The Captain and The Enemy by Graham Greene (1988)

Of the Captain I have heard nothing for years, and Liza, whom I left of my own accord, I see only from time to time, always with a sense of guilt. It’s not because of any love I feel for them. It is as though I had taken them quite coldbloodedly as fictional characters to satisfy this passionate desire of mine to write. (p.51)

Part one

12-year-old Victor Baxter is in the playground at his boarding school (sounding suspiciously similar to Greene’s own boarding school, Berkhamsted) when a man arrives with a letter from his father, giving him permission to take Victor out for the afternoon. The man asks to be called ‘the Captain’ and they stroll down towards what sounds like Berkhamsted castle to a pub beside what sounds like Berkhamsted canal, where the Captain wangles lunch and a few drinks off the publican before leaving without paying. Aha. He is a swindler, a con man. And instead of taking Victor back to school the Captain takes him to Berkhamsted train station where they catch the next train to London. ‘You see, Victor,’ he explains, ‘I won you from your father over a game of backgammon.’ Oh,’ thinks Victor.

In London the Captain takes him along to a rundown house which is managed by young Liza. The Captain asks Victor to call her ‘Mum’. Liza and the Captain decide to call him Jim, a much nicer name. Jim is taking all this in his stride, chooses an empty room in the rackety old house to be his bedroom, then settles into life being fed and watered by Liza and getting used to the Captain’s long disappearances and mysterious reappearances.

One day the Captain hands a newspaper to Liza, highlighting an article. Later Jim reads it and it describes how a smartly dressed con man entered a jewellers shop after it was closed and, while the door was open, a gang barged in and stole the man’s stock. It gives the con man’s name as one the Captain has mentioned. Aha. That’s what he does for a living. Jim is sublimely untroubled by being removed from school: he hated it, he was bullied by the other boys, his mother died years previously and his father rarely came to see him; outside of term time he had to stay with an aunt who he hated. He nicknames his father the Devil.

A few weeks later his father in fact knocks on the door. ‘Tut tut,’ says the Devil, ‘so this is where you are’ – not at all outraged or upset by his abduction. We gather from his conversation with Liza that the two were once lovers, but he got her pregnant and paid for a back-street abortion which was bungled, leaving her ill for a long time and unable to have children. That’s when the Captain met her, looked after her and nursed her back to health, hence their connection. After some chat, the Devil leaves, making no effort to take Jim with him.

On another occasion the Devil arrives with the awful aunt, Muriel, who complains about the boy’s lack of schooling. This prompts the Captain to make an effort at home schooling, though this mainly takes the form of telling the impressionable boy tall tales about being shot down and taken prisoner in Germany during the war, before escaping across occupied France into neutral Spain.

The Captain’s absences get longer and longer, and during these long periods Victor finds himself forced to go to the local state school, and growing more independent of the increasingly sad Liza.

Part two

Greene was always interested in time shifts in a narrative. Sometimes a section of text embeds not one but several flashbacks, sometimes reverting from one period to another with next to no warning. Part two opens by announcing that all of part one is a fragment (of autobiography? of fiction?) which the older, mature Victor found among the boxes of Liza’s flat, when he came to go through it, after – years later – she was seriously injured in a car accident. Now – we learn – he is a journalist with years of experience behind, him, a grown adult.

He finds the fragment in a box of old letters in the basement of the house which is now identified as being in Camden. He reads old letters the Captain wrote to Liza, vague promises that he’ll make his fortune, latterly from south America. In fact one arrives during these days, post-marked Panama, including a check ‘payable to bearer’ and details of the flight Liza should catch to go out and join the Captain. This prompts Victor to contact his dad, who invites him to lunch at the Reform Club (posh) where they discuss the morality of cashing a check obviously intended for Liza. Jim discusses it at length, then does it anyway, packs in his journalism job and makes arrangements to fly to Panama. Oh and he brings the fragment up to date, thus writing the text we have seen in the previous two sections…

Part three

Victor flies to Panama and is met by Mr Quigly, a tall, thin man who claims to be a British journalist but speaks with an American twang. He takes him to the stylish hotel where the Captain has arranged a room and a bodyguard for Jim. A bodyguard? Apparently arranged by a certain Colonel Martínez who ‘looks after’ the Captain. If this seems vague that is because it is left deliberately vague: right to the end of the book we (and Jim) are not sure whether the Captain is working for the Colonel, or just given some kind of protection, just as we never completely learn what Quigly is doing. But it does lend the narrative a spurious sense of threat and edge.

After a few days, the Captain appears and Victor, when it comes to it, can’t bring himself to reveal that Liza is dead. This leads him into a series of lies, explaining her lack of letters etc with evermore elaborate excuses. To me, this simply seemed a pretext to allow the narrator to feel Guilt about his Betrayal of the Captain, or Liza, or both.

At various points the bodyguard or Quigly or the Captain take Victor out for drinks and meals. On one occasion the Captain – whose birth name, we learn, is Brown, but who is currently calling himself Smith – takes Victor out to the second hand airplane he keeps. He was a flyer during the war, remember. Maybe the dodgy activities he’s involved in include drug smuggling. It is striking how boring Greene manages to make the description of a small plane flight over the south American jungle. It’s mostly an opportunity for Victor to feel Guilty.

Finally, provoked after too many drinks, Victor tells the Captain that Liza is dead. Obviously I don’t give a damn about these shallow puppets, but I was interested in the choice of words, in the description of the scene:

He took a step towards me and I thought he was preparing to strike me. I backed towards the door and threw the truth at him like a glass of vitriol. ‘There’s no one to go back to. Liza’s dead.’ (p.153)

Isn’t this a scene from a Victorian melodrama? Isn’t ‘vitriol’ an old, almost obsolete word. Why not ‘acid’? And ‘strike’ – the Captain could have been advancing to hit, slap or punch Victor; but no, Greene chooses the most generic term, the one with literary or even biblical overtones, also, somehow, the emptiest.

Jim walks straight out and goes to see Mr Quigly who, based on Jim’s experience as a journalist back in England, offers him a job as a stringer ie a freelance journalist, providing ‘information’. But Jim is savvy enough to realise Quigly is some kinds of agent, probably for the Americans who run the American Zone and the Panama Canal.

Having done this deal, Jim goes back to the hotel room to sleep but is woken and requested to attend a meeting with the sinister Colonel Martínez. In fact the Colonel – something in the National Guard – turns out to be a tubby affable man. He asks Jim if he knows his father’s whereabouts? Jim says no. The Colonel tells him to avoid Quigly and ends the interview. He doesn’t tell us what the relationship is between him and the Captain nor what Quigly’s role is. It is all left deliberately vague and menacing.

Back at the hotel room Jim finds a last letter the Captain has written him, upset that he didn’t tell him Liza was dead immediately on arriving, saying Jim has Betrayed him, telling him to go back to England, and declaring that, now he (the Captain) is free of all duties and responsibility, he can do what he wants. Funnily enough a letter had arrived just today addressed to the Captain at the hotel and Jim had pocketed it. Now he opens it to discovers it is from Liza, written just before she died, knowing she’s dying, telling the Captain how much she Loved him. Ie it is created and positioned in the narrative to create the maximum sense of pathos in the reader, and the maximum sense of Guilt in Jim.

Then comes the sudden ending of the whole Captain narrative. Quigly phones, then comes to the hotel in person to tell Jim the Captain is dead. He uses an odd phrase – he Captain flew ‘in the wrong direction’ – a phrase repeated half a dozen times, as if it will gain symbolism or pathos, but doesn’t really. Soon afterwards the Colonel requests another meeting, and sends Pablo the bodyguard to fetch him. The Colonel informs Jim that the Captain flew his plane packed with explosives into the mountainside home of the Nicaraguan dictator Somosa. But Somosa wasn’t there, so all the Captain managed was to kill himself and shatter windows in a nearby hotel. It is a typically Greene ending for a character and a final image of complete futility.

Jim/Victor announces he is concluding this narrative, a failed attempt to create sense or meaning out of his lifelong association with a man and his beloved for whom, in the end, he felt nothing at all. He’s throwing it in the waste bin and drawing a line under this whole part of his life. He’s taking the money and setting off to start anew.

Part four

This last short section marks a complete departure in the text. It is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator who describes the scene where Colonel Martínez calls in Quigly and asks him about Jim’s whereabouts and the meaning of this long mysterious narrative they found in the waste paper basket in his hotel room.

(They are discussing the long narrative Jim had written about his association with the Captain and which we saw/heard/read him planning to throw in the hotel waste paper basket. It is grimly, blackly funny that the Panama intelligence are taking Jim’s completely personal text as some kind of set of instructions or hidden messages).

The Colonel asks Quigly: what does it mean? Is it written in code? Obviously Quigly doesn’t know so then the Colonel tells Quigly that Jim has caught a plane to Chile: has he been sent by his masters to spy on Pinochet? Does he work for the Americans? Again, we get no answers to these questions but they powerfully suggest the milieu the Captain inhabited in this country, somehow involved in running, what? guns, munitions, in his plane, though we never learn why or for who.

Martinez tells Quigly to pack in his espionage activities and quietly go to the American Zone before an ‘accident’ befalls him.

Then, in the last few pages, the Colonel orders Jim’s narrative to be translated into Spanish so he can read it and puzzle out its meaning and the light it sheds on the murky espionage activities of the man they called the Captain. Who knows, one day it might even be published and win literary prizes, ha ha ha. The phone rings, the Colonel listens then replaces the handset, turning to tell the translator, Alas the son has gone the same way as the father, killed in an ‘accident’ on the way to the airport.

Greene’s epilogues

At the end of two of his greatest novels, The Power and The Glory and The Heart of the Matter, the point of view pulls away in the last few pages to reveal the point of view of people previously outside the magic circle of the Greene’s fraught narrative: to describe bystanders in a hotel near the prison where the whisky priest is being executed in Power and – devastatingly, in Heart – to reveal that Scobie’s wife and colleagues knew he was having an affair all along; his agonised decisions, his terrible suicide, were pointless.

Greene creates a similar effect here – the last few pages pull the rug out from everything which had gone before, making the Captain and his suburban devotion to the uneducated Liza look pathetic, and strangely pointless Jim’s efforts, revived at various points, to write his and their story in the preceding narrative, knowing it will all end up in a waste bin, and then be retrieved to be pawed over by army officers with no sympathy or understanding for what Jim was trying to achieve.

It’s a kind of knickerbocker glory of futility – adding to the futility of the Captain’s death and the futility of Jim’s death, an added layer of futility by explaining how Jim’s carefully worked narrative has fallen into the hands of people uniquely qualified never to understand a word of it. A bright red cherry of pointlessness sitting on top of the whole depressed concoction.


Style

The story is told in Greene’s later style, which is settled and formal and old-fashioned. These last books often feel as if the prose is tired out after the hysterical scenes of the middle period. It feels drained, calm, resigned, the morning after a wild party or a big emotional scene.

It was a Saturday afternoon and I was free from school. Liza was out buying bread and for once she left me alone with my lesson books. Then the bell rang. It wasn’t the Captain’s code, nor was it my father’s. This was a ring, quiet, reassuring, even friendly. The ringer waited what seemed to be a polite time before he rang again, and the ring still remained unurgent, undemanding. (p.75)

It is always well-behaved and minds its manners, after all he went to a good public school and Oxford, you know. If it does go on a bit about despair and guilt, at least it’s wearing the right tie and knows which knife and fork to use for the fish course.

I had heard of Liza’s grave state in hospital from the police and so I came to what I still reluctantly called my home to do all the tiresome things which are required when one prepares for the death of a parent. There was no real next of kin to whom I could pass the disagreeable task. (p.83)

‘when one prepares…’ ‘to whom I could pass’. You can almost hear the knees creaking, see the liver spots on the hands of this prose, nice old gent prose, prose from a bygone era. Safe, correct, dull as ditchwater.

A message came. I went to the hospital. Liza had lapsed into a coma and she died the next day. There was nothing left to do but bury her. She had left no will: if she had money it was in some unknown account. (p.105)

Greene was never a prose stylist: Evelyn Waugh said it best when he commented that Greene’s prose treats words as if they have no history or overtones. He writes with a complete lack of poetry or colour. Greene’s prose is as cold and fishlike as his pale eyes in the countless black and white photos of him.

When they told me at the hospital that she was dead I felt no more emotion than when I had left her behind after a weekly visit to go to my bed-sitting room in Soho. If there was any emotion it was the emotion of relief, of duty finished. (p.133)

‘passionate desire’ – he would rather use clichés than colour. Greene’s prose makes its impact in his entertainments and the Catholic thrillers, not by his stylish deployment of language, but by the obsessive repetition of a handful of key ideas and key words – sin, fear, despair, doubt, betrayal etc, a shopping list of teenage angst dressed up – in the ‘serious’ novels – in Catholic voodoo. Mercifully, Catholic melodrama is mostly absent from this work of his old age but his buzz words, his weasel words, still litter the text:

I refuse to feel guilt at leaving her (79)… a letter which… near her death gave me a passing sense of guilt at having left her (83)… I had no sense of guilt (87)… I had a certain sense of guilt [about cashing someone else’s check] (102)… I was afraid of him, but I felt no guilt at all (153)…

Having just read his first novel, The Man Within, an over-the-top historical melodrama, the word ‘fear’ is still ringing in my ears, as it appears on every page of that novel, conveying the panic-stricken cowardice of the protagonist – so I was surprised to find it cropping up here, 60 years later, to describe the relationship between the Captain and Liza, and then increasingly throughout the text:

What remained afterwards was shyness in both of them and a kind of fear. (p.38)

Love and fear – fear and love – I know now how inextricably they are linked, but they were both beyond my understanding at the age I was then, and how can I be sure that I really understand them even now? (p.39)

Love, it was quite clear to me now, meant fear, and I suppose it was the same fear which made Liza go out every Thursday morning… (p.51)

(Are love and fear really inextricably linked? It sounds good, it sounds profound: but I think that’s all it is, empty rhetoric, part of the pretentious rhetoric of Greeneland which, on closer examination, evaporates.)

In my experience love was like an attack of flu and one recovered as quickly. Each love affair was like a vaccine. It helped you to get through the next attack more easily. (p.105)

In previous reviews I’ve suspected Greene had a notebook in which he wrote down these ‘wonderful’ aperçus and insights, and then waited to insert them into appropriate places in his stories which, since they are always about betrayal guilt and despair, was easy to do.

A closely observed world captured in careful and deft phrases is what you do NOT get in Greene. What you get is incidents, often pretty banal and mundane incidents, just enough to justify his mind leaping to his comfort zone – to large, portentous abstract nouns, to flights of pseudo-profundity, to bucket psychology; to the same mental slums, the unhealthy territory the wretched man inhabited all his life, of fear and despair and futility.

I could remember… how she once told me with a kind of despair, ‘He writes such a lot of rubbish.’ (p.88)

Despair? Really? Is that the appropriate description of such an everyday remark? How about ‘a kind of affection’ or ‘exasperation’ or ‘impatience’ or ‘indignation’ or ‘peevishness’ or ‘pique’? No? No, because these are wide-ranging words, words which would open the text up to the chaotic diversity of the real world and to real unpredictable people and would require a completely different, wide-ranging and open imagination, and an open, adventurous and interesting vocabulary to match it.

Whereas, in Greeneland, there are always only three or four people, trapped in doomed relationships, who think love is cognate with fear because being in love is always followed by harming the one you love, and who only have a clutch of the same negative dull emotions – fear, despair, guilt.

I get frightened when I think that one day I may harm you too like I’ve harmed the others. (p.92)

Despite the mellow story and the old man style, a surprising number of these sentiments could have come from Greene’s preposterous first novel: the sense of self pity, the claustrophobic feeling of a tiny emotional world, above all the fundamentally unhappy, grey, depressed and negative view of life, is never far below the surface.

‘Where’s the Captain?’ I asked.
‘How would I know?’ Liza said in a tone which, when I think of it now, comes back to me as almost a cry of despair. (p.68)

Penguin paperback cover of The Captain and The Enemy

Penguin paperback cover of The Captain and The Enemy

Related links

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

Spy Hook by Len Deighton (1988)

No matter where I went or what I did, Berlin would always be home for me. My father had been Resident long ago… and Berlin held all my happy childhood recollections. (p.43)

The previous trilogy (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match) featuring just-turning-forty British spy Bernard Samson all took place in the space of a few months, interlinked as all three novels were by the sensational defection of Samson’s wife, Fiona – who turned out to have been a KGB spy – and its repercussions.

Spy Hook is the first in a new trilogy featuring the same characters, also told in the first person by Bernard, but represents a break with the first set in a number of ways.

  • It is set three years since the action of the previous set (p.47), Samson is now 43 (and it is, of course, three years since publication of its predecessor, 1988 to 1985). [In a note to the sequel, Spy Line, Deighton explains that this novel takes place ‘at the beginning of 1987’.]
  • On the personal front, Fiona is long gone; his girlfriend Gloria has supervised his move from his convenient Notting Hill house to a bigger, but drabber, semi in the boring, commuter-belt surroundings of Raynes Park; the children – Billy and Sally – are older and unhappier (14 and 11).
  • And in the ‘Department’ of British Intelligence where he works, there have been notable changes:

Dramatis personae

  • Bret Rensselaer – after years of treatment, has – according to Frank and others – died of the wounds received when he was shot in Berlin at the end of London Match.
  • Dicky Cruyer – still Samson’s boss, careful to avoid making any decisions which might compromise himself, but the Deputy DG has told him to stop wearing Medallion Man faded jeans and cheesecloth shirts; now he wears a suit like everyone else.
  • Frank Harrington – head of the Berlin Field Unit, knew Bernard Samson’s dad during the war, has been persuaded to stay on in Berlin after his official retirement age.
  • Director General Sir Henry Clevemore, depicted as senile in the first trilogy, he is still DG but has been sidelined by the new Deputy DG.
  • With his sidelining goes the power base of the vile creep Morgan, who was his toady.
  • The newly prominent Deputy DG, Sir Percy Babcock, is a successful barrister, brought in to run things better (description on page 19).

The ambience

Like the first trio there is less a plot than a likeably chatty depiction of the daily round of Samson’s life: his reaction to the new house, the pain of the commute into central London, the boredom of trying to make sense of Dicky’s meetings or wade through wordy, pointless research files. His sexy young girlfriend Gloria is good with the children but rubbish at cooking, which prompts a tearful shouting match after she makes burned sausages, lumpy mash and dripping wet spinach for dinner. Being still in her early 20s she is determined to take up a place at Cambridge where she’ll stay during the week and Bernard suspects she will fall in with the young students and, eventually, leave him.

We see Bernard chatting to other characters over pub lunches, at dinner parties, in pool halls, in hotel rooms; he pokes at hotel food, airplane food, dinner party food, pub food. He mooches.

These domestic, humdrum scenes a) distinguish Deighton’s writing from the hi-tech, glamour Bond tradition, continuing the low-key tone established in his early Ipcress novels b) are very likeable. Feels like we’re getting to know Bernie, his kids, their nanny, his girlfriend, his bosses and colleagues at work, his moans and worries. All designed, of course, to root the ‘spying’ – and the occasional outbreaks of violence – in a ‘real’ world.

The plot

In among all these homely descriptions are laced scenes relating to his work as an employee of British Intelligence, threads which come together to force Samson to a grim conclusion:

  • He is sent to Washington to interview one Jim Prettyman (who once worked for the Department and is now retired) about some fund which the accountants say has gone missing, probably a cock-up. Jim denies knowledge.
  • Back in London he hears that Bizet, a network of agents in Poland, has been uncovered by the KGB, and there is speculation at various meetings about what can or should be done about it: undertake a rescue mission; do nothing?
  • His old friend Werner Volkmann flies in from Berlin to confide that his wife Zena smuggles between East and West and he’s worried Frank Harrington is going to betray Zena to the Stasi in exchange for the Bizet agents.
  • Jim’s divorced wife, Lucinda ‘Cindy’ Mathews, contacts Bernard, invites him to a seedy south London pool hall to tell him Jim has been shot dead, 6 times, and the body cremated. Jim was on to something: he was a signatory to some secret fund: the Department had him murdered Bernard! Samson goes away confused and concerned.
  • In Berlin Werner tells him that he is going to step in to run Frau Lisl’s guesthouse, the ramshackle old place where Bernard always stays when he’s in Berlin. Lisl, in fact, has said she’d like to leave it to Werner after her death: but Lisl has a sister in France, could Bernie go speak to her about the inheritance?
  • Bernard takes Gloria and they visit Frau Inge in her mansion in the south of France – she is old and her house decorated with photos of Hitler and all the other leading Nazis. Bernard is monitored by her strict, spinsterish daughter, Ingrid.
  • While they’re there Gloria – who is in fact of Hungarian parentage – takes him to see her ‘Uncle Dodo’, an extraordinary old man who lives in ramshackle squalor, gets so drunk over dinner he passes out and, apparently, produces top class art forgeries. Bernard notices some photos of Dodo among faces he recognises, not least John Koby aka Lange, who ran a network of ex-Nazis after the war.
  • In a bizarre sequence a motor cycle courier delivers tickets and instructions for Samson to fly to Los Angeles. Here he’s met by a cowboy who drives him far up into the hills, to a heavily guarded luxury mansion with heated swimming pool and all the trimmings. He is introduced to the owner, 60-year-old Mrs O’Rafferty who is an offshoot of the Rensselaer family and then, to his amazement, his former colleague Bret Rensselaer, the one everyone told him is dead who is, admittedly, not looking very well. Bernard asks him about the money and the secret account and Bret hisses at him to shut up and cease poking into matters which don’t concern him. But Bernard is motivated by the prompts of Jim Prettyman’s widow to get to the bottom of Jim’s murder.
  • After an uncomfortable night in the luxury ranch Bernard is driven back towards LA airport by one of the Mexican ranch hands, when fog and rain close in and they find the way blocked by a jack-knifed lorry and traffic cops. One of them points out a black limo also heading off to LAX, why doesn’t Bernard  hitch a ride? To his surprise – and the reader’s frank disbelief – the limo contains Posh Harry, a spiv and fixer and – now, apparently – CIA employee. He takes Samson to the airport, along the way heavily hinting that the CIA are behind Bret: when he says back off, back off: drop your investigation.
  • Back in England Bernard motors all the way to the Cotswolds house of ancient Silas Gaunt, a retired eminence of the Department who knows everyone and everything. Here again Samson meets a brick wall as Silas refuses to clarify his suspicions about a vast slush fund. In addition he warns him not to go speaking to ‘Uncle Dodo’ who has now relocated to London.
  • Which prompts the obstinate (and foolish) Bernard to drive straight to the house Uncle Dodo is renting, near Hampton Court. Dodo reluctantly lets him in and then, with no warning, punches him, karate chops him, and slips out a flick knife with the obvious intention of eviscerating him. There follows an intense fraught fight around the rooms packed high with precious antiques as Barnard just about fights Dodo off, but is visibly losing strength when – someone creeps up behind Dodo and coshes him; the lights go on; there are men everywhere collecting evidence, carrying off Dodo’s body and – leading them all is Jim Prettyman! Hang on, you’re supposed to be dead… Jim says he’s under deep cover, tell no-one, and keep your nose out of what doesn’t concern you.

‘Bernie, it’s time you realised that the Department isn’t run for your benefit. There’s nothing in Command Rules that says we have to clear everything with Bernard Samson before an Operation is okayed.’ (p.238)

Safely back home, over the next few days Bernard’s suspicions grow. He becomes convinced his defector wife Fiona and Bret were running some kind of big secret slush fund, Jim has something to do with it – now his girlfriend Gloria cheerfully tells him the bank in Berlin which appears to be the site of the fund – is owned by the Rensselaer family, bought before the war.

Finally, Bernard blags his way into the gentleman’s club where the ancient decrepit DG has a room-cum-office. Worryingly the DG gets him confused with his father, Brian, but eventually Bernard gets to present before him the complete list of evidence he has that a vast slush fund exists, deeply covered up but he’s tracked it down to this bank in Berlin and wants to expose his wife’s involvement with it.

Then Bernie catches a flight to Berlin with his pal Werner, incongruously carrying some china houseware that Werner’s bought in his capacity of renovating Frau Lisl’s old boarding house. At the airport military police step forward to arrest Samson and his old friend saves him by saying he‘s Samson; the police lead Werner away and Bernie undertakes a complicated journey across Berlin and through the Wall – then doubles back into the West by another route – all to decoy and pursuers and buy him time.

Time to make it out to Frank Harrington’s big country pile outside Berlin. Disconcertingly, Frank is expecting him, and delivers the knockout blow: ‘Yes, Bernie, maybe there is a top secret slush fund containing millions, and maybe Fiona and Bret did manage it; because maybe Fiona is a triple agent, pretending to work all these years for the KGB while actually working for us; and maybe all this investigating and shouting your mouth off to all and sundry – has put your wife’s life and her top secret mission at risk. And that is why London have issued an Orange File on you. That’s right, Bernie: you are wanted for treason!

And it is on this bombshell, this cliffhanger, that the novel ends.


Winter

Between the first trilogy and this first of the next trilogy, Deighton published Winter, the enormous novel following a Berlin family from 1900 to 1945, covering the major historical, political and military events of the era from the German point of view, and extending out to portray a cast of as many as 50 characters.

Part of his motivation in writing it was to show the enjoyably convoluted back stories of many of the characters who appear in the Samson books, not least Bernard’s dad, Brian Samson as a young man parachuted into Berlin just before the war ended.

Spy Hook contains knowing references to characters and incidents in Winter, which are explained and could stand alone, but gain significance, resonance, if you’ve read the longer work:

  • Frank repeats Bernard’s dad’s story about being stuck in a Berlin flat with a sympathetic German waiting for news of Hitler’s assassination which doesn’t come, instead a Nazi official arrives. This is a reference to Peter and Paul Winter, the brothers and central characters in Winter and to scenes described in that novel.
  • As usual, when in Berlin Samson stays with old Frau Lisl in the grand home she turned into what is now a run-down boarding house. Lisl is so crippled with arthritis that Werner Volkmann, Bernard’s best friend, plans and then begins to take over running it. We are taken to meet Lisl’s sister, Inge, and reminded of the history of the three sisters who we meet, in Winter, and see as girls before the Great War and growing up to marry Erich Hennig, the concert pianist (Lisl), and Paul Winter, the Nazi bureaucrat (Inge).
  • In a thread which doesn’t, on the face of it, have anything to do with the main plot about Fiona and the missing bank account, Ingrid tells Bernard that her mother is insistent that Bernard’s father, Brian, was responsible for killing the Winter brothers. In Winter we had been told that the brothers escaped from custody and headed south to the family home in Bavaria. Brian Samson was with the American troops tracking them down, but it was those soldiers who shot the escaping brothers. Could it be that the account in Winter is a lie? Could it be that a number of events in Winter are not as reported? Could it be that the novels contain multiple levels of deception?

Grumpy old man

Bernard Samson is 43 but he moans a lot. Having recently read novels by Kingsley Amis, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, David Lodge and the Reggie Perrin novels, I have come to the conclusion that  one of the thing the male novelists of the 1970s and 80s have in common is their moany dislike of the modern world: women’s lib, scruffy teenagers who speak no known language, punks and rockers and hookers on the streets, developers who rip out characterful buildings and put up glass and steel horrors from which landlords screw high rents and government high taxes, package tour operators, horrible plastic food in airports and airplanes and hotels, the frequent moans about England’s weather and culture make it sound like the world is coming to an end.

On page 219 there is a reference to AIDS, and I googled the fact that the famous (to those alive at the time) government advertising campaign featuring an enormous tombstone made a big impression in 1987 when this novel was, presumably, being written.

The heady, optimistic, carefree days of the 1960s feel long gone in these novels.


Atmosphere of age

Why did he have to be such an old woman? (p.261)

And cheek by jowl with the moaning is an almost oppressive atmosphere of age. Lisl is old, crippled with arthritis. Bernard visits her sister Inge who is even older, surrounded by photos of Hitler and Nazi luminaries, a bedroom made for her on the ground floor because she can no longer manage stairs. Uncle Dodo, though he turns out to be a savage killer, lives in a rundown ramshackle dirty house, wearing tatty threadbare clothes. Frank Harrington in Berlin is well off but chooses to wear knackered cords and smoke rancid old man tobacco. Back in London the Director General is so old he rarely comes into the office any more, can’t remember anyone’s names, survives in a room absolutely crammed with souvenirs, relics, books and manuscripts. Even in youth-worshipping America, Mrs O’Rafferty, owner of the luxury West Coast ranch, is well-reserved but can’t conceal she is 60 and sometimes looks haggard; and Bret Rensselaer has been reduced to a shadow of his former self by illness.

We’re old fossils. We’re part of another world. A world of dinosaurs. (p.91)

Old characters His lover Gloria and Werner’s hard-edged wife Zena, are the only people in the novel under the age of 40 (apart from Bernard’s kids) and neither of them are quite believable.

World War Two It’s something to do with the war and the Cold War. The war because Winter made it abundantly clear that a lot of the contemporary events and people have their roots in the activities of the previous generation during and after the war. But by 1988 these people are ageing. Deighton’s imagination, his writings – both factual histories and the spy stories – were all heavily dominated by the second world war and its legacy. As the world moved into the 1990s this legacy must have seemed more remote.

The Cold War And the clearest legacy of world war two – the domination of half of Europe by Russian-imposed communist dictatorships – evaporated half way through this second trilogy – 1988-90. How will Deighton cope when his main subject matter – the antagonism between the communist world and the free world – and its crux, its anvil, its focus – the bizarre never-never land of West Berlin – evaporate like morning dew with the collapse of the communist regimes, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the joyful reunification of Germany?

Related links

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Hook

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Hook

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.

Nice Work by David Lodge (1988)

‘I feel as if I’m getting dragged into a classic realist text, full of causality and morality. How shall I get out of it?’ (Part 5, chapter 3)

This is the third of the Changing Places trilogy (Changing PlacesSmall WorldNice Work), often to be seen gathered together in a hefty omnibus paperback edition.

It is linked to its predecessors by being set at the (fictional) University of Rummidge (based on Birmingham University where Lodge taught all his life) and by, peripherally, featuring the two protagonists of Changing Places (mundane Brit Philip Swallow, now going slightly deaf, and the turbo-charged American academic, Morris Zapp) who also featured in Small World.

But it isn’t a real sequel and can be read as a stand-alone book in that it doesn’t require any knowledge of the previous novels and the central protagonists are two characters we have not previously encountered:

  • Robyn Penrose is a highly intelligent lecturer in feminist theory at the University, who reluctantly acquiesces in taking part in a scheme to ‘shadow’ a leader of local industry
  • Vic Wilcox is the short, stubby, hard-headed Brummy recently installed as Managing Director at J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory, who reluctantly agrees to be shadowed by her

After opening expositions which give us Robyn and Vic’s life stories and current situations – firmly establishing that there could barely be two more different people living in the same city – we watch them thrown together in numerous scenes designed to highlight their different ideas and expectations, lives and lifestyles, and watch as they slowly, grudgingly, develop a sort of mutual respect and then – guess what – fall in love.

The oppression of history

One way Nice Work is very of its time is the way its time seems to oppress the story more than the mere fact of being set in 1969 or 1979 oppressed the previous two books. The 1980s – due to Mrs Thatcher’s belligerent style and confrontational policies – seemed a very embattled era, and the forces of youth and the Left were hammered. Previously characters seemed to live their lives with scant regard of politicians. During the 1980s everyone seems oppressively aware of the plight of the economy, the recession impacts everyone, the decimation of entire industries weighs heavily on the national consciousness and on individuals.

True to the spirit of the age, Robyn and Vic don’t show each other new things – they fight about them.

Changing Places is set in 1969, Small World exactly ten years later in 1979. Although they are intended to be comedies, with a strong element of fantasy and exaggeration, they are nonetheless firmly rooted in Lodge’s default ‘social realism’, the accurate depiction of real life as lived by ‘average’ – not privileged, not rich, not particularly special in any way, people – and a going-out-of-his-way to describe the humdrum details of everyday life. Pants and socks and tumble-dryers and glasses falling off and papers getting lost.

But more so than in the previous novels, social history predominates in this one, from the big-picture political situation to ‘softer’, cultural trends. The very first sentence of Nice Work is: ‘Monday, January 13th, 1986’, setting us firmly amid the Tory party’s privatisation of government-owned industries and the savage cutting back of government budgets, including the budget for Higher Education.

Lodge is careful to establish these cuts as the background to Robyn’s situation and the decisions she must make. Her boss, Philip Swallow, is given a mournful speech declaring that his academic life (closely paralleling Lodge’s) has shadowed the life cycle of post-war academia: limited options in the 1950s, explosion of higher education in the 1960s, with a concomitant eruption of new theories and ideas (all those newly-tenured academics had to make their careers writing about something) – the biggest complaint from academics of that era being the noise of endless new buildings being erected on their campuses. And now, in the 1980s, swingeing government cuts, retrenchment and demoralisation.

As Robyn struggles to finish her second academic book, Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females, and approaches the end of her three-year contract at Rummidge, she, Swallow and the narrator all point out the harsh truth that there are now no new jobs in academia. It is a dead-end career.

‘I have no choice,’ said Robyn. ‘There’s no future for me in this country.’ (Part 6, chapter 2)

But things are no better for Vic Wilcox. The third-person narrator takes us into his thoughts as he drives the flyover across Rummidge to his metal-casting and engineering plant in rundown West Wallsbury, surveying on his way the landscape of empty factories and bricked-up houses. Low grey cloud, rain, grime.

We are allowed into Vic’s thought processes as comprehensively as into Robyn’s and it is a refreshing departure in Lodge’s fiction to encounter such a fully-developed, rounded character who has nothing to do with literature, Roman Catholicism or sex. His thoughts about the economic and industrial malaise of the mid-1980s are interesting in their own right, as well as fleshing out his character – about the need to be competitive, the need to buy British, the impact of ruinously high interest rates, the struggle to keep a manufacturing business going against stiff foreign competition.

And both he and Robyn note the presence of black youths on the streets, unemployed, hanging round at street corners – the first appearance of immigrants in Lodge’s fiction, associated with menace and off-stage rioting, reported on the radio.

In another sign of the times, Robyn, it turns out, has a go-getting brother (Basil) who is a bond trader in the City of London, younger than her but already on three times her salary, driving up for lunch in a high-powered BMW with his currency dealer girlfriend (Debbie, daughter of a Whitechapel bookie), bubbling with praise for Mrs Thatcher’s remodelling of the British economy, away from old manufacturing and towards service industries (like finance), both gleefully looking forward to the ‘Big Bang’ (the deregulation of City institutions, which took place on 27 October 1986).

(It is a clinching sign of defeat, defeat for the cause of the Left and for the study of literature itself, when Robyn’s long-time boyfriend, Charles, writes her a long letter explaining in detail why the 1960s expansion of university education has run out of steam, why the Left is finished as a vanguard force, and why post-structuralist literary studies are absurd – which is why he is packing it all in to become a merchant banker. Robyn flings the letter to the floor and repeats ‘You shit, you utter shit’, but is appalled because so many of his arguments find echoes in her mind. — Towards the end of the book, even Philip Swallow expresses his approval of privatisation; turns out he bought shares in BT which have trebled in value and will now buy many more in the soon-to-be-privatised British Gas. Mrs Thatcher’s strategy of creating a permanent Conservative majority in Britain, a property-owning, share-owning middle class who would never again allow Socialists into government, is shown to be succeeding at the macro and micro level.)

Travel and optimism, stay-at-home pessimism

Changing Places and Small World had a terrific optimism and comic exuberance as their protagonists flew to new countries, new destinations, meeting new people, exploring new ways of life, finding new possibilities.

Nice Work is the opposite. It is notable for the lack of travel. It almost all happens in the grim, post-industrial landscape of Rummidge. Vic Wilcox’s dad is a kind of epitome of anti-travel, refusing to move from his rundown unheated house at the centre of a Victorian terrace, even when a roaring flyover is built just thirty yards from his bedroom window.

The bleak, exhausted heart of England’s industrial rust belt sucks everyone down. Although both its characters have their eyes opened and change (as in the most traditional Victorian novel), it is a much more limited change than the previous novels, where people’s lives were transformed out of all recognition. There is a strong feeling of pessimism, of belatedness, that the Golden Age is over.

Change, it seems, for most of the novel, is only possible if you escape from Rummidge.

  • In part five of the novel, Vic takes Robyn on a 2-day business trip to Frankfurt. He has become besotted with her; she thinks it is fun to flirt. And when they get tipsy at dinner and have a dance at the disco, it is easy for the liberal, open-relationship-believing Robyn to lead Vic to her hotel room and into her bed. The (three) couplings which follow are described with Lodge’s trademark clinical detachment. But abroad – with its sense of physical, emotional and erotic possibilities – is quickly over, as they fly back to Rummidge, and Robyn is appalled to find Vic now hopelessly in love with her, and wanting to divorce his wife, pestering her with phone calls and letters. Before things take a downward turn for both of them.
  • Robyn can only finish the critical book she has been labouring on throughout the novel – Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females – by fleeing Rummidge (and Vic’s attempts to contact her) for the haven of her parents comfortable house on the South Coast.
  • And when Morris Zapp, the hyper-ambitious American who brought such vim and energy to the earlier novels, makes a cameo appearance at a party of Professor Swallow’s, once again, as in the earlier novels, it is America which seems a land of hope and opportunity. And boundless money.

There was something about Morris Zapp that inspired hope. He had blown into the jaded, demoralised atmosphere of Rummidge University like an invigorating breeze, intimating that there were still places in the world where scholars and critics pursued their professional goals with zestful confidence, where conferences multiplied and grants were to be had to attend them, where conversation at academic parties was more likely to be about the latest controversial book or article than about the latest scaling-down of departmental maintenance grants. (Part six, chapter one)

The possibility of hope

But almost as soon as he’s appeared, Zapp is gone, flying off to yet another conference, leaving Swallow and his wife and Robyn to the bleak realities of higher education under Mrs Thatcher in the abandoned rust belt of a declining power. Soon after which things take a turn for the worse, as Vic is called in by his boss and abruptly dismissed. The rival firm he had been involved in outwitting have made a bid for Pringles which as been accepted and Vic is given a day to clear his desk and leave.

Vic is really the core of the novel, a character so outwith Lodge’s comfort zone of academia, and one of the best scenes is about neither sex nor post-structuralism, but the family meeting he calls when he gets home, with his long-suffering wife and three layabout children and doddery old Dad. And to his surprise they all rally round him. His wife has mistaken his infatuation for Robyn for worry about work and is tearfully relieved that the worst is over and Vic finds he can’t disabuse her, but is touched by the selflessness of her love. And his son turns out to have got a job with a local recording studio and his daughter says she’ll step up her work at the local hair stylist in order to pay her way through uni. It is heart-warming stuff.

While over on Robyn’s side of the plot, she is inundated by rather fairy tale good luck: Morris Zapp phones up, says he loves her book, and offers her a job at Euphoria State; then she finds her Australian uncle has died and left her his entire fortune in his will, all £150,000 of it. Lodge’s soft-hearted humanism shines through these concluding pages; if you’re going to have a corny happy ending, ahh, what the hell, why not go for it?

And so in the final pages Vic turns up back in Robyn’s office, explains he’s been made redundant but feels liberated by it and might have a go at setting up a firm to produce the widget he described to her on their foreign trip. Well, she says, I’ve just come into some money: can I invest in your firm? How much? £100,000. Wow, yes, of course. And they shake hands on it. And Vic blushes as he tells her he has gotten over his crush and has been reconciled with his wife. She congratulates him and writes a dedication in the volume of Tennyson he wants to borrow off her. Keep it, she says.

And on the last page, harassed Head of Department Philip Swallow says, there’s been a slight reprieve in the unemployment situation: the University has been given the freedom to redeploy resources budgeted for one item to another, if necessary. They might be able to pay her salary and extend her contract.

Should she go down to London to accept the marriage proposal from her old boyfriend, Charles, now making a fortune in the City? Should she accept Morris Zapp’s proposal to start a new life in the Californian sun? Or should she stay here, to battle for what she believes in, to try and use her knowledge and natural talent as a teacher to educate, to promote humane values, to try and build a better society?

‘All right,’ she says, turning back to Philip Swallow. ‘I’ll stay on.’

Despite all the anti-human forces to the contrary, Nice Work has a rousing and resoundingly happy ending which brings a tear to the eye.


TV series

The book was made into a four-part BBC television series, broadcast in 1989, starring the wonderfully grumpy Warren Clarke and the appositely aloof Haydn Gwynne, which won the 1989 Royal Television Society award for best drama series. Which makes it all the odder it’s not available on Amazon – though it is on ebay, starting around £20.

Related links

Hardback cover of Nice Work

Hardback cover of Nice Work

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance.
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic accord.
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

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