Chocky by John Wyndham (1968)

Chocky was first published as a ‘novelette’ in the March 1963 issue of Amazing Stories science fiction magazine and only later developed into a shortish novel which was published in 1968 by Michael Joseph. The book’s 1963 date makes it sit closer to the sequence of fictions which ran very tightly from Triffids in 1951 to Trouble With Lichen in 1960, rather than the outlier following a period of silence which the book publication date initially suggests. That said, it does feel simpler and shorter and somehow ‘different’ from the rest of Wyndham’s work.

Executive summary

The basic idea is very simple: young English Matthew is 11 when he starts having conversations with an invisible ‘friend’ which, understandably, trouble his parents. It takes the entire novel for Matthew, his dad and the reader to fully understand that the friend is a telepath from a distant planet using Matthew to find out more about earth and its inhabitants.

More detail

Matthew is 11 when he starts having conversations with an invisible ‘friend’. The only trouble is the conversations are complex and demanding, broaching subjects beyond the average 11-year-old. His school teachers complain that Matthew is asking unexpected questions about the binary system of counting, why most species have two sexes, whereabouts the solar system is in the wider galaxy, and so on. When his parents buy a new car they find him in tears of exasperation because when he explained how it worked to his invisible friend, it laughed at its primitive crudeness.

The father calls up an old friend from university days, Roy Landis, who is now a psychiatrist and who drives down to the family’s Surrey home one Sunday and spends a long afternoon discussing the invisible friend – who is named Chocky – with Matthew.

Landis emerges to tell the parents he thinks Chocky is a real thing, an objective being, one proof being that so much of what Matthew tries to report Chocky as saying is not only beyond his understanding but beyond his vocabulary. If it was merely ideas he’d picked up in his reading and was recycling – even subconsciously – he’d have the words to do so.

Around this simple idea Wyndham weaves all kinds of detail designed to embed it in everyday, run-of-the-mill middle-class life in the suburbs. We learn about the narrator’s boring job as an accountant. How he met his wife, Mary, namely quite a long cock-and-bull story about a coach tour to Italy in the middle of which the coach disappears when the travel company (GOPLACES TOURS) goes bankrupt, leaving the passengers marooned in an overbooked hotel where he meets the pretty young graduate, Mary, and they decide to pool their meagre resources and make their way back to England together.

They get married and the narrator tells us how he soon realises that Mary has an extended family, two sisters and two brothers, all of whom have gotten married and produced children at an alarming rate. This leads into an interesting pseudo-feminist passage about the tremendous pressure young women come under to have babies, especially if all their siblings have, and how this preys on Mary’s mind and leads to a series of visits to doctors and tests until they decide to adopt. And they adopt the baby they name Matthew.

All this is utterly unnecessary to the core of the plot but is what the book is really about. Obviously there’s the science fiction plot, but what the book is actually about is being married and having children. If you park the sci fi plot for a moment, what you have is the story of a young couple who meet, fall in love, get married, try for a baby but can’t have one, decide to adopt and everything goes fairly well until the boy turns 11 and starts to behave oddly.

From then on most readers are reading for clues about the true nature of this ‘Chocky’ (though I think anyone who’s ready any science fiction or, more probably, watched any sci fi movies or TV shows, will guess the story in the first ten pages) but to us older readers, it’s a novel about how a well-mannered middle-aged couple cope with their beautiful 11-year-old son going off the rails and the terror that something is dreadfully wrong with him. And that’s what all the best moments in the book are about, about a young married couple struggling to cope.

We sat and looked at one another.
Mary’s eyes slowly brimmed with tears.
‘Oh, David. He was such a lovely little boy…

One of the reasons his critics can’t stand Wyndham is for the extreme, middle-class cosiness of some of his key fictions. I would suggest something more specific, it’s the uxoriousness of his happily married couples, all darling this and darling that. The narrators of both Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos make mordant remarks about their dear wives who talk over them, correct them when they’re wrong, and whose moods and brooding silences they come to recognise. Same here:

After we had cleared the table and packed the children off upstairs there was an atmosphere that I recognised. Some kind of prepared statement, a little uncertain of its reception, was on its way. Mary sat down, a little more upright than usual, and addressed herself to the empty grate rather than to me.

Personally, I identify with these very recognisable traits of married life. You love each other but irritate each other as well, and also recognise each other’s moods and know, for example, when you are in trouble and when you’re about to get a lecture.

They hire a holiday cottage in the village of Bontgoch in North Wales with another couple with young children, Alan and Phyl Froome. There’s some entertaining old man complaining about how simple and unspoilt it all was back when he went there as a lad, but now holiday homes have cropped up and the sailing mob have arrived, mooring yachts and sailing in the unsuitable waters. God, if he though quiet seaside villages had been ruined by rich holiday home owners in 1963, what on earth would Wyndham have made of 2021?

Anyway, there’s a major ‘incident’ which is, the narrator and Mary have gone off for a jaunt leaving all four kids in charge of the other couple and the kids are playing on a jetty when the fast ebb tide rams a boat which has come loose from its moorings into it, it collapses plunging Matthew and his younger sister Polly into the water and sweeping them away. The point is Matthew manages not only to keep afloat but to support his sister, in the midst of the rushing torrent, till a local boatsman, Colonel Summers, who saw the incident is able to take his motorboat out to rescue them. And here’s the point: Matthew can’t swim! He is brought back to the holiday cottage in one piece, given a hot bath and put to bed and when his dad drops in on him, embarrassedly admits… it was Chocky who swam for him.

Back in London, Mary shows the narrator, just returned from a day in the office, a copy of the Welsh local newspaper which the Froomes mailed to them, It features the story of Matthew saving his sister and attributing it to voices. It names him and gives his town of residence, Hindmere. The couple hope it will blow over but the narrator is appalled the next morning to turn on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and hear the presenter Jack de Manio (a real person who did in fact present Today from 1958 to 1971) introduce a radio interview with a BBC reporter. When the narrator questions Matthew the latter cagily admits the BBC rang up while his mum and dad were out and asked if they could come round and do an interview.

It escalates. A few months earlier Mary had found half a dozen pictures down the back of Matthew’s chest of drawers. Not proficient but strikingly observed, in which all the figures are strangely thin and attenuated. The thing being, as we’re coming to expect, Matthew was not normally good at art. But, he tells his parents, he lets his mind go blank and Chocky draws what she sees. Now the art teacher has in all innocence sent one of Matthew’s paintings, along with others by his peers, into a national art college and journalists have linked his name to the miracle swimmer whose ‘guardian angel’ helped him rescue his sister. And so his artwork and name are now in all the papers. Christ what a mess!

Landis rings, he wants to discuss Chocky again. Over lunch at the club he gives the narrator the name of noted specialist Sir William Thorbe.

Meanwhile the press become more pressing, there start to be a steady stream of calls from journalists of newspapers, radio and TV, as well as vicars and various nutcases. The narrator takes the family for a weekend away, initially by the sea, but that is so filthy and polluted, they go to an inn on the South Downs. Here they relax, and when the parents go for a stroll, they come across Matthew doing a really good drawing of the view. Matthew explains that Chocky is getting better at seeing through his eyes. Mary, who has been so upset about it all, worrying that her beautiful son is going mad, has turned a kind of psychological corner, and accepts Chocky now. She asks if she can have the picture and look after it, and she means it.

On the first day of the new term back at school, Matthew is knocked to the ground by a school bully, but when he totters back to his feet, looks so fierce the bully and henchman run off. Did Chocky appear in his face? The headmaster phones up to apologise.

The narrator meets Matthew (who is now 12) off the train at Waterloo and takes him to Sir William Thorbe’s practice in Harley Street. Thorbe has him in for two and a half hours and appears to play Matthew spinning records like mandalas to hypnotise him, but the results are disappointing. A week later the narrator gets Thorbe’s report which dismisses both the swimming incident and the painting by saying these were skills the boy had in fact acquired but had repressed, i.e. Thorbe gives an entirely psychiatric analysis giving no credence to Chocky at all.

Couple of days later the dad comes across Matthew lying in his room, notices a crop of new paintings. One is of an arid plain unrelieved except for a few blobby shapes, with a pyramid shape on a hill. Matthew says it’s Chocky’s planet. By now the dad is prepared to believe it. Looks hot. Yes, that’s why Chocky says our planet is so beautiful.

But he sobs. Chocky is leaving. She’s saying goodbye. He starts to cry. The mum arrives at the bedroom door but the dad gets up off the bed, goes over to her, shuts the door and takes her downstairs to explain. Over the next few days Matthew’s mood seems to improve, he gets ‘better’.

Then one afternoon he doesn’t come home. He goes missing for twelve days. The family contact the police and then, reluctantly, the papers. The dad of a schoolfriend rings up to say his son saw Matthew get into a strange car. There’s a nationwide search, no results. Mary becomes distraught.

Then one day a call from the police. Matthew just wandered up to a policeman directing traffic in Birmingham. He tells the following story: He was kidnapped by men who kept him confined in a house and gave him a series of injections and interrogated him. After a while, with no explanation, he found himself on a busy street and approached the first policeman he saw.

So Matthew has returned in perfect health, unharmed and resumes going to school. One night he comes down after Mary has gone to bed. Chocky is back and she wants to tell his dad a few home truths. They go up to his room, Matthew lies down and Chocky takes over.

S/he explains she is an explorer. Her race is ancient and dying. They need to move out to colonise new planets. They have developed the technique of mind projection. At first they thought they were the only life in the universe but have subsequently discovered it on some planets. But intelligent life is very rare. It must be nurtured.

Now she goes on to explain that human development is at a very primitive stage.

‘It is true you have an elementary form of atomic power which you will no doubt improve. But that is almost your only investment for your future. Most of your power is being used to build machines to consume power faster and faster, while your sources of power remain finite. There can be only one end to that.’

Chocky says we must learn to abandon reliance on energy from the sun and exploit the background radiation of the universe which is infinite. Why is she helping us? Because all intelligent life forms have a duty to help all others.

Intelligent forms are rare. In each form they owe a duty to all other forms. Moreover, some forms are complementary. No one can assess the potentialities that are latent in any intelligent form. Today we can help you over some obstacles; it may be you will so develop that in some future time you will be able to help us, or others, over obstacles.

She is leaving because it was her first mission and she muffed it. She got too close to Matthew, too involved and told him too much. This came out when Sir William Thorbe analysed Matthew. Under hypnosis Matthew revealed the true meaning of Chockey’s mission, to teach mankind how to harness a completely new form of power. Thorbe realises he is onto something massive. According to Chockey it was he who tipped the men off who kidnapped Matthew and gave him a series of truth serums in a bid to extract this knowledge.

Matthew doesn’t understand anything about this cosmic power but Chocky now realises that she has handled everything wrong and put Matthew’s life in danger. Powerful interests – the oil industry, the gas industry, the coal industry, the atomic industry – might want to silence Matthew. He will be watched. In fact, maybe they have already bugged this house and this bedroom. That is why she must go. So has her mission been a failure, the narrator asks. No. She must fulfil her mission of guiding humanity to the source of a better sustainable source of energy, but she now realises it must be done by giving hints and scattered insights to numerous researchers in different places and times, rather than through one young mind which is not capable of handling the concepts.

And with that, she is gone.


In the end the finale, the denouement, the revelation, doesn’t quite live up to the buildup. Above all, it lacks the real menace and threat which made Triffids so terrifying and his other three big novels so powerful and eerie. Ultimately, the homely and domestic life of this little nuclear family overshadows the strange story at its heart. No surprise it was made into a children’s TV series because it is, at heart, kind and innocent and good.


Not only uxorious, but posh, the novel has a sustained tone of middle-class manners and rhetoric which have vanished forever.Here’s the family friend, Alan, on the way Matthew saved his sister:

‘There’s no doubt at all your Polly’d have been a goner, but for him. Damn good show.’

Colonel Summers on Matthew saving his sister:

‘Plucky youngster of yours. Good reason to be proud of him… Funny thing his pretending he couldn’t swim; unaccountable things, boys. Never mind. Damned good show! And good luck to him.’

The narrator commutes from his Surrey commuter town up to Waterloo and then on to his firm of accountants in Bedford Square. He listens to the Today programme while he shaves in the morning. He ‘takes’ The Times though it is damn fiddly folding the pages over on his crowded commuter train. When Landis suggests another meeting with Matthew’s father, they meet at his club and quaff sherry before moving through to the panelled dining room for luncheon.

The narrator and his friends call each other ‘old boy’ and ‘my dear fellow’. Most strikingly of all, the narrator calls his 12-year-old son, ‘old man’:

‘Feeling played out, old man?’ I asked him. ‘Why don’t you get right into bed? I’ll bring you something on a tray.’

As Brian Aldiss points out, is the story meant to be set in the 1960s… or the 1930s?

Grumpy stumps

Part of the generally ‘normal’ tone and content of the book is its grumpy old man complaints about various aspects of English life. The tone is set with his sardonic comments about package holidays and coach tours which are worthy of Monty Python’s Torremolinos sketch. Then there’s:

I have fallen into the bad habit of switching on the radio as a background to shaving – bad because untroubled shaving is itself a good background for thinking – however, that’s modern life…


I was in the act of transferring my attention from The Times personal column to the leader page, an almost antisocial exercise in a full railway compartment, when my eye was caught by a photograph in the copy of the Daily Telegraph held by the man in the opposite seat. Even at a glance it had a quality which triggered my curiosity. I leant forward to take a closer look. Habitual travellers’ develop an instinct which warns them of such liberties. My vis-à-vis immediately lowered his paper to glare at me as if I were committing trespass and probably worse, and ostentatiously refolded it to present a different page.

This is all a bit reminiscent of Reggie Perrin’s commuting hell from the mid-1970s. Here is the narrator lamenting the commercialisation of the quaint little Welsh village he used to go on holiday to when he was a boy:

The place was Bontgoch, a village on an estuary in North Wales, where I had enjoyed several holidays in my own childhood. In those days it was simply a small grey village with a few larger houses outside it. During summer it had a scatter of visitors who were for the most part the children and grandchildren of the owners of the larger houses; they affected it very little. Since then it has been discovered, and bungalows now dot the shoreline and the lower slopes about the village. Their occupants are mostly seasonal, transitory, or retired, and during the milder months the majority are addicted to messing about with boats. I had not expected that. Bontgoch is by no means ideally situated for it, for the tides run fast in the estuary and navigation can be tricky; but the crowded state of the small boat world with its five-year queues for moorings in many more favoured waters had overridden the disadvantages. Now it even had a painted-up shed with a bar at one end called the Yacht Club.

To avoid the attentions of the British press, dad decides to take his family for a day by the sea:

We arrived at a vast car park charging five shillings a time, collected our things and went in search of the sea. The pebbly beach near the park was crowded with groups clustering around contending transistor sets. So we made our way further along and down the pebbles, until all that separated us from the shining summer sea was a band of oil and ordure about six feet wide, and a fringe of scum along the water’s edge… ‘Oh, dear. It was a lovely beach only a few years ago,’ said Mary, ‘Now it’s…’ ‘Just the edge of the Cloaca Britannica?’ I suggested.

Sounds like Kingsley Amis on a particularly grumpy day, or any reader of the Daily Mail moaning about how the country, and the countryside’s gone to the dogs.

These grumpy ventings are quite funny in themselves, fairly interesting social history, but also do The Wyndham Thing of making a completely implausible science fiction concept seem utterly believable by embedding it such everyday, mundane comments.

It is notable that the grumpiness even extends to the narrator’s own children, who seem to irritate him and bore him a lot; well, his daughter Polly, anyway:

  • ‘Throughout the meal Polly chattered constantly and boringly of ponies. When we had got rid of her Mary asked…’
  • ‘At that moment Polly arrived babbling, and anxious not to be late for school…’

When Matthew goes missing, Polly helpfully remembers an incident from her pony book:

Silence closed down again. After a time Polly found it irksome. She fidgeted. Presently she felt impelled to make conversation. She observed: ‘When Twinklehooves was kidnapped they tried to turn him into a pit pony.’
‘Shut up,’ I told her. ‘Either shut up, or go away.’

He adopts quite a harsh tone throughout the book to the unfortunate daughter. Surprising, because Wyndham never had children of his own.



Chocky was adapted as a 60-minute drama for BBC Radio 2, broadcast on 27 November 1968.

BBC Radio 4 presented a reading by Andrew Burt of the novel in seven 15-minute episodes broadcast daily between 19 and 27 May 1975.

Another adaptation into a single 90-minute drama for BBC Radio 4 was broadcast on 18 March 1998. You can buy it on CD.

Television series

ITV adapted the novel as a children’s TV series in 1984, and it obviously got good enough ratings for them to create two sequels, Chocky’s Children and Chocky’s Challenge. You can buy all three series on DVD.

Proposed film

Steven Spielberg acquired film rights to the novel in September 2008 and said he was interested in directing it. To put that in context, it would be interesting to know how many film rights Spielberg (or his companies and agents) acquired in just the calendar year 2008 alone, 10s? 100s? And to know what percentage of properties that he or his companies acquire in any given year are ever actually made into movies – 10%? 1%?

Part of the appeal of the novel is that it is a record of a gentle, English, white, middle-class way of life which has vanished forever. If Spielberg ever did make it into a movie, it would presumably be a portrait of a modern American family à la E.T. and therefore massacre the book’s main appeal. The story is quite compelling, but it’s the myriad details of English life from a certain period which give it its flavour.


Chocky by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1968. All references are to the Penguin paperback edition I bought in 1973, price 45p.

Related link

John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps


1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the latter’s invention, an anti-gravity material they call ‘Cavorite’, to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites, leading up to its chasteningly moralistic conclusion
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ – until one of them rebels


1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic


1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth and they rebel
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness


1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold


1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance


1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a chapter-length dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by the lingering radiation. But as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, but when he and his mind-melding friends are discovered, they are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small gang of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism in order to reach the remote valley which his brother had told him he was going to plant with potatoes and other root vegetables and which he knows is an easily defendable enclave
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – 11 science fiction short stories, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but two or three (Survival, Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger.
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a relatively conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story


1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a century or so hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like Mothers into whose body a bewildered twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head; it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents the voice is real and belongs to a telepathic explorer from a distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’


1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender


1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer


1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin


2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set in London and featuring many of the characters from its immediate predecessor, namely Milgrim the drug addict and ex-rock singer Hollis Henry
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

This is an end-of-the-world apocalypse novel, made all the bleaker by the warm chatty style of everything which precedes the final doom.

The plot – Ice-nine

For 150 or so pages the narrator (named John, but on the first page he suggests we call him Jonah, in line with the usage indicating someone who brings bad luck) pursues an elaborate and good-humoured picaresque as he tracks down the grown-up children of the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker.

The narrator is planning to write a book about what people were doing on the day the atom bomb was dropped, although he never really gets much further than talking to the members of Hoenikker’s family and his boss and co-workers.

John corresponds with Newton Hoenikker, and his sister, Angela Hoenikker Conners, then travels to the town of Ilium to meet them, and also Hoenniker’s former employer, Dr. Asa Breed, head of the General Forge and Foundry Company where the late Felix worked.

He explains that the company is really a top secret government agency. Breed explains that Hoenniker was like a child who just liked solving whatever problem was put in front of him. The agency had a request from the U.S. Marines who (in Vonnegut’s cheerfully childish way) are described as being fed up of crawling through mud. Can’t the scientists do anything to clear up all this mud?

And so we are told that Hoenniker came up with the notion that ice may potentially be formed in different ways from usual. He starts by considering that ice is just a solid way for molecules of H2O to exist. It consists of a latticework of molecules in a steady state. But plenty of other chemical substances, ones we think of as crystalline, in fact form crystals in a variety of ways. They are all crystals but she shape of the latticework which makes them solid can be altered in the laboratory by ‘seeding’ the chemical solution, as it approaches solidifying point, with the desired pattern. Then all the other molecules in the chemical crystalise in that pattern.

To cut a long story short, John discovers that Dr Hoenikker had discovered a new way of making water solidify at a higher than usual temperature, roughly room temperature. After experimenting with seven other versions he has called this ice-nine. If crystals of ice-nine touch any other form of water, it will all immediately solidify according to the ice-nine crystal or lattice structure.

Now all this was done to help out the U.S. Marines who were fed up of getting dirty and muddy while they went about their work. (See the absurdity on which all Vonnegut’s stories are based?) But of course, you and I – having read hundreds of end-of-the-world books and watched hundreds of end-of-the-world movies – instantly spot the risk involved. Potentially one little sliver of ice-nine could end the world by converting all the water – all the seas and oceans and rivers and lakes and streams and all the rain and, yes, all human beings (who are, after all, mostly made of water) into solid blocks if ice-nine.

And that, after another 100 pages of very entertaining travelogue, is exactly what happens.

The book is extremely readable (I couldn’t put it down, I read it in one four-hour sitting) because:

  1. it is broken up into dinky little two-page chapters, so it feels like it moves very fast
  2. in almost each chapter we are introduced to new and strikingly drawn characters, often very secondary – like the secretary at the General Forge and Foundry Company, the old black lift boy, Lynton Enders Knowles, a taxi driver, a bartender, a headstone salesman – but all of whom have zippy cameos
  3. it is often very funny – it is certainly much more upbeat than The Sirens of Titan which I found unpleasantly nihilistic – with light humorous touches all over the place

When John stops by at Ilium’s gravestone dealership he discovers the owner is the brother of Ava Breed, head of the General Forge and Foundry Company.

‘It’s a small world,’ I observed.
‘When you put it in a cemetery, it is.’ Marvin breed was a sleek and vulgar, a smart and sentimental man. (p.44)

When he stops off at Jack’s Hobby Shop the page or two describing the shop and its owner and all its hundreds of miniature trains and dioramas is sweet. For a two-page chapter we learn that during his trip to Ilium John lent out his room to a New York poet, Sherman Krebbs, who proceeded to have wild parties and trash it. Someone had written in lipstick over his bed, ‘No, no, no, said Chicken-licken’ (p.53).

Apparently Vonnegut himself claimed that his books ‘are essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips…and each chip is a joke.’ That is eminently true of Cat’s Cradle.

The whimsy in Sirens felt utterly contrived. Here it is genuinely charming and helps you whizz through the story. Part two of it is set on the dirt poor Caribbean island of San Lorenzo. This is because both Newton and Angela Hoenikker thought their older brother, Franklin, was dead. (On Hiroshima Day Newton had told John he remembers discovering Franklin under a bush trying to persuade some red ants he’d captured and put in a jam jar to fight some red ants.)

Newton (nickname ‘Newt’ and a midget) and Angela thought Franklin was dead because he got caught up in some car-smuggling racket in Florida and disappeared, assumed wasted by the Mob. But suddenly he turns up as the right-hand man of San Lorenzo’s dictator, ‘Papa’ Monzano.

The second and longest part of the story is set on the island, although it takes a few pages to get there as Vonnegut enjoys describing the wacky characters who share the small charter plane there with John – a hustling bustling businessman, H. Lowe Crosby, who wants to set up a bicycle factory on the island (and his wife Hazel), and the new U.S. ambassador, Horlick Minton, a picture of haughty aloofness (and his wife Claire).

There’s also the figure of Julian Castle, once the multi-millionaire ex-owner of Castle Sugar Cooperation, who gave up business in order to set up a charity in the jungle, the whom John travels to San Lorenzo to interview. He abandoned his business ventures to set up and operate a humanitarian hospital, the House of Hope and Charity, in the jungle. And he has a son, Philip, who has a wonderful dry wit: there are several really funny dialogues between him and the narrator.

To cut a long story short, the dictator ‘Papa’ Monzano is really ill with excruciatingly terminal cancer, and so he hands over power to his military adviser, Franklin Hoenikker. But Franklin doesn’t want the job and hands it over to the narrator. A big fireworks display and flyover by the San Lorenzo air force is planned for inauguration day. Just hours before it, the narrator discovers that Papa has committed suicide (to escape the unbearable pain of his terminal illness) by touching a fragment of ice-nine to his lips. One of the bloody Hoenikker kids must have given him some.

So John and Newt very very carefully use a blow torch to raise the temperature of the ice-nine and scoop up every sliver into a bucket of hot water and generally quarantine it. But all this comes to nothing when one of the six jets flying overhead crashes into the big castle on a cliff where John, Frank, Newt, Angela, the ambassador and Crosby are standing. The particular tower they’re on cracks and crumbles, half of it toppling into the sea.

And then, with all the horror of full knowledge of what is coming, John is forced to watch the bed on which the ice-nined body of Papa Monzano was lying, slowly slide across the slanting floor and into the ocean.

In a flash the entire ocean is solidified, every river, lake and sea in the world is solidified, all rain turns to hail, and almost everyone in the world who is touching the contaminated water dies. The sky immediately turns into a hell of thousands of tornadoes, like an endless sack full of grey wriggling worms.

John and Papa’s beautiful adopted daughter, Mona, who he has lusted after throughout the novel, escape down to a bunker where there is food and safe drink for three or four days. When they go back above ground, nothing has changed. The world has come to an end.

Exploring the island and looking for survivors, they discover a mass grave where all the surviving San Lorenzans had killed themselves with ice-nine, on the facetious advice of Bokonon. Displaying a mix of grief and resigned amusement, Mona kills herself as well.

John later discovers Newt and Franklin survived, as did H. Lowe Crosby and his wife. They eke out a living not touching any of the ice and heating all water before they drink it. It is in the months since the apocalypse that John has written this account, the book we hold in our hands.

The religion – Bokononism

But this summary has so far completely ignored what is arguably the more important aspect of the book which is that John, right at the end of the story, had become a convert to a new religion known as Bokonism, with the result that the book is packed, from start to finish, with explanations of key Bokononist terms and ideas, as well as quotes from the calypso songs in which Bokonon expressed himself collected in the so-called Books of Bokonon.

In essence, Bokononism teaches that life is empty and meaningless and therefore we must comfort ourselves with useless lies.

There’s a lot of fol-de-rol surrounding the religion but the basic idea is that it was dreamed up by two castaways on the island (a merchant seaman from Tobago, Lionel Boyd Johnson, and a deserting U.S. marine, Corporal Earl McCabe) who set out to create a utopian religion from scratch.

They initially ruled San Lorenzo (giving it, in a typical piece of sardonic Vonnegut humour, a national anthem based on the tune ‘Home, Home on the Range’) but quickly realised that a religion needs the ‘glamour’ of being struggled and suffered for. And so they banned their own religion, and Bokonon himself (in fact his name was Johnson but the islanders couldn’t pronounce it) went into hiding. Any followers were liable to be hung up on a giant meathook which was set up in the centre of the capital city.

After which Bokononism really took off. (You see Vonnegut’s sardonic humour / understanding of human nature?)

Throughout the book the author takes particular incidents and demonstrates how they are good examples of Bokononism’s main concepts. Some twenty of these are demonstrated and explained in the text, but about three are important because they will recur in Vonnegut’s later works.

karass – a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident.

granfalloon – a false karass i.e. a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist, for example ‘Hoosiers’ are people from Indiana, and Hoosiers have no true spiritual destiny in common, so really share little more than a name. Another example Vonnegut gives is Americans.

wampeter – the central theme or purpose of a karass. Each karass has two wampeters at any given time, one waxing and one waning

foma – harmless untruths

There’s much more, and the weaving of Bokononism into the plot is very cleverly done (well, ‘clever’ in the sense that it is obvious nonsense invented to demonstrate the power of obvious nonsense over the stupid human mind).

More to the point, it is funny, often very funny – and the combination of the a) fairly normal social comedy of fat bicycle manufacturer, waspish hotel owners and so on with b) the very thoroughly worked-out integration of this imaginary religion into all aspects of the plot all leading up to a c) all-too-believable sci-fi apocalypse make this a compelling and disorientating read.


Here, as in all his books, Vonnegut makes his anti-war sentiments crystal clear. He has the U.S. ambassador, at a commemoration service for San Lorenzans who died in the Second World War, remark:

‘And I propose to you that if we are to pay our sincere respects to the hundred lost children of San Lorenzo, that we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind.

‘Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.’

Right on, man.

Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

The Truce by Primo Levi (1963)

It was the shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections [for the gas chamber], and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defence. (p.188)

Primo Levi was 24, a chemistry student from Turin, when he was shipped off to Auschwitz concentration camp in February 1944. Here he managed to survive for 11 months, until the Russians liberated the camp in February 1945, and eventually made it back to Turin, where he wrote his classic account of life and death in the camp, If This Is A Man. Initially published by a tiny publisher, which promptly went bankrupt, If This Is A Man didn’t make much impression until it was taken up by a larger concern and republished in 1958, and was translated into English the next year. Second time around it was a phenomenal success and prompted Levi to write a sequel, an account of what happened to him between the liberation and his final return to Turin. The Truce is that book, published in 1963, translated 1965.

The two books are so closely tied together in chronology, subject matter and theme that they are generally published together in one volume, like the 1987 Abacus paperback edition I refer to here.

The detour

The Truce is longer than If This Is A Man and, somewhat inevitably, a much more appealing and life-affirming read.

The key fact it records is that, instead of being shipped south and west back to Italy, through a series of accidents and what we come to think of as characteristic Russian chaos, Levi and his fellow Italian survivors of Auschwitz end up being shipped first north and then a long way east, deep into Russia – before things are finally sorted out and they return on a long and equally circuitous route via Romania and Hungary, back to Italy.

This means that, without wanting to, Levi ends up witnessing some of the chaos, the epic destruction, and the vast wanderings of millions of displaced persons, which characterised the post war months (and years). Levi and his comrades are just a handful of the what, according to Keith Lowe’s revelatory book Savage Continent, were an estimated 40 million displaced persons at the end of the war. They travel by train, on foot, in carts, across a landscape of devastation and confusion, of physical, economic and moral bankruptcy.

In those days and in those parts, soon after the front had passed by, a high wind was blowing over the face of the earth; the world around us seemed to have returned to primeval Chaos, and was swarming with scalene, defective, abnormal human specimens; each of them bestirred himself, with blind or deliberate movements, in anxious search of his own place, of his own sphere. (p.208)

Although, on a literal level, a straightforward account of what happened, this odyssey plays to Levi’s strengths – already in evidence in If This Is A Man

  • of creating pungent pen portraits of the enormous cast of heroes and villains, shysters and charlatans, victims and conquerors, thieves and innocents, which swarmed across the face of ruined Europe
  • and of sensing behind each individual, the laws of human nature, the deeper meanings, bodied forth by their stories

Levi’s people

In If This Is A Man an entire chapter is devoted to his attempts to remember perfectly his favourite canto from Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Dante poem notoriously functions on a host of levels, describing the poet’s personal, actual, physical journey down into hell and then back up through purgatory, to heaven – an obvious parallel to Levi’s descent into hell and then slow, healing return to ‘normality’. In his journey Dante meets a large number of real people, historical contemporaries as well as actual friends and family, who have died and find themselves in hell, purgatory or heaven. But these real people also embody spiritual and philosophical truths.

Though nowhere near as schematic – and devoid of any overt religious belief – Levi’s books nonetheless echo Dante’s technique of closely observing real actual people – but simultaneously seeing through them the broader ‘laws’ of human nature, finding in every individual an aspect of the ‘truth’, or – if there is no one Grand Truth – of making the reader see the truths of the human animal.

Reading the two books together gives you a sense of the kaleidoscopic variety of people and lives and strategies and ways of being in the world. There is a Shakespearean richness in the sheer range and breadth of people described, and in the neutrality, the objectivity, with which he observes and captures them. Take the Moor from Verona:

His real name was Avesani, and he came from Avesa, the launderers’ quarter of Verona… He was over seventy, and showed all his years; he was a great gnarled old man with huge bones like a dinosaur, tall and upright on  his haunches, still as strong as a horse, although age and fatigue had deprived his bony joints of their suppleness. His bald cranium, nobly convex, was encircled at its base with a crown of white hair; but his lean, wrinkled face was of a jaundice-like colour, wile his eyes, beneath enormous brows like ferocious dogs lurking at the back of a den, flashed yellow and bloodshot.

In the Moor’s chest, skeletal yet powerful, a gigantic but indeterminate anger raged ceaselessly; a senseless anger against everybody and everything, against the Russians and the Germans, against Italy and the Italians, against God and mankind, against himself and us, against day when it was day, and against night when it was night, against his destiny and all destinies, even though it was a trade that ran in his blood. He was a bricklayer; for fifty years, in Italy, America, France, then again in Italy, and finally in Germany, he had laid bricks, and every brick had been cemented with curses. He cursed continuously, but not mechanically; he cursed with method and care, acrimoniously, pausing to find the right word, frequently correcting himself and losing his temper when unable to find the word he wanted; then he cursed the curse that would not come. (pp.270-271)

There is immense authority in the flow of this prose, in the rhythm of the thought, and in the mighty and profound subject itself. In portraits like this, Levi gives us wonderful feel for humanity, for human beings in their rebarbative weirdness and variety. This human copiousness is the enduring effect of the book.

In the liberated camp

  • Old Thylle, a red triangle, a German political prisoner, one of the oldest inmates of the camp, who had never had to do manual labour.
  • Yankel, a young Russian Jew who, on the Liberation, is given the task of liaising with the inmates and also of driving the  horse and cart via which all the survivors are moved to the central barracks of the main Auschwitz complex (p.192). It is on this journey that Levi first grasps the sheer scale of the Germans’ vast slave industrial complex.
  • The nameless Frenchman whose skeletal body is contorted into a knot, like a root, who can’t speak, and who can’t be uncontorted, trapped in his physical psychosis (p.195).
  • Hurbinek, a three-year-old who didn’t speak, who couldn’t speak, who nobody had taught how to speak, whose eyes burned with anger at a world he couldn’t express, who died (p.198).
  • Henek, born in Transylvania, brought to Auschwitz when he was 14, with his whole family who were all gassed, survived in the children’s Kommando, and now, fit and alert, goes on scouting missions round the derelict camp, using Levi, still sick in bed, as guard of his slowly increasing ‘stash’ of goodies (p.200).
  • Peter Pavel, a beautiful blonde robust child who did everything carefully, punctiliously, as instructed and never looked or talked to anyone (p.200).
  • The two Polish girls, insolent ex-Kapo Hanka and little nymphomaniac Jadzia, who flirted with every available man.
  • Henek’s friend, Noah, ‘as strong as a horse, voracious and lecherous’, parading the derelict camp and making conquests in numerous female barracks (p.203).
  • Frau Vitta, a young widow from Trieste, survivor of Birkenau, compulsively cleaning and washing and looking after the sick and children, and then sitting by Levi’s bunk pouring out her story, trying to exorcise the images of dead bodies and body parts which fill her waking mind unless she is active (p.204).
  • André and Antoine, two French peasants from the Vosges, only been in the camp a month, lying in the infirmary with diphtheria. André died in mid-sentence from which point Antoine withdrew and went downhill. The doctor shook his head: ‘His companion is calling him.’ (p.205)
  • Olga, a Jewish Croat partisan who survived Birkenau and visits Levi to tell him the fate of the train load of Italians he arrived with, a long year previously. All dead, all gassed (p.206).
  • ‘There was a sort of human wreck, of indefinable age, who spoke ceaselessly to himself in Yiddish; one of the many whom the ferocious life of the camp had half destroyed, and then left to their fate, sealed up (and perhaps half protected) by a thick armour of insensitivity or open madness. (p.209)


  • On the train journey to Cracow, Levi meets the master smuggler, merchant, dealer and fixer, Mordo Nahum, a ferociously competitive, mercantile Greek Jew from Salonika whose every waking hour was devoted to trading, dealing, scamming, estimating, (pp.209 ff.), ‘visibly an authority, a master, a super-Greek’ (p.217). With the appearance of Nahum, the tone begins to lighten and, astonishingly, you find yourself laughing out loud at their arguments and Nahum’s tricks. Many pages and months later, Levi bumps into Nahum at the Red Army barracks at Slutsk, where he has assumed responsibility for and re-organised a brothel of twenty or so strong Bessarabian women (p.296). A quintessential survivor.
  • The priest who Levi speaks to in Latin, who directs them towards the soup kitchen by the cathedral, who warns them not to speak in German (p.222).
  • The lawyer at the railway station of Trzebiania, who refuses to tell the crowd of Poles that gather round these strange shambling figures in their zebra pyjamas that they are Jews. Because the Poles might not sympathise so much. Because anti-Jewish feeling still exists. And also warns Levi not to speak German (p.227).
  • The Polish policeman in Szczakowa, who speaks awful Italian, learned while working as a miner in northern Italy, who kindly accommodates Levi and Nahum in the lovely warm cells of the town gaol, before they get the train on to Katowice (p.228)


  • The huge 50-year-old Mongolian with massive hands, drooping Stalin moustache and fiery eyes who guards the entirely pointless entrance to Bogucice camp (p.230).
  • Captain Egorov, a little man ‘with a rustic and repulsive air’ (p.231).
  • Dr Danchenko, the doctor at Bogucice, almost permanently drunk and dedicated to seducing all available women, ‘with the mannerisms of an operetta grand duke’ (p.236).
  • Marya Fyodorovna Prima, who Levi befriends, a military nurse, about 40, who created the infirmary at Bogucice from scratch, fierce and silent like a large cat, she hails from the forests of Siberia (p.234).
  • Colonel Rovi, in fact an accountant of mediocre intellect possessed of an inexhaustible appetite for power who rises by sheer will power to command of the Italian continent at Bogucice (p.232).
  • Galina, the happy-go-lucky young girl who Levi finds himself having to dictate the days’ prescriptions to, once he has been given the job of assistant in the camp pharmacy. In fact the records they write up are no use to anyone, more interesting is Galina’s story of having been conscripted in the middle of nowhere and having accompanied the Kommandatur everywhere from the Crimea to Finland and now down to Katowice. One day the Kommandatur are ordered back to Russia and she disappears, not bothered in the slightest about having no pass or permit, ‘leaving behind her a sharp scent of earth, of youth and joy’ (p.239).
  • Ferrari, a failed thief who attended a school for thieves in Loreto but was arrested at his first attempt to razor open a woman’s pocket on a tram, sent to prison, caught up in some German roundup and ended up in  this godforsaken camp in Poland (p.240).
  • The NKVD inspector, thirty, a Jew, of an austere Don Quixote appearance, his inspection passes without comment but, when he discovers a motorbike in the camp, he commandeers it and ends up staying for months, eating heartily and spending the rest of  his time roaring round the surrounding countryside on his pride and joy (p.249). At a victory football match between Red Army soldiers and local Poles he is meant to be the referee but lets the game go on for over two hours while continually interrupting it by blowing his whistle at moments when a goal is looming, arbitrarily awarding fouls or free kicks to sides at random and sometimes running off with the ball to score a goal before doing a victory lap of honour with his hands clasped over his head. In scenes like this the book becomes entirely comic in tone (p.266).
  • Cesare, barely twenty, another seasoned merchant, fraudster, fiddler and fixer, ‘an untameable man’ (p.302) but – unlike Nahum – full of genuine human warmth. Levi strikes up a close friendship as they go on daily expeditions from the camp to the main centre of Katowice and its enormous market. Chapter 5 is devoted to Cesare, who can only speak Roman ghetto slang, ‘very ignorant, very innocent and very civilised’. Observing Cesare scamming and bartering ‘reconciled me to the world and once more lit in me that joy of living which Auschwitz had extinguished’ (p.252).
  • Soon Cesare has a fixed place in Katowice market and a regular clientele he has spirited into existence by giving them nicknames: the Bearded Lady, Skin and Bones, Booby, Three Buttocks, the Street Walker, Frankenstein, Old Bailey and many others (p.257). (Cesare’s last adventure is told in the later collection, Moments of Reprieve)
  • Dr Gottlieb, himself an inmate of the Lager has managed, in just a few months, to transform himself into the most esteemed doctor in Katowice and made himself very wealthy. ‘Intelligence and cunning radiated from him like energy from radium’ (p.269).
  • Dusk, stage name of Ambrogia Trovati, thirty, small muscular and nimble, who passed his adolescence between prison and the stage and has got them inextricably muddled up (p.272).
  • Craveor, a professional criminal, a thief and burglar and a ponce. A native of Turin, he sets off to make his own way there and promises to take a letter from Levi to his mother and sister which, amazingly, he does, but then goes on to try and extort 200,000 lira out of them which he promises he’ll take back to Levi in Katowice. Luckily mother and sister don’t believe him, so he goes downstairs, steals Levi’s sister’s bicycle, and disappears. ‘Two years later, at Christmas, he sent me an affectionate greetings card from prison in Turin’ (p.275).
  • Mr Unverdorben, ‘a mild and touchy little old man from Trieste’ who refuses to reply to anyone who doesn’t address him as Mr, who tried his hand as a composer of a lyric opera, but chucked that in to become a chef on transatlantic liners (p.275).
  • The old lady shopkeeper in Katowice who turns out to be a German exile, expelled from Berlin for writing a long letter ‘To Mr Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of the Reich, Berlin’ advising him not to wage a war because too many people would be killed and anyway Germany couldn’t win a war against the whole world. If only, she confides to Levi and Cesare as she sells them the ingredients for a big spaghetti al burro, the rulers of the world would listen to people like her! (p.280)

And so on, at this rate of one or so pen portraits per page, of characters grim or humorous, for another 100 pages, crowds of people bursting the pages.

Only when I began to note them, did I realise just how much of these two books is about other people, how they are crammed to overflowing with brief lives and encounters with other people, in all their puzzling vibrancy and otherness. How the two books, despite their often terrible subject matter, somehow ending up being hymns to human nature.

The Russians

These two books, If this Is A Man and The Truce, can be contrasted on all sorts of levels: Death versus Rebirth; the Drowned versus the Saved; Night versus Day; Imprisonment versus Freedom.

On another level they are books about Germans and about Russians, respectively. From a hundred war movies we are familiar with Nazis barking their orders with what Levi describes as a millennium of anger in their voices. The Truce is interesting, apart from anything else, for giving a travelogue description of ordinary life in Stalin’s Russia – in isolated villages, in railway sidings, in Red Army barracks. If there is one theme which prevails, if there is one thing which characterises the liberating Russians, it is warm, peasant, crude CHAOS. Everywhere he finds things being done in ‘the Russian manner – to human measure, extemporaneous and crude’ (p.194).

The Russian administration took no care at all of the camp, so that one wondered if it really existed; but it must have existed, since we ate every day. In other words, it was a good administration. (p.299)

For example, as the authorities organise the various trains Levi and his fellow Italians have to catch, he reflects that the Germans would have a precise departure time and stick up well-printed posters, in all relevant languages, giving precise details of departure time and what may or may not be carried. Late-comers will be shot. Whereas the Russians don’t distribute any printed matter, give no reliable times and let the thing more or less organise itself which, time after time, it does (p.300). Throughout the book, Levi admires the Russian authorities’ ‘habitual and benign negligence and botchery’ (p.248), ‘the age-old beneficent Russian insouciance, that Oblomovian negligence’ (p.346).

Or take the way the Russian dole out the same ration of tobacco to every person in Cracow regardless of age or sex – so that even babies received the ten ounce packet (p.220). Or the way the punishment cell at Starye Dorogi is only used once, when the authorities get cross at an illegal butcher slaughtering and selling Red Army horses. But, with characteristic nonchalance, the authorities send three rations to the cell regardless of how many people are in it, the butcher emerged from his ten days of ‘punishment’ as fat as a pig (p.327). Or the way the cooking at the vast camp at Slutsk is simply assigned to a different nationality each week, you’d have thought a recipe for chaos but which in fact encourages each group to outdo each other with portions and novelty (p.298).

Similarly, at the camp of Bogucice, a suburb of Katowice, the Russians set one guard with a sten gun, who sometimes makes a fuss about seeing your propusk or pass, if you go in our out the main gate past him. But from his vantage point he can see a big hole in the barbed wire fence and happily watches as all the inmates as want to pass in and out as they please. Russian laissez-faire (p.230).

Later, at the Krasny Dom or Red House, an enormous building near the village of Starye Doroge, the 1,400 Italian pilgrims spread out to fill all rooms of this bizarre rambling edifice, set up all kinds of scams, forage for food, discover two German women in a woodland hideaway who are working as prostitutes, start trading with the local peasants and selling on the inedible fish they’re getting as rations to the hordes of Red Army soldiers passing along the main road nearby, in haphazard and extreme disorder.

They stay at Krasny Dom for two months, from 25 July to 25 September.

At several points Levi’s relief at escaping the insane and murderous precision of the Germans overflows into virtual worship of the anarchic, rough and ready Russian soul.

And yet, under their slovenly and anarchical appearance, it was easy to see in them, in each of those rough and open faces, the good soldiers of the Red Army, the valiant men of the old and new Russia, gentle in peace and fierce in war, strong from an inner discipline born from concord, from reciprocal love and from love of their country; a stronger discipline, because it came from the spirit, than the mechanical and servile discipline of the Germans. It was easy to understand, living among them, why this former discipline, and not the latter, had finally triumphed. (p.232)

To life!

Even if it wasn’t following on from the death camp darkness of its predecessor, this would be a joyous book, but being set against the darkest hole in history gives it extra power and Life. Despite starting in mud and despair, it ends up being a hymn to life, to all human life, to all human beings, to the value and respect we owe each other.

To Life! L’chaim!

The truce


When the Italians are finally informed they will be returning home and embark on the epic, roundabout, painfully disorganised and achingly slow train journey back to Italy, as they cross the border and finally realise they are home, Levi’s heart is heavy. For now the real trial begins: the trial of resuming a place in the normal workaday world from which he was torn twenty months earlier, or meeting friends, family, workmates and… How to explain? What to say? Where to begin? – He realises the past few months in Russia have been a holiday, a ‘truce’, before he faces this next, arduous, second part of his life.

And there is another aspect to the title. At several moments, some of the many characters point out to a disheartened Levi that, despite appearances and official announcements, the war isn’t over. ‘There is always war,’ as Nahum says, memorably (p.224). And indeed, within weeks of the official end of the war on 8 May, the tone, the atmosphere in Russia changes. While at the stopover at Zhmerinka, Levi is alarmed to see a massive sign which had read ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ being whitewashed and repainted to read Vpered na Zapàd‘ – ‘On towards to the West’ (p.292). Enmity between Soviet Russia and the West began before the war even finished, and was to harden quickly.

This is the second, buried, meaning of the title, and why it isn’t titled ‘Freedom’ or ‘Liberation’. In Levi’s baleful view, the period of his personal liberation and the liberation of hundreds of thousands like him, occurred in a window, a moment outside conflict, a lacuna between the vicious six years of the world war and the start of the next massive conflict, the Cold War which, in the years when Levi wrote this sequel, almost broke into a war of total annihilation (the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962).

So it was a truce in every sense, personal, and political. And we readers are hugely lucky, for out of it comes this marvelous book, full of life and colour. To read it is to start in one of the darkest places of human history, mired in death and pointless cruelty – but then to be brought slowly up into light and air, and finally left marvelling at the strange, incongruous, vicious, endlessly adaptable and often hilarious creatures which we humans seem to be.


La tregua by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1963. The English translation by Stuart Woolf was published by Bodley Head in 1965. All references are to the 1987 Abacus paperback edition.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959) Levi’s searing memoir of the year he spent in Auschwitz, what he saw and what he learned.
1963 La treguaThe Truce (trans: 1965) The story of Levi’s eight-month-long trek back from Auschwitz to Turin, via an unexpected through Russia and Eastern Europe.
1966 Storie naturali – short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986) 15 short anecdotes or vignettes about people in Auschwitz, some shedding fresh light on characters we met in the earlier books.
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of ‘partisans’, from White Russia, through Poland and Germany to Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance against overwhelming odds.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988) Levi’s thoughts and conclusions about the concentration camp experience and legacy.
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Related reviews

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming (1963)


The opening chapters are rather downbeat, casting a more sombre mood than we’ve been used to. The narrative skips the adventure recounted in The Spy Who Loves Me altogether and refers back to the events of the previous-but-one novel, Thunderball, ie the attempt by the fiendish Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation to blackmail the West with the threat of detonating two stolen atomic bombs.

Bond is fed up because he has spent a year tasked with tracking down Blofeld in so-called ‘Operation Bedlam’, and has got precisely nowhere. In fact the novel opens with Bond cruising through northern France in his beloved Bentley, mentally composing the umpteenth version of a letter resigning from the Secret Service. He is woken from this gloom when a sports car tears past him, driven by a sexy young lady. He follows her into the next village along the road, and then spots her again at the French coastal gambling resort of Royale-les-Eaux (setting of the very first Bond novel, Casino Royale).

Here, in an uncanny repetition of the central gambling scene in that first novel, Bond once again plays baccarat, initially winning, and then gallantly comes to the rescue of the girl when she gambles rashly and loses – paying her debt for her. (A casino employee tells Bond she is La Comtessa Teresa di Vicenzo, p.20). This leads, rather inevitably to chatting her up in the bar – ‘no one calls me Teresa, call me Tracy’ –  and then rapidly to her bedroom, where she rather violently asks him to shut up and take her roughly, hard, but afterwards bursts into inconsolable sobbing.

Bond realises she is deeply depressed and her wanton behaviour reflects a deep unhappiness. Having tried, and failed, to comfort her, Bond – in a telling phrase – pads back down to the hotel corridor to his room, ‘feeling, for the first time in his life, totally inadequate’ (p.40).

Flashback All the above is told in a flashback, a technique Fleming has got into the habit of using extensively. The actual text opens with Bond spying on the girl at the end of a day sunbathing at the beach, and then following her out across the sand to the water’s edge where he suspects she is going to drown herself. Instead, two goons come up behind him with guns and an inflatable dinghy comes powering into the shallows, and Bond and the girl are forced into it.

All the events outlined above are Bond’s remembrance flashing back from the ‘now’ which is his kidnap and transport in the dinghy..

So who are the goons? Are they SPECTRE? Was the girl bait in a trap? Is he going to be tortured and executed? The boat speeds round to the harbour, docks and Bond is forced at gunpoint into the presence of a short, powerful man who announces that his name is Marc-Ange Draco and he is the head of the Union Corse, the notorious Corsican mafia (p.46).

No, he isn’t going to be harmed – instead, Marc-Ange surprises him by explaining that the girl Bond has been ‘seeing’, Tracy, is his Marc-Ange’s. Her mother was an English governess who Marc-Ange married and swept off into the mountains of Corsica – but Tracy grew up to be a troubled, wayward young woman, who hid her depression by moving in the European Fast Set, eventually marrying a worthless Italian playboy (hence her title, p.54).

The marriage didn’t prosper but when Tracy fell pregnant Marc-Ange hoped it would improve her humour and she indeed loved the resulting baby. But then the baby died of spinal meningitis (p.54) and Tracy made the first of a series of suicide attempts.

Now, in just a few days of their affair, Marc-Ange has noticed that Tracy’s mood has improved and so he has made checks into Bond’s background. Now, Marc-Ange announces that he will pay Bond £1 million to marry Tracy. Bond is flabbergasted, impressed, taken aback. but he knows himself – he is a rolling stone, he doesn’t want to be tied down. Bond turns down the offer but promises to continue the affair and be gentle with Tracy: it’s the best he can offer. But, thinking about work and his frustrated quest, Bond does ask for one thing: does Marc-Ange’s organisation know the whereabouts of a certain Blofeld? The Corsican makes a phone call and establishes that, yes, this Blofeld is somewhere in Switzerland. Aha.

Although this opening is predominantly about the men in Tracy’s life discussing her situation and fate (and so is easily criticised as sexist) nonetheless, it is another long sequence all about a woman, about her life and psychology, about the care and concern she prompts in those who love her. Not something commonly associated with Bond.

The College of Arms

Two months later Bond is back in London, keeping in touch with Tracy by phone, but being briefed by M. Extraordinarily – improbably – London’s College of Arms has been contacted by a man named Blofeld who has asked them to confirm him in what he claims is his ancestral title of the Comte Balthazar de Bleuville. There is some gentle and enjoyable social comedy as Bond reluctantly visits the College and meets the scholarly and obtuse experts there, the main one (Griffon Or – they all have heraldic noms de guerre) mistakenly thinking he’s visiting about his own heritage, and insists on telling Bond (and the reader) a lot about the Bond family (and title) before Bond manages to communicate that he’s come about Blofeld!

At which point Bond is handed over to a younger, more switched-on scholar – Sable Basilisk (p.75) who he consults about the Secret Service plan. Basilisk confirms the queries from Blofeld and confides that no force is as strong as snobbery; once bitten, people will do almost anything to prove they’ve got noble ancestry. This Blofeld fellow is totally hooked.

Would it be possible for Bond to adopt the identity of a heraldic expert and be sent as the official representative of the College out to Blofeld’s address in Switzerland? Yes, the man replies: they can rig him up with the false identity of one Sir Hilary Bray, and it will only take a few days’ mugging up of heraldry books to know enough about the subject to out-bluff anyone.


Bond briefs M, puts the finishing touches to his fake identity and flies to Switzerland as Sir Hilary, where he is met by representatives of Blofeld and driven to a remote Alpine resort, then by cable car up to a swish, modern skiing complex atop the Alp named Piz Gloria, near Pontresina in the Engadine (p.104).

NB Once again, there has been absolutely no detection involved in the novel. MI6 monitor communications coming in and out of Britain and so simply picked up the name Blofeld in his correspondence with the College of Arms. The baddy is a) known already and b) his whereabouts simply revealed. The narrative isn’t interested in crime thriller/Holmes-style detection – it instead focuses on the suspense of wondering when the (inevitable) big Confrontation / Shootout, which we all know will happen, will actually occur.

Bond is met by a squat venomous matron, Irma Bunt, taken up in the ski lift to the mountain-top complex, shown around and to his room. Along the way he identifies a dozen or so goons who are obviously SMERSH professionals. Bond finds it a strain keeping up the masquerade of being a posh heraldry scholar, especially when he is introduced to the ten stunningly good-looking young women who are sharing the base with him, ‘the girls’. To his surprise, he is told that they are all taking part in pioneering scientific work which the ‘Count’ is conducting, to help each of them overcome terrible allergies.

Over the course of a few days Bond (inevitably) gets chatty, then flirty with the women, and ends up going to bed with Ruby. He discovers she used to have a severe phobia of chickens, which was inconvenient because her family run a massive chicken farm. Sleeping in her bedroom Bond is surprised to hear a hypnotic tape start at midnight which lulls her to sleep and then – lullingly tells her that she loves chickens, she’s never happy unless she’s among chickens, and so on. Bond realises the ‘cure’ is a form of hypnotherapy, which is being applied to all the girls and their strange phobias.

Meanwhile he has the long-awaited interview with ‘Blofeld’ but is disconcerted to find a man significantly at odds with the reports of his appearance (Bond, of course, never met him in person in Thunderball). Where Blofeld was reported as immensely fat (20 stone), this Blofeld is lighter, taller and has no earlobes and also wears green (?) contact lenses (p.132).

So the narrative spends quite a few chapters slowly revealing details of the hypnotherapy, slowly revealing that each of the girls has a different phobia or allergy, each of them based on a different agricultural product (chicken, potatoes, beef cows and so on). Bond spends quiet days pretending to work studiously in his (bugged) room, poring over his books of genealogy, in the evenings enjoying the hearty meals and company of the giggling girls, having several interviews with Blofeld posing as Sir Hilary Bray, all the time trying to decide if this really is the Blofeld and what the devil he’s up to.

Two disconcerting incidents disturb the quiet flow of these days. Early on he is in his room when he hears a blood-curdling scream. Later, in the dining room, the girls are all gossiping that one of the ‘helps’ (a ‘Yugo’ named Bertil) tried to molest one of the girls; and Frau Bunt confirms the self-same man has had a terrible ‘accident’, slipping and falling down the mile-long iced bobsleigh run (unable to stop and travelling at speeds of over 60 mph, he will have been scoured and flayed to death by the ribbon-sharp ice walls.)

Secondly, Bond is at a particularly dicey moment in one of his interviews with Blofeld – a moment when Blofeld is apparently on the verge of bribing Sir Hilary – when two of the goons burst into the office and throw a blood-strewn figure down in front of him. To Bond’s horror, he realises it is the number 2 of Zurich Section, a man he knows is called Campbell (p.178).

The goons say he was caught snooping around the complex and Bond’s heart stops when the dazed, beaten-up Campbell recognises him and calls him by name – ‘James, help me, tell them I work from Universal Exports’ etc. Blofeld tells the goons to drag Campbell off to the Pressure Room where he will no doubt be tortured and then turns his green contact lenses on Bond. Bond bluffs confidently, ‘never saw the chap before in my life’ etc, but he knows it’s only a question of time till Blofeld’s men break Campbell who will blow Bond’s cover definitively.

Blofeld abruptly ends the interview and from that moment Bond is tensely planning his escape. He sidles into the ski locker room noting which pair would fit him (p.191), secretes a pair of goggles, steals the biggest pair of the girls’ gloves and so on. While poking around he opens a door into what appears to be a laboratory, illuminated by a dim red light, with sinister white-coated men moving about in it.

After a tense dinner with the girls who have obviously been told not to fraternise with him, Bond withdraws to his room, goes about his usual ablutions, and then pretends to fall asleep for the benefit of any hidden cameras or microphones.

Escape from the mountain

He gives it half an hour then gets up, dresses in his warmest gear, takes goggles, gloves, boots along to the ski room where he knocks out a guard (p.197). The phone rings (as in the corniest movie), Bond answers it in German and is told by the Head Goon that they are coming to arrest den Engländer in ten minutes. Ten minutes head start! Bond feverishly straps on boots, skis, grabs some sticks, exits the door onto the snow, locks it and throws away the key, then heads off as fast as he can down the piste.

There follows the only ski chase in the novels, although it was to become a common motif in the movies. Because it focuses on Bond’s consciousness as he tries to figure out the best way down the mountain, as he becomes aware that the ski lift is chasing him, as he cringes as bright flares are shot into the sky above him to make him an easy target – we don’t get descriptions of the pursuing forces, unlike the movies which dwell on pursuers as well as pursued. Bond has to guess what is going on behind him.

The chase ends as Bond deliberately skis out into a black run deep in new-fallen snow and deliberately triggers an avalanche. He then skis full tilt ahead of it, through a gap in a break of trees, through the narrow passage and then skis round into the protection of the woods. He and we are not absolutely sure but it seems like the pursuing skiers were swept away. As he continues downhill he gets to a road where he flies over and skewers with his ski stick a baddy who was shooting at him next to a car; Blofeld has obviously phoned his men in the valley.

In the same sequence he has seen a train steaming along the railway parallel to the road and realises he’s going to just about squeeze in front of it. The train has a snow clearing fan-rotivator fixed at the front to chew up fallen snow and spurt it out of the way. Bond whistles past it by a hair’s breadth but hears a terrible scream and then is pelted with red snow and clumps of hair and flesh from the goon pursuing him who was not so lucky (p.211).

Tracy to the rescue

Exhausted, dripping with sweat, body aching from the physical endurance test he’s just undergone (‘a grey-faced, lunging automaton’, p.212), Bond staggers on into the village at the foot of the mountain to discover it’s in the middle of a fiesta, with people everywhere drinking, wearing funny costumes, partying, congregating round a funfair and ice rink area.

Bond staggers up to the rink, not looking much the worse for wear than many other revellers, buys a ticket to the rink, gets a festival mask to wear and is staggeringly joining in some conga dancing, when up to him skates the fresh-faced, happy figure of Tracy, his beloved!

He knew she was in Italy but even so, this is a breath-taking coincidence. She immediately takes command of him, helping him towards her nifty Lancia sports car, both of them realising a crew of goons are watching out for him from a black Mercedes. As they hustle the last yards to her car, they realise the baddies have spotted them and are jumping into their car to give chase.

Cue a car chase along slippery, zig-zagging Alpine roads with the baddy car slowly accelerating and firing shots at them whenever there’s a straight line of fire, until Tracy and Bond hurtle round a corner to see a big Warning notice directing people away from a bridge which is being repaired. Bond jumps out and reverses the direction of the signs, so that the Sedan, hurtling round the corner seconds later, takes the wrong turn and goes flying over a cliff wheeeeee smashing and rebounding and crashing to the rocks below. Bond rejoins Tracy in her car and passes out before she’s even got going again.

A proposal of marriage

A few hours later they are in grey Zurich airport at dawn. Bond firms up his tickets for a flight back to London, then goes goes to sit with Tracy. She has tended his wounds and now is concerned at his wrecked state, at his health, his future. Suddenly Bond realises this is what he wants more than anything else in the world: the love of a good woman. And as he lets himself feel his love for Tracy flood through him, it dawns on him that he also needs to love. To his own surprise he asks her to marry him, and she accepts (p.231). Suddenly they are gleeful as children, and set about making plans to be married at the British Embassy in Munich. He has to fly back to London to sort out business; she will drive to Munich, sort out hotels and practicalities.

The conspiracy unmasked

Cut to later that day in London, where Bond has submitted his report to M who has called in some experts from the Ministry of Agriculture, the smartly dressed, beady-eyed Mr Franklin (p.248, it is Christmas Day but no-one is observing the niceties).

In between sleeping with her, Bond had extracted from Ruby a list of the names of the other girls who were receiving the hypnotherapy at Blofeld’s base, and got Ruby to indicate roughly where in the UK they lived (p.186).

The Agriculture expert examines the list, then points out that each of the girls lives in the main production region for the product they claimed to have a phobia of – ie one each to the country’s main areas of potato, chicken, beef production, and so on.

Now it just so happens (very conveniently for the plot) that one of the girls had already left Blofeld’s headquarters and returned to the turkey-producing region of East Anglia a few weeks earlier, and within weeks there had been the most severe outbreak of turkey blight in Britain’s history.

So the team in M’s office hypothesise that the girls are not only being hypnotised to overcome their phobias, but are being issued with germ warfare sprays or aerosols which they are being told to release at trade fairs and sales rooms ‘to boost and improve the nation’s stock’. Except the sprays infect the livestock or crops with virulent diseases: Blofeld’s fiendish plan is to decimate Britain’s agricultural sector and bring the nation to its knees.

Bond is ordered to travel back to Switzerland and foil this dastardly plot. He phones Tracy to tell her he has a bit of business to look after, but will join her in Munich in a few days time.

In Marseilles with Marc-Ange

First stop on the mission to capture Blofeld is Marseilles, the base of Tracy’s father, Marc-Ange Draco. Bond has an entertaining taxi ride from one of Marc-Ange’s tough Marseillais, along with some interesting travelogue description of France’s toughest city, and arrives at Marc-Ange’s base in a dockside warehouse to ask him a favour.

Marc-Ange is thrilled to bits that Bond is actually going to marry his daughter, as he wanted all along. So Bond takes advantage to ask him for a wedding present: will he and his organisation help him organise a raid on Blofeld’s mountain-top retreat? Marc-Ange willingly says yes and the men get down to careful planning, along with several of Marc-Ange’s lieutenants.

Shootout on a hilltop

Marc-Ange is given an interesting speech about how irritating the political situation is in France (1962-63) with the country tearing itself apart over whether to give its African colony, Algeria, independence. The conflict has led to the emergence of a far-right military organisation, the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS), devoted to keeping the colony French, whose most notorious action was an attempt to assassinate the French president, Charles de Gaulle, in August 1962. (This historical incident forms the opening scene of Frederick Forsyth’s superb thriller, The Day of The Jackal.) Marc-Ange complains to Bond that the criminal activities of the OSS – and the counter-measures of the special French security agency set up to combat them – have made for peace-loving criminals like himself and his Union Corse much harder (p.285).

Marc-Ange Draco is a humorous, winning character, one of Fleming’s best.

Turns out a renegade OAS General Salan has a helicopter at his remote chateau near Strasbourg and owes Marc-Ange a few favours. So he, his top men and Bond drive there, clamber into the helicopter (recently repainted with innocuous civilian markings) and fly south to Blofeld’s alpine headquarters.

Blofeld’s HQ issues various radio warnings but the chopper lands anyway and Marc-Ange’s men emerge to a stand-off with Blofeld’s tough goons. Two things happen: Bond notices a figure making a break from the back of the building and running towards the ski and bobsleigh shed – must be Blofeld – so Bond himself breaks into a sprint towards him. This sudden movement, plus some of the goons recognising Bond, prompts them to draw their weapons, Marc-Ange’s men to do ditto, and a massive firefight breaks out.

Bond sees Blofeld pull out a ‘skeleton’ one-man bobsleigh and throw himself into the run. He dashes into the shed, ransacking equipment out of the way till he finds another single bobsleigh, also throws it into the run, and there follows a typically detailed and hair-raising description of Bond hurtling down the run at terrifying speed, vainly trying to slow himself with the tips of his boots, finding himself thrown against the icy walls on curves which instantly rip off his protecting coat and flay the skin of his elbows. Still he is gaining on Blofeld and risks a few experimental shots from his pistol when he notices Blofeld throw a small object into the run. With horror he realises it’s a hand grenade, tries and fails to slow the sleigh, then the grenade explodes and throws him and sleigh out of the groove and into the adjacent snow.

Slowly he comes round, realises he has a cut head and a few other bruises but is basically OK. Back onto the badly mangled sleigh he climbs, which limps, grinding its bent runners on the ice, down the run to the bottom. As he descends Bond hears explosions from the mountain top and, as he finally arrives at the ski lift station at the bottom of the mountain, looks up to see Blofeld’s HQ on fire, and then Marc-Ange’s helicopter flying over him and away to safety. Mission accomplished.

Fire engines and police start to arrive and Bond pretends to be an innocent bystander who’s been injured by the broken cable of the chairlift whiplashing across him. The engine gives him a lift to the nearest station and he catches a train north into Germany.

Marriage in Munich

There are numerous pages of the kind of comfy domestic scene which Fleming does unexpectedly well. There are, for example, humorous scenes with Bond pretending to be exasperated at the amount of fuss Tracy is making about getting married; and then a comedy cruise with a Munich taxi driver to choose a wedding and engagement ring, during which spy and taxi driver become good friends (the latter admitting he was a Luftwaffe pilot in the war, and proud of it!) before they repair to a bar for Bond’s last drinking session of singledom.

The wedding itself is described with similar good humour, the British consul enthusiastically throwing confetti at the newly-wed couple which completely misses and goes all over the stocky, swarthy mafia father-in-law, Marc-Ange Draco.

They jump into Tracy’s Lancia, festooned with ribbons and balloons and motor off down Germany’s excellent Autobahns towards the village they’ve selected for their honeymoon. A few pages describing the scenery and their pleasant motoring lull the reader into a false sense of security – but when Bond waves past the flashy, red Maserati that’s been following them from a distance, when there is a sudden hail of bullets, the windscreen explodes and the car goes careering off the road into trees, crashing and Bond just has time to realise the Maserati contained Blofeld and Bunt – before he blacks out.

When he comes to, Bond sees Tracy dead, slumped forward against the steering wheel, the blood beginning to spread down her shoulders, shot by the occupants of the Maserati. A German motorcycle cop appears by the car, looking appalled at the scene of bloodshed. ‘What happened?’ he asks. It’s alright Bond replies, cuddling his murdered wife in his arms. ‘We have all the time in the world.’

I read these lines on a south-bound train on the Victoria line and confess they brought a tear to my eye. The contrast between the ten or 15 pages of whimsy and humour leading up to the wedding are smashed so brutally, and so quickly. And the poignancy of the ending, and Bond’s final stoic despairing phrase… The pacing and control which produce the emotional punch show what a very good writer Fleming was.

Biological warfare

It is interesting that this is a new enough idea for the scene in M’s office on Christmas Day to feature a detailed explanation by the man from the Ministry of Agriculture – explaining the nature and impact of Biological Warfare (chapter 22).

Marriage / all the time in the world

Bond intended to marry Vesper Lynd in the very first book of the series, until she revealed herself as a Russian double agent and killed herself. The thought has occurred to him with respect to several other girls, but this is the only time he goes through with it.

In the last few books I’d begun to notice that the phrase ‘all the time in the world’ seems to crop up at least once, like a slender thread or leitmotif. Now, here at the end of OHMSS, it is used no fewer than three times – the first two times reflecting humorous confidence:

‘Drinks,’ said Bond firmly. ‘We’ve got all the time in the world to talk about love.’ (p.314)

‘No,’ said Bond. ‘Let him go. We’ve got all the time in the world.’ (p.324)

– which makes its repetition as the book’s final, bleak, tear-filled line all the more affecting.

‘It’s all right,’ he said in a clear voice as if explaining something to a child. ‘It’s quite all right. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry. You see – ‘ Bond’s head sank against hers and he whispered into her hair – ‘you see, we’ve got all the time in the world.’ (p.325)

Male bonding

No sign of Felix Leiter for once. Instead Bond has a ‘bromance’ with Tracy’s father, Marc-Ange. Just like Darko Kerim in From Russia With Love, Bond warms to the older man’s vitality, the spirit of life which is in him – his capableness, his confidence, his honesty and frankness, his dry sense of humour, his vibrant animal spirits.

[Bond] had developed much love, and total respect, for this man. He couldn’t say why. It was partly animal magnetism and partly that Marc-Ange had opened his heart to Bond, so completely trusted him with his own innermost secrets. (p.279)

Bond lost his father when he was young (as did Fleming). The sense of attraction to an older, mature and confident man after his own heart, the depth of the bond Bond makes with these men, convinces because it taps into something deep in Fleming’s own psyche, and inspires writing which conveys real feeling.

Bond biographical details

We learn that Bond’s mother was Swiss, his father Scottish, from the Highlands, near Glencoe (p.71). Loelia Ponsonby, Bond’s secretary for all the preceding books, has finally moved on, marrying a boring conventional man who works at the Baltic Exchange. She’s been replaced by ex-WREN Mary Goodnight, ‘a honey’ with the vital statistics 37-22-35. A £5 sweepstake has been organised by the male members of the office on who will bed her first with Bond equal favourite with 006, an ex-Royal Marine (p.68). (We’d heard of a 008 and 011 as long ago as the first book; this is the first mention of 006.)

He is driving his favourite car, not the DB III of Goldfinger, but a Continental Bentley, ‘the R type chassis with the big 6 engine and a 13:40 back-axle ratio’ (p.12).

Bond dislikes, in fact ‘abhors’, shoelaces (p.21). He has a new piece of equipment, a Syncraphone, an early version of the bleeper, which works within a ten-mile radius of the office (p.67).

At the Royal College of Heralds Bond is told he may be very remotely descended from a Baronet in the 17th century and remotely connected to the founder of Bond Street. The old family motto was ‘The world is not enough’ which, of course, was used as the title of the 19th Bond movie, starring Pierce Brosnan.


On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming was published in April 1963 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2002 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1963

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis (1963)

‘I hate to say it, but you certainly are one fat Englishman. It was like fighting a grizzly bear.’ (p.75)

A short (170-page) comic novel which I had very mixed feelings about. It is laugh-out-loud funny every couple of pages, much funnier than I Like It Here or Take A Girl Like You, but the subject is appalling and quite frequently you feel Amis is going well out of his way to be offensive. A funny but uneasy read.

The fat Englishman

The ‘concept’ is simple: Roger Micheldene is a middle-aged English publisher. He is fat bordering on obese. He is a drunk and a glutton, stuffing his face and drinking himself insensible at every opportunity. And he is in America, somewhere in New England, a guest of the fictional Budweiser College (ho ho ho), where he loses no opportunity to:

  • insult his hosts
  • become painfully, offensively drunk
  • lecherously proposition almost every (married) woman he meets

his mind packed to overflowing with vitriolic abuse of America and his genial hosts, as well as casually insulting thoughts about Jews, blacks, gays and Asians.

There is a whole separate category for his insulting and manipulative attitude to women (an entire blog post could be devoted to the subject) who he approaches in a faux-military attitude, deploying a range of strategies and tactics all designed to avail himself of one thing only, amid infuriatingly casually-expressed outrageous sentiments.

Roger relatively seldom hit a woman unless he was really angry or at least very drunk, and already his anger had begun to fade into puzzlement… (p.127)

He is, in other words, a hideously recognisable caricature of a man, of an Englishman, of a xenophobic Englishman, of a xenophobic, dipsomaniac Englishman, of a xenophobic, dipsomaniac, rude, racist and grotesquely sexist Englishman.

So this novel is scandalously funny at regular intervals – but just as often wince-inducingly embarrassing.


Fat drunk lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene attends a number of parties where he a) gets drunk b) really obviously eyes up married women. He is trying to arrange golden time with Helene Bang, the wife of a Danish linguist, Dr Ernst Bang, who he has already slept with (wildly improbably), but she puts him off making numerous excuses, ‘oh the kids are due back any moment’ etc etc. But – why does she see him at all? Completely smashed at the end of a party he vaguely remembers propositioning another woman who – equally improbably – has given him her address. Next day he travels to meet her and she (improbably) drives them with picnic blanket out to an isolated spot, where she lets him make love to her. As Amis would say – Why? She’s the one who comes out with the quote I use above, that he resembles a fat grizzly bear. Yuk.

The novel had opened at a party beside a swimming pool, where Roger expended great effort in a comic attempt to see Helene in a swimming costume. Here it is that he meets his nemesis, the young Jewish novelist Irving Macher, who observes him with sardonic detachment, even while Roger drunkenly insults him. Roger wangles an invitation to Helene and her husband’s house where he uses every opportunity to pester her with propositions.

A whole chapter is devoted to Roger trying to persuade Helene to have sex with him while her husband is out, when that fails then to arrange a date when they can have sex – all continually and comically interrupted by her insufferable little boy, Arthur. Later that evening Roger is at the drinks party preceding a Big Lecture he has been invited to give about the state of publishing (the idea of a drunk man’s lecture going badly wrong echoing the climax of Lucky Jim). Worse the wear for drink, Roger opens his briefcase only to find – his speech gone and replaced by a copy of Mad magazine! Furious, he drunkenly tells his hosts he is not going to speak; they try to persuade to give an informal talk, after all hundreds of guests have been invited, but he storms out and back to Helene’s house, where he drunkenly accuses her son Arthur of stealing his speech. Ernst, the husband, points out that the Mad magazine has a stamp from the college library. It wasn’t little Arthur. It must have been someone in the faculty pulling a practical joke.

Chapter 11 opens with Roger quoting Latin verse and anything else that comes to mind to distract him because he is having sex with Helene and wants to delay his ejaculation. Candid? Ground-breaking in 1965? Maybe. It’s certainly gross. They’ve barely finished when they hear a vehicle coming up the drive and a knock at the door – prompting traditional bedroom farce panic thinking it’s Ernst the husband – until they realise it’s only the postman delivering a package, addressed to Roger. When he opens it he discovers his speech and a covering note from Macher, warning that this is the first in a planned string of ‘Treatments’. Incensed, Roger throws Helene off and insists on ringing every number he can in order to track down the Dean of Budweiser College and report the malicious Macher, but to no avail.

There is another party, this time on a boat heading out to an island in a lake. A jazz band is playing aboard and it is packed with faculty and staff. Roger chats to a pretty student called Suzanne who tells him a bit more about Macher, how bored he gets, how he likes to stir up trouble, how he gets it from ‘those French writers’, Sartre and Laclos. Last year it was mescaline and pot. — Interesting insight into student/Bohemian values in the very early 1960s…

Then Suzanne is replaced by Mollie Atkins, the woman who drove Roger out to a picnic spot a few days previously and let him plook her. Now she takes him into a dark corner of the boat (it is night time), he is expecting a nice kiss and a grope but she bites him very hard on the shoulder, his howl of pain heard even over the wailing of the jazz band. Once the guests are disembarked on the island, Molly manoeuvres Roger into a dark copse and again bites him, making him really angry. Also angry because he had rejected the overtures of Suzanne on the boat – only to get bitten by this mad woman! And angry because he thinks he sees Helene watching them from a group of drinkers, thus not improving his chances with her. Damn.

In fact, it becomes plain that quite a few people are kissing people they shouldn’t in the dark island, sparsely illuminated only by the lights of the river boat. One of the faculty waves at him as he passes, encouraging him to have a good time, with your wife or someone’s wife. It dawns on the reader that Roger isn’t alone in his delinquency, that this is the much more liberated, free and easy America of John Updike’s early novels or John Cheever’s short stories. Although Roger is in a class of his own when it comes to disgusting grossness.

Roger crammed the last of the bread into his mouth and dunked it with so much whisky and water that a thin jet of it played from between his lips as he munched, but he craned his head forward and most of it missed his clothes. (p.124)

Somehow they all get back onto the boat, though Helene’s husband comes running up just as it’s leaving, has to take a running jump onto the boat’s deck, landing badly and breaking something in his foot. In various cars the guests make their way back to Strode Atkins’ house (husband of the Molly Atkins who seduced then bit him), everyone is drunk and behaving badly. Roger finds himself hauled out front of the house because of some disturbance: a man named Joe is slowly, systematically destroying his own sports car with a wheel iron, first one headlight, then the other headlight, then the windscreen, while his wife stands by screaming at him to stop and several other guys try to reason with him. Roger staggers back inside for more booze. The whole book is like this, one long drunken picaresque…

At a couple of these parties, one of the many guests had been a Father Colgate, an incredibly handsome young priest who speaks in high-minded clichés and instantly gets Roger’s back up. Surprisingly, Roger is himself a Catholic, though his prayers are mainly about getting women to agree to have sex with him. Now, at this car-smashing party, extremely drunk, he suddenly remembers something important. While he had been in bed with Helene at her place, the phone had rung (before the car coming up the drive proved to be the postman) and it had been Colgate, telling him his soul was in danger and he needed to make himself right with God. Roger had put the phone down on the bedside table when the postman knocked, taken time to open the package containing his missing lecture and read the note from Macher, become infuriated and started shouting, and made his way shouting back to the phone — to find Father Colgate still speaking his high-minded rot, at which Roger had slammed the receiver down on him.

Having made an arse of himself with women at this island party, and somehow feeling disturbed by Joe smashing up his car, Roger asks if Helene can drive him somewhere downtown and she improbably agrees. They get into the car and he is in the middle of giving her directions when someone speaks from the back seat and Roger nearly jumps out of his big fat skin. Not only is there someone there in the back, but it is his nemesis, Macher, with the result that they fence and spar all the way to the destination, Roger devoutly insulting him, Macher effortlessly parrying and infuriating Roger even more by telling him how much he respects him and enjoys his behaviour: it is so spontaneous.

Roger emerges drunkenly from Helene’s car and walks up the steps of a nice town house and begins banging on the door and shouting for the priest to come out, the good-for-nothing, lay slack-a-bed, Come out here Colgate! Eventually the door is opened by a tall black man who points out that the priest he’s looking for lives across the road. Roger shambles across the road and recommences the knocking and shouting on Father Colgate’s door. When the priest finally lets him in, he harangues him for a few minutes, and then drags him bodily over to a pretentious aquarium the Father has in the corner of a room and – forces Colgate’s face down first to touch the water, and then actually into the water.

Roger stirred the tank vaguely with C0lgate for a moment, then took him away and dropped him on to a sofa. Colgate coughed and gasped. ‘Good night, Father, and thank you. You’ve been a great help. Pray for me.’ (p.142)

Things move to a conclusion in the next chapter which opens with Roger having been phoned by the Danish linguist, Ernst, and gone to the latter’s house at his request. Ernst is upset because Helene has gone off for the weekend without telling him where (and Roger is upset because Helene had promised to spend a dirty weekend with him in New York. Damn).

Roger had not really been surprised. It just showed up the inherent snag about all dealings with women: that they involved women. (p.144)

It is a little disconcerting but fits with the permissive tone of the book and of the relaxed wife-swapping  milieu it depicts, that Ernst calmly accepts that Helene has affairs; he is only upset when he doesn’t know where she is, when she goes off without telling him. Who could she be with? In a flash, Roger replies: Macher. Ha ha, now he’ll get his revenge.

In fact, Roger now recalls through the alcoholic haze, Strode Atkins telling Helene she could have the keys to the Atkins’ New York apartment, ostensibly for her tryst with him, Roger. Now Roger rings Atkins, thinks up a pretext to get some keys himself, and sets off to surprise the two lovers!

However, even this ‘climax’ falls strangely flat. He locates the apartment, lets himself in, confirms a couple have slept there but are currently out, rifles all the cupboards and drinks everything alcoholic he can find. Waits and gets bored and recalls Helene saying something about jazz. So he calls a cab and asks it to take him to a jazz club.

There follows a sequence which feels as if it’s just been wedged into the novel for no very good reason except to use up Amis’s notes and impressions on visiting New York’s jazz clubs. These tend to be downstairs, hot and sweaty, and fronted by black men with pencil-thin moustaches wearing shades. All the musicians wear shades and it is very loud. Amis makes a sort of jazz joke by saying that one band in a club Roger visits is led by Daz O’Rooney, another in another club by John Colvoutie. Presumably these are parodies of the famous modern jazz virtuosos, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. The reader is staggered that Amis might have seen Gillespie or Coltrane live, and a little saddened that the experience gives rise only to this half-cocked joke.

Having drawn a blank in his search, Roger heads back to the flat where he rifles through more drawers and discovers an old book which he recognises as a diary kept by the Victorian poet Swinburne, about his notorious sexual preferences (being whipped). At a few of the parties, among the chit-chat, people had mentioned rumours about someone purloining this from the library in England where it belongs. Roger realises its value and shoves it in his pocket. Just about then Macher and Helene arrive. There is a big argument but not that big, all things considered. Helene says she’ll walk out if they have a fight. Macher gives up and goes for a shower. When he returns Roger and Helene are still arguing. Roger insists it’s too late to catch a train back to New England and – in a comic climbdown – the others agree he can simply stay in the spare room, so he does. No fight, no sex. Damn.

The final chapter cuts to Roger aboard a cruise liner set to sail back to England (he hates flying) as Helene’s husband thanks him profusely for tracking her down and persuading her to return to him. Of course, none of this was Roger’s actual intention, but he is happy to take the credit, and as Ernst goes back to the quay and the boat pulls out, Roger feels quite happy with the sex he managed to have and his other florid adventures; he now has a plan to offer to publish Macher’s first novel and then kill it with lack of reviews and distribution ha ha – and he taps the copy of Swinburne in his pocket, knowing it will fetch a tidy sum from a suitably unscrupulous buyer. Not too bad, old boy, not too bad.

Amis’s Titles

Every novel of Amis’s I read confirms how deliberately chosen the titles are to be common-or-garden phrases and how accurately that reflects the common-or-garden, take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the subject matter. Compare and contrast with the titles of, say, William Golding, who began his published career in the same year as Amis (1954) and whose titles are laden with symbolism and fraught with significance: Lord of The Flies, The Inheritors, The Spire. Amis has I Like it Here, I Want It Now, Ending Up, novels with such deliberately everyday, forgettable titles that quite a few of them have, in fact, been forgotten.

Amis tricks and techniques

… or something Deliberate bloody-mind vagueness, about names of people or places or household machines or anything, a permanent ‘whatever’, talk-to-the-hand attitude of solipsistic indifference.

A bird called outside, an ugly and unfamiliar sound. A blue jay, or one of the other local sorts they kept on about. (p.48)

Helene, her back to him, was busy making some spread or whip or paste stuff. (p.58)

Roger met an alternative image when the taxi got on to one of those throughway or turnpike things. (p.64)

This occurs in all Amis’s books and must have seemed a striking departure from the high-minded tradition that Writers write about Serious Themes and are Experts in Life. On the contrary, Amis’s novels portray ordinary people in a hectic hurry bombarded with the stimuli of modern life who can’t be expected to know all this bloody stuff.

Ending a paragraph with a question It doesn’t happen all that often but it is a real Amis characteristic to describe something incongruous and then end the paragraph with an exasperated ‘Why?’ Of the Halloween celebrations going on in the background one evening:

On either side of the road were houses festooned with multi-coloured lights and orange-coloured turnip ghosts. Now and again ragged groups of people or children could be seen cavorting about. What did they think they were celebrating? (p.64)

Making faces, choosing voices One of Lucky Jim’s distinguishing features was the ways its protagonist pulled funny faces (each of which had a special comic name) and mimicked all kinds of characters and accents, at wildly inappropriate moments. None of the subsequent novels pack in such manic comic energy, but his protagonists all do this thing of having an array of facial expressions and tones of voice which they artfully select and instal as appropriate – instead of just having expressions or just speaking. He is much, much more self-conscious than that. On meeting Molly Atkins sober:

The smile she gave him was cordial enough… He gave a much better smile back, with more eye-work and a quiet hello. (p.70)

‘Very good to see you,’ he said, packing sincerity in. (p.70)

When Helene’s husband, Ernst, asks Roger whether her abrupt disappearance is out of character:

‘Most emphatically I agree.’ Roger tried to put on the expression of a practiced and sincere fact-gatherer. (p.143)

It is not quite continual play-acting: more a continual awareness of ‘others’ (what Sartre called l’autrui) and calculating how to play to them, a continual self-conscious situating of oneself vis-a-vis l’autrui.

Military metaphors Amis was in the Army during the war (as we know from the three war stories in My Enemy’s Enemy) and one regular comic routine is to have his male protagonists think about generally trivial ways of handling mundane things in comically exaggerated military metaphors.

He took up an offensive position by the refrigerator. (p.56)

Making hurried excuses why Helene can’t visit his apartment:

Letting [women] enter one’s base of operations was to be avoided whenever possible. (p.78)

Of the pleasure steamer, when it reaches the party island:

The disembarkation was carried out efficiently and with the sense of common purpose characteristic of a task force which, though so far unopposed, expects to make first contact shortly. (p.124)

In its jokey invocation of military strategy it overlaps with the hero’s jokey deployment of voice and face as tactics in the never-ending war with other people, with the world at large.

Insults The mind of the ghastly hero is awash with inventive and often very funny, and sometimes just offensive, insults. Molly Atkins is the woman he propositioned at a party when he was so drunk that the next day he can’t remember what he said or what her name is or even what she looked like – a few days later he finally meets her:

Then they were face to face. At this range she looked a little better, but not much. A complexion that appeared to have been left out in a violent hailstorm for about ten years was her most signal drawback. (p.70)

To a woman who tactlessly raised the subject of Roger’s own divorce:

‘Say no more,’ [he replied]. Or else stand by for a dose of grievous bodily harm (Roger thought to himself), you women’s-cultural-lunch-club-organising Saturday Review of Literature-reading substantial-inheritance-from-soft-drink-corporation-awaiting old-New-Hampshire-family-invoking Kennedy-loving just-wunnerful-labelling Yank bag. (p.23)

Reflecting on his enemy, Macher the young novelist:

Never call a Jew a Jew unless you can be sure of making him lose his temper. (p.86)

Of a Japanese student who talks with him:

… a girl of Oriental appearance who would have been quite acceptable if she had had eye sockets as well as eyes.

To Father Colgate, down the phone:

Roger spoke three words into the mouthpiece, of which two were ‘the Pope’, and rang off hard. (p.116)

Sometimes funny, sometimes gross. If you are Jewish or Japanese or a woman, a couple of these ‘jokes’ might be enough to put you off Amis for life.

Anti-Americanism The influence of America, especially of its free and easy cultural exports, is something which hangs heavy on the minds of Keith Waterhouse, Amis, Lodge and Bradbury, prompting awe and a certain resentment in their characters in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Their characters begrudge American imports, the flashy films, the white goods, the brainless advertising, the loud rock’n’roll ‘music’ etc. But only Amis takes the resentment to the extremes seen in this novel.

For sophomores or seniors or whatever the hell they were of Buddweiser College, Pa., they seemed not hopelessly barbarous. None of them was chewing gum or smoking a ten-cent cigar or wearing a raccoon coat or drinking Coca-Cola or eating a hamburger or sniffing cocaine or watching television or mugging anyone or, perforce, driving a Cadillac. (p.81)

In numerous other places he dislikes specific American qualities (their architecture, their design, their clothes, their accents, their attitudes) and in a way the entire novel is a calculated insult to America and its genial, affluent hospitality. Of course, the central character being pilloried is an English man – and lots of English qualities, including his pointless snobbery, his affected speech, his revolting habits (taking large amounts of snuff and then picking his nose in company) are relentlessly savaged – but despite his grossness, being so intimately inside his head makes it hard not to sympathise a little with the horrible monster, especially when he is – despite everything – very funny. 

But I wonder if the overall contempt for America, and the specifically anti-American comments which litter the text, permanently damaged his reputation in the States.

L.S. Caton

On page 159, while rifling through the drawers in Atkins’ New York apartment, beside the Swinburne Roger stumbles across a letter from one ‘L.S Caton’ asking a publisher if he would consider his book about South America. Now this is the same L.S.Caton who promised Lucky Jim Dixon he’d publish his academic paper in a new journal, but then fled the country, the journal collapsed, along with Jim’s reputation, and Caton was rumoured to have decamped to South America. His name subsequently crops up in a letter offering to deliver a lecture at Standish’s school in Take A Girl Like You, and now in this novel as well. I hope he is mentioned in every Amis novel.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of One Fat Englishman, illustration by Arthur Robins

Penguin paperback edition of One Fat Englishman, illustration by Arthur Robins

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré (1963)

Who do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs? I’d have killed Mundt if I could, I hate his guts; but not now. It so happens they need him. They need him so that the great moronic mass that you admire can sleep soundly in their beds at night. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.’ (p.231)

This is a really brilliant novel: wonderfully conceived, powerfully imagined, expertly executed, clearly written. It was le Carre’s breakthrough novel, only his third, which established him as a major player and created an entirely new downbeat, realistic feel for spy thrillers.


Alec Leamas works for British intelligence as station officer in Berlin. When his network is ‘rolled up’ ie arrested by East German security, he returns to England, like all le Carré’s protagonists aware of his advancing age and wondering if he is over the hill. He is given menial duties working in the banking section of the ‘Circus’ (so-called because it is located in London’s Cambridge Circus) and called in for a special meeting with ‘Control’, who has a plan.

Leamas will undertake a daring mission. He will be dismissed from the Circus under a cloud to the accompaniment of orchestrated gossip that he’s been badly treated and tricked out of a pension. He will drink heavily, get himself thrown into prison, in every way appear to be disillusioned, and so make himself available to be approached by ‘the other side’. He will, in short, set himself up to be a defector.

And this is just what happens. He drinks heavily to cultivate the image. Bad mouths the Service which has given him a menial job in banking. Eventually the Service ‘lets him go’. He is unemployed. He drinks heavily. He gets a job at a library and falls in love with a Jewish communist librarian, Liz Gold. He drunkenly assaults a greengrocer, knocking him out, getting arrested and sent to prison.

Sure enough, as soon as he gets out he is approached by one Ashe, who offers to look after him. After some chat he is passed on to a tougher man named Kievers. This man ascertains that Leamas worked for the Service and is prepared to talk about it, and explains he will be taken abroad for a short while to earn money telling what he knows. He flies under a false passport to Holland where he is handed over to a more senior figure, Peters. This Peters offers Leamas £15,000 to tell everything he knows about the Circus. Leamas agrees and answers all questions over several days interviewing.

They are in the middle of the process when news comes that the authorities in Britain have put out an alert for him. At this point Leamas becomes genuinely afraid – this wasn’t in Control’s plan. Peters and his German minders say he must now be moved East for his own safety. They fly to Berlin and drive across the checkpoint into East Berlin. From there Leamas is taken to an isolated safe house amid pine forests and meets Fiedler, number two in the Abteilung, the East German secret police.

In long interrogations – really conversations – with Fiedler, Leamas reveals everything he knows about the Circus’s operations in East Germany: about his network, how it was run, who was paid what etc. In among all the true stuff, though, is the thread of disinformation – a set of misleading facts about secret payments he had to make via Scandinavian banks.

The point of the mission

It is this which is the core of Leamas’s mission: because the dates of the payments have been timed to match the dates of trips to Scandinavian countries by Mundt, the head of the Abteilung. In other words, the entire deception is designed to frame Mundt and give his number two, Fiedler, the evidence he needs to arrest and eliminate Mundt. Cunning.

At every stage Leamas plays it perfectly by being reluctant: pretending not to know that the dates tie up, then refusing to believe Mundt could be a spy since he, Leamas, ran the German network and would have known about him. Leamas’s ignorance and reluctance to go along with the notion of Mundt’s guilt are designed to encourage Fiedler’s belief in it.

Mundt in A Call For The Dead

NB It is useful to have read A Call For The Dead before this novel, as this is the same Mundt who appears as in that novel as the head of the East German Steel Mission to Britain. When the network is ‘blown’ he oversees the assassination of agents who risk further exposure.

a) Although these events are referred to in Spy, it is more powerful to have read and experienced them in the earlier book; it gives a stronger sense of Mundt’s brutality. b) It is part of Fiedler’s case against Mundt that Mundt was able to leave England so easily after his network was exposed because Mundt did a deal with British Intelligence, and ever since then has been a double agent, rising up in the Abteilung, sending information to London.


The novel is perfectly paced. All the events unfold with a deep and pleasing inevitability, yet nothing is forced or hurried. There is a sudden reversal – Fiedler is still interrogating Leamas when their house is taken over by security guards working for Mundt, who has intervened to arrest Fielder and Leamas. The latter is badly beaten then begins to be interrogated by Mundt (who we finally meet, cold and calculating). But almost immediately there is a further switch, because Fielder had just sent a dossier of his case against Mundt to the Praesidium, who now release Fiedler and imprison Mundt.

The impasse must be resolved and so the Praesidium organises an investigation to be set in a court room, each side making its case. Fiedler argues compellingly against Mundt, listing the evidence which has led him to believe Mundt is a British double agent. However, Mundt’s lawyer then demolishes it: He all-too-accurately describes the Circus’s plot, the way Leamas was laid off, ran out of money poor, drank too much, assaulted the grocer – Mundt’s lawyer accurately describes this all as a scam, designed to lead to his recruitment by the Abteilung.

Up to this point he is describing events which could be interpreted either way. But then, in a dramatic coup, he introduces Liz, Leamas’s lover, the librarian, into the court. (In a parallel strand of the novel we had seen her be contacted by the British communist party and invited on a ‘goodwill visit’ to East Germany. It was all a ploy to enable her to be produced at the trial.) Here Mundt’s counsel extracts, from an obviously honest and reluctant witness, the fact that Liz knew about the assault before it happened, that Leamas said he had something he had to do, that he made their last night a formal goodbye (the day before he assaulted the grocer and went to prison) that, in other words, the whole thing was planned.

In further, damning, evidence, she reluctantly admits that she was visited by Smiley, who left a card and told her to get in touch if she had any problems or if she heard from Leamas; and that her lease was bought and sent to her, as if in payment for her aid.

Leamas listens in amazement. How incompetent of London! It is almost as if they were trying to undermine his mission, it is almost as if they wanted the mission to indict Mundt to fail, it is almost as if the whole mission was actually designed to incriminate Fiedler… at which point, Leamas realises with a shock… that Fiedler is right. That Mundt is London’s man. That Control and Smiley lied to him, and have used him and Liz as pawns in a deeper plot to discredit Fiedler – a genuine communist – because he was getting too close to Mundt – London’s double-agent.

Liz Gold

The narrative then follows Liz as she is taken from the court through miles of corridors of the vast prison for dissidents and intellectuals, has a dispiriting conversation with the zealous woman guard, and sinks in despair onto her bed… when the door of her cell is opened and it is Mundt, hurrying her along corridors, out of a door onto a gravel drive to the main gate, through it and up to a car and to Leamas. He leaves them.

This is a particularly effective passage because a) it skips quickly over events in the court room, which probably got a bit tedious b) it powerfully conveys Liz’s fear and bewilderment – for once we are not following the actions of a seasoned player of ‘the game’, we are feeling the devastating impact of this terrifying world on someone like us, the disorientation, the terror.

The Wall

Mundt has triumphed. Leamas and Liz are free. They get in the car and, as Leamas drives at speed back towards Berlin, he reveals the moral of the story. Because Liz is such a complete innocent, Leamas is able to explain the rationale of espionage from the ground up, how it is the logical extension of two conflicting ideologies, how it is infinitely superior to actual war, but how it has its own casualties, compromises, amorality. What did she expect? (See the quote at the head of this review.)

They pick up an agent at a pre-arranged place who guides them to the Wall and gives them precise instructions about how to climb over at a place where the wire has been cut. And so they walk to it and climb up and over as instructed except that, as Leamas pulls the girl up after him all the searchlights go on and there are shots. Liz’s body goes limp then falls. She and Leamas had discussed in the car how odd it was that Mundt was letting her go, an idealistic fool who now knows he is a top-ranking double agent ie she holds his life in her hands. Leamas realises Mundt planned to have her killed all along. And, in deeper disillusionment, realises his own side must have known it as well. And we don’t need to be reminded that Mundt is viciously anti-semitic and Liz was a Jew. The full horror of these people, of this world, of total expediency, hits us.

Leamas hears voices from the West telling him to climb over and down to safety. He hears Smiley’s voice ‘from quite close’. And, like the ageing, tired, and completely disillusioned man he is, Leamas deliberately climbs back down into the Eastern side, knowing what will happen, no longer wanting to live. And is shot dead.

The sense of psychological defeat, betrayal, moral squalor, is complete, and leaves an enduring taste in the mouth. The le Carré flavour.


Throughout the text characters show a sensitiveness to Jewishness which is strange to me. Maybe it’s Germany, with its special history, that makes it so prominent. But it is also important to the plot that Liz the librarian is Jewish, and that Fiedler, the number two, is Jewish. In the brief spell when Mundt’s men take over, before the Praesidium intervenes, Mundt is described as torturing Fiedler, and whispering ‘dirty Jew’, ‘filthy Jew’, in his ear. The woman gaoler in charge of Liz is similarly automatically, thoughtlessly anti-semitic. Leamas is not anti-semitic but immediately recognises someone as Jewish.

Maybe this ‘Jew awareness’ is one of the differences between 1963 and 2014 (when I’m writing), 50 years which have seen enormous immigration to all West European nations and the creation of truly multicultural societies. Maybe Jews were more noticeable in 1963, in a society almost 100% white and caucasian – whereas in 2014 any slight physical difference they (may) exhibit has been lost in the vast sea of racial/ethnic differences which now surrounds us.

Memories of the Cold War

This sensitivity to Jewishness is one aspect of the way this novel is now part of a vanished history. When I first read 1984 and Darkness At Noon in the 1970s, they scared me more than any horror story, they described an abyss into which all society, all humanity, could quite possibly fall, they described outcomes which might result from the political struggles of the time, from the power of communist and socialist parties across Europe even, potentially, from the power of the radical wing of the Labour Party.

It is not just that the Cold War ended and the West won. It is the way even the notion that one single ideology could conquer the world has evaporated. When this novel was published the world population was 3 billion. China, the USSR, all East Europe, Korea then Vietnam, Cuba and parts of Latin America, and a lot of Africa could be described as communist or at risk of becoming communist. Now the world population is over 7 billion and it’s not clear that any state is now genuinely communist. Although Islamic fundamentalism gives the West’s security services something to do, that sense that ‘one side’ will triumph has disappeared. There are now lots of anxieties, but they are to do with the economy, the environment, global warming, random acts of terrorism.

That one, bottomless, existential fear about the death of human freedom and the triumph of totalitarian communism which I remember from the 1970s and which was captured in novels like this, has disappeared like morning dew. It is impossible to explain it to my children. They have no idea what I’m talking about.

Dramatis personae

  • Alec Leamas – fifty-year-old spy, pretends to be a defector
  • Control – head of the ‘Circus’ ie British intelligence
  • George Smiley – peripheral to the plot, but appears at various moments, specifically when he visits Leamas’s girlfriend Liz Gold, to find out what if anything he’s told her communist party leaders about Leamas (he also witnesses Leamas beating up the grocer, and pays off Leamas’s landlord)
  • Liz Gold – naive, idealistic librarian and member of the Bayswater communist party
  • Ashe – effeminate, nervous German agent, who makes first contact with Leamas, hands him on to…
  • Kievens – who establishes that Leamas is prepared to defect
  • Peters – in Holland, debriefs Leamas at length
  • Jens Fiedler – number two in Eat German Abteilung, interrogates Leamas in a friendly collaborative way because he suspects his boss, Mundt, is an English double-agent
  • Mundt – head of East German security; cold, cunning, sadistic, he is in fact a British double-agent, and the whole point of Leamas’s mission turns out to be to protect him by discrediting Fiedler


The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré, published 1963 by Victor Gollancz. All quotes from the 1981 Pan paperback edition.

The movie

The novel was made into a fantastically atmospheric black-and-white film, released in 1965, starring Richard Burton and featuring Michael Horden, Sam Wanamaker, Oskar Werner and Robert Hardy. It is as much a classic of the film world as the book is of literature. All the actors are immaculate. The direction, by Martin Ritt, is wonderful. The framing of almost every shot is perfect, many of the frames can be frozen and make classy still photos. Ritt has a fantastically good eye and a choice way of locating the camera, conceiving action, framing the shot. And at the heart of it is a towering performance by Burton, acting much older than his 40 years, looking and sounding a thousand years old.


Le Carre has given innumerable interviews to the press and TV over the years.

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 to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. 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)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • 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)

The Golden Keel by Desmond Bagley (1963)

‘It’s like something from the Spanish Main,’ she said, ‘or a Hammond Innes thriller.’ (Ch 1, 6)

This is a ripping yarn, a gripping tale, a cracking story, the best of the four Bagleys I’ve read so far.

Like the author, the hero Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran makes his way across Africa after World War II and ends up in South Africa. Here he becomes a successful boat designer and builder and one day meets a drunk in a bar who assures him he fought with the Italian partisans and tells a long story about how he and a few others ambushed a convoy of Nazis which turned out to be carrying a fortune in Italian government gold, jewels, currency and papers. The partisans hid the lorries bearing the treasure in abandoned mine workings and blew up the entrance but have been pondering on and off for the last 15 years how to get their hands on it.

This turns out to be much more complicated than you’d think as you can’t just carry four tons of gold through airport security. Hal’s idea is to sail from SA to Italy in a yacht of his own design and manufacture, melt the gold down into the shape of a keel, and swap it for the lead keel they’ve sailed there with – then sail home with a golden keel!

Except things become much more complicated than they expect – as they fall foul of a criminal mastermind in the stopping-off point of Tangiers, then are forced to take into partnership survivors of the Italian partisans who know about the treasure, and then are subject to an all-out attack by Italian mobsters who have discovered the scheme. All this before they make the final nerve-racking voyage across the Med into the teeth of a ferocious storm and chased by an enemy gunship.

Bagley’s expert knowledge of boat building and sailing are well to the fore but highly relevant and dramatically convincing. Many of the characters are stereotypes – the smooth-talking gangster, the noble Italian patriarch, the weak alcoholic who fouls things up, the angry Afrikaaner who turns out to be a pillar of strength, not to mention the little girl who helped the partisans but 15 years later has blossomed into a raven-haired beauty – but they work here, in the context of a fast-moving thriller, the whole thing is well-handled and immensely enjoyable.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Keel

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Keel

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

Ice Station Zebra by Alistair MacLean (1963)

In the year Len Deighton published his second spy novel, Horse Under Water, and Ian Fleming his 11th, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, MacLean published his 10th thriller, Ice Station Zebra. Reading MacLean against Deighton brings out their relative merits and shortcomings.

Where Deighton is brief and clipped to the point of obscurity, MacLean is explicit and obvious to the point of repetitiveness and diffuseness. Where Deighton gives situations in a phrase, MacLean takes pages, chapters.

Heavily factual

The first fifty pages of Ice Station Zebra consist of the first person narrator, Dr Carpenter, being given a tour of the US nuclear submarine Dolphin, and meeting the impeccably dressed, disciplined and intelligent crew. He is immensely respectful of them and their unflappable captain, Swanson. Maybe he actually was shown round a US nuclear sub and is returning the favour. It is almost a Sunday supplement article more than a fiction, with page after page of boys’ own technical detail, like a Top Gear special.

Hansen said thoughtfully: ‘Fifteen feet of ice is a helluva lot of ice. And that ice will have a tamping effect and will direct 90 per cent of the explosive force down the way. You think we can blow a hole through fifteen feet of ice, captain?’
‘I’ve no idea,’ Swanson admitted.
‘Nobody ever tried to do this before?’ I asked.
‘No. Not in the U.S. Navy, anyway.’
‘Aren’t the underwater shock waves liable to damage the Dolphin?’ I asked.
‘If they do, the Electric Boat Company can expect a pretty strong letter of complaint. We shall explode the warhead electronically about 1,000 yards after it leaves the ship – it has to travel eight hundred yards anyway before a safety device unlocks and permits the warhead to be armed. We shall be bows-on to the detonation and with a hull designed to withstand the pressures this one is, the shock effects should be minimal.’ (Ch 4)

Not even dialogue as exposition, more dialogue as prolonged technical manual into which a slender sliver of ‘plot’ is occasionally inserted. Reading this book you learn a lot about all aspects of underwater navigation as well as a large amount of information about Arctic conditions, the behaviour of ice packs and so on. Thoroughly researched. All research on display.


Where Deighton conveys a situation in the briefest possible number of words or sentences, Maclean piles on the agony to a level of obviousness and beyond.

For the most part, standing as we were on the bridge twenty feet above the level of the ice – the rest of the Dolphin might never have existed as far as the eye could tell – we were above this billowing ground-swell of ice particles; but occasionally the wind gusted strongly, the spicules lifted, drumed domonaically against the already ice-sheathed staroard side of the sail, drove against the few exposed inches of our skin with all the painfully stinging impact of a sand-blaster held at arm’s length; but unlike a sand-blaster, the pain-filled shock of those spear-tipped spicules was only momentary, each wasp-like sting carried with it its own ice-cold anaesthetic and al surface sensation was quickly lost. Then the wind would drop, the furious rattling on the sail would fade and in the momentary contrast of near-silence we could hear the stealthy rustling as of a million rats advancing as the ice-spicules brushed their blind way across the iron-hard surface of the polar cap. The bridge thermometer stood at -21° F. -53° of frost. If I were a promoter interested in developing a summer holiday resort, I thought, I wouldn’t pay very much attention to this place. (Ch 4)

Where Deighton has highly-worked smart similes, MacLean has a peculiar kind of laboured jokiness, as in that last sentence. Cringeworthy, but peripheral to the core purposes of the text: a) technical expertise b) physical extremity c) intense suspense.


On the plus side, where Deighton’s plots are often difficult to follow, MacLean’s are very obvious. Although there are twists and turns in the plots, and the narrator generally turns out to be different to what he seems in the first half of the text, and there are further revelations down the line, these revelations, when they come, are fully explained and worked through for the reader. Not so in Deighton where it is often difficult to figure out what the plot is even about!

So, in Ice Station Zebra, a British government weather station high up in the Arctic has suffered a catastrophic fire and is sending out pitiful mayday signals. The narrator, Dr Carpenter, arrives at the US naval base with authority from the highest level to be carried to the base to rescue the survivors. For the first hundred pages or so there is textbook level of detail about the working of a nuclear submarine, about sonar and ice-depth detectors and radio in high latitudes and so on which powerfully convey the difficulties of the mission. Eventually they surface through one of the rare available thin areas of ice, and three naval volunteers accompany Carpenter through a devastating ice storm to the burnt-out wreckage of the base, and the handful of burnt, frozen survivors huddled in the unheated cabin.

But of course, this is where the plot thickens, where we learn there is more to Ice Station Zebra than we have so far been told and that, in fact, the fire was no accident! Someone is up to no good. Who? Why? Bang. Crash.

‘Three men have been murdered on Zebra. Two shot, one knifed. Their bodies were burned to conceal traces of the crime. Four others died in the fire. The killer is aboard this ship.’
Rawlings said nothing. His eyes were wide, his face pale and shocked. (Ch 8)

And now like a classic tennis match, like a Grand Prix, we enjoy the sport, we relish watching a professional at work, as MacLean makes our hero pit his wits against the murderer or murderers, as there are (just as we expect) many more unexpected twists and turns in the plot. And MacLean, in his pomp, is knowing about it what he’s doing. In the midst of the horrors there is grim humour. Thus, after Carpenter has given the captain a long detailed explanation of what’s ‘really’ going on at Zebra, the captain says:

‘I and the crew of the Dolphin are at your complete disposal. You name it, Doctor, that’s all.’
‘This time you believe my story?’
‘This time I believe your story.’
I was pleased about that, I almost believed it myself. (Ch 7)

Extreme physical endurance

Whereas Deighton’s texts, with their puzzles and rebuses are allusive and aloof, frequently leaving the reader detached and uninvolved, MacLean’s always arrive quickly at a level of physical punishment for the protagonist and superhuman endurance in prolonged situations of extreme danger, which almost physically grip the reader. He makes you feel the tremendous cold, the pain of frostbite, the taste of blood in your mouth after you’ve been shot etc, which makes his texts thrilling and compelling.

Death must have been swift, swift for all of them. Theirs had not been the death of men trapped by a fire, it had been the death of men who had themselves been on fire. Caught, drenched, saturated by a gale-borne sea of burning oil, they must have spent the last few seconds of life as incandescently blazing human torches before dying in insane screaming agony. They must have died as terribly as men ever die. (Ch 5)

And once again he is back in the pitiless location of the deep North, setting of HMS Ulysses and Night Without End, an extreme and unforgiving environment which he paints so well, and so terrifyingly.

The wind, shrieking and wailing across the bridge and through raised antennae, showed at consistently over 60 mph on the bridge anemometer. The ice-storm was no longer the gusting, swirling fog of that morning but a driving wall of stiletto-tipped spears, near lethal in its ferocity, high speed ice-spicule lances that would have skewered their way through the thickest cardboard or shattered in a second a glass held in your hand. Over and above the ululating threnody of the wind we could hear an almost constant grinding, crashing and deep-throated booming as millions of tons of racked and tortured ice, under the influence of the gale and some mighty pressure centre, heaven knew how many hundreds of miles away, reared and twisted and tore and cracked, one moment forming another rafted ridge as a layer of ice, perhaps ten feet thick, screeched and roared and clambered onto the shoulders of another and then another, the next rending apart in indescribably violent cacophony to open up a new lead, black wind-torn water that started to skim over with ice almost as soon as it was formed. (Ch 4)

High tension

Will Carpenter and his companions make it through the blistering Arctic storm to the base? Once there they discover the radio no longer works, how the hell are they going to get the sub to rescue them? Someone sabotages a torpedo tube so it read shut but is in fact full of water, and so opening it causes a catastrophe in which sailors die and the entire ship plunges deeper into the ocean than ever vessel has ever done before; will they survive? And then the same saboteur and spy sets a small fire which then gets out of hand and threatens to kill the crew by smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.

The reader skips over the hammy comparisons and the repetitive and hyperbolic style because these situations really are intense and nerve-racking. MacLean himself was the first to acknowledge he wasn’t a great writer, but he was a wizard at conceiving high-tension, white knuckle scenes and scenarios which keep you thoroughly gripped to the last page. And then you want another one.


Most of MacLean’s novels were made into movies, mostly rather low-budget and unsuccessful. Ice Station Zebra, made in 1968, was properly funded and secured some A-list stars – Rock Hudson as the submarine captain, Patrick McGoohan (in his The Prisoner heyday) as the doctor-cum-agent Carpenter, and Ernest Borgnine as the sneaky Russian.

MacLean himself worked on the script and it is significantly more dramatic and rounded than the novel (in the same way the implications of the The Satan Bug are more fully worked-out in the movie than in the book). The addition of the Russian spy onto the submarine at the start, and therefore a sequence of ‘unexplained’ sabotages to the sub, make for much more dramatic tension.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Ice Station Zebra, price 5 shilling

Fontana paperback edition of Ice Station Zebra

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.


1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

Horse Under Water by Len Deighton (1963)

‘Your job is to provide success at any price. By means of bribes, by means of theft or by means of murder itself. Men like you are in the dark, subconscious recesses of the nation’s brains. You do things that are done and forgotten quickly.’ (p.141)

The Ipcress File made Len Deighton famous overnight. It sold out repeat reprints and there were high hopes for this, the sequel. Ipcress had identified itself as ‘Secret File No.1’ and Horse Under Water had ‘Secret File No.2’ prominently displayed on the cover suggesting a direct link, but it is not so much a sequel as part of a series of novels about the same British spy (unnamed in the novels, though given the name Harry Palmer in the series of movies starring Michael Caine). Ie a spy series like the Bond books which started in 1953, or le Carré’s Smiley series which started in 1961 (and like numerous others I’m probably not aware of). Apparently, Deighton planned five novels but only four were published before he moved on to other things.

Paratextuality and presentation

As well as the supposedly official stamp on the flyleaf (saying the text has been ‘Downgraded to unclassified’), and the letter placed before the narrative and dated 1941, which is meant as a clue to the plot, and the customary footnotes throughout as well as longer appendices explaining references in the text, there is another page before the main text, titled ‘Solutions’ with 58 numbered words on it. It took a few chapters for me to realise it’s another Deighton game – each chapter title is a cryptic crossword clue, the ‘Solutions’ page gives the one-word answers, and these answers sum up the matter of the chapter.

(Crosswords In Ipcress the Narrator very conspicuously fusses over a crossword from page 40 to page 140; similarly, in this book he starts a crossword about three-quarters the way through and his worrying over the clues mirrors the slotting together of the ‘plot’.)

Inconsequential detail

Jean and I spent a lazy Saturday afternoon. She washed her hair and I made lots of coffee and read a back issue of the Observer. The TV was just saying ‘… a Blackfoot war party wouldn’t be using a medicine arrow, Betsy…’ when the phone rang. (Ch 4)

The text is packed with inconsequential detail, overheard snippets of conversation, fragments (like the fragments of demotic life quoted in the classic Modernist texts of Joyce or Eliot).

The rain beat heavily against the car windows. Outside Woolworth’s a woman in a plastic raincoat was smacking a child in a Yogi Bear bib. Soon we stopped at Admiralty Arch. (Ch 13)

These are all alienation techniques – foregrounding the trivial, repressing the important, a continual textual self-consciousness which:

  • shows the Narrator’s mind is permanently registering every detail of his surroundings, like a trained camera
  • keeps the reader alert to the fact that we are reading a fiction
  • is a running commentary on the trivia of consumer culture

He mentions cubism at one point and I wondered if the novel could be compared to cubist technique. In many places the sentences don’t follow as a train of thought but jump from one facet to another, like an attempt to see all the angles of a situation at the same moment.

Something similar can be said about the very short chapters, often only a page long, like facets of a diamond, scores of shiny surfaces refracting the light – the secret – at the core of the gemlike plot. On the other hand, they don’t seem short because so much is conveyed by them. I’d hazard a guess that Deighton put a lot of work into cutting back his texts, paring away till they are as clipped and allusive as possible.

Super detachment

In a more conventional spy story the protagonist would be thinking through his issues and problems with us. The majority of text in the Alistair MacLean novels I’ve been reading consists of the hero thinking through very thoroughly all possible avenues of action, sharing and involving the reader in his high-tension predicament, then doing it all over again as the situations change and plans have to be adapted.

The exact opposite, Deighton very deliberately eschews almost all inner thinking by his protagonist. He is at pains to show how detached and clinical his protagonist is and, since it is the detached clinical protagonist telling the story, the narrative itself comes over as clinical and detached. For example, a colleague who’s been helping out on the Portugal job gets into our man’s car at the London Airport car park to drive it over to him and the car explodes, killing this colleague, as our man watches.

Joe was at the far end of the enclosure; he opened the door of my VW, got in and switched on the main lights. The rain tore little gashes through the long beams. From inside the car came an intense light; each window was a clear white rectangle, and the door on Joe’s side opened very quickly. It was then that the blast sent me across the pavement like a tiddly-wink. ‘Walk, not run,’ I thought. I jammed my spectacles on to my nose and got to my feet. A cold current of air advised me of an eight-inch rent in my trouser leg. (Ch 20)

‘Advised.’ The text evinces training, self-discipline, no emoting. It tags our man as he follows standard procedure ie we follow who he calls, what code words he uses, and so on. Our man steals a taxi and calmly drives away. The last sentence, the parting thought of the sequence, the thing the author wants to imprint on your mind about the whole incident, is: ‘I soon mastered the knack of double-declutching the crash gearbox.’ Cool, in the sense of absolutely unflustered and not admitting to any feeling.

Always with the vivid detail; rarely with the thought; never any emotion.

Description instead of plot

A lot of effort is gone into puzzling and confusing the reader. Puzzles, like the crossword clues. Deighton gives description instead of exposition. Much of this description is vivid and brilliant, sharp snapshots of people and places and scenes.

I watched the waves moving down on to the shore. Each shadow darkened until one, losing its balance, toppled forward. It tore a white hole in the green ocean and in falling brought its fellow down, and that the next, until the white stuffing of the sea burst out of the lengthening gash. (Ch 15)

Worth remembering that, before his writing career took off, Deighton studied at Saint Martin’s School of Art, won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, worked as an illustrator in New York and as an art director in an advertising agency. He has a good eye, very good. Possibly this contributes to the tendency for detail not discourse, pictures not ideas.

There is a point on the A3 near Cosham at which the whole of Portsmouth Harbour comes into view. This expanse of inland water is a vast grey triangle pointing to the Solent. The edges are sharp serrated patterns of docks, jetties and hards enclosing the colourless water. (Ch 3)

A bit like a Paul Nash landscape. And since a lot of the novel is set in Portugal this gives plenty of opportunity for painterly descriptions.

We walked through the fish market. The flat concrete benches were ashine with bream and gilthead, pilchards, sardines and mackerel. Outside the sun reflected off the sea with a million flashing pinpoints of light, as though every bird was sitting there on the ocean top flashing angry white wings. (Ch 15)

Page after page of vivid – if often rather mannered – description. Sunday supplement subject matter – wow! the exotic destinations! The Algarve! Marrakesh! – done in Modernist-lite style. All very enjoyable.

The scrawny old houses [of Albufeira] stared red-eyed into the sunset. Two or three cafés – houses with a public front room – opened their doors, pale-green colour-washed walls were punctuated with calendar art, and crippled chairs leaned against the walls for support. In the evening the young bloods came to operate the juke box. A small man in a suede jacket poured thimble-size drinks from large unlabelled medicine bottles under the counter. Behind him green bottles of ‘Gas-soda’ and ‘Fru-soda’ grew old and dusty. (Ch 43)


And all the brighter and more exotic by contrast with sorry smoggy London. Fog, smog, bedsits, rented flats, threadbare carpets, shillings for the meter.

The airport bus dredged through the sludge of traffic as sodium-arc lights jaundiced our way towards Slough. (Ch 6)

Anti-Bond, anti-London clubs, swish apartment and best hotels. The narrator’s offices are in unglamorous Charlotte Street, he lives in a flat in Southwark and his beady eye registers all the shabby details of modern life.

I leaned upon the gravy-stained tablecloth as Paddington slid past. Soot-caked dwellings pressed together like pleats in a concertina. Grey laundry flapped in the breeze. Past Ladbroke Grove the small gardens suffocated under choking debris, only corrugated iron and rusty wire remained of things collapsed. (Ch 39)

Reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s famous downbeat poem of observations from a train, Whitsun Weddings, which was published just around this time, in 1964. But London is big and varied, and there are also numerous bursts of knowing sarcasm.

Number 37 Little Charton Mews is one of a labyrinth of cobbled cul-de-sacs in that section of Kensington where having a garage as a living-room is celebrated by planting a rose bush in a painted barrel. (Ch 48)

The Welsh countryside in winter comes alive under his pen.

On the horizon bare branches grew across the grey skyline like cracks in sheets of ice. Foraging around the snow patches of rooks fluttered and flopped until my arrival sent them climbing into the moist air, their black wings richly pink in the light. (Ch 40)

There are lots of paragraphs worth reading and rereading and savouring for the pure pleasure of their prose. In these early books Deighton is a wonderful stylist.


He’s not Oscar Wilde. There’s not a lot of repartee and back-chat. But what there is fits the overall style in being pithy, smart, wry, detached.

Joe MacIntosh drove me to one of the married-officer accommodations along Europa Road past the military hospital. It was 3.45am. The streets were almost empty. Two sailors in white were vomiting their agonising way to the Wharf and another was sitting on the pavement near Queen’s Hotel.
‘Blood, vomit and alcohol,’ I said to Joe, ‘it should be on the coat of arms.’
‘It’s on just about everything else,’ he said, sourly. (Ch 7)

Do these two government agents discuss the mission? Do they swap notes or catch up on information? Nope. Instead there is signature Deighton inconsequential detail, indirection and smart repartee. Very snappy, very with it, very 1963. Of course, the Narrator is cocky with his superiors, that’s part of his schtick. Thus Dawlish, his boss, gives him a snippet of his personal life.

‘Present from my son. He’s very fond of quotations by Wellington. Each year on the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo we have a little party, and all the guests have to have an anecdote or quotation ready.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I do the same thing every time I pull on my Wellington boots.’ Dawlish slid me a narrowed glance. (Ch 39)

‘Slid the narrow glance’ has Raymond Chandler’s feel for exotic ways of describing looks, his obsession with eyes. Similarly, Deighton’s snappy take on the trials and tribulations of everyday life, such as gas meters and payphones.

He took me up to a room on the third floor back. It had an antique gas-meter that looked hungry. I fed it some one-franc pieces. It liked them…I dialled a Bayswater number. The phone made the noises associated with making a phone call in England. It buzzed, clicked and purred; it had more tones than a chromatic scale. After two or three tries it even rang at the other end. (Ch 31)

Witty comparisons

I don’t know whether Chandler invented the smart-alec simile, but it seems to be part of the humorous self-consciousness of the thriller genre. It is flashy. The text is showing off its savviness with language just as the protagonists show off their knowledge of guns and cars and (in Deighton’s case, especially) good food. The whole genre is supremely confident and knowing. It is letting you into its secrets. Look, I can handle a .38 Smith & Wesson hammerless 6-shot. Look, I know how to prepare authentic stifado. Look, I understand how to play off competing government intelligence agencies. Look, this is how vividly I see everything:

Dawlish was a tall, grey-haired civil servant with eyes like the far end of a long tunnel… Dawlish nodded, removed his spectacles and dabbed at his dark eye-sockets with a crisp handkerchief. Behind him on the window ledge the sun was rolling dusty documents into brandy snaps. (Ch 2)

The old man switched off the motor. It spluttered like a candle, and there was a brief silence before the sea began its background music. Left to the disposition of the ocean the little boat was handed from wave to wave like a rich patient between specialists. (Ch 12)

HK lived a long way down the Praca Miguel Bombarda. It was a simple house with a red-and-white tiled entrance hall. The dark furniture did a heavy dance as we walked across the uneven plank flooring. From the entrance hall one could see right through the house to where the light-grey sea, dark clouds and whitewashed stone balcony hung like a tricolour outside the back door. (Ch 14)

Dawlish took out a handkerchief and lowered his nose into it, like he was going from a seventh-storey window into something held by eight firemen. (Ch 19)

A little finger of grey cloud rubbed the tired eye of the moon. (Ch 24)

I sat down. I was as limp as a Dali watch. (Ch 45)

He closed his eyes, gulped down his claret and leaned against the wall like a worn-out roll of line. (Ch 50)


Deighton’s style incorporates a wide array of prose strategies: very clipped factual; poetic prose, specially nature scenes; brief dialogue snippets; technical specifications; English posh (upon, whilst, amongst), quoting newspapers, TV adverts. But in the second half of Horse I noticed more Americanisms. During the interview with the American drug smuggler, HarryKondit, in the heroin factory, the Narrator becomes briefly American, using Damon Runyan or Raymond Chandler argot, telling HK he can ‘fade’. On the boat, in the next scene, he is afraid lying on the deck ‘could earn me a slam on the kisser, too’ (p. 176.)

(I noticed that the puffs on the cover of Funeral In Berlin include one from the San Francisco Chronicle saying Deighton is ‘the Raymond Chandler of the cloak and dagger set.’)

And the plot?

Diving There is a plot, of course, quite a few plots in fact, which keep our narrator (and us) confused right up to the end of the text. Number one, our man is instructed to recruit divers to investigate a WWII German submarine sunk off the Portuguese coast. The plan is to retrieve counterfeit Nazi money the sub is reported to have been carrying, and use it fund Portuguese revolutionaries who are planning to overthrow the Salazar dictatorship. If they come to power, they will owe a debt to HMG. Which HMG will have achieved at no cost, thus pleasing the accountants.

Albufeira The first half of the book is dominated by diving: the Narrator’s (comic) diving instruction by the Navy at Portsmouth; then the flight to Gibraltar, picking up Joe MacIntosh, Our Man in Spain, and an Italian named Girgio, the Best Diver In Europe; then the drive to the fishing village of Albufeira and setting up base in an apartment there. Then the unexpected arrival of two ‘helpers’ from the British Embassy in Lisbon, pukka Clive Singleton and good-looking Charlotte Lucas-Mountford, quickly nicknamed Charly. Then the settling into a routine of morning dives to the U-boat.

Strangers Here they are approached by the charming American, Harry Kondit (aka HK) who knows everyone in town including a weaselly 40-year-old fixer, Fernie, and the highly suspect Big Man of the region, Senhor Manuel Gambeta do Rosario da Cunha. The Narrator is deeply suspicious of all of them.

Back in London As diving operations proceed, the Narrator makes a lot of short trips back to London to check on a number of other strands: first, a light-hearted one about a scheme he and his boss have, to set up a new network of informants; second, on his return from the diving training in Portsmouth he was followed by cars, one registered to Cabinet Minister, Henry Smith. What is Smith’s interest? While the Narrator is supervising the diving off the Portugal coast, what is going on behind his back in England? Who are his English enemies? What is the deep history of these English foes ie is there a long-term conspiracy?

Then the third element is the assortment of foreigners he meets in Portugal, who each seem to have their own agendas. There are several distinct threads:

  • scientific breakthrough – one of the cars that followed the narrator back from his training course in Portsmouth was owned by a certain Ivor Butcher, the man who sold Intelligence what appear to be worthless plans for converting ice into water instantly by interfering with the molecular structure (ie useful for missile-firing submarines cruising under Arctic ice sheets). References to it crop up in houses of suspects etc: does it work, after all? Is this what the plot is about? The Narrator meets Butcher at the bar of the Ritz, where he buys off him the diary of Henry Smith which happens to have been nicked by one of Butcher’s burglar contacts – in it the Narrator finds coded messages which seem to refer to smuggling industrial components to Red China.
  • drug smuggling – about two-thirds through the Narrator gets an analysis back from Forensics that the canister they extracted from the U-boat had traces of heroin attached. He makes a trip down to Cardiff, to the FO Forensics Lab, and spends an evening with our drugs expert in his chilly Welsh home, being briefed on the drug world circa 1962, including the large amount of acetic acid generated as a by-product of heroin production.

A vivid description of his first dive into the U-boat ends with Giorgio suddenly appearing with his arm badly ripped, bleeding. The Narrator takes him to the surface, and brings him ashore where he dies of shock and blood loss.

Soon after discovering the canister which Giorgio extracted from the U-boat has traces of heroin in it, the Narrator finds from the Research Dept that da Cunha is in fact a former German naval officer and the shifty Fernie is a renegade British Navy officer and frogman. Aha.

Back in Albufeira, with Giorgio and Joe dead (blown up in the Narrator’s car at Heathrow), Singleton requests leave, and, left to themselves, Charly seduces the Narrator. Over a post-coital cigarette she mentions HK runs a big cannery factory, which generates lots of acetic acid, hence the vinegar smell. Double aha! The Narrator immediately goes over to the factory with Charly and a gun and catches HK red-handed refining heroin.

Confronting HK Long chapter in which the Narrator finds out a lot: Fernie found heroin in the old sub; encouraged HK to set up a refinery, which then became a business; the raw material is thrown overboard on buoys from passing ships, collected by Fernie, processed by HK, sealed in sardine cans and attached to the hulls of ships bound to the States; recovered by frogmen their end. Da Cunha is an ex-Nazi, but not directly involved: HK pays him protection money, and da Cunha borrows HK’s big pleasure boat whenever he wants to. Fernie knows Ivor Butcher who’s visited a few times: but does this make Butcher a messenger from Smith, or back to Smith? After HK has said everything the Narrator lets him go but Charly, unexpectedly, pulls a gun and shoots him, only wounding him. The Narrator intervenes, takes the gun, allows HK to flee. Turns out Charly is a US Narcotics agent.

On the boat HK flees but leaves a note saying Fernie’s going out on the boat for another pick-up. The Narrator gets Charly to row him out and hides on the boat. Fernie turns up and, along with the 14 year-old street urchin Augusto, goes out to pick up the next drop of opium. The Narrator gets the drop on them but only after they’ve failed to collect the merchandise. He beats Fernie in a fight and establishes it wasn’t dope Fernie was after, but the Weiss List. The Weiss List is a list of high-placed individuals in England who were ready to collaborate when the Nazis invaded. Fernie knows da Cunha has it hidden in a sunken buoy.

(Fernie’s life story Fernie tells his life story ie fighting for Franco during the Spanish War, volunteering as a Navy diver, being captured by the Germans, and recruited into The League of St George which would have become the Nazi Party in occupied Britain, led by Graham Loveless, Henry Smith’s nephew. As the Allies advanced he and Loveless photocopied the list and buried it, before being arrested. Loveless threatened to reveal all the names on it and was hanged for his troubles; Fernie lived. But when Fernie returned to Hanover to dig up the list, a block of flats had been built on it. Meanwhile, the man now known as da Cunha had secured the only copy and was using it liberally to blackmail eminent Brits, a small part to fund HK’s heroin factory, but mostly to support a network of Fascist parties across Europe.)

As the boat approaches shore again, HK shoots Fernie dead using the rifle with telescopic sights. He uses up all his bullets allowing the Narrator to get ashore, hook up with Charly and visit da Cunha’s villa – long abandoned – but where he finds another, and much larger, laboratory. Aha. He orders Singleton to pack up all the diving gear and return it to London. And then the Narrator returns to London himself.

Dawlish and the Narrator get their intelligence committee off the ground. Dawlish signs ‘Closed’ on the Albufeira file but the Narrator refuses to let it lie. It feels like the story is finished to me, but it in fact continues for another 30 pages of densely packed narrative. Da Cunha makes the mistake of leaving some equipment in his old lab and then ordering it to be shipped to him. The Narrator has put surveillance on the villa and follows the equipment to a small airfield where it’s loaded onto a plane heading south. He gets air traffic control in Gibraltar to follow the plane as it flies across the Med to Marrakesh.

Marrakesh Here there is a bizarre scene where the Narrator uses influence with the local police to track down da Cunha, and interview him. Da Cunha is now openly the former Nazi Knabel, and he confirms that the expensive lab is to continue working on his (madcap) scheme to turn ice into water for military purposes, before beginning to froth at the mouth (literally) about the rebirth of a Europe-wide Fascist movement. The Narrator patronises him about this because all the time Ossie, a professional burglar we met earlier in the novel, is breaking into da Cunha’s quarters and stealing the transmitter set to the frequency of the buoy at the bottom of the sea off Albufeira which contains the Weiss List.

Helicopters Cut to the Narrator and divers spending several days criss-crossing the sea off Portugal until they pick up the beacon signal, then transmitting the call which makes the buoy rise to the surface, where it is easily retrieved. the Narrator opens it on board a naval vessel and, sure enough, it contains detailed correspondence with high ranking British Nazi sympathisers. Da Cunha had been using it for years to blackmail money out of men like Smith. Now the Narrator sees why he was tailed, and why Smith was interested in him. It was to hide the existence of the Weiss List, not to cover the heroin smuggling that his car was blown up at Heathrow.

We knew When the Narrator presents all this as new evidence to his boss, Dawlish, the latter pulls out a big file marked Young Europe Movement. He’s known about it all along. They were just using the Narrator because they knew he’d flush out the list itself. So the heroin was a side issue, after all. The ice-to-water device was moonshine. It was all about the Weiss List, but will any of the Nazi sympathisers be arrested? Of course not. Though Intelligence will let it be known that the full list is now in their hands…


The narrative is often confusing because the plot is confusing because the basic premise of the series is that spying is confusing. As the Narrator tells the Minister on page two of The Ipcress File, the story is confusing because he’s in a confusing business. Similar sentiments here:

‘It’s so confusing, isn’t it?’ Charly said.
‘Confusing,’ I replied. ‘Of course it’s confusing. You involve yourself in industrial espionage and then you complain about it being confusing.’ (Ch 44)

Cleverer people than me have been completely flummoxed by Deighton’s plots. Having read all the early ones, I’ve realised the best thing is to relax and enjoy the view – the style and presentation – and let the plot look after itself. Not, in fact, unlike the Narrator who is often as perplexed as we are.

I walked to the beach trying to arrange the facts I had access to. As I look back on it I had enough information then to tell me what I wanted to know. But at that time I didn’t know what I wanted to know. I was just letting my sense of direction guide me through the maze of motives. (Ch 43)

And, in keeping with the fundamental worldview of the books that the world is vastly more complicated and fractured than any one narrative can capture – ‘There would always be unexplainable actions by unpredictable people. (Ch 47) – some loose ends are never tied up.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘OK but don’t ever hanker after tidiness. Don’t ever think or hope that the great mess of investigation that we work on is suddenly going to resolve itself like the last chapter of a whodunnit… After we’re all dead and gone there will still be an office with all those manilla dust-traps tied in pink tape. So just knit quietly away and be thankful for the odd sock or even a lop-sided cardigan with one sleeve. Don’t desire vengeance or think that if someone murders you tomorrow we will be tracking them down mercilessly. We won’t. We’ll all be strictly concerned with keeping out of the News of the World and the Police Gazette.’ (Ch 21)

Dramatis personae

  • The Narrator – 40-something British Intelligence agent
  • Dawlish – his boss
  • Jean – his secretary and lover
  • ‘Tinkle’ Bell – 17-stone employee of British intelligence
  • Henry Smith – Cabinet Minister whose car was used to tail the narrator back from his diving course in Portsmouth and who he suspects of masterminding something. Smith tries to use his influence to get the diving operation cancelled but two thirds of the way through the book the Narrator confronts Smith in his immensely posh club. Firstly, he refuses to obey the order to abandon the diving; secondly, he bluffs Smith, saying he knows about his component-smuggling-to-Red-China operation, something he has deduced from other sources. Smith appears genuinely taken back by the Narrator’s knowledge of this and for a while we are left wondering whether this is what the story is actually about.
  • Giorgio – Italian diver they hire to investigate the sunken U-boat. He becomes nervous and the Narrator spots him heading off one night for a secret rendezvous; then, when accompanying the Narrator on the latter’s first dive to the U-boat, Giorgio is murdered, his diving suit shredded, his arm badly mauled, he dies of shock and blood loss as the Narrator just about manages to bring him ashore.
  • Joe MacIntosh – intelligence man in Portugal, fixes up the flat in Albufeiras for the Narrator and Giorgio. In a shock scene is killed when he gets into the Narrator’s car at Heathrow airport and it explodes. Who planted the bomb? Why did they want to kill the Narrator?
  • Clive Singleton – from the British Embassy in Portugal, turns up at the Narrator’s flat in Albufeiras, which the Narrator is not happy with. Good swimmer, is soon assisting Giorgio in his daily dives to the U-boat.
  • Charlotte Lucas-Mountford aka Charly – accompanies Singleton to the Albufeira apartment, quickly settles in as the home help, shopping at the local market, cooking, cleaning, washing shirts. She has a striking figure which she shows off in various bikinis and micro-skirts. 1960s sexism, if you choose to object. Against his better judgement the Narrator is seduced by her, whereupon she tips him off about HK’s heroin factory. N promptly raids it and interviews HK, is prepared to release him but Charly shoots HK, though not fatally. She is a US Narcotics agent, and drops out of the story at this point.
  • Harry Kondit, known as HK – loud American who approaches them on the beach and quickly is inviting to them to dinner, knows all about the diving. Suspicious. Turns out to be a heroin processor. Shot by Charly but escapes, they think he’s fled town. But he is hiding and shoots Fernie dead with rifle with telescopic sights from the clifftops.
  • Senhor Jorge Fernandes Tomas aka Fernie – 40-year-old local fixer. Highly suspicious. Turns out to be renegade Royal Navy officer and frogman, Bernard Peterson. Loses a fight with the Narrator on the motor-boat, then spills the beans: he has been using the Weiss List to blackmail, as well as helping HK run the heroin operation. HK shoots him dead.
  • Senhor Manuel Gambeta do Rosario da Cunha – (allegedly) the leading man of the district: HK introduces him to the narrator who goes for a long intricate dinner at his palace, where the narrator acquiesces in the suggestion that he is a good friend of ‘Mr Smith’.
    • ‘You are in contact with Mr Smith?’
      ‘Of course I am,’ I lied quickly. (p.69)
  • After dinner Senhor da Cunha hands him a package claiming it was washed up with a body from the U boat: N takes it back to London where it is identified as a good quality die for forging British sovereigns. N suspects da Cunha is a fake, the story about a washed-up body is baloney; the die is some kind of bribe – but he doesn’t know what for. Da Cunha turns out to be ex-German Navy officer, using the Weiss List to blackmail eminent Brits, and using the proceeds to fund European Fascist movements. The Narrator tracks him to Marrakesh where he steals the transmitter used for retrieving the underwater container which holds the Weiss List.
  • Ossie – world-class burglar and underworld contact – tells the Narrator that the Portuguese revolutionaries he’s been ordered to give the Nazi counterfeit money to have signed a contract with a British arms manufacturer who’s got wind of being paid with counterfeit money and therefore wish to remove the Narrator. Is it they who planted the bomb in the Narrator’s car? In a second appearance at the end of the book, Ossie is commissioned by the Narrator to steal the transmitter used for retrieving the underwater container which holds the Weiss List.
  • Ivor Butcher – crook who sold British Intelligence the duff information about the ice converter (for £6,700!); also an underworld contact whose a middle-man passing messages from Smith to da Cunha.
  • Kevin Cassell – in charge of Intelligence records: reveals Henry Smith MP’s heavy involvement in arms companies, in backing the Nazis, Fascists, foreign dictators etc. Ends up in possession of the Weiss List.


Pop culture dates fantastically fast. These books have the quaintness of another era, 50 years ago. The narrator references a Jayne Mansfield calendar and the latest Miles Davis disc playing in the American’s yacht (‘Miles Davis began to pump the cabin full of sound,’ p.98), the Aldermaston marches and Tio Pepe sherry, Charlie Mingus, Elvis Presley, Omo soap powder. HK’s luxury yacht has a 17-inch TV set! But nothing dates it quite as dramatically as seeing the cars these guys were driving and regarded as the height of style.


Listing the initialisms is one way of viewing the text, of taking a specimen slice. For what it’s worth, to out-Deighton Deighton, I give them in the order they appear in the text, as clues to the direction the story takes, the foreign and glamorous right next to the mundane and banal.

  • WOOC (P) – the intelligence unit the narrator works for; initials never explained
  • VNV – Vós não vedes – ‘You do not see’, name of Portuguese revolutionary movement
  • FO – Foreign Office
  • HMG – Her Majesty’s Government
  • PST – Permanent Secretary to the Treasury
  • FST – Financial Secretary to the Treasury
  • QM – Quarter Master
  • PO – Petty Officer
  • CPO – Chief Petty Officer
  • HO – Home Office
  • WM – Weekly Memoranda sheets from the JIA (Joint Intelligence Agency) at the MoD (Ministry of Defence)
  • C-SICH – Combined Services Informati Clearing House
  • DNI – Director of Naval Intelligence
  • CIGS – Chief of Imperial General Staff
  • PUS – Permanent Under-Secretary
  • LEB – London Electricity Board
  • FSL – (Home Office) Forensic Science Laboratory
  • PSL – Papavar somniferum Linnaeus, the species of poppy which yields opium
  • SD – Sicherheitsdienst
  • SS – Schutzstaffel
  • ARP – Air Raid Precautions
  • BUF – British Union of Fascists
  • ITMA – It’s That Man Again (radio show)
  • PIDE – (Portuguese) Internal Police for the Defense of the State

Organisations and acronyms are another way of avoiding the issues, as anyone who’s worked in a big organisation knows.

Related links

Cover of the 1963 Penguin paperback edition of Horse Under Water

Cover of the 1963 Penguin paperback edition of Horse Under Water

Len Deighton’s novels

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

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