City of Gold by Len Deighton (1992)

Part one – Plot summary

Cairo during the war

Because of the chameleon on the book cover I thought this might be another novel set in South America, the setting of MAMista, but in fact this one is set in wartime Cairo – apparently known back then as the ‘city of gold’ – in January 1942, as Rommel and Montgomery push each other’s armies back and forth across North Africa.

The novel opens with Army Special Investigator, Major Albert Cutler accompanying a soldier, Jimmy Ross (accused of killing a superior officer under fire) back to Cairo by train to stand trial. Cutler has a heart attack giving Ross a golden opportunity to swap clothes, identity cards and so on, and arrive in Cairo masquerading as the special investigator. A confident actor, he hands over Cutler’s body to the officer meeting him at the station, Captain Marker, claiming it is Ross’s. From that point onwards Ross-as-Cutler is on tenterhooks, scared that at any moment his impersonation of the investigator will be discovered by the soldiers surrounding him. Captain Marker escorts him to the Army’s main barracks at Bab el-Hadid, where he is assigned rooms, introduced to his staff, and then shown around town by Marker, who is puzzled as to why he seems so nervous.

By this route we enter the lives of a circle of people living in the Cairo at this moment in history. Peggy West, a good-looking, 30-year-old senior nurse, who lost her only child to illness and whose husband, Karl, has been away on active service in Iraq for eighteen long months. We see her supervising her sometimes difficult or emotional nurses at the Base Hospital, often overcome by the sight of so many dying and mutilated young men.

Peggy relies on money from the slippery Solomon Marx, who lives on a houseboat on the Nile, and who we see talking with his partner, Yigal, in a conversation which seems to reveal that they’re working for the Jewish independence forces in occupied Palestine. Solomon asks Peggy to keep and eye on Prince Piotr Nikoleiovitch Tikhmeibrazoff, a large, imposing Russian émigré who rents the entire top floor at the Hotel Magnifico. Its Italian owner, Lucio wants him out so she can rent the individual rooms at much greater profit to the hordes of Allied officers swarming into the city and looking for stylish bolt-holes. Everybody gossips that the Prince is Rommel’s spy in the city – it is well known that Rommel is getting verbatim reports of British troop deployments from a well-placed spy. But the Prince rises above it all, continuing to host his stylish parties, one of which Ross is taken to by the only woman on his staff at the barracks, the phenomenally posh Alice Stanhope. Alice’s mother, also living in Cairo, knows absolutely everyone dahling.

Meanwhile, in the Lady Fitzherbert brothel in the notorious El Birkeh district of the city, we see two partners in crime, Sergeants Percy and Smith, not their real names, who have booked a room to share the money from their latest deals. But Smith is getting cold feet: the Army appointed a new auditor at his stores who is bound to find out that he’s been embezzling them on a grand scale. As he whines and wails, Deighton surprises us by having Percy move forward, place his hand over his mouth and stab him through the heart with an oriental dagger. A young Arab serving girl looks on while this happens, then goes to fetch towels and cloth to clear up the mess.

All this takes place in the first 60 or so pages of this 320-page novel to set the scene, the location, the atmosphere, to establish quite a large cast of characters, all with secrets or agendas or plans afoot, which the remaining 250 pages will bring to light and work through. I’ve been to Cairo; the city is fairly well evoked, but the dominant impression from these early pages is Deighton’s humourlessness and the flat, blank, factual, heartless way he describes violence and death.

Stereotypes and clichés

So the plus sides are: large cast of characters, intriguing setting, interesting plot arcs, Deighton’s in-depth knowledge of military history, strategy and hardware, and his taut clipped sentences.

Unfortunately, these strengths are related to a number of weaknesses. Many characters, yes, but too many of them are stereotypes, too many of them are famous for x, or a classic example of y, or a stock type of z.

She recognised it as one of Darymple’s stories. His skill as a storyteller was renowned throughout the clubs and bars of Cairo. (p.51)

Jeannie MacGregor’s grand-father had lived in a castle, and through him Jeannie claimed to be a direct descendant of Rob Roy, the famous Scots outlaw. (p.61)

Sayed was a handsome young man. His light-coloured skin and clear blue eyes were said in Cairo to be the legacy of Circassian concubines, women renowned for their beauty. (p.64)

‘I met an old chum in Shepheard’s bar last week. Toby Wallingford, RNVR, a very good pal. I thrashed him countless times at school; he says he still has the scars.’ (p.68)

‘Cleo’s club. Just about every crook and black-marketeer in Cairo visits this place at some time or other.’ (p.75)

‘They call him Zooly; he’s one of the richest men in this town. If you want a tank, or a virgin, or your enemy murdered, he’ll fix it for you – at a price.’ (p.75)

Short clipped sentences, yes, but this means the characters’ feelings or psychology are generally conveyed with crushing bluntness and obviousness. Deighton proved himself a brilliant popular historian with Blitzkrieg and Fighter. His thumbnail sketches of key figures in those histories, eg the tank commander Guderian or Wing Commander ‘Bomber’ Harris are more interesting and thorough than you might expect in a history. But they are nowhere near subtle or nuanced enough to appear in a novel, the form most concerned with psychological development and insight.

You could say that, as novelists go, Deighton is a very good military historian – a writer who is much more at home with the technical specifications of a Messerchmitt 109E or a brisk explanation of Rommel’s attack formation at El Alamein, than with the foibles of the human heart. Again and again you read sentences that might have come from a Mills & Boon novelette, especially when he’s dealing with his female characters. The issue of Peggy West having lost a young baby, thus making her forlorn, seems like something out of Catherine Cookson.

Had the baby lived, everything might have gone differently. (p.56)

It was a glorious smile, the sort of smile that a woman saves for the man she adores. Was it possible that she could fall in love with a man she’d only just met? The answer was yes. (p.97)

She wondered if this man would ever realise that she was desperately in love with him. Everyone who had seen her with him in the last few days seemed to guess. No matter how hard she tried, Alice could not keep it a secret from anyone except from him. (p.100)

She was beautiful, yet shy. She was eternally reticent, yet she knew so much. What a wicked twist of fate that he’d met her at a time like this. (p.98)

Yes, what a wicked, wicked twist of fate.

The plot(s)

Wallingford’s criminal gang

The 20 or so characters intertwine and interact. We have been introduced several times to a Lieutenant Commander Toby Wallingford, a posh boy who went to the same public school as some of the other officers, namely Captain Darymple. Wallingford gives out to his officer colleagues that he’s part of a hush-hush secret unit, often deployed to the front on high risk missions. Now we learn he is in fact a deserter who has set up a smuggling operation. Key to it is Percy, in fact a German deserter, the man we saw murder Smith in one of the opening scenes. Percy knows the position of various German and Italian arms dumps which were abandoned in the last retreat. Thus he is able to navigate Wallingford’s crew of criminals in lorries through the front line on what Wallingford tells everyone are hush-hush missions, to load up the guns and ammo, and drive them back to Cairo to flog on the black market.

One aspect of Wallingford’s operations is to kindly arrange a loan for his superior, Captain Darymple, who is always in debt. Wallingford drives him to a dingy Arab house, where Darymple signs a loan agreement with the cunning old Egyptian ‘banker’ and businessman, Mahmoud. Inevitably, within days, Mahmoud is calling for the short term to be repaid with interest, Darymple is begging Wallingford to help him, and Wallingford is kindly offering to intercede if Darymple will just sign a few forms and arrange the transit of some, er, goods. In other words, he co-opts Darymple into becoming an accessory to his black market organisation.

Another and persisting element is the existence of a massive arms dump, packed with Italian Beretta machines guns, at a place in no man’s land between the armies called Al Jaghbub. Wallingford’s plan is simple: to go and collect them and transport them back to Cairo and sell to Solomon. However, various things go wrong. For a start, we are introduced to a gung-ho American journalist, Harry Wechsler, and his Irish fixer, Chips O’Riley, who somehow get wind of the secret, and undertake a perilous drive out into the desert. Turns out British Army investigators are also there, question Wechsler, then order him to push off. The authorities decide to leave the guns where they are but spike them. Aware they’ve been found, but not of the decision to sabotage them, Wallingford tells Percy he’ll go ahead and sell them to Solomon Marx’s Jewish organisation, but they’ll have to collect them themselves.

Sayed el-Shazli

In a separate strand, Peggy West and Alice take an Army lorry and follow Sayed el-Shazli, a young well-connected Egyptian who’s part of the Prince’s circle, out onto the perilous Western road and then off to an out-of-the-way native village. Ross-as-Cutler had ordered Alice to tail him, thinking it would be a safe assignment around Cairo bars. Alice parks the lorry, tells Peggy to guard it, and walks into the village unaccompanied, ignored by the sullen villagers. Suddenly she realises she’s being followed and the Arab man moves closer then speaks to her. The atmosphere becomes sinister, as she is accompanied to the big house of the village where she finds Sayed and a fat, rich old pasha who proceeds to read her fortune as she sips the tea, becomes woozy and then passes out. I thought something bad might happen to her, but it turns out to be simple heatstroke. Sayed’s people look after her, and then return her to Peggy’s care.

King Farouk

On a higher political and diplomatic level, we see through the eyes of nervous Jimmy Ross the political crisis which flares up when the British diplomats (foolishly, in the opinion of the Army) force young King Farouk to change his government. The crisis atmosphere comes about because it seems as if the King will refuse, in which case the British will force him to abdicate. This is all told from the point of view of Ross who appears in the square in front of the palace at night, the whole city in an atmosphere of great tension, the soldiers on duty who Ross talks to uncertain what is going on. Eventually, in the early hours, Farouk concedes, changes government and remains king. The senior officers, brigadiers and the like that Ross talks to, think it’s all the fault of the damn fool diplomats, that the Army has enough on its plate fighting Rommel out West without having to worry about riots and insurrection back in Cairo.

Sayed’s humiliation

Prince Piotr takes his friends (Sayed, Peggy, Alice, Wallingford, Darymple) to one of Cairo’s swankiest restaurants to celebrate his birthday, partly because he knows the tubby 22-year-old King Farouk will be there (nickname: ‘fatty Farouk’) and he’ll be able to show off his acquaintanceship with him. The king grandly enters with his entourage, emphatically countering the rumours surrounding his abdication and the knife-edge political situation of just a few days before. Alice, Peggy and the other bien-pensant liberals are favourably inclined to him. Half way through the evening he sends over an equerry who conveys very polite birthday felicitations to Prince Piotr, compliments to the ladies, and then addresses Zeinab, the beautiful sister of Sayed: the king requests the honour of a dance. A private dance. At his palace. Leaving in fifteen minutes.

Stricken, tense, muttered conversations ensue, in which the Prince explains that neither Sayed nor Zeinab can refuse this ‘honour’; if they do Sayed will wake up dead at the bottom of the Nile. The Western women are outraged, and suddenly not so fond of the good-looking young king who now makes his exit, returning to the palace to prepare himself for his ‘dance’ with Zeinab. And then she goes mournfully, to be accompanied away by an equerry, in reality a glorified pimp for the fornicating king.

This proves an important turning point in one of the numerous plot strands, because Sayed is so embittered by this public and personal humiliation that he reveals to Alice, then Ross, that he is a member of the illegal Free Officers revolutionary organisation, working to overthrow British rule and establish a free monarchy. Not any more. Now he agrees to spy on it for the British. Alice fixes up a meeting with her boss Ross (all the time masquerading as the dead Special Investigator, Bert Cutler, and increasingly feeling relaxed and comfortable in the role) who conducts a fraught conversation which ends with him producing a blank piece of paper. ‘Write their names’, he says, knowing that once Sayed has crossed that Rubicon, and betrayed his colleagues, there will be no going back.

The tense psychology of spying, interrogation, betrayal, the links between individual behaviour and the broader political scene, descriptions of a lorry driven by nervous criminals making its way through a minefield in the Western desert – all of this is powerfully and persuasively done. It’s the softer, social sides of life, cocktail party chatter, and especially anything to do with women, their thoughts as they try on outfits for the party, their feelings and emotions, and especially his descriptions of falling in love or being in love, where Deighton is at his weakest.

The Jewish plotline

Ross/Cutler’s relationship with his boss, an unpredictable brigadier, is reminiscent of the Ipcress novels and the narrator’s insubordinate opinion of his superiors. There is a hilarious scene two-thirds of the way through where Ross has to listen to his boss banging on about the Jews, about the origin of Christianity, and about Jewish freedom fighters in Palestine. But the Jewish thread is compounded a few pages later when Captain Marker reports to Ross that the American journalist, Wechsler, has posted a long detailed piece to US newspapers explaining how the British used Jewish spies in the Levant from as early as 1940, on a promise to help them secure independence / fight the Arabs. Now the British are reneging on that promise, various underground Jewish organisations are finding ways to secure Axis munitions left in dumps in no man’s land.

These revelations put into context the activities of Solomon Marx and his colleague, who we met early on; they are one of these teams securing arms for the Jewish homeland. It explains the activities of Peggy West, who in a low-level way collects a stipend from Marx for spying for him. It puts in context Wallingford’s plan to flog the Italian machine guns at Al Jaghbub to Solomon which, we now realise, will be passed on to the Haganah or other Jewish militias in Palestine. It explains why the brigadier wants to set up a new unit to monitor Religious Subversives, namely whatever Jewish organisations they can locate. It explains why Captain Marker is riveted to discover, after extensive investigation, that Peggy West’s missing husband, Karl, is in fact a Haganah operative, with a long record of criminal convictions and two escapes from captivity. And explains why Marker decides to help Peggy’s long-expressed wish to find her missing husband; if they trail her, and she finds him, they can arrest him.

The Italian guns

Marker informs Ross that there’s been an incident at the Italian arms dump. Some Arabs turned up and insisted they had authorisation to remove them. The brigadier’s men were a bit trigger happy and the incident degenerated into a shootout in which eight Arabs were killed. So we have this information as we watch Solomon and Yigal drive to an appointment with Mahmoud. Wallingford had sub-contracted collecting the arms to Mahmoud, whose men are the ones who’ve been killed. The interview is tense because Mahmoud is convinced Solomon is in league with the British and partly responsible for the deaths, whereas Solomon doesn’t even understand what’s happened. On leaving the house Solomon and Yigal are arrested by British Army cops who Mahmoud has tipped off in revenge.

The Desert War

The scene then shifts for the last forty pages or so to a forward base in the desert. Captain Darymple has managed to arrange a transfer here, back to his old armoured car brigade, and away from Cairo where he learns there is now a contract out on him for non-repayment of Mahmoud’s debt. Here, by coincidence arrives Wallingford, along with Percy and a gang of his criminals. They are planning to go forward to steal more munitions from the desert. At the same time, Ross-as-Cutler arrives to seek help from the commanding officer. And also here is the ubiquitous Harry Wechsler and his gofer, Chips, wanting to see some real action for a change.

All these strands come together when the Germans make their presence felt and threaten to attack. The entire unit is ordered to withdraw, lorries, armoured cars and all. Their commanding officer, nickname Thunder, is just admiring the size and power of Wechsler’s V-8-powered lorry when it runs over a mine, exploding, killing Chips outright, fatally crushing Wechsler behind the engine block, burning and crippling all the passengers. The medic helps out as best he can before the rest of the convoy continues on to their main base.

Here, there are dramatic scenes as the commander in chief, Anderson, lets Wallingford know in no uncertain terms that he knows that Walingford and most of his men are deserters and criminals: they’ll be given guns to fight against the advancing Germans, but no forgiveness or amnesty, and all he can offer them is a decent burial.

The entire Wallingford gang plotline is over in a stroke. As part of this round-up Ross-as-Cutler goes to arrest Percy who he suspects (correctly) of being German. But Percy makes a break for it and runs off, scrambling up the nearest sand dune. Ross chases him, up sand dunes then down into a dry, hard, creviced valley bottom, all the time coming under fire from the German positions which are less than a kilometre away. Finally he rugby tackles him and starts violently beating him. An armoured car arrives, German rifle bullets pinging off it, sent by the commanding officer, and Ross pushes Percy into it and it returns them to the base. Here Ross interrogates Percy and finally cracks the ‘Rommel’s spy’ case which has hung over the whole novel.

The spy isn’t Percy, who is simply the low-level crook and black marketeer we’ve been led to believe. But before he deserted, Percy worked on Rommel’s signals unit, and here he had access to the signals being sent by the spy. So he is able to tell Ross that the information is being sent by an Axis spy within the US embassy in Cairo, the Americans being given privileged access to all British troop movements and strategy. Aha.

In the last page of this section, Ross has himself handcuffed to Percy, as they prepare for the final German assault, and tells him one of the commander’s staff has orders to shoot them both if the compound is over-run (to prevent knowledge that they know about the master spy, from being revealed to the enemy).

Tying up the threads

The setting cuts away to Cairo.

1. Alice is informed that Ross is alive. Just. He and the survivors of the unit were found some days after the Germans attacked and wiped them out. Almost all of them were dead, in fact the patrol thought Ross was dead, with badly burnt legs and exposure. But he was alive, still handcuffed to the dead Percy. She rushes to be by his side, convinced now that she loves him.

2. Ross is recovering in bed when visited by his ever-efficient adjutant in Special Investigations, Ponsonby. Unfortunately, when he was brought in he was so delirious that he gave his true name (Ross) to his rescuers, was tagged as such all the way to the hospital, where questions started to be asked. Ooops. They know he is Corporal Jimmy Ross; they know he was only masquerading as Major Cutler.

But Ponsonby has carried on being loyal to him and, it is implied, the brigadier has turned a blind eye while Ponsonby worked bureaucratic wonders. Ross has been declared dead some months ago, his death certificate associated with Cutler’s corpse from the train. But now ‘Cutler’ has also been declared dead, thus neatly solving the problem from an administrative point of view: for if the truth ever came out, that Ross had managed to fool all those people, including his superior, for so many months, everyone involved would look a complete ass. Better that ‘Cutler’ dies, and dies a hero, in the desert, giving his life fighting the Hun. And to those in the know, making the breakthrough with the Rommel spy case.

Ross will be given a completely new identity and packed off out east somewhere, India, Burma. Ross is briefly miffed that he won’t get any recognition for unmasking Rommel’s spy, but then is grateful to be free. Well, still in the army… Alice arrives full of love. Presumably their romance will blossom…

3. Peggy West arrives at Solomon’s houseboat after dark. She finds him badly wounded, sitting in the dark. He and Yigal were ambushed by Mahmoud’s men. Yigal is dead. A felucca of his people, the Jewish underground, is coming to rescue them. While they wait Peggy tries to clean and bind his wound. Solomon tells her that her husband, Karl, is dead. Maybe he only ever wanted the British passport. In a last gesture Solomon tells Peggy he’s giving her the houseboat. Its name is City of Gold. 

Peggy helps Solomon into the felucca which starts up an outboard and putters away in the dark night. Moments later soldiers arrive led by Captain Marker. He was the officer who met Ross-Cutler all those months earlier on his arrival in Cairo station. During the ‘trouble with Jews’ conversations he had mentioned to Ross that he was himself Jewish. Now we, Peggy and his own soldiers strongly suspect he has timed his ‘arrest’ of Solomon just too late to actually capture him. And, after his men have searched the houseboat and found nothing, he sends them away, and settles down for a drink with Peggy. She is realising she has no husband, no ties, a new property (the houseboat) maybe she can stretch her wings and live a free life for the first time. Marker finds her especially attractive and they flirt. Maybe their story, too, will have a happy ending.

Conclusion

The last 100 pages or so really pick up pace and intensity, Deighton’s clipped style well-suited to situations of men deceiving, double crossing and manipulating each other, to the edginess of combat situations, to moments of violence and physical action – like the lorry blown up by a mine and its grisly aftermath, or Ross’s desperate pursuit of Percy across the sand dunes under enemy fire.

It is the intensity of these closing scenes which stays in the memory and persuades you this was a good thriller, helping you to forget the first two hundred pages of social chit-chat, party conversation and attempts to convey a feminine perspective on emotions and feelings, which are a lot less convincing.

El Alamein

Throughout the book, there has been a continuous chorus of characters speculating about whether and when Rommel will reach Cairo, and the more thoughtful of them predicting that, if he does, the entire Middle East will fall to the Germans, who will then be able to push north and reinforce their forces fighting in Russia and, ultimately, win the war. (Deighton is, of course, no stranger to counter-factual speculation as one of his most successful novels, SS-GB, describes what England would feel like after the Nazis had in fact invaded and conquered us.) The speculation is in part fuelled by rumours that Rommel knows everything the British Army is planning to do before it does it, and therefore to win victory after victory. Therefore, the discovery by Ross that the enemy is getting their information from sources inside the US Embassy is absolutely vital.

Deighton tops and tails the narrative with quotes from a history of codebreaking which confirm that Rommel’s victories were in part based on these intelligence tip-offs – and that they abruptly stopped in the summer of 1942, therefore leaving him, for the first time, blind about British intentions.

A few months after the narrative ends, in October 1942, there took place the decisive battle of the Desert War, and one of the great battles of the entire war – the battle of El Alamein. Deighton has seeded clues about it by having characters refer to stopovers there, for Alamein was just an insignificant train stop in the desert until this historic event made its name famous. It was here that the British decisively beat Rommel and pushed his Afrika Corps into retreat. The very last lines quote Churchill as saying that, before El Alamein we never had a victory; but after El Alamein, we never had a defeat.

This places Jimmy Ross’s behaviour in impersonating a Special Investigator so thoroughly that he begins to solve his cases, and in particular his heroic chasing of the German deserter Percy across desert dunes under enemy fire, and, back at the base, his beating out of Percy the truth about the sources of Rommel’s intelligence – in a completely new light. In case it wasn’t obvious, Deighton is implying that Ross played a decisive role in winning the war. It is an example of Deighton’s super-dry humour that this entire novel makes a stroppy criminal corporal from Glasgow turn out to be a figure of world historical importance.


Part Two – First and third person narrators

If my summary of City of Gold seems a bit chaotic, if it’s hard to grasp who the lead characters are, I think this is a strategy or effect which Deighton deliberately seeks. In all his third-person novels characters are killed off almost on a whim because most of those novels, especially the ones about war (Bomber, Goodbye Mickey Mouse, SSGB) seek to depict the horrifying arbitrariness of accidents, pain and death.

In most of Deighton’s fiction – rather like in ‘real life’ – you are deliberately kept guessing which characters are ‘important’ and which ones are going to die horribly grisly deaths. As in ‘real life’, there’s a large cast and wildly unpredictable things happen ie the heart attack in the first chapter of City of Gold or Wechsler, who I was just getting to like, being killed in the blown-up lorry. In his 3rd-person narratives, it is as if Deighton is trying to teach his readers a lesson about how bloody awful life is.

This is one of the things which makes the first-person narratives so different from the third-person ones. In the third-person narratives, the narrator is rather formal and anything can happen, horrible unpredictable things can happen at any moment. It is a tense experience reading them, and often upsetting.

By contrast, the first-person narratives eg the Ipcress novels, the first-person Bernard Samson narratives or a novel like Violent Ward, feel warmer and funnier for several reasons, but a main one is because you are on the solid ground of knowing that at least the narrator himself is not going to be blown up in a lorry, cut down in a jungle ambush, vapourised by ack ack fire, or any of the numerous other fates awaiting characters in the 3rd-person texts.

Deighton is happier in the first-person narratives, and so is the reader.

City of Gold Dramatis personae

THE BRITISH ARMY

Major Albert Cutler – Army Special Investigator, recruited from Glasgow police force, accompanying Corporal Jimmy Ross in handcuffs back to Cairo for trial for assaulting an officer under fire, when he has a heart attack and dies.

Corporal Jimmy Ross, also from Scotland, is travelling in custody of Major Cutler until the latter has a heart attack, whereupon Jimmy gets the keys to the handcuffs, frees himself and swaps clothes and identity cards with Cutler. When the train arrives in Cairo Ross confidently adopts Cutler’s identity, handing over the body to Captain Marker and being escorted to his new offices in the huge Bab el-Hadid barracks. He was hoping he could do a runner and disappear into the Cairo crowds but now finds himself trapped in his new identity. But after a nervous few days he discovers that everyone accords an Army Special Investigator lots of respect, he discovers he likes ordering around other officers, having a slavish assistant (Sergeant Ponsonby) and very much likes the only woman on his staff, the stunning Alice Stanhope. He finds excuses to be near her, and gives in to her requests to actually do something instead of hanging round looking decorative. Thus he lets her follow Sayed, the personable, western-educated young Egyptian who is part of their social circle, a simple request which becomes complicated when she finds herself driving out to an isolated village and then surrounded by threatening armed men… In the event it is Sayed’s home village and she is perfectly safe. Through various encounters, at work and at the various cocktails parties described in the first half of the novel, we watch her and
Ross fall in love. As the months go by he begins to use his powers to seriously track down Rommel’s spy who everyone is talking about. This eventually leads him to the Western Desert where he tracks down Percy, the German deserter who is part of Major Wallingford’s criminal gang, and beats the truth out of him, before himself being badly wounded in a German attack on the Allied base. Badly burned and half dead, Ross is recovered after the battle is over, and brought back to hospital in Cairo.

Sergeant Ponsonby – ever efficient adjutant, always ready with his disgusting tea made with cloying evaporated milk, always ready with the correct file and always shifting responsibility for dodgy tasks, missions and reports onto other units so as to keep his boss squeaky clean. He carries on being super efficient even after, right at the end of the novel, it is revealed that Ross has been impersonating Cutler all along. Ponsonby manages all the paperwork so that Ross can remain free (although in the Army), assume a new identity, and start a new career out East.

The brigadier – Ross-Cutler’s superior at the Bab el-Hadid barracks. He is eccentric and unpredictable – as demonstrated in a long and very funny scene in the last third of the novel, when he prattles on about Jewish conspiracies and links it somehow to the founding of Christianity by that rascal, St Paul.

Captain Lionel Marker – Ross’s number one, the upright, punctilious officer who meets Ross at Cairo station and is taken in by him from the start, who escorts him around Cairo, introducing him to its criminal and ethnic communities, as well as to the polite society of various bars and hotels and into the elite social circle gather round Prince Piotr. When the issue of Jewish spies securing arms for the Jewish forces in Occupied Palestine rears its head, Marker points out to his boss, Ross, that he, Marker, is Jewish. This doesn’t bother Ross one way or the other, but it may explain the slight undercurrent when Marker, early on in the novel, is tasked with searching Solomon Marx’s houseboat, along with all the other houseboats moored along the Nile, for guns or other smuggled goods. At the very end of the novel, he definitely arrives to carry out another search of The City of Gold just after Solomon has left. Moreover, we know that Peggy West was married to a Jew and considers herself part Jewish. This may or may not explain the mild flirtation that Marker feels relaxed enough to begin with Peggy right at the end of the novel.

Captain Robin Darymple (page 50) – dashing public school chap who knew Wallingford at school and finds himself blackmailed, via his gambling debts, into getting involved in Wallingford’s shady schemes.

Lieutenant Commander Wallingford RNVR (page 76) Public school chap who happens to have deserted his unit and uses his public school connections (with, among others, Darymple) to maintain the fiction that he is commander of a hush-hush secret unit tasked with carrying our daring raids out behind enemy lines. Giving himself a naval rank was a smart move, since naval records are stored in Alexandria and difficult for Cairo Army intelligence to access. Wallingford is actually running a black market racket with a bunch of other deserters and Sergeant Percy, masquerading as a South African, in fact a deserter from the German Army.

Mogg and Powell, two deserters who are part of Wallingford’s gang.

Sergeant Percy is a German deserter. His unit was completely decimated in an Allied advance and so he walked East into our arms but managed to escape capture, dressing in British Army gear, pretending to be a South African and finding his way into ‘Major’ Wallingford’s criminal gang of black marketeers. He becomes an invaluable source for the location of various ammo dumps which he leads Wallingford’s gang to in the desert, which they can load up, drive back to Cairo and sell. Nonetheless, he has an uneasy relationship with Wallingford, having announced that it will soon be time for him to leave the gang, and I spent some time wondering whether this would lead to a fight, shootout or brutal stabbing, as in the early brothel scene. Instead, the entire Wallingford storyline comes to an abrupt end when they are revealed for the crooks they are in a British forward base which is then attacked by the Germans. We hear nothing more of Wallingford and can assume, as Ponsonby says in the hospital much later, that he like everyone else in the base was killed. But not before Ross, who is also there, chases Percy, captures him and beats the truth out of him about Rommel’s spy being a senior official in the US Embassy in Cairo. When the rescuing troops reach the destroyed base they find the badly injured and unconscious Ross still handcuffed to Percy, who is dead.

Lieutenant Andy Anderson (page 54) A blunt-spoken Yorkshireman who’s risen from sergeant in 12 months of hard fighting, and now commands the unit out in the desert where the novel reaches its climax: where Harry Wechsler and his gofer Chips, Jimmy Ross, and Wallingford and his black market team, all find themselves as the Germans launch an attack.

THE WOMEN

Alice Stanhope (page 46) Phenomenally posh and very attractive daughter of the woman who knows everyone, who has got her a job in the British Army investigations department, where she comes under Ross-Cutler’s authority, on the condition she doesn’t actually do any dangerous work, preferably no work at all. She chafes at these restrictions and so Ross, who is badly smitten by her beauty and grace, first makes her his personal assistant, then gives in and gives her some elementary trailing to do. A lot later, at the end of the novel, she is in agonies waiting to find out what happened to the forward unit she knows Ross was off to visit and whether he’s still alive. As soon as she knows he is, she runs off to visit him, in what promises to blossom into a wartime romance.

Peggy West (page 30) A good-looking, 30-year-old senior nurse. She married a Jewish man, Karl, in the 1930s and came to Egypt looking for adventure. Karl was despatched to Iraq on a five-year contract protecting oil wells, and she hasn’t seen for 18 months. We meet her as she collects a small stipend from Solomon al-Masri, which the latter claims comes from Karl. Deighton spends a lot of time describing her background, her parents’ hopes for her, the difficulties in her married life, but she doesn’t come alive for me as a character. She becomes a sort of chaperone figure to Alice Stanhope through the middle of the book. Near the end she visits the City of Gold houseboat to find Solomon Marx badly wounded in a shootout with Mahmoud’s men. She helps him leave, during which he hands over ownership of the houseboat to her, so that she greets Captain Marker, who arrives to search the houseboat, as its new owner, with a heady sense of freedom and the strong hint that they might be about to become an item.

Karl West – A Jew who marries Peggy and then disappears off to Iraq, allegedly on a five year oil contract. Solomon al-Masri claims to receive money from Karl which he forwards to Peggy but Peggy wonders if it’s just a way of getting her to spy for Solomon. Near the end of the novel, Captain Marker’s investigations show him that Karl is in fact a crook with a long criminal record, some of it connected to the Haganah and Stern Gangs in Palestine. He also discovers that Karl is dead.

Jeannie MacGregor (page 61) One of the nurses under Peggy West’s command.

THE JEWS

Solomon al-Masri, real name Solomon Marx (page 30) Lives on a houseboat on the Nile, which he has named The City of Gold. He and his partner, Yigal, are working for Jewish independence forces in occupied Palestine, sourcing information about the British, the Germans, the Arabs, where they can, and arranging the purchase and shipment of arms to the Jewish militias in Palestine. Wallingford, the black marketeer, over various scenes, tries to arrange the sale of Italian machine guns from an arms dump in the desert to Solomon. When Wallingford refuses to deliver them in person (knowing the British Army have seized them) Solomon in good faith commissions Mahmoud and his men to do it. But they are shot and eight killed by the Brits, making Mahmoud think it was a trap. Which explains why, when Solomon and Yizgal motor over to Mahmoud’s house, tucked away down Cairo’s narrow medieval streets, they are greeted very coldly and emerge from a puzzling meeting to be arrested by the British police who have been tipped off by Mahmoud. At the end of the novel Peggy West finds Mahmoud slumped in his unlit houseboat, late at night, having been badly wounded in an assassination attempt by Mahmoud’s men. A felucca of his people arrive and unload the badly wounded man who, in parting gesture, gifts Peggy the houseboat and reveals what she’s suspected – her husband is long dead. She is a free woman.

Yigal Arad (page 40) Palestinian born Jew and Solomon’s partner in their mission to get information and guns for their Jewish masters in Palestine.

THE ARABS

Mahmoud is a cunning old Egyptian ‘banker’ and businessman. We seem him in league with Major’ Wallingford, lending Datymple money solely to snare him in Wallingford’s schemes. We also learn that Solomon sub-contracted collecting the Italian Beretta machine guns from the oasis to Mahmoud for an appreciable sum. What Solomon didn’t realise is that the British Army had already found and claimed the cache. Therefore when Mahmoud’s men arrive to collect it they find themselves stopped, questioned and then fired upon by the Brits. Eight men die. Which explains why he greets Solomon and Yigal very coldly when they go to exchange payment, why he tips off the British police to arrest them both and then, at the end of the novel, is responsible for an assassination attempt on Solomon.

Sayed el-Shazli (page 64) Personable young westernised Egyptian who lives in the same hotel as Prince Piotr and so has become part of his social circle. He’s a student at the American University and an Egyptian Army reserve officer, but also active in a secret organisation of Egyptian Army officers who are planning to overthrow British rule and establish King Farouk on the throne of an independent Egypt. But after the King arrogantly commands his sister to attend him at his palace for a royal rogering, the bitterly humiliated Sayed agrees to become a spy on his independence organisation for the British.

Zeinab el-Shazli (page 64) Stunningly beautiful sister of Sayed. Her main function is to be propositioned by King Farouk’s staff in a stylish nightclub and, since she can’t refuse, going off with them, much to the anger of the white ladies present.

King Farouk Nicknamed ‘Fatty Farouk’, The 22-year-old king chafes at British rule over his country, nominally a free independent nation. But meanwhile he has time and money to live a sumptuous lifestyle and, as the Zeinab storyline shows, commandeer women for his pleasure.

THE ÉMIGRÉS

Prince Piotr Nikoleiovitch Tikhmeibrazoff (page 65) Large, tall, imposing Russian émigré who rents a whole floor at the Hotel Magnifico. He was abroad when his father died and he inherited vast estates, and when the Revolution broke out and he lost them all. He claims a general’s rank on doubtful grounds, lives magnificently and is widely – and incorrectly – thought to be Rommel’s spy in the city.

Lucia Magnifico (page 50) Daughter of Signor Mario Magnifico who founded the hotel of the same name in Cairo, where Prince Piotr now occupies an entire floor.

Harry Wechsler – Gung-ho American journalist, not particularly friendly to the Brits, pointing out that the US is now funding their war effort while the Brits are managing to lose everywhere. He is shrewd enough to figure out there’s some kind of scam surrounding arms dumps in the desert, and writes a long op-ed piece which gets published in American newspapers, explaining how the Brits gratefully used Jewish intelligence resources in Palestine and the wider Middle East at the start of the war, and promised help with the creation of a Jewish homeland. Now the Brits are trying to wriggle out of their promises, with the result that the Jewish organisations are engaged in securing arms from any source possible, preparing for the upcoming war with the Arabs, and this includes using agents like Solomon to secure abandoned weaponry. He’s following up on this story at a forward unit in the desert which comes under German attack. Leading a convoy of armoured cars and lorries, at the wheel of his own V 8-powered lorry, Wechsler runs over a German mine. Chips is killed instantly and Wechsler loses his legs and is impaled by various bits of the engine. He survives long enough to experience unbearable pain, before being given an overdose of morphine by the unit’s unqualified medical officer.

Chips O’Riley – Irish soldier, journalist who’s found a niche as a fixer and gofer and attaches himself to Wechsler. Has some witty repartee before being killed instantly in the lorry blown up by a mine.


Credit

City of Gold published by Pluriform Publishing in 1992. All page references are to the 1993 Arrow 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.

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