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?


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.’


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.

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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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