Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985)

The topic of the origin of life on the Earth is a branch of mineralogy. (p.99)

How did life begin? To be more precise, how did the inorganic chemicals formed in the early years of planet earth, on the molten rocks or in the salty sea or in the methane atmosphere, transform into ‘life’ – complex organisms which extract food from the environment and replicate, and from which all life forms today are ultimately descended? What, when and how was that first momentous step taken?

Thousands of biologists have devoted their careers to trying to answer this question, with the result that there are lots of speculative theories.

Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith (1931-2016) was an organic chemist and molecular biologist at the University of Glasgow, and this 120-page book was his attempt to answer the Big Question.

In a nutshell he suggested that life derived from self-replicating clay crystals. To use Wikipedia’s summary:

Clay minerals form naturally from silicates in solution. Clay crystals, like other crystals, preserve their external formal arrangement as they grow, snap, and grow further.

Clay crystal masses of a particular external form may happen to affect their environment in ways that affect their chances of further replication. For example, a ‘stickier’ clay crystal is more likely to silt up a stream bed, creating an environment conducive to further sedimentation.

It is conceivable that such effects could extend to the creation of flat areas likely to be exposed to air, dry, and turn to wind-borne dust, which could fall randomly in other streams.

Thus – by simple, inorganic, physical processes – a selection environment might exist for the reproduction of clay crystals of the ‘stickier’ shape.

Cairns-Smith’s book is densely argued, each chapter like a lecture or seminar packed with suggestive evidence about what we know about current life forms, a summary of the principles underlying Darwin’s theory of evolution, and about how we can slowly move backwards along the tree of life, speculating about how it developed.

But, as you can see from the summary above, in the end, it is just another educated guess.

Detective story

The blurb on the back and the introduction both claim the book is written in the style of a detective story. Oh no it isn’t. It is written in the style of a biology book – more precisely, a biology book which is looking at the underlying principles of life, the kind of abstract engineering principles underlying life – and all of these take quite some explaining, drawing in examples from molecular biology where required.

Sometimes (as in chapter 4 where he explains in detail how DNA and RNA and amino acids and proteins interact within a living cell) it becomes quite a demanding biology book.

What the author and publisher presumably mean is that, in attempt to sweeten the pill of a whole load of stuff about DNA and ribosomes, Cairns-Smith starts every chapter with a quote from a Sherlock Holmes story and from time to time claims to be pursuing his goal with Holmesian deduction.

You see Holmes, far from going for the easy bits first, would positively seek out those features in a case that were seemingly incomprehensible – ‘singular’ features he would call them… I think that the origin of life is a Holmesian problem. (p.ix)

Towards the very end, he remembers this metaphor and talks about ‘tracking down the suspect’ and ‘making an arrest’ (i.e. of the first gene machine, the origin of life). But this light dusting of Holmesiana doesn’t do much to conceal the sometimes quite demanding science, and the relentlessly pedagogical tone of the book.

Broad outline

1. Panspermia

First off, Cairns-Smith dismisses some of the other theories about the origin of life. He makes short work of the theories of Fred Hoyle and Francis Crick that organic life might have arrived on earth from outer space, carried in dust clouds or on meteors etc (Crick’s version of this was named ‘Panspermia’ – . I agree with him that this just relocates the problem somewhere else, but doesn’t solve it.

Cairns-Smith states the problem in three really fundamental facts:

  1. There is life on earth
  2. All known living things are at root the same (using the same carbon-based energy-gathering and DAN-replicating biochemistry)
  3. All known living things are very complicated

2. The theory of chemical evolution

In his day (the 1970s and 80s) the theory of ‘chemical evolution’ was widely thought to address the origin of life problem. This stated that lot of the basic amino acids and sugars which we find in organisms are relatively simple and so might well have been created by accident in the great sloshing oceans and lakes of pre-life earth, and that they then – somehow – came together to make more complex molecules which – somehow – learned how to replicate.

But it’s precisely on the vagueness of that ‘somehow’ that Cairns-Smith jumps. The leap from a random soup of semi-amino acids washing round in a lake and the immensely detailed and complex machinery of life demonstrated by even a tiny living organism – he selects the bacterium Escherichia coli – is just too vast a cliff face to have been climbed at random, by accident. It’s like saying if you left a bunch of wires and bits of metal sloshing around in a lake long enough they would eventually make a MacBook Air.

Cairns-Smith zeroes in on four keys aspects of life on earth which help to disprove the ‘chemical evolution’ theory.

  1. Life forms are complex systems. It is the whole machine which makes sense of its components.
  2. The systems are highly interlocked: catalysts are needed to make proteins, but proteins are needed to make catalysts; nucleic acids are needed to make proteins, yet proteins are needed to make nucleic acids;
  3. Life forms are very very complex.
  4. The system is governed by rules and conventions: the exact choice of the amino acid alphabet and the set of assignments of amino acid letters to nucleic acid words are examples.

3. The Miller-Urey experiments

Cairns-Smith then critiques the theory derived from the Miller-Urey experiments.

In 1953 a graduate student, Stanley Miller, and his professor, Harold Urey, performed an experiment that demonstrated how organic molecules could have spontaneously formed from inorganic precursors, under conditions like those posited by the Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis. The now-famous ‘Miller–Urey experiment’ used a highly reduced mixture of gases – methane, ammonia and hydrogen – to form basic organic monomers, such as amino acids. (Wikipedia)

Cairns-Smith spends four pages comprehensively demolishing this approach by showing that:

  1. the ultraviolet light its exponents claim could have helped synthesise organic molecules is in fact known to break covalent bonds and so degrade more than construct complex molecules
  2. regardless of light, most organic molecules are in fact very fragile and degrade easily unless kept in optimum conditions (i.e. inside a living cell)
  3. even if some organic molecules were created, organic chemists know only too well that there are hundreds of thousands of ways in which carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen can combine, and most of them result in sticky sludges and tars in which nothing could ‘live’

So that:

  1. Only some of the molecules of life can be made this way
  2. Most of the molecules that would be made this way are emphatically not the ‘molecules of life’
  3. The ‘molecules of life’ are usually better made under conditions far most favourable than those obtaining back in the primordial soup era

He then does some back-of-a-matchbox calculations to speculate about how long it would take a random collection of organic molecules to ‘happen’ to all tumble together and create a life form: longer than the life of the universe, is his conclusion. No, this random approach won’t work.

Preliminary principles

Instead, he suggests a couple of principles of his own:

  1. That some and maybe all of the chemicals we now associate with ‘life’ were not present in the first replicating organisms; they came later; their exquisitely delicate interactivity suggests that they are the result not the cause of evolution
  2. Therefore, all lines of investigation which seek to account for the presence of the molecules of life are putting the cart before the horse: it isn’t the molecules which are important – it is the mechanism of replication with errors

Cairns-Smith thinks we should put the molecules of life question completely to one side, and instead seek for entirely inorganic systems which would replicate, with errors, so that the errors would be culled and more efficient ways of replicating tend to thrive on the available source material, beginning to create that dynamism and ‘sense of purpose’ which is one of life’s characteristics.

We keep coming to this idea that at some earlier phase of evolution, before life as we know it, there were other kinds of evolving system, other organisms that, in effect, invented our system. (p.61)

This seems, intuitively, like a more satisfying approach. Random forces will never make a MacBook Air and, as he has shown in chapter 4, even an entity like Escherichia coli is so staggeringly complex and amazingly finely-tuned as to be inconceivable as the product of chance.

Trying to show that complex molecules like ribosomes or RNA or amino acids – which rely on each other to be made and maintained, which cannot exist deprived of the intricately complicated interplay within each living cell – came about by chance is approaching the problem the wrong way. All these complex organic molecules must be the result of evolution. Evolution itself must have started with something much, much simpler – with the ‘invention’ of the basic engine, motor, the fundamental principle – and this is replication with errors. In other words:

Evolution started with ‘low-tech’ organisms that did not have to be, and probably were not made from, ‘the molecules of life’. (p.65)

Crystals

And it is at this point that Cairns-Smith introduces his Big Idea – the central role of clay crystals – in a chapter titled, unsurprisingly, ‘Crystals’ (pp.75-79).

he now explains in some detail the surprisingly complicated and varied world of clay crystals. These naturally form in various solutions and, if splashed up onto surfaces like rocks or stones, crystallise out into lattices, but with the crystallisation process also commonly involves errors and mutations.

His description of the different types of crystals and their properties is fascinating – who knew there were so many types, shapes, patterns and processes, starting with an introduction to the processes of saturation and super-saturation. The point is that crystals naturally occur and naturally mutate. He lists the ways they can vary or diverge from their ‘pure’ forms: twinning, stacking errors, cation substitutions, growth in preferred directions, break-up along preferred planes (p.97).

There follows a chapter about the prevalence of crystals in mud and clay and, therefore, their widespread presence in the conditions of the early planet earth.

And then, finally, he explains the big leap whereby replicating crystals may have attracted to themselves other molecules.

There follows a process of natural selection for clay crystals that trap certain forms of molecules to their surfaces that may enhance their replication potential. Complex proto-organic molecules can be catalysed by the surface properties of silicates.

Genetic takeover of the crystals

It is at this point that he introduces the idea of a ‘genetic takeover’.

When complex molecules perform a ‘genetic takeover’ from their clay ‘vehicle’, they become an independent locus of replication – an evolutionary moment that might be understood as the first exaptation.

(Exaptation = ‘the process by which features acquire functions for which they were not originally adapted or selected’)

Cairns-Smith had already described this process – the ‘genetic takeover’ of an initial, non-organic process by more complex, potentially organic molecules – in his earlier, longer and far more technical book, Genetic Takeover: And the Mineral Origins of Life, published in 1982.

This book – the Seven Clues – is a much shorter, non-technical and more accessible popularisation of the earlier tome. Hence the frivolous references to Sherlock Holmes.

Proliferating crystals form the scaffold for molecules which learn to replicate without them

The final chapter explains how these very common and proliferating entities – clay crystals – might have formed into structures and arrangements which attracted – for purely chemical reasons – various elementary organic molecules to them.

Certain repeating structures might attract molecules which then build up into more complex molecules, into molecules which are more efficient at converting the energy of the sun into further molecular combinations. And thus the principle of replication with variation, and competition for resources among the various types of replicating molecule, would have been established.

Thoughts

At this point the book ends, his case presented. It has been a fascinating journey because a) it is interesting to learn about all the different shapes and types of clay crystal b) he forces the reader to think about the fundamental engineering and logistical aspects of life forms, to consider the underlying principles which must inform all life forms, which is challenging and rewarding.

But, even in his own terms, Cairns-Smith’s notion of more and more complex potentially organic molecules being haphazardly replicated on a framework of proliferating clay crystals is still a long, long, long way from even the most primitive life forms known to us, with their vastly complex structure of cell membrane, nucleus and internal sea awash with DNA-controlled biochemical processes.


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Psychology

High Stand by Hammond Innes (1985)

This is the fourth Innes novel I’ve read in a row and I think it’s fair to say that, although the locations are always original and refreshing, the background and subject matter are thoroughly researched, his evocations of place, and especially seascapes, are always enjoyable – nonetheless, his plots are often strangely and frustratingly static, depending on a large dollop of voodoo-Gothic melodrama to convey a menacing mood often unjustified by the actual action – but that by far his worst fault is the extremely limited range of behaviour his characters display.

She seemed on the point of saying something more, but then she turned her head away, locking whatever it was up inside herself, the silence dragging. (p.15)

Sometimes it seems like all the characters do in an Innes novel is shrug, mumble, break off in mid-sentence, stare away into the distance or get stuck in long meaningful silences. The frustrating thing is that most of them aren’t that meaningful at all – in general the characters actually have very little to say to each other but take ages, sometimes scores, in a few cases, hundreds of pages, not to say it.

The plot

The story is told in the first person by a typically ordinary Innes’ protagonist – staid Sussex solicitor, Philip Redfern. He has set up a nice little practice near Ditchling on the South Downs and has just bought a sailing dinghy, his new pride and joy, which he fits up and sails across the Channel to France. Into his boring world come the Halliday family.

Grandfather Josh Halliday struck it rich in the Yukon gold rush of the 1890s, buying up the land around his claim high in the Rocky Mountains of western Canada, setting up various companies and then dying. It was all inherited by his son, Tom, who has never had to work in his life but has enjoyed a jetset lifestyle and a fondness for sports cars. Philip Redfern ended up acting as his solicitor because Halliday’s English country house was a nice big place tucked away in a fold of the Downs near his office. One day Tom Halliday appears out of the blue and asks Philip to write and witness a codicil to his will, leaving the area of timber planted by grandfather Halliday in the area below the gold mine to his second son, Brian.

A few days later Tom’s wife, Miriam, arrives and asks Philip if he knows where Tom is: he’s disappeared, hasn’t been home, hasn’t left a message as he usually does: mystery. And this is where the novel begins.

Now, Innes tells us, Redfern has always had a bit of a thing about Mrs Halliday (Miriam), bumping into her at various official parties in the neighbourhood and – on one memorable evening – giving her a lift home from Brighton when she invited him in for coffee and one thing led to another… Even as she tells her story, Redfern is distracted by the sight of her cleavage showing through her blouse; he really is an everybloke figure.

Over the following weeks it emerges that old Josh’s goldmine has been running empty for some time and that playboy Tom had been living on an extended bank overdraft which has now been terminated. Suddenly the bills for the house are no longer being paid, ditto the bills at his son’s company. Philip (characteristically for Innes) hasn’t a clue where Tom has disappeared to and isn’t surprised when, a few days later, he learns Miriam has sold some of the family silver and set off for the mine in Western Canada to find out what’s going on. He gets a few postcards from her detailing her progress, saying he’s the only one she can write to, and so reviving the torch he carries for her but then – typically – silence…

Redfern next gets a disconcerting visit from Tom’s son by his first wife – by all accounts a fiery Latin American – the improbably named Brian, whose dark colouring and impulsive (ie angry) temperament reveal his Latino origins. Brian has also come to find out what Philip knows about his father’s disappearance, but ends up discussing the stand of timber old man Halliday planted over a hundred years ago and the ‘curse’ old man Halliday put on it.

As his ancestor is to the Indian, so will I be to my trees. They are my Totem. Let any man fell even one of them, even in the interests of sound forestry, then with the first cut of the saw or swing of the axe my curse will be upon him. Do that and I will never leave you, day or night, till your nerves are screaming and you are dead by your own hand, dead and damned for ever to rot in Hell. (p.41)

Quite a curse.

Despite it, though, it is now emerging that the redwoods old Josh planted (‘the finest plantation of western red cedar he had ever seen’) are probably worth something like $600,000 – a lot of money to the newly-impoverished family. This must be why Halliday turned up a few days earlier to change his will to leave the trees to Brian; Brian alone has a mystical feeling for the trees. He explains their life-giving attributes, their aura, the mystical importance of trees, with a vehemence the dull solicitor finds unnerving.

Thus, after 60 pages or so, we have all the ingredients of a classic Innes yarn: farflung location (Western Canada); Gothic family legacy (the old mine and the curse on the trees); mystery (where’s Tom?); violence (‘I’ll kill any man who touches those trees.’).

In Canada

Redfern sails across to France again, but lies lonely and bored in the bunk of his dinghy – and it’s then he conceives the plan of taking some time off to go and find Miriam. Just as Trevor Rodin drops everything to go off to the Persian Gulf (in Innes’ novel The Black Tide), Roy Slingsby drops everything to go off to the Solomon Islands (Solomons Seal), and Colin Tait drops everything to go into the Kenyan bush (The Big Footprints), so Philip Redfern decides to drop everything to go in quest of Miriam Halliday, to check on the mine and the famous stand of pine, and generally find out what’s happening.

Next thing we know he’s on a flight over the Arctic to western Canada, to Vancouver. Here he has interviews with Halliday’s lawyers, with the timber firm and shipping firm. Turns out some of the timber has been chopped down and is being brought by tug to Vancouver. Already Brian Halliday is being true to his threats, and has steered a dinghy in front of one huge log-bearing tug, wearing a Greenpeace T-shirt and nearly getting himself killed. All this by page 70 of this 330-page book.

From Vancouver Redfern flies to Edmonton and on the flight is lucky enough to run into a guy who can offer him a lift up into the mountains, to the Front Ranges and to Lake Dezadeash. He stays in the lodge here, asking after the Halliday mine – the Ice Cold mine, it is called – and meeting the usual Innes round of surly locals, Kevin and Eddie and Tony, who are obviously hiding something…but what?

And so the narrative continues, mixing improbable motivation with characters who adopt, who only seem capable of, the very limited gamut of Innes’ postures – shrugging, breaking off in mid-sentence, mumbling and just being plain silent – but all set against vivid descriptions of the breath-taking West Canadian landscape.

The rock-scoured mountain that overhung the town gleamed wet and wicked where the great slide had gashed it, tumbling millions of tons of debris down into the waters of the loch to form the hard standing that reached back from the quay. (p.221 cf p.243)

Geography and a map

There is a lot of travelling, travelling vast distances across western Canada. In fact the middle two hundred pages of the book barely make sense without a map and the book really should have included one. I also didn’t understand why Tom and Redfern went by boat into the Yukon, crossed the border into America, then crossed out again and sailed down past Vancouver Island – an entire section that was quite hard to follow unless you were studying the correct maps pretty closely.

I also found it hard to follow when Tom made Redfern travel by coastguard cutter upriver from the sea across numerous lakes to be dropped at a derelict lakeside town, Ocean Falls, before getting a canoe and carrying it up scrabbly rocky hillsides to higher lakes in order to eventually reach the lake above the famous high stand of timber, to look down on the activities of the (illegal) loggers.

A lot of the story is made up of journeys, full of detailed geographical references which are, presumably, accurate, but are just so many words without having a large scale map of the region open in front of you. Much of the text reads like a travelogue – here Redfern is describing the river journey he and Brian take in the coastguard cutter Kelsey, commanded by the friendly captain Cornish:

Ocean Falls was little more than thirty miles away… By the time we had finished lunch we were back in the Fisher Channel, just passing the entrance to Lama Passage. We continued northwards past Evans Inlet and into the narrows by Bold Point… Now the mountains above us were bleak as we followed the King Island shore until we came to the Dean Channel junction and headed up Cousins Inlet… Soon she would turn north-east up the Dean Channel to pass Echo Harbour and Mackenzie Rock and on towards Kimsquit until they opened Cascade Inlet and reached the Halliday Arm of it. (pp.221-222)

A map would have been a very good idea.

I reckoned by then we should be past the entrance to Cousins Inlet and headed into the Fisher Channel. Presuming they followed the same course as before, midnight should see us approaching the point where we altered course to the westward to pass through Hakai Passage. (p.293)

Tom Halliday is alive

Redfern finally makes it up to the old mine and is poking around when he is astonished to bump into a small mining operation further down the hillside being run single-handed by — none other than the missing Tom Halliday! Tom Halliday alive and well, though looking the worse for spending the past month drilling and surveying to little effect. He needs the gold, and he’s irrationally, almost feverishly convinced there’s more gold in the lower valley, if he only had time! As they talk Redfern becomes aware of Halliday’s mania and realises the gossip about him and drugs may be true…

Miriam is kidnapped

But hardly have they clambered back up to the cabin for some outback coffee and Tom goes to an outbuilding to get something, than he comes hurtling back to reveal he’s found a message slipped under the door – ‘They’ve got Miriam! They’ve kidnapped Miriam!!’ So that’s why her postcards to Redfern back in Sussex came to abrupt halt. Although Redfern has no idea who ‘they’ are and Tom is characteristically hesitant, shruggy and pausey about explaining anything…

The loggers want more

It takes the next hundred and fifty pages to screw out of the narrative and the usual network of shrugs, turning away, mumbling and silences from all the characters, the basic fact, the premise of the novel, which is – Tom, in his desperation to pay for his lifestyle and to fund his frantic efforts to strike a new claim further down the mountain, agreed to sell the right to fell some timber from the stand of old redwood planted by his father to an American company. Brian the activist and Redfern, from his own investigations, have realised the timber company has gone beyond the agreement and continuing to fell, shave and send downriver by vast logging barge more trees than was agreed or paid for.

So Brian and Redfern continue their journey to the logging camp under the misapprehension that some Latin American hoodlums – who we met earlier on in the book, back in Lake Dezadeash – a couple of ‘hunters’ with guns and a bad attitude, are probably involved in kidnapping Miriam in order to pressure Tom into signing over the rights to chop down the entire stand – worth a genuine fortune.

Tom is a cocaine addict

During these pages we see it confirmed that Tom Halliwell is indeed a cocaine addict, something the lawyer Redfern deprecates but accepts. His addiction explains why Tom’s speech and behaviour are often so unpredictable. It is only in the final desperate pages that Tom reveals to Redfern and Brian, hunkered down in the woods above the timber operation, hiding out from the timber company and their shady Latino henchmen, that the the whole thing isn’t about illegal timber felling – the timber operation is an elaborate front for the massive drug smuggling operation. The Latin Americans bring in large amounts of cocaine, which is hidden in the logging barge, which then sails freely across the relatively open border between Canada and so into America.

Miriam is being held hostage in the cabin on the lake

Redfern had met Brian at one of the myriad of places mentioned in the text, and Brian drags Redfern across the western outback to the series of lakes above the stand of trees. It is dark and they are hiding or aware they might be followed. They sneak past a cabin which has noisy guard dogs tethered outside on their way to paddle across the final lake, to beach the canoe and then look down at the timber operation. It is only hidden in the trees here that Redfern suddenly realises the significance of the dogs: that must be where they’re keeping Miriam hostage!

Shootout at the cabin

As he realises this, they see the boss man of the timber crew, Wolchak, despatch the two Latino goons, Camargo and Lopez, up the hill towards them. Brian vows to stay on the scene, so Redfern – the boring solicitor from Sussex – finds himself scrambling fast uphill through the trees to the lakeside. He pinches the bad guys’ powered boat and sets off cross the lake, beaches on the other side and creeps up towards the cabin in the dark.

At that moment the front door opens and the man inside, one of the shady characters who have threaded in and out of the narrative, at the Ice Cold mine and on various boats since, emerges saying goodbye to a companion. They walk down to the lake and this gives Redfern the opportunity to dart into the open doorway and immediately see two doors inside barred by makeshift timber bars.

He opens one and is appalled to see Tom Halliday in a wild and crazy state and another man lying badly beaten on the bed. In a rush Tom explains the body is the corpse of Thor Olsen, Tom’s forest manager for the stand of timber, who they were beating in front of Miriam to get her to say how much she and Tom knew about the drug smuggling operation. In the middle of the beating Olsen had a heart attack and died. (p.266)

And Miriam is in the other, barred, room. As Redfern turns to it he hears footsteps towards the main door, springs to it and locks it on the inside. An angry face appears at the window shouting to be let in as a) Redfern opens the other door to release a dirty, dazed-looking Miriam b) incensed beyond words, Tom grabs a hunting rifle lying against the wall and shoots the man knocking at the window, Aleksis.

Tom and Miriam and Redfern emerge, stunned, into the night air, Redfern having to restrain Tom from shooting their guard – now lying moaning on the ground nursing a shattered knee – in the face or heart to finish him off. Redfern warns that he pinched the goons’ powered dinghy but they’ll have found his canoe and be rowing after him across the lake. Let’s go, says Tom and leaps into the dinghy, kicking off the motor.

Half way across the lake they see the canoe with Camargo and Lopez in it, but to Redfern’s horror Tom turns the tiller and sets course for a collision. As the bad guys raise their guns, the powered boat crashes into the side of the canoe, tearing it in half, the goons miss their shots and are thrown into the lake. ‘Shouldn’t we go back and help them?’ Redfern asks. ‘You don’t understand’, Tom replies. He had overheard the radio conversation – the two guys were on their way to ‘play’ with Miriam till they could get her to spill what she knew about the drug operation – ‘drowning’s too good for them.’ (p.270)

Tom is killed by a chainsaw

It’s in this vengeful mood that Redfern, Miriam and Tom beach the dinghy on the shoreline above the stand and begin going down into the woods. Here Brian reappears, the first time he has seen his father since he went missing a month before. He surlily ignores him but is overjoyed to see his (step)mother released from captivity. Together they look down on the timber operation, two big burly lumberjacks chainsawing the trees, while Brian boils over with anger accusing his father of all kinds of derelictions of duty, of betraying Grandad Halliday’s wishes, of ‘raping’ the beautiful landscape out of greed, and so on.

Thus taunted, the (already coked-up) Tom snaps and steps out of their hiding place and walks towards the lumberjacks, shouting at them to stop, he is the owner of the land etc. But they lazily, arrogantly tell him to **** off, they have their orders, doesn’t matter who he is etc. At which Tom really loses it, fires off one shot with the rifle he’s brought and then, discovering there’s no more ammo, charges the lumberjack with the gun above his head like a club. The lumberjack swings the chainsaw round in front of him as a warning or defence but Tom keeps on charging him and at the critical moment, probably, it all happens so fast, stumbles, and falls full onto the roaring chainsaw which rips right through his chest, blood and flesh spurting everywhere (p.279).

Miriam screams, Brian launches forward with his gun as the two lumberjacks turn tail and run down the track back towards the camp to warn everyone. Old man Halliday’s curse has been fulfilled. Tom allowed the high stand to be injured and paid for it with his life!

Hiding on the barge

Our heroes take a moment to get over their shock, Miriam kneeling by the gory remains of her husband long enough to get her blouse and skirt covered in blood. They can hear the dogs being alerted down in the lumber camp and have to make a decision. Brian convinces them not to run back up to the lake and try and escape that way, but – as the heavens open into a torrential downpour – to double back towards the camp – they won’t be expecting that.

In fact, from the trees at the edge of the camp they can see the enormous barge moored in the river, already piled high with lumber. ‘Follow me’, says Brian and goes skidding across the mud in the torrential rain, up the barge ramp and into the (deserted) wheelhouse (p.285).

It turns out to be hours and hours until the now fully-laden barge is hooked up to a tug and begins the long journey across a lake into a river and out to the sea passage next to Vancouver Island. Early on they manage to use the short wave radio to get a message out to the Captain Cornish who piloted the coastguard cutter which brought Brian and Redfern up the river. Now they send out an SOS, with a coded message implying the barge is stashed with drugs and giving their position. Then they climb down into the hold, squeeze among the massive redwood logs and find good hiding places.

All this takes over 24 hours, during which they become very hungry, very thirsty and shivering with cold from the heavy downpour of rain. They lie in their hideouts, hearing the clumping of men overhead, the change of the roll of the barge as it leaves the river and enters the open sea. Being a sailor (the importance of Redfern’s forays across the Channel at the book’s opening become more relevant here, as they were at various points, in Captain Cornish’s cutter, and paddling across various lakes) Redfern can see in his mind’s eye the route the barge is taking.

This goes on for a long time, until they have been without food or water for three days and are in a bad way. The text gives detailed descriptions of the route east of Vancouver Island the narrator and the coastguard cutter think the barge will take, and the actual route they take around the west of the island, rolling along in high seas and through a thick fog.

Climax and arrest

It’s when they eventually spot a lighthouse beam on the port bow that Miriam snaps. 18 days imprisonment followed by three days freezing and starving hidden among logs on a seabound barge have pushed her over the edge and she tells Brian and Philip that either they cut the hawser to the tug towing them or she’s jumping overboard and taking her chances swimming to the mainland. So they go carefully up the barge’s wheelhouse, rifles in hand, to find it deserted. As Brian releases the hawser for’ard, Redfern takes the radio and radios a mayday alert, picking up the coastguard cutter almost immediately, which a) heads towards them b) alerts coastal air-sea rescue helicopter c) alerts any nearby vessels. So that when the tug has swung round to come and investigate the problem, rearing up over them in the heavy seas with armed men in the bows, not only is the coastguard warning them off but suddenly a helicopter packed with customs and police officials appears overhead. Their ordeal is over.

Epilogue

Map required.

It was the Gabriello herself that towed the leaking barge clear of the rocks past Friendly Cove and the entrance to Cook’s Channel and into the quiet of the Zuciarte Channel. This took us south and west of Bligh Island to the grey rock of Muchalat Inlet and so up to the pulp mill some eight miles south of Gold River. (p.319)

Briefly, the barge is tugged to port and strip searched but, while the police concentrate on the matter of Tom’s murder and Miriam’s kidnapping, the customs can find no drugs. Until Philip has an epiphany: the drill he’d seen up at the camp and the logs on their side on a special hoist. He gets customs to try it out and they discover each log has been hollowed out and a 4.5 metre long container of pure cocaine inserted, before being sealed very carefully with the plug from the same tree, accurately positioned to completely hide the seal. Criminal proceedings begin. Wolchak turns out to be the head of American mafia family based in Chicago.

In the closing pages Miriam phones Philip in his hotel room overlooking the bay in Vancouver and takes him out for a meal. Guess what! Halliday’s men back at Ice Cold have discovered gold nuggets where Tom was prospecting. If only he’d found them a month ago, if only he’d found them a year ago, he would still be alive, sob. Philip comforts her and they are finally heading back to his hotel room, when a car tries to run them down and armed men leap out and start taking pot shots.

They run down to the marina just as a boat is docking and Philip yells, ‘Mayday mayday’, leaping aboard and shouting at the owner to pull away, they’re being chased by armed men. The owner, a phlegmatic Yank, steers them out into the safety of the bay and asks for their story. You want my opinion? he asks at the end of it. Drug cartels are tough, very tough. Go back to England and don’t come back unless you’ve got an armed guard.

And so Miriam and Philip make it back to their hotel room and perform the act of love which has been in the offing ever since Philip was entranced by her heaving breasts back in the opening pages. But afterwards he lays awake, worried how they are going to balance returning at some point to open up the new gold diggings up in Ice Cold, with what is now the permanent threat of revenge by a drug cartel.

And on this ambivalent note, the novel ends.

Related links

Fontana paperback cover of High Stand

Fontana paperback cover of High Stand

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

Here Lies: An Autobiography by Eric Ambler (1985)

Only an idiot believes that he can write the truth about himself. (p.18)

This autobiography was written when Ambler was in his mid-seventies, living in tax exile in Switzerland. It has the same relaxed, urbane, ironic and amused tone of voice as his later novels. The anecdotes about family, friends, lovers, publishers and fans are rounded and pat. Emotion or confusion or uncertainty are eschewed in favour of crisp declarative sentences and sly humour.

For me, money troubles and puberty arrived together. At about the same time that I became a lecher I also became a thief. (p.58)

It must have been at about that time, I think, that he began his remarkably long career as an embezzler. (p.81)

It contains a lot of information, yet you have the sense that nothing is really revealed, nothing of emotional or personal value, anyway.

Twelve chapters:

1: An odd mixture of an account of a car crash he had in his 70s which appears to have crystallised his decision to write an autobiography, with satirical memories of book tours of America.

2: His grandfather came from Preston. His father was born in Salford. In 1903 the Amblers moved to Charlton in south-east London. His mum and dad tried for many years to make a go of a marionette stage act, The Whatnots, in addition to his dad’s day job in a factory in Silvertown. Born in 1909, Eric went to school during the Great War and remembers zeppelin raids. Uncle Frank was captured by the Germans. He passes the exam to go to Colfe’s Grammar School.

3: School and its strange teachers, piano lessons, a pushbike and a passion for chemistry shared with his friend, Sims. Schoolboy discussions about sex. Eric wins a scholarship to an engineering college, unfortunately, just as he decides to become a playwright.

4: Attends trials to observe characters and performances, with playwriting in mind. Attends engineering courses. Joins the Territorial army and helps employers during the General Strike. Dad gets him a job as trainee at the Edison Swan Electric Company in Ponders End. Learns about the manufacture of light bulbs, drilling copper plates, storage batteries, dynamos, radio components.

5: Still a trainee, he is sent to Lydbrook colliery in south Wales, learns about vulcanising rubber, insulated wires etc. Moved into the Publicity department where he concocts copy to promote a batch of duff bulbs. They sell out. He has a gift! Reading Jung, Nietzsche, Spengler. His father collapses and dies. Funeral. Very throwaway reference to an affair with a married woman. He has to pay for her to have an abortion. Good old Uncle Frank lends him the 16 guineas required. His boss secures him a job at the advertising agency which has the Edison Swan Electric Company contact.

6: Thrives in advertising. Meets colourful characters. Begins to meet theatrical people and has his plays read and even performed. Visits a colleague who’s moved to an Italian village and realises many things are done better abroad. Encounters Italian blackshirts. Back in England, taken to court by the Inland Revenue. His plays are read & performed by the Guildhall Arts School: for example, one about a young man who tries to gas himself, is confronted by a supernatural Prosecutor who calls witnesses to his life, and then condemns him – to live! In Marseilles Eric is conned out of all his money by a gambler. He fantasises about assassinating him with a rifle from his hotel window. A few weeks later a Croat assassin kills King Alexander of Yugoslavia at the same road junction. ‘In the Mediterranean sunshine there were strange and violent men with whom I could identify, and with whom, in a way, I was now in touch.’ (p.115)

7: Relationship with Betty Dyson. First novel, The Dark Frontier, published. Thinks the contemporary thriller was very poor: ‘As I saw it, the thriller had nowhere to go but up.’ (p.121) Frontier starts as a parody, with peculiar elements, such as the dual identity of the protagonist, but develops into something genuinely gripping. Eric becomes director of the advertising agency and writes his second novel, Uncommon Danger. He casually refers to going to lectures by communists. ‘If the term fellow-travellers had been used in its present pejorative sense at the time I think that many of us could well have been described in that way.’ (p.124) The precise nature of his political allegiances is debated to this day, but it’s clear he was never politically active. After delivering his third novel, Epitaph For A Spy, to his publisher Eric quits his job at the advertising agency to become a full-time writer. Epitaph is serialised in the Daily Express in March 1938, for which he is paid the princely sum of £135.

8: Eric uses the money to go and live on the Continent, in an out-of-season skiing resort where he completes his fourth novel, Cause For Alarm. He has barely submitted that to his publisher before he is planning the fifth, Mask of Dimitrios from an apartment in Paris. More film offers come in. Eric takes a cargo liner with 30 passengers across the Atlantic to be wined and dined by his publisher in New York, go to literary parties and jazz clubs. Steamer back to London then back to his apartment in Paris where he falls in love with Louise Crombie, an American divorcee with three children working in Paris fashion (p.150). The Nazi-Soviet Pact is announced and they squeeze onto a ferry back to London and are married in Croydon. The Mask of Dimitrios has the distinction of being the Daily Mail book-of-the-month in the same week Britain and France go to war with Germany (p.154). He tries to enrol in various bits of the Armed Forces and starts writing Journey Into Fear, partly based on his recent transAtlantic voyage. Eric makes another brief transAtlantic foray, is briefly reunited with his American wife, before returning to Britain. Journey Into Fear is the Evening Standard‘s book-of-the-month in July 1940, the month the third Republic ceases to exist and the Battle of Britain begins (p.158).

9: Army. Royal Artillery Driver Training. Then motor bike training. RKO pay Ambler $20,000 for the movie rights to Journey Into Fear (Here Lies, p.170). Applies to become a gunnery officer. Commands the artillery unit protecting Winston Churchill at Chequers, near Wendover. An evening with Winston Churchill watching a movie featuring his favourite Hollywood film star, Deanna Durbin. A few more artillery posts, then he is ordered to join ADAK.

10: Assistant Director of Army Kinematography, a unit consisting of Thorold Dickinson, Carol Reed, 21-year-old Peter Ustinov and now Eric, set up to make training films. They collaborate with Army psychiatrists to make The New Lot, designed to bolster confidence among new recruits, but it is suppressed by higher-ups who think it is not sufficiently patriotic. After typical movie production negotiations, The New Lot is converted into a full-scale commercial movie, The Way Ahead, starring David Niven and shot at Denham Studios. Eric is seconded to the American Office of War Information to go to Italy with a film unit led by John Huston. Prolonged negotiations with generals and so on about what is suitable or possible to film. Story of the GI propositioning the wrong Italian lady in daylight. Story of the priest and the dog poo.

11: Detailed account of the unit’s progress along the bombed road into the devastated village of San Pietro. The plan had been to make a film showing the benefits of being ‘liberated’ by the Allies. However, what they find is fields full of dead soldiers and the village an abandoned, booby-trapped pile of rubble. They come under artillery attack, where (according to John Huston’s later reminiscences, Ambler displays characteristic insouciance). The documentary Huston cobbles together is later banned by the US Army. Back in Naples Eric meets and drinks with Humphrey Bogart and his wife. Then flies back to England.

12: Ordered to make a film for British troops profiling the American war contribution, United States, voiced by Niven. Travels to New York to get archive footage. It’s well-received, Eric is promoted and put in charge of a series of educational films. He recounts making 95 of these in 1945, and lists the range of subjects. The issue of informing released POWs and demobbed soldiers. Rents a house in St Margaret’s Bay, near Noël Coward. Rediscovers the wellsprings of his novelist’s imagination. Eric describes the real-life sources for The Schirmer Inheritance and Judgement on Deltchev. His acquaintance with Somerset Maugham, who comes over as very difficult. The reminiscences end with a lecture Eric gave several times about the different frustrations and rewards of writing novels and writing screenplays.


The text is a smooth, untroubled flow of events and anecdotes. Who knows what real emotional crises, passions and affairs it artfully conceals. The anecdotes are amusing but rarely funny. There is very little about the actual process of writing. He refers once to ‘obsessive rewriting’ which certainly explains the pared-down and controlled tone of his novels. Only at the very end does he shed a little light on his collaborations with another novelist, Charles Rodda.

I am touchy, pernickety and possessive about work in progress… when writing for myself I never follow a set story line. I try things out, I rewrite and I change my mind about the characters as I go along. At the end, I make further changes. (p.227)

This certainly accounts for the sense of many of the characters winging it in the plots, and of the plots themselves hingeing on arbitrary and random cruces. Overall, Ambler’s novels lack a kind of depth of conception and inevitability of plot, a lack which prevents them becoming real ‘classics’, which explains why they almost all went out of print in the 70s and 80s, and why they will probably remain the preserve of a small but dedicated fan-base for the foreseeable future.


This autobiography has no index, which makes it difficult to look up references to the novels or films etc and makes the text appear more like a novel than a factual reference book. As, possibly, it is intended to be…

Related links

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

Juggernaut by Desmond Bagley (1985)

I strolled in the night air over to the rig and stood looking up at the great slab of the transformer. Over one million pounds’ worth of material was being trundled precariously through Africa by a company on the verge of going bankrupt, with a civil war possibly about to erupt in its path, and what the hell was I going to do about it? (p.64)

This is the second of the two novels left in manuscript form at Bagley’s untimely death in 1983, and completed and published with the help of his wife, Joan.

Neil Mannix

It’s a pacey first-person action adventure told by Neil Mannix, an American troubleshooter working for big multinational corporation British Electric. BE have the contract to build a massive power station in the northern, desert region of the (fictional) west African country, Nyala. The first of the vast transformers involved in the build is already being shipped out there, and scheduled to be transported from the docks to the northern destination by the sub-contracting haulage firm, Wyvern Haulage.The flat-bed transporter will be pulled very slowly by three trucks accompanied by supply lorries and cars – quite a convoy. In addition the Nyalan government has tasked a platoon of soldiers in jeeps and lorries, led by a Captain Sadiq to guard it.

Mannix’s job is to cover every aspect of a multi-million pound operation like this, gauging risk and anticipating problems. As the operation gets under way, he discovers this is the haulage company’s first job – though the individual truckers are very experienced, they’ve only just formed the company; and it quickly becomes plain there are problems with the quality of maps, roads and bridges on into the remote desert region where the station is to be built. So a bit of worry…

Civil war

But all this is eclipsed when the political tensions Mannix has also got wind of suddenly erupt into full scale civil war, with the Nyalan air force attacking sections of the army and our heroes (Mannix, the 20 or so riggers and drivers and the 50 or so Nyalan troops) find themselves smack in the middle.

If this was a Frederick Forsyth novel we would be given a panoptic, God-like overview of events, with successive chapters taking us into the presence of the leaders of the coup, the head of the government and army, and a clinical analysis of the power politics involved. If it was a classic Alistair MacLean there would be an enemy agent in among the crew, and a big, game-changing surprise half-way through.

But this old-fashioned novel is a more straightforward adventure in the tradition of Hammond Innes: a competent but fairly ordinary guy is thrust into a perilous situation and has to cope with a series of crises which unfold with no higher scheme or rationale.

Thus almost immediately radio contact is lost with the outside world and Mannix is left in charge of the transporter and crew with no idea what’s going on. The result is a series of chaotic events: the town they are slowly heading towards, Kodowa, is heavily bombed by the Nyalan Air Force. When they arrive they find it on fire with plenty of dead and dying scattered around. A light airplane, damaged by army fire, crash lands in the scrub not far away and turns out to contain Wingstead, the head of the haulage firm who had been determined to fly up to be with his team, though his pilot Max Otterman, is badly injured in the crash.

They make camp just outside Kodowa and are astonished when a nun blunders into their camp, revealing that not far away is a hospital swamped with casualties. They drive the transporter over to the building so that its generator can supply power and their fridge be used to store medicine, but it is not a long-term solution for either party.

A mobile hospital

In a slightly bizarre turn of events, the nun and black doctor in charge say there’s another hospital 50 miles north – along the route the transporter is taking anyway – could the rig itself and the accompanying tractors and trucks carry the hospital’s 100 patients and nurses and supplies to it? After a hurried conference our guys say yes and so the sick and dying are arranged over the transporter, tractors, lorries, cars etc and the now rather odd-looking convoy slowly lumbers off north. Only to discover the once remaining bridge between them and the northern hospital has been bombed and the river is impassable.

More discussions and they decide to turn south back to the bombed-out town and then west back into the edge of the jungle towards a fork on the big local river which forms the border with the neighbouring country. For two reasons: The village there has cotton warehouses which could be converted into some kind of building for the sick; our crew would then have the option of getting across the river and eventually being repatriated to Blighty.

Characters and confrontations

Unlike Night of Error there’s quite a large cast of characters, maybe 40 named people, who are initially a little hard to keep track of, but certain key players emerge. Mannix develops tremendous respect for the captain in charge of the Nyalan army unit assigned to protect them, Captain Sadiq; for the black hospital doctor, Dr Katabisirua (‘a man dedicated and inspired’ p.306), and for the tough-minded nun, Sister Ursula, who is assisting him.

He learns which of the dozen or so crew he can trust and which are twisters. Five crew rebel against Mannix’s decisions and leadership and, after harsh words, are sacked and told to make their own way to freedom. They leave after stealing some supplies but the next day four come crawling back. One returnee takes Mannix aside to tell him that the tough Irishman, McGrath, tracked them down, harangued them to return and, when the dissident ringleader refused, shot him dead on the spot. Mannix confronts McGrath about it and after some shouting, decides uneasily it’s better to have him working for the team than against.

Some oil riggers – two Americans, some Russians, a French – isolated by the bombed town and blown-up bridge attach themselves to the convoy. Mannix is forced to confront one of them, the angry and violent Russ Burns. In a showdown scene the two are squaring up for a fight in front of the rest of the men when McGrath appears out of nowhere, pushes Burns back against the transporter and starts to cut his throat until Burns swears allegiance to Mannix. Mannix has mixed feelings: McGrath is dangerous; but it’s very handy having him as his enforcer.

Juggernaut

All the time they are managing the slow (ten miles an hour or less) progress of the transporter covered with about 100 sick patients in makeshift beds under makeshift awnings, and slowly this begins to have a strange effect. In the background the bush telegraph circulates among the natives rumours of the giant lorry with a vast load, covered in sick people and white magicians performing healing and curing; and gradually the team acquires a following of blacks, of poor, homeless men, women and children who accompany the convoy on its tortuous route, stopping and camping when they camp, waking and moving on when they do.

The transporter comes to acquire a kind of magical importance, not only for the natives, but even for Mannix and his team: it becomes a psychological fetish, a symbol that will see them safe through the harrowing chaos of civil war. As one of the characters points out, rather like one of the big wheeled carts of the Indian god Juggernaut (Jagannath), under which his crazed devotees threw themselves to be crushed to death.

The rebels

The civil war finally catches up with them and the convoy is seized by rebel army forces. About fifty men and two Saracen armoured cars led by a callous Colonel Maksa – the kind of African soldier who wears enormous shades and enjoys intimidating people. Just before their arrival Captain Sadiq and his men withdraw silently into the jungle and Mannix tells his people to act innocent as the rebels enter the camp. Despite this the soldiers aggressively round everyone up into the cotton warehouse, bullying and poking the sick on the transporter – we later learn they kick to death Max the wounded pilot. They are brutal. It is scary. Mannix notices McGrath has managed to elude the round-up.

Colonel Maksa wants to know where Sadiq and his men are, and questions each one of the crew in turn. When the argumentative Russ Burns foolishly says he won’t be pushed about by some goddam rebel, Maksa simply shoots his head off. A nun faints, one of his crew throws up, Mannix is petrified with fear. At that moment McGrath appears, shoots Maksa and, in the confusion, the only soldier accompanying Maksa inside the warehouse is overpowered and knocked unconscious.

Now McGrath comes into his own, planning how they’ll lure the remaining officers into the warehouse by pretending to be Maksa, and take them out one by one. Then they’ll fan out across the compound to take on the soldiers, while he and one of the crew take one of the tractors (whose back panels are made of steel and concrete to give them ballast, making them more effective at pulling the transporter) and drive it backwards towards the remaining Saracen holding the small nearby bridge.

McGrath had liaised with Sadiq so that at an arranged signal Sadiq’s men will begin lobbing mortars and firing into the rebel troops. And this is what happens – though it turns out more confused and chaotic than it sounds, with both sides firing wildly and mortars going off all over the place. But McGrath does manage to ram the 10 ton Saracen with the 40 ton towing tractor, Sadiq’s mortar and gunfire decimates the rebel soldiers who, deprived of any officers (lying unconscious and trussed up in the warehouse) turn tail and run across the bridge and off west.

In the morning our guys bury the dead – soldiers, three of our crew, some of the African patients, the murdered pilot. Then they hook up the damn transporter, tend to the patients still positioned all over it and in the lorries, and set off at the customary crawl along the road west, towards the river and the border followed, as usual, by the crowds of native worshippers. These had melted into the forest when the soldiers came; now they reappear to worship their god, Juggernaut.

About page 240 of this 320-page book the bizarre caravanserai finally arrives at the junction of rivers, so wide it looks like a lake. Mannix and the other leaders discuss with some locals the best way to cross into the neighbouring country. They think their troubles are over…

The raft

They aren’t. Turns out the official ferry is a few miles downriver and in the hands of the rebels. The road they’ve followed leads down to a primitive pontoon at the riverside. Back along the way is a general store run by a scared local who tells them about the nearby dumps of old oil cans, tyres, bits and bobs, along with a repair shop for fixing the pontoon and boats which run from it.

Sizing up all the resources, Mannix gets excited: with boyish enthusiasm he sketches out to his audience of truckers, riggers, mechanics, electricians and fixers how they could probably create a raft from the drums, rope, and planks and use it to seize the proper ferry by attacking at night from the river. Once secured, the ferry could take the crew and all the patients across the wide river to freedom. What, about it lads? Shall we give it a go? They say yes and set about designing and building a raft and the text is full of details about the design, buoyancy calculations, raw materials, fitting and shaping and hammering and roping together which are involved.

Men working together as a team. Male camaraderie. Problems arise, are discussed and solved; relevant experts make suggestions and improvements to what turns into a production line. Technical specifications, tools, processes for building and assembling. The text conveys the simple warm feeling of men working together on a technical task…

Manliness

Most novels feature novelists, writers, journalists and associated soft trades. But this adventure yarn features ‘real men’: Mannix is an action man, his job to sort out everything that can happen on dangerous and demanding assignments in extreme environments and the men he’s working with are tougher than him, physically and mentally – truckers, oil riggers, soldiers, good at fixing and repairing heavy machinery, able to look after themselves in a fight.

When the crisis strikes Mannix appoints himself top dog and has no hesitation confronting the rebel soldiers, stroppy civilians, and beating down claimants to his throne among his crew. He is very much the alpha male, as the big confrontations with McGrath and Burns and sundry smaller fry continually affirm.

From one point of view it is like a wildlife documentary about a pack of lions or other big predators: only by continually facing down his rivals can the alpha male establish and keep his position. Seen this way the narrative has almost zoological or anthropological interest.

Key among all these rivalries is the ambiguous relationship which grows between him and McGrath, ‘the odd, unwanted rapport that I sometimes felt between us…’ (p.259), ‘the common thread that sometimes linked our thoughts and actions’ (p.292).

The latter is clearly no ordinary trucker and, in his several confrontations with this laconic and violent man, it dawns on Mannix that the Irishman is on the run from ‘the Troubles’, probably a former member of the IRA. Certainly his fearlessness allows McGrath to take complete control during the firefight with the rebels, though (sardonically) acknowledging Mannix’s ultimate authority. His plan and his fearlessness win the day – but leaving Mannix to wonder how and when McGrath will finally rebel, and whether a violent confrontation with this scary man can be avoided…

It dawned on me that Mannix’s respect for McGrath’s total ability but fear of his amorality has a Freudian or psychological aspect: McGrath is Mannix’s id, the unstoppable, amoral, super-violent man Mannix could become, or deep down, is; and on the other side is his superego, the quiet capable figure of the African doctor, Dr Katabisirua, avoiding all conflict, superhumanly committed to his patients. But it’s the Mannix-McGrath dynamic and its strange ambivalence which drives the book:

Despite myself I felt a nagging touch of understanding of McGrath and his ruthlessness. He’d manoeuvred us into doing the one thing he knew best; fighting and killing. He’d done it all for the most selfish of reasons, and without compunction. And yet he was brave, efficient and vital to our cause… I would never know if he had killed Ron Jones, but the worst of it, and the thing that filled me with contempt for myself as well as for him, was that I didn’t care. I prayed that I wouldn’t become any more like him. (p.233)

In fact McGrath embodies the manly virtues of total efficiency in the name of killing, maiming and triumphing over rivals, which are vital to humans to survive situations of war and chaos – but must be risen above, expunged and repressed, if the hero is to return to ‘civilised’ society.

McGrath was a maverick, intelligent, sound in military thinking and utterly without fear. I felt that he might be a useful man to have about in a war, but perhaps on the first day of peace he ought to be shot without mercy… (p.233)

Death of the juggernaut

Our boys finish making a raft big enough to carry a lorry – the one belonging to the French man they picked up outside Kodowa – which has a load of gelignite aboard. In the dead of night they float the raft down to the ferry station, approaching from the river and taking the (it turns out) handful of disorganised rebels by surprise, driving them off and seizing control. They free the pilots of the ferry from their makeshift prison in a shed, and over the next few hours bring the enormous transporter-cum-hospital lumbering round by road from its hiding place, along with its crowd of devotees.

For the next few hours they load onto the ferry all the patients, the nuns and nurses and doctors and supplies, and watch it set off on the several mile journey across this wide wide stretch of African river to the free country on the other side. It’s at this moment that another group of rebel soldiers attack, shooting mortars and firing guns at the ferry though, mercifully, it is just out of range.

But they capture Mannix and our boys and overpower Sadiq and his men. How are they going to get out of this one? It’s at this moment that the unstoppable Principle of Action McGrath appears behind the wheel of the gelignite lorry, driving it off the ferry and through the mass of confused soldiers, while Mannix and others attack and overpower the rebel officers. Up through the shooting soldiers McGrath drives to the edge of the road overlooking the ferry point where the transporter is parked and where the lorry explodes. The blast fatally undermines the poor local road which gives way and the enormous transporter with its vast transformer slowly tips sideways and then comes tumbling, rolling over and over downhill onto the panicking soldiers, crushing them to a pulp, just like the original Juggernaut, the angry god of vengeance, crushes his devotees in his native India.

As the dust settles Mannix realises he and most of his crew are alive; most of the rebel soldiers are dead, as is their leader. And McGrath himself, the spirit of Total Violence which must be exploited but then dismissed before Civilisation can recommence, is also obliterated.

Before the big ferry set sail its pilots showed off their toy, a six-wheel amphibious truck or DUKW. Mannix rounds up all the survivors into the DUKW and they set off across the river to freedom.


Common decency

This unreconstructed, unquestioning attitude to masculinity has a dated, not unpleasantly old fashioned feel.

But maybe the biggest thing which sets it apart from more modern thrillers is the simple acceptance of the notion of decency among the male leads. Mannix beats up Russ for referring to the natives as ‘niggers’ and bans all insulting language. He and the haulage boss, Wingstead, unquestioningly go to the  aid of the hospital, put their supplies, food and fridge at the disposal of the local doctor: race doesn’t enter the picture, there is an obvious humanitarian need and these men unhesitatingly go to help.

More modern thrillers (books and movies) revel in the way these moral values have collapsed, enjoy describing the most cynical betrayals possible, celebrate treachery, corruption, decadence, unpleasantness and evil. The terrifying 2003 movie Tears of the Sun, set in Nigeria during a coup, portrays rape, torture and dismemberment. What makes Juggernaut, set in a similar situation, feel so old fashioned is – despite some of the awful scenes it depicts – the fundamental decency and moral innocence of its lead figures.

Map

A lot of time in the text is spent discussing the options of where the convoy should go next, north, west, to which town, crossing which rivers etc. I appreciate Nyala is a fictional country but a map would have been good.

Novels about African coups

  • A Man of The People (1966) by Chinua Achebe ends with a coup
  • The Dogs of War (1974) by Frederick Forsyth
  • The Coup by (1978) John Updike

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Juggernaut

Fontana paperback edition of Juggernaut

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.

London Match by Len Deighton (1985)

I nodded and wondered where Posh Harry had got the idea that Bret was suspected of leaking to the Americans. Was that Lange’s misinterpretation or Harry’s? Or was it simply that no one could start to envisage him doing anything as dishonourable as spying for the Russians? And if that was it, was I wrong? And, if he was guilty of such ungentlemanly activities, who was going to believe it? (p.122)

The whole book – the entire trilogy – is like this. When he said X, did he really mean Y, or is he getting at Z, or am I misunderstanding and it’s all a plot to undermine A?

What [Bret] said about the radio made sense and I felt a bit better about it. But I noted the way he was going into bat for Stinnes. Was that because Bret was a KGB agent? Or simply because he saw in Stinnes a way of regaining a powerful position in London Central? Or both? (p.220)

A miasma of bluff and double bluff, of myriad interpretations of events and intentions, all rotating round the ideas of loyalty and betrayal. There is no particular military secret or big event going on (as, say, in a Frederick Forsyth thriller), there is just endless puzzling over whether this agent is telling the truth or is conspiring with that agent to create a deception in order to implicate a third agent and set the Department on a false trail. Unless the trail isn’t false and one or more of the agents is telling the truth… but then why did they say this? Or did he say that? Or she say the other? For 405 pages.

‘I’ve changed my mind about the whole business.’
‘The whole business? Her collecting that material from the car at the big party in Wannsee? Did she want to get arrested that night when we set it up so carefully and were so pleased with ourselves? Was that confession she gave you at some length – was it all set up?’
‘To implicate Bret? Yes, the Miller woman made a fool of me, Werner.’ (p.334)

Right up to the last few pages there are, as Samson understates it, ‘a lot of unanswered questions’ (p.389). It is not an action adventure novel, it is a puzzle. Or a series of puzzles which shift like a kaleidoscope as new events, and new snippets of information, continually realign the picture.

I poured myself a drink while I pulled my thoughts together. Was Bret admitting to me that he was a KGB mole? Had he come to me convinced that I was a KGB agent too? And how the hell was I going to find out? (p.346)

Sitcom

London Match is the third in Deighton’s trilogy of novels featuring sardonic, downbeat ‘spy’, Bernard Samson. Although the main theme is the bluff and double bluff which is the meat and drink of a counter-intelligence agency, in fact so much time is spent describing his personal life (children, nanny, sister-in-law, father-in-law, visits to the kids’ godfather out in the Cotswolds, and so on), and on office politicking among the small number of his colleagues in ‘the Department’ (Dicky, Bret, Frank), all of them having affairs or difficulties in their marriages, that the novels are settling down to feel like a soap opera or sitcom, with a small cast of characters we see over and over again, getting to know and enjoy their habits and tics and catchphrases – more The Archers than James Bond.

It was like that with all of us. We all knew each other very well; too damned well at times. (p.404)

Completely contrary to the blurbs on the back, I didn’t find this novel at all ‘bleak’ or ‘harsh’, I found it light and gossipy, immensely enjoyable and very more-ish. I can’t wait to read the next trilogy…

Timeframe

I was surprised to read that the escape of ‘Brahms Four’ – one of our top spies in East Germany, whose identification and flight is the subject of the first novel, Berlin Game – is here described as happening ‘a few short weeks ago’ (p.48). Does that mean the entire action of the middle novel, Mexico Set took place in a matter of weeks? On page 197 Samson says he’s been thinking about Bret and the possibility he had an affair with his wife ‘for the past few months’. So have all three novels taken place over the space of a few months at most? Months or weeks, the timeframe of all three novels is extremely compressed.

In a nutshell

Like the others in the trilogy, it can be summarised easily: having exposed his wife, Fiona, as a high ranking KGB mole in the Department (book 1), and organised the defection to our side of a KGB agent (book 2), Samson begins to suspect there is another mole at work, and the novel stacks up a lot of evidence to suggest it is his American superior, Bret Rensaeller.

The plot

The book opens with Samson and his old Berlin friend Werner Volkmann staking out a high-class party in Berlin where they proceed to arrest a senior aide in the Bundestag, on the basis of information supplied by the KGB defector Samson helped defect in Mexico Set, Erich Stinnes.

Mrs Miller

As a bonus, they catch a middle-aged Englishwoman, Mrs Miller, taking a security file from the aide’s car; Samson interrogates her and she breaks down to confess she is a long-time member of the British Communist Party and has been silly and naive and got caught up in regularly passing messages from London to the East. Samson is riveted to learn that she handled messages from London which came under two codenames. Two. One must have been his wife, Fiona: could she have been using two separate codenames? Unlikely. Could it be, then, that there were two moles in London Central?

He’s barely arrived back in London when Samson hears that Miller has tried to commit suicide (pills), and then that the ambulance she was being taken to hospital in has crashed into a Berlin canal. Damn. And double damn, because his boss orders him back to Berlin at Christmas to supervise the recovery of the ambulance… In a scene straight from a movie, Samson stands in the snow with a police inspector watching the big cranes winch the wreck up out of the oily black water: it is empty. Was she spirited away by the KGB, who always look after their own? That’s the last we hear of her for 300 pages…

Kidnap

While in Berlin there is an unusually violent and jarring scene where Samson realises he is being followed and then is suddenly seized, bound, blindfolded and smuggled through the Wall into the East. He wakens handcuffed in a cell, and can see into a neighbouring room, where he is horrified to witness a boy wrapped up and in what appear to be his son’s clothes, being injected by a nurse supervised by a KGB doctor.

Rarely for Samson he loses self-control, starting to shout his son’s name, ‘Billy, Billy’, in blind panic before the door opens and the big strong goon who we met at the end of Mexico Set, Moskvin, beats Samson up a little. Once our man is sat, panting recovering from his injuries, Moskvin tells him the KGB know London Central are planning to fill two vacancies which have come up at the Washington Embassy. ‘Apply for one’, he says. ‘No,’ says Samson.

‘We can pick you up any time we want’, says Moskvin grinning. ‘You, your girlfriend, your children, Any time. Think about it.’ And leaves the cell laughing, calling for the driver who will take Samson back through a checkpoint to the West… Scarey, but quickly forgotten in the giddy round of social life and office politics which continues as usual. The Washington gambit is never mentioned again. In fact the entire scene leaves no trace on the plot, like a hallucination.

Samson’s personal life

There is a lot of personal stuff around his flirty friendship with his wife’s sister, Tessa, and her husband George, the used car salesman, who we see in a number of sympathetic scenes and who Samson spends some effort trying to reconcile. But the main thread in his personal life is that Gloria Kent, the stunning 20-year-old secretary he was flirting with in the last book, has definitely fallen in love with him and they are an item. Improbably. As is the way, she is soon nagging that he’s putting on weight (the same accusation was made against the Ipcress File narrator all those years ago) and nagging that she wants to move in completely and nagging that she wants to get married, which he refuses. There are tears before bedtime.

The defector Erich Stinnes

Samson and others in the Department are frustrated that Stinnes is being held out at the prison-like Berwick House where the clumsy Debriefing Team are getting little out of him. Eventually Samson overcomes various objectors to get Stinnes released to a cosy safe apartment in Notting Hill Gate (with a Special Branch minder), takes him out for a stylish dinner (well, a curry) and Stinnes responds by starting to talk.

The case against Bret

Meanwhile, there’s a continuous drip-drip throughout the book, in various scenes and conversations, interrogations and implications, which appear to throw up evidence incriminating Bret, reinforcing the suspicion planted in Samson’s mind by the Miller woman.

  • Samson visits Lange, a disgruntled American who was recruited by Samson’s father and was successfully running a number of networks after the war, when along came Rensaeller from London with instructions to ‘de-Nazify’ and break them all up: or was it at the behest of Moscow? Bret later gives his version – that Lange was a black market mobster, and he was specifically tasked with decriminalising or dismantling his criminal networks… or so he says…
  • Then, another American, Posh Harry, CIA, shows Samson a photocopy of a Cabinet Office briefing about a security exercise carried out on West German military bases, which has ended up in Moscow. ‘You have a mole’, says Posh Harry. And Samson engineers an interview with a redoubtable senior secretary at Number Ten who confirms that this particular copy must have come from Rensaeller’s office…
  • Later on, tricky Dicky Cruyer adds his two-pennyworth by recalling to Samson an occasion decades earlier, in Kiel, when a defector they were swapping for a captured agent of ours, appeared to recognise Bret but, at a signal, switched to blank non-recognition. Aha. It all makes sense to Dicky now…
  • Two-thirds through the novel a new front opens up, when Stinnes gives his interrogators detailed information about a spy network working around a Cambridge research institution. Uncharacteristically, Bret, the smooth-talking desk jockey, says he will handle the field operation this entails, personally. He chooses Ted Riley, an aged security man who (like so many of the characters) knew and worked for Samson’s father, to go with Samson.
    • The first step is to break into the safe in a solicitor’s office in Cambridge in order to take a load of papers relating to the institution. This goes disastrously (and rather puzzlingly) wrong when the safe turns out to be booby-trapped and Riley and the safe-cracker Bret had imported to carry out this ‘routine job’ are blown to smithereens. The small group we always see meeting and conspiring – Bret, Dicky, Frank and Samson – are shaken.
    • But Bret insists on taking part in a further operation (which, again, wasn’t quite explained, or I didn’t quite follow). They arrange to meet some of Stinnes’ contacts in a laundrette in Hampstead – Bret and Samson waiting in the dingy interior with a laundry bag at the bottom of which is a bundle of cash, Stinnes hidden outside in a car with a minder. This, also, goes disastrously wrong, when the ‘contacts’ turn out to be two thugs in balaclava masks carrying sawn-off shotguns: they’re in the middle of demanding the money and Bret has frozen with fear, when there is a loud explosion – the car Stinnes and his minder were in has exploded, giving Samson the chance to pull his gun, shooting one goon, then chasing the other up a darkened stairwell and shooting him as well. Samson drags the stunned Bret outside where they are amazed and relieved to find Stinnes still alive – the minder pulled him out of the car at the first sign of trouble. Into the spare car they bundle and race off.

What the hell is going on? Is there a Cambridge circle of spies? Is Stinnes’ information genuine? Or are these deliberate traps he’s inventing? Did he somehow tip off Moscow about the break-in to the solicitors’ office so they could booby-trap it? But how, Stinnes is under 24 hour surveillance, surely he couldn’t communicate with anyone? And who were the goons who turned up in the laundrette? More KGB thugs? Or is Bret the mole? Did Bret take personal charge of these (disastrous) operations in order to scupper them? But why risk himself, and put himself in the firing line to take the blame?

These and other questions, and all possible permutations of them, are what Samson discusses at length with his boss Dicky, with Werner, with his lover Gloria, with Frank, with Silas Gaunt at his country mansion, each of them confusing the picture with additional information or conflicting interpretations.

Superficial incidents aside, it is the same basic plot as the first novel: not a ‘whodunnit’, a ‘whoisit‘.


Dramatis personae

Personal life

  • Bernard Samson – 40-something intelligence agent, sardonic, clever, tough and, I’m beginning to realise, immensely talkative. In this book’s 400 pages there’s no-one he doesn’t discuss his theories with – Tessa, Gloria, Silas, von Munte, Werner, Zena – about the only person who doesn’t get dragged into his constant theorising about what’s ‘going on’ is the plump nanny from Devon.
  • Fiona – his wife who also worked in the Service and was revealed, in Berlin Game, to be a KGB agent, and so fled behind the Curtain.
  • Billy and Sally (8) – Bernard and Fiona’s children, living with Samson in his central London house, looked after by the plump nanny from Devon, Doris.
  • Tessa – Fiona’s younger sister, posh, feisty, her marriage to George is on the rocks, she fancies Bernard like mad, but is having an ill-judged affair with Dicky Cruyer.
  • David Kimber-Hutchinson – very well-off father of Fiona and Tessa, determined to take custody of his grand-children.
  • George Kosinski – Tessa’s husband, a Polish immigrant and very successful used car salesman who Tessa is serially unfaithful to.
  • Gloria Kent – luscious young secretary who falls in love with Samson at the end of the previous novel and is now seriously infatuated with him, wanting to move in and completely redesign his life.

The Department

  • Richard ‘Dicky’ Cruyer – Oxford man, Controller of German Stations, Samson’s immediate boss, fussy, self-interested. Samson hates these smug, self-satisfied, patronising Oxbridge-educated desk men.

‘Let me tell you something, Bernard,’ said Dicky, leaning well back in the soft leather seat and adopting the manner of an Oxford don explaining the law of gravity to a delivery boy… (p.28)

  • Frank Harrington – pipe smoking, 60-year-old head of the Berlin Field Unit (the job Bernard’s father had way back), fanatical Duke Ellington fan. Proves loyal in the book’s closing section.
  • Tarrant – Frank’s inscrutable valet at his big country house out at Grunewald.
  • Bret Rensselaer – mid-fifties, confident American (an American high up in MI6?), head of the Economics Intelligence Committee of SIS, sleek, suspicious. His plans took a knock with the defection of the agent called Brahms Four in Berlin Game, upon whose steady flow of economic intelligence about the Russkies Bret had built a little empire within SIS. In this book evidence mounts up which appears to incriminate him of also being a mole…
  • Morgan – creepy assistant to the ailing Director-General and therefore powerful.
  • Silas Gaunt – retired legend in the Department, living in a massive ramshackle house – Whitelands – in the Cotswolds, who Samson visits in each novel for a symbolic Communing with the Elders, in this novel bumping into the agent, Brahms Four, who Samson smuggled out of East Berlin in Berlin Game.
  • Henry Tiptree – contemporary of Dicky’s at Balliol college, Oxford, and now SIS’s man in Mexico, crops up here in some meetings and committees.
  • Ted Riley – old-timer who (like so many) worked for Samson’s father, but after getting caught doing a bit of black marketeering, was pushed sideways to become security at the safe house at Berwick House. As such he accompanies Stinnes to the London apartment to guard him and then is tasked with helping Samson in the raid on a Cambridge office, in which he is blown to smithereens.
  • Sir Henry Clevemore – Director-General of the Department, who Samson thinks is more or less gaga. It is a little bizarre to portray the head of Britain’s intelligence service as a senile fool.

Other characters

  • Werner Volkmann – Samson’s oldest friend from his Berlin childhood, big, bearlike, Jewish, he runs a successful if unofficial import-export agency into East Berlin but is keen to work for (and be paid by) the Department. In the later parts of the novel he and Samson have several really long sessions drinking and reminiscing about their childhood escapades in post-war Berlin, interspersed with the usual thorough review of what’s ‘going on’.
  • Zena, Werner’s wife, young tough, ambitious. Show me the money. Improbably, in the first novel she had a brief affair with ageing Frank Harrington. In the second novel she fell passionately in love with the defector Stinnes (well, the money he stood to gain).
  • Lisl Hennig – old lady in Berlin whose house Samson remembers growing up in when his dad moved the family there after the war but which has become a rather run-down boarding house and is where Samson always stays in Berlin, rather than the ritzy hotels he has the expenses for.
  • Lothar Koch – 80-year-old friend of Frau Hennig.
  • John Koby aka Lange or ‘Lofty’ – 70 year old Yank, recruited by Samson’s dad but then dropped for alienating American intelligence. Still bitter, but as the novel progresses we learn he was in fact using his position to become a big player in the Berlin underworld.
  • Posh Harry – flash American ‘businessman’, knows everyone, can fix anything.
  • Erich Stinnes – thin professional KGB man who Samson first met when he was being held by him in Stasi headquarters at the end of Berlin Game, and who Samson persuades to defect in Mexico Set, and who is now the centre of London Match, as he leaks information to his interrogators. But is it the real thing – or is he supplying deliberate disinformation to help discredit the totally innocent Bret Rensselaer?

Finale

Things move swiftly to a climax. The interrogation of Stinnes is handed over to a joint committee from the Department and MI5 and Stinnes makes more admissions implicating Bret, who is promptly placed under house arrest. He manages to escape, cadging a flight with a friend with his own plane, out of England and turns up looking worse for wear in Berlin, at Frau Lisl’s where Samson is staying.

Samson had just reluctantly seen Werner off on a trip to the East, because Werner had spotted the Mrs Miller from the start of the novel not at all drowned and dead but happily working in the east Berlin Town Hall. He is going back over to find out more.

Next day we discover Werner has been seized by the Stasi. Bret’s panic fear about being arrested has made Samson decide which one of the two possible theories about Stinnes he believes: Bret is not a mole, the evidence from Mrs Miller (staged), from Lange (personally biased) and Posh Harry’s document (a set up) is all a put-up job, and Stinnes is no defector but sent to discredit Bret and undermine the Department.

But now his old friend Werner is being held, and so Samson, in Berlin, contacts Frank and recruits him for a desperate gamble. He persuades Frank to pull rank and get Stinnes transferred out to Berlin, while he sends messages to the other side that he’s ready to do a swap.

At a ritzy West Berlin hotel Fiona and an entourage of KGB heavies meet him. During the negotiations for the exchange of Werner and Stinnes, Samson gets Fiona alone in a hotel room for an intense couple of pages in which the entire freight of personal and professional betrayal intensify into a multi-leveled moment of tension, stress, anguish, old love and determined hard-headedness.

Her readiness to make the exchange confirms that Stinnes is a stooge and effectively exonerates Bret, thus making all his colleagues back in London look like fools for believing the defector. But then, driving on the way to the exchange point, there is an accident which the KGB heavy, Moskvin, who’d accompanied Fiona on the trip, takes to be an attempt on his life. He leaps out of the car, runs off into the busy Berlin streets, shooting at his pursuers – Samson, Bret, Frank and numerous Berlin Office staff. In fact from nowhere it turns into a cinematic chase through crowded streets with shots going off in all directions. Some innocent bystanders as well as some of our boys are shot – including Bret, who is seriously injured – before Moskvin is himself shot dead.

The exchange goes ahead anyway, Werner for Stinnes, Werner confirming that Stinnes is greeted like a conquering hero on the East side. In the hotel room Fiona had said her condition for exchanging Werner wasn’t Stinnes – it was that Moskvin be bumped off. Now, whether by intention or lucky accident, that has happened. Could it possibly be that the entire sequence of events starting with Stinnes’ defection was designed solely to get Moskvin off Fiona’s back and give her unrestrained control of the East German setup? What an elaborate plan?

On the last few pages Samson and his cynical old mate Werner sum up what has happened. Was it, as Werner claims, game, set and match to the KGB? Did they get their high-ranking spy – Fiona – back to them with no loss, while using Stinnes to sow confusion and distrust (not least between the Department and MI5 who have seen our chaps’ incompetence at close quarters)? Or is it, as Samson insists, game, set and match to us, because we exposed Fiona – forcing her to leave in a rush without taking incriminating documents – OK, we were taken in by Stinnes but in the end exposed him, and have emerged stronger?

Even at the end it hasn’t ended: even when it’s all over the questions, and the maze of multiple interpretations, continues. As it does in life…


Expertise

Man of the world As pointed out in my review of the previous Samson novels, the thriller writer (or his protagonist) need to show us he is a man of the world, an expert in many forms of knowledge, and Deighton is a very knowledgeable writer. Thus the text is dotted with offhand insights and knowing asides, especially about his specialist subject, Germany, German history, culture and language.

[von Munte] nodded sadly. ‘Yes, Saupreiss,’ he said, using the Bavarian dialect word for Prussian swine. (p.54)

[Frau Koby] was a small thin woman, her face pale like the faces of most Berliners when winter comes. (p.83)

The Handschlag, the hands slapped together in that noisy handshake with which German farmers conclude a sale of pigs. (p.84)

She had the flat features, narrowed eyes, and pale colouring that are typical of people from Russia’s eastern Arctic. (p.101)

Berliners give themselves wholeheartedly to everything they do: Berlin opera and concert audiences cheer, boo, jeer or applaud with a mad tenacity unknown elsewhere. (p.109)

I’ve never been to Berlin so I’ve no idea whether any of this is true, but it sounds good and makes our man sound like a native and an expert.

Foodie We know Deighton has special knowledge and expertise when it comes to cookery and cuisine because of his successful cook books. No surprise, then, that his narrator has needle-sharp, accurate knowledge of all things gastronomic.

Brötchen,‘ she said. Zena was born and brought up in Berlin, but she didn’t call the bread rolls Schrippe the way the rest of the population did. (p.19)

Some Kipfel on a silver platter. Klara knew that the little crescent shaped shortcakes were Werner’s favourites. (p.340)

Old and tired Probably the cliché of the thriller/spy genre is the way the hero always feels old, old and tired – indicating to us safe, boring readers what an action-packed life he’s led, what terrible things he’s seen, what a battering his body and soul have taken.

When he thought I wasn’t observing him, I could see the signs of that energy flagging. Stinnes was growing tired. Or old. Or frightened. Or maybe all three. I knew the feeling. (p.186)

I looked at the dangers now and shuddered. I looked at many such previously encountered dangers now and shuddered; that’s why I was no longer suitable for employment as a field agent… I should have noticed the car at the start. I was becoming too old and too careless… (p.97) [The KGB man said] ‘No gun, Samson? This is not the expert we’ve heard so much about. You’re getting old and careless.’ (p.99)

We get the picture. He has lived more than we ever will. (As an aside, is the repetition of ‘old and careless’ within two pages deliberate or an indication that these long (402 pages) novels were written and published at speed?)

Men and woman Part of this old-hand-ish, seen-it-all-before, jaded attitude is the easy generalisations about men and women which stud the text. In fact, in line with the way at least half the text is about the private life of Samson, Gloria, his kids and nanny, his father-in-law, his sister-in-law Tessa and her lover Dicky and her husband George the car salesman, etc etc, there are as many or more sentences and paragraphs about relationships, about men and women, as there are about spies, the CIA, SIS or KGB.

Women are always attracted by purposeful masculine strength, organising ability, and the sort of self-confidence that leaves everything unsaid. (p.132)

It was only a matter of time. The urge to reform the male is something no woman can resist. (p.163)

‘[Posh Harry] is a slippery bastard,’ I said. But I wouldn’t deliver him to Morgan.
‘It might be him or you,’ she said with that ruthless simplicity that women call feminine logic. (p.181)

Why did women always feel the need to write letters when ending an affair? (p.283)

Did all wives fear and resent the friendships that came before marriage? (p.384)

Like all women she was tyrannised by her biology. (p.385)

These doubtful generalisations, generally about women, are just the most prominent parts, the tips of the great icebergs of text dealing with personal relationships, with love and fidelity and betrayal etc, especially now Samson is sleeping with a 20-year-old secretary and feeling guilty about it.

If you’d told me that these aspects of my love affair with her were only what could be expected when a man of forty falls in love with a woman young enough to be his daughter, I’d have agreed with you. I worried about it constantly and yet I always ended up asking myself whether such elements of paternalism weren’t to be found everywhere. Maybe not in every happy marriage, but certainly in every blissful affair. (p.165)

If you blank out all the spying content (OK, quite a task), there’s the makings of a cracking Jackie Collins novel about a small circle of middle-aged couples having dinner parties and affairs, bonking, splitting up, getting back together, and worrying about children and nannies, trying to get out of this book.

Bureaucracy There are countless references to the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Whitehall, to the endless delays of Civil Service administration – there is a complex passage about the various colours of chit you need to get access to Cabinet Office documents – references to characters being worried about their pensions, and so on – the same humorous, long-suffering, institutional attitude of the Ipcress narrator – only maybe a bit less jolly, more real.

Public school Then there is the permanent thread of resentment Samson has against the way most jobs in his Department – and indeed Whitehall – are taken by public school men and the Oxbridge mafia, with their all-important codes of dress and speech designed to put everyone else in their place.

Unlike Bret, who was wearing the same sort of Savile Row suit he wore to the office, Frank had come correctly attired for the upper-class weekend: old Bedford cord trousers and a khaki sweater with a silk scarf in the open neck of his faded shirt. (p.50)

The public-school senior staff at London Central spent just as much money on their Savile Row suits and handmade shirts and Jermyn Street shoes, but they wore them with a careless scruffiness that was a vital part of their snobbery. A real English gentleman never tries; that was the article of faith. (p.134)

Winning one little argument with the public-school mafia at London Central was like landing a blow on a heavy leather punching sack – the visible effect was slight, and two minutes later the pendulum swung the whole contraption back again and knocked you for six. (p.144)

The choice of casual words, and the softness of his voice, did nothing to hide the authority behind what he said; on the contrary, it was the manner in which certain classes of Englishmen give orders to their subordinates. (p.59)


Communism

In this, as in so many spy novels, there are few if any references to actual politics – no mention of Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan who dominated the 1980s with their abrasive anti-communist rhetoric, no mention of the high profile nuclear disarmament talks which dominated the headlines, no mention of the protests at Greenham Common about the siting of US missiles there, which began in 1981.

Characters routinely explain their fear of the KGB, describe its all-powerful rule of terror, explain why they hate ‘traitors’ – but in words which could have been spoken at any time between 1962 (when Deighton and Le Carré published their first novels) and 1985 when this novel was published. It is as if the backdrop of the Cold War is fixed, inflexible, unchanging, like the static ahistorical setting of Hollywood Westerns, where there is never any change or development, never any external events to upset the mythical backdrop, where there are just good guys, bad guys, Injuns and countless shootouts; or, in the spy world, our agents, their agents, double agents and endless plotting.

In the whole book there is only really one passage about contemporary politics, about the actual economic and political issues which divide the West from the East, have pitted them against each other for forty years since the end of World War Two, and which were moving, changing, evolving in the 1980s.

It is a page-long disquisition where Samson deliberately bates Stinnes by describing in detail why the Russian communist economy is collapsing (mentioning, in passing, the rise of the Solidarity trades union in Poland – founded 1980). Samson explains how the populations of the USSR made a sullen pact with the communist party to be quiescent and not cause trouble in return for steady jobs, accommodation, pensions. But as the economy fails, jobs, goods, food, accommodation are no longer guaranteed, the people are restless, the party doesn’t know what to do next.

This is all very prescient: London Match was published in 1985 and it was in May 1985 that new Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev made the speech in which he admitted ‘the slowing down of the economic development and inadequate living standards’ and introduced the new ideas of ‘restructuring’ and ‘openness’, perestroika and glasnost, which he said were required to get the USSR back on track. (Wikipedia article – Perestroika)

These are the first stirrings of the political and social revolution which led to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the end of the Cold War, and the evaporation of the worldview which had underpinned spy thrillers for two generations.


Related links

Granada paperback cover of London Match

Granada paperback cover of London Match

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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