The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth (1994)

In the quiet of the Oval Office George Bush sat behind the great desk, backed by the tall narrow windows, 5 inches of pale green bullet-proof glass, and beneath the seal of the United States. Facing him was General Brent Scowcroft, the President’s National Security Adviser. (p.354)

Forsyth writes documentary thrillers. They are very closely meshed into historical fact, routinely feature real (and very eminent) people and organisations, are often set against real events, and are described in the kind of brisk, factual prose you would expect of an in-depth current affairs feature in the Sunday Times or Economist.

Of course there is a story, there is a plot, but embedded in a dense texture of facts and information which often threatens to swamp it and regularly holds up the flow of the narrative. If you’re looking for in-depth psychological investigations of a handful of characters, he really isn’t your man; if you like cleverly plotted and high stakes thrillers, backed up by blizzards of facts and information, you’re in luck.

The Gulf War

This long novel (624 pages) is effectively a retelling of the Gulf War, starting a little before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, following the creation of the anti-Saddam coalition at the United Nations and then the deployment of the vast numbers of mainly American military men and materiel at the frontier between occupied Kuwait and neighbouring Saudi Arabia (Operation Desert Shield). It then moves seamlessly into the month-long air war against Iraq (17 January – 23 February) before the pulverising Operation Desert Storm which killed large numbers of Iraqi troops, destroyed their hardware and drove them out of Kuwait (24 to 28 February).

Forsyth is enamoured of the men, machines, the hardware, planes and tanks, the radar and missile launchers, the regiments and divisions, the pilots, planners, generals and strategists involved in this colossal effort. Reading this book is much more like reading a factual book called ‘Weapons of the Gulf War’ than a novel.

336th Squadron out of Al Kharz [had been assigned] a big SAM missile site north-west of Baghdad. The SAMs were controlled by two large radar dishes… With twenty-four Strike Eagles in the squadron, 20 January was going to be a multi-mission day. The squadron commander, Lt.-Col Steve Turner, had allocated a twelve-plane detail for the missile base. A swarm of Eagles that large was known as a ‘gorilla’. The gorilla was led by one of the two senior flight commanders. Four of the twelve planes were packing HARMS, the radar-busting missiles that home in on infra-red signals from a radar dish. The other eight carried two long, gleaming, stainless-steel-cased laser-guided bombs known as GBU-10-I. When the radars were dead and the missiles blind, they would follow the HARMS and blow away the rocket batteries. (p.413)

Hundreds of pages are like this. Reading The Fist  involves immersing yourself in exhaustive explanations of military hardware and military planning, in scenes describing the geopolitics and strategies of the various nations involved, in a highly detailed account of the war seen from a solidly pro-Coalition, military-minded and very male perspective.


Among the factual briefings and threaded into the historical timelines, there are a number of fictional storylines (though not as many as you might expect for such a very long book).

Mike Martin The main one is the story of Mike Martin, a dark-skinned SAS man, fluent in Arabic, who is dropped into Iraqi-occupied Kuwait to pose as a Bedou, radio back reports to his masters and wage a small campaign of destruction. This he does, meeting some of the Kuwaiti underground, training and organising them, providing explosive and ‘intel’. After a tense few weeks he is pulled out and redeployed into Baghdad itself, where he is given the ultra-dangerous mission of renewing contact with a senior spy in Saddam’s entourage, code-named Jericho.

Terry Martin It so happens that Mike’s brother, Terry Martin, a professor of Arabic at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. It was he, in an early meeting with a member of the Intelligence Services, who recommended his Arabic-speaking brother for the mission. Terry ends up serving informally with the Medusa committee, set up to interpret reports coming out of Iraq during the crisis, and so provides a handy ‘in’ to the discussions and debates among the SIS officers as the novel unfurls.

Baghdad boyhood Both the Martins were raised as boys in Baghdad of the 1950s when their engineer father lived there – a factor in Mike’s selection for the mission, and which allows Forsyth, through Martin’s eyes, to give us detailed descriptions of the geography and feel of Baghdad, as it was then, and as it is now, 40 years later.

Gerald Bull and the Babylon Gun Right at the start of the novel we meet the true-life figure of Dr Gerald Bull, and get a thorough review of his career as an engineer and developer of supersize artillery, before his true-life assassination on 22 March 1990. After his death the Press was full of reports about the ‘Supergun’ he had been designing for the Iraqis, but Forsyth cannily goes beyond the known facts to fictionalise the idea that the Iraqis did manage to erect one of Dr Bull’s 150-metre long supersize guns. In this fictional version, the Iraqis built it to lie along the incline of a hill in an isolated and mountainous part of Iraq, where an entire military support base supporting it is completely camouflaged.

In a whopping great coincidence it turns out that the engineer who master-minded the erection of the gun and the complete concealment of the military base, attended the same Baghdad prep school as Mike and Terry, Osman Badri, who we see supervising its construction and who then plays a crucial role in its destruction, 500 pages later. But for the central part of the novel, this whole supergun plotline is forgotten while we follow Mike Martin’s adventures, a staggeringly detailed account of Operation Desert Shield, and then the start of the air campaign against Iraq (January 17 1991).

For most of the book, if there is one central concern it is the issue of the top Iraqi spy code-named ‘Jericho’.


We learn that the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, had been contacted years earlier by a very senior figure in Saddam’s Ba’ath Party government who wanted to sell them secrets. He was ‘run’ for three years by a Jewish member of a United Nations Mission to Iraq. However, with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, UN staff were pulled out and contact with Jericho ceased. When US and British intelligence find out about this, they send in their own man to re-establish contact with the mysterious Jericho via an elaborate system of safe houses and secret signs. This man is Mike Martin, posing as an old, dirty, Iraqi gardener living in a cottage in the grounds of the Soviet Embassy and equipped with very well-forged ID and a covering letter from the Soviets.

Jericho resumes contact with Martin, neither ever seeing the other, but leaving messages written on thin air-mail notepaper deposited at various dead letter drops around the city, and throughout the book Jericho provides vital and wholly accurate information about Iraq’s hidden weapons factories, troops and armament positions etc.

Leila al-Hilla In a vivid side-thread we are introduced to the high class courtesan, Leila al-Hilla, whose main client is General Abdullah Kadiri, Commander of the Armoured Corp of the Army of the Republic of Iraq, and who she routinely seduces with clinical efficiency. Afterwards, in a drunk post-coital haze, he is easily coaxed into discussing the latest developments in Saddam’s Army Council. Leila then takes hand-written accounts of these late-night murmurings to St Joseph’s church, where she hands them over to the ‘priest’ hearing confession. This priest turns out to be Hassan Rahmani, Head of Counter-Intelligence of the Republic of Iraq, but who is excluded from the further promotion and from the really inner circles of Saddam’s advisers, because he is neither family nor from Saddam’s home village of Tikrit but who is gathering useful information against the day when the Americans overthrow the Rais (p.319-22).

The Winkler Bank Another Jericho-related strand is set in Vienna, where Mossad know the payments Jericho demands for his work are sent to an old and venerable bank, the Winkler Bank. They rack their brains about how to access details of Jericho’s bank account in order – I think, because after a few hundred pages the original motivation becomes difficult to recall – to seize back all the money they’ve paid him. After realising they cannot blackmail or in any other way get at the dry-as-dust owner of the bank, Herr Wolfgang Gemütlich, they focus their efforts on his spinsterish secretary, Edith Hardenberg.

Karim seduces Fräulein Hardenberg Mossad select a handsome young Jew from the seduction section, one Avi Herzog, who poses as ‘Karim’, a Jordanian student studying in Vienna, and sets about seducing the middle-aged, repressed Miss Edith with cynical efficiency. Two or three page descriptions of Karim slowly worming his way into her affections, getting her to take him to classical music concerts and art galleries, to smart dinners and so on, punctuate the long descriptions of the military hardware or of Mike Martin’s adventures in Baghdad, until Karim finally takes her to bed. Even then he waits a few sessions before asking her about her funny old job at the funny old bank and where does funny old Mr Gemütlich keep all the most secret accounts, then? At which point she laughingly tells him that the big antique desk in his office contains secret compartments where the account details of the VIP customers are kept… So. Mossad have their information, and within days break into the office, find the compartment, and photocopy all the papers kept there, including the all-important Jericho papers. Karim has dinner with Edith and tells her he has to go back to Jordan because his mother is ill. Edith is by now swooningly in love and bids him God speed, little realising that’s the last she’ll ever hear of him.

The air offensive

Once the air war begins the pace of events speeds up and many of these plotlines reach (brutal) conclusions. General Kadiri catches Leila in the act of writing a secret message, has her tortured to reveal her contact, and killed. Jericho discovers that his own counter-intelligence people have realised that coded radio messages are being sent from somewhere in the diplomatic quarter and so are closing in on Martin. If they catch and torture him he will give enough evidence to incriminate him, Jericho, so he leaves a message telling Martin to get out.

The Fist of God

But not before his final set of messages convey the blockbuster fact at the centre of the novel. To a shocked audience of his Cabinet and Army officers, Saddam announces that Iraq does have a nuclear weapon – the Qubth-ut-Allah or Fist of God (p.365) and the delivery mechanism to attack the infidel aggressor. Jericho emerges, like the rest of the Iraqi high command, stunned at the news. Straightaway he leaves message for Jericho, who immediately relays it by coded radio message to his handlers in Riyadh.

After reading the final, warning, message from Jericho Martin doesn’t go back to his cottage, with its incriminating radio set and mini satellite dish, but (in his plausible disguise as poor, working class gardener) cadges lorry rides west of the city. He buys a few goats as cover and then treks south to the motorbike he and his SAS colleagues buried in the sand weeks earlier for precisely this reason. He rides through the empty desert and crosses the invisible border into Saudi Arabia, before being picked up by a patrol and returned to a hero’s welcome among the small group of intelligence minders who’d been running him.

Nuclear verification

Meanwhile, as you can imagine, the news that Iraq has the bomb, or at least one bomb, comes as a thunderbolt to the Allied commanders. On one level a top priority call goes out to all the Intelligence services to double check how this can be true. In this workstream Mike’s brother, Terry, plays a crucial role. Earlier in the book a stray shell from a US fighter-bomber blew the roof off a non-descript factory. Satellite photos show strange objects and the Iraqis’ feverish efforts to repair them. It is Terry who takes the photos to Livermore University in California where the young guys there have no idea but mention a retired prof who lives out in the woods who might know. Terry drives up into the mountains where the grey-haired old man stops chopping wood long enough to explain that the objects are ‘calcutrons’, primitive devices to separate Uranium 238 and 235 to create material for a bomb. He gives Terry a long, Forsythian encyclopedia explanation of how they work, how they were used to create the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, how the plans to make them are freely available in the Library of Congress, and how it looks like the Iraqis have made some and so will have a more advanced bomb than the Allies calculated. Which backs up Jericho’s claim about the Iraqi bomb.

Mike’s mission

Mike has barely had a shower, shave, devoured some steak and chips and fallen asleep on a decent bed for the first time in weeks, when he is woken and ordered to yet another intelligence meeting. Obviously, the next question asked of Jericho after the bombshell that Saddam had a nuclear weapon was – where? His last message back to Martin, and the last one Martin radioed back to his minders, was a precise map reference far in the north-east of Iraq.

While Martin was exiting Iraq, an observation plane had overflown the co-ordinates and established there was nothing there except hills and valleys and a few villages. Shown the aerial photos Mike points out that the villages are fake – there isn’t enough forage in the area for all their livestock. There’s obviously a military base there but so well hidden nobody can pinpoint it. The risk is that the Allies start to bomb in one part of the quadrant and that tips off the Iraqis who have time to fire their nuclear missile. Which would be bad. So there’s no alternative: they’re going to need a team of men on the ground to ascertain the precise location – and Mike volunteers.

After the multiple plot strands and blizzards of technical spec which characterised most of the book, the last forty pages boil down to a nailbiting account of the preparation and parachuting of Mike and three SAS colleagues into this remote region where they do, in fact, locate the well-concealed supergun – the Babylon Gun – and call in a fighter-bomber which successfully destroys it. High fives all round!

In fact the fighter-bomber is shot down by Iraqi AAA defences, but Mike and  his team locate the pilot and together march East towards Iran, hiding out until the 100-hour Desert Storm is over, at which point they radio to call in helicopters to rescue them.

In fact, it is news that the Babylon Gun has been taken out which allows General Schwartzkopf later the same day to give the go-ahead for Operation Desert Storm to commence. Thus, right to the end, Forsyth skillfully intertwines his fictional adventure with the real events of the war; in fact makes reality hinge on his fictional protagonist and his daring exploit.


Karim, now equipped with papers reproducing all the details of Jericho’s account, visits Winkler’s Bank pretending to be Jericho’s son, ‘Aziz’, and empties the account of the ten million dollars in it.

When Herr Gemütlich tells Miss Hardenberg this surprising bit of news and describes ‘Aziz’, she realises it is Karim and, in a flash, how she has been comprehensively used and exploited. She scrubs her flat clean of his presence, drives out to the woods, and hangs herself.

While the war is raging to the south and the country is in chaos, an Israeli agent undertakes a daring mission into Baghdad and leaves a last message for Jericho. Days later, and after the 100-hour war is over, Jericho, following the detailed instructions in that message, approaches the Kuwait border in a Cadillac, where he is met, as arranged, by British and American generals. He is spirited through the lines and onto a plane which sets off flying – so he is told – to freedom. Instead, however, he is in the hands of Mossad agents, who give him a muscle-paralysing drug then throw him out of the aircraft to smash to pieces on the sea below. For Jericho, it is now revealed, was all along none other than Brigadier Omar Khatib, head of Iraq’s secret police, and personally present at several extremely disgusting torture interrogations which the book had described, besides the thousands he has authorised over the years. It was this unique position which he used to extract information about, first the progress of the Iraqi A-bomb, and then of the hidden Babylon Gun, before passing it on to the Allies. But this usefulness can’t outweigh the evil he has done.

VIP characters

There is a cast list at the start of the book which goes on for three pages and lists 73 characters, many of them real historical personages. Forsyth is not shy about describing the most powerful people in the world in exactly the same factual, deadpan he way he does a taxi driver or a street cleaner. Thus, at various moments, there are scenes featuring speaking parts for President George Bush, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, head of the CIA William Webster and General in command of Coalition Forces, Stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf; for Mrs Thatcher and John Major; for the Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir; for Mikhail Gorbachev; and for Saddam Hussein himself.

The ladder of fiction extends from the bottom to the very top of not just one but quite a few nations, in juxtapositions which are almost Shakespearian. It takes some chutzpah to imagine the scene as George Bush looks out the window of the Oval Office, agonising over the possible effects of Saddam’s poison gases on the men and women he’s sending into battle (p.354); or to describe a conversation between Shamir and his smooth Deputy Foreign Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, nowadays himself leader of Israel. Yet the reader quite quickly gets used to Forsyth’ extraordinary assurance at putting words into these people’s mouths. He is quite nerveless.

Gorbachev features because senior representatives of the CIA and SIS are sent to ask his personal permission to give Mike Martin a cover story as gardener to the Soviet Embassy in Iraq.

I had forgotten that Mrs Thatcher’s fall to power happened in the middle of the crisis – she resigned on 22 November – after an unexpected sequence of events following Geoffrey Howe’s embittered resignation prompted Michael Heseltine to make a formal leadership bid. This triggered a secret ballot of MPs which Mrs Thatcher won, but not by a big enough majority to quell her doubters who eventually persuaded her, in tears, to resign. The narrative stops dead while Forsyth describes her fall and, very characteristically, gives us four reasons for it (p.315) in one of scores of sections of the novel which could easily be converted into Powerpoint presentations.

Technique and style

I’ve just read three John le Carré novels from the 1990s and the techniques and prose styles of the two writers could hardly be more different. Le Carré starts in the middle of the story, with a significant or important scene played out at great length, often for a quarter of the entire book, as in The Tailor of Panama. Only slowly do we get flashbacks, memories and references which paint in the backstory in fragments which we, the reader, have to assemble. Often we don’t get main characters’ names or key relationships until over 100 pages into the text (as in Single & Single). And all this is done in a style which I personally find very overblown, full of ironic exaggeration, facetious myth-making, public schoolboy slang and the repetition of key moments in the lives of a small number of key protagonists which are designed to build up a kind of accumulated psychological portrait of them.

By contrast Forsyth manages a cast, if not of thousands, of at least 73 named and described characters, and tells the story in a strong, clear chronological order, introducing characters and giving their full CVs and careers in a brisk, no-nonsense, journalistic prose style. There is some flashback – we witness Dr Gerald Bull (real historical figure) get assassinated in the opening pages, then get a long résumé of his career as a leading designer of military rockets and artillery, all of which is background to the development of the ‘Supergun’ he was commissioned to design and build for Saddam Hussein, which lies at the heart of the plot. And there is some backstory attached to the Martin brothers, their early days in Baghdad, and to the US fighter pilot Tom Walker, the one who ends up destroying the Babylon Gun at the climax of the novel and who had popped up from time to time in the previous 600 pages.

But by and large the narrative proceeds in a steady forward direction, unfolding much as it did to the world during those tense, anxious months, and reading a timeline of the key events as seen through a military hardware magazine which had special access to some previously unknown aspects of the story (the supergun, the bomb).

What I found a relief after le Carré’s reams of pages of depth psychology, is the way Forsyth tells us as little as we possibly need to know about the psychology of his characters to understand their roles.

  • We learn about poor Fräulein Hardenberg’s one and only love affair when she was 20 and how she was heartlessly dumped, only because it explains her sour, spinsterish demeanour when we meet her in the present, 20 years later, and in order to explain the task her Mossad seducer has to undertake.
  • Mike Martin has one or two moments remembering the prep school he attended in Baghdad when he was a kid, but only because they shed light on the geography of modern Baghdad or because one or two of his Iraqi schoolmates have gone on to hold positions in the regime.
  • Jericho’s motivation is explained simply: he expects Saddam to be overthrown and wants to position himself with the Allies as a candidate for high office in the new regime.
  • Leila’s motivation is simple: she wants to save up the money Rahmani gives her for spying so she can give up being a prostitute and retire to a luxury villa in Tangier.

In the dense 620 pages, that’s about all the psychology there is. The scores and scores of other characters don’t have psychology, they simply have motivations – they are trying to achieve X so they must do Y. A is blocking Y so they’ll have to do Z instead. Instead of psychology or emotion, strategy and logic. Every character and every incident fits into the overall machinery of the plot like cogs takes their place in the apparatus of a beautifully constructed Swiss watch.

Le Carré uses repetition of words or phrases (on the micro scale) and the repetition of key memories or moments (on a macro scale) to build up a sense of character. Forysth never uses that kind of incantatory rhetoric in his prose, and rarely if ever repeats memories or talismanic moments, because he has little or no interest in psychology – his aim is to keep the narrative as clear and open and transparent as a factory blueprint.

Facts facts facts

There’s nothing Forsyth likes better than explaining things: the structure of military, government or intelligence organisations; Gerry Bull’s career; how jet fighters or tanks or semtex-H or a nuclear bomb work. What is the reader to do with this bombardment of information?

The CIA employs around 25,000 officers, the KGB at its peak around 15,000 but the Israeli Intelligence service employs only around 1,500; but these are supplemented with a large diaspora of helpers or sayanim. Richard Sorge was the most important spy in history, because his reports that Japan was not about to attack Russia in 1941 allowed Stalin to move large numbers of tanks and soldiers to the Western front, where they brought Hitler’s advance to a halt and turned the course of the war and of world history. Within 1,000 tons of uranium ore there is enough actual uranium, Uranium 238, to make a block the size of a cigar case; but an atom bomb requires Uranium 235 and you could only extract enough of this to slip under the nail of one finger. The Americans have a top secret reconnaissance plane which flies on the fringes of inner space at a speed of Mach 8, riding its own fireball – a phenomenon known as ‘the ramjet effect’.

And so on for hundreds of other facts and figures.

The Scud missile was a Soviet weapon, weighing just under 1,000 pounds with a range of 300 kilometers, and the Iraqis began to fire a heavily-altered version of the missile into Israel on the second day of the air war. The Air Interception Missile (AIM) 7 is known as the Sparrow, the AIM-9 is known as the Sidewinder. There are three denominations of Christians in Iraq, comprising 7% of the population.

For stretches it is much more like reading an Encyclopedia for Boys than a novel but, if you enter into the Boys Own spirit of the thing, very absorbing. Just some of the phrases, acronyms or tradecraft which stood out:

  • AMAM – Iraqi intelligence service, also known as the Mukhabarat.
  • ATO – Air Tasking Order: lists of targets and tasks for Allied air force, generally over 100 pages long which Forsyth explains in detail.
  • AWACS – Airborne Warning and Control System, Boeing 707s with huge radar dishes above the fuselage: detects movement in the air ie enemy planes.
  • B-52s, the longest-serving US airplanes, were referred to as BUFFs, which stood for Big Ugly Fat Fucker (p.439).
  • BDA – Bomb Damage Assessment, crucial part of ongoing intelligence.
  • CENTAF – Central Air Force.
  • CIA – for the umpteenth time I read that insiders refer to the CIA as ‘the Company’ and the Brits refer to American intelligence generally as ‘the cousins’
  • DZ – Drop Zone for parachutists.
  • ENPIC – National Photographic Centre, Washington DC.
  • HARM – high speed anti-radiation missile.
  • LUP – lying up position as adopted by the SAS where necessary.
  • J-STAR – Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System: detects movements on the ground eg enemy tanks.
  • LANTIRN – Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infra-Red for Night technology.
  • MMFD – The Americans wonder why the Brit pilots so often report being over a location referred to as MMFD. Where is this mysterious MMFD? Only late on do the Brits reveal it refers to ‘Miles and Miles of Fucking Desert’ (p.344).
  • NVG – Night Vision Goggles.
  • PAVEWAY – name of the technology which allows an airplane-fired missile to follow an infra-red beam to the target.
  • Plinking – USAF slang term for destroying enemy tanks.
  • The Rais – Iraqi for President ie Saddam.
  • RTB – Return to Base (Air Force).
  • SAM – Surface to air missile.
  • SATNAV – Forsyth explains how Satnav works, a technology which has, of course, become completely domesticated in the past twenty years.
  • SEAD – Suppression of enemy air defences.
  • SOP – Standard Operating Procedure.
  • Tabbing – trekking across country with equipment: SAS version of ‘yomping’.
  • TACC – Tactical Air Control Centre.
  • TARPS – Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System: cameras hanging under an observation plane.
  • SIS – Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, misleadingly known as MI (Military Intelligence) 6, used to be referred to as ‘Century’ because it occupied the rundown Century House near Waterloo.
  • ‘Wizzo’ – slang for WSO, Weapons Systems Officer, the number two in a fighter plane.
  • Department Z at Lawrence Livermore University monitors the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Third World.

Point of view

From time to time in this vast sea of dry, factual prose Forsyth lets slip a point of view. He has no time at all for liberal hand-wringers, ban the bombers, the London chattering classes and the idiocy (as he sees it) of political correctness. He is an obvious fan of Mrs Thatcher, the security services, the Army and especially of the SAS (who appear in the four novels preceding this one – I wonder if they appear in all Forsyth’s novels). If he is dryly sarcastic about specific failings of this, that or the other military or intelligence organisation, it is always well understood that he is nonetheless entirely behind their ethos and existence.

But in the Final Note of the book Forsyth drops all pretence of fiction and speaks in his own voice to draw two conclusions from the Gulf War, as if his book really had been a history book all along and not a novel at all. These are:

  1. It was insane of the 30 industrialised nations of the world to make a nice profit selling arms to a regime like Saddam’s, motivated by ‘political foolishness, bureaucratic blindness and corporate greed’. In the end it cost far more to attack and destroy what we sold him than all the profit made from it. And, although he didn’t deploy chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, he would have if he could have; it was a close-run thing.
  2. Governments, military and intelligence agencies were all so dazzled by the technical advances of the 1980s and 1990s that they thought tech could fight the war for them. But in the end it was discovered the Iraqi regime had hidden much firepower and resources from even the most sophisticated spy planes and satellites. In other words there is no replacement for human intelligence, for eyes on the ground and for – although he doesn’t explicitly say this – heroes like Mike Martin.

It is an interesting intellectual exercise to reflect on how these general strictures have held up in the 22 years of troubled history which have passed since the book’s publication.


The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 1994. All quotes from the 1995 paperback Corgi edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

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

Single & Single by John le Carré (1999)

Public school hero

Just like the narrators of The Secret Pilgrim and Our Game and the protagonist of The Tailor of Panama, the central figure in Single & Single, Oliver Single, attended a number of private schools and speaks and thinks – and is emotionally stunted – accordingly. He was bullied and harassed by the home tutor his parents hired with a view to getting him into the Dragon (preparatory) school, and his name was down for Eton from birth (where Andrew Osnard of The Tailor went, and where le Carré himself was a teacher, whoops, Master). But in the end Oliver disappointed his father, passing through a string of second-rate boarding schools before only just scraping into law school.

Back story

His father is the ‘legendary’ ‘Tiger’ Single (almost all the characters in these later le Carré novels are ‘legendary’, along with legendary tables, legendary inner sanctums and even legendary haircuts), in fact on his first appearance in the book he is introduced as ‘the one and only Tiger Single himself’, rather like a clapped-out comedian at the London Palladium in the 1970s.

Tiger had made good as a barrister in the mean chambers of Liverpool before coming down to London and setting up a brokerage and investment company named Single & Single. Despite his academic failings, Oliver manages to get his law degree and his father takes him into the firm as a partner, where he quickly uncovers the web of money laundering, offshore deals and criminal banking facilities which the firm offers to all kinds of unsalubrious characters.

The main partners in crime are a pair of very shady Georgians operating out of Moscow, the Orlov brothers, Yevgeny and the retarded Mikhail, accompanied everywhere by a sinister Polish lawyer, Dr Mirsky and a blond psychopath, Alix Hoban, who spends almost all his time creepily whispering into a mobile phone.

It is Hoban who, at a charged meeting in 1990 between the Orlov brothers and Tiger, outlines three sure-fire get-rich schemes. They are each based on the brothers bribing high officials in post-communist Russia in order to:

  • secure a monopoly in selling off Russia’s rusting scrap metal
  • seize control of Russia’s creaking oil infrastructure
  • and – sickest of all – to help set up a national Russian blood transfusion service whose real purpose would be to sell surplus blood at a profit to the West. The sums involved are hundreds of millions of pounds

So far so cynically crooked. However, all these schemes come crashing down with the Russia coup attempt of August 1991, which removes their high government contacts from power. Only after a hiatus of further trips to the East, many mysterious phone calls and some time later, do the brothers re-emerge with a new scheme which will make them and Tiger into billionaires – taking over the Asian opium and heroin trade.

While the business relationship has been deepening Oliver has made numerous visits to the Orlov family homestead, in a remote valley in Georgia, only half-jokingly referred to as ‘Bethlehem’. Prompted – or rather taunted – by one of Yevgeny’s daughters, Zoya, on one of these trips, something snaps inside Oliver when he discovers the full iniquity of this latest project. He is sickened and, in a strange mood of anxiety and disorientation, when he passes through Heathrow Customs on the way back from Georgia, makes the decision to request an interview with a senior Customs official. He wants to come clean and unburden himself.

Oliver is introduced to the sturdy, incorruptible Nathaniel Brock and confesses everything to him, forging with him that close, very personal relationship between controller and ‘joe’ which le Carré so often refers to simply as ‘love’. Olive tells Brock everything he knows about his father’s shady dealings with various international crooks.

However, even with Oliver’s confession, Brock doesn’t have evidence enough to prosecute anyone and asks Oliver to keep spying on his father and colleagues for a little longer. Eventually, when he can’t cope with his double life any longer, Oliver is spirited away, given a new name and identity in the West of England. Here he unwisely rushes into marrying Heather, a nurse, and has a baby daughter, Carmen. Years pass and their relationship collapses, and Oliver ends up separating from her and taking a room at a small hotel (reminiscent of the comfy boarding house in the West Country where Magnus Pyke retreats to in A Perfect Spy and the similarly isolated West Country house of Jonathan Pine, protagonist of The Night Manager). We learn through all the flashbacks that Tiger, faced with the evidence of his son’s flight / disappearance, ignores it, telling everyone Oliver is on an extended business tour of the world, scouting out new opportunities, occasionally returning home for personal meetings with Tiger…

But five years later, one fine day, one of his father’s fixers, the lawyer Alfred Winser, is taken from a run-of-the-mill business meeting in Turkey, to a bleak isolated spot on the coast, interrogated at gunpoint, then shot in the head – all of it recorded on video by the terrifying Hoban.

In media res

And this is where the novel actually starts, with the scene of a sobbing Winser begging to know what he’s done wrong, before he is executed. Bang. It then cuts to Oliver, labouring away at his (humiliating) new occupation as an entertainer at children’s parties. In among blowing up balloons and working a gruesome glove pocket, Oliver gets a series of phone calls which, it slowly transpires, are from his minder Brock, calling to let him know that his bank account has just had a huge amount of money paid into it and Brock and the police want to know why.

The whole of the backstory outlined above is told only after these rather puzzling opening scenes, recounted in flashbacks and memories, often shuffled out of chronological order and often told in very short snippets or scenes, which the reader has to piece together. (It is only on page 109 that Brock quietly but dramatically confirms that Oliver’s last name is Single – and we begin to make the connections with preceding scenes featuring Tiger and the firm.) It makes le Carré’s novels a lot more interesting that they’re structured like this and that they make you work hard to understand what’s going on.

Going forward

It is Winser’s execution that prompts the central crisis of the story. In one strand of the narrative it turns out that the murder has prompted Oliver’s drunk, irresponsible mother, Nadia, to tell Tiger where Oliver’s been hiding all these years: that explains the sudden payment of millions of pounds into the trust fund Oliver had set up for his baby daughter, the payment which was monitored by the authorities and prompted Brock’s calls to Oliver. It is a generous gesture by his father but also a way of communicating with him – and a threat.

But in the central strand of the story, it appears that Tiger himself has gone missing at the news of Winser’s murder… Why? And why was Winser murdered in the first place? In the execution scene, Hoban had said something about a ship being intercepted by the authorities, something Winser, even at the point of being shot, tearfully claimed to know nothing about.

Brock persuades Oliver to come out of hiding and track his father down: he is best placed to do so since he has a far better feel for his father’s behaviour and his network of crooked deals than any of Brock’s fellow officers.

And so the second half of the novel follows Oliver on an odyssey to find his missing father, which forces him to confront the ‘ghosts of his past’ (eg his miserable childhood), the terrors of the present (eg the hair-raising psychopath Hoban) and the wrath of the father he betrayed.

(This is all very similar in structure to Our Game, which opens with a hundred pages or so of puzzling events ‘in the present’ before the narrator reveals clues about the backstory, till it just about all makes sense, and then spends the second half of that book on an odyssey to find his missing friend / agent / betrayer, Larry, an odyssey which – just like here – takes the protagonist deep into the badlands of the Caucasus.)

The quest

The quest or journey is one of the oldest narrative structures in existence. Typically, the quester meets a range of people who shed light on both the world at large and his own identity, before arriving at some overwhelming truth. And that is exactly what happens here. Oliver:

  • confronts his mother at his parents’ massive country pile, Nightingales, a scene which inevitably unlocks scores of childhood memories, mostly unhappy, all those high expectations he was unable to fulfil
  • breaks into the Single & Single offices where he meets his father’s most devoted servant, an Indian called Gupta, before opening the safe in the ‘inner sanctum’ and finding incriminating paperwork which he passes on to Brock
  • flies to Zurich undercover with Aggie, the only woman on Brock’s team (‘straight-eyed and long-legged and unconsciously elegant’ (p.57) – in other words, a model, and sure enough, later on Aggie is described as looking like she should be in advert for smart rainwear, p.321). It comes as the opposite of a surprise that Oliver ends up having an affair with her
  • in Zurich interviews the Swiss lawyer Single & Single deal with, who reveals that his father also visited a week before (ie he’s on the right trail) and was terrified

Oliver is about to sneak out on Aggie from their Swiss hotel when she catches him red-handed and insists they fly together to Istanbul. Here Oliver goes to the heavily-guarded house of the crooked lawyer, Dr Mirsky. He is out but Oliver is grudgingly admitted, accompanied by heavies down to the pool, where he meets the leggy, flirtatious Mrs Mirsky. After some flirting Mirsky himself arrives, sweeps Oliver up into his office, and explains the double cross which is at the heart of the novel.

The reveal

Tiger’s right hand man in London is ‘Randy’ Massingham, who has long been restive at his subordinate position. On the Orlov side the psycho Habon is obviously a threat. Between the two of them they have cooked up a scheme. Fragments of the Orlovs’ smuggling operations will be leaked to the Russian authorities, who will pick off bits and pieces. The aim will be to attach the blame to Single & Single in such a way as to a) discredit Tiger b) persuading the Orlov brothers to demand compensation money out of him using threats and menaces c) ultimately destabilise the Orlov operation enough for Hoban to take over and eliminate the brothers.

So Hoban gets Massingham to tip off the British authorities who will tip off the Russian authorities about a ship – the Free Tallinn – arriving in Odessa carrying tons of heroin. The Russians duly storm the boat, and in the resulting firefight Yevgeny’s beloved brother, Mikhail, is shot dead.

It is this – the death of his brother – which tips Yevgeny over the edge, which ages him decades overnight, which reduces him to a pawn in the hands of the manipulative Hoban. Hoban persuades Yevgeny that, since the tip-off came from London, Tiger must be behind it, the double-crossing b*stard. And it is this which leads to the outrageous demand Oliver has learned about on his odyssey – a demand hand-delivered to Tiger at his office along with a video. The demand was for the immediate refund of all moneys invested with Single & Single, plus punitive damages and costs and interest: £200 million in total! And the video is the film Hoban shot right at the start of the novel – a video of Alfred Winser begging for his life before having half his head blown off. No wonder Tiger emerged shaking from his office, drove straight to his country house to load a travel bag, flew on a fake passport to Switzerland and then…

For a heartless amoral crook, Mirsky is disarmingly frank with Oliver and doesn’t harm him, driving him back into town. Oliver reports back to Brock then takes Aggie to the house where he had previously met the Orlovs and their extended family. It is empty and abandoned, the only person left in it the now-almost-demented Zoya, cradling an armed Kalashnikov. They manage to talk her down, get the gun off her, make her soup and discover the family has returned to Mingrelia.

It is at this point that Oliver does finally succeed in eluding Aggie, setting off on a motorbike for a long night-time drive to an airfield in eastern Turkey. Here he charters a plane at an outrageous rate which flies him to the remote valley in the Caucasus which he had visited so many times in happier days. When he arrives everyone is very unfriendly, though he is allowed to make his way up to the Orlov family mansion on a hill.

Although he knows there is a price on his head, although he knows he could be shot dead at any moment, Oliver braves it out, talking to the shrivelled, shadow-of-his-former-self Yevgeny and his wife as if nothing has happened, trying to raise everyone’s spirits. Hoban enters and Oliver begins shaking with fear inside but hides it, insisting on making tea and then helping cook the evening meal for everyone, just like normal. Eventually they let him see his father, Hoban taking him out back to a filthy stable where Tiger is lying half-naked in the straw, prisoned in a massive chain and manacles.

The Massingham plotline

While Oliver’s odyssey across Europe has been going forward, it has been interspersed by a parallel plot strand based in London. Here the imperturbable Brock is in possession of Randy Massingham, formerly arrogant globe-trotting representative of Single & Single, now trying not to quake with fear in a seedy safe house in south London since he, too, received a letter and a copy of the video which said that not only he, but his gay lover, William, would meet the fate of Alfred Winser.

Thus Oliver’s adventures are interspersed with the much less glamorous, much more slow-burning, psychologically tense interrogation of the evasive, arrogant Massingham by calm, persistent Brock. In the end Massingham breaks, reveals the whole story and prompts Brock to realise he has to act now to save both Tiger and Oliver.

Bloody climax

Novels must end. Narratives must reach a conclusion. And endings are notoriously difficult.

The actual events in this one are as violent as any action movie. Brock and a team of SAS-style hard men fly to south Russia, where they meet up with Russian Special Forces and take helicopters to the Orlovs’ isolated valley. Thus Oliver is back in Yevgeny’s living room, pleading for Tiger’s life, trying to explain that they were stitched up, Tiger would never kill Mikhail, indeed he would never tip off the authorities and he never did, someone else has concocted the whole thing… when they hear the sound of helicopters flying overhead and, only minutes later, the room explodes as gas grenades detonate everywhere and the windows and doors are suddenly full of black-clad special forces men rushing in, throwing Oliver and the dazed Tiger to the ground, coshing Yevgeny and his old wife and then, as the wicked baddy Hoban goes for his gun, there is the ‘plop’ of a silenced gun firing and a red rose blossoms in his forehead. Cool, leggy Aggie, dressed in figure-hugging black, stands over the prostrate Ollie, having saved his life – Modesty Blaise come to life, an S&M princess. There stood:

Aggie, brandishing a submachine gun and wearing a panther suit and Apache warpaint. (p.413)

But what really distinguishes this violent ending from hundreds of others like it is the eerie detachment of the protagonist whose eyes we see it through. As his quest has continued Oliver’s consciousness has become increasingly overloaded with memories, dizzied by the complexity of his father’s scams and the conspiracy against him, and unsettled by the clashing of the two lives he’s been living, his old life and the new identity, wife and child he has ended up abandoning, not to mention trying to keep track of all the women he’s sleeping with.

It is in this heightened, almost delirious, mood that Oliver had bluffed his way into Yevgeny’s house and tried to persuade the sceptical hosts that nothing has changed, that they’re still all old friends, that good old Tiger wouldn’t hurt a fly, come on Yevgeny… And when the bombs suddenly explode and the guns start firing his mind collapses away from the chaotic present and his last thoughts are for his daughter, Carmen, 5,000 miles away in a suburban bedroom, and  his only worry that all the crashing and banging might wake her up.

The grail

And the immortal wisdom which is won at the climax of the quest? As in so many modern quests, the knowledge at the end of the rainbow has the taste of ashes, as he stands over the body of his short, shrunken, dirty, powerless and humiliated father, realising:

You have revealed the full scale of your immense, infinite nothingness. At the brink of death, you have nothing to plead but your stupefying triviality. (p.407)

Seen in a simple Freudian light, the whole book has led up to this moment of crushing insight, as Oliver realises he has triumphed over his father, reducing him to a nullity, travelling all this way not to rescue him – but to witness his utter humiliation.

Themes and style


The Orlov brothers are not in fact Georgians, they are Mingrelians, a sub-ethnic group of Georgians, who live in the Caucasus. We learn quite a lot about their culture and history as we accompany Oliver on several business trips where he is shown around the stunning landscape and peasant culture by his proud hosts, the Orlov brothers. The novel is set in very much the same part of the world as Our Game, which gravitated around the protagonists’ involvement in the independence movement of the nearby Ingush people. Given all of Russia (or the world) to choose from, why the attraction of this tiny out-of-the-way part of it?

What’s interesting is the way that, in two long novels set in this small area, le Carré mentions but doesn’t make much of the Chechens, the not-much-larger ethnic group and nation neighbouring the Ingush and Mingrelians, but which caused Russia much more trouble in the 1990s, triggering two major wars, waves of terrorism, and the proliferation of the Chechen mafia inside Russia (as described in, for example, the opening scenes of Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thriller, Red Square).

Maybe it’s because the Chechen situation is complex and big, whereas the Ingush who feature in Our Game and the Mingrelians who feature in this novel, are tiny minority groups who le Carré is free-er to handle fictionally. Rather than take on the large and complex socio-economic-political issues of the Chechens, the relative obscurity of the Ingush and Mingrelians allows le Carré to focus not on big picture politics, but on the psychology of just a handful of individuals, doing what he does best, which is build up in-depth profiles of a small group of players, who are described in such a way as to become looming, unreally outsize avatars who, in their psychological potency and exaggerated style, drift loose of their ‘historical’ settings to become almost allegorical figures.

Easy sex

In the opening pages Oliver is described by his landlady as strong and silent (p.27), like a medieval hero striding out of a cave in his armour (p.33), with the ‘strong, upright, officer-class voice’ like the actors in courtroom melodramas (p.34).

He is six foot something and built like an ‘Alp’. When he’s finished doing a clown performance at a party of pukka mums, the one paying him begins to flirt with him. Rather like legendary Larry in Our Game and caddish Osnard in Tailor, poor Oliver is a babe magnet.

When he arrives in Mingrelia and is introduced to Yevgeny Orlov’s extended family, Oliver immediately notices Yevgeny’s fourth daughter, Zoya, sitting apart from the rest, nursing her sickly son, Paul, and something passes between them. Unfortunately, she is married to the psychopath Hoban. Partly to distract himself Oliver agrees to have lessons in Mingrelian back in London with one Nina, and after a day or two they’re having sex (‘Soon she shares his bed, p.175). In fact his father asks him how many times a day he’s screwing her? ‘Twice at night and once in the morning,’ as per family tradition? Archie from the Trading Floor asks, ‘Gave her one for breakfast, did we, Ollie boy?’ (p.209) She leaves bite marks on his shoulder.

However, it doesn’t last and when the initial plans with the Orlov brothers fall through, so does the affair (although Nina’s mother recommends an older male tutor if he still wants to learn the language, a man who was once, inevitably, Nina’s mother’s lover). Anyway, sex with Nina had never eliminated thoughts of Zoya out of Oliver’s mind and the next time he returns to Mingrelia the readers isn’t surprised when there’s a knock on his door late at night and it’s Zoya ready to be ‘taken’.

On the bed they fight until they are naked, then take each other like animals until both of them are satisfied. (p.188) Flinging herself round to him, she traps him between her thighs and lunges at him with ferocity, as if by taking him inside her she will silence him. (p.196)

(Very like the way Osnard ‘takes’ the drunk Louisa in The Tailor of Panama.) At dinner with the Orlovs, ‘The scent of Zoya’s juices is still on him. He can smell it through his shirt’ (p.189).

Much later, when he is driven to a safe house, and when he then flies under an assumed identity to Zurich, it is with the only woman on Brock’s team, ‘Aggie’. There is a thumping inevitability to the way they end up having an affair, she falling in love with him, him adding her to his list of ‘conquests’.

He saw a stalky girl appear, tall as himself but fit. High cheek bones, long blondish pony-tail, and that thing that tall girls have of putting all their weight on one leg while they cock the other hip. (p.118) [Sounds like a blonde Modesty Blaise.]

After Winser’s murder and Oliver has come out of hiding, he visits the penthouse apartment where his father used to live, now abandoned. First he stops at an apartment in the same building where Kat Altremont lives, his father’s long-time mistress and owner of a high-class restaurant near the Singles’ office. He is there to quiz her about his father’s movements but she immediately starts flirting with him.

She stepped forward, drawing the whole length of him against her, which was how she greeted all her men, chest to chest and groin to groin… (p.262)

And while he tries to get a straight answer out of her about why his father so suddenly fled, all she wants to do is rub her legs against him. In the lift up to his father’s penthouse room, she falls into his arms.

‘She feathered her tongue against his while her hands skimmed and dived around his crotch.’ (p.270).

When Oliver’s finished searching the flat, she says he’s more than welcome to come and share her bed.

When he visits the frightened lawyer, Conrad (‘our gallant doctor, our wizard of offshore’ p.288), in Zurich, he makes a point of flirting with the secretary in a bid to see whether she knows whether his father ordered a taxi or where he went after his meeting. She immediately starts to respond.

When Oliver talks his way into the heavily guarded compound of the crooked lawyer, Dr Mirsky, in Istanbul, Mirsky is not there but his wife is. She is ‘blonde, long-legged’, Swedish, and wearing a bathing costume as she lounges by the pool and it is no surprise that she too begins to flirt with this uninvited intruder, criss-crossing her legs, stretching, showing off her assets. Basically, wherever he goes women start melting, swooning, flashing their breasts and grabbing his crotch.

And it’s not just Ollie. Even in the opening pages as the poor lawyer Alfred Winser faces his end, he has time to remember having sex with his reluctant wife, being tied to the bedstead of a house in Chiswick by ‘a chubby friend’, the deep white thighs of young Swedish women and once seeing a young woman topless in a field of poppies.

Oliver’s landlady remembers visits to the randy local bank manager who suggests they discuss her loan in bed (p.37).

Ollie’s ex-wife’s boss is remembered roaring with laughter and winking at ‘the husbands he was cuckolding’ (p.84).

When Brock’s homely wife rings him at work and tells him the local gossip, she includes the recent tale of one neighbour telling another neighbour to stop her husband standing outside her window with ‘his nasty nature in his hand.’ (p.100)

There is, in other words, a kind of permanent sense of arousal about this novel. Almost all the men are thinking about sex, and almost every female character begins to melt into the hero’s arms, whether he wants them to or not, in a way it’s difficult not to find a little ludicrous, more Bondish than Bond, like a kind of soft porn male fantasy.

It is a welcome relief that Oliver’s ex-wife, Heather, really hates him and, when she finds out that he lied to her about his entire past, hates him even more. At least there’s one woman in the novel not in a hurry to get her kit off, but she is very much in the early parts of the book, before Oliver assumes his odyssey and begins to transform into a mythical figure.

Bombastic style

For the first hundred pages I thought we’d shaken off the phenomenal poshness of public school characters, the upper-class slang and schoolboy jargon which bombard the reader of Our Game and The Tailor of Panama – I thought it might be a normal spy thriller with normal people who talk like the people you know and meet and hear on the radio and see on TV.

But as the book progresses it becomes more dominated by bombast and hyperbole. Characters – especially the father figure, Tiger, with his rather laughable nickname – are ‘legends’, they benefit from multiple epithets like Greek gods, they are referred to as the Famous X or the Fabled Y or the Legendary Z, people pepper their speech with quotes from literature or the Bible or Shakespeare and generally sound like Mr. Cholmondley-Warner from the Harry Enfield sketches.

Repetition Why describe something once when you can describe it three times? Thus Heather calls Oliver ‘her gentle giant, her lord and schoolmaster’ (p.84) We are introduced to Brock’s assistant, Tanby, ‘Brock’s emaciated shadow’.

Cadaverous Cornish Tanby who drives Brock’s car for him when he needs to catch an hour’s kip. Fetches Brock’s Chinese take-in for him when he can’t leave his desk. Fronts for him, lies for him, hauls me upstairs when my feet are lame from drink. Tanby the calm voice in the storm, the one you want to throttle with your sweating hands. (p.90)

Whether this works or not depends on whether you prefer analysis and statements of fact, or whether you enjoy the rhythm of repetitive rhetoric.

Brock was putting names to Oliver’s worst apprehensions, raising unsleeping ghosts from his past, adding new fears to old ones. (p.113)

Tiger claims that S&S’s wealth is down to ‘Our own sweat and tears. Our intuition, our flair, our flexibility. Our merit.’ (p.191). Repeat repeat repeat is the mantra of this style.

Grandiosity Why refer to someone by name when you can inflate their importance using portentous abstract nouns? Thus Oliver the whistleblower becomes ‘The lonely decider. The idealist. The walk-in of all time.’ (p.230)

Why describe a scene when you can turn it into a kind of fairground show, complete with circus-master twirling his moustache and booming through a loudhailer? When Tiger phones down to Oliver and asks him to come up to the big office, to be officially made a partner in the firm:

It is not Elsie Watmore calling Oliver to arms but Tiger himself on the internal office telephone. It is not Pam Hawsley our fifty-thousand-a-year Ice Maiden, nor Randy Massingham our Chief of Staff and raddled Cassius. It is The Man, live on stage, impersonating the Voice of Destiny… it is springtime in the young life of our budding junior-and-only partner fresh from law school, our Czarevitch, our Heir Apparent to the Royal House of Single… (p.125)

Single & Single isn’t a company, it is ‘a magic kingdom of which his father is benign and absolute ruler’ (p.128). Tiger is accompanied by:

The fabled Yevgeny Orlov, Moscow’s patriarchal fixer, power broker, travelling plenipotentiary and cupbearer to the Throne of Power itself. (p.129)

Why does le Carré do this, submit his characters to this sustained facetious exaggeration? Is it meant to be funny? It has the effect of distancing the reader and making the characters, and the entire text, seem fatuous and a bit stupid.

Famous We read of the ‘famous Wedgwood double doors’ into the ‘divine glow’ of Tiger’s presence (p.127). The ‘fabled Yevgeny Orlov’ (p.129). At the Kat’s Cradle restaurant, our guys take ‘the famous round table in the bay’ (p.150). ‘The Orlovs are family men. Famous for it.’ (p.152) The lift to the top floor isn’t a lift – ‘the famous gilded cage stood open to waft distinguished visitors to the top floor’ (p.210). When Oliver enters his father’s office – aka ‘the Tiger’s lair’ – it is to find him ‘standing in the fabled rotunda’ (p.215). Oliver isn’t forgetful; he is afflicted ‘with his legendary vagueness’ (p.306).

The expression ‘a legend in their own mind’ was coined to describe the pompous self-importance of various types who rose to prominence in the 1980s, not least the merchant bankers who liked to think of themselves as Masters of the Universe or Big Swinging Dicks. That’s who the bombastic self-importance applied to all the characters in this novel – and their lifts and offices – reminds me of.

Religion Why say the lift is going up when you can say it is going to ‘Heaven’? Why say Tiger had a private office, when you can refer to ‘the inner sanctum’ or ‘the holy of holies’? Thus Aggie’s mother was a GP ‘and visiting angel to the poorer Glasgow suburbs’ (p.60). Brock has ‘an almost religious sense of Oliver’s rarity’ (p.95). Brock ‘allows himself a pause for prayer and contemplation’ (p.98). Meetings of the Joint Crime Prevention Team which Brock attends are ‘informal prayer sessions’ addressed by ‘a wise woman from Research’. Brock is confident that by interrogating Oliver he has ‘committed no sin against Oliver’s soul’ (p.104). Brock tells him:

‘Alfie Winser was his life-long friend and comrade-in-arms, you’ll be pleased to learn. They trudged the same hard road, shared the same ideals. Amen’ (p.116)

Why Amen? What does that Amen do except make Brock’s dialogue sound like the humourless parody of a sermon?

The crowd of coppers hanging round a meeting room are a ‘congregation’. Oliver hugs himself ‘in some private ritual of prayer’ (p.122). Tiger’s smile ‘bestows a saintly purpose’ over his colleagues (p.128). Anyone who likes Georgia is ‘a true believer’, says one of Yevgeny’s people, ‘with the authority of the pulpit, ‘in holy confirmation of his faith’ (p.133).

‘Yevgeny’s office is a chapel of calm’ (p.158). ‘Tiger himself has chosen the path of solitude and contemplation’ (p.180). The helipad at Tiger’s country house ‘is a secret altar’ (p.233). When talking to Oliver’s ex-wife, Heather, Brock ‘had a priestly tone for these occasions’ (p.250). When Oliver tells Conrad the lawyer what they think has happened it is not his version of events, it is ‘the Gospel according to Brock’ (p.290). ‘The room was a chapel of remembrance’ (p.309), and so on…

Bereft of any actual spiritual or religious content, the use of religious vocabulary is one of the many tactics used to heighten and exaggerate the language and create a permanent effect of ironic and facetious exaggeration.

Private school comparisons A really hard core English private education seems to mark its benficiaries for life, so that they refer everything in later life back to it, everything sparks memories of your prep school, or boarding school, or public school.

Thus the ‘wise woman’ who addresses the Joint Crime Prevention Team about modern crime speaks ‘with the firmness of a head mistress addressing her school leavers.’ (p.102) The Customs room at Heathrow where Oliver is questioned ‘reminds him of a boys’ changing room in one of his many boarding schools.’ (p.104) When Oliver sneaks off from Aggie, it isn’t as an adult, aware of his betrayal – instead he feels ‘like a schoolboy playing truant’ (p.383).

Oliver is seven years old. It is his first pony class and he is wearing a stiff bowler and tweed jacket. (p.232)

I’m sure we all remember our first pony class. (In fact this moment is a repeat of the memory of her first gymkhana which comes back to the leggy, posh totty Francesca, in The Tailor of Panama. Maybe there’s a first-pony memory in each of le Carré’s post-Cold War novels. But can you imagine Alec Leamas from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold reminiscing about his first pony? Or George Smiley? These aren’t just minor details, they are symptomatic of the completely different mindset and milieu of le Carré’s novels of the 1990s compared with those from the 1960s and 70s.)

The fact that most reviewers never refer to the phenomenally posh nature of his characters, the dialogue and the narrative prose is testament to the way most people working in publishing and book-reviewing themselves went to prep school, boarding school and Oxbridge, and regard this extraordinarily pukka, ironically superior diction as normal.

Great turns of phrase

Dealing with all the above on a page-by-page basis is so disappointing because le Carré is still very much capable of great turns of phrase and vivid descriptions which take you right there, in really well-imagined scenes.

The air inside the mortuary stank of putrefaction and formaldehyde. It nipped at the consul’s larynx and turned his stomach like a slow key. (p.47)

The Kurd dumped the fresh ice into the bathtub and withdrew, his mules slapping the wet stones. (p.51)

There are more firmly imagined moments and magical use of language in this book than in the previous few and for the first hundred pages or so it feels like it might be a ‘normal’ novel without le Carré’s usual barrage of bombast. He has a great way of shaping a sentence, lots of pithy encapsulations, a wonderful throwaway precision, which reminded me of his classic period in the 1970s.

…the pleasure cruisers and glass-bottomed safari boats, the little trawlers in their fishing-net mantillas.. (p.56)

A pink moon hung above him, cut to pieces by the razor wire coiled along the courtyard wall… A strained silence followed while Pode fiddled with papers and Lanxon gardened at  his pipe, gouging sodden tobacco onto an ashtray. (p.65)

The moon hung ahead of him making a white ladder of the sea. (p.83)


Schoolboy prose

It is obviously a grown-up story. It is about a grown-up world and features lots of grown-ups. They have sex. They say ‘fuck’ a lot. They concoct wicked schemes. But one particular paragraph pulled me up short.

In the House of Single the tension is audible. The primly clothed typists tread gingerly. The Trading Room, barometer of morale, is buzzing with rumour. Tiger has gone out there for the big one! It’s boom or bust for Single’s! Tiger is poised for the kill of the century. (p.174)

It made me realise that a lot of this and the previous novels’ over-excited prose is more than schoolboyish, it’s actually childish. Not just the references to the characters’ jolly public school days. Not just the overgrown schoolboy banter and slang. But the actual mind-set which the prose conveys is like something out of Just William or Biggles. OK, there’s a lot of swearing and guns and sex to fool you into thinking it’s a book for grown-ups. But somewhere at the core of these texts is a gleeful adolescent rubbing his hands and yelling, Yes! the Great Spy has entered the Enemy Camp! The Master of Ceremonies awaits in the Holy of Holies! The Black-Clad Heroine stands over the Fallen Hero, Gun in Hand.

As the novel progresses the brilliant phrase-making diminishes and the bombast and exaggeration take over. And the louder the prose shouts the more the underlying mentality seems that of a 1950s boys’ comic. At a deep level, for all its geopolitical earnestness, and although le Carré is an often brilliant writer, this feels like it’s not really a serious book.


Single and Single by John le Carré was published in 1999 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2000 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996) Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
  • Single & Single (1999) Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically the Orlov brothers from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father before he, too, is killed.
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré (1996)

‘In Panama everyone knows Harry Pendel.’ (p.68)

Le Carré’s narrative technique

Le Carré is masterfully cunning at releasing his information in dramatic instalments, deploying the constituent parts of the plot with great rhythm and timing. In its predecessor, Our Game, and in this novel, le Carré opens by selecting a key scene from his narrative, choosing it to be ‘the present’, portraying it at great length to establish setting and characters – and only once this static island in time is firmly anchored, then arranging a kaleidoscope of flashbacks and memories in the rest of the text to paint in all kinds of elements of backstory, characters’ history and psychology, memories, re-enactments and so on – simultaneously moving the story forward to tell us what happened next.

Quite often the amount of ‘what happened next’ narrative is smaller than, or less vivid than, the ‘flashback’ material, so that reading the book feels more like watching a tree or bush grow in a nature programme, with tendrils moving out in all directions – completely different from the much more straightforward linear narrative of a Deighton or Forsyth.

Thus the first hundred pages of the Tailor describe a day in the life of the eponymous tailor, Harry Pendel, leading up to his appointment to measure a new customer, Andrew Osnard. Except that Osnard is quickly revealed to be no ordinary client. He spends the measuring session probing Harry extensively about his past – before revealing that he knows Harry’s carefully cultivated front as a partner in a posh tailors’ firm is rot; his firm never existed on Savile Row, the sadly deceased partner he likes to spin long yarns about is a complete fiction.

No, Osnard knows that Harry grew up in poverty in the East End of London, went to work for his Uncle Benny in the rag trade, was caught burning down Benny’s warehouse in a plan to defraud the insurance company, was convicted of arson, imprisoned and, immediately upon his release, fled England with guilty Uncle Benny’s help to Panama, where he married a local American woman whose parents had money.

Osnard says he knows that Harry has used up that entire inheritance to buy a rice farm out in the countryside, but that the water has dried up, it will never be viable, and he is losing money fast on the loan he took out to buy it at an extortionate rate of monthly interest. In fact, Osnard reveals to a stunned Harry that he was stitched up by his banker ‘friend’ (Ramón Rudd), who was the one who tipped him off about the opportunity in the first place and encouraged him to make the purchase and loaned him the money, but who is in cahoots with the rice farm estate manager (Angel) to drive it into the ground, then buy it at auction for a song, restore the water, make it a thriving concern and sell it off at a big profit. He’s been had.

Having reduced Harry to speechlessness by the depth and devastating content of his knowledge about him, Osnard then reveals that he is a spy for Her Majesty’s government and asks Harry if he wants to work for him. Osnard has done his research and knows that Harry, as a snobbish tailor to the great and good of Panamanian society (including, believe it or not, the President himself) gets to hear a surprising amount of gossip and confidential information. ‘Report it back to me and there’s money in it for you, old boy,’ drawls Osnard. Harry’ll be able to repay the loan which is threatening to bankrupt him. Harry hesitates, but can’t really say anything but yes.

A kaleidoscope of flashbacks

All this – a man has a fitting session for a new suit – takes up no fewer than 100 pages.

And from this slender incident in the present opens up a flood of memories and backstories from the past, which come in numerous fragments, sometimes less than a page long, sometimes just a few, or even one, paragraph. These paint rapid sketches of Harry’s miserable childhood in the East End of London; him finding out he’s illegitimate; what it was like working for kindly Uncle Benny; getting caught setting fire to Benny’s warehouse to claim the insurance; the police beating the crap out of him; his miserable experiences in prison and Uncle Benny seeing him onto the boat to Panama, complete with a letter of introduction to his old friend form London who’d emigrated there, Mr Blüthner.

It is Blüthner who finds Harry a shop, loans him material, puts customers his way. Harry falls in love with the American woman, Louisa, but it is always a troubled relationship, then has an affair with the Panamanian girl, Marta. The US Air Force comes to bomb General Noriega out of power but ends up destroying the poorest slums in Panama City and killing hundreds of civilians including all of Marta’s family, while Harry and Louisa watch terrified from their house up the hill.

Later, in the febrile post-air raid atmosphere, Harry is driving Marta home when they are stopped by Noriega’s fascist Dignity Brigades and, because she is wearing a white t-shirt associated with the resistance to Noriega, Marta is really badly beaten with baseball bats, leaving her face permanently disfigured, Harry pinned down by the cops and forced to watch, begging them to stop.

When the Dingbats walk off, Harry drives the bleeding Marta to the apartment of his friend, Michelangelo ‘Mickie’ Abraxas, who takes them both on to an undercover doctor, who makes a mess of trying to fix Marta’s face, and the next day reports them to the cops, but only knows Mickie’s name and address. So it is that the cops arrest Mickie and send him to prison, where the beautiful young man is repeatedly raped and brutalised, emerging a shattered shadow of his former self.

All of this comes out in a tumble of vivid, often lurid, flashbacks, not necessarily in the correct order, sometimes repeated with variations of new facts or phrasing, building up a mosaic or kaleidoscope of Harry’s life and the back stories of the novel’s main characters, with key moments – like the bats smashing Marta’s face, the roar of the flames in Uncle Benny’s warehouse – emerging and re-emerging like gold strands in a tapestry.

And also interspersed among them are the ‘now’ parts of the narrative, as Harry drives home from his session with Osnard thoroughly confused and anxious, worrying about Osnard, worrying about the rice farm, worrying about his wife. The structure, the use of these scattered flashbacks, is very effective:

  • with its repetition of key scenes it builds up a powerful sense of the important memories and elements of the characters’ personalities
  • with its repetition of descriptions, it takes you deep into a thoroughly imagined world, into the humid Panama of hotels and drug barons, roadside militia and brothels
  • above all it allows le Carré to get right to the point: to give just a snapshot of a moment, to describe the key moment or phrase or word, which defines a situation, a decision, a narrative turning point – bang! – and then move on.

Osnard ‘recruits’ Harry

Around page 200 le Carré finally gives us a lengthy description of Osnard’s back story. Although employed by MI6, he is basically a crook on the make. He went to Eton and has used his connections to cruise through a number of unsatisfactory jobs before being recruited into Intelligence. When he is offered Panama, he senses the possibilities and, within days of arriving he’s shaping a plan: he realises that he will get to handle large amounts of non-attributable slush money if he can persuade his bosses there’s a big underground liberation movement in Panama which needs supporting.

Some research brings him to Harry, a well-connected liar and ex-convict, and the long opening scene is there to demonstrate Osnard’s technique of coercion and the way his plans begin to fall into place as he realises how scared and malleable Harry is.

Thus Osnard prompts and encourages Harry to invent out of thin air a network of spies with members among the student movement, the fishermen and workers and to concoct the so-called ‘Silent Opposition’ of political rebels. Osnard winks at Harry nominating his best friend, the ex-convict and down-on-his-luck drunk Mickie Abraxas, as head of this fictional SO. In a typical piece of wit, Osnard christens his imaginary source BUCHAN, which allows all concerned to make jokes about the ‘brave Buchaneers’ etc.

Political background

The background to all this is that the Americans commissioned, funded, ran and kept military watch over the Panama Canal from its opening in 1914. In 1977 the Democrat US President Jimmy Carter (roundly despised by all the right-wing characters in the book) signed a treaty promising to hand the canal over to the Panama government in 1999.

As a result, US authorities, the US Army and – to a lesser extent – allied governments are all anxious that some other foreign power might take control of this vital gateway of world trade, maybe not militarily, maybe just doing favourable trade deals with the Panama government. Osnard knows he can screw money out of his employers back in London – and maybe even out of the Yanks – if he can convince them some big conspiracy is afoot.

Once the ‘spy network’ is up and running, and Osnard is feeding entirely fictional reports from Agent Buchan back to base, he finds himself under pressure to provide more factual detail, and so it is he asks Harry to commit the ultimate ‘betrayal’, and spy on his wife (who works for the Panama Canal Authority, another factor which helped Osnard decide to approach Harry in the first place). Harry embellishes the resulting documents, and then Osnard embellishes them a bit more – including accounts of the Panama President’s recent trip to Japan and South-East Asia – to make it seem as if the Panamanians (or ‘Pans’ as they are dismissively referred to in the neo-colonial slang of the white protagonists) are about to flog the Canal to the ‘Japs’.

[Historical note: back in the early 1990s the expert view was that the West was about to be economically and militarily overtaken by the Japanese and the other South-East Asian Tigers. So much for the geopolitical ‘experts’.]

The media mogul

Osnard’s boss back in London, Luxmore, a canny Scot, encourages Osnard in his wild fantasies, which seems puzzling until we discover this is because he is on the payroll of a wicked media mogul, the potty-mouthed Ben Hatry – not unlike the wicked media mogul played by Jonathan Pryce in the Pierce Brosnan-James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies. Hatry wants to engineer an American takeover of Panama in order to rally round the forces of reaction, to galvanise his audience and sell newspapers and make money. But he is pushing at an open door of right-wing conspiracy theories, xenophobes, bigots and at the paranoid door of the US Army.

Thus, as the novel climbs to dizzier and dizzier heights of unreality, Luxmore flies to the Pentagon where he has a meeting with ‘senior generals’ who he persuades that BUCHAN’s ‘intel’ is the real McCoy and, ‘Gentlemen, we must move swiftly to protect our vital interests’. Luckily, the Americans have both a very big army and air force which, at the bloody climax of the novel, they send to bomb the crap out of Panama City. Again.

Mickie kills himself

While all this has been happening, rumour and gossip about Mickie Abraxia have leaked out and spread, not least via a vile gossip columnist ‘Teddy’. The police arrive on Mickie’s doorstep, threatening to send him back to prison, the same prison where he was brutalised and gang-raped. With Harry’s help and money, Mickie leaves Panama City and drives to Guararé, another Panamanian town, which is having a carnival – lots of fireworks, lots of bangs. One of the bangs is the sound of Mickie shooting himself in the head; he couldn’t face being sent back to gaol. Mickie’s girlfriend, Ana, rings up Harry in hysterics, and he honourably decides to drive to the town to calm the distraught woman, smuggle Mickie’s body into his 4 by 4, and drive it to an ancient religious site, out in the woods where, heart-broken, he arranges and leaves it.

Louisa gets drunk

Meanwhile, Harry’s wife, Louisa, suspects from all his furtive behaviour that he is having an affair. When he gets a phone call from a hysterical woman and insists on driving off into the night with no explanation, she becomes convinced of it and first of all drinks a lot, far too much, crying, shouting and swearing against her unfaithful husband. In this state she breaks into Harry’s desk and finds all the documentation about the made-up spy network, including the paperwork incriminating her as a major source.

Appalled, she drives over to confront the man who seems to be at the root of all the problems, Osnard. She interrupts his meeting with Luxmore where Luxmore had been explaining about the small fortune he’s brought from London to fund the uprising of the ‘Silent Opposition’, and how it’s to be co-ordinated with the US attack. Osnard farcically smuggles Luxmore out the back way, then lets in the extremely drunk Louisa. Unfortunately, she is wearing only a flimsy housecoat and in their tussle all its buttons ping off so she is naked and, well, guess what happens next.

In the morning she awakes humiliated and ashamed in Osnard’s bed to find him packing. Osnard realised his number was up when Luxmore arrived in Panama City and he and the Ambassador announced they wanted to take over the running of BUCHAN. The secret of the con will be out in days, if not hours. Osnard takes the bags full of money which Luxmore had brought with him and left the night before, and absconds. Louisa borrows underclothes, t-shirt etc and makes her way home.

But they are not reconciled. They hear the drumming of the American helicopters overhead and know that history is repeating itself: once again they will stand on their hillside balcony and watch the quarters of the poor be carpet bombed by the warlike Americans. Disgusted with himself and the world, Harry sets off down the hillside, past the injured and screaming people fleeing in the other direction, walking into the bomb blasts and the flames.

If the novel was ever intended to be a comedy, this fatalistic, doomed, heart-broken savage ending is a very sour note to end it on, and eclipses whatever levity preceded it.

After the Cold War

Decades ago critics wondered what spy novelists like Len Deighton or John le Carré would do when the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed and – according to Francis Fukuyama – history ended. The orthodox answer is that le Carré seamlessly transferred the mind set and worldview of the intelligence agencies over into the numerous other issues and conflicts which carried on troubling the world – regional conflicts, the iniquity of multinational corporations, drugs and arms smuggling.


My impression is that le Carré’s response was to go posh.

The world of his early novels, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is cold and shabby, down at heel, a world of losers.

Around 1990 the feel of le Carré’s novels changes, they start to feel considerably buffed up and to focus on formidably posh circles of chaps who went to major public schools, are members of the right clubs, and bonk foxy gels fresh from finishing school. There’s more sex, a lot more sex, in these later novels, and the business of espionage, of recruiting your own agents and persuading chaps from the other side to cross over, is described more and more in the language of love and seduction. There are more warm bedrooms in South America with naked women in them, than cold alleyways in Berlin with armed guards.

Above all, the figures at the centre of the novels increasingly talk in a distinctly posh, upper crust manner, complete with public school slang and Oxbridge banter.

Thus Ned, the retiring intelligence officer narrator of The Secret Pilgrim, appears at first to be a caricature of an old posh buffer – except I think we’re meant to take him seriously. The circle of friends, lovers and fixers surrounding the British arms dealer, Richard Onslow Roper, in The Night Manager are extraordinarily posh, from his jolly hockeysticks girlfriend to his sideman, a gin-swilling retired colonel, what, what. The narrator of Our Game is another unbelievably posh bloke whose CV reads ‘Winchester, Oxford, British Intelligence’, who inherits a pile from a rich old aunt and a West Country vineyard from Uncle Bob, terrific fellah, did you know Uncle Bob? A long way from the back alleyways of Berlin.

Now, whatever the location, be it Panama or the Caucasus, le Carré’s characters carry the indelible mark of upper crust, élite, public school and Oxbridge attitude and locutions along with them.

In his earlier novels the fact that he spent five years working for the ‘Foreign Office’ is probably the most relevant part of le Carré’s career, giving him unparalleled insight into the realities of interviewing, vetting, interrogating suspects; in these later novels, by far the most important fact is that he taught at Eton.

Lots of people have made up spy stories, but not so many have drowned them, like le Carré does his later stories, in torrents of public school slang and banter. For Eton isn’t just a school. It is the apex of an educational system devised to run the greatest empire on earth, and still has extraordinary cultural and political dominance in this country. As the Evening Standard pointed out the other day, if actor Damien Lewis is selected as the next James Bond, it will be the first time that the current Prime Minister, the Mayor of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury and James Bond all went to the same school. Eton. Where le Carré was socially, intellectually and culturally distinguished enough to be acceptable as a master and to teach our future rulers.

The author’s experience at the heart of British snobbery and elitism seems to me to underpin the dominant tone in these later novels, where almost all the characters not only went to public school, but soak their talk and dialogue and thinking in confident, arrogant public schoolboy banter and slang.

Posh English

So although The Tailor of Panama is indeed set in Panama and although – in its first hundred pages or so – it contains convincing descriptions of the buildings, layout and geography, of the roads and rush hour traffic jams, the street beggars, the heat and noise of Panama City, the characters are strangely insulated from it all, carrying everywhere with them the class-conscious attitude and argot of the public school-educated Englishman.

Thus the novel opens with the tailor of the title, half-Jewish Harry Pendel, waking, breakfasting with his wife and kids before driving to his shop, and here he is visited by a new chap in the country, one Andrew Osnard. And although it is set in Central America, the reader is transported to a timeless scene – the seigneurial relationship between a posh Englishman and his canny tailor, a scene that could be from Thackeray.

Pendel regards his quiet and civilised shop and fitting room as an oasis of calm in a busy world. But it is much more than that. It’s an oasis of old-fashioned pukka Englishness, with its cucumber sandwiches, copies of the Times and Country Life strewn about, and the servile tailor serving the insouciantly superior cad, who murmurs on in his upper class drawl:

‘Bravo… thing is, old boy… little local difficulty… splendid… frankly, a bit of a facer… good show …’

Which public school did you go to?

My heart sank and I began to withdraw even more from the novel when, around page 150, we’re introduced to the (senior) staff at the British Embassy in Panama who are, at first, annoyed by the imposition of an Intelligence agent on them. In thumbnail portraits of the Embassy staff we learn that the ‘Ambass’ went to Harrow, the first secretary, Stormont, to Shrewsbury (then Jesus, Oxford: a disappointing Second in History). They are both a bit jealous of Osnard who, we now find out, was educated at Eton. Eton. Harrow. Shrewsbury. It’s a broad social mix, I suppose.

The only woman on the team, Francesca Deane, is depicted from word go as a sex object (‘A body to kill for, the brains to go with it’ -p.138. Or, as Luxmore describes her, ‘That prim Sassenach virgin with large attachments and come-hither eyes.., Is she what in my young days we called a cock-teaser?’ p.393)

Fran is lusted over by the Ambassador, and most other men who meet her, but resists all offers until she is swiftly seduced and bedded by Osnard. She is the daughter of a Law Lord and ‘in London she had spent her weekends with a frightfully handsome hunting stockbroker named Edgar.’ (p.218). She knows a bit about Osnard because her simply weird half-brother, Miles, went to Eton too, and tells her about old Andy’s chequered career there. Apparently he doesn’t like to talk to his time there and refers to England’s most prestigious public school as ‘Slough Grammar’. What a wit. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Luckily for Francesca, fat, sweaty Osnard turns out to be a demon lover, tactfully not referring to his previous ‘conquests, although ‘many and varied’, and touching her in a special way only he knows how, taking her

without a word, endlessly, wonderfully, tirelessly, hours, years on end, his thick body skimming weightlessly over her and round her, one peak after another, something that till now had only happened to Fran in her schoolgirl imagination. (p.222)

Yes, as Stormont tells Maltby, ‘He’s shagging Fran’. Lucky old Andy, eh.

Public school comparisons

One of the most tedious thing about people who went to prep school and then a bloody good boarding school is the way the total institutionalisation of their childhood and youth follows them to the end of their days so that whenever they think of their childhood they think only of their odd and unusual circumstances as if they are common. In these books, when comparisons and similes are made, so so often the old schooldays are the ones that come to mind.

Chance favours only the prepared mind. It was the favourite dictum of a science master at  his prep school who, having flogged him black and blue, suggested they make up their differences by taking off their clothes. (p.230)

Osnard had assumed his head prefect tone, though he had only ever been on the receiving end of it, usually before a beating. (p.257)

His voice had acquired the saw-edge of schoolboy sarcasm. (p.258)

‘Gave him the carrot, then waved the stick at him, sir,’ he reported in the Boy Hero voice he kept for his master. (p.268)

[All Fran can think of when Osnard takes her to a casino] was her first gymkhana when her pony which like every other pony in the world was called Misty took the first fence perfectly then bolted down the main road to Shrewsbury. (p.327)

‘We shall need an enormous amount of stuff,’ Maltby went on, with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy looking forward to a new train-set. (p.356)

‘Intelligence is like exams. You always think the chap sitting next to you knows more than you do.’ (p.365)

Maltby, sitting like an obedient schoolboy at Mellors’ right hand… (p.376)

For a moment Fran is in her old school chapel, kneeling in the front pew and watching a huddle of handsome young priests as they chastely turn their backs to her… (p.381)


Now in this kind of school, everybody is famous for something, for being top at games or lessons or having a Duke for father or a Princess for a mother or being heir to some great business fortune. This attitude carries over into these later novels, where all the main characters are the well-known this or the legendary that. It is one of the strategies of the books to make you think that, in a country of 60 million people (Britain), only about 200 or so people really count and they all know each other and they’re all frightfully clever; that in Panama there may be swarms of blacks and half-breeds cluttering up the place, but there are only really a handful of chaps like you and me who appreciate the finer things of life, who understand the value of a well-made alpaca suit, appreciate buttons made from genuine tagua, wear shoes hand made by Ducker’s of Oxford (or possibly Lobbs of St James’s, p.120), who enjoy cucumber sandwiches and a spot of tiffin.

The scuffed leather porter’s chair, authenticated by local legend as Braithwaite’s very own. (p.42) [Braithwaite being the other partner in the tailoring firm of Pendel and Braithwaite, a legend in Savile Row and then a legend when they came out here to Panama.]

[Pendel’s assistant Marta made the cucumber sandwiches.] ‘I don’t know whether her renown has reached you.’ (p.44)

[When approaching the brothel where he is to meet Harry, Osnard finds ‘the fabled pushbutton’ of room number 8] (p.251)

[Rafi Domingo and Mickie Abraxas make] ‘a famous playboy pair’. (p.313)

Allow me to introduce a Brother who needs no introduction, so a big hand, please, for our wandering sage and longtime Servant of the Light, diver of the deep and explorer of the unknown, who has penetrated more dark places – dirty laughter – than any of us round this table today, the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah! (p.287)

Now we are in the tailor Pendel’s cutting room, known to customers and employees alike as the Holy of Holies. (p.385)

Of course, simply everyone in Panama knows who Harry Pendel is. Similarly, he introduces his friend, jailbird Mickie Abraxas, as ‘one of Panama’s few real heroes’ (p.85) and later as ‘Mickie Abraxas, the great underground revolutionary and secret hero of the students’ (p.121). We know the important people. We know what’s really going on. For the simple reason that we ourselves are the only important people: the only people who went to Eton or Winchester or Harrow or Shrewsbury…

Thus, Stormont is appalled when he hears that the committee back in London in charge of the project is being chaired by a certain Geoffrey Cavendish. Of course he knows him. They all know each other, that’s the point.

Cavendish the influence-peddlar, he was thinking. Cavendish the defence lobbyist. Cavendish the self-styled statesman’s friend. Ten per cent Cavendish… Boom-boom Cavendish, arms broker. Geoff the oil. (p.213)

And Luxmore doesn’t prepare one-page reports for his colleagues in Intelligence, he prepares ‘his famous one-page summaries for submission to his mysterious planners and appliers.’ (p.333)


‘Hell did the G stand for?’… ‘Hell’s the crest o’ the Prince of Wales hanging outside for?’… ‘Hell happened to that woman?’ (p.48) … ‘Hell did they give him that for?’  (p.51) … ‘Hell d’you do that for?’ (p.65) … ‘Hell did he swing it?’ (p.76) … ‘Hell’s that mean?’ (p.77)

Breviated words. Breviated sentences. Omit pronouns. Sound more pukka. ‘No time to dawdle, old man, Got an empire to run. Crack on. One more for the road? Won’t say no.’ Fat drunk merchant banker Jamie Pringle talks like this in Our Game. Most of the horrible drunks in The Honourable Schoolboy ditto. And this is how the central figure in Tailor talks, all the time – 458 pages of top hole, old chap, good fellah, hell you up to?

Public school tags & quotes

Like over-educated public schoolboys, characters in these later novels dress up their trite chatter and banal insights with tags and quotes, bits of Latin, rags of Shakespeare, religious stuff fondly remembered from morning chapel and the Founders Day service back at the old alma mater, what, what. Clichés. They talk in clichés.

‘Great wheel of time, eh?’
‘Indeed, sir. The one that spins and grinds and tramples all before it, they say,’ Pendel agreed. (p.47)

‘As I’m sure your good father will have told you many a time and oft.’ (p.54) Shakespeare.

‘For all the people to come to eat your sandwiches. So they increase and multiply and order up more suits.’ (p.110) Bible.

No gilded porticos or grand staircases to instil humility in lesser breeds without the law. (p.136) Kipling.

Pendel waited, as must all who only stand and wait. (p.155) Milton.

The quotes make the people using them feel and sound clever. But their real point is to emphasise that you’re one of the club, one of the chaps who’s at home with all these quotes and references and in-jokes and tags, one of us, people like us, properly educated at a bloody good traditional school, on the inside!


In the 1990s le Carré’s characters passed through some kind of threshold of restraint and good manners and now all his characters liberally say ‘fuck’. At first in the novel it is just the sweaty middle-aged men, then a so-called expert on international affairs says ‘fuck’ in every sentence for 3 or 4 pages, then the media mogul Hatry says ‘fuck’ in every sentence (‘Let’s fucking do it’ p.334) as does his creature ‘Cavendish’ and by the end of the book it seemed like everyone was saying ‘fuck’ in almost all situations: Louisa says ‘ Fuck you, Harry’, Osnard says ‘fuck’ all the time (‘Fuck do I care?’ p.201), even Harry ends up saying ‘fuck’. The repellent gossip columnist Teddy, viciously tells Harry, ‘How you can fuck that faceless half-breed is beyond me.’ (p.324)

[Policeman] ‘He fucks you, doesn’t he?’
[Marta] ‘No, he doesn’t fuck me.’ (p.384)

Louisa asks Marta whether Harry gave her money ‘for fucking?’ (p.387)

So ‘fuck you’, ‘fuck this’, ‘fuck that’ it is, then. (‘Do you mind putting that fucking thing out, please.’ p.341) Not really very funny. (‘This is my fucking patch, not his.’ p.378) In fact, quite wearing after a while.

‘Fuck you, Harry Pendel! Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you! Wherever you are. You’re a fucking cheat!’ (p.399)

More than that, the novel is in danger of using hyperbole – in this instance a blizzard of ‘f’ words – to paper over the gaps in the plot. In Our Game the academic Larry Pettifer was promoted by the incredibly posh narrator as being the intellectual star of his generation at Oxford, a fountain of brilliant, incisive insights into geopolitics etc etc. But when we actually hear him talk, he says things like:

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (p.138)

Which is hugely disappointing, buffoonish, thick and he carries on talking like a crude dimwit to the end of the novel. In this book there are several places where we get to hear the ‘thinking’ of the shadowy powers behind the scenes – and they, just as disappointingly, also turn out to be full of men saying ‘fuck’, as if that makes the ‘arguments’ more powerful.

The first of these scenes takes us to one of le Carré’s characteristic milieus, an exclusive men’s club full of oafish, swearing ex-patriates, one of whom – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – is singled out as some kind of expert about the future of the Canal. But what he actually does is drone on for pages about the ‘fucking Japs’ and the ‘fucking Chinks’ and the ‘fucking Yanks’, as if such dismissive swearing improves his ‘insights’. But there are no insights, no intelligence and, like a lot of other le Carré experts, he sounds from the start like a foul-mouthed, drunken idiot.

Here is Jonah explaining that the Japanese have, supposedly, developed a new technology for converting their poor quality oil sources into good quality oil, thus turning them into a world-shaking threat:

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle… The Nips have found their magic emulsion. Which means that your tenure here in Paradise is scheduled to last about five minutes by the station clock. You pour it in, you shake it all about, and bingo, you’ve got oil like all the other boys. Fucking oceans of it. And once they’ve built their own Panama Canal, which is going to happen in the flick of a very small mayfly’s dick, they will be in the very happy position of being able to flood the fucking world with it.’ (p.290)

Bar room drunk. And, of course, wildly wrong: the Japanese were just about to embark on their twenty-year period of ‘stagflation, during which they have been eclipsed by other up-and-coming powers. ‘Then there are the prolonged scenes with the wicked media mogul Hatry ‘discussing’ his plans with his sidekick Cavendish – which amount to page after page of the crudest bar-room prejudices wrapped up in the coarsest swearing, in which they try to outdo each other with the potty-mouthed stupidity of their shouted opinions.

Quite possibly the men who run everything do shout ‘fuck’ at each other all the time, but as a rule of thumb, the more swearing there is in these novels, the less analysis or insight.


Religious imagery and vocabulary are also dragged in to help inflate events and descriptions, to make everything bigger sounding, louder and more significant.

The rows of ladies’ summer frocks like convent martyrs… (p.115)

The Blüthner household became his secret paradise, a shrine that he could only ever visit alone. (p.128)

In the beginning was the Hard Word, he told himself… Arthur Braithwaite, known to Louisa and the children as God. (p.277)

The Canal smouldered to the left of them and the mist coiled over it like an eternal dew. Pelicans dived through the mist and the air inside the car smelled of ship’s oil and nothing in the world had changed or ever would, Amen. (p.189). [Why the Amen? The opening phrases are brilliantly descriptive: why drag it round to a pointless orotund piece of bombast?]

When Harry goes to meet the US general in charge of the canal Louisa describes it as ‘a pilgrimage’. As he drives up the hillside of the US base he feels as if ‘he had experienced a vicarious promotion on his way to Heaven’ (p.196) When Osnard decides to try for the Foreign Office, he realises he has found his ‘Grail’ (p.233) Luxmore speaks of the righteousness of Osnard’s ‘high mission’ (p.245). When Maltby invites Fran for breakfast, that’s not how he phrases it; he asks

whether it would be an offence against Creation if he took her to the Pavo Real for a boiled egg. (p.382)

The rule of three

Classical authors writing about rhetoric formulated ‘the rule of three’. This is simply that, as a general rule in speaking and in writing, concepts or ideas presented in threes are more interesting, more enjoyable and more memorable than in ones or twos, while four is too many.

Again and again, as you read through the novel, you feel that le Carré doesn’t analyse situations or people: he massages and shapes them, using strings of synonyms, repetitions, high-flown comparisons. The repetition gives the impression of that analysis or understanding is taking place, but it is purely rhetorical. Sometimes more or less, but often in tell-tale threes:

[Harry] was Robin Hood, bringer of hope to the oppressed, dispenser of justice. (p.89)

‘The people the other side of the bridge… the hidden rank and file… the strivers and believers…’ (p.89)

‘The sham, Andy, the veneer, the beneath the surface…’ (p.88)

‘[Louisa] greets, she covers, she papers over the cracks.’ (p.81)

[Harry’s philosophy aims…] To make it tolerable. To befriend it. To draw its sting. (p.78)

A long slow complicitous, insinuating, unnerving policeman’s shrug, expressing false ease, terrible powers and an immense store of superior knowledge. (p.99)

I’m here for ever. Banged up. In the womb. Doing time. Turn off engine, turn off air-con. Wait. Cook. Sweat. (p.115)

Mickie my failure, my fellow prisoner, my spy. (p.315)

My suits are not confrontational. They hint. They imply. They encourage people to come to you. They help you improve your life, pay your debts, be an influence in the world. (p.315)

‘These men of the world understand that. They know what it is to be unseen, unheard, unknown.’ (p.332)

‘All that is being offered here is a helping hand – the counsel of wise heads – a steadying influence upon a brilliantly managed operation.’ Suck of teeth, sad frown of troubled father, the placatory tone raised to entreaty. (p.380)

Here, take this, it’s Osnard’s money, Judas money, Mickie money, now it’s yours… Undertaker money. Police money. Chiquilla money. (p.383)

I am chosen. I am blessed. I walk on water. (p.399)

[Of Osnard sexually ‘taking’ the drunk Louisa] Then he took her very slowly and deliberately, using all his skills and hers. To shut her up. To tie a loose cannon to the deck. To get her safely into my camp before whatever battle lay ahead. Because it’s a maxim of mine that no reasonable offer should ever be passed up. Because I always fancied her. Because screwing one’s friends’ wives is never less than interesting. (p.4110

In these examples the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation of rhetoric is pleasantly satisfying, filling, gives you the sense you’ve learned or grasped something. But you haven’t. It is fine-sounding wind.

‘The Silent Opposers. Mickie’s Boys. Waiters-in-the-Wings,’ I call them. (p.94)

‘We’re not asking her to plant a bomb in the Palace o’ Herons, shack up with the students, go to sea with the fishermen.’ (p.262)

The rule of threes (ie how to pad out your writing but also make it sound weighty and meaningful) also applies to paragraphs.

The imp again. (1) The one that pops up to remind us that nothing goes away; (2) that a moment’s jealousy can spawn a lifetime’s fiction; (3) and that the only thing to do with a man once you’ve pulled him low is pull him lower. (p.90)

It sounds fine. Is any of it ‘true’ or worth a second thought? At other moments the rule is applied to make life choices or situations sound profound and serious. For example, Marta refuses to move back to her old house:

Can’t because her parents had lived where this building now stood.
Can’t because this was her Panama.
Can’t because her heart was with the dead. (p.130)

Interestingly, the rule works fine if the prose is not straining for pseudo-profundity. Simple descriptions often benefit from the rule, when used to create atmosphere, a mood, a scene.

A silence for spies while the waiter replenished their water glasses. A chink of ice cubes like tiny church bells. And a rush like genius in Pendel’s ears. (p.93)

But either way, there is a strong compulsion on every page to exaggerate, over-write, big up, and repeat, repeat, repeat things numerous times in different ways. Which partly explains why these novels feel so very long.

But she didn’t answer, didn’t stir, didn’t turn her head. (p.428)

Like the ‘legendary’ status given to everyone in the books, like the profuse swearing, the tags and quotes and the fake religious vocabulary, the addiction to saying three times what could more crisply and clearly be said once, lends the characters and plot a spurious importance. But these threes are merely one sub-set of the dominating quality of this prose style, which is:

Bombast and exaggeration

Present in and dominating every paragraph, every page, every description and piece of dialogue, is the overwhelming use of bombast, exaggeration and hyperbole – high sounding but empty of information. Rich in attitude – poor in insight.

The Club Unión is where the super-rich of Panama have their presence on earth. (p.73)

This kind of heavy-handed facetiousness was rampant throughout The Honourable Schoolboy, set among the ‘legendary’ hard-drinking journos of Hong Kong, but it becomes really ubiquitous, in fact it is the chief characteristic of the novels after The Secret Pilgrim. The tone of one, very narrow class or type. It is at its most pronounced when le Carré is describing actual upper-class toffs but it isn’t limited to them and in this novel extends, implausibly, to the other not-public school characters, such as half-Jewish Borstal Boy from the East End, Harry. When Harry is deciding whether or not to accept Osnard’s offer, he finds he can’t get into bed with his wife. How is this little decision couched? He

leaves his bed to the pure in heart. (p.124)

When Harry arrives at his office and goes out back to say hello to the girls who sew the suits, he exchanges words with them like ‘a great commander on the eve of battle’ (p.133). At the hotel where he introduces Osnard to his circle, he talks like this:

‘Allow me to present my good friend Andy Osnard, one of Her Majesty’s favourite sons recently arrived from England to restore the good name of diplomacy.’ (p.74)

When Harry really starts embellishing his reports, he is

now genius, now slavish editor of his imaginings, master of his cloud kingdom, prince and menial in one… An explosion, Harry boy, an explosion of the flesh. A rage of power, a swelling up, a letting go, a setting free. A bestriding of the earth, a proving of God’s grace, a settling of debts. The sinful vertigo of creativity, of plundering and stealing and distorting and reinventing, performed by one transported, deliriously consenting, furious adult with his atonement pending and the cat swishing its tail. (p.318)

And when he confronts the body of the dead Mickie, he knows that

Harry Pendel, tailor, purveyor of dreams, inventor of people and places of escape, had murdered his own creation. (p.427)

It is almost like a challenge, like a party game where you have to talk for a minute converting every single phrase you use into the most bloated, pompous, pretentious, overblown, hyperbolic bombast you can think of – and score double if you can slip in an old tag from the Bible, Shakespeare or the more obvious English poets, along with as many public school idioms as possible – ‘good chap, stout fellow, good man, plays with a straight bat, sound chap, wonderful fellah, she’s a bit of alright, shouldn’t mind old boy’.

I laughed out loud when Harry is driving back from talking with Osnard, having decided to work for him, and the text therefore describes him as ‘the Great Decider.’ Not an atom of text must go uninflated. The next day, in his cutting room, Harry begins work on a suit and le Carré does – what? – take the mickey? express affection? – when he describes him as:

The Mature Man of Affairs, the Great Weigher of Arguments and Cool Assessor of Situations. (p.134)

A set of three grand abstract nouns, in capitals. Even little details are inflated. The scrambler phone to London is known as ‘the digital link with God’ (p.228). Luxmore has a phone in his office which ‘links him with other immortals on Whitehall’s Mount Olympus.’ (p.241)

There is an explosion of this kind of thing when Harry is called to an audience with the President of Panama to measure him for his new uniform. The capitalised epithets fly so thick and fast I realised that this scene and their use are meant to be funny.

The Sun King himself, the All Pervading, the Shining One, the Divine Misser of Hours…His Sublimity strode forward… the Immortal One.. his Radiance…his Supremacy… his Immensity… His Transparency… the World’s Greatest Leader… the Master of the Earth… the Lord of the Universe, the Grand Master of Panama’s political chess-board… the Keeper of the Keys to Global Power… His Luminosity… (pp.154-57)

So is that why they’re used so liberally elsewhere? Is this kind of laboured facetiousness what my English teacher used to call ‘attempts at humour’? Thus, when Osnard becomes ‘the official Canal Watcher’ is that, in and of itself, supposed to be funny? Or when Cavendish explains that drinking booze at lunchtime is frowned upon these days in America, he doesn’t put it like that, he says:

In today’s Born Again Washington, said Geoff Cavendish, alcohol at lunchtime was regarded as the Mark of the Beast. (p.338)

Why the hyperbole, why the grandiose reference to religion/the Bible? Why can nothing be simply said? If it’s intended to be funny, it isn’t – it’s tiresome.

Mealy mouthed

Defined by the dictionary as ‘not willing to tell the truth in clear and simple language’. Le Carré’s verbosity, his fluency, his unstoppable torrent of lyric descriptions and multiple descriptors, amounts eventually to a sustained evasion of telling it straight. Here he is being characteristically facetious about an important politician in Panama.

The peerless Ernesto Delgado, Washington-approved straight arrow and Preserver of the Golden Past. (p.108)

The prose gets up on stilts and uses capital letters, legendary nicknames, religious quotes, public school banter and exaggeration to such an extent that it eventually becomes quite hard to understand what’s going on. I read the three pages which describe the media mogul, Hatry’s, plan to support the US invasion of Panama several times, but it is depicted in such a sweary, hyperbolical and overblown dialogue that I still don’t really understand his motivation. And at moments like this the suspicion arises that the bombastic style and dialogue is deployed so widely because there often is no reason behind the conversations or the plot. (It is telling that the entire character of sweary, shouty Hatry, his entourage and conspiracy, is dropped from the movie. The plot doesn’t, in fact, need it.)

These later novels are written in such a tone of permanent sarcastic facetiousness that it begs the question: if the author doesn’t take his own characters or stories seriously – if, in fact, he devotes a good deal of energy to taking the mickey out of them, exaggerating, stylising and mocking them – why should we?


Whether you like le Carré’s later novels comes down to whether you enjoy the ponderous facetiousness, the heavy humour, the showy bombast and the slang and banter of the tremendously posh public school characters which they describe. If so, you will enjoy the hundreds of pages in which you are marinaded in their pukka prose style and upper-class attitudes.

The plots are clever. The background research pays off. The locations are colourful. The tradecraft is very believable. The sophisticated structuring, the use of flashbacks, memories and key moments to create depth and colour to the characters, all work really well. And there are felicities of description and phrasing on every page. But for me these achievements are cancelled out by the heavy-handed and over-the-top style, by the permanent boom of the upper-class bombast, which outweighs the book’s many, many virtues.

The movie

The novel was made into a movie, released in 2001, directed by John Boorman and starring Pierce Brosnan as Osnard and Geoffrey Rush as Harry Pendel, with Jamie Lee Curtis as his American wife, Louisa. Interestingly, le Carré co-wrote the screenplay and was Executive Producer.

The most obvious change required by the movie version of any novel is to transform the lead characters so they can be played by bankable stars, and to trim and simplify the plot so it can be understood by teenagers in Iowa. Thus vast swathes of the upper class content and attitude is ditched; Osnard is no longer an impossibly posh, fat, sweating old Etonian: he is Pierce Brosnan. My son watched it with me and made three penetrating observations:

1. Why do they have to swear so much? Brosnan effs and blinds all the way through, setting the tone of the film early on when he watches a pretty girl dancing in a hotel and says, ‘I’d fuck that.’ When Harry is reluctant to go along with his plans, Brosnan says, ‘Don’t be a cunt, Harry.’ And early on, explaining spying, he says, ‘It’s like oral sex – it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it.’ Funny? No. Embarrassing? Yes. Lowering? Very.

2. It’s a bit ‘rapey’. Both my kids use this word to describe men who are creepily lecherous, constantly making suggestive remarks, touching, looking or talking inappropriately. Thus Brosnan talks about ‘fucking’ more or less every woman he meets and – very improbably – he does. Posh Law Lord’s daughter Francesca is the only woman on the embassy staff and has maybe two minutes of screen time before she is being fucked very hard standing up in his apartment, later on being seen being fucked very hard lying down on his bed. It must be very depressing being a female actor. Two or three moments of rolling her eyes at Brosnan’s suggestive banter and then we are watching her boobs bobble about as he ruts her.

Brosnan tries to chat up Jamie Lee Curtis (as Harry’s wife, Louisa) every time he sees her, creepily stroking her back on a family outing with Harry and their kids, and then grabbing her breasts when she comes to his apartment late at night, before pushing her forcefully onto the bed into a pre-rape position.

Both Francesca and Louisa are supposedly highly intelligent professionals – a senior embassy official and a senior figure in the Canal Administration, respectively. But their main role in the film is to swoon when the male hero comes in sight and then get their breasts out. The ease with which they are both seduced is so unlikely as to make the whole film seem a preposterous male fantasy. When this film was released, the writer (le Carré) and director (Boorman) were both about 69 years old. It seems like a blast from an old-fashioned, much more sexist past, as my son was quick to point out. But it is true enough to the spirit of the book in which various lecherous old men try to seduce young, old, married or single women. At Louisa’s dinner party one of Panama’s eminent men spends his time working his shoeless foot up Louisa’s legs towards her crotch, while ogling the married woman opposite,

squinting down the front of Donna Oakley’s dress which is cut on the lines of Emily’s dresses, breasts pushed upwards like tennis balls and the cleavage pointing due southward to what her father when he was drunk had called the industrial area. (p.175)


3. Is it meant to be funny? Like the book, the film thinks it is funny, but is so heavy-handed, crude and violent as to be gobsmackingly humourless. When Harry measures Osnard for his suit there’s a moment when he asks whether Osnard ‘dresses’ to the left or the right. As in the book, Osnard says, ‘Never know where the bloody thing is. Bobs about like a windsock’ (p.61) and the film pauses there for the audience to laugh its pants off. In fact the film likes this joke so much that it has Harry repeat it down the phone to his wife, Louisa, who laughs like a drain. But is it funny? No. Just crude.

Brosnan insists on having his secret meetings with Harry in a brothel. Here he can lie on a bed and watch porno films while Harry spins his lies. At one moment Brosnan pops a coin in the slot and the whole whorehouse bed starts vibrating and the miserable Harry has to continue recounting his stories while his voice oscillates absurdly. My son and I discussed this: presumably the writer and director thought this made for a funny scene. But in fact Harry’s unhappiness, Brosnan’s coarseness, and the hard core porn film which we see a lot of in the background, are the opposite of light and witty. They are crude and heavy. It is the regular recurrence of scenes of sweaty lechery, interspersed with scenes of sickening violence, which dominate the film’s mood and undermine attempts at lightness or humour.

In the very last scene Brosnan has made his getaway with the money and is on a charter plane flying out of Panama. The pretty stewardess plumps down in the seat in front of him and Brosnan uses the same line he used to chat up Francesca from the Embassy: ‘There are two ways we can do this, wait until the last minute to have a passionate affair and not regret having done it sooner; or go for it now and find out whether we like it or not.’ a) Those alternatives are not really relevant to a short air flight b) presumably we’re meant to smile and tut at the old dog up to his waggish tricks; presumably it is meant to be a sharp, witty ending to the film. And it is an appropriate end to the film, but not in the way its makers intended – instead it tends to confirm the uneasy feeling you’ve had all along that this is an out-of-date, dingily lecherous, middle-aged man’s fantasy.


The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré was published in 1996 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes and references are from the 1997 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at public school and Oxford and personally recruited – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities of out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has seduced his girlfriend, Emma, too, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three, expensively-educated but stupid upper-class twits. (414 pages)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996) Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art @ the National Gallery

‘The seeds of almost every art movement current in 19th century Paris were sown by artists copying and emulating Delacroix’s work.’

Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was the leading exponent of Romanticism in French art, active from his first exhibition at the annual Salon de Paris in 1823 through to his last appearance in 1853. He pioneered a colourful, vibrant, spontaneous-feeling approach to depicting historical subjects, scenes from the ‘exotic East’, landscapes, nudes and still lifes.

Self Portrait by Eugène Delacroix (about 1837) Musée du Louvre, Paris (RF 25) © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

Self Portrait by Eugène Delacroix (about 1837) Musée du Louvre, Paris (RF 25) © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

I thought the title of this exhibition was a bit modish, that the tag ‘…and the rise of modern art’ could be applied to umpteen 19th century painters simply by living before the deluge of Modernism – but in fact the show completely convinces you that Delacroix really was instrumental in the rise of modern art.

It does this by avoiding a straightforwardly chronological survey of his career. Instead the exhibition consists of six rooms, each of which addresses a specific theme or subject – and then hangs Delacroix paintings from the 1830s, 40s and 50s next to works which strikingly resemble them, refer to them or incorporate their techniques, by artists of the next two generations, including Renoir, Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse and Kandinsky, along with the lesser-known Symbolist artists, Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon.

What the exhibition makes clear is that later artists didn’t just copy or learn from Delacroix in subtle and obscure ways, visible only to scholars and experts. They paid direct homage to him, copying his subjects and compositions and styles and ideas in ways which are immediately visible to even an untrained eye. They wrote letters, commentaries, essays and articles explicitly acknowledging their debt to him, and even made paintings showing him being levitated to heaven or showered with awards by a grateful posterity. As Cézanne, a really devout follower, said: ‘We all paint in Delacroix’s language’.

Apotheosis of Delacroix by Paul Cézanne (1890-4) Paris, Musée d’Orsay, on loan to the Musée Granet / Aix-en-Provence (RF 1982-38) © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Apotheosis of Delacroix by Paul Cézanne (1890-4) Paris, Musée d’Orsay, on loan to the Musée Granet / Aix-en-Provence (RF 1982-38) © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

After Delacroix’s death the contents of his studio were sold off and revealed a wealth of previously unknown outdoors paintings, which had a strong impact on the young Impressionists who were just starting out on their careers. They found in Delacroix a liberation from the official Salon art of the day, the inspiration to capture the warmth and vibrancy of the everyday, the exotic, the exciting, instead of the glacial cool of the perfectly poised subjects concocted in the artist’s studio.

When a later generation wanted to move beyond Impressionism in the 1890s, Delacroix’s sometimes blurry use of paint pointed the way for Symbolist painters seeking misty, portentous shapes and mythological images – but also provided inspiration for the Post-Impressionists (Gauguin, van Gogh) who were interested in bold experiments with colour for its own sake.

Still Life with a Sketch after Delacroix by Paul Gauguin (1887) Musée d'Art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg © Photo Musées de Strasbourg, M. Bertola

Still Life with a Sketch after Delacroix by Paul Gauguin (1887) Musée d’Art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg © Photo Musées de Strasbourg, M. Bertola

And when his collected writings on art, painting technique and broader aesthetics were published in three volumes between 1893 and 1895, the depth and variety of ideas contained in their 1,438 pages crystallised Delacroix’s position as a key thinker, who could be plundered by all the various schools of modern art.

Rough not smooth

As his Wikipedia entry makes clear:

In contrast to the Neoclassical perfectionism of his chief rival Ingres, Delacroix took for his inspiration the art of Rubens and painters of the Venetian Renaissance, with an attendant emphasis on colour and movement rather than clarity of outline and carefully modelled form.

Rather than smooth perfection, Delacroix developed a technique of painting au premier coup, trying to complete a work in one sitting, or over a few days at most. This makes a lot of his paintings quite rough to look at – in fact not that many of the Delacroixs on show here are, in themselves, that appealing.

The Death of Sardanapalus (reduced replica) by Eugène Delacroix (1846) © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania. The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986 (1986-26-17)

The Death of Sardanapalus (reduced replica) by Eugène Delacroix (1846) © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania. The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986 (1986-26-17)

The above is a small-scale copy of the large original. The exhibition juxtaposes it with the The Eternal Feminine by Cézanne, pointing out the way that both works feature a still figure on a bed regarding the mayhem of activity around them.

The Eternal Feminine by Paul Cézanne (about 1877) © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California (87.PA.79)

The Eternal Feminine by Paul Cézanne (about 1877) © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California (87.PA.79)

Close up

Some paintings are best viewed from a distance, like a lot of the Impressionist works at the Inventing Impressionism show hanging in these very rooms a year ago. But if I learned one thing about Delacroix’s paintings it is that they are best looked at very close up. At medium distance often the composition looks a bit shabby, the figures not too convincing and the background sketched in. But really close up – a foot from the canvas – you can see the confidence of the quick, flicking brushstrokes.

Thus the poster for the show is a big close-up of a lion’s head, its glaring eye set among a mesh of bold strokes. But when you see the source work you realise the lion’s head is only about two inches square – tiny – and the overall impression a bit murky, the composition of the bodies very staged, the landscape in the background looking like waves.

Lion Hunt by Eugène Delacroix (1861) © The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois Potter Palmer Collection, 1922.404

Lion Hunt by Eugène Delacroix (1861) © The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
Potter Palmer Collection, 1922.404

Unless you go close. Close up you can see and enjoy the flicks and flecks of the brush which create the overall image.

Detail from Lion Hunt by Eugène Delacroix (1861) © The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois Potter Palmer Collection, 1922.404

Detail from Lion Hunt by Eugène Delacroix (1861) © The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois Potter Palmer Collection, 1922.404

Once I’d grasped this was the best way to enjoy Delacroix’s paintings, I spent more and more time with my nose a foot from the surface, marvelling at the dexterity and energy of the quick confident brushstrokes, in a way more entranced by them than by the ostensible subject matter. And looking at them this closely also helps you to understand why later painters found his approach so liberating: you can see the freedom of the way he paints echoed or repeated in Renoir, Cézanne and many others. There’s a particularly direct line from the Delacroix flecks and flicks of paint to van Gogh’s striking use of strong, well-defined, directional brushstrokes in bold unnaturalistic colours, having taken Delacroix’s example and turned it into a whole style.

Pietà (after Delacroix) by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © Van Gogh Museum (Vincent Van Gogh Foundation), Amsterdam (s168V/1962)

Pietà (after Delacroix) by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © Van Gogh Museum (Vincent Van Gogh Foundation), Amsterdam (s168V/1962)


So throughout the exhibition, we are invited to compare and contrast numerous originals by Delacroix with works by later artists which directly or indirectly pay homage or rework his themes, subjects or handling: especially the rough improvised handling of the paint, and the use of bright and unexpected colour.

Compare Delacroix’s treatment of a classical Greek myth – the shaping of the figures, above all the amazing bursts of orange and yellow at the heart of it…

Apollo Slaying Python, Preliminary Sketch by Eugène Delacroix (1850) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (purchased with support from the BankGiro Lottery) (s526 S2012) © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Apollo Slaying Python, Preliminary Sketch by Eugène Delacroix (1850) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (purchased with support from the BankGiro Lottery) (s526 S2012)
© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

…with the treatment of a similar subject done 45 years later by the Symbolist painter, Odilon Redon.

Pegasus and the hydra Odilon Redon (after 1900) Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands (KM 104.067) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Photo Rik Klein Gotink

Pegasus and the hydra by Odilon Redon (after 1900) Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands (KM 104.067) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Photo Rik Klein Gotink

The not very good, characteristically rushed Ovid among the Scythians (1862) is hung next to similar compositions by, among others, Degas: Alexander and Bucephalus (1862), and Young Spartans Exercising (1860).

Delacroix’s Bathers of 1854 is compared with a series of later depictions of the same subject…

Bathers by Eugène Delacroix (1854) © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1952.300

Bathers by Eugène Delacroix (1854) © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1952.300

… including Cezanne’s Battle of Love.

The Battle of Love by Paul Cézanne (about 1880) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Gift of the W. Averell Harriman Foundation in memory of Marie N. Harriman, 1972.9.2. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

The Battle of Love by Paul Cézanne (about 1880) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Gift of the W. Averell Harriman Foundation in memory of Marie N. Harriman, 1972.9.2. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

To reiterate, it’s not the brilliance of the finished compositions which are important – it’s the freedom of those swiftly administered flecking brushstrokes, and the bold use of colour, which later painters dwelt on.


One particular Delacroix quote crops up several times in the wall panels – ‘The primary merit of a painting is to be a feast for the eye’ – and this seems particularly appropriate to the room devoted to paintings of flowers, a modest but vibrant genre which Delacroix is credited with bringing back into fashion.

In this room hang just seven paintings and we can play the exhibition game of comparing a Delacroix from the early century with a selection of gorgeous paintings by his inheritors, including Gauguin, van Gogh and Redilon. Here’s a Delacroix flower painting:

A Basket of Fruit in a Flower Garden by Eugène Delacroix (1848-9) © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania. John G. Johnson Collection, 1917 (1917,974)

A Basket of Fruit in a Flower Garden by Eugène Delacroix (1848-9) © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania. John G. Johnson Collection, 1917 (1917,974)

Compare and contrast with:

A Vase of Flowers by Paul Gauguin (1896) © The National Gallery, London (NG 3289)

A Vase of Flowers by Paul Gauguin (1896) © The National Gallery, London (NG 3289)

And my favourite, Ophelia among the flowers by Odilon Redon. This is done with pastel on canvas and, close up, you can see how the crayon effect creates the misty washes of colour across the canvas, which add to the sense of mysteriousness but also to the sense of colour creating shapes fro its own logic.

Ophelia among the Flowers by Odilon Redon (about 1905-8) © The National Gallery, London, Bought with a contribution from The Art Fund, 1977 (NG 6438)

Ophelia among the Flowers by Odilon Redon (about 1905-8) © The National Gallery, London, Bought with a contribution from The Art Fund, 1977 (NG 6438)

Throughout the show, in the rooms devoted to landscapes, or his trip to North Africa, or music and aesthetics, there are many, many more beautiful paintings, including masterpieces by Gauguin and van Gogh and Monet and Cézanne and Signac and Matisse, a wonderful array of colour and composition which, one by one and systematically, not only validate the curator’s argument for the massive influence of Delacroix on later generations of artists, but are also objects of joy and wonder in their own right.

The Mural Projects

Most of the paintings in the exhibition are on the small side, the exception which proves the rule being the two life-size full length portraits by Delacroix and John Singer Sargent which I mentioned at the start.

The main surprise of the show is the revelation that Delacroix also created a range of enormous murals as public commissions, wall and ceiling paintings as big as Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel. They obviously can’t be packed up and shipped along to these exhibition rooms in London and so we learn about them in a dark room off to the side of the exhibition, in which a high quality US-made video is projected onto an enormous screen to show the vast panoramas Delacroix created for:

  • The Salon du Roi
  • The Library of the Deputy of Chambers
  • the Galère d’Apollon
  • The Chapel of Holy Angels, in the church of Saint-Sulpice


This is a lovely exhibition, which both proves its point and is also a sumptuous visual feast. At 63 paintings it is on the small side, which is all the better because it gives you time to really soak up some of the masterpieces on display.

The final painting is a direct tribute to Delacroix by Fantin-Latour, celebrating the unveiling of a monument to Delacroix in the Luxembourg Gardens. Delacroix’s name is just about visible in capitals at the bottom left, the skyline of Paris visible in the bottom right, but the dominant figure is the kindly goddess of Posterity sprinkling flowers –  made doubly significant, as we have seen, because of the achievement of Delacroix’s own flower paintings – to immortalise his name.

Immortality by Ignace-Henri-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1889) © Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales (NMWA 2462)

Immortality by Ignace-Henri-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1889) © Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales (NMWA 2462)

Related links

Other reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

Our Game by John le Carré (1995)

‘I’d adore to live without him, Diana! I’d give my entire bloody fortune to be rid of Larry and his works for the rest of my  natural life. Unfortunately, we are inextricably involved with each other and I have to find him for my own salvation and probably for his.’ (p.185)

Tim Cranmer

A first-person narrative told by Tim ‘Timbo’ d’Abell Cranmer (p.54), educated at Winchester and Oxford, and recruited into British Intelligence, where he served for twenty years or so before being pensioned off aged 47. His uncle Bob left Tim a winery in Devon where he now makes a nice living, keeping up his collection of eighteenth century barometers and Chinese Chippendale footstools. He was married to Diana, who also worked for the Service, but she divorced him years ago. More recently into his life has moved a highly-strung young female composer, Emma, half his age, temperamental, sexually inventive.

Larry Pettifer

The novel is about a chap Tim was at Winchester with, a few years younger than him, one Larry Pettifer (‘Larry was a new boy the same term I became a prefect.’ p.97). Tim meets up with Larry again at Oxford, where legions of women swoon to his good looks (‘Blast the fellow, he landed an outright First against my rather shaky Second,’ I said with a sporting laugh. p.100), before bumping into him again in Venice, where he was cutting a swathe through the middle-aged women tourists he was guiding around the churches and galleries. Tim recruits Larry into the Secret Service and subsequently runs him as an agent or ‘joe’, angling for him to be ‘recruited’ by the Soviets, which he duly is, by Konstantin Checheyev based in the USSR’s London embassy. And so Larry embarks on some years working as a British double agent.

After the Berlin Wall comes down along with the USSR, Tim retires and helps Larry get a job at the nearby University of Bath, as a left-wing politics lecturer, tiresomely bleating on about the failings of the West and espousing various good causes. But Larry makes a pest of himself, inviting himself first to Sunday lunches at Tim’s, then for the whole Sunday, flirting with Emma, then seducing her with his radicalism, dangerously dropping hints about Tim’s former career, of which Emma knows nothing. One day she leaves. Maybe he seduced her, the beastly cad.

The missing £37 million

A few weeks later the police come to interview Tim and tell him Dr Pettifer has gone missing. Tim is then summoned up to London by his old colleagues in ‘the Office’, who interview him aggressively before revealing that young Larry was not just a double agent working ‘for’ the Russian head of station, Konstantin Checheyev. In the last few days it has emerged that he and Checheyev embezzled the Russians for some £37 million! Tim swears complete ignorance, in fact amazement, at this fact. He is told to keep his mouth shut and packed off back to Cornwall.

It is only at this late stage that the narrator reveals the rather startling fact that he actually tried to kill Larry a few weeks earlier, around the time he ‘disappeared’. Furious at Larry for seducing Emma, Tim lured him to a deep and legendary small lake – Priddy Pool – where he fell on him, battering him unconscious and dragging him by the feet over to the pool and throwing him in. But he was in such a state that he can’t clearly remember whether Larry was dead or not. Apparently not, as the evidence builds up that Larry not only survived, but persuaded Emma to run away and join him on his quixotic crusade.

The Ingush

‘Crusade’? Yes, because as the novel inches forward through a blizzard of memories and reminiscences, as Timbo mulls over scenes from his former life – his long working relationship with Larry, the birth, flowering and end of his affair with Emma – and then as he is interrogated again by the police, and again by Intelligence officers, it becomes clear that Larry didn’t just steal the missing money: he was in league with Checheyev to funnel it towards one of his ‘good causes’, the long-oppressed Ingush people of the south Caucasus, a people neighboured by the Chechens and Ossetians and oppressed for centuries by Tsarist and then communist and now neo-capitalist Russia.

Quest for Larry

To borrow Timbo’s own semi-religious Victorian terminology, he sets out on a ‘quest’ to track down Larry and Emma. Using a fake identity, passport, driving license and bundles of cash he’d kept hidden for just such a rainy day, he spends the second half of the novel driving around England, digging up material from former Intelligence colleagues, quizzing a Foreign Office chap whose wife he once had an affair with, and tracking Larry and Emma down to a shabby house (9A Cambridge Street) in Bristol which they obviously used as a base before abandoning it.

Here Tim discovers a trove of paperwork supposedly connected with a carpet import-export company, which he naturally concludes is a front for laundering money and transporting arms to the heroic Ingush freedom fighters. In the novel’s most gruesome sequence, Timbo motors to the house of the owner of the import-export company, who tells him her husband hasn’t been home for a week, but explains that he’s often away on business trips. Timbo drives up to the firm’s isolated house-cum-warehouse in the hills to discover it has been thoroughly ransacked, and then follows a trail of blood up to an outhouse further up the hill where he discovers the bodies of the owner and the two locals who cleaned for him, tortured and murdered.


Tim catches a ferry to France and drives to Paris to interview an aged lady who knew both Larry and Emma – the Contessa Ann-Marie von Diderich – and there, to the reader’s surprise, finds Emma living quite contentedly, still practising the piano, unrepentant about dumping Tim for Larry, convinced that the embezzlement and money laundering and gun running they helped orchestrate is righting one of the world’s injustices. After the hundreds of passages in which Tim has described his affair with Emma in purple prose, it’s surprising when he simply says goodbye and walks away.


Tim flies to Moscow, following contacts and phone calls which lead him to Checheyev via other contacts from the Soviet years. Entering a night club where he’d been told to go, Timbo finds himself being bundled downstairs to confront the sinister owner. It is a terrifying milieu. (An unfortunate man has been tied to a chair and obviously tortured, and bleeds and moans in the corner of the office throughout the meeting). After a cursory questioning, Tim is taken away from the office, shoved downstairs into a makeshift cell and locked up for ten days. He can hear the sounds and smell the cooking of the Ingush families above him. Two young men with Kalashnikovs come and chat and smoke with him.

Eventually he is dragged out of the cell, given his coat and gloves back and dragged upstairs, outside and through deep snow to a van, then driven for miles beyond the ruined outskirts of Moscow to a shabby settlement where he meets Checheyev. Shabby, exhausted, Checheyev wants to know who Tim is working for and doesn’t believe his protestations that he is on a solo mission, simply to find his old friend.

The dénouement

Who cares.


One dictionary definition of ‘bombast’ is ‘speech or writing that is meant to sound important or impressive but is not sincere or meaningful’.

This novel overflows with bombast – with the confident public school assurance that Tim and his schoolchums and their tiny circle make up the whole world; that their public school nicknames and their public school mindset and their public school whimsy, the jocular exaggerations, the way simply all of their friends are legendary and well-known and famous and awfully bright (Emma is ‘warm hearted and brilliantly clever’ p.281), the in-jokes at their club and the banter between chaps who were in the Service together – that these are the centre of the world. As a small example, the narrator refers to

The famous Pettifer forelock, now shot with grey but still swinging across his brow in immature revolt. (p.66)

Is the Pettifer forelock famous? Have you heard of it? No. Has anyone heard of it? No. Then what does it mean to write that it is ‘famous’? It is a rhetorical strategy to incorporate the reader into this tiny, precious, self-reinforcing, self-important world. ‘In our world his forelock was famous. And what other world is there, old boy?’ Again:

We were seated around the famous Pringle boardroom table. (p.150)

Is the Pringle boardroom table famous? No. Have you heard of it? No. This is the kind of self-aggrandising rhetoric of white middle-aged chaps down the golf club or gentleman’s club or old boys club, swapping yarns about famous Johnno or old Jumbo or the legendary Biffo, remember old Biffo?

This kind of coercive, blustering, shallow myth-making about the chaps occurs on every page.

Calm down. That wasn’t Zeus talking, that was Jake Merriman, lightest of the Top Floor lightweights. Any lighter he’d blow off the roof, we used to say. (p.50)

A typical piece of bombast and un-humour in one sentence. a) Not exactly a gut-busting joke, is it, though it’s probably the best one in the book. And b) I never for a moment was at any risk of thinking his boss in the Service was Zeus. Zeus was the father of the Greek gods. Jake Merriman was his boss in the Intelligence Service. Not hard to tell the difference. The sentence tells me nothing about the plot or the world, nothing except for the narrator’s tendency to melodramatise his own banal and self-important observations.

I do my Head Prefect number, the way I used to speak to him at school when Larry was a parson’s son in revolt and I was King of Babylon. (p.51)

Was Tim ever the King of Babylon? No. Typical of the kind of schoolboy exaggeration, of giving each other over-the-top nicknames, of striking heroic poses and exaggerated attitudes, which sometimes lingers on into university and then most people grow out of. But not these characters. The entire toolkit of immature schoolboy affectation, facetiousness, silly nicknames and affected superiority appear to stay with them for life.

–When we were students doing student summer jobs, a friend of mine pointed out that whenever you started working somewhere and someone who’d been there for ages told you, ‘We’re all mad here!!’ you could guarantee it would be the most boring office in England. Self delusion.

Or remember the sign which you used to see on people’s desks saying – ‘You don’t have to be crazy to work here – but it helps!!!!!!!!’ – without fail indicating that this will be the dreariest, saddest, dullest place you have ever worked in.

The self-dramatisation of le Carré’s narrators reminds me of these old anecdotes and, like them, the more his characters protest their earth-shattering importance, the more trivial and silly they seem. The more they come over as boring middle-aged losers pathetically dramatising and legending each other.

He has been on one of his heroic voyages, and now he’s going to boast about it. (p.58)

Larry… in his role of Secret Protector of the Righteous once more, goes through his paces like an angel. (p.54)

But Larry is not a Secret Protector of the Righteous, is he? No such position in fact exists. Larry is a narcissistic and tiresome ex-intelligence agent. He is certainly not an ‘angel’. And who or what are ‘the Righteous’ in this sentence, anyway?

And what I see is Larry, seated before the gasfire, clutching his goblet of hot wine to his breast, a Byron of his own imagining… (p.242)

I have locked her in a hollow mountain in the Caucasus, he replied. I have seduced her in accordance with my blood-feud against the infidel Tim Cranmer. I have swept her away on the white stallion of my sophistry. (p.255)

Instead of thought – bombast. Instead of psychology – melodramatic and somehow childish exaggeration.

Gone the dreary stories of academic lowlife. Instead we have Larry redux, Larry the world-dreamer and Sunday sermoniser, one moment raging against the shameful Western inertia, the next painting treacly visions of altruistic wars conducted by a United Nations strike-force empowered to put on its Batman uniform and head off tyranny, pestilence and famine at a moment’s notice. (p.61)

Posh friends

Winchester and Oxford, the Intelligence Service and then inheriting money (lots of money) to set up as a gentleman wine grower in Devon, Tim’s circle of acquaintance is narrow, smug and crushingly posh, chaps to banter with and a seemingly endless sequence of chapesses to bonk.

  • Celia, one his local ‘conquests’, is (inevitably) the inheritor of a large estate near him in Devon and rides to hounds, of course.
  • Timbo chats at the train station to ‘a forlorn baronet known locally as Poor Percy’ (p.148).
  • The banker Jamie Pringle’s secretary went to Roedean, natch.
  • ‘Kids are doing splendidly, Tim, thank you. Marcus is captain o’ Fives, Penny’s coming out next spring.’ (p.153)
  • When in town he repairs to his Pall Mall club, home of many a retired admiral. (p.166)
  • ‘She lifted her elbow sideways, suggesting country girl and public school.’ (p.74) Is there, in this imaginative universe, any other kind of woman?
  • At ‘the Office’ ie headquarters of MI6, he is interviewed by a woman Marjorie. ‘I imagined uncles in the Cabinet and blue-rinsed aunts who were the backbone of the Tory right.’ (p.87)
  • When he visits Simon Dugdale, another posh mannered chap, this one in the Foreign Office, he gets a good groping and ear-chewing from the wife, Clare Dugdale (‘You’re still terribly yummy Tim. And Si says you’ve found an absolutely super, frightfully young girl.’ p.278) who – of course – he once had an affair with. Poor Timbo, he can’t help being such a terrific babe magnet. Mind you, Clare read Philosophy at Cambridge. A better class of posh totty.

‘I lunched at my club… Afterwards I bought a few shirts in Jermyn Street…’ (p.71) ‘I was wearing good brown country shoes by Ducker’s of Oxford, hand-made and rubber-soled.’ (p.314) Nothing but the best for this narrator.


Hundreds of pages are devoted to the special qualities of his lover, Emma Manzini, who comes over as anything but special, rather as a self-obsessed, self-righteous nincompoop, but who prompts in the narrator an endless stream of gushing schoolboy, sub-Keatsian rhapsody and narcissistic self-dramatisation. ‘Emma didn’t talk to me at breakfast – it is the end of the world. Emma made me a cup of tea – the heavens reveal their splendour.’ If over-ripe cheese could write, it would be like this:

It is my Dark Age. It is the rest of my life before Emma. (p.65)

My Emma. My false dawn. (p.165)

Is she wise? Is she plain dumb? Emma defies theses categories. Her beauty, like Larry’s, is its own morality. (p.173)

Emma as artist. Emma as mistress of the Freudian doodle. Emma as echo of Larry’s eternal outcry against a world he can neither join nor destroy. (p.238)

These colours, why had I never painted them? Emma, you were all these hopes. (p.307)

Whenever he starts singing Emma’s praises I am reminded of my parents’ Charles Aznavour and Sacha Distel records:

Sheeeeeeeeeeeeee may be the face I can’t forget
A trace of pleasure or regret [and so on…]

It goes without saying that Emma is gorgeous and, handily, half Tim’s age (every middle-aged man’s fantasy) and he is not shy of describing the sexual advantages of having such a young squeeze. She is not only beautiful, we are told, but very ‘flexible’. You lucky dog, Timbo! But do not jump to gross assumptions, impatient reader: Timbo is not any old middle-aged shagger, he is a shagger with soul, soul enough for endless maudlin soliloquies about his lady love, in good times and bad. Even when they are arguing, when a shadow falls between their spirits, why – even then she makes sweet midnight forays to his boudoir!

Sometimes in the depth of night she creeps into my room like a thief and makes love to me without saying a word. Then creeps away, leaving her tears on my pillow before the daylight finds her out. (p.68)

There are hundreds of passages of pompous lyricism like this, the book overflows with them, repeating over and over how in thrall he is to the wonderful, quixotic, paradoxical Emma. Timbo

lavished jewels and freedom on her, made her my clothes-horse and my love object, my woman to end all women, icon, goddess, daughter and, as Larry would say, slave. (p.164)

What a berk. None of this erases the scene where he describes their first meeting – in the waiting room of a physiotherapist because they both have back pain – where Tim begins to fancy her before making it his mission to stalk her (‘Meanwhile I stalk her…’ p.172). I think – I hope – that Timbo is meant to be a deeply unreliable narrator, that we are meant to find him a creepy, pervy, pompous, self-satisfied, lecherous middle-aged man, who creates a weird love nest for the troubled young woman, who – he persuades himself – ‘loves’ him in return (at his big house in Devon, she is given her own wing with a door separating his and her corridors). But if he is deluded about this, what else may he be getting wrong?

Sexual boasting

Interspersed among the scores of passages of overblown lyricism are moments of quietly smug sexual bragging which are cringe-inducing and embarrassing.

I saw her naked on her stomach with her chin in her hands, turning to look at me over her shoulder as she hears me enter. (p.221)

I remembered the kiss she had given me at the Connaught that had woken me from my hundred-year sleep, and how her instinctive ingenuity as a lover had taken me to regions I had not known existed. (p.338)

But it is not just Emma Tim brags about; he takes various opportunities to remind that he is a bit of a Casanova, counting a number of his poshest neighbours among his ‘conquests’.

Celia was one of my local conquests from the days before Emma… She lived in penury on a large estate near Sparkford and rode to hounds… (p.112)

She is neither of the age nor category from which my usual conquests are selected: the compliant female colleague or senior secretary; the sporting adulteress of the English country round. (p.171)

‘His usual conquests.’ When he goes to meet Simon Dugdale it is laugh-out-loud preposterous that Timbo turns out to have bedded his posh, glamorous wife Claire. Of course he has. And she still fancies him like mad!

Not content with alerting us to his own sexual conquests, Tim also bathes in the reflected glory of his one-time protégé, the legendary Larry, who is also described as a great swiver of women.

Oxford fell in love with him. He was very good-looking. The girls rolled over for him in droves. (p.98)

He was ticking over at about three a week. Women and bottles. (p.134)

When did Larry ever have two of anything except women? (p.223)

Women came to him naturally, he just had to reach out for them and they hopped into his hand. (p.340)

Of course they do. Fat, repellently posh drunk Jamie Pringle, owner of a merchant bank, tells Timbo after a ‘good lunch’ (ie a room full of posh chaps getting pissed), about a girl he used to screw in Manchester. ‘Cindy. Worked in the silk trade. Silky Cindy.’ (p.157). Fnah fnah. A little later, and even more pissed, Jamie recalls legendary Larry turning up to suggest an improper financial deal, accompanied by an absolute stunner, black hair piled up on her head,

‘… waiting for you to let it down. Absolute fatal weakness of mine. Love a black bush.’ (p.159)

Who doesn’t love a black bush, eh? Obviously Pringle’s quote is not the narrator’s, his lechery is part of his character as a repellent fat banker. But it is cut from the same cloth as many of Timbo’s comments about Emma positioning herself for his rear entry on their ‘love nights’, about her wonderful ‘flexibility’, and the other moments when he can barely conceal his glee at bedding a woman half his age. Sweaty lecherous men.

Self dramatisation

Just as he devotes hundred of passages to establish Larry’s legendary qualities, and painting the full Victorian sentimentality of his relationship with Emma, the narrator is not backwards in dramatising his own role: in countless places he takes a leaf from Julius Caesar’s book and talks about himself in what we can maybe call the ‘public school third person’:

We were alone, Merriman and Cranmer, blood brothers as always. (p.107)

It is years since Cranmer has stepped outside the limits of his self-confinement, played the brave game, waited impatiently for evening, lain awake till dawn. (p.171)

Cranmer is free! Cranmer has paid his dues! (p.173)

I, Cranmer, evader, closet romantic, veteran of a raft of futile love affairs, had fallen cloak-over-dagger for the oldest trick in the book! (p.164)

We are arguing, Cranmer versus the rest of England… This time it is Cranmer’s temper that snapped, not Larry’s. (p.258)

But Cranmer had filed. Cranmer had filed and forgotten. Cranmer in his criminally negligent myopia had consigned the cause of the Ingush people to the dustbin of history. (p.267)

I was part of them, propelled by my past as they were, ignorant of my future. I was a fugitive, homeless and stateless, a small nation of one. (p.346)

Timbo is, as the old phrase has it, a legend in his own lunchtime. A man convinced of his own vast self-importance, a man who takes 420 pages to tell us this fairly simple story, because it is so larded and padded out with prolonged sequences about jolly old Larry and ever-flexible Emma and, at its centre, Cranmer the hero, Cranmer the fool, Cranmer the innocent, Cranmer the cynic, Cranmer the whatever adjectival phrase you have to hand.

But that is all I say, because that is how Cranmer’s part is written for him. (p.255)


The narcissistically self-obsessed have no sense of humour because they have a very poor sense of other people.

‘Expect you’re looking forward to your Senior Citizen’s any day now.’
‘Thank you, Tom, I have a few years to wait and I’m glad to do it.’
Laughter in which I share… (p.147)

‘He’d had an accident. Fallen downstairs, he said…
‘There’s no accidents round here, darling. Everything’s deliberate.’ She giggled at her own wit. (p.217)

‘I inherited a bit of a problem, quite honestly. My Uncle Bob, who founded the business for love, put a lot of trust in his Maker and rather less in science.’
Clare gave a hoot of laughter. (p.280)

Old school tie

It is a truism that public schoolboys never seem to outgrow their schooldays, the clothes it taught them to wear, the jolly japes and smug banter it taught them to consider funny, the network of other public schoolboys which comprises the only world that matters. Everything, ultimately, ends up being compared back to those jolly halcyon (or beastly) days.

‘When Larry was with CC he was on holiday. When he was with me, he was at school.’ (p.86)

‘The school [Winchester] was still in the Dark Ages. Fagging, flogging, bullying galore, the whole Arnoldian package.’ (p.97)

Crossing the footbridge at Castle Cary station, I was confused by the clatter of young shoes in the Victorian ironwork and fancied I smelt steam and burning coals. I was a boy again, lugging my school suitcase down the stone steps for another solitary holiday with Uncle Bob. (p.112)

Crammed against the stone wall stood the old school trunk I used as a filing box for my CC archive. (p.260)

‘And they hated the Ossetians,’ Larry says keenly, like a schoolboy wanting to be top. (p.263)

I remembered that this was how we had always eaten, when we ate our frightful meals together: potatoes boiled to a sludge and school cabbage floating in a green lake. (p.279)

From nowhere an old man appeared at my car window, and his gnarled face reminded me of the groundsman at my first boarding school. (p.307)

I had been slapped at school too often. (p.360)

[Timbo asks legendary Larry what it was like being imprisoned and interrogated in Havana?] ‘After Winchester? A piece of cake. I’ll settle for a Cuban prison over House Library any day.’ (p.365)

In fact, the title of the book is taken from the phrase masters and pupils use to refer to the special (obviously) brand of football they play at Winchester public school – ‘our game’, taken from a one-page paean to the old place. Which obviously has the not-so-subtle double meaning that extends it to refer to espionage as ‘our game’ – the British Intelligence’s ‘game’ of deceiving and cheating – and then also on to the ‘game’ which Larry, Timbo and flexible Emma are ‘playing’ throughout the book.

Religious rhetoric

Another way the sensibility and language of the novel are permanently inflated is via the liberal use of religious quotes and references. This throwaway hijacking of religious rhetoric denotes not an ounce of genuine religious feeling; it is just one more way of bigging up, exaggerating, and dramatising his ego:

I was standing arms outstretched in crucifixion… (p.250)

[Tim describes agreeing to work as an agent as] ‘taking the veil‘. (p.101)

I choose the Grill Room at the Connaught, my shrine for great occasions. (p.175)

Now it was Cranmer, her saviour, who scrambled after her, calling stop! and wait! and come back! (p.239)

I smelt roast beef and wood smoke. I was blessed. (p.300) [This phrase is describing coming across a country pub which does decent food. Not relieved or happy. Blessed.]

I was being conveyed, never mind whether the Forest, or the whole valley of the shadow, was watching me pass by. (p.301)

The hill’s gorse summit rose behind her like the green hill in a hymn.

The tracks mounted a concrete path and thereafter held their peace. (p.312)

Dee’s a saint, she is saying from the window of my bedroom. (p.328)

She was wearing a crushed linen smock and it had the appearance of a habit: of a deliberate renunciation of the flesh. (p.336)

Only by going after Larry could I fill the pit that for so long had done duty for my soul. (p.343)

There is no God, soul or system of salvation, there is no religious belief in the book, these are just more quotes and tags and references picked up at school and university which lend the ambling plot and the hyperbolic thoughts of the pompous protagonist a spurious profundity.

Insight free

As Professor John Sutherland pointed out in his London Review of Books review of The Secret Pilgrim, le Carré frequently tells us his characters are full of wit and wisdom and insight… and then we actually hear them speak and they sound like public school buffoons. They are revealed as bores. The acuteness of le Carré’s descriptions – which are often marvellous – absolutely doesn’t carry over into his dialogue, which is weak to put it mildly.

For example, legendary Larry is supposed to be a lecturer at quite a good university (Bath). In one scene, he arrives at Tim’s place in a bad mood after a seminar with some other academics:

A coven of middle-aged Russian analysts – the term Moscow-watcher is already out of date – has left him at odds with the approaching daylight. He is talking about the world: our part of it.

So you might expect this politics lecturer to deliver some sensible insight into global politics circa 1994, about the shifting power relations between the United States and Russia and the dire consequences of the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. For example, how Bill Clinton’s wish to intervene in Kosovo was stone-walled by an EU dominated by a pacifist Germany. But what this politics lecturer – who’s had the additional advantage of having played a minor role in Cold War espionage – actually says is:

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (p.138)

Is that it? God. What an imbecile.

On another occasion Tim remembers a conversation when Larry made tentative enquiries about contacts in banking; looking back, Tim realises this may have been the start of the embezzlement project he carried out with Checheyev. You might reasonably have expected the conversation between these two professional intelligence officers to convey some detail about the SIS’s banking operations, maybe not the pages of detailed organisation structure and process you’d get from Frederick Forsyth, but the kind of grown-up and interesting insight you might get from, say, Len Deighton or Robert Harris. But this is what follows:

‘Well, there’s always the great and good Jamie Pringle,’ I suggest cautiously… Pringle was our contemporary at Oxford, a rugger-playing scion of Larry’s Unbearable Classes.
‘Jamie’s an oaf,’ Larry declares, swilling his English Breakfast Tea…
‘Pringle’s an arsehole… Was. Is now. And ever shall be. Amen.’ (p.141)

This makes Larry look and sound like an idiot, with the intelligence of a surly 14-year-old. It is impossible to take him or the other characters seriously. (By the way, note the way Larry uses a quote from the Bible to give a patina of respectability to what is in fact the crudest language and the dumbest attitude – dressing up idiocy in fancy quotes and Latin tags.)

Many exchanges and much of the dialogue in these later le Carré novels are quite meaningless. They contain no factual information at all, even about the characters themselves, but reek with this smug ‘one of us’ attitude, a permanent tone of airily superior facetiousness which gets very, very wearing.


Above all, this over-the-top and facetious style is a poor substitute for thought. The three Robert Harris thrillers I’ve just read may be melodramatic, but they are instinct with political intelligence at all levels of detail, and are genuinely thought-provoking. When characters talk, they offer genuine insights into their own and other characters’ motivation, showing that Harris has thoroughly thought through his characters. The dialogue crisply reveals intentions and schemes which the intelligent reader can interpret and map out, like a chess diagram, and map the changing plans and schemes, as the plot unfolds.

By contrast, the dialogue in le Carré most often consists of character assassination dressed up in buffoonish schoolboy abuse. Thus we are given a thumbnail profile of Eduard Shevardnadze, a key historical figure who was Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, until the collapse of the USSR when he became president of an independent Georgia. A fascinating man who played a pivotal role in the international diplomacy and Russian power politics of the period.

Question from Thatcherchild Talbot, who has decided to grow a beard: Please Larry, why did the West fall for Schevardnadze?
Answer, dear Talbot, because Shevers has a sad, bungey face and looks like everybody’s Daddy, when actually he’s a KGB dinosaur with a background of deals with the CIA and a disgraceful record of repressing dissidents. (p.250)

Thump. How lowering. How dumb. How stupid. And this is legendary Larry writing, the man the novel tries to persuade us is the intellectual star of his generation at Oxford, a first class mind and unstoppable babe magnet. But he sounds like a moron.

Hundreds of pages go by, crammed with upper class attitude, Latin tags, Bible quotes and embarrassingly unfunny jokes, all blissfully untroubled by anything you could call an idea or a thought. What ideas there are in the books are trite: the end of the Cold War didn’t mean the end of power politics; the world is still a violent and nasty place; the Russians have behave appallingly to the Ingush, and are continuing to repress ethnic minorities both within and without their borders.

420 pages of public school bombast is a lot to read for such a thin return.

Anne Frank

Do you know the apocryphal story about the terrible off-Broadway production of a play about Anne Frank? Having sat through two hours of awful script and dreadful acting, when the Gestapo finally knock on the front door, a member of the audience shouted out, ‘She’s in the attic!’

I felt the same way about this novel. By page 100 I was heartily sick of Timbo and Larry and Emma and their self-dramatising self-importance. In the final hundred pages, as Timbo leaves England and sets off on his ‘quest’, I think we are meant to feel along with the narrator a tense and urgent need to find Larry before harm comes to him, to rescue him from his own quixotic imaginings, to redeem this Byron of the Caucasus, to … and so on.

But I had my fingers crossed that both Larry and Emma would be found shot dead and, ideally, that the narrator himself would meet his come-uppance for his unbelievable pomposity and self-importance, and in the end I was so repelled by the characters I couldn’t finish the book.

Unreliable narrator – or pompous twit?

Ceaselessly bombarded with the drunken banter of Tim’s impossibly posh pals, with his own immature public school bombast, with his self-congratulatory sexual bragging, and with the posturing stupidity of the two other characters of this appalling ‘game’, it is difficult to know how much of this is meant to be serious and how much satirical.

Is the character of Timbo meant to be a devastating satire on his type of self-important snob? Is Timbo meant to be a contender for Monty Python’s Upper Class Twit of the Year? Is the whole thing meant to be a satirical portrait of the kind of self-satisfied, rich, posh shagger that used to run British Intelligence? Is it an extended joke?

Or does le Carré mean it literally? Are we genuinely meant to sympathise with the absurd Timbo, with his lecherous infatuation with a woman half his age, are we meant to take the idiot Larry seriously as some kind of intellectual, are we meant to regard this small circle of ‘people like us’ as epitomising the best of ‘England’?


Our Game by John le Carré was published in 1995 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 1996 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper, after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside he disobeys orders by falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Retired SIS agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at public school and Oxford – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia. And has seduced his girlfriend. Tim sets off on a quest to uncover the true story and try to rescue his ‘friend’.
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection @ the Courtauld Gallery

In 1882 the 12th Duke of Hamilton caused a national uproar by over-riding objections from the Royal Family and John Ruskin and selling his collection of priceless art works to the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett (Prints and Drawings Museum). At the heart of his collection was a set of illustrations of Dante’s famous epic poem, The Divine Comedy, by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli.

This exhibition gives us the opportunity to see these rare and precious works, along with other highlights from the Duke’s collection, namely a selection of invaluable illuminated manuscripts including the celebrated ‘Hamilton Bible’, back in the country for the first time in 130 years.


Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was born and raised in Florence. He took the style of love poetry developed by the troubadors of the south of France to new heights in the love poetry he wrote to his muse, Beatrice Portinari. Florence was a hot-bed of political infighting and when Dante’s party, the White Guelphs, were violently overthrown in 1302, the poet was driven into bitter exile.

Here he conceived his epic poem, The Divine Comedy, divided into three books, in which the poet is escorted through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, respectively. Although each book is quite long – and the whole poem is 14,233 lines long – they’re built up from quite short two- or three-page cantos (33 in each book), in each of which Dante and his guide meet dead souls who give potted histories of their lives.

Although 700 years old, Dante’s verse still feels fast-moving and fluid, and the often powerful stories of the dead give the poem a timeless appeal. What raises it to the position – in many people’s opinion – of the greatest work of literature in European history, is the tremendous scaffold of Christian theology and symbolism which underpins it. The dead souls Dante talks to not only relate stories but each represents a different aspect of Catholic theology, as well as embodying many levels of medieval symbolism.

For example, at the same time as the poem describes a ‘real journey’ through a precisely imagined terrain, it is also symbolic of the soul’s journey towards the loving Christian God. The more you investigate the poem, the richer and deeper it becomes.

Although the Divine Comedy is long, it is made very readable by being divided into short cantos, and by the interlocking rhyme scheme of terza rima, each verse made of three lines which rhyme aba, bcb, cdc and so on, drawing the reader onwards into the narrative. The famous opening lines are:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Which can be translated as:

Halfway along the roadway of my life
I found myself within a darkened wood,
For I had stumbled off the direct way.


Sandro Botticelli (1445- 1510) was an Italian painter of the early Renaissance, famous for the serene expressions of his slender shapely women, exemplified in his allegorical paintings, The Birth of Venus (1486) or Primavera (1482). Like Dante he was born and raised in Florence, and there is evidence that he was especially attracted to Dante’s poem – a near contemporary wrote that Botticelli had written a detailed commentary on the Divine Comedy.

We know that Botticelli was commissioned to create drawings illustrating the poem, most likely for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who also commissioned the Spring and Venus paintings. The Divine Comedy has 99 cantos and 92 Botticelli drawings have survived, dating probably from the 1480s. They are drawn with pen and ink on vellum ie sheep or goat skin. The sheets were created so that the drawings were done on one side and on the reverse was the next canto in the poem. When these were bound together you read the book sideways, by opening the pages vertically like a calendar, with the text of each canto written across one page and the illustration below.

As soon as the codex arrived at the Berlin Museum, the Germans unbound it in order to frame each drawing individually and exhibit them to the public. You can still see the series of little holes along the side of each picture where the stitching has been undone. You can also see the shadowy impress of the columns of text on the facing page, giving each image a ghostly imprint of the poem itself.

This exhibition displays ten drawings from each of the three parts of the Divine Comedy, charting Dante’s imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.


Your first impression is that they are very faint and sketchy, with an almost schoolboy clumsiness in the way humans and clothes are depicted. Faces, bodies, clothes, expressions, limbs, hands, they all look a bit amateurish.

Punishment of the corrupt in the eighth circle (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXII) by Sandro Botticelli -  (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.9 x 47.1 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Punishment of the corrupt in the eighth circle (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXII) by Sandro Botticelli – (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.9 x 47.1 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

An internet search quickly brings up the comprehensive set of illustrations for the Comedy done by the French artist Gustave Doré in the 1860s which, by comparison, are smooth and sinuous and fill the three dimensional space.

The contrast reminds us that the Botticelli created these nearly 400 years before Doré, right at the start of the western tradition, right at the moment that perspective was being rediscovered and the position of figures in a three dimensional space explored.

Some of the drawings have vestiges of colour, prompting the theory that they were initially all going to be coloured in. But something – maybe the size of the task, maybe artistic reasons – led them to remain uncoloured, fragile pen lines on a blank cream background.


In the poem Dante is guided through hell and purgatory by the great Latin poet, Virgil (70-19 BC). (It is notable and touching that he doesn’t select a theologian to be his guide through Christian belief, but the greatest author of the ancient world and a fellow Italian.) The entire poem is a journey in which – to take the two most obvious levels – Dante is shown the geography of the afterworld and gains a deeper understanding of Christian theology.

This helps to explain one of the most striking things about the images – the way Dante and Virgil appear in each one multiple times. In the drawing of the seventh circle of hell the two figures appear no fewer than eight times, progressing through the scene. The wall label points out that Inferno XXVII is unusual in depicting the pair only once.

The way they are shown progressing through each scene gives the pictures a tremendous dynamism. Once you settle to follow them through each scene, you find yourself examining it more carefully and then turning back to reread what it’s depicting. These are book illustrations and are designed to interact with a text: you read about Dante being stopped by an acquaintance in hell and then look down to see the illustration. Then you return to the text to read the soul in hell explaining how the dead are being punished in this particular circle – and look back at the illustration to find the couple in their next position, overlooking the panorama of tortured souls. And so on.

Each picture tells a story, selecting not a moment but a series of moments to capture the physical journey and the spiritual education. This is emphasised by the bridges down between the circles of hell, which Dante and Virgil cross and descend, their figures drawn at the top, in the middle and then at the bottom, moving ever downwards into realms of deeper horror.


As I looked at the figures more closely, and followed their progress across each scene, I began to appreciate how Botticelli deploys a whole lexicon of physical gestures: here is Virgil showing, displaying, pointing, indicating, placating, berating, taking Dante’s arm, hand, embracing him. Similarly, it is Dante’s physical gestures rather than features which indicate that he is alarmed, distracted, clutching his head in horror, covering his eyes to blot out the terrible scenes.

A good example is the big illustration of Satan for which Botticelli, uniquely, used two pieces of vellum stitched together – a double-fold centre-spread of evil. Satan is a giant figure with three pairs of enormous bat’s wings, endlessly beating, creating the freezing wind which whirls some of the lost souls around hell. He has three heads and is depicted eternally eating the bodies of traitors, Judas and the two betrayers of Julius Caesar – Brutus and Cassio.

Centre of Hell. The full figure of Lucifer (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXXIV,2) by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 63.2 x 46.3 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Centre of Hell. The full figure of Lucifer (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXXIV) by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 63.2 x 46.3 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard. Note: I have added the red highlights showing Dante and Virgil.

His body is covered in the shaggy hair of a goat but the most striking thing about it is the way it is wedged right at the bottom of hell, conceived of as an enormous stepped funnel, an inverted circular pyramid, each step down taking the poets into a new ‘circle’ of hell. Here at the bottom is a narrow hole representing the centre of the earth, and Satan’s body is wedged tight into it. Here they must hastily scurry across the body of ultimate evil in order to pass through the hole and out the other side to begin their journey back up to the surface of the world.

Botticelli depicts the scared poets no fewer than seven times in this one illustration (highlighted in red, in the image above), in successive postures of cowering dread as they scurry over the malign body, squeeze through the hole and out the other side, where they emerge upside down. The interactive qualities of the illustrations, the use of multiple figures, and the lexicon of gesture all reach a kind of apogee in this one image.

Mount Purgatory

In the poem the poets climb up a long tunnel to the surface of the earth and there discover Mount Purgatory on an island, rising up through similar stages to the Earthly Paradise at its top. It is immediately noticeable that in these illustrations the human figures are in groups. In hell each figure was scattered and alone, in psychological as well as physical torment, epitomised by the illustration of the circle named Cocytus with over 100 human figures disfigured and dismembered and abandoned to their misery. Here in purgatory, humans are allowed to congregate and speak. And unlike the movement of the poets ever downwards, now their figures move upwards through the pictures.

Beatrice explains to Dante the order of the cosmos (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.4 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Beatrice explains to Dante the order of the cosmos (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.4 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard


Dante eventually has to bid farewell to Virgil who was, after all, a pagan. He is taken forward in his spiritual education by Beatrice, the beautiful girl he fell in love with as a young man and stayed devoted to all his life, even though they both married other spouses.

In the ten illustrations from paradise the figure of poet and muse are much much larger than previously, as if by approaching spiritual purity, as if by approaching the most religious territory, Dante is becoming more human. His and Beatrice’s figures become larger, their expressions easier to read, and he is drawn always looking upwards, up towards the light radiating from the abode of bliss and the godhead. These are the most Botticelli-esque of the drawings, with the light swirling skirts and fabrics of Beatrice for the first time really reminding us of the Botticelli of the Primavera and Venus. No coincidence that it’s one of these illustrations which the Courtauld has selected as poster for the show. The wall label tells us that Kenneth Clark thought The ascent to the heaven of fire captured a delicate beauty ‘unequalled in Western art’.

Beatrice and Dante ascending to the heaven of fire (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.6 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Beatrice and Dante ascending to the heaven of fire (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.6 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

The images also become progressively emptier, less cluttered, with more space and light, as we climb higher towards the ultimate source of all light. The physical torment and spiritual chaos of hell is partly conveyed by its sheer clutter, its messiness, the busy-ness of the images. In the final illustrations the sketchiness of the lines emphasise the all-encompassing light. It is revealing that the artist seems to have struggled with the final cantos which describe the rose garden at the height of heaven, and opts eventually for the image of holy figures made tiny, remote, by their distance from the profane author.

The Hamilton Bible

Having started by thinking the drawings area bit sketchy and amateurish, you finish the sequence exhausted by the journey the poem and artist have taken you on and utterly won over by their creative engagement with the unparalleled text. I started out preferring the Doré but ended up much preferring the Botticelli. Something mysterious, something very powerful, is revealed by prolonged study of them.

It is a bit of a wrench to turn your attention to the other element in the exhibition, the equally priceless and stunning illuminated manuscripts which are housed in display cases. After the thirty monochrome Botticelli images, there French and Italian masterpieces from the Renaissance, they overwhelm you simply by being in colour.

Centrepiece is one of the most important illuminated manuscripts in the world, the massive and beautifully illustrated ‘Hamilton Bible’, famous enough in its own day to have been depicted in Raphael’s portrait of Pope Leo X.

Most of these have been artfully opened to display theological illustrations, with several colourful (literally) depictions of hell to compare and contrast with the Botticelli. The Hamilton Bible is open at the first page of Genesis, opposite which is a full page illustration made up of a dozen or so discreet images depicting key incidents from the Christian creation story – the creation of the universe and world, Adam and Eve in the Garden and Eden, and so on.

Cristoforo Orimina - Genesis (in the so called 'Hamilton-Bible'), around 1350-60. Book illumination and gold on parchment, 37.5 x 26.5 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Jörg P. Anders

Cristoforo Orimina – Genesis (in the so called ‘Hamilton-Bible’), around 1350-60. Book illumination and gold on parchment, 37.5 x 26.5 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Jörg P. Anders

Botticelli’s altarpiece

If you’ve paid the admission price to see this exhibition, you shouldn’t miss the Botticelli which is part of the Courtauld Gallery’s permanent collection, and housed on the first floor. It is the large altarpiece of The Holy Trinity with John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene, dated to the same years as the final drawings of the Dante series.

Botticelli at the V&A

This exhibition has been planned to coincide with a major new exhibition of Botticelli at the Victorian and Albert Museum, scheduled to open in March. It seems to be, fittingly enough, a Botticelli spring.

This is a beautiful, inspiring and moving exhibition to kick it off.

Related links

Archangel by Robert Harris (1998)

Go back to New York, Dr Kelso, and play your games of history in somebody else’s country, because this isn’t England or America, the past isn’t safely dead here. In Russia, the past carries razors and a pair of handcuffs.’ (p.167)

Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso is a historian of modern Russia. Described by one Sunday supplement as a ‘battered Byron’, he is in fact ‘a fattening and hungover middle-aged historian in a black corduroy suit’ (p.55). He’s overweight, drinks too much, despises his colleagues and has for many years devoted more time and energy to appearing on the telly and churning out articles and reviews for fashionable magazines than doing any actual historical research, and hence the envy and contempt of his peers.

He along with a cross-selection of colleagues are gathered at a mind-numbingly boring conference about archives and research in the newly post-communist Russia. Kelso’s three marriages and three subsequent divorces, his general air of shambling drunken disreputableness, the way he drinks so much he throws up and the next morning causes a kerfuffle when he hungoverly stumbles out of the first lecture of the day, all this gives him the feel of a Kingsley Amis character.

But he is a Kingsley Amis character thrown into a gripping thriller, because the reason he’s so hungover is that he was up half the night drinking with a mysterious, raddled old Muscovite who had attended one of his anti-communist lectures, tutting all the way through, and had then cornered the good doctor to put him ‘right’ about Comrade Stalin. Over drinks in his shabby hotel room Kelso and the Russkie – Papu Rapava – get really drunk while Papu pours out his heart about how misunderstood kind Comrade Stalin was.

In the middle of the tears and vodka Rapava tells an extraordinary story about being present at Stalin’s death. He had been a young security guard to Lavrenty Beria, the feared head of Soviet Secret Police, when one night he was summoned to drive his boss out to Stalin’s dacha. Here they found the old tyrant lying paralysed by a stroke on a sofa. Instead of calling for a doctor, Beria ordered Rapava to help him look for a key, the key to Stalin’s safe. When Rapava finds it, stashed down the sofa beside the comatose dictator, Beria orders him to drive them back to Moscow, to the Kremlin, where Beria bluffs his way past the guards and then uses the key to open Stalin’s private safe and take from it a metal box containing Stalin’s most private papers. Then they drive to Beria’s Moscow house, where Beria orders Rapava to bury the box in the back garden. And then they drive back to Stalin’s dacha in time to be present with other officials at Stalin’s actual death (it took three days, apparently).

However, in the turmoil following the dictator’s death, Beria is himself arrested, tortured and then executed. Rapava, as his security guard and driver, finds himself sentenced to fifteen years in a labour camp above the Arctic circle, experiences which he gruesomely recounts to the pissed Kelso… But, he drunkenly tells Kelso, he never told anyone, he hugged his secret all this time…

While Kelso is throwing up in the loo, Rapava staggers to his feet and out of the hotel, and although Kelso pathetically chases him down the stairs, across the lobby and out into the freezing night, he loses him. Damn.

Next day Kelso tells his closest confidante among the delegates about this strange encounter, and decides to track Rapava down. First of all he goes to visit a scary relic of the communist regime, Vladimir Mamantov, to interview him about the notebook, to try and get background information from one of the few surviving communists who were in Stalin’s circle. But Mamantov immediately pounces on Kelso’s hints. The notebook?’ Mamantov says. ‘Stalin’s notebook, the one referred to in all the memoirs but which was never found?’ Hmm. Maybe not such a good idea to have let him know. Kelso departs with a bad feeling…

Russian spies

At this point the narrative switches to follow Major Feliks Suvorin and Lieutenant Vissari Netto of the Russian security service. It turns out that they are monitoring Mamantov’s apartment and phone calls. Mamantov is still a threatening political presence. He took part in the 1991 coup against Gorbachev and was imprisoned for 18 months, but now he’s at liberty again, with widespread connections and the money to fund an unreconstructed communist magazine, Aurora.

Thus the security services tap Kelso’s phone call to Mamantov and their subsequent conversation. Thus they learn about the fabled Stalin notebook. Shortly after Kelso’s visit Mamantov’s mad, old wife leaves the building with her minder for her regular morning walk. When she doesn’t return for some time, then not at all, the watching officers nervously realise something’s up. When they break into the apartment they find his wife tied and bound in the wardrobe. Mamontov had dressed in her clothes to fool them, escape surveillance and is now on the loose.

R.J. O’Brian

So now Kelso, Mamatov and the security services are all after the fabled notebook. That night Kelso goes to the bar where the drunken Rapava had told him his prostitute daughter works, the Robotnik, in a bid to track down Rapava. Here Kelso bumps into a brash, loud American TV journalist, R.J. O’Brian, who, it turns out, also knows all about the notebook. How? He’d been hanging round the conference centre and the academic Kelso confided in had told him (the swine). So now Kelso, O’Brian, Mamantov and Russian security are all after the damn notebook.

Rapava’s daughter

Kelso gets the barman to point out Papava’s daughter, Zinaida, who turns out to be a battle-hardened whore, well used to fleecing foreign tourists. Kelso only wants her to drive him to her father’s apartment but she insists on the full rate ($400). She dumps him in a terrifying urban wasteland of badly built high-rises on the outskirts of Moscow, telling him the block, floor and apartment number.

In a tense, scary scene Kelso makes his way in the late-night darkness through the utterly empty snow-swept high rises, climbing the piss-smelling, vomit-strewn stairwell up to Rapava’s apartment where he finds the door hanging off its hinges and the flat more systematically ripped to pieces than anything he’s ever seen. Foolishly, he enters and investigates, eventually coming across the bathroom sink full of blood and shreds of scalp with hair attached. He stumbles back out towards the lift – only to find Rapava’s body hanging from the lift cables – or what’s left of his body, completely eviscerated, looking more like a side of beef, and with his penis cut off and shoved into what’s left of his mouth.

In the police station

Kelso runs to the nearest apartment and gets them to call the police. He finds himself being arrested and taken to the cells where he spends a very worrying night. But in the morning he is not charged or beaten up under interrogation (as he feared), but released into the care of one of the security officers we’ve been getting to know in the parallel sequence of scenes about them, notably the young westernised Major Feliks Suvorin.

Suvorin asks Kelso why he went to see such a dangerous man as Mamantov? Does he realise that by mentioning the notebook he signed Rapava’s death warrant – for it was Mamantov, when still a senior KGB official, who had interrogated Rapava after the fall of Beria, and then upon his release from the labour camp. Thus he knew that all the other witnesses to Stalin’s death were dead. Thus he knew that what Kelso took for his own clever and subtle references to ‘a contact’ who had mentioned the notebook, could be only one person. Thus Mamantov absconded from his apartment and went direct to torture and murder Rapava. ‘And you know what, Dr Kelso? Now he may come looking for you.’

This is the scene where the quote from the top of the page comes, with Suvorin telling Kelso he is out of his depth in the jungle which is post-communist Russia. ‘Go back to the West. Leave while you are still alive.’ Then Suvorin drives him back to the hotel and tells him to catch the flight home along with the other academics. Here Kelso showers and tries to wash away the horrors of the previous night.

Zinaida’s note

The next morning he joins the waiting historians filtering into the big tourist coach, jostled along by their ‘minder’, Olga, with her prodding umbrella, to be driven off to Sheremetevo airport. At the last moment Kelso is cornered by O’Brian who wants them to go 50-50 on the ‘scoop’, but Kelso says, ‘No deal’ and happily drives off with the others to the airport. Here they bicker and catfight as only academics can, but then Kelso sees Zinaida standing on the other side of the departure lounge glass. He goes outside to talk to her and she lures him into the nearby multi-story car park where she reveals that her father had visited her just a few days ago, drunk and apologetic, and left her a scribbled letter. It says he left her something valuable – and tells her where it’s hidden. It must be the notebook!

Kelso looks at his colleagues queuing up to go through passport control. He knows his visa has only one more day to run after which he will be staying in Russia illegally. He knows it is crazy to go with a mercenary and unreliable prostitute. But he is not just a historian, he is bitten by the deeper bug of needing to know. He gets into the car. He says, ‘take me there.’

In the lock-up

Zinaida drives Kelso to the derelict garages, part of the complex of high rises where he found Rapava’s body. Presumably the police didn’t know that Rapava owned a garage and he went to his death, heroically defying incomprehensible torture pain, not revealing it, so his daughter could have it, it and whatever money it brings. A bitter gift from a distant and difficult father. Now Kelso jumps down into the garage well and, pulling away the sides, quickly comes across a metal box. Inside is a leather folder containing a notebook and papers! It is at this moment that the garage door opens from the outside.

It is a typically heart-stopping moment in a novel full of them: will it Mamantov and his psychopath torturers? Will they eviscerate the girl in front of Kelso and then start on him? But no, it is in fact the irritating, boosterish Yank TV journalist, O’Brian. Zinaida, the hard-bitten whore, pulls the gun she always carries and there is a tense stand-off, which Kelso helps reconcile into a deal. O’Brian will pay Zinaida for the book; and gets to film Kelso re-enacting the discovery then opening the notebook then reading it.

Stalin’s notebook

In fact, the notebook turns out to be completely different from what everyone expected. Far from being some kind of record of the great dictator’s mind and plans, it turns out to be the diary of a 21-year-old girl, Anna Safanova, a keen Komsomol Party member, born and raised in Archangel in Russian’s far north. The diary begins as Anna is plucked from provincial obscurity and invited to come and work at Stalin’s dacha, where she is instructed by the head of the staff in all his little ways and foibles. The diary describes her excitement at this amazing stroke of luck, and logs the fairly innocuous moments over the coming weeks until the moment when Stalin asks her to dance for him one evening – at which point the journal breaks off. Kelso notes that the next forty or so pages have been carefully torn out.

Turning to the other papers in the folder, Kelso quickly realises they amount to an official profile of Anna Safanova, appraising her fitness, genetic inheritance, ideological commitment and so on. Kelso and Zinaida both realise at the same time that she was one of a number of fit, healthy, young women brought to Stalin for him to breed with. Anna’s diary breaks off at the point the Great Leader made his pass at her. Zinaida is physically sick. She throws the notebook at the men, ‘Take the damned thing… Take it. Keep it.’ (p.224)

But O’Brian asks the key question: ‘Could this Anna Safanova possibly still be alive? Whatever happened to her? Let’s go up to Archangel and find out: are you up for that, Dr Kelso?’ And Kelso, like a fool, agrees.

The drive to Archangel

The two men load a four-by-four with petrol, food, filming and editing equipment and set off on the long, long drive to Archangel in the frozen north. After the gruelling journey they arrive to find it a shabby backwater but manage to bluff their way into the local party headquarters where they bribe a resentful old communist to open up the local files. The files covering the two years when Anna Safanova would have joined the communist party are mysteriously missing – but the official comes up with the surprising news that Anna’s mother is still alive.

Meanwhile, Suvorin picks up and interrogates Zinaida. She’s tough so he drives her to the morgue where he shows her her father’s tortured body. She screams and collapses. ‘This is what they’ll do to you and Kelso when they find him; so where is he?’ She tells him. She tells him Kelso and O’Brian have the notebook and have driven to Archangel to find the girl whose diary it is. Suvorin calls his office and makes arrangements for a plane to fly him north.

Meanwhile, Kelso and O’Brian drive to the rundown clapboard house of Vavara Safanova, now a bent 85-year-old crone. She gives vivid descriptions of her childhood after the revolution, she remembers the British ships which arrived to put it down in 1918, her education, joining the party and marriage to Mikhail. Then she recalls their daughter, Anna, her birth and childhood and growing up beautiful, a devoted communist, and how it was these qualities which made the local party recommend her to take part in a mass Komsomol parade in Moscow – and then a few weeks later, the mysterious summons, to return to Moscow and become an assistant to senior party leaders.

Eight months later Anna returned to Archangel heavily pregnant. When the baby was due, she haemorrhaged and the doctors couldn’t save her, but they saved the baby, a boy. Vavara and her husband never saw him. He was sent to be fostered by a family named Chizhikov in a settlement east of Archangel. She points it out on O’Brian’s map, at the end of a single road, deep in the taiga. One day her husband set off to the settlement to find the child. Five days later his dead body came floating down the river. He’d had a heart attack, they said…

O’Brian overcomes all Kelso’s objections – the road will be dreadful, there’ll be no gas stations or hotels, it will be snowy wilderness, it will be dangerous – and insists they drive out there straightaway. They set off and it takes hours, as the road by the river gives way to snow-covered track and then to just a deeply snowed-in gap between the endless tress on either side. Harris vividly describes the eeriness of snowy forest, and Kelso’s mounting anxiety. They are driving slowly enough to notice a clearing off to one side and – hang on – is that smoke? At that moment the 4-by-4 hits a really big rut and the whole front end nose-dives into it and the car stalls.

In the forest

The novel now takes on the intensity and spine-chilling quality of a horror story. Kelso and O’Brian walk towards the settlement of houses, noting the smoke has now ceased. It is completely abandoned and ruined. They notice a small cemetery of graves off to one side and Kelso notes that some of the photos – placed Russian-style on each grave – have been defaced. O’Brian says he’ll go back to the car to get the satellite phone. He is gone a long time. When Kelso follows his tracks they go back to the car alright, but then off into the woods in the opposite direction. The novel becomes very scary. Moving warily through the close-knit deep-snowed-in trees Kelso hears a moaning and a creaking sound. He comes across O’Brian caught in a rope snare, hanging upside down by his ankle from a tree. Kelso cuts him down and O’Brian moans something about ‘I saw him’. At that moment Kelso becomes aware of a primitive ape-like face staring at him from between the trees.

Stalin’s son

A rough, rude peasant in animal skins and boots emerges from the pine and shepherds them at gun point to a basic cabin in another part of the woods, skirting the booby traps and mantraps he has planted everywhere. ‘Are you the ones?’ he asks them, ‘the promised ones?’ He sits them down and then shaves with a razor sharp knife, taking off his beard to reveal a full bushy black moustache; and then changes his clothes to put on a Russian military uniform. Kelso is shocked, horrified: it is Stalin to the life. Without a doubt this is the son, the son of the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century, of all time.

What emerges over the next few pages is too weird to be true, but is true: Stalin’s son by Anna Safanova was spirited off into this isolated settlement where he was brought up by four couples of hand-picked fanatical communists, indoctrinating him with his father’s beliefs, making him listen to endless gramophone records of Stalin’s speeches, making him read and reread the twelve volumes of Stalin’s Collected works until, as now, before Kelso and O’Brian, he does a word perfect imitation of his father, lazily half closing his eyes, enquiring why they are so nervous, putting the fear of God into them.

As the boy came of age, he began flexing his psychological powers and tyrannising his minders. As a teenager he found one of his guardian guilty of ‘defeatism’. He was the first to be interrogated and executed. Then there was an outbreak of ‘right-deviationism’, as some of them discussed giving up and returning to civilisation. These criminals had to be punished. And then the sabotage started, as the fish in the river were poisoned and food went missing from traps. When one of the minders was found prowling round after curfew he too was interrogated, tortured and admitted all his crimes, before being executed. His wife hanged herself a week later.

Now Kelso realises the grisly significance of the little cemetery. One by one Stalin’s son had picked his minders and carers off until he was alone. In an appalling sidelight, Kelso gets to see papers on his desk, among the well-thumbed volumes of Stalin’s speeches, each of them headed ‘Confession’, and realises some of them are by outsiders who stumbled across the settlement, including two carefree hippy travellers in 1968. They too were tortured, interrogated and executed.

Kelso realises they are at the mercy of a paranoid psychopath, a kind of quintessence of Stalin who reveals the secret of Stalin’s success: creating an atmosphere of total fear.

The Spetsnaz

Meanwhile, Major Suvorin arrives in Archangel to find the local militia unhelpful to the point of rudeness. When he phones his boss back in Moscow he discovers the reason why: the story of the missing notebook having been found and Zinaida’s account of it recording the breeding and birth of Stalin’s son and heir, have reached the highest circles ie the President. And the order has come back to strangle and suppress it; to kill everyone involved; to kill the son but also the two foreigners.

The westernised Suvorin is appalled, but those are the orders. The militia who seemed so rude are members of the Spetsnaz, Russia’s special forces. Assassins. They mock the soft westernised Suvorin as he struggles to clamber into the big snowplough they’ve commandeered. They have earpiece radio comunications, black balaclavas and loads of machine guns. They set off in the snowplough up the same road Kelso and O’Brian took just a few hours before.

Meanwhile, Kelso and O’Brian are still in the hut, being lectured by Stalin’s son who is quoting his father’s speeches at length, thinking things can’t get much weirder – when a skull appears at the window. It is one of the Spetsnaz men. In one uncanny movement the son pulls up a trapdoor and disappears below the floorboards. At that moment the special forces burst into the hut, push Kelso and O’Brian up against the wall and handcuff their wrists. ‘Under the floorboards’, they say and a Spetsnaz man opens up with a machine gun, systematically perforating the floorboards with bullets till the magazine runs out. He slots in a new ammo clip and starts again. But when they pull up the trap door they find it leads to a tunnel. The son is on the loose.

To be brief – he kills them all, luring one man into a man-trap, and when another returns to help him, killing the second one then shooting the trapped one in the head. Then he hunts down the last one, the arrogant major. Bang. Dead.

During this slaughter Major Suvorin has finally clambered out of the snow plough and made it up to the hut. Here he releases Kelso and O’Brian and asks them what the hell is going on. All three of them hear the bursts of machine gun fire, the screaming, as in a very scary horror film. When Suvorin reluctantly goes back towards the snowplough he finds the corpses of the Spetsnaz men and the snowplough exploded and on fire. He is stuck here.

In his absence O’Brian takes the satellite radio into a clearing to try and call for help from the outside world. Kelso examines the papers on the son’s chaotic desk and is piecing together more of the terrible story of the settlement when the son magically reappears in the hut and shepherds Kelso towards the river, picking up O’Brian on the way. Here there is a boat with outboard motor, and into it they climb, pull the cord and out into the river they go. Suvorin hears the motor and runs in its direction through the trees, arriving to see the boat round a corner in the huge river. The sound dwindles to silence. He is on his own in his useless western clothes, abandoned in the middle of the Russian forest as the snow falls.

To their (and the reader’s) amazement and relief, Kelso and O’Brian find themselves arriving at Archangel, back in the real world after the hair-raising horror of the wilderness, and the son steering them into a quayside where they moor. As they go up the steps it seems as if the son’s expecting them to take the lead; they are, after all ‘the ones’ that he was expecting. They will know what to do next. In fact Kelso and O’Brian run for the nearest cab and fling dollars at the driver to take them to the station, where they jump the long Russian queue and throw more dollars at the ticket desk until they get tickets for the huge, long train which is about to pull out for Moscow.

On the train

They find their ‘sleeper’ compartment, make a meal of the crappy food they just had time to buy, stare at each other disbelievingly, and fall asleep, into a deep, deep sleep punctuated only by the announcements of all the little stations on their 800-mile journey. When Kelso awakes, he groggily realises he’s slept for 9 hours straight. Looking out the window he sees a picture of Stalin float by and thinks he must still be asleep and dreaming. But at the next settlement they pass through there are people holding up pictures of Stalin and Lenin; and at the next one, a village band has assembled and he catches a snatch of the old Soviet national anthem. Something weird is happening.

Kelso stumbles into the corridor and makes his way through the long, dirty, smelly and increasingly congested carriages. He has a growing sense of fear. When he opens the door to the fifth carriage his fears are confirmed. In the eerie and terrifying way the son was able to appear and disappear in the forest, had a sixth sense about the arrival of the Spetsnaz and effortlessly outwitted them – somehow, magically, he managed to make it onto the train.

Here he is, fast asleep, the spitting image of the virile young Stalin, and surrounded by an awed crowd of admirers. As the train pulls into a station, Kelso becomes aware of packs of black-uniformed young men getting onto the train and then he sees Vladimir Mamantov among them. Kelso runs in a panic back towards his compartment and grabs the folder with the notebook and papers in. He is about to start tearing them up when O’Brian comes fully awake and tries to stop him. They argue and O’Brian punches Kelso to the floor, but the latter manages to escape and run down the corridor, now pursued by some of the blackshirts.

He hurtles into a spare compartment, locks the door, gets out his cigarette lighter and sets the first paper alight… just as the door is kicked open and brutal hands wrench the paper and folder out of his grasp, pushing him down onto the seat and pinning him there. And then the grizzled, terrifying old communist party fanatic, Mamantov, enters the compartment and sits down, wagging an admonitory finger at foolish Dr Kelso.

Mamantov’s story

Mamantov tells him the full story. He knew about the notebook from the beginning. Rapava told him about it and where it was buried. Mamantov knew all about the girl Anna Safanova, about Archangel, about Stalin’s son. He had even travelled up there, out into the woods, and met him. But think about it – If he, Mamantov, announced that he had discovered Stalin’s son and heir in the middle of nowhere, nobody would believe him, they’d laugh at him and at this pathetically transparent ruse to get the communists back into power.

No, he needed someone who would verify it all for him, an objective authority. And who could be more objective than a historian, not just a Russian historian – too compromised – no, a western historian, ideally one with a well-known antipathy to Stalin and all his works. Someone like… the famous TV historian, Dr Christopher Kelso!

And so Mamantov had used his money and influence to arrange the entire conference that Kelso was attending, had ensured that Kelso’s name was on the guest list, had ensured that he actually attended. And it was Mamantov who arranged for comrade Rapava to sit in the front row tutting through Kelso’s lecture damning Stalin, and then to buttonhole Kelso and end up telling him all about the notebook. He had counted on Kelso’s addiction to history, his need to find the truth.

And he had paid O’Brian to film everything. It wasn’t a coincidence that O’Brian had attended the conference, pretending to be sniffing around for a story – because he knew the story well in advance. It wasn’t a coincidence that O’Brian was in the Robotnik nightclub when Kelso went to find Rapava’s daughter. It wasn’t a coincidence that O’Brian walked into the garage as Kelso uncovered the notebook. Because it had all been set up and planned in advance, so that every step of the way O’Brian could document and film the odyssey of an authoritative and sceptical western historian, who would validate every successive finding.

And when O’Brian left Kelso in the hut in the forest, as the son was dealing with the Spetsnaz forces, O’Brian wasn’t just ringing the outside world – he was sending his long report, complete with all the rushes, back to his TV station in America, a station which – out of courtesy – of course shared the report and rushes with Russian TV.

So that while Kelso slept, the sensational story had topped world newscasts, but especially Russian newscasts, for the past nine hours. Stalin had a son. He was brought up in the wild north woods, a rough and ready chip off the old block. Now he is returning to Moscow to heal Russia’s ills, to clean out the corruption, the prostitution and AIDS and drug addiction, to clear away the mafia and the corrupt politicians, to restore Russia to her former glory, a mighty nation to be feared and respected.

‘And all with your help, Dr Kelso. All with your invaluable help.’

At the station

Intercut with this dazzling revelation had been scenes at the HQ of security forces. While the train had been stationary at the stop where Mamantov and his black shirted men boarded it, the security forces had been asking their political leaders what to do: should they storm it to neutralise Mamantov and the son? But that risked a blaze of publicity, with attendant casualties and the possible death of Stalin’s son?

Down from the top comes the order: No. Let it be. Too risk. — Suddenly there is panic throughout the administration. In the office of the President they don’t know which way things will go, will the return of Stalin’s son lead to a popular uprising in his favour? So feverish, so febrile, is the atmosphere of post-communist Russia and Moscow which Harris has painted, that you believe anything is possible.

The head of security calls off all the surveillance on Mamantov and all records of it to be destroyed. If the son takes power, everyone had better start protecting their asses. He also calls off the guard which Suvorin had set on Zinaida’s apartment after he’d taken her to the morgue. So that when she wakes up and finds the security man at her door gone, she wonders what’s going on – then she switches on the TV. It is wall-to-wall coverage of Stalin’s son’s return. My God!

But she is her father’s daughter, tough as boots, and she takes the pistol he gave her and slips it into her handbag. She takes the metro to Moscow central station and, in her dark jacket and skirt and glasses, can pass for one of the most dedicated of the loyalists who are now flooding into the station, forming a huge crowd expecting the arrival of the new young master, Russia’s saviour.

She elbows her way to the front of the crowd, near to the podium which has been erected for the messiah to make his first speech. The train draws in and slows to a halt, the crowd go wild. A door opens and down steps the handsome charismatic man, spitting image of his father with his big black moustache, followed by the looming presence of Mamantov. They walk towards the podium and start climbing it to address the crowd and at that moment Zinaida draws the pistol from under her coat and takes aim.

And there the novel ends, leaving the future of Russia – and the world – hanging breathlessly in the balance.

The atrocity thriller

In his first three novels Harris perhaps created a new sub-genre, the atrocity thriller, a thriller which revolves around one of the great atrocities or horrors of the twentieth century. His first three novels revolve around, respectively: the Holocaust, the Katyn Massacre and Stalin’s purges. Because Kelso is a historian, Harris is able to intersperse the text with Kelso’s ‘lectures’, thus being able to give the reader devastating indictments of Stalin the man and politician.

In one of these lectures we learn of the way Stalin drove his wives to suicide and systematically murdered all his and their relatives. In another one, we are reminded of the incomprehensible scale of the suffering he imposed on the Russian people – the man-made famines of the 1930s caused by the stupid policy of forced collectivisation and the endless purges which continued right up to the eve of the Second World War and which fatally weakened the Red Army, ensuring it was defeated and pushed back deep into the heart of Russia before it could finally halt the Germans.

Professor I.A. Kuganov estimates that sixty-six million people were killed in the USSR between 1917 and 1953 – shot, tortured, starved mostly, frozen or worked to death. Others say the true figure is a mere forty-five million… Neither estimate, by the way, includes the thirty million now known to have been killed in the Second World War. (p.156)

The current population of Russia is 143.5 million; demographers calculate that, without the enormous loss of life caused by the Bolsheviks, by communism, and specifically by Stalin, the population would be nearer to 300 million. Has any man been responsible for more deaths anywhere at any time? It is the world record.

As with Fatherland and to some extent Enigma, just reading a factual account of the ‘background’ to the story, makes you feel sick.

Russia after the Soviet Union

And then there’s the foreground, the situation of Russia after the collapse of the USSR. Didn’t exactly turn into a capitalist paradise, did it? The end of communism was followed by a calamitous drop in GDP, incomes and welfare, drastic decline in life expectancy, accompanied by a surge in unemployment, alcoholism, drugs, in mafia gangs running drugs and prostitutes, a collapse into criminality at every level, as described by Martin Cruz Smith in his Arkady Renko novels.

All the characters refer to the broken-spirited shabbiness and unfettered criminality of post-communist Russia, there isn’t a building that hasn’t been vandalised or had swastikas spray-painted onto it, there isn’t an official who can’t be bribed or corrupted. It is an almost failed state, deeply humiliated and resentful, which Harris vividly captures in scores of details and bitter exchanges of dialogue, as well as the occasional bit of symbolism.

On the waterfront four giant Red Army men, cast in bronze, stood back to back, facing the four points of the compass, their rifles raised in triumph. At their feet, a pack of wild dogs scavenged among the trash. (p.266)


Once again, Harris suits the style to the subject matter. The core of all his novels is basic ‘modern thriller prose’, but given a slightly different vibe for each book. Fatherland had a rangy American feel; Enigma was slightly but noticeably more formal and old-fashioned, befitting its 1940s setting. And this book’s thriller-speak is inflected towards the English non-public school slangy idiom of its protagonist (who, we learn, was the first boy from his provincial grammar school to go to Cambridge).

Thus a lot of the characters – the Russian gulag survivors, the Russian cops, Fluke and various other academics – say ‘fuck’ quite a lot (‘Fuck you’ says his third wife Margaret down the phone from New York, p.112) [and, as we know from the novels of Martin Cruz Smith, ‘Go fuck your mother’ (p.82, 161) is a favourite Russian expression].

Kelso’s idiom is already fairly coarse but the text becomes considerably more profane once O’Brian arrives with his yankee effing and blinding:

  • The sheer bloody tedium of academic life… (p.41)
  • The end of history, my arse, he thought. This was History’s town. This was History’s bloody country. (p.116)
  • It was vindication. Vindication for twenty years of freezing his arse off in basement archives… (p.193)
  • [O’Brian] raised his hands in disgust. ‘Shit, I can’t stand around here bitching all afternoon…’ (p.220)
  • Oh, fuck it, what did it matter? (p.238)
  • The Office of the President of the Federation had been on the line to Arsenyev, demanding to know (a direct quote from Boris Nikolaevich, apparently) what the fuck was going on? (p.256)
  • ‘Oh, go ahead, enjoy yourself,’ said O’Brian, bitterly. ‘This is my idea of a perfect fucking Friday. Drive eight hundred miles to some dump that looks like Pittsburgh after a nuclear strike to try to find Stalin’s fucking girlfriend -‘ (p.267)

I’m not objecting to the swearing; just pointing out that it’s one of the ways Harris differentiates the style and feel of this one, from the previous two novels.


  • If Kelso had seen him full-face he probably wouldn’t have recognised him, and then everything would have turned out differently. (p.120)
  • Afterwards, Kelso was to recognise this as the decisive moment: as the point at which he lost control of events. (p.196)
  • It happened with a kind of inexorable logic so that later, when Kelso had the time to review his actions, he still could never identify a precise moment when he could have stopped it, when he could have diverted events on to a different course – (p.216)
  • I am trapped, thought Kelso. I am a victim of historical inevitability. Comrade Stalin would have approved (p.217)

All three of these novels use this device half a dozen times – of the narrator sign-posting important turning points in the narrative with an ominous ‘what if’. They not only indicate important hinges in the narrative but at the same time fill the reader with an undefined sense of dread, that things are going to turn out badly. And all because of a tiny moment, an accident, a coincidence, when things might have gone OK – but didn’t.

It’s a very effective tension-building device, as the novel proceeds into a realm of almost supernatural horror, creating a heart-stopping sense of dread and fear.


Archangel by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Arrow Books paperback edition.

The TV series

Archangel was made into a three-part TV adaptation for BBC 1, starring Daniel Craig and broadcast in March 2005, just before his James Bond period started. Craig has the physiognomy of a hardened criminal so it’s always a surprise when he behaves polite and civilised and, as here, almost permanently cowering and scared, not how we normally picture him.

The first two-thirds of the dramatisation follow the book closely, but it makes a major departure when, instead of Zinaida washing her hands of the notebook, going back to her Moscow apartment and leaving the boys to it, in the TV version she teams up with Kelso to steal O’Brian’s car and it is they who drive all the way to Archangel, to track down and interview Anna’s mother together. I guess it’s just a law of film and TV drama that there needs to be a heterosexual love interest (and Kelso and Zinaida in the TV version do indeed end up snogging and shagging and worrying about each other – completely unlike in the novel).

In this version, O’Brian only catches up with them by hiring a private plane to fly him to Archangel. He arrives just after Kelso and Zinaida have had to flee from two ordinary Russian policemen who had been sniffing round their 4-by-4, taking flight and belting down snowy back alleys in an unconvincing chase scene (not in the novel). While they’re hiding behind a shed, a shiny BMW pulls up, a scary man in a leather jacket gets out and shoots both the cops dead at point-blank range. He is later revealed to be one of Mamantov’s crew but this scene, with its cynically sadistic violence involving the gross execution of a man already on the ground wounded, is not in the novel.

The scenes in the forest are also made to be more violent than the book. Instead of being on his own, the TV son-of-Stalin has two of the old minders still pottering about to help him. Well, the Spetsnaz just shoot them down in cold blood, with sickening brutality. But hey, using a cool silenced pistol which makes that cool schtook schtook sound. Almost always TV and film make novels more violent, and more cynically, disgustingly violent.

And instead of the three Spetsnaz men of the novel, in the TV version there are more like eight, not least so they can all jump out the back of an armoured vehicle to the accompaniment of thumping action music. These TV-version Spetsnaz threaten Kelso and O’Brian much more aggressively than in the book, and are on the brink of shooting our boys dead on the spot when Suvorin intervenes, holding a pistol to the Spetsnaz leader’s head in a melodramatic Mexican stand-off (not in the book).

It’s at this over-the-top moment that the son, hidden in the trees, shoots the first of the soldiers so that Kelso, O’Brian and Suvorin can take advantage of the ensuing confusion to turn and flee. Unfortunately, while his boys are dealing with the shooter, the hard-man leader of the Spetsnaz pursues our chaps through the woods, shooting Suvorin dead (not in the book) then shooting O’Brian dead (not in the book, in which he lives to accompany Kelso and the son back to Archangel by boat and then onto the train), then tracking Kelso down to the pier by the motorboat. Then, in a scene we’ve all seen in hundreds of movies, he slowly, gloatingly lifts his rifle to execute the cornered Kelso when – … you’ll never guess! A shot rings out and the baddy crumples to the floor! (Not in the novel.) Cut to a shot of the son-of-Stalin on the river bank, lowering his rifle. He has saved Kelso, who now jumps into the boat and putters off down the river and arrives in Archangel on his own, making it onto the train alone (unlike in the novel).

Instead of accompanying him (as in the book), in the TV version the son returns to the hut, dresses in his father’s field marshal uniform, and waits in a clearing for a helicopter – Mamantov’s helicopter – to arrive and collect him.

I prefer books and novels to TV drama and films because they can be so much subtler, more unexpected and thought-provoking. All the changes made in the TV version move it in the direction of empty cliché, clunky stereotype and – above all – substantially more and more unpleasant, violence – instead of jolting and surprising you as the novel consistently does.

It is interesting, unexpected and satisfying that in the novel Zinaida remains a tough bitch, who in no way gets close to Kelso, instead maintaining her independence and aloofness. It is lowering, deadening and thumpingly predictable that in the TV version Kelso and Zinaida end up having a ‘romance’ (‘Be careful darling,’ she whispers to him outside Vavara’s cottage as he and O’Brian prepare to drive off into the forest, obviously without her – for ‘This is man’s work, honey.’ It might as well be a 1950s Western – tired, predictable and revoltingly sexist.)

Not only does the characterisation become cruder, but TV and film invariably make stories like this more violent, blood-thirsty, cruel and sadistic. The unnecessary execution of the policemen is followed by the unnecessary execution of the old couple in the woods and followed by the unnecessary execution of Suvorin and then of O’Brian. All this violence ends up merely shocking for its own sake, sickening and then deadening the nerves. In the novel the violence is kept to the minimum needed in order to create a powerful feeling of dread ie only three Spetsnaz are killed by the son, just enough to create a sense of his almost supernatural mastery of the woods. In the TV version it is just bang you’re dead, bang you’re dead, bang you’re dead. The effect is deadening – dulling the mind and the senses.

The novel ends with an amazing cliff-hanger, with Zinaida pulling out her pistol to shoot the son but then stopping – leaving none of us knowing what happens next, whether she shoots or misses. This creates an awesome effect, a powerful last twist to the fiction, letting our imaginations run wild about what might happen next, including the Nightmare Scenario where Stalin’s son lives to take over modern Russia.

All of this, along with all its possible consequences and implications, along with everything thought-provoking and intelligent and suspenseful, is discarded in the TV version. Here Zinaida just pulls out her pistol and shoots the son dead. Bang you’re dead (again). End of. All over. Yawn. Time to turn off the TV and go to bed.

Is it a law that TV and film adaptations of books must make them duller, less imaginative, more clichéd, more sexist, more violent and more insultingly stupid?

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse @ the Royal Academy

‘Using the work of Monet as a starting point, this landmark exhibition examines the role gardens played in the evolution of art from the early 1860s through to the 1920s’ and features ‘masterpieces by Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Manet, Sargent, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Matisse, Klimt and Klee.’

Gardens! Monet! As might be expected there was a massive queue to get into this huge Royal Academy blockbuster exhibition, and it was very busy inside, making it quite hard to see the paintings in some rooms.

The exhibition is in ten or so rooms, and its skeleton or backbone is a chronological survey of the flower and garden paintings of Claude Monet.

In the first room are early ‘realist’ works like Lady in the garden (below) from the 1870s, set among similar works by numerous contemporaries. Half-way through the show is a room explaining how in 1883 Monet started renting a large house at Giverny, 50 miles north-west of Paris, and began laying out his famous garden, going on to buy some adjoining land to create the famous water lily pond, complete with Japanese bridge, which he was to paint for the rest of his life.

Then the exhibition climaxes in two rooms devoted solely to Monet – the first showing 15 or so late works, before the final space which is devoted to bringing together three huge paintings of the waterlilies. These enormous works were always intended to form one massive super-painting but were separated and sold off at his death, and are brought together here for the first time in nearly a century.

Lady in the Garden (1867) by Claude Monet. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo (c) The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin

Lady in the Garden (1867) by Claude Monet. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo (c) The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin

The rise of gardening

At the Guildhall Art Gallery recently, I was interested to read how the nineteenth century saw the rise of the ‘home’. For many people in the 1800s the house they lived in was also the site of their work, where they performed all sorts of labouring, spinning, the manufacture of small artefacts etc. By 1900 the separation of home and workplace was complete for most people, who went to offices or factories to work, with ‘the home’ now a place which increasing numbers of people prided themselves on decorating and adorning according to the latest fashions, a place to express their personality or flaunt their status, a book market catered to by an ever-growing range of books and magazines dedicated to suggesting the best fabrics and wallpapers and furniture and ‘look’. (The Ideal Home Show was founded in 1908.)

Something similar happened with gardening. In 1800 ‘gardens’ were what aristocrats in grand houses had or where peasants in cottages grew vegetables. By 1900 ‘gardening’ had become a popular middle-class activity, complete with handbooks, guides and magazines to advise on which plants and flowers to grow where, how to lay out a garden, what to sow to achieve ‘year-round colour’, and an ever-growing range of exotic plants and hybrids imported from abroad to provide intense and novel colours. (The Chelsea Flower Show was established in 1912).

Auguste Renoir - Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil (1873) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell. Photo (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

Auguste Renoir – Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil (1873) Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell. Photo (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

Impressionism, insofar as it was ever a coherent movement, was about using the convenience of a broader range of oil paints newly available in easily portable tubes, and the newly-built railways lines around Paris, to take a day trip out to the suburbs and paint scenes of ‘real life’ in their actual setting. Naturally, part of this interest in the real life of the 1860s and 70s was the growing fashion for gardens, and this exhibition shows that many painters not only painted gardens – many, many paintings of gardens – but were often themselves enthusiastic gardeners.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1911) by Joaquin Sorolla. On loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Photo (c) Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1911) by Joaquin Sorolla. On loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Photo (c) Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Average garden paintings

Thus, alongside the early Monets, the first rooms we walk through feature works by numerous other artists in the same plein air style –  Pierre Bonnard, Jean-Édouard Vuillard, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. There are three big rooms showing scores of paintings of gardens, garden paths, flowery borders, ladies with bonnets in chairs, and profusions of flowers, all in a hazy summery impressionist style. To be honest, not many really stood out. Lots were as bland or sketchy as, for example:

I liked:

Bad garden paintings

Among the many very average paintings here – it’s a massive show – some stood out as being actively bad, amateurish and shapeless, lacking life, definition, colour. Some of the real stinkers included:

  • Garden of le Relais and Seated Woman Reading by Jean-Édouard Vuillard
  • Weeping Willow by Monet Even the sainted Claude painted some horrible paintings, their palettes garish and pukey. There’s a lot of Monets here and not all of them are good.

This Bonnard is one of the images the RA has selected for reviewers to use, but I find it bland and lifeless. Does it convey the fierce heat of the south of France or the play of sunlight on leaves in a breeze? No.

Resting in the Garden (Sieste au jardin) (1914) by Pierre Bonnard. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Photo (c) Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design/The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design / (c) ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Resting in the Garden (Sieste au jardin) (1914) by Pierre Bonnard. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Photo (c) Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design/The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design / (c) ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Monet at Giverny

After wading through lots of so-so pictures, it’s a change of mood to enter the room devoted to Monet’s famous garden at Giverny. Several hundred books, thousands of articles, posters, mugs and posters and badges and tea towels have made these images of water lilies among the most famous in art. But to see them in the flesh is to be converted all over again to their strange magic.

By not depicting the edges of the pond, the surrounding trees, let alone the sky – by concentrating purely on the surface of the water, with its mysterious reflections punctuated by the clumps of free-floating lilies – Monet creates a hauntingly free space into which you feel yourself being ineluctably drawn. I was struck by how much purple and mauve and violet he used in his depictions of water which, in my experience, is rarely purple or mauve. By 1900 his pond paintings are more about composition and palette ie about the interaction between colours on the canvas, than the so-called ‘real world’. Images which are obviously about the ‘real world’, but just as clearly about pattern, shape, composition and colour. They are genuinely bewitching, and in a different league from everything else in the show.

Nympheas (Waterlilies) (1914-15) by Claude Monet. Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16. Photo (c) Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Nympheas (Waterlilies) (1914-15) by Claude Monet. Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16. Photo (c) Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Monet garden dates

  • 1883 Monet rents the house at Giverny
  • 1890 Monet buys the house and starts designing the gardens
  • 1889 Monet admires the water-lily garden at the Paris Universal Exhibition
  • 1893 Monet buys a property next to the garden and diverts a stream to create a lily pond
  • He builds a bridge modelled on the Japanese prints he likes
  • 1899 Monet paints 12 paintings of the the bridge and water lilies beneath
  • 1909 Monet exhibits 48 water lily paintings

The greenhouse room

I was surprised to walk into a room dominated by glasshouse-, greenhouse- and hothouse-shaped display cases showing a selection of books, articles and magazines about gardening from across Europe in the late 19th century. This is a room for the true horticulturalists among the visitors. There were also photos of Monet in his garden, accounts of the instructions he gave the six (6!) gardeners he employed, notes on seeds to buy, species and varieties to select, planting dates and so on.

Interesting if you’re a real Monet-maniac, but for me the standout items in this room were the five or so Japanese prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige.

It was a shock to be transported for a moment to a completely different tradition. The clear, fine, black outlines and delicacy of colour and detail of these Japanese prints are as opposite as can be from the smudgy western impressionism and post-impressionism which this exhibition is foregrounding. They crystallised for me what I didn’t enjoy about many of the paintings earlier in the show – their vague mistiness, the depiction of flowers as great woolly expanses of undifferentiated colour – and helped explain the paintings I was drawn to – ones which showed some kind of clarity of line, like Caillebotte’s Nasturtiums, or:

I worked at Kew Gardens and occasionally write my own, very amateur flower blog (just a diary of wild flowers I try to identify when out and about). Years of looking at flowers and trying to distinguish, say, lesser burdock from greater burdock, or broad-leaved willowherb from short-fruited willowherb, have made me look very closely at the structure of plants, at the stems and leaf shapes and edges, at stamens and anthers; and have also given me a taste for the small, the shy and retiring native wild flowers of England (eg the tiny scarlet pimpernel).

Thus, as I wandered past scores and scores of soft-focus portrayals of great swathes of blossoms set vaguely amid stippled, sunny gardens, I found myself preferring the paintings where you could actually identify the species of flower being depicted, or alternatively where the blossoms were subtle and understated – and tending not to like the ones where the flora consisted of undifferentiated washes of colour or great sprawls of acid yellow and vivid red commercial hybrids, impossible to identify and difficult for a wildflower lover like me, to like.

Mention of Tissot made me think of other contemporary British artists and the show includes at least two works by John Singer Sergeant who, in between painting his lucrative society portraits, spent summers at the village of Broadway in the Cotswolds, painting flowers and gardens. The two samples here are not his best – eg Garden Study of the Vicker’s Children (1884) – and they don’t, for some reason, include his super-famous garden masterpiece, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1886).

Modernist garden paintings

The exhibition puts the efforts of Monet and the other impressionists into the widest possible context, featuring generous selections of European contemporaries – those we know, like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Edvard Munch – and those we’d never heard of, like Santiago Rusiñol, Joaquin Mir y Trinxet, Henri Le Sidanier, Henri Martin and the German impressionist, Max Liebermann.

  • Green Wall by Santiago Rusiñol – The four or five paintings by Rusiñol really stood out in this room, unusually ‘realist’ in detail but also for the orange dusk light which dominates them, very unlike the summery green of many of the other chocolate box images.
  • Glorieta de cipreses, Jardines de Aranjuez (1919) by Santiago Rusiñol
  • Steps, Gerberoy by Henri Le Sidanier

There were quite a few Libermanns and, although the wall labels point out how prolific he was, how famous in his day, and how devoted to the garden he created on the shore of Lake Wannsee in Berlin, I found them unfinished, undetailed, unsatisfying.

One room was devoted to the Fauves and other experimental, turn-of-the century art movements. I didn’t like the two Matisses on display: Rose-table (below) seemed to me just ugly, in composition and colour, and Palm Leaf, Tangier (1912) just looked unfinished but not in a good way.

The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer (1917) by Henri Matisse. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956 Photo (c) 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015

The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer (1917) by Henri Matisse.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956
Photo (c) 2015. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015

But like the other rooms, it’s a fascinating selection of the good, the bad and the indifferent. Also in the category of ‘little known garden paintings by super-famous twentieth century artists’ were:

I liked the three little Klee paintings (he may be my favourite 20th century artist), and the way he turns everything into his own quirky type of linear composition. But, contrary to everything I had just told myself about liking understated and clearly defined flowers, I also really liked Kandinsky’s Murnau The Garden II (below). It was completely unlike almost everything else in the show, not trying to be gentle and sensitive, or an attempt at plein air painting, or particularly figurative, but a violent, vibrant exercise in primary colours and tones. I liked its virile confidence.

Murnau The Garden II (1910) by Wassily Kandinsky. Merzbacher Kunststiftung Photo (c) Merzbacher Kunststiftung

Murnau The Garden II (1910) by Wassily Kandinsky. Merzbacher Kunststiftung
Photo (c) Merzbacher Kunststiftung

The photo room

The biggest surprise of the show was entering a room which is full of garden tables and benches. It’s a rare opportunity in an exhibition of this size to be able to sit down and have a rest. There were four big wooden garden tables, each with a set of chairs, and bearing two or three copies of the exhibition catalogue to flip through.

The walls of this room were lined by extra-large (really large) black-and-white photos of many of the artists featured (Klee, Kandinsky, Bonnard etc), snapped in their respective gardens, the whole thing dominated by a big screen on the far wall showing three short clips from films of a) Monet at work, French fag hanging from his mouth, dressed in a white jacket, palette in hand and standing next to the famous lily pond b) Max Lieberman painting in his garden c) le Sidanier ditto.

Monet’s later years at Giverny

Immediately following the photo and film room you move into Monet’s final years.

He had been devastated by his wife’s death in 1911 and was also suffering from eye trouble, and so stopped painting for three years. Then, on the eve of the Great War, he took up his palette again and, when war came, bravely refused to leave even as the Germans advanced towards his house and garden and studio.

This penultimate room contains about a dozen paintings of the pond, lilies and trees from around the time of the War. What came over for me is how, by this stage, Monet had stopped really being an impressionist. Many of the paintings were painted from memory, inside the large studio he had built. Purple and violet tones predominate in the lily paintings, making the clumps of lilies float in a neutral non-space, an increasingly abstract arrangement of colours which have a genuinely hypnotic effect.

That’s not to say there aren’t some very poor works on offer, some crude heavy depictions of the Japanese bridge in a completely different palette from the gentle violets of the other paintings, hard to believe they’re by the same man.

But among half a dozen breath-taking works on show here, my favourite was the large weeping willow – probably because it is unfinished and I always love the idea of a work of art emerging from the raw canvas, of beauty struggling to free itself from chaos or banality – and because I like strong black marks and outlines, even if only sketchy, of the kind that can be seen here. The commentary points out that he did a series of weeping willow paintings date around 1918 which might express his feelings about the terrible catastrophe which had destroyed European civilisation. All the more poignant.

The agapanthus tryptich

The final room (in fact the Academy’s Wohl Central Hall) is devoted to the Agapanthus triptych, three enormous (7 feet by 14 feet) canvases Monet worked on from around 1915 to his death in 1926. The three separate pieces were sold off to different galleries and are rarely brought together, so this is a rare opportunity to see them reunited and to immerse yourself in Monet’s unique floating world.

Monet spoke and wrote a lot about his work, words which have been recombined into a thousand books, articles and t-shirt mottos: of all the words written about them, I liked the idea that these last works, enormous in scale and floating free of tradition, restraint, of all his previous work and from previous art, are Monet’s attempt to create harmony, balance, poise and beauty after the devastation of the Great War.

No matter how stupid and destructive humanity is, in the waterponds of the world the lilies will always blossom again.

Related links

Enigma by Robert Harris (1995)

His hand paused on the ignition key. ‘Do you think, Miss Wallace,’ he said, hesitantly, ‘in view of the circumstances, we might now risk first-name terms.’
She gave him a faint smile. ‘Hester.’
They shook hands. (p.249)

The man wih the nervous breakdown

This is a thriller about a mentally disturbed man, Tom Jericho. Young, frail, over-sensitive, unusually gifted at maths, he was recruited in 1939 to work for the new top secret government code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park, a suburb of what is now Milton Keynes but was then a small town surrounded by countryside.

Bletchley Park and Enigma

Here Tom is one of the pioneers, one of the handful of mathematicians, logicians and linguists tasked with breaking the so-called Enigma code, generated by the estimated 100,000 Enigma coding machines distributed across Germany’s military operations – in the Army, the Luftwaffe, sending weather reports, intelligence, operational orders, updates back and forth to Berlin and – crucially for our hero – used to control the U-boat operations which are causing such havoc among the merchant shipping steaming daily from the US to Britain with vital supplies.

For four long years Tom works alongside the famous theorist of computers, Alan Turing, and other geniuses, as they develop the techniques and the number-crunching machines – the so-called bombes – which help them crack the Enigma codes – for there are anything up to ten different flavours or variations of the code, the one Tom has been concerned with being nick-named Shark (because it is used by the U-boats).

Over that period Bletchley has hugely expanded, with barrack-like huts springing up across the grounds of the mansion, along with a huge mess hall which can seat 600 to shovel down the disgusting war-time meals. Hundreds and then thousands more staff have arrived, to decode not only Enigma but all other German transmissions, to decode and translate and pass on to the relevant British and Allied authorities, to record and store this information in a vast archive and into innumerable work books and reference books. It’s become almost a small town devoted to the vast, compendious task of cracking and recording all German military messages.

Claire Romilly

Working ceaseless shifts, taking little care of his body or mind, Jericho is already in a delicate state when he finds himself squashed up next to an attractive worldly young woman on the train back from London – a Miss Claire Romilly. To his surprise she invites him for a date (to an amateur concert) and then, a week later, on another date to the grotty Bletchley cinema, and then back to her poky cottage out in the country, where she proceeds to seduce the embarrassed young man.

Tom is a geeky nerd to begin with, and his health was already hanging in the balance – this affair is enough to overwhelm him, physically and mentally. He becomes besotted with Claire, buying her presents, obsessing about her all the time, and they have more dates, and more sex, for a few more weeks. But then one night, as she is jokily leafing through his wallet and pockets and coat, Tom finds himself getting cross and asks, then shouts at her, to stop. Unexpectedly, Claire recoils and curls up on the bed shaking with fear. What? Was she brutalised as a child? Is this a reversion to some kind of trauma?

Tom tries to comfort her, but in the night hears her get dressed, tiptoe downstairs and leave. And from that moment onwards she blanks him: in the grounds of the park, in the mess hall, in the town. Pathetically, Tom spends all his savings on a ring and tries to present it to her on the busy roadway of the park during a congested shift change while the crowds bump around them. She laughs in his face and tells him to keep it.

He has a complete nervous collapse, is diagnosed unable to work by the Park doctors, and shipped back to Cambridge, where rooms are found in his old college (Kings) for this genius who has worked himself to exhaustion for his country.

Return to Bletchley

And this is where the novel opens, in the quiet of a Cambridge college a few weeks later, with Tom trying to rebuild his mind – his consciousness a barren landscape across which shreds and memories of his work, as well as moments of bliss and moments of despair from the affair, roam like ghosts. For the first fifty pages or so we are partly in his present, in the cold Cambridge rooms, and partly transported to his memories of work, of Bletchley’s rapid expansion, and painful memories of his intimacies with the beautiful blonde Claire.

When out of the blue there is a knock on the door and one of his Bletchley colleagues enters – tall, posh Guy Logue. They want him back. They need him. Is he ready to come? And so the novel really gets going with Tom wrapped in an overcoat, being driven through the winter night from Cambridge back to Bletchley. Here he must painfully say hello again to colleagues who thought he’d gone for good, who know about his humiliating collapse. And all the time he is haunted by her, by Claire. Will he see her again? What will she say? Will her attitude have changed?

The military situation

What he learns is that Shark is proving as intractable as ever. For several good months, the team had been able to crack Shark due to the good luck of having intercepted some open messages which allowed them to work out the encryption code. But only a week or so before his breakdown a new variation of the code had been issued to all its users in a new booklet distributed by U-boat command, since which point Shark has become completely unreadable to our chaps. Hundreds of messages are brought in every day, consisting of clusters of random letters, and the analystst know they contain vital information about the whereabouts and plans of the U-boat wolf packs. But despite the best efforts of the assembled mathematicians and despite the 30 or so big ‘bombes’ or code-calculating devices which have been developed over the previous few years, Shark has reverted to being a frustrating black hole.

Tom is taken along to a high-level meeting chaired by the head of Bletchley, attended by some men from his hut and some new faces, a British Rear-Admiral and several high ranking Americans. They explain that three huge convoys have set sail from New York for England, each carrying over 5,000 troops and civilians as well as some million tonnes of food, raw materials and munitions. It is absolutely vital that Bletchley crack their way back into Shark, as soon as possible. Pointing to the map, the chief indicates they have precisely four days until the convoys enter the zone normally patrolled by the U-boats, four days to crack the code and locate the enemy. Four days. (In all his books Harris likes to emphasise important points with italics.)

Claire’s cottage

Meanwhile, after days of fruitless searching for Claire, Tom finally steels himself to cycle one evening out to the country cottage she shares with another girl, Hester Wallace, who also works at Bletchley, in another hut from the cryptanalysts. Neither of the women are home and so Tom, remembering where the key is kept, lets himself in. He wanders the empty rooms, scenes of his recent shattering passion. He goes up to her room, lies on the bed, reliving it all; then in a fit of rage, sweeps everything off the dressing table and tips out the chest of drawers. It is only then he realises the squeaky floorboard he remembers is no longer squeaky. Rolling back the carpet he sees it has been replaced with a short length of new planking secured by new screws. He undoes them and reaches into the dusty space and…. pulls out some top secret intercept messages. It is absolutely forbidden to remove all materials from the base.

What the hell are they doing in Claire’s room? Is… is Claire a spy?

As he sits pondering and confused, he hears a bicycle coming up the gravelly track, he calls her name and runs down the stairs but whoever it is has turned and is heading off into the night by the time he reaches the front door. One of Claire’s lovers? Or a co-conspirator?

Chasing the intercepts

When Claire fails to appear over the next few days, her absence is reported to the police and a creepy posh policeman named Wigram appears, who is managing the investigation into her disappearance – a drawling, swearing, über-confident public school type.

Hester and Tom have by now become co-investigators both of Claire’s disappearance and Tom has confided in her about the stolen forms. Tom reveals that not only the originals of the messages Claire stole have been removed from the relevant filing cabinet, but in fact the entire record of transmissions from that radio source are missing. Why? Mystery. In fact Tom later quizzes his boss and discovers that not only has this file and its contents been removed but further intercepts of that particular radio station are to be handed over without being decoded. No further decoding from that station. Orders from the highest levels. More mystery…

Undeterred, Hester and Tom realise the only way to get the full context and all the messages from the banned source (and thus shed light on Claire’s disappearance) would be to go and visit the radio intercept base which first recorded them, transcribed them and sent them to Bletchley. (Bletchley doesn’t actually intercept the radio signals: that is done by a web of other locations around the Midlands and beyond, the coded messages being transcribed, and then couriered to Bletchley for decoding. When possible.)

So our intrepid duo borrow a car, evade Wigram and his cops, who are now monitoring all the entrances to the Park, and go on a long night-time drive to Beaumanor to steal the original uncoded intercepts which Claire’s stolen ciphers are based on. There is a long sequence where they have to put up with being shown around the place by the blustery old colonel who runs it, before Hester distracts him and Tom sneaks into the archive/storage room, finds the files for the month and week of the mystery messages, and steals the original records of them – files which contain eleven sequences of words written in code.

They make their escape from the over-hospitable colonel and drive back towards Bletchley, the tension ratcheted up when a car which had been following them, turns on a flashing blue light and siren. Against type, Tom guns the engine and pulls out onto a main road at top speed, only just avoiding being crushed to death by a massive tank transporter. He drops Hester in the lane by her cottage, then drives carefully into Bletchley – sees police waiting outside his boarding house – drives on and stashes the car near the Park.

But for all these precautions, when Hester returns to the cottage she is picked up by Wigram’s police. They drive her to a deserted building near an old workings and lake where she is shown clothes belonging to Claire covered in blood, Hester is sick. The police tell her Claire was obviously bludgeoned with a brick, stripped and thrown into the lake. They are sending for divers.

Tom cracks the code

Meanwhile, Tom arrives back at his hut in Bletchley in time for his shift, puts in the hours trying to decrypt the German messages surrounding the U-boat attacks on the ill-fated convoys, but all the time is nervously impatient to get some time alone in the main house at Bletchley, where they store the actual physical Enigma machines which have been captured or stolen over the years. Here he experiments with various settings trying to crack the intercepts he stole from Beaumanor, and the reader is peering over his shoulder and into his mind, following his complex thought processes – until he has a breakthrough!

Suddenly he can read the eleven messages which have so mysteriously gone missing from the Bletchley file and they appal him. They are messages sent back to its Wehrmacht HQ by a German unit in Poland which has stumbled across a mass grave of Polish officers. Slowly the size of the death pits emerge – there are maybe as many as 10,000 bodies murdered and buried there. This is the so-called Katyn massacre, where the entire officer class of the Polish Army was murdered by Russian forces on Stalin’s orders. Why? To destroy the nation, to permanently deprive it of its leadership class, to reduce it to eternal servitude.

Having deciphered all eleven messages Tom begins to piece together what must have happened here at Bletchley. There is a Polish cryptanalyst in his hut, Jozef Pukowski, nick-named Puck. Claire had begun an affair with Puck. Puck, suspecting something is amiss in his native land, is alerted when a whole batch of messages from a source in Poland is suddenly confiscated and banned, and so asks Claire to get the intercepts via a different route, which her work gives her access to. Between them they read the messages about the Katyn massacres. And Puck’s father’s name is among the dead.

Once they’d read them, Puck would have realised why these particular messages were so sensitive that all the material had been confiscated and further monitoring of this station banned, the order coming from ‘the highest levels’. Why? Because murderous Uncle Joe Stalin is now – since Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941 – ‘our gallant ally’. The last thing Churchill wants is news to leak out about Stalin’s bestial behaviour, news which would demoralise the British public and our armed forces. Hence the complete clampdown on the intercepts.

And, Tom realises, hence Puck’s disgust and despair, at Russian atrocity and British hypocrisy – and his determination to avenge himself on the Russians any way he can. And the simplest way would be to exploit his privileged position at Bletchley and tell the Germans that we, Stalin’s allies, had cracked Enigma. When Claire realised what he was doing, Puck killed her… Or so Tom hypothesises. He likes puzzles, he lives for puzzles. He thinks he’s cracked this one.

Chasing Puck

Now, in a mad rush to confirm whether his fears are true, Tom smuggles himself over the Bletchley perimeter fence (Wigram’s police are closing in) and hurries into Bletchley, to Puck’s digs. His landlady says Puck’s up in his room, but the room is empty and the window is open. In a fever of anxiety, Tom follows his spoor, down to the bottom of the garden, over the wall and along alleyways to the nearby train station. As a train pulls in, Tom sights Puck getting aboard it and just manages to run over the bridge, up to the platform and jump onboard himself.

The novel climaxes with the train being routed into a siding just as Tom burst into Puck’s compartment. The Pole waves a gun around, then leaps off the train and runs off across the fields. Tom, dazed, almost delirious with fatigue, follows him, desperate to find out the truth, but the Pole turns and fires wildly, at which there is a volley of returning fire. Wigram is there along with soldiers. They are closing in on Puck. He turns and shoots and this time is cut down by half a dozen bullets and Tom, too, is hit, falls, loses consciousness.


The creepy police official Wigram comes to visit Tom in hospital and tells him the full story. Claire had an affair with Puck. Puck suspected bad news back home but then the Katyn intercepts confirmed it and decided him to treason. When Tom went to Claire’s empty cottage, it was Puck who cycled up to visit her. Recognising Tom’s voice Puck thinks he might be reuniting with Claire in which case there is a strong risk Claire will tell Tom about Puck and they will both betray him to the authorities. Somehow Puck lures Claire to a meeting at the disused factory, bludgeons her to death and throws her body in the lake.

Years earlier, on his escape route out of occupied Europe, Puck had made various contacts, including with a Portuguese fixer. Now he has reactivated the contact and begun passing messages to him to pass on to the German attaché in Lisbon, claiming the British have cracked Enigma. But the Germans don’t believe it – Europe is swarming with con men and liars – and about something this momentous they need to be certain. They pass the message that they want to interview Puck in person, and so the train he’d been on had been taking him to Liverpool, from where he would catch a boat to Ireland and rendezvous with a U-boat off the Irish coast.

But Wigram had known about him for some time, had let him handle the intercepts, conspire with Claire in order to establish his network. Thus Wigram was aware Puck was going to the train, had had it rerouted, had had his soldiers ready at the siding to take Puck prisoner but he leapt from the train before it stopped and Tom saw the rest. Wigram wanted Puck captured alive but when he started to shoot, his men shot back.

The real story

Tom lies in bed, recovering from his wounds, and decides Wigram is lying. It’s too neat and it doesn’t quite fit the facts.

After weeks of recuperation Wigram takes Tom to Bletchley station and loads him onto a train back to Cambridge. For him the war is over. Except that he gets off at the next stop and catches a train to London. Tom goes to the Registry of births and deaths at Somerset House to confirm his hunch, and then goes to see Claire’s posh father. He has discovered that Claire Romilly died aged six. Her sad, wasted father invites Tom into his big, echoey, empty, dust-sheet-shrouded house and tells him the truth.

Wigram is in British Intelligence. He wanted to plant a spy in Bletchley. Through the public school old boy network he knew of Romilly, his posh background, his dead daughter. He approached Romilly and asked if he could use his daughter’s identity as a cover. Thus, with a false name and identity, the woman known as Claire entered Bletchley and set about taking numerous lovers, in order to spy on them. Puck was the last of them – from Wigram’s point of view, she struck gold, finding a genuine spy – and she went along with Puck’s intercept stealing so that Wigram could find out what Puck was doing with the information.

It’s true that it was Puck who cycled up to Claire’s cottage that fateful night, and recognised Tom’s voice, and feared he might discover the intercepts and betray them – but with the big difference that he and Claire faked Claire’s death, pretending Puck was a murderer a) in order for Claire (who he genuinely loved) to escape b) because he was going to be out of the country in less than 24 hours anyway. Puck went to his death never realising Claire was spying on him.

So the woman who so bedazzled Tom – whatever he real name is – is still alive. Still alive but he will never be able to find her. A sadder and a wiser man Tom makes his way back to Cambridge, knowing that she is alive, knowing he will never see her again.


Confusing? A little. Believable? Just about. Through all the contortions of the plot comes the powerful rabbit punch of the historically true Katyn Massacre. Another huge historical atrocity which boggles the mind.

And also, despite the twists and turns of the thriller narrative, the book evinces a powerful sense of the challenges and complexity and frustrations of living with Enigma, eating, breathing, drinking Enigma, of the highs and lows of the code-breaking community at Bletchley. In his afterword Harris thanks the many Bletchley veterans he spoke to, and the book is so vivid that, as one critic says on the cover, it’s as if you’re there, living that life.

A big part of which is the sights and sounds and smells of drab wartime Britain with its appalling food, the frustrations of the blackout and rationing, the crampedness of wartime life. All of which help to foster the claustrophobic sense of constriction which makes the novel so powerful, so gripping.

Enigma compared with Fatherland

Both are about the Second World War – though admittedly Fatherland is set 20 years later, and in a parallel universe where the Nazis won the war. Still – the war, its outcome and consequences, and horror of its atrocities, dominate both books.

Both are about one man, a maverick and loner who defies the authorities, who sets out to discover a dark secret at the heart of the ‘system’ – Xavier March the conscientious Nazi policeman in Fatherland; Tom Jericho, the gifted mathematician and cryptanalyst in Enigma.

In both books the hero joins forces with an unexpectedly tough female helper – Charlie Maguire, the clever and resourceful journalist in Fatherland; Hester Wallace, the dowdy feminist clerical assistant, angry at being prevented from reaching her full potential by patronising sexist men, in Enigma.

Both books feature a long, dangerous car journey – March’s final, doomed drive hundreds of miles East to Auschwitz in Fatherland; Tom and Hester’s night-time drive to Beaumanor, one of the satellite stations where German signals are intercepted, and then the perilous drive back climaxing in a car chase, in Enigma.

Both novels rotate around acts of bestial, mass atrocity – the Holocaust in Fatherland and the Katyn murder of Poland’s officer class in Enigma. Both books send shivers up your spine at the sheer horror of the Second World War and at the disgusting behaviour of human beings during the terrible twentieth century, the Century of Catastrophes.

And both books impose a tight time-frame on the protagonists to create a sense of nailbiting urgency, in fact the identical time-frame – of four days: four days until the Führertag for Xavier March to get to the bottom of the mystery murders and save his career, possibly his life, in Fatherland; four days for Tom and his colleagues to break back into the Shark code, before the German U-boats start attacking the convoys and killing men and women.


Both stories are told by a third person narrator who leans over and merges at various points with the thoughts, ideas and feelings of their protagonist. However, I think Harris has made a deliberate attempt to deploy different styles in each book. The non-British setting of Fatherland allowed Harris to use a fast-moving hard-boiled prose which, of course, owed a lot to the American thriller tradition.

Enigma, by contrast, opens in the hallowed setting of a Cambridge college quad and mingles with the posh public school chaps at Bletchley Park, in the Admiralty and Army and so on. Therefore its prose is noticeably more English and traditional. I think it must be deliberate that not only the characters but the narrator, revert from the hard-boiled tough guy prose of Fatherland, to a self-consciously correct English prose which insists on a rather out-of-date politeness and grammatical correctness.

The horror of war

It is always in the background, blotted out for long stretches by the breathless pace of the central narrative, but Harris is careful to remind us of the reality of the war, and that the whole point of Enigma is that it gives instructions to German forces dedicated to killing us and, in this specific instance, orders to the U-boat packs which are converging on the merchant convoys in the Atlantic.

On a handful of vivid and upsetting occasions Harris has characters remind us what this actually means:

  • the convoy of vulnerable ships, carrying sailors, troops, as well as Red Cross women, protected by a handful of decrepit warships
  • commanded – in an extra bitter twist – by a captain whose first big command it is
  • tossed and bobbed on the stormy and freezing cold Atlantic waves
  • watching the ship next to them suddenly explode, men and women jumping into the sea to freeze to death or managing to evacuate into lifeboats, which will be ignored and not rescued as the rest of the convoy steams at full speed in a desperate bid to escape their hunters
  • men and women blown up, burned to death, frozen to death or drowned

In one of the several cruel ironies in the book, Harris has Tom patiently explain to his hut full of oddballs and geniuses, that they need as many messages as possible from the attacking U-boats in order to stand a chance of noticing patterns which can then be run through the bombes to see if they work, to crack the code. But getting that sufficient number of messages means they need the U-boats to make contact with the convoy and attack. It is a wicked irony, which several of the characters debate bitterly: in order to get enough intercepts to decode, the cryptanalysts need the U-boats to sight and sink Allied ships. Each ship blown up and sunk triggers another message back to base from the attacking U-boat; the more of our ships sunk, the more human beings blown up, burned to death or drowned – the better for the analysts in Hut 3 at Bletchley. Some of them are made physically sick by the horror of the situation they find themselves in.


Enigma by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Arrow Books paperback edition.

The movie

Enigma was made into a movie released in 2001. It was directed by Michael Apted from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard and with a soundtrack by John Barry. This is a promising team but somehow the movie never really gels, partly because it looks like it was made on a shoestring, the picture having a cheap video feel and the action scenes very stagey and underwhelming.

It stars six-foot-tall, dour Scotsman, Dougray Scott, pretending to be the short, nerdy intellectual Tom Jericho, and bosomy Kate Winslet pretending to be the thin, dowdy Hester Wallace, neither all that convincing.

Among other striking changes to the plot of the novel, the main one is that Tom and Hester fall in love during their goosechase, and the movie ends with them after the war, happily married with a baby on the way. This is a grotesque sell-out of the much more believable, edgy and arm’s length relationship they have in the novel, but I guess it’s the law that an action movie must have a heterosexual love affair at its core.

Similarly, an action movie must have a fight scene and things going bang, no matter how pointless and badly done. Thus the novel ends with Puck shot running across a field, leaving the recuperating Tom to listen to Wigram’s account of events and then slowly piece together his own alternative, much cleverer, solution. This is intelligent. It taxes the mind to follow Tom’s thought processes and juxtaposing the two interpretations of the same set of events is intellectually and aesthetically satisfying.

In the ludicrous climax to the movie, on the other hand, Puck escapes across the field, vanishing from the police’s clutches. Back at the hut the next morning, when Tom hears that a lone U-boat has been reported heading towards the coast of Scotland, he remembers seeing a postcard of an isolated loch in Scotland in Claire’s bedroom. Bingo! It must be where they’re planning their escape from. Tom runs out to his car and drives from Bletchley to the Scottish Highlands, arriving at the very minute when Puck is getting into a little motorboat to putter out to the U-boat. Only running full pelt down the hillside does Tom make it to the end of the pier just as the boat pulls clear and only by dint of a super-human leap does he land in the back of the boat where he rolls straight into a very stagey fight with Puck.

Puck has the gun. No, Tom knocks it out of his hands and it goes skidding across the deck of the boat. Now both men throw themselves towards it and try to hold each other back. Tom makes a big reach but his fingers are just inches from the barrel. Then Puck throws Tom off to one side and himself almost makes it to the gun when – wow! – Tom grabs him and pulls it back. One of them finally grabs the gun and they roll around in the back of the boat both hands trying to point it towards the other. Goodness, the tension and excitement! I’ve only seen this exact scene about a thousand times before. Do you think the bad guy will win? Do you, children? Because this has become a film for seven year-olds, about as challenging as the Famous Five. Tom finally gets full hold of the gun and stands as if to threaten Puck who, in that split second, takes a swing at him with a boathook which knocks Tom into the sea.

Which is lucky really, because as a cheap model U-boat surfaces near the boat, Wigram (who has been lazily watching the whole thing through binoculars from a nearby hillside) calls in a British plane which dives low and blows up the U-boat and Puck. BOOM! Another boom even bigger than the first boom! Wow. They must have been on a really tight budget to be forced to use such cheap and cheesy special effects. So no more Jerry and no more nasty traitor. Cut to Dougray Scott flailing around in the water, looking appalled at being trapped in such a third-rate, low-budget thriller. And then cut to him and Kate Winslet spooning over her pregnant bulge in a happy, happy post-War London.

Is it a law that TV and film adaptations of books must make them duller, less imaginative, more clichéd, more sexist, more violent and more insultingly stupid?

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)

‘What do you do,’ he said, ‘if you devote your life to discovering criminals, and it gradually occurs to you that the real criminals are the people you work for? What do you do when everyone tells you not to worry, you can’t do anything about it, it was a long time ago?’ (p.213)

Robert Harris

Harris went to Cambridge where he read English, was president of the Union and editor of the student newspaper Varsity. He joined the BBC, where he worked on its flagship current affairs programmes, Panorama and Newsnight. In 1987 he became political editor of the Observer newspaper. In the 1980s he wrote five factual journalistic books – about chemical and biological warfare, the Falklands War, Neil Kinnock, the Hitler Diaries scandal and a study of Mrs Thatcher’s press secretary. It is an exemplary career of its type.


In 1992 Harris took the publishing world by storm when he published his first novel, Fatherland, set in an alternative world where Germany has won the Second World War. The two big ‘divergence points’ in this version of history – i.e. where this version turned away from actual history – were that:

  1. German armies cut off the Russians from their oil sources in the Caucasus and so were able to force them back to the line of the Urals, conquering Russian territory far beyond Moscow. In the novel this has given rise to a whole settler movement to encourage good Aryans to go and live in the vast new Eastern Empire, although fighting continues out on the remote border. Everyone knows the Americans are supplying money and weapons to the rump of the Russian army to allow them to fight on, and there are also dark rumours of ‘terrorist’ attacks on German settlers.
  2. The Nazis realised in 1942 that the British had cracked their Enigma code and so issued an entirely new code machine to all their U-boats, which were then able to sink Allied convoys at will. Britain was eventually starved into submission, ‘Churchill and his gang’ forced to flee to Canada, and peace made with the Nazi-friendly King Edward VIII. With no ally left in Europe, America has no alternative but to make a grudging peace with Germany and turn its efforts to defeating Japan in the Pacific (which it does).

As a result of German victory:

Luxembourg had become Moselland, Alsace-Lorraine was Westmark; Austria was Ostmark. As for Czechoslovakia – that bastard child of Versailles had dwindled to the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia – vanished from the map. In the East, the German Empire was carved four ways into the Reichskommisariats Ostland, Ukraine, Caucasus, Muscovy. (p.201)

and Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland, Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland have all been corralled by Germany into a European trading bloc under German control.

Xavier March

But all of this is old history to Xavier ‘Zavi’ March, ‘solitary, watchful’ (p.26), the world-weary Berlin cop – to be precise, a Sturmbannführer in the Kripo or Kriminalpolizei – who is the protagonist of this brilliantly gripping and disturbing thriller.

Like all fictional cops, March’s private life is a mess (his wife, Klara, has divorced him, taking his ten-year-old son, Pili, who has been taught to hate him as ‘insufficiently patriotic’) so now March inhabits a pokey flat in a squalid apartment block and lives only for his job. He doesn’t have a drink problem, which is a relief – but he does chain-smoke and he does worry about things.

The novel is set in 1964, over the five days between 14 April and the Führertag – 20 April – the day Germans (in this parallel universe) celebrate the birthday of Adolf Hitler. Not only that, but the newspapers are full of the impending visit of the US President Kennedy (in one of the many jokes that alternative histories allow, Harris makes this President Kennedy, the father of the one we know and love – the alleged crook and political fixer, Joseph Kennedy). Thus, like so many thrillers, Fatherland uses the build-up to big background events to crank up the tension in the main plot.

Like all good detective novels, it starts with a body, a man’s body is found in a lake in Berlin. After a lot of procedural work – visits to the gruesome autopsy, trips to the archives, calls to colleagues in other departments – March establishes that the dead man was a certain Buhler, a party official high up in the administration of occupied Poland early in the war. March discovers that Buhler had recently been in touch with two colleagues, Stuckart and Luther – but when March tries to track down these men he finds one is dead and the other missing.

Moreover, the investigation is only really getting going when March discovers it has been handed over to the Gestapo, who outrank his Kripo organisation and March is told to stand down. However, like every fictional investigator in every thriller ever, March is a conscientious maverick and so disregards orders to abandon the investigation. He goes poking around Buhler’s lakeside house, finding odd clues – for example Buhler had lost a foot in the war, blown off in a mine, and he discovers the plastic prosthetic foot in mud by the lake shore… Why would a man strip off for a swim in a freezing lake on a rainy Berlin day?

He then tracks down the feisty American woman journalist who reported Stuckart’s death to the authorities, one Charlie Maguire. She tells him Stuckart phoned to make an appointment to see her, but when she arrived at his apartment it was to find his blood-soaked corpse next to a gun and a suicide note.

Against his better judgement March finds himself confiding in Charlie, to the extent of persuading her to go back to the apartment with him and his trusty partner, Jaeger, to see if there are any clues. Here March’s superior police skills are demonstrated when he finds a hidden safe the ordinary cops had missed; they are just examining the contents when several cars screech up outside; it is the fearful Gestapo. Bundling Charlie out a back way, March and Jaeger remain to take the heat and they are arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into the cells. Anything could happen, including the torture they all know exists, but which is rarely discussed.

Instead, after stewing the whole night, the following morning they are driven back out to Buhler’s mansion by the lake where the two cops realise there is a power struggle going on over the investigation. On the one hand is Obergruppenführer Odilo Globocnik, universally known as Globus – the bull-necked sadist General in the Gestapo. March knows from a witness that Globus was seen at the lake where Buhler’s body was later found. He suspects he also had some part in Stuckart’s murder. Is Globus killing these men and making it look like suicide? But why? Facing him is wiry little Artur Nebe, the thin, shrewd head of the Kripo (or the Oberstgruppenführer, Reich Kriminalpolizei). Nebe listens to Globus rant about March disobeying orders to desist investigating, but out-ranks him and decides to give March the benefit of the doubt.

Globus marches March, Jaeger and Nebe down into Buhler’s cellar, where his men have broken through a panel to reveal a secret room absolutely stuffed with priceless European works of art. Triumphant, Globus asserts that Buhler, Stuckart and Luther were in cahoots to smuggle art works from the East, where Buhler worked, then out of the country to make themselves rich. When they realised their scam was discovered they killed themselves in shame. That’s it.

Outside Nebe takes March aside and puts him in the picture, telling him that Globus has reported him – March – to the terrifying Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo, and requested that March be immediately reposted from Berlin to some crappy provincial police force. What? Why? Because this affair is about much more than stolen art: March is blundering into something much bigger than he realises. Globus knows that March knows that Globus is somehow implicated, and therefore tried to persuade Heydrich to dispose of him. But Nebe convinced Heydrich to give March four days’ grace. Solve the case, Nebe tells March: report back to me everything you discover, and I may just be able to save your career.

Thus Harris deftly turns up the pressure on our man, who now has the threat of his career being ended and a swift exile to somewhere ghastly out in the occupied East, all set against the tension throughout Berlin rising with the approach of the Führertagand the impending visit of the US President, fraught with its own geopolitical ramifications. (It is testimony to Harris’s complete grasp of this parallel reality, that the implications of Kennedy’s visit are worked out so thoroughly; as a colleague tells him, it must indicate the war in the East is going really badly if Germany is prepared to cosy up to its long-term antagonist in the so-called ‘Cold War’, the United States, in what contemporaries are referring to as a new spirit of ‘détente’ – all this being, of course, a wry rethinking of the actual Cold War we know in our reality, the one between the US and the victorious USSR, and the well-known détente of the 1970s between them.)

Harris’s style

This book is written with great panache and style. It feels as if Harris has learned from all previous thriller writers, plus his own journalistic success, to deploy a prose style which is really taut and compressed. No matter how many times I had to put it down to go to work or cook dinner or other distractions, I was able to pick it up and within a few pages be back in its world, thoroughly gripped.

The comedy of alternative history

Alternative history is a recognised academic field now. I first heard of it via Niall Ferguson’s 1997 book, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. ‘Normal history’ is already full of irony, unintended consequences, comedy and farce. But alternative histories give the author the opportunity for commentary on the ‘real world’ at any number of levels, from the profoundly challenging, scholarly and intellectual, to the witty and waspish. Thus, in Harris’s universe, where Germany won the Second World War:

  • Cecil Beaton did some charming photo portraits of the Führer
  • four young lads from Liverpool are doing concerts in Hamburg which the authorities disapprove of (p.198)
  • The American president is a Kennedy, but not the stylish young dude we knew, rather his piratical anti-semitic father, Joseph
  • there is an SS Academy in Oxford (p.183)
  • there was a Treaty of Rome (as in the real world) but this one tied unoccupied Europe into a trading zone dominated by Germany

These comments are often very witty, but their overall effect is quite a profound one – for they raise the question of how much the deep currents of history can be altered or derailed? Would Germany have dominated the continent of Europe, have created a European Union, would German industry, German cars and TVs still have dominated our shops, would German tourists have hogged the best loungers and German football teams kept on winning the Euro and World cups, regardless of who won the war? Would the Beatles and 1960s protest have happened regardless of the outcome?

Are there patterns of social and economic and technological change which have their own ineluctable logic, which are unavoidable no matter what the outcome of wars, the decisions of politicians, the coming and going of revolutions and restorations? Is there a kind of fatality about the overall direction of human history, unaffected by even the largest social or political events?

The Holocaust

As the novel progresses March and Charlie become an item, falling in love and sleeping together, as they try to figure out what’s going on, each with their own perspective – March the conscientious cop, Charlie the American journalist looking for a scoop, both realising there’s something fishy about Globus’s art smuggling story.

As part of their deal, Nebe allows March out of the country for 24 hours, to fly to Zurich because he has established that Luther, the only one of the trio unaccounted for, flew to Zurich a few weeks earlier. And in Stuckart’s apartment, in the hidden safe, he discovered the number and key of a Swiss safety deposit box. Putting 2 and 2 together, he speculates that Luther flew out on behalf of all three to get something – what?

But when he and Charlie open the box in the Swiss bank they find nothing in it but an admittedly invaluable painting by Leonardo da Vinci. So is it all about art? Nothing but a big art smuggling scam? But in passport control back at Berlin, it dawns on March that Luther might have deliberately left something to be found as ‘lost luggage’, planning to reclaim it later, not knowing he would have to go on the run. Acting on this hunch he pulls in a favour from an old buddy in the airport staff and wangles hold of a stylish briefcase left behind after the flight which he and Charlie know Luther took back from Zurich, and with Luther’s initials. Must be his.

What they find inside comes a bombshell to them and the reader. Iit is a big collection of documents which the novel reprints verbatim over the next thirty pages or so. Most of them (as the afterword explains) are actual Nazi documents from the war detailing the construction of the Holocaust death camps, documents recording the high-level policy decisions to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ once and for all, a decision which led to mountains of bureaucratic paperwork organising the supply of bricks and mortar, new railway schedules of trains bringing Jews from the West to occupied Poland, to build the gas chambers and to supply the Zyklon B nerve gas, in an organised, psychopathic, industrialised attempt to murder all 11 million of Europe’s Jews.

For the next forty or fifty pages Charlie and March read through the documents and try to come to terms with what they’ve discovered. In their version of history, none of this is known. Germans sort of suspect it and sort of make jokes about it, but it is nowhere written down or recorded, the Jewish inhabitants of March’s flat before him – the Weiss family – have been obliterated from the record and so have all the other Jews of Europe.

This is a truly terrifying vision in a number of ways.

1. In this version of history the Germans succeed in wiping out the Jews. Completely. Not leaving 2 or 3 or 4 million to survive and go on to build their own independent state. None. None survive. Complete annihilation. While Charlie and March are getting used to the scale of this monstrous deceit and historical genocide, the reader is grappling with the notion that an entire race or nation can be wiped out and – it have no results. Europe carries on. People moan about the weather and their work and their wives and no-good children. The Jews are gone as if they had never been.

2. On another level, the reader is also rereading some of the actual key documents from the creation of the Holocaust, an experience which makes you feel traumatised, disgusted and shattered with despair all over again.

One of the documents is a five-page description of the visit Luther himself made to Auschwitz in his official position as a senior Nazi in Poland. He records the detraining of 60 wagons full of Jewish men, women and children who have been packed into the cattle trucks for four days and nights, during which many have died. He records the separation off of the fit men who will be worked to death, and the immediate hussling of the remaining sick, women, children and elderly direct to the gas chamber where they are told to strip off for delousing, and then coralled into the chamber and the door locked. Then the scientists arrive with the canisters which they empty into the chutes which go down into the floor of the chamber. Here the mauve crystals of Zyklon B are oxidised to become the fatal nerve gas which then pours unstoppably up through the grilles in the floor, creating an indescribable frenzy as the people inside scrabble over each other in futile attempts to escape.

These five pages alone overwhelm much of the rest of the book. It is difficult to continue reading and impossible to read the rest of the book in the previous frame of mind.

The documents indicate that there was a ring of some 14 Nazi officials who all worked in the same part of the Death camp division. March makes enquiries and discovers that one by one they’ve been dying off, killed in road accidents, mysterious explosions, ‘suicides’. Someone is killing off these final witnesses to the atrocity. It must have been this which prompted Stuckart, Buhler and Luther to panic and go for the documents in Zurich which they hoped to use as some kind of passport to escape.

While March had been away investigating Charlie received a phone call from the missing Luther. He wants to meet next day at the central station. He wants Charlie’s help to be smuggled out of Germany and to America, along with the documents. Next day March parks nervously across from the station steps and watches Charlie and her friend from the US Embassy wait tensely. Finally a furtive figure emerges from the crowds and moves towards them, is only meters away when… His head explodes, vaporises, demolished by the high velocity bullet of a professional assassin. Spattered with blood, in shock, Charlie is hussled into March’s car which takes off with a squeal of breaks.

Now they realise their phone calls and apartments are bugged. March takes Charlie to a hotel whose owner owes him a favour and they hide out in a small attic room. Here March supervises Charlie’s bid to flee Germany. They dye her hair to look like a young woman who was killed in an unrelated car accident earlier in the week and whose passport March has swiped from his offices for just this purpose. He packs her off in a hired car, telling her to drive south and cross the border into Switzerland. He promises to meet her there, but they both know he won’t. By now the atmosphere of doom lies too heavy over the story.

Instead March drives out to the crappy suburb where his ex-wife lives to see his son for one last time, to try and make amends for being such a bad dad. But, in a bitter twist of the knife, it turns out that Globus and his thugs have suborned his son to act nice and keep his Daddy busy until they can surround the house. They burst in, arrest March and take him to Gestapo headquarters, where Globus plays very bad cop, alternating with a more ‘civilised’ Gestapo interviewer, Krebs, who gives the bloodied March cigarettes, and tries to wheedle the truth out of him. Both want to know a) what was in the case and b) where’s the girl?

The torture scenes go on over many pages describing days and nights of pain and delirium, climaxing in the scene where several thugs man-handle March’s right forearm onto the table and Globus, with all his strength, swings a baseball bat down on to March’s hand, reducing it to a mangled pulp of bloody flesh.

Finally, the authorities try a con trick: Krebs, the more sympathetic of the interrogators, arrives with a sympathetic doctor, gives him painkillers and clean clothes, then takes him by car, ostensibly to another dungeon. But then he stops the car on a pretext and takes March down into some old war ruins. Here the sly Nebe steps out of the shadows, in a scene straight out of a hundred movies. Nebe says that he and Krebs have both been scandalised and disgusted by what March has told them about the Holocaust. They have always hated the Gestapo and their brutal methods, and so they want March to successfully smuggle the documents out of Germany, to be published in American, so the rest of the world can see what criminals are running the regime. They push him towards a car in which is waiting his fat partner, Jaeger. ‘Where shall I take you?’ Jaeger asks.

But even through the blood and pain and drugs of his torture wounds, March realises it is a trap. They are hoping he will take them to the girl and to the remaining documents. So he draws a gun on Jaeger and with his last energy orders him, not to drive south to where he hopes Charlie is crossing the Swiss border, but East, across the border into what was once Poland, driving for hours and hundreds of kilometers until he forces Jaeger to drive off the Autobahn onto the local road and then onto local farm tracks which lead out to the empty acres of derelict industrial land where once stood the appalling death camp Auschwitz, which he has read so much about.

During his torture by Globus, the fat sadist had gloated that, yes, he, Globus, took part in the extermination of the Jews and yes, he is proud of it, but that the world will never know. All the evidence has been destroyed. All the Jews are gone, all the buildings were destroyed long ago, and all the paperwork was burned like the bodies. Almost the only evidence left in the world is the documents Buhler and Stuckart and Luther had squirreled away in their Swiss bank as insurance in case their art smuggling was discovered. And now, Globus gloats in March’s blood-sodden face, all three are dead, and soon they will have the girl and the briefcase and all March’s clever investigation will have been for nothing.

So March has come to the bare barren land which was Auschwitz for two reasons: to decoy the Gestapo he knows must be following him, as far away as possible from his lover and her desperate mission to inform the world; and to see for himself whether it’s true: whether there really is no record, no sign, no testimony at all to the greatest horror in human history.

Thus he is still stumbling across the grass and mud looking for evidence, for bricks or doors or metal frames, for anything – when he hears the cars arrive, and the helicopter which had been following them from Berlin coming up overhead, carrying the Gestapo with their machine guns. ‘Drop your weapon,’ they shout through loudspeakers, so March turns and cocks his Luger, determined not to be taken alive.

And that’s the end. March is obviously going to die, but what about Charlie? Will she escape to Switzerland? Will she get anyone to publish the documents? Will anyone believe her? And will the US government – which has invested so much in President Kennedy’s visit to the old enemy, Nazi Germany, and its new policy of détente – allow this major geopolitical initiative to be derailed by a hysterical woman with her grotesque and improbable claims?

The novel leaves you reeling not only with the horror of the secret at its heart, but also at the seeming hopelessness of exposing the truth in a world where everyone has a vested interest in keeping it hidden.


Fatherland by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 1992. All quotes and references are to the 1993 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

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