire is coloured by the cult of Heroic Failure which makes England such an odd country. The conquest of Canada from the French always focuses on the death of Colonel Wolfe at the climax of the Battle for Quebec (1775). We beat the French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) and as a result dominated the world’s oceans for a century but, once again, depictions all tend to focus on the death of Admiral Lord Nelson, killed by a French sniper. This assemblage of martyr paintings was thought provoking.

Not particularly related to any of this was the chess set carved from ivory and depicting one side as the army of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, the other side dressed as the army of the East India Company, created in 1795.

Room four: Power dressing

Imperial portraits focusing on the ‘cross-dressing’ ie the keenness with which some of the chaps liked to dress up in native outfits. Illustrating, or bringing to mind, the tension between the sympathetic colonisers and those who felt we must keep our distance, maintain our difference, at all costs. Big theme, little room.

  • William Feilding, 1st Earl of Denbigh by Anthony van Dyck c.1635–6
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1919) by Augustus John
  • Sir John Buchan, Governor General of Canada by Yousuf Karsh. Pleasing to learn that Buchan had been given the native American head-dress by Indians for his support of First Nation cultural traditions. In fact the head-dress which features in the photo is also on display nearby, crafted by a Kainaiwa artist and presented to Buchan by a Kainaiwa chief apparently named Shot-on-both-sides. From the earliest to the final periods, there were plenty of colonists sympathetic to ‘native’ cultures.

Room five: Face to face

The rationale of this room seems to be an exploration of more informal works: it features journals and diaries with impressive amateur illustrations, wooden carvings by ‘natives’ and so on – but still includes walls of oil paintings. God, but Johann Zoffany painted a lot of stiff, awkward paintings in the 18th century! I liked:

Room six: Out of Empire

After the Second World War artists from the ‘colonies’ came to London to study and pursue careers. In these final two rooms there was the same kind of mish-mash of styles and approaches as can be seen in the main galleries upstairs, in the rooms representing the 1940s and 50s, except done by artists from the decolonising Empire.

I was struck by a bronze bust, Head of a Girl by Benedict Enwonwu, a so-so pastiche of a traditional western-style bust, because it was so much less interesting than the fabulous Benin busts from a hundred years previously. Something had been lost in the transition from ‘traditional’ style to the attempt to copy Western models.

Just because an artist comes from a former colonial country and may have many stories of repression to tell, doesn’t automatically – alas – give them some kind of ‘authenticity’, doesn’t mean their art is any good. It may shed light on aspect of the colonial experience, on the humiliation and suffering of the colonised, on their personal feelings – but doesn’t guarantee these feelings are effectively converted into an art work. For example:

  • Midonz by Ronald Moody (1937)
  • Hills of Gold by Avinash Chandra (1964)
  • Three figures I by Isabel Rawsthorne (1961)

I usually like mocking and satirical works but I found the big photos by Hew Locke somehow cheap and unfunny. They failed, for me, to engage with the ideas or history they mock.

I liked Eve by Eric Gill (1928) as I like all Gill’s work, but I don’t know why it was in this room. It was all a bit so-so; maybe the only piece I could say I liked was:

The irrelevance of anti-imperialism

Central to room six is Donald Locke’s Trophies of Empire, (1972-74) a landmark work in its day, apparently – a see-through bookshelf in the middle of the room containing a variety of candles, some of which look very phallic, some of which are chained together. Probably it refers to slavery and is meant to make me feel guilty about something which ended 150 years before I was born, but the chains reminded me of Fifty Shades of Grey.

In the earnest 1970s righteous Marxism was a viable worldview, and angst about slavery or imperial humiliations, about exploitation of the workers and native peoples, seemed pressing and important, because various forms of armed struggle against lingering colonialism and wars to overthrow capitalism were actually raging around the globe. There was apartheid in South Africa, civil wars in Angola, Mozambique and Rhodesia, to take just a part of just one continent.

Now all that has gone. The doctrines of neo-liberal capitalism have completely conquered the world. The main political parties in most Western countries have become indistinguishable front men for big business and international banks, and their populations are restive and frustrated but ultimately accept it. Only in the Academy, in university humanities courses and in the Arts, do Marxism and various other ‘radical’ -isms continue to have a ghostly, unreal afterlife, detached from the actual world most people inhabit.

The curators of this exhibition believe it is time we started a debate about the real legacy of the British Empire and faced the facts about its darker side, apparently ignorant that its darker side has been well-publicised by politicians, writers and polemicists for over a hundred years (even in the very obvious level of pop culture, I remember the TV series Roots from 1977 or the movie Gandhi from 1982. A generation ago.)

But watching my teenage kids makes me realise that in our post-colonial, post-modern era, dominated by likes, shares and selfies on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, everything is just a gag. Cats who look like Hitler has more followers than the Prime Minister. My kids know more about Miley Cyrus than the Indian Mutiny. Their lives will be about trying to get jobs in a world with 8 billion inhabitants, trying to find somewhere to live in a city of 10 million, and coping with the slowly spreading impacts of global warming.

So when their old Dad tries to interest them in the iniquity of British rule in India 150 years ago or shock them with facts about the slave trade 250 years ago, they just yawn and say, ‘Yeah Dad, we learned all about that at school,’ and turn back to their X-boxes. And who’s to say they’re wrong to be getting on with their lives in the here and now, unhindered by the pomps and atrocities of the past.

This is a very thought-provoking exhibition, in more ways, I think, than the curators intended.

Related links

Delta Connection by Hammond Innes (1996)

It was getting hard to recognise myself. There was Kasim, too, the sudden impulse to seize his legs and throw him over the pulpit into the sea. And I was just a very ordinary young man, a mineralogist with a degree in economics…It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense. For God’s sake, I wasn’t a killer. (p.276)

Innes’ final novel and, at 426 pages, the longest and strangest of the lot. It has all the strengths which make him compelling and intriguing, along with many of the weaknesses which make him frustrating and perplexing and have probably helped him go so very out of fashion:

  • Exotic foreign locations First half set in Romania just as Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist dictatorship was collapsing (December 1989); second half set in lawless Aghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal (February 1989).
  • Everybloke narrator Paul Cartwright, who works for a mineral and metals company, the oddly-named Resource Potentials, reclaiming scrap in developing or ex-communist countries.
  • Everybloke narrator’s personal problems His mum & dad moved to Australia, where his dad died and his mum took up with a wife-beating b*stard, Kasim, while young Paul was packed off to boarding school. The Traumatic Moment in the past (which dogs so many Innes’ protagonists) is when Paul goes sailing with Kasim; the boat gets caught in a storm and is rolling madly and suddenly Paul has the urge to throw Kasim overboard, and then there’s a moment when he could have reached out and helped pull Kasim back onboard – but he doesn’t – he watches the waves break over him, he watches Kasim drown. Nightmares wake him in various foreign hotels. [The thriller protagonist must be psychologically scarred.]
  • Gothic family secrets The novel starts with Paul meeting an ageing dissident Romanian writer – Mihai Kikinda, and there is a lot of tortured, evasive non-communication about Mihai and his wife, Ana, and about their, ‘daughter’ Vikki, who Paul fell in love with years ago, on his previous trips to Romania when he was a teenager. Through the fog of evasions it seems as if Vikki isn’t Mihai and Ana’s daughter at all but was adopted: Paul is stunned: Who from? Why? Nobody will tell us.
  • Sex What the narrator does tell us about the mysterious Vikki is:
    • that since childhood she’s been obsessed with dancing, solitary dancing, going through steps and motions in the privacy of her bedroom or the house’s living room
    • that her need for solitariness feeds into a gift she has for computers: she recently told her adoptive father she has begun to hack into government computers (p.38)
    • that she took the narrator’s virginity. She ‘raped him’. They were both about 17, they were dancing together and, at the end of the dance, hot and sweaty she forced him to the floor, unbuttoned his flies etc. Innes has always had a robust, straightforward heterosexual eye for the ladies and over the years has described male desire in all its glory and humiliation: for every game-hunter’s daughter ripping open her blouse and pulling the narrator’s head to her breasts (The Big Footprints), there’ve been episodes like his going to bed with Barbara Ward but being unable to get an erection (Target Antarctica) or being interrupted just as things were getting steamy (Medusa). Innes isn’t salacious or pornographic; he just notices, as most men do, when a woman’s top highlights her breasts or when her nipples show through her blouse – notices it, notes it, before moving on to think about the weather, or reefing in the sails, or estimating the flight time to the destination. It’s part of his narrator’s life, but not an all-consuming part.

Anti-suspense The most characteristic feature of Innes’ novels is the pathological inability of anyone to tell anyone else what is going on. There’s lots of dialogue in which people seem go out of their way to be evasive and non-committal and the text refers again and again to the same four or five physical gestures: pause, hesitate, shrug, shake the head, go silent.

He paused… I shook my head… A pause.. He fell silent… He hesitated.. He didn’t answer that for a moment… Silence then… He was silent for a time… He shook his head… He didn’t say anything for a long time… He hesitated… He shrugged.. Mihai shrugged… He shook his head… He shrugged…

On page after page after page. With these kinds of evasions Iain Ward spent the two preceding novels completely failing to explain to the different narrators why the devil they were sailing to the Antarctic, and Iris Sunderby systematically refused to clarify her relationship with Angel Gomez or Eduardo and then Pete Kettil refused to tell anyone what he’d seen out on the ice. Innes characters shrug so much I’m amazed their heads don’t fall off and go rolling across the floor.

The plot

The dissident writer

Paul Cartwright is in Constantza, a port town in south Romania, on a job to assess the scrap value of the port workings and rusty old ships. But he has taken advantage of the trip to visit the old dissident writer, Mihai Kikinda, who he used to visit when he was first brought to the country by his uncle Jamie. During the visit there’s a knock at the door and Mihai hussles Paul behind a curtain, then opens the door to a brutal Securitate man, Miron Dinca, who asks him where’ he’s sent his latest dissident pamphlet to be published, then starts to strangle him. Paul comes out of hiding to attack the policeman but in the midst of the struggle Mihai stabs the cop, killing him.

Paul and Mihai throw the body off their balcony onto a passing lorry, then Paul drives in a state of high anxiety towards the capital, Bucharest. Mihai has given him instructions to drop off the text of his latest pamphlet at a printer, then make contact with one Luca, a Jewish dissident, who will help him.

Before and after the killing we learn in Innes’ roundabout fashion about Mihai’s wife, Ana, who, at a grand assembly of artists and poets in front of Ceaușescu, was foolhardy enough to protest the regime’s brutality, and especially its treatment of her husband and got as far as slapping the dictator in the face before being dragged off to be tortured. Mihai eventually shamefacedly admits that Ana was operated on to make her infertile, allowed back to her sorrowing husband, before being arrested, disappearing again and is probably now dead. We also hear about Mihai’s numerous arrests, tortures and beatings, painting a grim enough portrait of Ceaușescu’s Romania.

But it isn’t all communist brutality, as Paul finds himself describing his unhappy childhood and his recurring nightmare of watching his bully step-father drown. We learn that Paul, on his frequent trips to Romania, watched little Vikki grow into a young woman and then was astonished when she took his virginity in this very house (p.68). She is now, apparently, a computer hacker and was smuggled out of the country towards the East, into Asia, by some ‘sponsor’.

This is a lot of information to process in just 40 or so pages. Paul drives the dead Securitate man’s car to his hotel where he receives a telegram from the boss of Resource Potentials, Alex Goodbody, instructing him that his next trip will be to central Asia to assess scrap opportunities in the former Soviet Republics, and to replace Zelinsky, an RP employee, whose dead body is being ‘brought down’ from the interior. Paul broods. What did Zelinsky die of? What is the assignment, exactly?

The overthrow of Ceaușescu

Still in a sweat of fear, Paul drives to Bucharest where he checks in to a high-class hotel for foreigners, and gets chatting to a French freelance news photographer, Antoine Caminade, who fills him in on the political situation ie Ceaușescu’s rule is collapsing. In fact it collapses the next day, a few days before Christmas 1989, when Ceaușescu calls a mass rally in Bucharest’s main square to rail against the dissidents who have been fomenting revolt in the provincial town of Timișoara, only to be horrified when the vast crowd in front of him starts chanting insults and abuse. He and his wife flee the building and are helicoptered away, while disorder takes over the streets.

Meeting Anamaria

It is against this backdrop that Cartwright gets a coded message from Luca, Mihai’s contact, telling him to be outside the house with the tame boar in the garden (!) at 10pm. Once there, a shambling figure walks over to his car, gives him the password and gets in. It turns out to be a very bossy, very capable young woman who Luca has assigned to help Cartwright escape because she herself must flee the country. He notices she has a badly disfiguring hairlip and a limp from a damaged leg, but this makes her take no crap from anyone. She demonstrates her toughness by the unflinching way she attacks guards at an Army checkpoint then looses off a Kalashnikov at them as a thoroughly rattled Cartwright screeches the car off into the night.

But there is no high-speed car chase; this is Romania, where even the police can’t afford petrol. Paul discovers the young firebrand’s name is Anamaria, and she navigates him to the town of Tulcea, on the edge of the Danube marshes, where it is arranged for them to be smuggled aboard a Greek merchant ship. Here they rendezvous with a young fisherman, Rudi, son of a contact of Luca’s. He ferries them out to an island in one of the many channels through the marshes, and there follows a scene which is very Innes in being wildly improbable and somehow very powerful.

Rudi leaves Paul and Anamaria in the depths of winter on a reed island with a foodbag cobbled together by his mother, matches and some plastic sheets, and that’s it! For 36 hours, two nights and a day, they are thrown into an extreme survivalist situation, trying to light a fire, trying to cook fish they catch, and then huddling together for warmth under a plastic sheet while snow falls on them. It’s a great opportunity for some powerful writing about raw winter nature and human endurance. Why are they there? The only safe place to hide out from the police while they wait for the ship which will take them to freedom.

Anamaria’s story

But also, and typically Innes, the narrator relentlessly badgers the girl about her background, and she for her part squirms and evades for page after page. Eventually, after lots of shrugging and hesitating and long silences, he extracts the full story: Anamaria is in fact Mihai and Ana’s natural child, who was taken away from them at an early age and dumped in a state orphanage. (That is the reason Mihai and Ana adopted Vikki.)

Anamaria had a hard upbringing, running away at various times and living on the streets, which meant prostituting herself from an early age. She was passed on to a gang of pimps and then into the control of one Gregor, a real monster, who pimped her out and raped her continually. But it was only when he took the baby which resulted from all this sex, stole her baby away while she was still breast-feeding it, never to be seen again that he snapped. The next time Gregor was raping her, Anamaria killed him with a long hairpin inserted into his coccyx. Ugh. (It is typical of Innes’s narrative strategy that the rapist is made to be Gregor Dinca, brother of the Securitate man, Miron Dinca, who we saw being killed in the opening chapter. Always the characters come in family sets in Innes.)

Anamaria made her way back to her natural parents who didn’t want her, her ugly hairlip, her limp, her shattered body, preferring the beautiful, nimble, clever dancer, Vikki. And so she was out on the streets again, homeless and hussling – more or less her condition when she approaches Cartwright.

Suffering women

Once again, as at the core of Target Antarctica, Innes has embedded a terrible story about the appalling lives, the terrible suffering and abuse, which women can be subjected to in our day and age. It is put down, along with the sterilisation of Ana, as a documentary fact, an incident in the narrative, like many others; it is up to us what we make of it, what value we give it, whether to be disgusted or outraged or whatever – but it is noticeable, this awareness or concern and the urge to record, the plight of women in so much of the modern world.

On board the Baba Tonka

Rudi turns up and ferries them back from the island to a derelict quay while they wait for the ship to arrive. When it does he rows them out to it, they climb a rope ladder up the side, Cartwright finds himself agreeing to pay Anamaria’s passage as well as his ($50 for him, $25 for her) and collapses asleep in the mercifully warm clean cabin he’s been given. There’s a small interlude when she appears at his bedside worrying that Customs will search the ship and what to do about the Kalashnikov we know she has rolled up in her bedclothes. ‘Throw it over the side,’ Paul says and turns over and back to sleep.

Istanbul

They bid the captain farewell and walk out into the bustling streets of Istanbul. Earlier, the captain of the merchant ship had let him use the ship-to-shore radio, over which his boss, Alex, in London, had given him instructions on who to meet and where to pick up the plane ticket for his flight on to Pakistan. Cartwright picks them up then checks into one of the swankiest hotels in town, with a breath-taking view over the Hagia Sofia mosque and the Golden Horn. He walks the streets and, returning to the hotel, recognises Anamaria amid the crowd. She is on the streets again, nursing her cash for a flight East, to Alma-Ata (characteristically, it’s not completely explained why).

Generously, Cartwright invites her for a meal – but she hasn’t got anything to wear – she can borrow something – but she needs a bath – she can have a bath in his room etc — and it leads to her walking, amazed, into his luxury hotel room – this harelipped, limping, used and abused street urchin – Cartwright running a massive bubble bath for her, giving her chilled champagne in the bath, then giving her lovely pyjamas and a nightgown to wear to sit on the balcony eating caviar then steak as the sun sets. At one point he’s chatting on about something, looks round and realises she’s fast asleep. Tenderly, he lifts and carries her to the other of the twin beds, tucks her up then goes back to the balcony to enjoy the sunset. In the middle of the night he’s awoken by her kissing his hand then pressing something into it, he begins to murmur something but the door has shut and she has disappeared out of his life. (Forever?) Next morning he wakes to discover he is grasping a small gilt crucifix.


Briefing on Central Asia

Cartwright checks out of the hotel and takes a cab to the airport. In the departure lounge he is surprised to recognise Antoine Caminade from Bucharest. He walks right up to Cartwright and makes no bones about it – he’s following him. For the length of the flight from Istanbul to Karachi (pages 206 to 224) Caminade engages in a long rambling stream-of-consciousness monologue: this includes the fact that his grandfather, Pierre Caminade, died while exploring up in the Pamir mountains, north of Afghanistan, following in the alleged footsteps of two hardy Victorian women explorers, until he was lost in a snowstorm, dug out a snow-hole near the Khunjerab Pass, wrote up a diary of his adventures, before dying of exposure, the diary found by rescuing Gurkhas and eventually mailed home to his wife and for young Antoine to stumble upon and read.

But Caminade’s monologue also extends over lots of other issues affecting Central Asia – from the folly of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to the warlike mentality of the Mujahideen, with repeated emphases on the wickedness of Stalin’s policy of relocating entire populations throughout the region, and the horror of Soviet policy in Chechnya. Between him and Cartwright the text makes lots of references to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as to the various mountain ranges – the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, the Karakorams and so on.

In short the flight serves to indicate that Caminade is up to something (typically, we aren’t told what) and has a typically Innesesque family story (his dead grandfather leaving a ‘secret diary’ which contains hints or suggestions of… what?) along with a great deal of background information on the part of the world Cartwright is flying into. All useful preparation for part two of this long story.

Cartwright lands in Karachi and goes to a good hotel. He meets the contact Alex Goodbody had told him about, who gives him tickets and preparation for the internal flight north to Peshawar, capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Here these is more local description, before he is being shaken awake in his hotel bedroom by his local contact, Abdullah, telling him he has to run to meet the man he’s come this far to locate, one Laun Said.

The train chase

Laun Said is the native name adopted by a Welsh Army officer, at one time (apparently) a Brigadier. He mentions (and brings to mind) the ‘Great Game’, the term every public schoolboy uses to refer to the competition between Imperial Britain and Imperial Russia to control Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass, gateway to the great northern plain of India.

Laun’s native fixer wakes Cartwright from a deep sleep in his hotel, hussles him into his clothes and drives him quickly to a crowded market place in Peshawar. Here Laun Said turns up and plunges the text into a panic as he says, ‘Get in the bloody Land Rover,’ and off they drive at top speed to intercept the puffing old steam engine which has just set off to climb up through the Khyber Pass. Throughout this breakneck, harepin-bend, terrifying high-speed drive up into the mountains, Laun, in typical Innes fashion, refuses to say what Cartwright’s mission is or why they’ve been appointed to meet, nor does he tell us why they’re driving after the train in such mad fashion.

A long silence… Another shrug… The answer was another shrug… (page 236)

Eventually they park on the road near a siding ahead of the train and, just as it passes them, a man in native costume jumps off, comes running towards Cartwright followed by shots. The man nearly makes it before being hit and skidding forwards over the rubble of the siding, while Laun calmly takes sight and shoots two of the shooters on the train. One of them falls off and under the wheels of the following carriage, being immediately sliced in half in a squelch of blood and guts.

Then the train has passed a corner and is gone. Laun comes ambling back across the rubble to confirm what he feared. His man is dead. He was Ginger McCrae, his best friend, the two of them had been on many dangerous missions together. Laun thinks the assassins were from the Chechen mafia, revenge for some former operation. They drive up the trail a bit more to an old British graveyard and here Laun gets Cartwright to help him bury McCrae in a shallow grave. Before doing so Laun closes the corpse’s eyes and kisses him on the cheeks and lips. A little later, when they’ve got to a town, Laun jokingly says their host offers everything, food, drink, girls, boys, to which Cartwright emphatically replies that he is not interested and he is not homosexual. There is one other fleeting reference to the fact Cartwright has realised that Ginger and Laun had been lovers.

— Like lots of other sexual references in Innes this is mentioned, noted, and then the plot continues. I admire his acceptance of the sexual side of human nature. These may be preposterously Gothic adventure yarns, but the author is neither salacious or moralistic about sexuality. This is human nature; OK; now, what’s next?

Laun Said

Laun and Cartwright drive on up the mountain into the Khyber Pass, while Cartwright continues his luckless attempts to find out what the hell is going on. ‘How did Zelinsky die?’ he asks. ‘Exposure in the snow,’ Laun replies. ‘What is my assignment?’ ‘Haven’t a clue, old boy,’ say Laun. ‘Got to find out what Ginger was trying to tell me. Here, see this scrap of paper; it has something scratched on it before Ginger jumped off the train: What do you think he was trying to tell us?’

And thus, not too subtly, we feel Innes shifting the narrative from being (at least a bit) rooted in a sort of mundane reality (scrap metal dealing), onto pure John Buchan adventure yarn territory – our hero the passenger of a battered Land Rover driving up the main Khyber Pass road towards the Afghan border with a heavily disguised British Army officer, in pursuit of some undefined mystery. Come on, chaps.

Ahmed Khan

They stop at a walled citadel – an opportunity for Innes to tell us about the design and purpose of these buildings, as strongholds for the numerous competing warlords who are the region’s natural rulers – for Laun to ask the whereabouts of the master. He is further along the road at Landi Khotal, and here they meet Ahmed Khan at his well-defended warehouse. There is a typically evasive Q&A about Zelinsky’s mission: Khan thinks he was heading north-east and it was something to do with jewels. Thinks.

Laun parks the car at a spot along the highway with a stunning view of the mountains. He thinks Ginger had come down from another mountain range, further to the east. Is Cartwright willing to chance it? Chance what, Cartwright asks. Obviously Laun doesn’t tell us: ‘He shook his head, sitting silent and very still.’ But Cartwright agrees to follow Laun’s hunch.

Laun drives them back down to the plain, through Jamrud, through Peshawar and into Islamabad. There Cartwright spends a bad-tempered week wondering what the hell’s going on. All he knows is that Laun is buying snow equipment, thermals, masks, skis, the lot. And somehow that perishing Frenchman, Antoine, manages to track him down.

In an intense 1-on-1 interview, Antoine discloses that he’s found the final pages of his grandfather’s diary in the hands of a storyteller in the souk. He knows Cartwright has been making enquiries about jewels, about lapis lazuli, rubies and sapphires. Does he know why Zelinsky was murdered? No. Does he know why McCrae was murdered? No. Does he know why his company wants the jewels? No. Caminade offers him the final pages of the diary for $20 million.

(All the way through, the evidence has been that Cartwright is more than a humble mineralogist and now he phones Goodbody in London and conveys Caminade’s message in code. He seems to be morphing, in front of our eyes, into a special agent of some kind.)

Into the mountains

Cartwright is shaken awake by Laun. Russians are making enquiries about them, maybe the KGB, maybe the mafia, who knows. Hurry. They bundle downstairs, into the Land Rover to find a new character, Kuki, an Urdu taxi driver, and they’re off on another long distance drive, through Peshawar and right up the road towards the Malakand Pass. They rough it as the cold becomes more intense, snow almost blocking the pass. Once over they stop for hot coffee and Laun has a pee. Cartwright notices with shock that his penis is mutilated. Bunch of Tibetan guards on the China-Tibet pass, apparently; began hacking at him thinking he was a Russian till the Chinese guards arrived and saved his life. Atrocity. Danger. Fear.

The story of the old Buddhist

They are marooned in the next settlement, below the Shandur Pass, while the snow is cleared further up and here Camanide catches up with them. This time he tells them a long story which gets to the heart of the plot: His grandfather was travelling through the mountains in the footsteps of two lady explorers when he stumbled across a Buddhist stupa almost buried in the sand. As he excavated it he came across the mummified body of a Chinese man with a leather satchel. Inside the satchel was an account by the man, a Buddhist monk, who had travelled far and wide. It contained a description of a mysterious lost valley, which he nicknames Nirvana, long and narrow with an emerald-coloured lake at the end. If you stand at the right place at the right hour a tall mountain in the north-west appears completely black. In a crack in that mountain is the gateway to the home of the troglodytes. These are tall, fair-haired strangers who carry double-edged axes and speak an unknown tongue. In the depths of the mountain is the shrine to their fearsome thunder god with a huge hammer.

a) The text has prepared us for this rather amazing revelation on a several occasions, having the narrator remember stories about ancient Russia and the tradition that it was founded by blonde Vikings from Sweden and that these wanderers roamed far and near, founding Rus and the city of Kiev, penetrating as far as Constantinople.
b) There had been hints scattered throughout the text of a lost kingdom or scattered references to hobgoblins and troglodytes. Now the whole narrative has exploded into an unashamed homage to the lost world genre, as pioneered by Henry Rider Haggard in the 1880s.

Just to push it way over the bounds of plausibility, Caminade’s parting shot is that the ruler of this lost world is said to have a sultana who dances for him, a beautiful slender girl who dances night and day. Of course – it must be Vikki, from part one of the story when it still inhabited the real world. Now she has morphed along with the rest of the narrative, to become part of a fairy story!

The lost river

Did I mention the lost river? At several points in their earlier conversations, Laun had mentioned that the Russians began two road tunnels under the Pamirs to provide access to Afghanistan. Tunnel two was completed and used extensively. Tunnel one is less well-known because the Russians abandoned it half built. This is because they discovered an underground river running across the intended route. A hot underground river, as if fed by hot springs. Does this recall Rider Haggard or Jules Verne? Up in the mountains Laun and Cartwright blunder on through snowstorms, abandoning the Land Rover and proceeding on skis with Everest-style one-man tents. Conditions get really rough until they can’t see any way forward, with only the GPS and the co-ordinates Caminade gave them to guide them.

(Caminade had wanted to make a deal with our guys: his translation of his grandfather’s notes, descriptions of the magic valley and the Black Mountain, in return for letting him come along. After he’s left, Laun and Cartwright debate it. But amid all the detail of his story, Caminade had mentioned that he’d got a professor in Peshawar to translate the dead monk’s text. Laun and Cartwright both realise this academic must have circulated or at least mentioned the text and the secret valley, along with its rumoured treasure; somehow word had got to the KGB or Chechens, resulting in Ginger’s death and Laun being followed. On this basis (and for the simple reason that he’s French) Laun refuses to take Caminade with them. He and Cartwright set off in the middle of the night to elude him.)

Now, days later, snuggled up close to each other for body warmth in the tent high in the snowed-in mountains:

a) Cartwright parallels the situation with the night he spent bundled together with Anamaria in the freezing cold island of reeds in the Danube delta
b) Cartwright nervously worries about Laun’s homosexuality, mentioned a few times earlier – but Laun doesn’t try anything
c) Instead, Laun tells him another tall tale. This time Laun was a young man travelling through the area and manages to hitch a lift from a metal contractor up to the tunnel diggings, where he helps the contractor unload and then – ta-da! – changes into the Soviet officer’s uniform he just happens to have smuggled in the lorry – bluffs his way past the guard at the entrance, and gets himself given a guided tour of the long well-engineered tunnel that goes thousands of metres into the mountain, until, sure enough, they come to the river bed, open and revealed with a walkway across it. It is at this moment that Laun sees a stocky blonde-haired, blue-eyed underground Viking people. He shouts across the river in an unknown language. The Russian engineer shouts back that they’re closing the tunnel off. The Viking nods in approval and disappears into a crack in the wall.

If I was Cartwright I might have shouted, ‘Well, why the devil didn’t you tell me any of this before?’ But Laun has fallen asleep. As usual in Innes, the characters know almost all the story beforehand, they just refuse to tell anyone else about it. Next day they stagger on through a permanent blizzard, several times barely escaping falling over cliff edges or into crevasses, all very filmic, until the snow lightens for a moment and they can see the suggestion of Nirvana Valley beneath them and a tall dark mountain looming out of the gloom. They press on and camp for another 48 hours in a howling blizzard. When it stops – they are woken by voices outside their tent. Laun tries Pathan and Urdu, no response, Cartwright tries some simple Swedish he picked up working with Swedish navvies in Canada – and the voices respond, telling them to stay there till they return. They have met the Lost Viking Tribe!

In the underground kingdom

They are led down into the mysterious underground kingdom in scenes reminiscent of HG Wells, Jules Verne and Rider Haggard – are given the kind of tour of the facilities all characters are given in pulp sci-fi stories, having it all explained to them, how the thermal energy is converted to the electricity that powers the fluorescent lighting everywhere, and the lifts and the computer terminals (!) and the radio aerial. And there to greet them – in a scene beyond parody – is that damn Frenchman Antoine again. Turns out he had been there once before and knew the way into the front entrance (Why didn’t he tell them? Why doesn’t anyone tell anyone anything in an Innes novel?)

But what Laun and Cartwright quickly discover is there is trouble in Paradise. As so often in the lost world genre, outsiders arrive in an idyllic secret kingdom to find it isn’t so idyllic after all, and their arrival brings a smouldering situation to a head.

Turns out the current king, Ali Khan, is an outsider who made himself powerful as Chief Secretary before almost certainly murdering the old king and marrying Vikki. For – beyond the bounds of the wildest fantasy – it is indeed Vikki, Paul’s old friend from Romania, who is the now the aloof and powerful Sultana of Nirvana. And Vikki has secured the rescue of Anamaria, the street urchin he shared those nights with on the reed island, finding her and having her flown to join her in her underground kingdom. (Did Anamaria know this was in the offing when she made her hasty escape from Romania? Why was she set on getting to Alma-Ata, had she had word from Vikki? And I thought she was meant to bitterly resent the way Vikki usurped her in her parents’ affections?)

Vikki has just given birth to a baby. However, the baby is a girl, not the boy child required by the psychotic Khan. And at that moment, as all of this is being breathlessly explained to Paul and Laun, the king returns from a foreign visit and sweeps into the chamber demanding to know whether it is true that the child is a girl, well Is she, is she?,He rips open its swaddling clothes to confirm it, and in an excess of fury, dashes its brains out against the rock walls. Vikki shrieks, Anamaria sneaks round behind the king and slips one of her fatal hat-pins into his belly just as Cartwright, reacting on instinct, draws his gun and fills Khan full of bullets. He’s only been there a few hours and now he’s shot the king of the place. Terrific.

There is a moment of silence before all hell breaks loose. Fortunately, Erik Bigblad arrives, the figurehead of the traditional Swedish faction against the Asiatics represented by Khan, and he quickly takes control. He and his men disarm the Asiatic men, and the coup is complete.

(Note, even in this adventure fantasy setting, the odd parallelism with the earlier narrative, for this is the second time Anamaria has murdered a man for killing a baby – the first time it was Gregor, her pimp, who took away her own baby. And note also the heedless, almost unstoppable, brutality of men towards the most innocent and vulnerable in society.)

Back in London

Surreally, the last chapter is set in London three weeks later, where Cartwright is making his report to his nominal boss, Alex Goodbody, all the while trying to decide whether to strike out and set up his own company. That damn Frenchman turns up again and describes some of the scenes Cartwright missed back in the valley, namely the swearing-in ceremony of his Vikki as new ruler of Nirvana. Antoine reveals that he wants to leave the French mineralogy firm that employs him – why don’t they pool their resources and set up a company to work with the Vikings to exploit their mineral discoveries? Cartwright decides: Yes! He will!


Thoughts

Quite obviously the text is a farrago, a dog’s dinner of a text mashing up half a dozen different stories into one overcharged fantasia. The first two settings are reasonably realistic – communist Romania and Pakistan at the end of the Russo-Afghan War… and the plot up to that point had made use of Innes’ traditional technique of basing far-fetched coincidences around families with dark secrets – Cartwright’s recurrent nightmare memories of killing his step-dad prepares us for the voodoo theme of the two sisters, offspring of the ill-fated Kikinda marriage, deformed by communism’s brutalisation of women, whose story plays out against two continents.

Innes’ last three novels – IsvikTarget Antarctica and Delta Connection – contain particularly harrowing episodes, scenes which are so intense as to be almost visions, barely related to the mundane world which surround them or the workaday plots which frame them: the poor wretches in the ship’s hold being sprayed with anthrax toxin in Isvik; the devastating story of La Belle Phuket’s capture, torture and rape in Antarctica; Anamaria’s brutalisation in the orphanages and streets of Romania.

There aren’t many articles about Innes on the web, but the half-dozen I’ve read all say that he became more concerned about environmental issues in his later years – and he certainly wrote novels which feature oil pollution, deforestation and us hunting Africa’s mammals to extinction. But I think this final batch of novels go deeper than that; their far-fetched plots and dizzy coincidences are merely the framework he uses to deliver his deeper message:- it is not just that we can’t get on with the natural world without destroying it; we can’t even get on with each other.

This novel abounds in many throwaway visions of horror: Cartwright recounts flying over a bush fire in Western Australia and watching it catch and overtake a herd of kangaroos, turning them to twisting chunks of burned flesh. Laun spends a page remembering a doctor who accompanied a detachment of troops and civilians through the Khyber Pass until ambushed by Pathans, who shot all the soldiers before running down to cut the women and children to pieces. At several places (to prepare us for the Secret Valley ending) Cartwright thinks about the Rus, the legendary Viking travellers who sailed up the inland rivers of Russia, who launched their ships over the bodies of women sacrificed to their gods, the sound of their screaming as their bones were pulverised… and so on.

I think these last novels are about man’s inhumanity to man – and the central part played by the terrible stories of la Belle Phuket and Anamaria are intended as a searing indictment of how, for all the wonders of the internet and the gee-whizz gadgetry of space travel, we are unable to protect even the most vulnerable and innocent on this, our own, terrible planet.

What is harder to reconcile, or process, is the way this, Innes’ final story, turns away from these earlier levels of meaning to mutate into a late-Victorian romance of almost fairy-tale simplicity. It is so weird it is almost avant-garde. The inhumanity which I thought it was about until the last 70 or so pages, is completely trumped by the strange fantasy ending. The gripping chase in a car across night-time Romania, the survivalist episode on the reed island, the high-tension pursuit of the old steam locomotive up into the mountains – these are traditional thriller episodes.

But the fairy-tale ending – did Innes know this would be his last book? Did he write brutal, brutal, brutal episodes and then – sick of his depiction of such a violent world, decide to turn his grim tale at last into a kind of melodramatic pantomime? Or did he just run out of puff?

What a long, strange, compelling and mysterious book.


Credit

Delta Connection by Hammond Innes was published by Macmillans in 1996. All references are to the 1997 Pan paperback edition.

Ceaușescu’s death

As a corollary to the 200 pages set amid the confusion of Ceaușescu’s overthrow in Romania – and a grim testimony to man’s inhumanity to man – there’s footage on YouTube of him and his formidable wife, Elena, being tried by a kangaroo court and then executed by a shambolic firing squad.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines reveals an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land; features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute battle on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a lady journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm –


1946 Dead and Alive –
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complicated enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig leads his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose cause he champions.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this time one convinced he can prove his eccentric theories about the origin of Man, Ice Age sea levels, the origin of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up the invitation to visit from a rancher’s daughter he’d met. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the persistent rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his complex past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle, all tied up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two old albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, the last surviving son of which is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational, business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has gone aground near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyd’s of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe in time?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cartwright is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to rescue a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. It takes a lot of shenanigans, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is a scam to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, diamonds like the ones the survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a story which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania during the chaotic days leading up to the overthrow of the communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller with car chases and shoot-outs – before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s boys adventure stories as Cartwright and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started.

Target Antarctica by Hammond Innes (1993)

Antarctica. The same setting as Innes’ previous novel, Isvik, and we are introduced almost immediately to one of that book’s central characters, the mysterious moneyman, entrepreneur or spy (we never really learn which), Iain Ward. But it was only around page 200, when the narrator of this novel, Ed Cruse, actually joins the crew of the Isvik, setting sail with the same characters we met in the previous book – Iris Sunderby, Nils Solberg and the previous novel’s narrator, Peter Kettil – that I realised it was a full-blown sequel, though, at 416 pages, it’s a longer and more complicated book than Isvik.

(In an odd manoeuvre, that book is itself referred to by the characters as a factual record of what happened on Ward’s previous expedition, as a true account written by its actual narrator, Peter Kettil, but published as fiction in order to get round a D-notice banning accounts of it (p.161). As such it is read by the narrator of this text, Ed Cruse, on the flight to the south Atlantic, so that Cruse is briefed about the events of the previous adventure and knows the peculiar histories of the characters, especially the hot-tempered Latina, Iris, and her bizarre love affair with her half-brother and evil murder Mario Ángel Gómez – before he meets the same characters in real life.)

Plot summary

Michael Edwin ‘Ed’ Cruse has been in the RAF all his life, like his father before him. But he is an irresponsible daredevil and has got into trouble – and become notorious – for at least two stunts: During the Falklands War his Harrier jet was running out of fuel when he spotted an Argentine plane, a Pucará, apparently abandoned on a makeshift airstrip; he made a vertical landing with a view to siphoning out the Pucará’s fuel, but then heard on its radio, warning of two other Argentine bandits flying in to attack our forces; so he took off in the Pucará and attacked the bandits with it, forcing them to abandon their attack. Mad, irresponsible, but brave and it worked.

Then on a training exercise back in Britain, Cruse was ducking and diving among fighters along the river Severn and at the last minute realised he was going to have to fly under the Severn Bridge. In a Hercules transport plane! For this and other more traditional misbehaviour (trashing the mess one drunken night) he is discharged from the service (after a memorable farewell party from his admiring squadron, complete with bridge-shaped cake!).

Before he’d even left the force, Cruse was approached by a woman, Kirsty Fraser, on behalf of Iain Ward, to do a job. Ward is involved with an organisation which was building a mining base in Antarctica, run by a company called KLME, and which was being supplied by a Lockheed C-130 Hercules. One night the ice shelf fractured and the base was split in two, half the buildings, the aircraft hangar, the C-130 and half the runway marooned on a vast block of ice which detached from the mainland and floated slowly out to sea. The job is to fly the C-130 off the drastically shortened runway, then to the nearest base, to be refuelled and reused. A simple but very risky job many people think is impossible. Someone had heard about Cruse’s high profile antics and thought he’d be the man for the job.

The first hundred pages of the novel comprise a busy sequence of meetings with numerous colourful characters in London, Scotland and Paris, introducing us to the details of Cruse’s business deal and, in a larger perspective, to the network of characters and relationships who will feature in the story:

  • Ward’s secretary tips him off that Ward’s wife, Barbara, is bored and lonely because her husband is always gallivanting off round the globe, so she’s taken to placing small ads in the paper looking for company. Cruse calls the phone number and makes a date with Barbara in order to find out more about his mysterious employer. She turns out to be a respectable middle-class, middle-aged woman who is simply bored and frustrated. Cruse eventually coaxes her to describe her husband’s history and character as he treats her to an expensive meal at The Compleat Angler in Marlow, giving us useful background info before Cruse meets the man himself. Some weeks later, most of the arrangements for the trip in place, Cruse takes Barbara out for another date before he flies south, since he warmed to her on their first meeting. After dinner they go back to her place for a ‘romantic interlude’, but he finds himself impotent, his mind obsessed with the harrowing story of La Belle Phuket (see below). After the time spent on describing her and their meetings, I thought Barbara would become the ‘love interest’, but no, the novel – like real life – is more complex and confused than that, and we don’t hear of Barbara again.
  • Iain Ward Centre of the story, as he was of its prequel. Ward has a long, colourful past, starting as the son of a Glasgow prostitute, gravitating to small-time crook in London’s East End, and then getting to a scholarship to Eton, paid for by his crooked mentor, before getting involved in dubious deals in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is all before the adventure described in Isvik – travelling across the ice to find Eduardo Connor-Gómez, the sole survivor of an Argie ship loaded with political prisoners who had been deliberately infected with anthrax as part of a mad scheme to infect the Falkland Islands and make them uninhabitable. (Anthrax? You have to read Isvik to savour the full Gothic horror of the story…)
  • Travers, the original pilot of the C-130, repatriated to Scotland after the ice shelf broke off. He gives Cruse a typically spooky, atmospheric description of what it was like to be woken by the banging and creaking of the ice break and find the end of your hut ripped off as the crack spread across the camp (pp.68-72). He thinks he saw a ship or maybe a whale for a moment in the black night-time sea which opened up. Could it have been saboteurs who laid explosives to cause the calving? People like…
  • Bjorn Lange a youthful activist with Greenpeace who trails Cruse from his London meeting with Kirsty Fraser and confronts him in an underground car park to explain that Antarctica should remain a World Park unsullied by mineral exploitation. He is given some naive speeches about Man’s Greed and Inhumanity and we’re wiping out the world’s species and decimating the Last Wilderness etc, enough to make us think he is going to play some kind of sabotage role in the story…
  • Cruse travels to Paris, to the HQ of CALIB insurance, to tie up details of the deal on the C-130 which Ward has suggested to him. Here he discovers the boss is a formidable woman, La Belle Phuket, an extraordinary character, a south-east Asian woman raised in Phnom Pen whose family fled before the Khmer Rouge and were hiding in a remote village when a Khmer gang arrived. She saw her father bayoneted to death, her mother eviscerated before being beheaded, then was gang-raped for weeks, before the platoon moved on and she was thrown into a burning hut to die. But she survived, horrifically scarred, and walked across country to the coast, stole a fishing boat and made it to Thailand, to the island of Phuket which is where she was discovered by a French film crew, organising local crime. From there she made her way to Paris where she is now a powerful and feared businesswoman. — It is typical of Innes to include such a grotesque horror in the book; all his novels start off about rational, sensible men, trained in a sober profession, they include lots of technical details about flying or sailing as well as scads of stuff about stocks and shares and takeovers and shell companies and so on: yet always at the core, there are dark, murderous and often incestuous narratives about doomed and ill-fated families – like biting into a fairy cake in a Cotswold tearooms and tasting fresh blood.

Back in the daylight world, the deal is that Cruse will contract with the insurance company, CALIB, to buy the C-130 for a nominal sum ($10,000), to have his expenses for the flight to the Falkland Islands and beyond paid in full, and then will contract with KLME to do their flying and pay CALIB back from the KLME fees. All assuming he can fly the plane off the truncated runway. If he can’t, he’s stuck with a worthless heap of scrap metal and faced with the cost of disassembling it and getting it shipped somewhere. So it’s a big financial gamble for him, personally.

In the concluding scenes of the UK section:

  • Cruse goes for a last date with Barbara Ward, the one where he can’t get it up because he is so haunted by La Belle Phuket’s life story.
  • His last visit to Ward’s London office is marked by a remarkably intimate hug and kiss and good luck send-off from the secretary, Kirsty, who I also speculated might become the ‘love interest’. Wrong again…
  • He is contacted by the head of Greenpeace who says the boy he met, Bjorn Lange, has gone missing on an Antarctic Survey ship that was heading south, so can he please keep an eye out for him (this storyline is obviously going to be important and probably, if I know Innes, head for tragedy).
  • He does his last-minute shopping (thermal undies, toothbrush), and then meets up with the flight engineer he’s tracked down and sub-contracted to check the engines before he’ll even consider flying the Herc off its truncated runway (drunk, randy but brilliant engineer Charlie Pollard).
  • Then the pair drive to RAF Brize Norton to catch an RAF TriStar flight to Ascension Island; refuel in the blistering sunshine; and the seven-hour flight on to the Falklands.

In the Falkland Islands

Cruse, Charlie Pollard and Ward arrive on a plane at Port Stanley to a) a highly detailed description of the military and administrative set-up in the Falklands, as well as the geography, the sight and smell of the place (obviously a result of one of Innes’ famously detailed research trips) and b) to discover the place is in a flap because an unknown boat was seen dropping an unknown dinghy which desposited some unknown men on the other side of the island. At the end of his first day there, Cruse is having a drink in a pub when the cook brings him a note from someone wanting to meet him down at the War Memorial.

Lange’s warning

Predictably, it is the young environmental zealot, Lange, who tells Cruse:

a) that he hates La Belle Phuket because she masterminded a hostile takeover of his father’s company, KLME, leading his dispirited dad to eventually commit suicide (typical Innes family tragedy)
b) that, despite this, he must see Phuket to warn her and he must be smuggled aboard the Isvik when it sets off south. Very typically for an Innes novel, Lange refuses to explain why he must do either of these things to Cruse, who becomes nearly as frustrated and exasperated as the reader.

Eduardo returns

In a surprise development, Ward arrives on the boat and introduces Ferdinand Barratt (p.225) who turns out to be none other than Eduardo, Iris’s half-brother. It was he, who, in the previous novel, had been revealed as surviving on the ice-bound frigate for over two years after the ‘passengers’ – political prisoners of the Argentine dictatorship locked in the hold – had been sprayed with anthrax and thus doomed to a horrific death. Afterwards, Eduardo spiked the crew’s drinks, managing to get rid of them at gunpoint by making them clamber into one of the life-rafts, never to be seen again. But alone on the giant three-master sailing ship – the Santa Maria del Sud – Eduardo lost control so that it drifted with the Trade Winds south, before finally coming to rest amid the ice of Antarctica, where Eduardo was able to survive on the ship’s rations and fish he caught through ice holes and birds he shot. It was when an English glaciologist spotted the ice-bound ship on a flight over the ice, that the plot of Isvik began, for that prompted Ward to commission the expedition to find her, which is the subject Isvik.

It had been given out in the press that Ward had returned from that expedition with a sole survivor, Eduardo, who then died of his fragile condition. Iris even attended the official funeral. But Eduardo obviously didn’t die for here he is! – though why Ward went to so much trouble to conceal his identity, why he lied to Iris about it, and why he has smuggled Eduardo all the way from Britain to the Falklands, remains shrouded in mystery.

La Belle Phuket arrives

In another surprise development it turns out La Belle Phuket has herself flown out to the Islands. She is collected by our team – Cruse, Ward, Nils, Iris – and insists on being transferred, via a tug’s inflatable dinghy, to another ship. This is a tortuous pretext for the dinghy she’s in to be hijacked – it’s found floating with the sailor coshed and unconscious – and this kicks off a furious chase. Ward grabs control of the Isvik from an angry Kettil, and we share his and the narrator’s terrible fear that Phuket has been kidnapped and is being tortured, raped and murdered by the survivors of the gang who raped her back in Kampuchea!

There are several pages of desperate night-sailing out into the open sea, high waves, struggling with the seas and the cross-winds, gambling that she’s been taken to one of the several shipwrecked hulks around the Falklands coast. Ward and Cruse anchor the Isvik before taking its dinghy and motoring quietly out to the likeliest candidate, the Suzie Whittaker. Here they tie up and step gingerly onto its sloping deck and then… hear a heart-rending scream of agony from the bowels of the ship! Like so many scenes in Innes, the story has somehow morphed into horror.

The suspense is too much for Cruse who goes running down the steps and bursts through a cabin door, gun in hand to find – a man tied spreadeagled to a mattress made out of a filthy old sail, his trousers pulled down and his genitals reduced to a pulp, beaten and mashed, his lower guts cut open and his viscera spilling everywhere – and La Belle Phuket standing frozen in shock, the rusty, jagged spar, covered in gore, which she has used to castrate him, still in her hand.

One by one, we learn, she has tracked down the men who raped her and personally, or had people do it for her, castrated, crippled or blinded them. This was the last, the leader, Tan Seng. She knew he was following her (and so did Lange; this is what the boy so desperately wanted to tell Cruse back at the Falklands Memorial) and she had allowed herself to be captured as a calculated gamble. Ward and Cruse are stunned, but then move to tidy up: they take the bloody corpse up to his dinghy, set off in both dinghies, throw the weighted corpse overboard, set Seng’s dinghy adrift, then return to the Isvik where they cobble together a story about finding Phuket being beaten up, there’s a fight, Ward fires in self-defence etc.

Two things are notable about this long and searing episode.

1. Its randomness: this is another novel about a carefully-planned, financed and resourced expedition to the Antarctic, presented by another sensible, sober, professional Innes narrator (Cruse, the professional RAF pilot). Yet somehow Innes has worked into it a fictionalised reaction to the horrors of the Cambodian killing fields and the Khmer Rouge’s murderous regime. What? Why?
2. Despite its completely random insertion into the plot, it is nonetheless hair-raisingly powerful. The horror of Phuket’s personal story and the blood-thirstiness of her revenge are convincing at a deeper level than mere plausibility. Once they are safely back on the Isvik and sailing back to shelter, it seems wildly inappropriate yet is, at some primitive level, satisfying, that Cruse is astonished to find this little, horribly scarred Asian woman suddenly clinging to him, kissing him and saying, ‘It is over now. Here in the wild sea in the rise of the big waves, it is over. I am reborn.’

It is the main characteristic of Innes’s fiction to have these gruesome, intense, almost mythic experiences embedded in texts which appear on the surface, or start off being about, reinsurance values and cargo manifests and mining companies. It is as if the immensely detailed descriptions of planes and boats and corporate law and mineralogy are the booster rockets, the boringly believable first stages which are necessary to launch the bizarre, psychologically compelling and irrational core subjects which are what you remember of Innes’s strange and compelling narratives. Almost like therapy which takes hours and days and weeks to dig through layers of mundane detail and workaday life to suddenly strike the phobias, terrors and traumas which lie beneath.

She turned her head and smiled. There was a strange serenity about that smile, so that I suddenly felt I was looking at an older world in which vengeance, justice, call it what you like, was a matter for individuals. (p.297)

Something which redeems or helps the process is the way the narrators are themselves generally puzzled and bewildered by the experience. Innes’s narrators are not masters of the situation – by and large they are deeply in the dark about what the hell is going on – and quite routinely they are exposed to situations and feelings they don’t know how to deal with. The narrators’ own shocked reactions help the often bizarre climaxes and horrors at the core of his books be that bit more acceptable, or less absurd.

The Falklands War

Although eclipsed in imaginative power by this torture scene, it should be noted that the Falklands section is 130 pages or so long and contains detailed descriptions not only of the islands, their geography and especially the sailing conditions around them, but makes continual reference to the War, the casualties and to the several moving memorials to the war dead.

It adds nothing to the plot that the narrator sits on a local plane next to the mother of one of the young British soldiers who died at Goose Green and who has saved up to fly the length of the planet to visit the memorial cross on the hilltop there, and is crying as she tells Cruse about her boy. Adds nothing to the plot, but contributes to the sense, as in so many Innes novels, of tremendous emotion, of loss and grief and conflict and death, just below the surface of the narrative.

Incidents like this and numerous references to the battles, the dogfights, the missiles exploding, the corpses laid out on the green grass, make the novel upsetting, maintaining a continuous level of emotional disturbance. It isn’t like a thriller or a detective story where you are kept on tenterhooks trying to figure out what will happen next. It is more emotionally gruelling than that, the ‘plots’ such as they are, are often just vehicles for delivering these primal feelings, of upset and horror and hurt.

Towards the ice

After farewell dinners and drinks, the crew of the Isvik (Cruse, Nils, Iris, Peter, Charlie, Phuket and a newcomer, Geordie Gary McShane) set sail. As in the previous novel, there are long and convincing descriptions of the day-by-day sailing east towards South Georgia, of crossing the Antarctic Convergence, before turning south towards the ice, wind and waves and fogs, maps and navigation aids and the endlessly rolling of the ship. Ward, we discover, is also heading south but travelling separately, along with others and his mysterious cargo, on an ice-breaker he’s chartered.

In fact, after the horror interlude in the ruined wreck, the rest of the plot proceeds fairly logically. After scores of pages of vivid description of sailing in the Antarctic, the Isvik finds the leads or passages the ice-breaker has carved through the ice towards the free-standing ice floe which is still upright and on whose surface can still be seen huts, tractor and the hangar containing the plane, all covered in a winter’s worth of snow. Crew from the ice-breaker have already created a scaffold of steps up to the top and have begun clearing the ice.

The big take-off

There are several pages giving a detailed account of how you clear a Hercules transporter of ice, de-ice it, check all the equipment until Cruse and Charlie are ready to risk their lives taking it off but – fog descends, the weather worsens, and they sit around drinking too much coffee brooding on the high-risk, one-off feat they are about to undertake: trying to fly a C-130 plane which requires 500 feet of runway off an icy slippery runway which is just 450 feet long.

Finally, conditions clear up and it is time to discover whether Eddie will earn his money, fly the C-130 (and survive). This is a genuinely tense scene, a couple of intense pages describing fear and anxiety which have to be read to be fully experienced because the reader all the time suspects the unsurprising answer – Cruse succeeds.

The plane dips towards the sea 200 feet below but then Cruse pulls on the handles and it flies, IT FLIES! Cruse flies over to the Ronne Ice Wall where the ice-breaker has dropped Ward and others at the original main KLME base. Here the KLME personnel have used a bulldozer to create a regulation length runway where Cruse lands – though also not without risk.

From this point the novels moves very fast. Ward is on Cruse’s back to fly south as soon as possible to locate the position of the frigate. They see it far below, embedded in the ice, and Ward again bullies Cruse to find a large area of apparently flat ice where he lands the C-130, not without anxiety that the ice will be too thin and crack. It doesn’t.

Diamonds!

They hurriedly deposit some of the men and a ‘mole’ or mobile drilling device. And at last we find out what the whole plot has been about. Turns out that at the conclusion of the previous novel, Ward discovered – along with the grotesque story of the ghost ship full of anthrax victims – that during the two years Eduardo had survived alone in the frigate, eating the crews’ rations and catching fish, he had happened to scour up stones from the seabed not far beneath the ice. When Eduardo had shown them to Ward the latter immediately realised they were – diamonds. Raw diamonds. Lots of them. It was to confirm their provenance that Ward took Eduardo back to the UK so abruptly at the end of Isvik. It was to escape possible revenge by the Argentinians that he faked Eduardo’s death, to the extent of deceiving his own sister.

Now Ward feverishly sets about organising a camp near the frigate, setting up the mole to drill rocks up from the seabed, another machine to sort and grade the resulting slurry, with tents for a small crew of men to manage the process round the clock. Cruse belatedly realises that at least three of these men, and the taciturn Gary who sailed with them on the Isvik, are SAS men, complete with an impressive amount of weaponry.

All this may be needed since, from as far ago as South Georgia, the Isvik knew it was being tailed by another ship. That has been nearly a hundred pages. Only here in the last few pages is Cruse able to fly Ward over the pursuing ship and confirm it is an Argentinian warship. It anchors at the edge of the ice field and they guesstimate it will take a team travelling over the ice maybe three days to reach the frigate.

Out with a bang

So it’s the third or fourth day of drilling when they watch the soldiers in snow kit arrive at the frigate half a mile away. Will there be a firefight? Will Cruse have a machine gun thrust into his hands and watch his colleagues get mown down? No. The Argentines seem interested only in the old ship. Our chaps watch from a distance as they rig the old ship with explosives. Presumably they want to remove all evidence of the mad plot-to-infect-the-Falklands-with-anthrax.

And so, boom go the charges as our boys watch the remains of the frigate blown sky high. But then they are horrified to see the Argentinians turn and run towards them: the vast iceberg which the frigate had come to rest against all those years ago, undermined by the explosions, starts to collapse onto the frigate and the Argentinians. But not only that, as it does so, huge gouts of steam appear where is had been and cracks radiate out from the site. Ward, Cruse and the SAS boys run like hell for the plane and are cranking the propellers as they begin to see gouts of magma erupting into the air. The whole area, we had been told earlier, is at the junction of tectonic plates – and the Argentine charges appear to have blown open vents to the liquid rock beneath. In a hair-raising few paragraphs Cruse takes the C-130 off across ice disintegrating with cracks and blown apart by powerful geysers and the germ of small volcanoes. Up, up into the air the big plane escapes, Ward haggard in the back, clutching a bucket of stones, his dreams of untold wealth crumbled to dust.

That’s it. No epilogue or tying up of loose ends, no information about what happens to Lange the environmentalist – who had jumped ship when they anchored off the ice – no news about how Cruse’s burgeoning affair with Phuket will pan out, no follow-up on Eduardo or Peter Kettil or Iris, let alone on Barbara Ward back in London or Ward himself, or the narrator. It just ends.


Credit

Target Antarctica by Hammond Innes was published by Chapmans in 1993. All references are to the 1994 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Charity by Len Deighton (1996)

‘You don’t like any of your old friends these days, Bernie. What’s happened to you? Why are you so caustic? Why so suspicious of everything and everyone?’
‘Am I? Well I’m not the only one afflicted with that,’ I said. ‘There is an epidemic of suspicion and distrust. It’s contagious. We are all in its grip: you, me, Fiona, Gloria and the whole Department…’ (p.183)

This is the tenth and final novel in Deighton’s series about 40-something SIS agent, Bernard Samson, his wife and family and the small group of friends and colleagues who have shared his trials and tribulations for the previous nine novels and the 10 or so years they cover (1977 to 1988).

As usual for the series, the story is told in a straightforward chronological way by Bernard himself in a first-person narrative, very much from his (limited) point of view, and in his own dry, sardonic voice. It’s divided into roughly three subject areas: straightforward espionage or spy episodes; family matters; office politics.

Spy stories

The novel opens dramatically with Bernard accompanying a very ill colleague, Jim Prettyman, back from Moscow on the Moscow-to-Paris train, along with a qualified nurse. Bernard notices the nurse fondling a pretty brooch and asks to have a look; she says Prettyman gave it to her and Bernard recognises it as having belonged to his dead sister-in-law, Tessa.

As the train trundles over the shabby, frozen border into Poland, Bernard is taken aside by Polish Security Police for questioning, and mournfully watches the train pull off without him. For the next week he is kept in an unheated cell in a fortress-cum-barracks and intensively questioned about his role in the abduction of George Kosinski and the related shooting of Polish security agents. These events had formed the dramatic climax of the previous book, Hope and Bernard is guilty as hell of everything they accuse him of, but sticks to his cover story that he is a German businessman. Although he is quite badly beaten up, he knows it is nothing compared to what they could do and sure enough, after a week, he is driven back to the station and placed on the next Moscow to Paris express. They know he knows they know he did it; but someone somewhere has ordered his release. Why was he arrested? Why was he released? It is never explained. It is an example of the puzzling randomness of the way things work in the Communist bloc…

Family matters

The Samson books are as much about families as about spying. The central event of the entire series was the revelation that Bernard’s wife, clever Oxford-educated Fiona, was a double agent working for the KGB and her hurried flight to the East, with Bernard close on her tail. This fills the first three books. In the second trilogy Bernard slowly realises Fiona has in fact been working for us all along and, after her absence of three years working as a double agent in the East, Bernard plays a big part in helping her escape back to the West.

But a) during the escape Fiona’s sister, Tessa, is shot dead b) during her long absence Bernard has fallen in love with an SIS colleague half his age, Gloria Kent. Although Fiona’s mission was part of long-term plans to undermine the East German government by supporting dissident civil society groups, it is also, on another level, a story about a man whose wife betrays and deserts him. Thus the domestic and emotional impact of Fiona’s desertion, not only on Samson but on his children, her sister and brother-in-law and on her father, are all described at length and repeatedly, in long conversations, at lunches, drinks or dinners.

In fact, the novels contain hundreds of pages which are devoted to the dinner parties and drinks parties and Sunday lunches at Fiona and Bernard’s house or George and Tessa Kosinski’s flat, or at Dicky Cruyer’s place or at Leith Hill in Fiona’s father’s luxury pile, or out in the Cotswolds at the rambling old farmhouse, Whitelands, belonging to the Department’s creepy eminence grise, Silas Gaunt.

A lot of narrative time is spent admiring the fixtures and fittings of various abodes, complimenting the wine and the cooking, being shown holiday snaps or latest additions to collections of swords or antique cars or oil paintings or vintage wine. A LOT of time is spent discussing how Bernard’s two children, Billy and Sally, are getting on at their prep school, with their private tutors in French and Maths, in the school soccer team, what presents they’re being bought for Christmas or their birthdays, and so on.

And this cosy, companionable family-ness, its domesticity, is one of the appeals of the series. It extends beyond England to Germany where so much of the action is set, to the run-down hotel in Berlin kept by old Tante Lisl, where Bernard grew up as a boy and where the shabby attic room is always kept for him; it includes his chats, sometimes about work, sometimes about family matters, with his oldest school-friend, shady businessman and sometime Department contractor Werner Volkmann, and his trouble with women (his two wives, Ingrid or Zena).

Also there are endless repeats of the scene in the office of Frank Harrington, long-time Head of the Berlin Office of the SIS, who plays with his smelly old pipe or shuffles his collection of vintage jazz records, while Bernard tells him yet another far-fetched interpretation of the latest perplexing plot twists. Here’s Frank fiddling with his beloved Dunhill pipe, accompanied by a dash of Deightonian humour:

He was smoking happily now, poking at his pipe bowl with the blade of a penknife, and attending to every strand of burning tobacco with all the loving care of a locomotive engineer. Or a dedicated arsonist. (p.171)

Office politics

The third element is the endless jockeying for position, promotion and office which goes on inside ‘the Department’. On an almost continual basis the entire cast of characters can, at the drop of a hat, start speculating about who will replace the gaga old Director-General, who will get the Deputy DG job, is Fiona in with a chance? Will it be Bernard’s slick superficial boss, Dicky Cruyer? Or will he be blocked by the much smarter but older American, Bret Rensselaer? And so on.

Since both Fiona (once she’s returned) and even Samson, are qualified, in their different ways, for promotion, many of their conversations (once she’s returned to the West) move easily between discussion of family affairs, into details of various spy operations – especially as the central plot rotates about Bernard’s wife and then, after her escape, about the true fate of his sister-in-law, Tessa – and both bleed into the office politics, as the success or failure of various plans and operations boosts or hinders the key players’ various hopes for advancement and promotion.

Each of the novels contains a canny mix of these three threads which are each, in their different ways, equally absorbing though, for me, the distinctive feature of the entire series, is the time and attention paid to domestic arrangements. You don’t catch James Bond fussing about what’s for dinner tonight or who’s going to buy little Billy’s birthday present.

The plot

After being released by the Poles (why was he arrested and beaten, why was he released?) the scene cuts to Bernard (still rather bruised) and Fiona staying at her father’s luxury pile near Leith Hill, Surrey. It is just into the new year of 1988 (the previous novel, Hope ended on Christmas Eve 1987) so only a few weeks after Bernard had virtually kidnapped his brother-in-law (revealed as being a spy for the Polish secret police) out of Poland and smuggled him back to the UK to be interrogated and maybe charged with treason. At the end of the previous novel we had also seen Gloria and Bernard going to bed in what seemed to crystallise his choice of her over his wife, Fiona. Which makes this scene where he is docilely accompanying his wife to his father-in-law’s house a little puzzling. Bernard is seriously confused about which of these two beautiful women he really loves…

At Leith Hill the father-in-law, David Kimber-Hutchinson, holds a big dinner party where the guests discuss political developments of 1987-8 ie Chancellor Kohl inviting Honecker to the West, along with the political and economic situation in the East. Later, Fiona explains in some detail to Bernard the way money is being channeled into East Germany in numerous sophisticated attempts to undermine the regime. (These kind of geopolitical discussions are relatively rare in the books: when they occur it is pretty obviously to provide the rationale for the entire plot ie that Fiona ‘defected’ in order to establish contact with civil society groups in the East who could destabilise the regime, and that that plot is working. Ie they exist to justify all the time and effort spent on the Fiona Plot.)

To his astonishment, Fiona’s father broaches the ludicrous suggestion that George tried to kill him; he had a headache in Poland and George gave him some local headache tablets which David kept and then, back in England, fed to the family cat who promptly died. Bernard listens respectfully, thinking what a melodramatic old queen his father-in-law is. David goes on to explain his presence in a photo of George in Warsaw that so startled Bernard in the previous novel, when he was shown it, as simply being a result of having been invited out there to help George locate Tess, Fiona’s sister. (For a while this photo had been a loose thread, leaving us wondering whether the father-in-law was involved some scam, as almost everyone else in the family has been. But no. Shame, actually…)

Bernard is confirmed as deputy to Frank Harrington, Head of the Berlin Office. Frank knew Bernard’s dad and promised to look after young Bernie, so they’ve always had a close nephew-and-uncle relationship, with Bernard amused by Frank’s endless fussing with his pipe, his string of unsuitable affairs, and his canny way of avoiding trouble.

Bernard drives out to Whitelands, Silas Gaunt’s rambling farmhouse in the Cotswolds. Here he discovers Gaunt is packing up and moving into sheltered accommodation as he has recently been diagnosed as too ill to keep up the house. Bernard makes sympathetic noises but extracts from Silas a reluctant confession that he knew about the cock-up over Tessa’s shooting; but Silas insists he had out-sourced the whole thing to the Americans, it was their decision to hire Thurkettle, nothing to do with us, old chap etc. He provides the familiar rationalisation that we had to make the opposition think Fiona was dead, at whatever cost, otherwise they would immediately have changed all their codes and procedures and ‘Fiona’s years of courage and jeopardy would have been in vain.’ (p.82)

Bernard meets ‘the Swede’ downstairs in a second-hand bookshop in Charing Cross Road. The Swede is in fact a former Luftwaffe pilot (his back story is given with typical Deightonian thoroughness and historical detail on pages 90 and 91). We met him in the previous novel when he flew in to Poland and picked up Bernard and his brother-in-law George at the book’s exciting climax.

a) The Swede reveals he was on standby to fly Jim Prettyman out of Germany on the night of the famous Tessa shooting. He had been commissioned to bring in a secret box file, though Prettyman never turned up to collect it. b) Bernard asks him if he can do a mission for him, Bernard. The Swede guesses what it is. Bernard wants to kidnap his two children from the care of his smothering, smug father-in-law, collect dishy young Gloria and have the Swede fly them to Ireland, where Bernard will arrange flights on to South America, somewhere with no extradition treaty. The Swede says it is a bonkers idea but he’ll do it. The whole mad scheme shows us that, despite performing his spousal duties with Fiona, his heart is still with Gloria…

Bernard is panicked to receive a phone call from his son’s school saying his son’s school bus has overturned and there are some injuries. (In the previous novel a character had pointed out that the KGB always take revenge on those who betrayed them, giving the example of a double agent who was given a new identity in the States, but whose family the KGB tracked down and assassinated one by one. What if the same happens to Fiona, because of her super betrayal? Once this worry has been planted, it allows Deighton to scare us with of happenings like this, which make us think maybe the novel will be ‘about’ the KGB’s revenge.)

In the event his son Billy hadn’t even been on the bus. Bernard had driven down there with Gloria, who’d given him the message at work, and this gives her an opportunity to tell him a few home truths: that he doesn’t know his children any more, they’ve grown away from him; for her to pour scorn on his ludicrous proposal to run off with the kids; and they end the journey back to London with a blazing row. Hmm. His plan of starting a new life with her and the kids not going so well, then. As he gets out of her car he leans down to apologise but Gloria, very angry, drives off…

Next day Bernard drives to Berwick House where George Kosinski – Bernard’s brother-in-law who he had revealed to be a spy in the previous novel – is being kept and interrogated. The interrogation is getting nowhere and Bernard has been ordered down there to have a go himself. But a) he finds George feeling cocky enough to turn the tables and threaten Bernard, saying he has enough evidence to prove that Bernard wanted Tessa killed, which b) makes Bernard so angry he grabs George and shouts in his face. It also makes him realise, on the journey home, that George is small fry; he may have reported tittle-tattle back to the Polish security services but he wasn’t a planner or a doer. MI5, who are holding him, will probably release him on condition he scuttles back to Zurich and keeps stumm.

On the way back Bernard and his Special Branch driver stop at a pub for a drink. In the loos Bernard is attacked by two heavies and, because he happens to have a gun on him, first uses it to hit them hard in the face and arm, then steps back, brandishing it, to stop the fight. They say it wasn’t him, it’s the Swede they’re after. Bernard sends them packing and gives his Special Branch bodyguard, still sitting happily at the bar, a flea in the ear for completely failing to help him.

Later that night, at home with Fiona after discussing George’s likely fate, there’s a call and Bernard is summoned to jump into a waiting car and taken to a derelict house in south London. Here, in the garage, he finds the body of the Swede, dead, with his skull crudely staved in by a hammer. There is some colourful description of the Special Branch and MI5 officers attending, namely one ‘Squeaky’ King and the fractious relationship between ‘Five’ and the Department. No indication who murdered the Swede, and Bernard doesn’t know why anyone should. There goes his scheme of flying to Ireland. Gloria is angry with him and the Swede is dead…

Bernard is then summoned to a meeting with Bret Rensselaer (now acting Deputy Director-General), Dicky Cruyer, Head of Ops, and the D-G himself, fussing over his ancient Labrador and, in a running gag, never able to remember Bernard’s name, this time calling him Simson. But beyond the jokes they reveal they knew the Swede was going to be killed. It was done by a hitman from Dresden. They had to let it go ahead otherwise it would have blown the agent who informed them. Bernard is appalled. The reader is appalled.

Back in Berlin, Bernard is visited by Cindy Prettyman, Jim’s first wife. In an earlier novel she had been fairly innocent and inoffensive. Here she has been transformed into a harridan who swears at Bernard a lot and wants him to get rid of the security box her ex-husband dumped in her office and asked her to look after last year, at the time of the Tessa Fiasco. Bernard is left wondering: was Cindy involved in the murder? What is the significance of this security box? Has it got money in it, the payoff for Thurkettle, something valuable to Prettyman?

Once again in Frank’s office Bernard watches the old man tap the window and look out at the snow while Bernard tells him what he’s been doing for Dicky. There’s a fuss about some old uranium mines over in the East. It’s coming in a bit late in the story, but could this be what the novel’s ‘about’? Could there be a surprise twist where it all turns out to be about getting our hands on commie uranium or preventing them using it to make nuclear weapons?

Bernard meets Werner at the derelict Tegel airport on the edge of West Berlin to review the story so far. To his surprise he finds Werner going back over the night of the shooting and asking Bernard how he’s so certain of his memories: maybe, in all the confusion, he shot Tessa? What? It feels like every possible logical combination is being wrung from this one tragic event, which happened four whole books ago. The reader is becoming a bit impatient.

Bernard motors out to meet Jim Prettyman. Years ago Jim, his wife Cindy, Fiona and Bernard were friends, playing pool in a bar near the office. But Jim was into statistics and his skills got him a job in the States where he changed his name to Jay and got married to a new wife, Tabby, with useful State Department connections (divorcing the now-embittered Cindy). Now he’s terminally ill and Tabby’s looking after him in a house near Heathrow.

In his sick room there is a big confrontation scene where Bernard and Jim exchange conflicting versions of what happened the night Tessa died. Prettyman agrees that Thurkettle, the ex-CIA man, was hired by Silas Gaunt to do the hit. He even claims he arranged a meeting between Silas – who he describes as completely crazy – and Thurkettle in London the preceding week. That night it was Thurkettle who shot Tessa, cut off her head and switched it for the head containing dental work replicating Fiona’s, in order to fool the KGB, and then set fire to the car – this was all Gaunt’s plan, but Jim (like the reader) thinks it was pretty stupid – a car fire wouldn’t burn a body sufficiently to hide its essential features; they might just notice her head had been mysteriously cut off.

But Jim denies killing Thurkettle, saying he arrived at the meeting spot primed to pay him to find him already dead. The plan had been to take Thurkettle on to a plane and fly him back to England but when he found a corpse, he rifled its pockets, found the brooch (the brooch he later gave the nurse in chapter one) among other things, and left. Bernard goes off wondering how much of this is true.

— For the reader the point is that Bernard now more or less knows the truth of what happened. He doesn’t seem particularly upset about it and, because we readers learned all this three books ago, it doesn’t come as much surprise to us either. As we enter the last 75 pages of the entire series, I wondered whether there was going to be some final Twist and Surprise that would make us sit up and gasp.

Chapter 10 An Autobahn exit. The German Democratic Republic Bernard and Werner drive along the Autobahn to the exit where Prettyman told him he rendevoused with Thurkettle on the Fateful Night. They find two East German farmers working in a field and who, with a little Western money, remember the camper van being parked there for a few days on the night. When they’re shown to the exact spot, Bernard and Werner find the remains of a motorbike concealed in a ditch and then, a bit further along, Thurkettle’s corpse, rotted and eaten away. Bernard locates the bullet holes in Thurkettle’s coat and then the gun Thurkettle was shot with. Beneath the corpse is a bag of dollars, Thurkettle’s payment for the hit. Yes: all the evidence is here confirming the story he’s pieced together.

Werner hurries him along and back into the car – it is strictly illegal to drive off the Autobahn in the East, and being found in possession of a gun and corpse! They’d be locked away forever. As they drive back into the West in a sleet storm Bernard puts his last question to Werner: Was it him who supplied Prettyman with the gun he used to shoot Thurkettle? Werner refuses to answer in such a way that Bernard knows he’s correct.

Pretty much the whole secret is out now. Tessa is dead; she was killed by an ex-CIA hitman on orders from SIS high-ups, notably creepy Silas Gaunt; Prettyman was the middle man who organised logistics then shot Thurkettle to assure his silence (why? Thurkettle was a pro; he’d have kept stumm anyway); Werner played a small part in supplying the gun. ‘Well done, Bernard,’ says Werner. ‘You’ve pieced it all together with superhuman skill; now let it lie.’ But he can’t, of course.

Chapter 11 The SIS offices, Berlin Bret and Dicky and Gloria have flown into Berlin for a security conference. First of all Bernard accepts a report from a local officer, Larry Bowers, that proves the East German uranium mine we heard about earlier has only a minimum staff and is barely being kept open: so the novel is not going to turn out to be about that, after all. Shame, really.

— Most of this chapter is devoted to a big party Werner hosts at his new grand house out by the Wannsee. It is a really massive fancy-dress party with the theme of ‘gold’, featuring lots of diplomats, local businessmen and politicians, movers and shakers, with a live band playing 1930s dance tunes and a massive buffet feast. Bret and Dicky and Frank and Gloria and Werner and Zena are all there.

In the middle of the festivities Cindy Prettyman (who we’d learned earlier was staying with Werner) comes down the stairs, wearing only a slip, her hair dishevelled, distraught and brandishing a pistol. Bernard and Werner go slowly up the stairs towards her as she threatens first one then the other. She accuses them both of stealing the security box from her office, the security box she’d mentioned earlier to Bernard and was trying to either get rid of or possibly use as some kind of blackmail threat. Either way, it’s gone now and she is very cross about it.

Werner makes a move towards her and she shoots, winging him in the head. Bernard flings a glass at her but is beaten to it by an Army redcap who rugby tackles her, all of them falling to the bottom of the grand stairs in a big pile. Frank Harrington steps forward from the band podium to thank the Volkmanns for a novel and imaginative charade, ha ha ha, trying to present it all as a weird party entertainment, and while the spotlight is on him speaking soothing words, the bodies are swiftly cleared away.

A lot later that night Bernard is allowed into his hospital room to see Werner, who was more injured by the fall down the stairs than the shot. He admits Cindy was right to be cross; he, Werner, broke into her office earlier that day and stole the damn security box. Cindy had come to think it was valuable and the Department would either a) pay for it or b) it would be some kind of lever to help her get back into contact with her estranged husband. Now she’ll be charged with attempted murder.

Arriving back at Tante Lisl’s hotel, Bernard is handed a telegram from Prettyman’s second wife, Tabby. Jim has passed away, but before he did so he asked her to send him the message that Bernard had guessed everything correctly, that Prettyman did everything Bernard accused him of. Bernard is still not sure whether he is doing a last piece of lying to cover someone else…

Chapter 12 The SIS Residence, Berlin Bret Rensselaer chairs a meeting of Bernard, Frank and Dicky. With little preamble they go into discussing the events of the Fateful Night and integrating Bernard’s findings into what they already knew. The only new thing is that Bret is determined to blame Silas for everything; Silas became unhinged; Silas thought the Service should go beyond its traditional intelligence-gathering role into positive action, violent action if necessary. It was Silas who wanted to protect Fiona’s work by making the KGB think Fiona was dead. It was Silas who cooked up the whole cockamamie plan to make sure Thurkettle murdered Tessa, cut off her head etc, burned the car with her body in it, then motored off to meet his contact, Prettyman, who proceeded to execute him. Blame Silas. — Is that it? Is that the pay-off to the last three novels, and to the entire series?

And the security box which Werner stole from Cindy’s office? Bret says Frank’s handyman is even at this moment sawing it open in the workshop. What! No! shouts Bernard and hares off down the backstairs of Frank’s rambling house (banging into the Director-General himself who is in a secret passage listening to the meeting with headphones) running down the stairs, out into the garden, along to the workshop, seizing the handyman just as he begins drilling to the box, and pushing them both out, away and down onto the frozen ground as the workshop explodes. It was a bomb.

Bernard had suspected for some time this was the significance of the mysterious box file which had been one of the numerous threads in the novel: it was the way the Swede had confirmed it was on his plane, the one which was meant to carry Prettyman away from the Tessa Murder, which gave Bernard the clue. Thus Tessa would have been killed by Thurkettle. Thurkettle killed by Prettyman. Then Prettyman and the Swede blown up in mid-air as soon as they opened the box.

For this reader there are still a few loose ends, loose ends which could only be tied up by going back and reading the relevant section of Spy Sinker again which, to be honest, I can’t be bothered to do. Tessa’s dead. It was a dodgy plot. Palming it off on Silas just about explains it away. After a certain point – this point – I’ve stopped caring about the details.

With all the main strands of the spy plot finally resolved, there’s family life and office politics to tie up: Bret tells Bernard he has proposed to Gloria and she said Yes. (This is, to be honest, completely unbelievable. Bret, as Bernard points out, is old enough to be Gloria’s grandfather.)

Bret reminds Bernard of the personal debt Bret owes him; in one of the earlier novels Bret was suspected of himself being a mole and made his way to Berlin to the only man he knew he could trust, Bernard. Now he’ll repay the debt. Bernard will finally get a full-time contract with a pension and all the perks; Bret will do what he can to see Bernard is eventually made Head of the Berlin Office when Frank Harrington retires (which will be soon), a post which everyone has always felt he should have.

And Bret (like the fairy godmother in a nursery story) gives Bernard a third piece of news/wish come true: he gives him a long letter Fiona wrote during her recuperation which eloquently states how much she loves Bernard, that he is kinder and more sensitive than everyone realises etc. Bret explains that Fiona is only burying herself in her work because she feels rejected by Bernard. ‘Go tell her how you really feel, you schmuck.’ And so the novel ends with a decisive closing of the entire Gloria love affair and the promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

Thus the three strands – espionage, family matters and office politics – are all neatly wound up and dovetailed, with the espionage – nominally the subject of the whole series – here, as everywhere else, feeling like it’s actually the least important of the three.

Anti-climax

It is hard to resist a sense of anti-climax: endings are always difficult; it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Unlikely though it sounds, basing the three books of the first trilogy around the notion of a married spy discovering that his spouse is a double agent, does work and is gripping and interesting. Similarly, the first two novels of the second trilogy successfully plant the seed and then craftily reveal the fact that Fiona is a triple agent, pretending to work for ‘them’ but really working for ‘us’. Very clever.

But the murder of Tessa in the rainswept Autobahn roadworks on that fateful night is not, I think, an interesting enough subject to sustain this last trilogy. The second instalment, Hope, is the best of the three because it takes us to an entirely new location, Poland, which Deighton describes with trademark historical, cultural, linguistic and geographical thoroughness. And because for most of it the subject is not ‘Who killed Tessa?’ but ‘Where is George?’, which was a welcome new theme.

But this final novel is solely about ‘Who killed Tessa?’ and the crucial flaw is that in novel six – Spy Sinker – Deighton told us. We know who killed her and why. It wasn’t very convincing then and it has become even less convincing as we’ve read on. Spy Sinker is a powerful novel and works in an interesting way because it sheds wholly new light on the five books that preceded it, undermining all the previous narratives, recasting everything we and the narrator thought had happened, and that was a bold and really effective stroke.

But, unless something stunningly new was to be revealed, it also meant the succeeding trilogy couldn’t show us anything new. And, despite a few red herrings and false trails, Charity indeed adds almost nothing to what we knew before, throwing in a few new characters (the Swede, Prettyman’s involvement) but leaving the outline of the story exactly as we already knew it.

Weakest of all is the way Deighton ends up pinning the blame on Silas Gaunt, presented as a Machiavellian super-brain in the previous novels, who is now suddenly described as unbalanced, bonkers, who crossed the line, who went too far, and who we now see being packed off to sheltered accommodation for the mentally ill. It was all Silas’s fault. Oh. OK. So there are no twists, turns or surprises at all. It is hard to avoid a sense of anti-climax.

Charity

The religious connotations of the titles – faith, hope and charity – are almost completely ignored. Deighton is not, thank God, Graham Greene, with his reams of doggerel theology. The word faith is mentioned a few times in Faith – Bret gives Bernard a Bible to use as a code book for a handful of ‘secret’ messages he sends him. I don’t think hope is mentioned at all in Hope; if it was George Kosinski’s hope of finding his wife Tessa, alive, it is cruelly dashed.

And, in the kind of dry joke which takes us right back to the start of the Deighton’s career, reminding us of the sly jokiness of the Ipcress novels – it turns out that Charity has no profound symbolic or moral meaning at all. Charity is the name of the half-senile Director-General’s raddled black Labrador.

Charity is a knackered old beast which slobbers and drools and is on its last legs.


Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

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

Hope by Len Deighton (1995)

‘There are more important things in life than money, Bernard,’ she said.
‘Prove it,’ I told her. (p.301)

This is a cracking book: by turns complex, puzzling, full of pungent local colour, humorous and touching.

Spying as soap opera / Espionage as sitcom

From the previous seven novels about the 40-something MI6 agent, Bernard Samson, his wife and kids and father-in-law and sister- and brother-in-law, and old friends in Berlin and the gang of eccentrics who (apparently) populate the European Department of MI6, we have become as familiar with the cast of these novels as with the characters in a favourite soap opera or sitcom.

In the first trilogy Samson realised his wife was a Soviet double agent, and the set climaxed with her bolting to East Germany. In shock he takes comfort in a new relationship with glamorous young Gloria, who also works at the Department. In the second trilogy Samson slowly realised that his wife was, after all, a triple agent, only pretending to work for the KGB while all along the plan was for her to ‘defect’, infiltrate the East German set-up at a high-level, report back solid gold intelligence and foment insurrection among East Germany’s churches and civil society.

This second trilogy climaxed with Fiona’s escape from the East once her mission was up – but the escape was badly bungled. In a rainswept layby on an Autobahn between East and West there is a very messy shootout in which several KGB agents were shot dead as well as Fiona’s own sister, Tessa, there, apparently by chance having clambered into Bernard’s pickup van drunk from a party. Samson does some of the shooting and they both witness Tessa being mown down before he sweeps Fiona into the pickup van, drives into the West, loads her into a waiting plane and they both fly out to California to recuperate and be debriefed at the luxury home of American MI6 agent, Bret Rensselaer.

The second trilogy added the twist that the third novel in the series was the first not to be told in the warm first-person persona of Samson, but narrated by a detached third-person narrator. This objective version of events takes us all the way back to 1977 to show the genesis and slow incubation of the Fiona Plan, codenamed Operation Sinker (hence the titles of the second trilogy, Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker) seeing things mainly from Fiona’s point of view and showing how the plan was conceived by Bret and signed off by the doddery old Director-General and the wily éminence grise of the Department, old Silas Gaunt.

The impact of this sixth book, Spy Sinker, is devastating to the reader of the series, upsetting loads of our preconceptions. It shows Samson as a rather pitiful patsy, wholly unaware of the conspiracies going on around him, unaware that his wife is a double agent, let alone a triple agent, something almost everyone else knows about, even his best friend, Werner Volkmann. Most upsetting is the way the death of Fiona’s sister, Tessa, at the ill-fated shootout, is revealed to have been not a ghastly accident, but part of a horrible plan to try and convince the KGB that Tessa’s badly-burned body is really Fiona’s, so the Stasi/KGB will think that Fiona didn’t succeed in defecting and will carry on using the old codes and security protocols for a bit longer. The story is given out that Fiona was killed and that Bernard has run off with her sister Tessa.

This seemed, when I read it, grotesquely improbable and needlessly violent. It also seemed fundamentally stupid because sooner or later Fiona would resurface, the other side would know they’d been fooled – and Bernard would, presumably, eventually return to London, and everyone who’s been told the cover story of his elopement with Tessa would realise they’d been lied to and want to know by who and why. It seemed cack-handed, solved nothing and created untold problems for the callous nitwits who conceived it.

Deighton’s Secret Intelligence Service

In fact Deighton’s entire depiction of the SIS is very odd. It reads more like the staff room at Hogwarts or the Addams Family. At the top is the Director-General of the SIS, Sir Henry Clevemore, who is portrayed as a senile headmaster, cloistered in an incredibly cluttered, dingy office, littered with ancient books and forgotten paperwork, refusing to use a computer or allow his staff to, and accompanied by a filthy ancient Labrador who slobbers and growls under his desk (and which at one point bites Dicky, drawing blood).

The power behind the throne is Silas Gaunt, a canny old posh man who lives in a decaying mansion in the Cotswolds where the other characters regularly go for bracing country weekends, gossip and off-the-record briefings. He comes on as an uncle figure for Samson but in Spy Sinker we learn that he lied his head off to Samson for years about the Fiona Plan of which he was a prime mover.

Dicky Cruyer is the preposterously dim, flashy desk jockey who has manoeuvred his way to becoming Head of Operations, then Controller of Europe. Samson does nothing but take the mickey out of him, laughing at his ludicrous outfits (faded jeans and cowboy boots!), his taste in music (Elvis Presley played on a tinny cassette player) and his steady stream of tawdry affairs with younger women which are driving his sweet if pretentious wife, Daphne, to drink.

Off to one side is the ageing American, Bret Rensselaer, who was head of an Economics Unit in the early books but found his empire being sidelined, before being suspected of himself being a double agent, and then badly wounded in a shootout in Berlin. He disappeared off to the States, at first thought dead, then we are told he is recuperating. First of all, what the devil is a Yank doing in the SIS? Don’t they have their own intelligence services? Can’t we staff our own secret service? Number two, what is going on when, at the end of Faith, it is revealed that Bret – old, white-haired, wounded and you’d have thought, well past it – turns up and we learn he is moving back into the London office as temporary Deputy Director-General. This is funny insofar as it scuppers Dicky’s scheming for promotion. But surely the antics of all of these grotesques is some kind of comedy or satire?

For is the SIS really like this? Was it really like this in 1987, at the end of the Cold War? I can’t believe it. I’ve worked in UK government IT for some years, and the whole point about a bureaucracy is that it has hundreds, if not thousands of people, all drafting memos, reports and proposals and then having hundreds of meetings to discuss them. a) Deighton’s portrayal of the Department makes it sound as if there are only four or five notable people in it, and b) they spend all their time discussing each other and Samson’s private life and c) it makes these senior personnel sound like characters from a freak show. It chimes with neither le Carré’s sober depiction of cunningly scheming public schoolmen nor Frederick Forsyth’s depiction of super-slick modern professionals.

Thus the scenes featuring any of these characters, even when they’re discussing grown-up spy stuff, feel essentially comic in conception, with a cartoonish unreality. This, along with Samson’s steady stream of sarcastic but essentially affectionate commentary on them and his family and job, explain the friendly, sitcom feel of the books. They’re so quick and enjoyable to read that the occasional interruptions of some kind of violence – stabbings or shootouts – come as unexpected shocks, as if someone got shot dead in an episode of Friends.

Faith

In the first of this third and final trilogy, Bernard and Fiona return to London and resume their working and domestic lives almost as if nothing had happened. Tessa’s husband, George, has left the country for tax exile in Switzerland, letting them move into his luxury flat in Mayfair. They both go back to work in the MI6 building and are soon gossiping about the ups and downs in the bureaucracy which really boils down to how their boss, Dicky Cruyer, is faring in his schemes to become Deputy Director General. Both of them have to deal with the presence of Gloria, the gorgeous young woman half Samson’s age, who he took up with after Fiona’s ‘defection’ and now is struggling to drop and forget; a struggle made impossible by the fact that she, too, works for the Department, in the same building, even on the same floor.

The novel is ostensibly concerned with arranging the defection of a KGB colonel, code-named VERDI, who’s been instrumental in migrating all the KGB’s data to a new computer system and so would be able to provide a gold mine of information. After several hundred pages of false trails and dead ends, VERDI is successfully transported across the Wall and to freedom in the West. Samson and his long-time German buddy Werner Volkmann are given the job of protecting him and beginning his debriefing when, not unexpectedly, VERDI is assassinated by a sniper.

He is bumped off immediately after he’s told Bernard and Werner a completely different version of the Fiona shootout than the one we read in Spy Sinker, namely that Tessa was never killed, it was a woman KGB officer that was following Fiona who was shot, Tessa was in fact captured by the East German secret service and is currently being held in prison.

Really? But before anyone can interrogate VERDI further, bang! he’s shot dead by an assassin. Was he a plant? Was his sole function to sow the seed of an alternative narrative of Fiona’s escape and Tessa’s death? Who would benefit from such a thing? Well, Silas and Bret and the higher-ups in the Department who conceived the wicked plan to kill Tessa to facilitate her sister’s escape would be off the hook if this version is believed; and anything bad which subsequently happens to Tessa could be conveniently blamed on the KGB or Stasi.

Having been shown in Spy Sinker how completely ignorant Samson is of every important thing that was going on around him, it’s impossible to read his analysis of events with any confidence. No doubt that’s the aim, to create the dramatic irony that we the readers now know more about things than the narrator: in fact at one point there is an immense moment of dramatic irony, when Samson moans about why he always knows far more about what’s going on than anyone else:

What was wrong with me? I never made sufficient allowance for the slowness of people like Rupert, Dicky and Bret and the rest of them. They never understood what was really happening. (p.279)

As we now sadly know, nothing could be further from the truth, Bernard is completely deluded. And yet for all that we know this, the warmth of Samson’s narrating voice and the humour of the oddball cast of characters tend to outweigh the intended ironic situation. I find the comic scenes and dialogue more immediately engaging than the multiple levels of intrigue which may, or may not, be playing out. Even when I don’t fully understand what’s going on, I enjoy the voice.

Hope

Once again, according to Deighton the main focus of MI6 in the year 1987, as Gorbachev promoted perestroika and glasnost, as the Baltic republics became restive, as the Poles demonstrated in favour of Solidarity – was investigating the family affairs of Bernard Samson, namely trying to get to the bottom of the puzzle, Who Killed Tessa?

This novel, part two of the final trilogy, circles around the attempts by Tessa’s husband, George Kosinski, to get to the bottom of her death.

Chapters

1 Mayfair, October 1987 Opens dramatically with a man ringing the doorbell of the flat Bernard and Fiona have inherited from her dead sister, Tessa. Bernard answers and the man stumbles inside, badly stabbed and bleeding. Moments later Bernard’s brother-in-law George Kosinski arrives to take charge: the man is one of his more dodgy employees. George apologises, and takes him off to his car. The real purpose of this event is to establish George as the focal point of the novel. –At the office Bernard meets with his reliably flashy and superficial boss, Dicky Cruyer, and finds himself invited to fly with him to visit George at his lakefront house near Zurich. Why? George is reported to have been visited by some known Stasi goons. –Fiona and Bernard wake up on the night of the Great Storm, 15 October, finding themselves estranged and full of unspoken thoughts: maybe the storm is a symbol of their marriage. –In Zurich, at the house, Dicky is cavalier with the housekeeper and authorities but canny Bernard manages to wangle out of the housekeeper and some contacts that George appears to have smuggled himself back to his homeland, Poland. But not before George went to a jewellers with a ring. It is Tessa’s engagement ring. Dicky jumps to the conclusion: so the Stasi men came here with Tessa’s ring? What are they up to, Bernard?

2 Warsaw To find out Bernard and Dicky fly to Warsaw. Berlin dominated the first set of books. Here Deighton does an equally thorough job of describing Warsaw in the early snows of winter, the geography, the history, the sights and sounds and smells. An old contact of Samson’s, Sarah, comes to his hotel room to deliver some goods promised by her husband, Boris. There’s talk she prostitutes herself and that he beats her; she certainly has bad bruises. The package was meant to contain a gun but instead has two heavy tyre levels and some garrotting wire. Warsaw can be a tough town. –This is proved when they go to the notorious Rozyckiego market, looking to find a sniff of George. Instead they are picked up by two thugs pretending to be secret police who escort them not to a station, but to a squalid hovel above a pawn shop and into a room which is obviously an execution room. Here, in the split second as they lock the door, Bernard hits first one then the other with the silly umbrella Dicky’s been taking the mickey out of. He breaks the first one’s arm and just managed to smash the other one’s jaw as he’s raising his pistol. Bernard hits them some more, then kicks them for good measure. Inside the umbrella he had packed the tyre levers. Taking the goons’ guns, they scarper.

3 Masuria, Poland The market trip had paid off. Just before they were set on, one of Bernard’s contacts told him that George had been seen and is known to have set off for his family mansion in the country. Dicky and Samson hire a crappy East European car and drive along terrible roads into the snow-bound desolate countryside. They pass vast Russian barracks and get through two scary roadblocks before arriving at one peopled by a militia. I wondered if there was going to be a firefight, but they eventually agree to escort our boys up a windy track into the middle of nowhere where they reach the Kosinski mansion, situated by a lake. Here they are welcomed by a real Addams Family crew, skinny Uncle Nico who has been writing a book about Poland’s national saint for thirty years, his deaf wife Aunt Mary, the gaunt ancient (male) secretary, Karol, and the master of the house, the flamboyant actor and writer and self-proclaimed legend, Stefan Kosinski, brother of our George.

4 The Kosinski Mansion, Masuria, Poland We really get to marinade in the weird atmosphere of this shabby, rundown mansion in the middle of nowhere in the middle of high snowdrifts, with its silent children and invisible servants. At one point locals come to say they’ve found a body. Stefan takes Dicky and Samson to the place, a grave where just a leg has been found, mutilated, its big toe and other bits chewed off and what is undoubtedly one of George’s smart London shoes nearby. They are turfed out of the mansion while the local priest holds an exorcism. Bernard insists they sneak back in and they see it is another charade, his servants are in fact sounding for hidden secret police microphones, the whole thing put on by Stefan who melodramatises himself and the house in order to maintain kudos with the locals and with his devoted followers among the intelligentsia. Unsurprisingly, Bernard has come to the conclusion he is a prancing fraud. He also thinks the leg has got nothing to do with George. He and Dicky leave before the real snow hits and they get marooned in this madhouse.

5 Kent, England A short detour while Bernard goes to visit retired SIS man Harry Strang at his Kent home. Harry was a veteran of Spanish-speaking countries going back as far as Franco, with the scars to prove it. Just before retirement he was assistant to the Deputy Director-General. Bernard pushes him about the events of the fateful night: who ordered the ambulance; who made all the arrangements; who booked the RAF plane on standby? All that took lots of co-ordination. Harry is taciturn and tries to blow Bernard off with his poor memory, his dim recollection, not sure, can’t remember.

6 Mayfair, London Long conversation in their flat between Fiona and Bernard. He rubbishes the idea that it was George’s leg. He says George was whisked off to Poland by professionals; he’s in league with someone. Conversation moves on to the method Fiona was paid by during her double and triple agent period, by a fund set up by Bret and administered by one Jim Prettyman. And then onto office gossip and promotion possibilities: Bernard is on a five-year fixed-term contract which can be terminated at any time, with no pension or other perks. Fiona says Dicky wants to appoint Bernard as deputy in the Berlin Field Unit, the job he should always have had because of his Berlin childhood and flawless German. Is this a trick to get rid of him from London? Why is Fiona taking Dicky’s side, is it because she also wants him to change focus and out of the way, or does she think it is a genuine opportunity? Bernard, for his part, immediately grasps that, if he owes the job to Dicky, he will become Dicky’s creature and forced to spy on the present Head of the Berlin Office, Frank Harrington, his dad’s old friend. The books are full of long discussions of who’s up, who’s down, what various promotions mean or don’t mean, the office politics entangled with operational plans, with the lies and betrayal going on ‘out there’.

7 Fletcher House (SIS Annexe) London Gloria comes to visit Bernard in his shabby little room in an annexe building off Tottenham Court Road. She is explaining how devastated she is by the end of their relationship when Dicky arrives and gloatingly takes the mickey out of the ‘two love-birds’. The conversation is interrupted by the unexpected delivery of a package for Bernard which, when opened, turns out to be a medical jar containing preserving fluid and a human hand, one finger bearing a signet ring like George Kosinski’s. Dicky insists this is proof George is dead, Bernard is sceptical. While they’re arguing a bearded man who had been prowling the corridor outside the room unexpectedly runs into the room, grabs the jar and nips off down the corridor. While Bernard hesitates, Dicky pulls out a massive revolver and goes haring off after him, letting off pot shots. As Bernard catches up with them he sees Dicky let off a shot which sends the man sprawling and the jar flying to shatter against the wall, but the man must be wearing a bullet-proof jacket for he gets up, bursts through the emergency doors and into a waiting car which speeds off.

8 SIS Offices, Berlin Cut to Bernard in Berlin, in the house of the Head of the SIS Field Unit Frank Harrington, where he has, apparently, accepted the post as Frank’s number two. They review the man running off with the hand incident. Bernard insists they wanted us to see the hand long enough to confirm Dicky’s theory that George is dead, but not long enough to send it to a lab and get it analysed and discover it isn’t George’s hand. Was he Stasi? Yes, same as one of the four guys who visited George in Zurich. Frank tells him the latest news, that one of their networks in the East, DELIUS, has gone silent: it’s the same one Bernard used in the previous novel after he shot at the car following him after discovering VERDI’s dead body, the same pastor who protected him and young Robin in that episode fro the previous novel, Faith. As soon as Frank has departed to fly back to London on a family visit, Bernard requisitions a motorbike and crosses the border on a forged passport, swaps the bike for a car and drives to Allenstein bei Magdeburg. Here he first visits the wretched home of Theo Forster, a sick man who works in the local bicycle factory and who Bernard was at school with back in Berlin (as he was at school with so many of the novels’ characters). Theo explains that the pastor has been causing trouble but they’ll be able to deal with him. Bernard drives off to confront the pastor who initially recalls Fiona’s good work for them, encouraging the churches. But under bullying and provocation from Bernard, goes on to reveal himself to be a Stasi agent. But Bernard pushes him further, into an ambiguous psychological space where he proposes the pastor become a double agent working for us. As Bernard leaves, the pastor gets into his car as if to follow him but the car explodes dramatically. It was booby-trapped. Why? By Theo and the network? That was suicidal of them. Bernard drives like a maniac to the safe house, swaps the car for his motorbike and has crossed the border an hour later. — Next day Frank’s efficient secretary, Lida, begins bringing in radio intercepts of the DELIUS network being ‘rolled up’ ie arrested one by one. — Depressed Bernard goes to an all-night bar near the Witzleben S-Bahn. Here Theo’s devout communist son, Bruno, finds and confronts him. He is allowed out of the East because he is a Marxist zealot and so allowed to work on the overland railway which crosses the border. He rails at Bernard for bullying his father into joining the opposition and his stupid ‘network’ and now he’ll die in a labour camp. He throws at Bernard the parting gift Theo asked his son to give him, a Nazi medal, which Bernard collected as a boy and Theo knows he loves.

9 Hennig Hotel, West Berlin Bernard recovers from the Bruno encounter by chatting with ancient Aunt Lisl in her hotel. This is where Bernard’s dad based himself immediately after the war and where he has his earliest memories. (Liesl’s childhood and young adulthood, marriage and mature life are one among many lives described in the one-off epic background to the series, Winter). Bernard goes into the ballroom where Werner is decorating the Christmas tree. Werner steels himself and tells Bernard that he, Werner, was Fiona’s case officer during her period in the East. Not only that: Werner tells Bernard that Fiona had an affair before and during her mission, with a Canadian doctor who was himself a communist spy set to monitor her. Bernard is left reeling from ‘the knife-thrust of my wife’s betrayal’. His whole world is turned upside down. Again.

Throughout the book thus far we have seen him repressing his feelings for Gloria, being standoffish, insisting on being professional, avoiding even a polite peck on the cheek – all in the name of trying to stay faithful to Fiona, to re-orient his feelings towards her and a happy family life, despite the lies she told him and the hell she put him through, and despite the continual bickering or misunderstandings in their conversations. But now – now maybe he should follow his heart and express his feelings for Gloria…

10 Hennig Hotel, West Berlin Fiona wakes Bernard with a phone call from London, asking if it’s alright if Daddy takes the kids on a jamboree holiday to the Caribbean? ‘And if I go, too’? Bernard grits his teeth and agrees. Christmas alone in Berlin brooding on the news that his wife betrayed him. In every sense. Wonderful. The next morning he has a very thick head and feels dizzy. When he tries to get up he gets as far as dressing but, on the narrow attic landing, has a dizzy spell and ends up falling down the stairs. He regains consciousness to find Werner has called an Army doctor who now gives him a powerful sedative.

11 West Berlin After a day or so recovering Bernard manages to get up, shower and shave and make his way to the glamorous hotel where he knows Bret Rensselaer has come to stay along with Gloria. (It feels like a tiny, tiny, tiny world of the same half-dozen characters endlessly circulating and bumping into each other). After the usual expressions of how difficult she finds it to be working alongside him and Fiona (and while Bernard resists his longing to reach out and kiss her), Gloria tells him the latest speculation about when the D-G will retire and who will replace him (will it be Dicky or Fiona? probably not Dicky because Bret will try to block it) and so on. More usefully, she goes on to tell him signals section have intercepted lots of traffic between the Stasi and Warsaw about delivery of a package: could it be Tessa’s body? At which point Gloria walks through into the bedroom where the maids have been working and shrieks in horror: there in the bed is a bloodless corpse! Bernard realises it’s young Robin. Before Bernard took to his bed, he remembers now Lida saying something about Robin checking out the Unit’s motorbike and probably following Bernard’s trail to Alleinstein and the assassinated parson-cum-spy. The fool! The Stasi were, as he feared, waiting for him. Bernard has Lida call in an explosives and disposal team from the British Army (it turns out to include the same fix-it doctor who injected him in the previous chapter). Gloria and Bernard fly back to London on the next Army plane, and Bernard is met at the airfield and driven to a midnight meeting at Dicky Cruyer’s house. Here he finds Bret and a new character, Rupert Copper, our man in the Warsaw embassy. Our Warsaw people have spotted George. Turns out the Kosinski family have some kind of guest accommodation not far from the main mansion: George must have been hiding out there. The meeting ponders the possible meanings and discuss the Big Question: Is Tessa alive or not, while Bernard realises he’s the schmuck who’s going to be sent back to Poland to find his damn brother-in-law. Bret, the smart one, asks Bernard why the Stasi and Poland’s secret police, the Bezpieca, are helping George? Are they, replies Bernard. Maybe George has bought influence at every level; he is loaded, after all. And he is obsessed with being reunited with Tessa. Or maybe, says Bret, they are trying to turn him so they can use him against us? — Rupert gives him a lift back to the Mayfair flat and fills Bernard in a bit: Does he realise the story of his wife’s defection, her violent rescue and the Tessa affair, are the talk of the entire organisation? Does he realise he is in over his head? Does he realise that if he dropped dead tomorrow nobody would be very sorry? Bernard asks Rupert why he thinks George has gone to such trouble to whisk himself away from Zurich and then fake his own death? Doesn’t Rupert realise it’s because he’s scared that we – MI6, the SIS, the good guys – are out to kill him? In a concession, Rupert shows Bernard the photos his men took of George in the Warsaw market. Bernard is staggered but manages to hide it; for in the photos he sees, next to the blurry shape of what might or might not be George, the image of Fiona’s dad, his poncy old father-in-law!

12 Warsaw Rupert and Bret are picked up from the windswept freezing Vilnius Station by two tough guys in an old ambulance. Someone has been in contact to say they have information about George Kosinski. During the drive they’re not sure if they’re going to be gassed or shot at any moment, but after 25 nerve-racking moments they arrive at a large maternity hospital and are shown into the office of the podgy, auburn-haired blue-eyed Director, Dr Urban. He says the entire mystery is simple: Tessa is pregnant; she is being moved from Berlin to Warsaw to be reunited with her loving husband. George has taken Polish citizenship and Tessa will too. So their baby will be entirely Polish. Rupert in his naivete becomes quite cross, pointing out that by making the child Polish it will never be able to escape or travel and thus will keep its parents safely trapped here forever. Dr Urban doesn’t deny it, stands to signify the interview is over, and puts on his brown military jacket. Like everyone in a position of power in Poland, he is an Army placeman. — For a second time Rupert gives Bernard a lift, this time back to the seedy friend’s apartment he’s staying in, initially speculating about whether Tessa is alive, what George’s real motives are, and so on, before Bernard persuades him to delay making his report until Bernard can ‘confirm or deny it’; upsetting a good pen-pushing Embassy man like Rupert. Parked outside the flat, Rupert says he was instructed to give Bernard the following: and opens a bag containing rolls of local currency, dollars, pounds, a pistol and a sub-machinegun. Aha. That kind of ‘confirming or denying’. Bernard’s last words are, ‘Alert the Swede’. The Swede?

13 Masuria, Poland The final chapter is quick and violent. Bernard is talking to George. Doesn’t say where so we assume it’s the holiday home near the Mansion, which had been mentioned earlier, the ground around buried in metres of snow. Bernard is relentlessly interrogating George. He says he loved Tessa. He says he’s always been a Polish patriot. He says he’s a devout Catholic. He tells a long story of remembering where he was when he heard a Polish cardinal had been made Pope. And so when the Bezpieca first approached him he thought he’d be helping his country. All they wanted was gossip from the parties he attended and people he met. It wasn’t really spying. Now Bernard is telling him that Tessa is not pregnant and on her way to be with him, she’s not alive – she is dead. He’s saying the the Bezpieca lied to him, have used him. — Bernard controls his anger and explains that they will leave by plane that night: is he coming or not? — That night they drive in Bernard’s rented Fiat to the area of the Wolfschanze, the vast compound of bunkers, roads, checkpoints, railway line and airstrip built as Hitler’s forward command post during the invasion of Russia. They are followed by four figures in a battered old Volvo. Bernard tells George the plan: when he stops the car, George is to scrabble free and run off into the snow shouting as if for help. This is what happens. As the four followers get out of their car and pause wondering what’s going on, Bernard sets fire to the Fiat and, as it explodes, runs towards the Bezpieca men firing the machine gun. At least one falls and the others scatter as George runs back towards him and they both jump into the Volvo and drive on along the old runway by the lake, just as they hear the sound of airplane engines overhead. It is The Swede, a freelance pilot, one of the Department’s most reliable contractors. Bernard parks the Volvo at the other end of the runway and sets it, too alight. The Swede brings the plane down on the runway mapped out between the two burning cars, taxis to walking pace and Bernard stuffs George into the plane, which turns and begins its take-off as they hear the bullets of the surviving Bezpieca men bounce off the fuselage. — In the plane George complains about the violence, ‘Did you have to shoot those men?’ etc, until Bernard explodes in rage: ‘Yes I did, because those are the men who beat up protestors, run the prisons and the labour camps and have repressed this nation for 45 years. Those are the men you’ve been helping, you scumbag.’ Bernard has to restrain himself from throwing George out of the plane into the Baltic. — When they arrive at the little Swedish airfield, an Embassy official and doctor are waiting to take custody of George. He is under arrest. He will be interrogated and probably tried for treason. And Gloria is there. She claims under orders from her boss, Bret. The Embassy car sweeps off leaving them alone on the chilly airfield apart from the Embassy’s official Lear jet. It’s there in case George or Bernard had been injured and needed to be flown back to an English hospital. Now it is sitting there vacant. Bernard lets off steam to Gloria: Tessa is dead. The nonsense with the leg and the hand were to persuade London that George, also, was dead. He was just worried the truth about his spying would get out, and he genuinely believed the lies the Bezpieca told him. God knows how long he’s been betraying his country, feeding back to his communist paymasters the titbits he picked up from Bernard and Fiona and all the other SIS people he hobnobbed with.

You need a drink, says Gloria, and it’s freezing, let’s get aboard the plane. Oh isn’t it warm. And look at the galley, good food. And the bar. And through here, the beds! The big soft beds.

‘Goodness,’ said Gloria, looking at me and smiling demurely. (p.305)

Like so many comedies, from Shakespeare to James Bond, this one ends with a heterosexual bang, as the male lead and the female lead bring closure to the story with an act of union and completion.


Spy fiction and the fall of the wall

It’s worth pointing out that these had become historical fictions even as they were published. The third of the second trilogy, Spy Sinker, published in 1990, must have been completed over the period when the Berlin Wall came down – November 1989, and I’ve remarked that Deighton showed admirable ingenuity in making the true-life participation of the East German churches in the fall of the regime into one of the central planks of his story.

But he was then faced with the same problem all other spy novelists faced (le Carré, Forsyth, Cruz Smith to name just the ones I’ve been reading): whether to move with the times and set their adventures in the post-Soviet world, or whether to cling to the (fictional) certainties of the Cold War.

We’ve seen that after a farewell to the Cold War and to his legendary spy, George Smiley (in The Secret Pilgrim, 1990) le Carré moved with impressive alacrity into the New World Order, where he found a sufficiency of baddies in international drug smuggling and gun-running.

Forsyth similarly packaged up all his Cold War yarns into a retrospective collection (The Deceiver, 1991) before moving on to new subject matter, to novels about the Gulf War (The Fist of God) and the corruption of post-Soviet Russia (Icon).

Deighton, however, was working in a different situation. He knew he had to complete the story – and the umpteen plotlines – left hanging at the end of the previous trilogy. Maybe he had mapped out the complete storyline before 1990. And certainly, the way he’d set most of the action in the late 1980s, but with room to spare before the collapse of communism, gave him to the room to complete the entire story well before the actual collapse began in 1989.

Hence the importance of emphasising the datelines: summer 1987 is when Fiona and Bernard return from R&R in California to start Faith; October 1987 is where Hope begins and carries on to Christmas Eve 1987. Plenty of time to wind up the whole affair and be home in time for tea.

Credit

Hope by Len Deighton was published by Harper Collins in 1995. All quotes and page references are from the 1996 Harper Collins paperback edition.


Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

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

Faith by Len Deighton (1994)

‘If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s being able to sort out complicated technical material so it can be understood by the layman.’
‘Yes, you have a mechanical mind, Dicky, I said.
‘So why don’t you wind it up this week? Yes, I’ve heard that joke, Bernard. It’s time you got some new ones.’
Naughty Bernard: no coffee for you today! (p.275)

Recapping the Bernard Samson novels

Deighton is happier in his first-person narratives. This book’s predecessor, Violent Ward, also a first-person narrative, was warm and funny, unlike the two before that, MAMista and City of Gold, which felt hard-hearted, cold and cruel.

This is the first of the third and final trilogy of novels starring 40-something British intelligence officer Bernard Samson and it is, as most of its predecessors in the series, told in the warm, friendly, ironic tones of Bernard himself.

Bernard lives in London and works for MI6. 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. He is understandably upset she has lied to him for so long and finds himself falling for a new, rather gorgeous young Department employee, Gloria.

In the first two novels of the second set (Spy Hook, Spy Line) Bernard began to suspect – and then had it abundantly confirmed – that Fiona was in fact a triple agent and had been working for us all along. Her defection, and all her ‘spying’ against us before it, had been stage-managed solely to allow her to go East posing as a hero of Socialism, adopt a high-level KGB role in East Berlin, and then spy for us. Although this revelation explains lots of things which have been puzzling Bernard, it in some ways makes her deceit and betrayal even worse. In the second trilogy young Gloria moves in with him and becomes a new mother to his two young children, Billy and Sally.

Eventually, after several hard draining years in East Berlin, Fiona’s mission there is concluded and the Department arranges for her return. But the rainswept night of her final escape back from the East to our side turns into a bloodbath: Samson and Fiona manage to escape but the young agent accompanying Bernard – and Fiona’s sister, Tessa, who had drunkenly tagged along for the ride – are shot dead in a confused shootout, as are the East German agent Stinnes and another bystander, Harry Kennedy.

After Bernard and Fiona have fled the scene, the ex-CIA psychopath-cum-hitman Thurkettle who, unknown to both of them, has been masterminding this carnage, burns Tessa’s body in one of the cars left at the scene, and throws the bodies of British agent, Stinnes and Harry into a deep ditch – part of the roadworks where the whole shambles took place – where they will be covered with concrete and never found. He then motorcycles off to meet the middle-man who is due to give him his money – only to be himself assassinated and his body hidden. The whole sequence is shockingly brutal and cynical.

Still reeling from this bloodbath, the reader progresses to the third book of this second trilogy, Spy Sinker, which abruptly departs the storyline altogether and a) is told in the third person b) goes all the way back to 1977 to recap the events which led to Fiona’s ‘defection’. In line with my theory about Deighton’s points of view, this third-person narrative is much more detached and harder-hearted than the previous five, warm and chatty first-person narratives. It reveals that just about everyone in his life has lied to and betrayed Samson, who emerges as an unwitting pawn in numerous scams and stratagems, and paints a very unpleasant picture of human nature.

Among many other revelations is that it was the head of the Department himself, the D-G, and nice old Silas Gaunt, who cooked up the plan to smuggle Fiona back out of the East and conceived the idea of murdering her sister, Tessa, in order to sever her head and replace it with a model of Fiona’s head containing a set of teeth which perfectly match Fiona’s (!) The intention is to make the East German security police, the Stasi, think their defector boss, Fiona, really had died in a tragic car smash and burn-out. They will thus be lulled into a false sense of security and carry on using the same codes etc, while our chaps debrief Fiona in a safe house in California, and so we can go on tapping the Ossies for a bit longer.

For this end, apparently, Fiona’s own sister was deliberately murdered, decapitated and burned. Call me old-fashioned, but the horror, the cruelty, as well as the stupidity and callousness of such a plan burned out of me all sympathy for the MI6 depicted in these pages. And the charming, humorous banter of the earlier books, Bernard’s droll first-person commentary on his bosses and colleagues in ‘the Department’, was irreparably undermined.

Damaged mood

So when we open this novel, the first in the third and final trilogy, to find Bernard’s narration picking up the story in late 1987 – cheerfully telling us he and Fiona have more or less recovered after a long period of recuperation and debriefing in California – and are now back in London, and back at work together – the reader cannot read his breezy tones in the same way as before. We now know his point of view is limited and plain wrong about numerous key issues. We know he is the victim of a terrible conspiracy. Moreover:

a) Even a reasonably gullible reader like me cannot really believe that a woman can see her own sister shot dead in front of her (some of Tessa’s blood spattered onto Fiona’s coat and face), know it’s partly her fault, and then soon be completely back in the swing of the old job, fussing about the furniture and the trivia of office politics. It doesn’t hang properly. She would be devastated.

b) We, the readers, are nervously aware that, sooner or later, the secret of what happened to Fiona’s sister will come out – and the consequences will be terrible for everyone, including us.

The Bernard Samson universe

It’s a longish book, 360 pages, but it flies by. For some reason Deighton seems at home in this story and his prose is warm and relaxed. It’s tempting to say that the cocky young narrator of the Ipcress novels has grown up, has a wife and kids, but still has the same dry sardonic attitude towards his bosses or his pompous old father-in-law, here showing off about his expensive new artist’s ‘studio’:

‘It’s a place I come when I have to think,’ said David
‘Do you spend much time here?’ I asked.
Fiona glared at me but it went right over David’s head. (p.170)

Bernard and Fiona have been left a swish, Mayfair apartment in Tessa’s will, her husband – George Kosinski, Bernard’s brother-in-law – having moved to Switzerland for tax reasons. They are reunited with their children who, during their sojourn in California, have been looked after by Fiona’s pompous but wealthy father down in Leith Hill, Surrey. And they immediately go back to work full-time, getting reinvolved in Departmental politics, notably lots of fussing about whether their boss, Dicky Cruyer, will get promoted from Head of Ops to Deputy DG of the ‘Department’, and fretting about which office the newly-promoted Fiona will get, and so on. When I was off work with stress, I was only allowed back in stages, initially working part-time, given careful increments of work to re-adapt, monitored and subject to weekly meetings with HR to make sure I could cope. None of that here. Everything is back to ‘normal’ in one leap.

For example, Dicky hosts an excruciatingly embarrassing dinner party where his wife, fed up of all his affairs, is drunk and sarcastic in front of the usual characters – Bernard, Fiona, Gloria, Bret. There is a similarly fraught social Sunday at the father-in-law’s, attended by old Silas Gaunt, the shaggy, overweight, retired but still very influential eminence grise of the Service who we know, but Bernard doesn’t, conceived and carried out the entire Operation Sinker to send Fiona to the East and the blood-curdling plan to bring her back.

Early on Bernard flies back to Berlin where he stays with old Tante Lisl who we last saw wheelchair-bound but who’s had hip replacements and is noticeably more mobile and sprightly. He visits the elderly Frank Harrington, head of the Berlin Field Unit, friend of Bernard’s dad, still hankering after a move back to London and a ‘gong’. Then he hitchhikes down to Zurich to visit his best friend from his Berlin childhood, Werner Volkmann, who has left Lisl’s niece, Ingrid, to take up again with his youthful, go-getting but deeply untrustworthy girlfriend, Zena.

In other words, the old gang’s all here. The plot feels mostly concerned with taking Bernard to all his familiar places and touching base with all the faces we’ve gotten to know so well from the previous six novels, so that we can sink back into the warm comfort zone of the Bernard Samson soap opera.

There is a plot about spies and stuff but really, rather than a spy story which shows us some of the agents’ private lives, these novels feel more like a soap opera about a circle of middle-class people, with homes in Mayfair and the Home Counties, who have Sunday lunches, dinner parties, evenings in cooking and moaning about the office – and ever so occasionally, go off and do some dodgy dealing behind the Iron Curtain. All swathed in, delivered with, Samson (and Deighton)’s trademark dry humour.

As I said it, a movement in the next row of machines revealed the inquisitive and unfriendly eyes of a man named Morgan peeping over the top of the bull-pen. Morgan was a malevolent denizen of the top floor who was working on a PhD in gossip. (p.134)

Gloria

And threaded throughout the book is the domestic difficulty Samson has with the fact that, not only did he shack up with the gorgeous Gloria after Fiona ‘betrayed’ and ‘abandoned’ him, and end up falling seriously in love with her; but that, now Fiona is back, both women are working for the same Department, in the same building, on the same floor. Samson has painful conversations with Fiona, who can’t forgive him for ‘betraying’ her with another woman (er, hang on); and even more painful conversations with Gloria, who can’t bear it that she’s suddenly been shut out of his life.

The Gloria-Fiona thread is another way in which the novels feel more like a soap opera, with lots of tearful accusations and bitter recriminations etc, than a straight spy thriller.

(And there is a Gloria sub-sub-plotline: She refers now and then to her father, who was an émigré from Hungary, came to London as a trained dentist and ended up as a contractor to the Department, for example doing dental work on deep undercover field agents so their teeth looked like they’d had bad Eastern Bloc dental work. She mentions here and there that, while Samson was recuperating in the States, her father’s contract with the Department was terminated, very aggressively; officers came and removed all of his dental equipment. Thus rendered unemployed he has taken up the offer of a job back in Hungary, even though it is still communist and he might be running some risks for ever having left. –Now we know something neither Bernard or Gloria know, which is that the key to the whole swap-Tessa’s-body-for-Fiona’s plan was to supply Tessa’s corpse with a young woman’s head (burned beyond recognition) which contained teeth identical to Fiona’s – and, I don’t think it was 100% confirmed, but the strong presumption in the earlier novels is that it was Gloria’s father who supplied the head with the fake dental work ie he was a crucial element in the conspiracy and this explains, to the alert reader, why he has been shut down and shuffled off abroad. Where, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if something bad does happen to him as Gloria frets to Bernard in their one or two conversations on the subject.)

The plot

Collecting VERDI

Samson is asked to go over the Wall to visit a senior KGB man who might want to defect, code name VERDI. So he goes across the Wall and is driven to the rendezvous by a callow new agent, Robin. When they arrive at the spooky silent house in an East German village the guy they’re due to meet is dead in an armchair, his head blown off. As they leave, they are tailed by a car, so Samson stops on a deserted country road, gets out in an initially friendly way but then shoots at the car, hitting one of ‘their’ men, before jumping back into his own and screeching off.

The Delius network

Samson and Robin drive to a friendly church, the base of one of the many ‘networks’ we ran over in the East (this one code-named Delius). They are welcomed and sheltered by the pastor and this enables Deighton to expand on, or refresh our memories about, the Fiona-defecting plotline. To recap: Bret Rensselaer had identified a decade earlier that the East German churches might form a perfect channel of resistance to the communist regime. So Fiona was chosen to volunteer to spy for the KGB to build up a cover here in the West, before ‘defecting’ to the East, where she could take up her double agent role. There, from her senior position in East German intelligence, she began her real work for us, networking with German churches and encouraging them to speak out against the regime.

Fiona’s mission

You can see what Deighton is doing here, tying his heroine to actual developments in the real world, for the East German churches genuinely were among the focal points for growing resistance to the régime in the late 1980s. But, also in the real world, all the unrest – from churches to other civic groups, intellectuals and opposition parties – was only allowable because of the example of perestroika set by Gorbachev in Russia. It was Gorbachev lifting the lid which led to the collapse of the Eastern bloc, not the subversive activities of nice, public-school-educated English ladies. Deighton’s sleight of hand works… up to a point.

On a practical point: wouldn’t Fiona’s KGB bosses have noticed her anti-KGB activities? Just a little? Wouldn’t she have been very closely monitored indeed, followed every hour of the day, by her touchy new employers? She probably couldn’t go to the loo without them knowing: how, then, could she possibly have arranged meetings with all the leading subversive forces in the country and given them support, money, advice, without the KGB knowing a thing about it, in fact all about it? — Best to put the implausibility of the whole plotline to one side, and enjoy the show.

Rendezvous with Werner

After getting safely back to the West, Samson hitchhikes down to Zurich to see his old mate, Werner Volkmann. For some reason, on the way he has a punishing fight with the trucker who picks him up, leaving him uncertain whether it was an assassination attempt or just a psycho trucker. And the lift after that is with a police inspector who menacingly warns Samson that he better not cause any trouble or get arrested, or else he will have a hard time in the cells. Maybe these two encounters are to establish the tough, manly world of the thriller, the ‘real’ world of crime and law enforcement, of beatings-up on dark rainy nights, which we are meant to be in…

In Zurich there’s some business about safe houses, and having to contact Werner via secretive émigrés and the like, all enjoyable spy hokum, which gives way quickly to the two old buddies meeting up and having long chats about women and life. Werner has been sidelined by London, again (even though we know Werner was Fiona’s case officer, or official liaison channel with London, through her years in the East and so was, at one point, central to the biggest operation in MI6’s history). It feels like that has been quietly forgotten in order to restore the buddies-against-authority vibe Samson and Werner had in the earlier books. Much of the plot has a strong sense of déjà vu, not in the details, just in the feel and recurring situations. In fact more than once Samson himself comments on it, saying he feels like he’s been at this dinner party, or had this conversation with Frank, before. And he has. But the reader doesn’t mind because it’s all done with good humour and intelligence. We like these dinner parties. We like these clever conversations.

Dicky Cruyer’s plan

It transpires that Dicky Cruyer wants to make his name and secure promotion by smuggling VERDI out of the East. VERDI is something to do with the KGB’s vast new computer database and so would be able to tell us all their secrets. However, he was also involved in the investigation into Fiona / Tessa’s death. Samson keeps telling people, especially Werner, that deep down Fiona is traumatised and will never be the same. (That’s what Deighton has to have him say to give the novel some kind of psychological plausibility, but it doesn’t actually show it much. In all the conversations at home, in the office, dinners at home, meeting the kids, dinner parties out and Sunday lunches at her father’s, Fiona comes over as an absolutely normal, pukkah, upper-middle-class gel without a shadow of trauma. Deighton tells but doesn’t show her alleged unravelling.)

Meanwhile, we learn that Fiona hired an American ex-agent and freelance snoop, Timmerman, to go looking for Tessa out East. And late on in the novel we discover it was his body that Samson found at the rendezvous, not VERDI’s. Was Timmerman murdered because he had discovered too much? What does ‘too much’ actually mean? Remember, Samson himself doesn’t know anything about the conspiracy to murder Tessa and try and con the other side that her body was Fiona’s. (Most of this novel seems to be about the way various different characters either know this murderous truth and are probably hiding it (Rennsaeler? Frank Hutchinson? The DG?) or are blissfully ignorant of it and groping to find out (Fiona, Tessa’s husband George, and Samson himself)).

VERDI’s version

Eventually VERDI ie Andrey Fedosov is successfully smuggled out of the East and Samson and Werner are charged with looking after him, though Samson is very unhappy that it has to be in a Departmental flat in Marylebone instead of the big country estate surrounded by CCTV and security guards which they usually employ for the purpose. The latter, Dicky tells him, is being refurbished due to ‘asbestos in the roof’.

In one of his first presentations to our boys, Fedosov tells Werner and Samson that Tessa was never killed! At the confused shootout by the Autobahn in the rain, it was the KGB woman officer charged with getting Fiona back and despatched to intercept her as soon as the KGB knew she’d done a bunk, it was this KGB woman who was shot! What? And that the drunk Tessa we saw climbing into Samson’s transit van as he left a hotel party to collect Fiona, and who we saw shot in the confused handover, was not shot at all but seized by the opposition in all the confusion and taken to a Stasi interrogation centre. What? This is completely against all the versions of events we’d previously read. Can it possibly be true?

Either Deighton is giving himself an ‘out’, a way of providing the happy end to the Tessa affair that we softer-hearted readers would like to see pulled out of a hat. Or, more true to thriller conventions,  Fedosov has been allowed to defect and to tell this story in order to put Samson off the grisly reality which Spy Sinker seemed to describe: that Tessa was deliberately murdered on the orders of people in his own Department. This way it looks like the woman killed was a baddy and Tessa is alive: this gets the Department higher-ups off the hook and, hopefully, will ease Fiona’s guilt. Then if Tessa proves irrecoverable or her body turns up, it can conveniently be blamed on the evil KGB instead of our own bad guys.

A family affair

And so, despite cursory nods in the direction of glasnost and the vast social and political changes affecting the world in 1987, the plot has turned into an entirely family affair. Again. Maybe the whole trilogy will circle round the question: Who killed Tessa? Was she actually killed at all? Will Fiona’s investigations uncover the truth? Will the bad guys in the Department manage to keep the real events a secret? Will Samson get to the bottom of things or will he continue to be the patsy for much larger, much cleverer forces, that he was revealed to be in Spy Sinker?

Having told his version of the Tessa affair with a big smile on his face, Fedosov settles back into an armchair in the safe house, and is promptly shot through the heart by a long range sniper bullet. Werner and Samson throw themselves to the floor and crawl across to check but… yep, he was killed instantly. It’s almost as if someone wanted him to come West, tell his fiction about Tessa and then… bang!

The novel ends with Werner and Samson awaiting being called into the official enquiry into why and how they let Fedosov be assassinated. There’s another strong sense of déjà vu as, once again, Samson and his pal are in the doghouse – but also a familiar feeling that the entire trilogy will be about unravelling just one ‘secret’, as the previous trilogies – despite all the local colour – boiled down to one question: Is Fiona really a Russian spy?

Will Deighton manage to pull it off, to supply enough twists and turns to keep us reading, and yet deliver an outcome which is both unexpected and emotionally satisfying? The only way to find out is to read on, which is what makes this, like all the novels in the series, so fiendishly complex, entertaining and compelling.

Credit

Faith by Len Deighton was published by Harper Collins 1994. All quotes and page references from the 1995 HarperCollins paperback edition.


Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

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

Violent Ward by Len Deighton (1993)

I had a bad feeling about this one – books set in America by British writers are often duff – but this is Deighton’s most enjoyable novel for years.

Mickey Murphy

It’s a first-person narrative in the voice of Mickey Murphy, a street-wise, fast-talking, unscrupulous Los Angeles lawyer. Inevitably, he’s divorced – the novel opens with him cowering under his desk yelling at his secretary, the sternly German Miss Huth, to call the fire brigade because his shouty ex-wife, Betty, is on the balcony outside threatening to jump . He’s also sadly alienated from his grown-up son, Danny, who is a lazy slob, allegedly studying at USC (which Mickey nicknames the ‘University for Spoilt Children’) and shacked up with a difficult, rude girlfriend, Robyna.

The plot features numerous incidents and encounters with wives, ex-wives, girlfriends, fading Hollywood stars and agents, classic car collectors, hoodlums, and hit-men, in a wide selection of bars, dives, hotel lobbies, Beverley Hills mansions, private airfields and up in the exclusive ski resort of Aspen. Deighton shows, or shows off, an impressive familiarity with the street layout of LA, his narrator sharing in-depth knowledge of which freeway to take at which hour of the day, along with short cuts and alternative routes, as well as a breezy familiarity with US law, police procedure, TV shows, fast food menus and so on.

Plots where Los Angeles lowlife and Hollywood glitz meet are not exactly a neglected subject, in fact it may be the most over-done subject in the English-speaking world, if you add to the tens of thousands of novels on the subject, all the movies about movies, and the hundreds of thousands of TV shows about California detectives.

Nonetheless, for me, it worked. It’s the first Deighton for some time that I read with pure pleasure, gripped by the plot, loving Murphy’s wise-cracking jaded tone of voice, laughing at the jokes. Its 360 pages flew by. It’s a great airport or poolside read.

The plot

The novel opens as Murphy’s struggling law practice is bought up by one of his clients, Californian zillionaire Zachary Petrovitch. (Murphy has the standard shabby lawyer’s office downtown, opposite dingy takeaways and flop houses, his secretary is a no-nonsense German immigrant, his two partners are Koreans, one of whom (Korea Charlie) was shot dead by a client at a party celebrating getting off a murder charge, so there’s only one left, Billy Kim.)

Murphy is chuffed to be taken over by his biggest client, chuffed to be invited to Petrovitch’s star-studded parties, flattered to be invited out to his luxury house in the skiing-resort-of-the-stars, Aspen. And emotionally moved to meet up again with the love of his life, Ingrid, who was his sweetheart when they were both kids back at Junior High, even though she is now married to Mr High and Mighty Petrovitch.

In a series of scenes Ingrid slowly conveys to Mickey how unhappy she is, her worries that Petrovitch might be planning to kill her, her paranoia that, although she is ordered to sign lots of documents about new companies being created in South America, she never understands them, and has begun to have dark suspicions that, having set them up, she will then be disposed of.

Things move towards several mini crises: first of all Ingrid asks Mickey to find a friend of hers who’s disappeared, a guy who was on the board of various charities with her. He owns a distinctive classic car, a Packard Darrin. This makes it relatively easy for Mickey to track down the man, who’s been using various aliases, including Pinter, Panter and Pindero. Pindero is drunk when Mickey arrives at his hilltop hideout and drunkenly tells Mickey he’s a hitman who Ingrid has hired to bump off Petrovitch. He himself has a strongman protecting the house, a couple of Dobermans and a mini firing range. Hmm. Is he showing off or does he mean it?

A few days later Mickey returns to the house, finding no guard, no dogs, everything spooky and empty. This is a good atmospheric scene, as Mickey goes from room to room in the darkness and silence, convinced something is wrong but unable to put his finger on it. Until he opens the freezer and Pindero’s folded-up corpse tumbles out. Aha.

In a second eerie scene, Mickey’s just getting into bed after a hard day when he gets a call from Ingrid. She is down at the Malibu pier, can he come and collect her. When he does so she reveals she’s naked under her raincoat, having stripped off all her clothes in readiness to jump in the sea and commit suicide. But she couldn’t bring herself to. Mickey drives her to his place and is running a hot bath, listening to her fears for her life, when Petrovitch’s hatchet man, Goldie Arnez, rings up. They know Ingrid’s there. They’ll be round directly. Mickey gives her pyjamas to wear as he sees her to Petrovitch’s enormous limo. Petrovitch welcomes her back blank-faced. What the devil is going on? Is Ingrid so unhappy she wants to kill herself? Is Petrovitch really planning to kill her? Why does she go back to him so tamely?

Sub-plots

Throughout the novel there are plenty of other sub-plots bubbling away to keep Mickey and the reader puzzled and distracted.

Budd Byron One concerns a fading though still handsome Hollywood actor, Budd Byron, who Mickey socialises with, attends a barbeque at his stunning hilltop pad, and, against his better judgement, helps supply with a $300 handgun. He also was at school with Ingrid and Mickey.

The Rainbow’s End shelter for homeless men In another strand, Mickey is obliged to return the many favours he owes his Korean partner, Billy Kim, by managing the shipment of a corpse from a downtown shelter for homeless men, run by the sinister pastor, ‘Rainbow’ Stojil. Only once he’s committed does Mickey realise this is some kind of scam, the corpse in question bearing an uncanny resemblance to another of his clients, Sir Jeremy Westcliffe, a titled Brit who’s involved in countless shady deals via his alcoholic Brit lawyer, Vic Crichton. Since the death certificate gives the stiff’s name as Jeremy Westcliffe, Mickey deduces Sir J is disappearing and will reappear under a new identity somewhere. Ho hum. That’s show business.

Vic Crichton keeps turning up at inappropriate moments making awkward comments. There’s some broad comedy when he introduces everyone to his gorgeous, dolly bird wife at one of Petrovitch’s glamorous parties, only for Vic’s actual wife to phone Mickey later that night; she’s flown in from London to surprise him; yes, she probably will surprise him in bed with his mistress.

On a more serious note, Vic is involved with his partner in the scam around Sir Jeremy’s fake corpse. Not that that interrupts Sir Jeremy’s ongoing business deals with Petrovitch, for which Vic is the middle-man and gofer. These seem to involve the creation of a specific kind of legal entity which can be signed over to ’empty bearers’ in the US, but then collected and re-owned in South America. The owners of numerous Petrovitch corporations would legally cease their ownership of them – then reclaim them in Peru. (Peru? Yes, because Peru has no extradition treaty with the US.)

This dodgy procedure means the owners will owe no tax in the country of origin (the US), although Mickey is at pains to point out it involves risk at the point of ‘re-owning’. Someone else could establish right to the deeds before the intended owners – if, that is, anyone else knew about them.

Vic disconcerts Mickey by telling him point blank this is why Petrovitch has bought Mickey’s law practice; not because he’s old pals with Ingrid; not because of his stunning legal acumen; but because he can be bumped off and his rackety office torched in an arson attack, destroying all records of the dodgy transactions, once they’re carried through.

Petrovitch’s point of view

As the book enters the final straights, Petrovitch calls Mickey in for a Grand Audience. Mickey’s sarcastic wise-guy manner rises to the occasion of describing ‘Big Pete’s millionaire mansion, stuffed full of display cases showing genuine antique pots and coins and heavy classical paintings of ancient Rome,

‘Get Mickey a cup of coffee, will you, Goldie?’ As Goldie disappeared into the study room, Petrovitch sat down and stretched out his long thin legs to admire his patent leather Gucci loafers. Above his head, Marcus Aurelius was expelling the Germans from the Danube provinces; the river was very blue, the way Johann  Strauss liked his Danube. (p.312)

Petrovitch assures him he knows Ingrid is unbalanced. He, with Goldie nodding by his side, claim that far from him wanting to bump off Ingrid, Ingrid hired Pindero to bump him off. ‘Happy marriage, is it?’ Mickey asks. ‘We know you visited Pindaro,’ Petrovitch says, with menace in his voice: ‘Were you acting as go-between for Ingrid? Were you part of the conspiracy to murder me?’ Er, no, Mickey replies. Emphatically.

The Rodney King riots

Trundling along in the background has been the protracted, true life court case surrounding the beating of black taxi driver by white police officers on 3 March 1991, which was caught on video. On April 29, 1992, the mostly white jury acquitted the police officers who had been brought to trial for the beating. the acquittal led to the 1991 Los Angeles riots, an explosion of violence, arson and looting which required the police, the U.S. Army, Marines and National Guard to restore order by which time the riots had caused 53 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damage to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses.

The climax of the novel is timed to coincide with the riots. Mickey has made an appointment to meet Ingrid, Petrovitch and Vic Crichton on that very afternoon. As he drives to it he notices gangs of people rampaging in the streets, then he’s attacked in his car while stopped at lights. Parking in the underground car park he’s met by his neighbours toting revolvers and even a machine gun. In his office he finds Miss Huth in hysterics and Budd Byron pacing up and down brandishing his newly-acquired Browning pistol.

They watch the chaos spread in the streets and blocks outside and via the live TV news footage from the numerous media helicopters which swarm over the city. It is against this backdrop of riot and mayhem, that a helicopter arrives carrying the unexpected pairing of little Vic Crichton and smartly dressed Ingrid. Mickey rushes out to them carrying the documents they need to sign, having persuaded Vic to replace the bearer bonds with powers of attorney for him and Ingrid. They sign in a flustered hurry,but in the middle of this chaos another plot strand comes to a climax.

For Budd Byron comes running over waving his hand-gun. He asks Ingrid to get out of the helicopter. He loves her and, as they’d planned, he’s got everything arranged to take her away from all this to a new life. Mickey realises he was expecting Petrovitch to be in the chopper and was fully prepared to murder him. But Ingrid cruelly rejects him, says she was mentally unwell when she seduced him, now she is better and is reconciled with her fabulous husband. As the chopper lifts off and moves forward Budd chases it shooting his gun, emptying the magazine. I was braced for the chopper to crash and burn, killing Mickey’s childhood sweetheart, in the kind of cold-hearted, sudden death you get used to when reading Deighton – like the horrible death of Inez Cassidy in MAMista or the eviscerating of that nice Harry Wechsler in City of Gold. Fortunately Budd’s shots all go wide and the chopper flies off over the smoke-filed skies of the riot-torn city.

Mickey retreats to his office with the signed documents and watches more riot footage, before his secretary decides it’s safe to head off home and Mickey drives cautiously across town to his son, Danny’s, pad. Here he finds his ex-wife Betty, comforting their son. And, in an unusually heart-warming sequence, Mickey ends up sleeping with his wife and being at least partly reconciled to her. Aaaah. Partly because, amid the general mayhem, his wife seems to have reinvented herself as a Hollywood producer, seems to be putting together a package with good old Budd Byron, and is talking about getting a job on the set or in production for their lazy son. It’s a crazy town.

The reveal

Only in the last few pages of the novel do we finally understand everything that’s been going on. Petrovitch phones to make an appointment and flies in in his chopper, accompanied by his bulldog, Arnie. Mickey jumps into the passenger seat and explains: He has put together lots of the evidence – fake dead bodies, dummy death certificates, new identities, both Budd and Pindosa being seduced or paid by Ingrid to threaten or actually harm Petrovitch. But it was only when Ingrid showed up with Vic Crichton that he was sure they were in a conspiracy together. Their plan was to de-own shares in almost all Petrovitch’s companies, convert them into ‘bearable bonds’ (which appear to be a kind of share which has no named owner), then fly to Lima ahead of Petrovitch and, in that different country and legal jurisdiction, use the new identities they’d been creating with the help of Rainbow Stiloj to claim the bearerless shares, thus legally owning Petrovitch’s entire empire. ‘And you knew all this and let them get away with it?’ asks Petrovitch, with just a teeny hint of menace in his voice.

‘No,’ replies Mickey. He explains to Petrovitch that he persuaded Vic that leaving the ownerless shares to exist unclaimed, in legal limbo, until he and Zach arrived in Lima to claim them, was too risky. So Vic bought Mickey’s suggestion of having power of attorney over the shares and, in the panic of the helicopter-among-the-riots, Mickey got Vic and Ingrid to sign a power of attorney which would allow them to manage the shares in the ownerless interim. They certainly will fly to Lima under the new identities provided by Rainbow Stiloj and discover – that a power of attorney is only valid in the names signed on the form. Ingrid and Vic will arrive under new identities with new passports and discover – that their powers of attorney documents are invalid because they were drawn up and signed in their old (real) identities, and that they are powerless to claim the shares. Result: Petrovitch can fly down there at his leisure to claim ownership – and do what he thinks fit with the two absconders, if he can find them.

Petrovitch eyes Mickey coldly. ‘Looks like you were the only one who knew what was going on all along, Mickey. You’re a smart guy. You’re coming to Peru with me.’

Conclusion

And so it ends with Mickey the hero of the moment. The narrative foregrounds Mickey’s tough guy attitude, his street smarts and cynicism about Californian life and the Hollywood merry-go-round, but not very far below the surface beats a heart of gold.

Mickey’s voice is street-wise, snappy, convincingly American and often very funny. Although Deighton is venturing into territory done to death by the great Raymond Chandler and a thousand – ten thousand – imitators, I think it works. Deighton pulls it off. Violent Ward is as sharp and funny as his 1968 comedy, Only When I Larf, should have been and wasn’t quite. It is one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read in ages.


Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

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

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