Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

Related links

Reviews of photography exhibitions

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst (2006)

Furst

Furst’s novels are all historical spy adventures, set in Continental Europe, often in Eastern Europe or the Balkans, in the dark days before the Second World War and on into the early years of the conflict. They feature fairly ordinary, everyday guys who become reluctantly embroiled in ‘spying’, in its unglamorous, everyday forms – receiving and passing on information, meeting people from foreign powers who slowly take control of your life, who persuade you to take risks you’d prefer not to. So:

  • In Blood of Victory (set in late 1940 and 1941) the Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, finds himself slowly drawn into a plot to sink barges in the Danube river to choke off Nazi Germany’s supply of oil from Romania.
  • In Dark Voyage (set over two months in 1941) grizzled Dutch merchant captain, Eric DeHaan, finds himself reluctantly recruited into the Dutch Royal Navy and carrying out a number of clandestine voyages, ferrying Allied soldiers, arms and equipment on a number of hazardous missions around the Mediterranean.

The Foreign Correspondent

Although they go off on missions to the East, many of Furst’s protagonists are based in Paris, safe haven for many exiles as the grim 1930s progressed. This novel, though it features trips to Berlin and Prague, is more rooted than most i the boulevards and cafés of the city of light, and includes a map of Paris at the start, with key locations in the story marked on it.

It follows the ‘adventures’ of Italian émigré journalist Carlo Weisz. He’s landed a good job as Paris correspondent for Reuters, where he’s looked after by an understanding manager, Delahanty, who doesn’t mind that in the evenings Weisz helps write and organise an anti-Fascist, anti-Mussolini freesheet, Liberazione, cobbled together by half a dozen Italian refugees who meet at the Café Europa, the galleys then smuggled to Italy, where it’s printed and distributed via an informal network.

The text is divided into four long parts, within which the numerous sub-sections are simply divided by line breaks. As with all Furst’s novels, these short sections come with date stamps  and sometimes precise times of day, to convey the pace of events, and give a sense of urgency and thrill.

The narrative covers events between 4 December 1938 and 11 July 1939, ie the dark slide towards war, and features the following true historical events:

  • The Nazi occupation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia, beginning 15 March 1939
  • Victory of the Nationalist (fascist) forces in the Spanish Civil War on 1 April 1939
  • 7 April the Italian navy bombarded the coast of Albania, then invaded
  • Signing of the Pact of Steel, 22 May 1939

Dark times, darkly captured and broodingly conveyed.

1. In the Resistenza

We meet Weisz in Civil War Spain, as that conflict grinds to an end, accompanied by the veteran female journalist, Mary McGrath, and driven around by a driver provided by the Republican side. They visit the front lines, are shot at by Nationalist soldiers across the river, then briefly interview the legendary ‘Colonel Ferrara’, an Italian commanding an International Brigade on the Republican side, then drive off to the nearest town to file their reports.

Back in Paris, the high profile Italian exile, vociferous opponent of Mussolini, and editor of Liberazione, Bottini, is assassinated by agents of OVRA, while in bed with his mistress Madame LaCroix. It is a warning to other exiles, and we are introduced to the head of the little squad which carries out the execution, an Italian nobleman and committed Fascist, Count Amandola. But as Mme LaCroix happens to have been the wife of a French politician, this prompts the French police to open a murder investigation which will wind on for the rest of the narrative.

Thus it is that on returning to Paris, Weisz discovers Bottini to be dead and is offered the editorship of Liberazione by the small band of exiles, led by Arturo Salamone, and which he reluctantly accepts. He feels it is his duty, and he is a good journalist, he should be able to manage. The meeting is followed by a short text which is the ‘report’ of ‘Agent 207’, summarising the decisions of the meeting. Aha. One of them is a spy, or at least an informer, passing on his reports to OVRA.

Soon afterwards, in a Paris bar, Weisz bumps into an acquaintance from his two years of study at Oxford, Geoffrey Sparrow, who is accompanied by his petite girlfriend, Olivia. She enjoys flirting with Weisz, who finds himself entranced by her ‘smart little breasts’ (p.43). They go on to another bar where Sparrow accidentally-on-purpose introduces Weisz to a ‘Mr Brown’, an obvious British agent (which we know for sure since we’ve met him in previous novels). So – the old friend act and the flirting were designed to ‘ensnare’ him. At this stage it’s just an introduction and an agreement that they’re on the same side, but we all know something more will come of it…

Weisz is invited to room 10 of the Sûreté National offices, to meet the French detectives investigating the Bottini murder. They let it be known that he’s being watched, and mention that an Italian official was recently expelled from France. Was that a threat or a tip-off? As so often in Furst, the main character is puzzled about what’s going on, about the deeper or ‘hidden’ meaning of sometimes the simplest conversations. As exiles, most of his protagonists are at the mercy of ‘the authorities’ and live with a permanent sense of insecurity.

Finding himself the attention of the British and French security services, and probably of OVRA into the bargain, Weisz not unnaturally becomes convinced he’s being followed, narrowing it down to a man in a check jacket who keeps popping up behind him in the street, then on the Métro. It’s mildly ironic then, when a completely different man leans over him in the Métro carriage and slips him an envelope before quickly exiting the carriage.

Weisz brings the envelope to the next meeting of the Liberazione group at the Café Europa, where it turns out to contain detailed technical specifications for what looks like a torpedo, the writing in Italian. A new design for an Italian torpedo? Who was the man who gave it to him working for? Is it a trap? Is the door about to burst open and French police find them with the evidence that they’re spies, so they’ll all be shot? Or is it a genuine bit of clandestine information but – who should it be passed on to? The French authorities? The British? Mr Brown?

This is typical of the fog of uncertainty in which Furst’s characters (and the reader) move. Also typical is the low level of suspense: it doesn’t feel like it matters all that much, and the group decide to burn the document quickly, which they do. And nothing happens. No police burst in. The man who gave it to Weisz never reappears. There are no repercussions at all. The novels are full of mysterious threats and loomings.

Weisz regularly fantasises about sex. He imagines making love with Sparrow’s girlfriend. He thinks about calling up his old girlfriend Véronique for sex. He fantasises about his lazy landlady Madam Rigaud, who has accidentally on purpose bumped his ample hips against him many a time. He remembers the myriad highly erotic encounters with his former German lover, Christa von Schurr. He remembers having sex with the well-known British spy and recruiter, Lady Angela Hope, who – apparently – made a great deal of noise, ‘as if he were Casanova’, twice, before attempting to wangle Italian state secrets out of him (futilely, it turns out). He goes to sleep.

2. Citizen of the Night

The Reuters man in Berlin, Wolf, is getting married and going on honeymoon, so Weisz’s boss, Delahanty, sends him to Berlin to cover. We have been privy to Weisz’s sensuous memories of making love with Christa – now he sees the assignment to meet her again. Sure enough, as soon as he contacts her she comes to his hotel room, and for the rest of his stay they meet every afternoon to enjoy a sequence of pornographic encounters, livened up by varieties of underwear and positions, and the ability to perform time after time. Underwear, panties, bra, camisoles are described in loving detail.

In between sex sessions, Christa invites Weisz out to a remote fairground where he is introduced to an unnamed man (p.88). He hands over a list of Nazi agents who have penetrated to high position in Italy, lots of them, over 150. Weisz is left wondering: Has Christa only revived the affair to ‘recruit’ him for her people, to make him a conduit to a free press outside Germany? What is he expected to with the list? Weisz experiences a familiar feeling of perplexity.

Furst’s men (they’re all men) move rather dreamily around Paris and other European capitals, cocooned in an atmosphere of good food, fine wines, bars and cafés high and low, seeming to end up in bed with a steady stream of uninhibited, easy and sexually inventive women, but plagued by obscure meetings and ambiguous conversations which leave them permanently puzzled about what they’re meant to be doing, and for who…

Germany threatens to occupy the remainder of Czechoslovakia which Hitler hadn’t already seized as a result of the Allied betrayal during the Munich Crisis (August 1938). And so Weisz’s boss tells him to pack and go by train from Germany to Prague to record the event.

He travels down with two other journalists, Hamilton of The Times and Simard from Havas, but the train is stopped by the Germans at Kralupy, before it reaches Prague. The three journalists pay the very reluctant town taxi to drive them through snow to the capital, the driver grumbling all the way. They’re still driving slowly around town when two students bundle into the car carrying a Nazi flag which they’ve torn down. Seems like a student prank for a few moments until a Gestapo car swings after them and starts shooting, bullets through the windows, little Simard gets injured and there’s frantic argument about how to tie a tourniquet. The taxi driver skedaddles through Prague’s snowy back streets to an old stables which the students know about, and where they help them hide out till the cops are gone.

In a separate plotline S. Kolb, a seedy little man who works for the British SIS (and who we have met in previous books) is despatched by his masters to track down Colonel Ferrara who we met in the opening pages. Ferrara had managed to escape from Spain after Madrid fell and the Spanish Civil War ended in March 1939. Kolb tracks him to a French internment camp near Tarbes, in the south, then bribes the camp’s commandant with a lot of francs to let Ferrara free.

At first sceptical that he’s going to be shipped back to Italy, Ferrara lets himself be persuaded into a taxi to a station, and then onto a train to Paris. Here Kolb fixes him up with a room at the Hotel Tournon and it is here that Weisz is introduced to him, via Mr Brown.

Mr Brown explains to Weisz that ‘they’ would like him to write Ferrara’s biography, the biography of an Italian patriot and hero who resisted Mussolini. Ferrara agrees; later, when Weisz puts it to the Liberazione group, they also agree. So Weisz gets into the habit of going every evening, after his main day’s work, to the Hotel Toulon, there to smoke lots of cigarettes and type up Ferrara’s life story.

In short order, Weisz dumps his Paris girlfriend, Véronique and buys a typewriter in a flea market. He uses it to type out copies of the list of Nazi agents in Italy which Christa gave him back in Germany and which he carried round Prague and back to Paris. He’ll post copies to the British and French authorities – the flea market typewriter was so they couldn’t match it against his own typewriter, if they manage to trace it to him,

This section closes with Furst giving us a brief sketch of the Liberazione‘s distribution network in Italy: the conductor on the Paris-to-Genoa train; Matteo, who works at the printing works of Italy’s second newspaper, Il Secolo and slips printing the free sheet in between bigger jobs; Antionio who drives a coal delivery truck from Genoa to Rapallo and takes copies with him; Gabriella and Lucia, 16-year-olds in a convent school in Genoa who help distribute free copies; ending with readers like Lieutenant DeFranco, a detective in the rough waterfront area of Genoa, who enjoys reading the copy posted in the police station’s lavatory.

3. The Pact of Steel

Back in Paris. Véronique phones to tell Weisz that a threatening man came to cross-question her about Weisz and Liberazione, pretending to be – but obviously not – a member of the Sûreté. The Liberazione group meet and discover that Salamone has been dismissed from his job. The threat from OVRA seems to be looming from different directions. Agent 207 reports the meeting.

Weisz is despatched by his Reuters boss to cover the crowd assembled outside the hotel where King Zog of Albania is discovered to be staying. King Zog shows himself at the balcony, some cheer, some throw bottles, the crowd turns ugly and Weisz is suddenly hit very hard on the head, by some kind of sharp but heavy implement, regaining consciousness on the floor and helped to a nearby café by a cop. Staggering home, he fears he’s being followed. Was it an OVRA attack? A random bit of thuggery?

Next evening he meets up with Ferrara to move the book forward, and finds Kolb and Brown there. They go to a ‘mad’ nightclub up in Pigalle, where the girls dance naked except for shoes. Here Ferrara picks up a fetching naked girl called Irina. The reader suspects this will end badly: possibly she, too, is an OVRA agent or will lure him to a sticky end…

News comes in to Reuters that Mussolini’s Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, is flying to Berlin to sign a so-called ‘Pact of Steel’ between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Delahanty orders Weisz back to Berlin to cover it for the Italian point of view.

While Weisz is packing a new guest at the hotel looms menacingly at his door and we strongly suspect something bad is going to happen to Weisz, when the old hotel retainer Bertrand arrives puffing and panting up the stairs with Weisz’s plane tickets, thus saving him in the nick of time. The novels are full of close shaves, what-might-have-beens, or even perfectly innocent events which we – sharing the protagonist’s paranoia – think of as unnecessarily sinister. Thus in a hundred little ways, we enter the atmosphere of fear and suspicion which the characters move in…

Back in Berlin, Weisz gets a cryptic message from Christa inviting him to a party at a friend’s house. When he arrives at the apartment given on the invitation, there is no party and the door is open. He tiptoes through eerily empty rooms suspecting something bad has happened and, again, the reader is thinking the worst. But Christa is simply lying in bed, naked. She had fallen asleep. They have sex several times, as she explains that she thinks she’s being watched and so arranged this rendezvous at the apartment of a friend.

Weisz is an eye witness of the signing of the Pact of Steel at a formal hall in Berlin. Up till this moment the Italian exiles Weisz moves among have been hoping Italy will somehow keep out of Hitler’s mad plans, especially as Mussolini is on record as saying Italy wouldn’t be ready for war until 1943.

Weisz notices the changed atmosphere in Berlin, the number of uniforms on the street – SS, Gestapo, Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Hitler Youth and so on, the expectation of violence. Then he’s back in bed with Christa.

Idly, he trailed a finger from the back of her neck down to where her legs parted, and she parted them a little more. (p.186)

When his trip ends he is upset, kisses Christa goodbye in the street, she walks away and out of sight, and he wonders if it’s forever. Oddly, as in all these Furst novels, I had absolutely no sense of emotional involvement or upset whatsoever. I see the logic of these characters’ emotions – but I don’t feel them. For me, these novels are like diagrams of emotion and feeling. Blueprints.

Back in Paris Weisz discovers the café where the Liberazione group meet has been burned down. Salamone has had a heart attack. Things are not looking good for our little group. The same man who pretended to be a Sûreté officer to interview Véronique, turns up at Elena’s workplace, the Galeries Lafayette, asking about her. Infuriated, Elena tails him through the Métro back to 62 Boulevard de Strasbourg. There’s a card claiming it’s the office of a photo agency. Next day Weisz rings the number on the card and establishes it’s an obvious front, they know nothing about press photos. Then Weisz goes along himself and finds letters in the postbox with Croatian names and addresses. Possibly agents of the Croatian Ustasha, sub-contracting to OVRA.

4. Soldiers for Freedom

Weisz and Ferrara continue working on the biography. Weisz reads in a newspaper a small article about a spy circle in Berlin being rounded up and imprisoned. His heart stops, as he thinks it must be Christa and her circle – and from this point onwards, for the last 60 or so pages of the novel, its protagonist’s overwhelming motivation is to find out what’s happening to Christa and try to ensure her safety.

Mr Brown takes Weisz to meet a ‘Mr Lane’, obviously a more senior SIS figure, who talks him into considering expanding the Liberazione operation, increasing the print runs, expanding the distribution network. Now that Mussolini is an official ally of Hitler, Britain will put more effort into trying to undermine his regime. But Weisz can only think about Christa.

Taking the initiative regarding the threat from OVRA, Weisz makes an appointment to see the inspectors investigating the Bottini murder. He takes along a case full of evidence about the phony Sûreté guys, and the evidence suggesting they are Ustashe agents operating illegally in France. They are interested. ‘Leave it with us; we’ll be in touch.’ At their next meeting they show Weisz photos, some of which he identifies as the men he’s seen. This confirms something the detectives knew (though they’re very vague about it to Weisz). As a sort of reward, they tell him there’s an OVRA agent within Liberazione, Zerba the art historian. Weisz is shocked, and so is Salamone when he tells him later. The latter’s first reaction is to kill him, but the police and Weisz had said No, let him continue  his activities.

Weisz has made a decision about the British suggestion to increase Liberazione activity: he asks Kolb if he can organise a meeting with his boss, Mr Brown. Here he asks if the SIS can find out Christa’s situation. Brown grudgingly agrees, but insists that, in return, Weisz a) hurry up and finish the Ferrara book b) agrees to go back to Italy to organise the printing and distribution of Liberazione on a much larger scale and in the process c) is seen, spreading the rumour of defiance, raising morale among the anti-Mussolini opposition.

Tense climax

And so the last forty pages of the novel follow Weisz’s tense journey across the border, to Genoa and then to clandestine meetings with the distribution network, as he pays Matteo to find extra capacity at the print works, meets an underworld fixer, Grassone, who can supply newsprint by the ton, and then is taken to meet an old Genoese criminal who is prepared to rent him a huge underground vault to operate in.

They’ve just been shown round the vault and emerged into the daylight into a busy marketplace, when rough hands are placed on Weisz’s collar and he realises a policeman is arresting him. He tries to get away, but is slapped and kicked to the ground and finds himself wriggling under a market stall. The cop is tugging at his legs when suddenly the market traders start throwing things at Pazzo, who turns out to be the well-known and much-hated local cop, such a barrage, that Pazzo is forced to turn and flee.

Leader of the vegetable throwers had been a huge old lady, Angelina. She picks Weisz up and dusts him off and then takes him off through a maze of alleys to a church, where she hands him over to Father Marco for safekeeping. Weisz realises he can’t go back to the hotel, so he’s abandoning his things and in fact the entire project.

Was he betrayed? Was it a misunderstanding (surely the OVRA would have sent a whole squad of heavies not a fat local policeman)? Who cares. Now he’s going home. But when he goes down to the docks to try and board the Hydraios, sailing back to Marseilles, part of the carefully worked out plan – he finds that the slack dock passport controller, Nunzio, has been joined by two serious looking detectives. There is no way through without being cross-questioned and arrested. Forlorn, he watches the ship slip its moorings and sail away.

Promptly Weisz abandons Genoa. He has money and so he buys a completely new outfit and travels to the resort of Portofino where he puts himself about among the rich tourists, hoping to get himself invited aboard one of the many rich tourists yachts. He fails with the Brits and the Americans, but then scores a success with the party of Sven, a self-made Dane, who shrewdly realises he’s in trouble but invites Weisz to join their yacht party anyway.

As if by magic, a few days later Weisz is back in Paris. And the last pages cut to Berlin where Kolb has been sent to extract Christa. Although she is being followed everywhere by the Gestapo, Kolb has a taxi driver follow her when she takes a group of Hitler Youth girls out to a lake (where many of them strip naked and frolic in the waves, to Kolb’s delight). He hisses at Christa from the treeline, and persuades her to come there and then, clamber into the boot of the car, be driven to a safe flat, where they’ll change her appearance, give her new papers and smuggle her into Luxembourg.

On the very last page Weisz arrives tired and demoralised back at the Hotel Dauphine, his Paris base, and the landlady. Madam Rigaud, tells him a new guest has checked in, a German countess, who seemed keen to see Herr Weisz. She’s put her in room 47.

Never has a man run up flights of stairs with such enthusiasm! To a joyous happy ending.


A web of characters

Blurbs on the books tend to praise the tremendous ‘atmosphere’ of Furst’s historical novels. I personally don’t find them ‘atmospheric’ so much as stuffed with an amazing grasp of historical detail and an astonishingly large cast of characters.

The novels feature not just the main protagonist (always a fairly average, if foreign, bloke: Serebin, DeHaan, Weisz) but a realistic web of secondary, tertiary and minor characters, many of whom only appear in fleeting scenes, but are given vivid thumbnail descriptions, quick lines, enough to make an impact and create the sense of a fully-populated imaginative world.

This way that the novels just teem with people and takes us to a wealth of urban settings and locations, helps the novels read like life, like confused, hectic, twentieth-century modern life in big cities, in huge industrialised nations lumbering towards war.

Characters

I set out to make a list of all the characters which appear in the book and was amazed at just how many of them there are.

  • Carlo Weisz, Italian émigré journalist, Paris-based correspondent for Reuters news agency, who works part time producing Liberazione, an anti-Mussolini free sheet.
  • Hotel Dauphine, Weisz’s home in Paris.
  • Madame Rigaud, landlady of the Hotel Dauphine, broad-hipped and complaisant, about whom he has vivid sexual fantasies.
  • Ettore, il Conte Amandola, agent of OVRA, the pro-fascist agency.
  • OVRA, the Organizzazione di Vigilanza e Repressione dell’Antifascismo (p.98)
  • Bottini, émigré lawyer from Turin and outspoken critic of Mussolini, he is assassinated by OVRA agents in the opening pages.
  • Madame LaCroix, Bottini’s plump noisy mistress. The OVRA agents murder her in bed with Bottini and make it look like he killed her then committed suicide, in order to achieve maximum humiliation of the anti-fascist figurehead. However, Mme LaCroix happened to be married to a French politician minister, and this draws the French Security forces into an investigation of her death, which will eventually draw Weisz into collaborating with them.
  • Staff of the Liberazione freesheet, who meet in the Café Europa:
    • Arturo Salamone, former insurance salesman in Italy, now main organiser of the paper
    • Sergio
    • Elena, fiery little exile
    • Michele Zerba, art historian from Siena (p.239)
  • giellisti (p.8) collective name of the opponents and resisters of Mussolini’s fascism, a conflation of Giustizia e Libertà (p.220).
  • Agent 207 – spy inside Liberazione group, we read his reports of the secret meetings immediately after they’ve happened – obviously he or she is one of the core members. Towards the end of the novel we learn the agent is Zerba, the art historian. (pp.29, 152)
  • confidente – Mussolini’s secret police / secret agents.
  • Mary McGrath, a veteran correspondent in her 40s (p.13) a journalist who we meet accompanying Weisz in Civil War Spain.
  • Sandoval, Spanish driver, assigned by the Republicans to drive Weisz and McGrath around the battlefield and to nearest towns to file his copy.
  • ‘Colonel Ferrara’ – nom de guerre of an Italian hero of the Great War who became an anti-Mussolini  figurehead and volunteered to fight in Spain, where has become a legendary figure (p.18). Kolb buys his freedom from a French internment camp and accompanies him to Paris where Weisz is engaged to write his heroic biography, Soldier for Freedom.
  • The military censor in Castelldans (p.24)
  • S. Kolb (p.50), a meagre little man, his career at a Swiss bank was ruined after he was (unfairly) caught embezzling money, then recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service, after which he has been thrown into all kinds of perilous situations. In this novel he is given the money to purchase Colonel Ferrara’s freedom, brings him to Paris, settles him in a safe apartment and supervises Weisz writing his biography.
  • Commandant of the French internment camp near Tarbes where Ferrara is being held.
  • Hotel Tournon – the Paris hotel Kolb books Ferrara into.
  • Monsieur Devoisin, a permanent undersecretary at the French Foreign Ministry, who Weisz visits for official briefings (p.61).
  • Irina – one night Ferrara, Weisz and Kolb go to a nightclub to blow away the blues, to the Club Chez les Nudistes, up in Pigalle, where the girls wear only high-heeled shoes and are illuminated by blue lights. She seduces Ferrara on the dance floor and quickly becomes his beloved – ‘she is my life. We make love all night.’ (p.235)
  • Véronique, one of Weisz’s lovers, works in an up-market art gallery (p.132). He has some dainty sex before formally dumping her as his affair with Christa re-ignites.
  • Delahanty, Weisz’s boss at Reuters Paris bureau (p.27)
  • Geoffrey Sparrow, Oxford friend of Weisz’s (p.41)
  • Olivia, Sparrow’s flirtatious girlfriend (p.43)
  • Edwin Brown, ‘Mr Brown’, an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service, SIS (p.44).
  • Mr Lane, Brown’s superior in SIS (p.219)
  • Sir Roderick (p.233). We don’t get his last name. Lane refers to him as the head of SIS, also mentioned in previous books.
  • Count Polanyi, well known Hungarian spy (pp.48, 125)
  • Nicholas Morath, his nephew and central character in Kingdom of Shadows (p.125)
  • Lady Angela Hope, the dashing British spy and recruiter who the text goes out of its way to make clear Weisz made love to, very noisily, twice (p.49).
  • Inspector Pompon of the Sûreté National who interviews Weisz in room 10 of the imposing Interior Ministry on the rue des Saussaies (p.63).
  • Inspector Guerin, Pompon’s partner (p.223).
  • Eric Wolf, Reuters man in Berlin, getting married, going on honeymoon in Cornwall for a fortnight, Weisz is sent to Berlin to cover for him (p.70).
  • Christa Zameny, Weisz’s passionate lover, who married German count von Schirren some years before (p.75). When Weisz appears in Berlin they immediately, with barely a word spoken, resume their careers as championship sexual performers, Christa’s panties and bra repeatedly falling to the floor, ‘her breasts shining wet in the light’ (p.85).
  • Gerda, German secretary at Reuters Berlin office.
  • Dr Martz, cheerful Nazi official at the Berlin Press Club.
  • Ian Hamilton, journalist from The Times (p.98) on the short trip to Prague.
  • Prague taxi driver.
  • The two students in Prague.
  • Brasserie Heininger (p.124) the glitzy night-life bar and dance floor which appears in every one of Furst’s novels.
  • Moma Tsipler and his Wienerwald Companions – a Viennese Jazz band who’ve appeared in previous novels and are in residence at the Brasserie Heininger during this one.
  • Louis Fischfang (p.125) film scriptwriter and a lead character in The World At Night and Red Gold.
  • Voyschinkowsky, known as ‘the Lion of the Bourse.’ (p.125)
  • André Szara, protagonist of Furst’s second novel, Dark Star (p.125).
  • Cara Dionello, rich Argentinian, part of the Polanyi party (p.125).
  • King Zog of Albania, in exile in Paris after the Italians seize Albania (p.156)
  • Matteo, printer in Genoa who uses his job as cover to print copies of Liberazione before getting it clandestinely shipped off round Italy.
  • Antonio, truck driver who delivers Liberazione from Genoa to Rapallo
  • Gabriella and Lucia 16-year-old schoolgirls who help distribute Liberazione.
  • Lieutenant DeFranco, detective in the rough waterfront district of Genoa who enjoys reading Liberazione (p.139)
  • Gennaro, transport policeman on the Paris to Genoa train (p.171)
  • Perini, owner of Perini’s barbershop in the rue Mabillon (p.143).
  • Bertrand, loyal old porter at Weisz’s hotel, the Dauphine (p.176).
  • Adolf Hitler, bounding up and down with happiness after signing the Pact of Steel (p.184).
  • Count Ciano, Italian Foreign Minister (p.184).
  • The assistant manager of the Galeries Lafayette, nicknamed ‘the Dragon’ (p.194).
  • Old Madame Gros, secretary at the Galeries Lafayette (p.195).
  • Grassone, ‘fatboy’, huge underworld figure in Genoa (p.253).
  • Emil, slick underworld fixer in Genoa (p.255).
  • ‘The landlord’, owner of the old wine cellar which Weisz can use as a base for the expanded printing of Liberazione (p.263).
  • Pazzo, the local bully boy policeman who tries to arrest Weisz in Genoa (p.265).
  • Angelina, immense woman wearing a hairnet who retaliates against Pazzo and secures Weisz’s freedom (p.266).
  • Father Marco, who gives Weisz sanctuary after Angelina has got him away from the local police (p.267).
  • Nunzio, easy-gong customs officer at Genoa docks.
  • Klemens, former German street fighter now agent for SIS, driver of the car in which Kolb collects Christa and spirits her away from her watchers (p.274).

Nets and webs

The novel is, in other words, populated by an amazingly intricate web of characters who are shown interacting in a multitude of expected or unpredictable ways. For me, Furst’s novels have complexity instead of ‘atmosphere’. It’s the sheer proliferation of characters, with numberless walk-on parts for taxi drivers, bartenders, customs officials and so on, which gives the novels their extraordinary sense of range and their imaginative suasion.

As explained in reviews of his previous novels, I don’t find Furst’s novels particularly thrilling for most of their length – not until the deliberately exciting final chapter or so. For most of their length they consist of accounts of meetings, interviews, rendezvous, the handing over of documents, discussion of secrets, making of arrangements and so on, in offices, street corners and cafés. And the making love.

Fine food They routinely feature rather sumptuous descriptions of meals at fancy restaurants (at the Ritz hotel in Paris, the Adlon in Berlin, the famous Brasserie Heininger) accompanied by fancy cocktails or champagne.

Sex And of course, the novels are laced with descriptions of knowing, sensual sex with one of the hero’s various lovers or mistresses (Marie-Galante in Blood of Victory, Demetria and Maria Sombel in Dark Voyage, and the very sensuous and imaginative Christa von Schirren in this novel). We read descriptions – muted tasteful descriptions – of Weisz having sex with Véronique, with Lady Angela Hope, with Christa, or fantasising about having sex with little Olivia or his Paris landlady.

He knew what she liked, she knew what he liked, so they had a good time. Afterwards, he smoked a Gitane and watched her as she sat at her dressing table, her small breasts rising and falling as she brushed her hair. (p.32)

In Furst’s fiction, you’re never far away from silk bras or panties suavely slipping off smooth flesh.

After a time, she moved her legs apart, and guided his hand, ‘God,’ she said, ‘how I love this.’ He could tell that she did. Sliding down the bed, so that her head was level with his waist, she said, ‘Just stay where you are, there is something I have wanted to do for a long time.’ (p.181)

Good living The fine food, the champagne cocktails, the beautiful women stripping down to their cami-knickers in each novel tend to counter-balance – or even outweigh – the rarer action scenes: the strange men following the hero down a darkened street, the shots from the police as they crash a roadblock, the dive bombers attacking the naval convoy. Much more often you get paragraphs like this:

She stood and took off her jacket and skirt, then her shirt, stockings and suspenders, and folded them over the top of the chaise longue. Usually she wore expensive cotton underwear, white or ivory, and soft to the touch, but tonight she was in a plum-coloured silk, the bra with a lace trim, the panties low at the waist, high at the hip, and tight, a style called, Véronique had once told him, French cut. (p.94)

Sensual and soft More broadly, if something actually violent isn’t happening (which it generally isn’t) Furst’s general purpose setting is noticeably sensual and gentle. It’s not just the sex and fine wine which contributes to the sense of softness about the novels, it’s the default attitude which is – oddly given the subject matter – consistently sweet and gentle.

All his life he’d gazed at rivers, from London’s Thames to Budapest’s Danube, with the Arno, the Tiber and the Grand Canal of Venice in between, but the Seine was queen of the poetic rivers, to Weisz it was. Restless and melancholy, or soft and slow, depending on the mood of the river, or his. That night it was dappled, black with rain and running high in its banks… (p.123)

Very often poetic and wistful:

For a time, Weisz just stood there, alone on the wharf, as the crew disappeared up the flight of stone steps. When they’d gone, it was very quiet, only a buzzing dock light, a cloud of moths fluttering in its metal hood and the lapping of the sea against the quay. The night air was warm, a familiar warmth, soft on the skin, and fragrant with the scents of decay; damp stone and drains, mud flats at low tide.
Weisz had never been here before, but he was home. (p.246)

It is these kind of cadences which give the novels, overall, a dreamy feel which I think explains why the reader is rarely really gripped by the storyline, but is more often absorbed by the endless variety of new characters, interested in the depictions of real historical moments and geopolitical developments – and lulled by the rhythms of much of the prose.

At times this rises to overtly physical descriptions of food or sex but, even in the absence of those obvious highlights, is everywhere characterised by a kind of sweet and gentle sensuality, which helps make the novels such easy, interesting, sexy and rewarding reads.


Credit

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst was published in 2006 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Phoenix paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
2006 The Foreign Correspondent – The adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile from Mussolini in Paris in 1938 and 1939, as Europe heads towards war. He is a journalist working for Reuters and co-editor of an anti-fascist freesheet, Liberazione, and we see him return from Civil War Spain, resume his love affair with a beautiful German countess in Nazi Berlin, and back in Paris juggle conflicting requests from the French Sûreté and British Secret Intelligence Service, while dodging threats from Mussolini’s secret police.
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

Octopussy by Ian Fleming (1966)

There are two collections of James Bond short stories – Quantum of Solace published in 1960 containing five stories – and Octopussy and The Living Daylights containing just those two stories and published in June 1966. When the paperback edition of the latter was published in 1967 another story, The Property of a Lady, was added; and the short sketch, 007 in New York, was added to the Penguin paperback edition in 2002.

1. The Living Daylights

(32 pages) First published in The Sunday Times colour supplement in February 1962.

The barbed wire fence which would evolve into the Berlin Wall was only erected in August 1961. This story a) comes from the period before there was any physical barrier between East and West, b) is the only Bond story set anywhere near the Eastern bloc.

Agent 272 has a been a long-term sleeper inside the Soviet Union. He has accumulated a wealth of information about their atomic missile programme. Now he’s trying to escape and he’s made it as far as East Berlin. He radioed a ciphered message saying exactly where he will run across the line from East to West Berlin on one of the following three evenings. However, the message was intercepted by the Russkies, who have sent their top sharp-shooter, codenamed ‘Trigger’, to be ready & waiting to kill 272 as he makes the crossing.

MI6 know about the message interception, and so have sent Bond to kill ‘Trigger’ before ‘Trigger’ can shoot 272.

So Bond undergoes a few hours intense target practice with a state-of-the-art sniper rifle at a military firing range at Bisley, before driving to London airport and flying to Berlin.

Tired, he is taken by a Foreign Office minder, Sender, to a service flat overlooking the wasteland between the Russian and Western zones (where the Berlin Wall would eventually be built) and here makes a base. The rifle he’ll use can be set up on a stand and Bond can lie on the mattress of a bed set against the window, which is almost completely covered by curtain, so that just the rifle barrel pokes out.

Sender explains that ‘Trigger’ will almost certainly be based in a big, new, concrete block for East German officials which is off to one side of the waste land – hence the rental of this derelict flat and the orientation of the window, and so on, to give Bond good sight over the ‘killing zone’ but also up into the Russian building.

Over the next three days, Bond spends the daylight hours ambling aimlessly round Berlin (which he doesn’t like very much) making sure he is back in the flat ready for the 5pm set-up and for the expected crossing time around 6pm. Two nights in a row he gets tense and hot in his blackout clothes, finger on the trigger, scanning the windows of the big Russian building – but nothing happens.

However, during these trial runs he notices something. Every day a Russian women’s orchestra troops into the Russian building and spends a couple of hours rehearsing. Bond realises that, among all the musicians, the cello player’s cello case is suspiciously light, too easily swung and carried. The woman carrying it is an attractive, vivacious blonde, smiling and joking with her fellow players. Slowly Bond forms the conviction that she may be ‘Trigger’.

On the third evening Bond is all set to go when Sender jumps to life and says he can see through his binoculars a man in the shadows on the other side – must be 272. And, yes, Bond sees a gun barrel being poked out of one of the windows of the Russian building. Bond uses his powerful telescopic sight to zero right in on the protruding gun barrel, as Sender gives him a running commentary of how our man is approaching the wide open stretch of floodlit ground where the dash for safety will take place.

With a last minute look round, 272 makes a break for it, running into the illuminated strip of land. At the same moment Bond sees in his scope a blonde head move forwards over the enemy gun. He hesitates a fraction of a second, allowing ‘Trigger’ to get off a burst from her Kalashnikov, then fires one well-aimed sniper bullet. It hits the enemy gun and sends it spinning out the window to the ground. Bond tells Sender to duck and a fusillade of bullets pours through their window. But 272 is safely across and into the waiting Opal car kept revved up by a British Army corporal, which now speeds off.

Sender and Bond crawl into the relative safety of the windowless kitchen where Sender tells Bond off, saying he will have to report that he hesitated, and then did not kill ‘Trigger’ as ordered. That hesitation could have led to 272’s death!

Bond considers lying but then tells the truth. He had developed a fellow feeling for this beautiful woman, who is his mirror image – also a paid assassin. His shot a) disabled her gun b) probably broke her hand or even arm. And she will be severely punished by the KGB for her failure. It is enough.

Bond is sick of killing. Send your message to my boss, he tells Sender. Maybe it will get me out of the wretched 007 section and into a nice cushy desk job.

Comment

The waiting for someone to cross the neutral zone is reminiscent of the opening of John le Carré’s breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Bond’s malaise, sick of killing, reflects the illness and depression which afflicted Fleming at the end of his life.

2. The Property of a Lady

(42 pages) First published in The Ivory Hammer (Sotheby’s annual) in November 1963.

Significant that it was published in the Sotheby’s annual since this the whole story is an advert of sorts for the famous auctioneer’s. A valuable Fabergé egg worth anything up to £100,000 has been given to Sotheby’s to auction. It is given as ‘the property of a lady’ but M explains to Bond that it’s actually been put up by one of their own MI6 staff, a certain Miss Freudenstein. Miss F is in fact a double agent working for the KGB. We learned this after she had been hired but before she took up her post, and so MI6 created a special section just for her, the ‘Purple Cipher’ department, which handles worthless information mixed with occasional nuggets of disinformation. For three years Miss F has been cunningly passing secrets to the KGB which are not secrets at all.

Now she has come into possession of the egg, apparently legitimately. An expert who works with Her majesty’s Customs says a parcel insured for £100,000 was stopped by Customs and opened. it contained the egg along with validating documents showing that is had been in Miss F’s family since before the revolution. On the death of her mother, it is being willed to Miss F.

M explains this is probably a legitimate way of rewarding Miss F’s devotion to duty without the messiness of bank accounts. The egg will be sold for a fortune, and thus some ‘capitalist’ collector will be in effect paying a KGB spy. Very droll.

Bond has an idea: the KGB will probably send along to the auction an ‘underbidder’, someone who is paid to make the running on an expensive lot, and push it to the maximum before abandoning the chase just in time. In all probability the ‘underbidder’ at the egg auction will be the KGB’s Resident in London.

So Bond organises for a photographer and other officials to attend the auction and identify their man. Sure enough, after the opening salvoes, the bidding settles down into a battle between someone invisible in the crowd and the very cultured and helpful Fabergé expert, Mr Snowman, who works for the firm. The ‘underbidder’ pushes it all the way to £155,000 then quits. The photographer and Bond both get a view of the stocky, anonymous figure who did the bidding. Outside Bond jumps in an MI5 taxi and tells it to follow the stocky man’s.

Sure enough Mr Stocky’s car turns into Kensington Palace Gardens and he enters the Russian embassy. Bond’s scheme has ensured he will be identified as the Soviets’ Resident in London and expelled. A small victory in the endless chess game of the Cold War.

Comment

I was expecting a clever reverse or unexpected twist – which never came. Maybe Fleming wrote it as a favour or special commission and the real point was to flatter Sothebys.

3. Octopussy

(44 pages) Posthumously serialised in The Daily Express from the 4th to the 8th October 1965.

I think this is Fleming’s second best short story after Quantum of Solace and, seeing as that was a deliberate pastiche of Somerset Maugham, maybe this is the best. It combines a number of Bond themes: it’s set in Jamaica (as so many of his stories); there’s skin diving and the beauty of the undersea world; there’s Bond’s stern, almost Puritanical, sense of duty; and, by complete contrast, Fleming’s feel for the Alps and mountains which he got to know so well as a young man.

What’s missing is sex, gadgets or an overblown baddy. For once a Fleming fiction is a realistic portrait of the failings of human nature.

Major Dexter Smythe was a fine figure of a man during the war in the latter part of which he commanded an Intelligence section. Now he is 54, fat, drinks and smokes too heavily and has had two heart attacks. He is, in other words, something of a self-portrait of Fleming himself, who had a dashing war but by the early 1960s was in failing health.

Since Smythe’s wife died he has let himself go and now only barely manages to stay alive with the help of numerous pills. One of his last pleasures is patrolling the acre or so of foreshore off his beach-front house, where he puts on a snorkel and enjoys feeding the fish and other fauna on the reef. Recently he has been trying to tame an octopus – feebly nicknamed ‘Octopussy’ – who has a home in a certain part of the reef, and is interested in conducting a little experiment – he wants to see how the octopus will react if he offers it a scorpion fish, one of the most poisonous fish in the world.

However, his world has just been turned upside down, because that morning a man from London, a man named James Bond paid him a call. Bond coldly and officially told him that the authorities have uncovered the full story of his wartime crime. The body has been found and the bullets identified as coming from his gun.

As the pair of chaps politely sip their drinks, Smythe slips into a flashback which dominates the rest of the narrative. He begins to explain the situation at the end of the war, and his role of visiting German command bases with a mission to confiscating all their paperwork, assessing it and sending it back to London. Mostly boring, until he found one sheet among thousands, which seemed to refer to hidden Nazi gold.

Smythe pinpointed the location of the stash in a climber’s hut up a nearby mountain, checked the location on Army maps, then burned the incriminating document. He made some casual enquiries and got the name of a local mountain guide, one Herr Oberhauser. Smythe drives out to Oberhauser’s hillside house and terrorises him into accompanying him up the mountain.

It was a tough five hour hike, described by Fleming in gritty detail, but they eventually reached the hut and found the cairn of rocks indicated in the document. At which point Smythe cold-bloodedly shot Oberhauser in the back, threw his body into a crevasse, and dismantled the cairn to find an old ammunition box containing two huge bars of Nazi gold. He lugs it down off the mountain – again described in gruelling detail – and hides it in some woods. Back to base, shower and a deep sleep. Next morning Smythe is up with his unit and travelling on to the next base.

Six months later, well after the end of the war, Smythe returns, find the stash in the forest, and uses his security clearance to fly several times back and forth from Germany to England – with a gold bar each time in his suitcase.

Smythe then he met and married a pretty, middle-class gel, Mary, and told her they were moving to Jamaica. Here he rented a desirable property and made enquiries, quickly discovering that the most powerful underworld figures were a couple of Chinese brothers, the Foos, in Kingston. He approaches them with the bars and they agree to dispose of them for a 10% commission.

And from that day to the present Smythe has lived a merry life – no work, golf all day or skin diving, bridge at the club or dinner parties in the evening. But he has gone to seed. In fact it was his heavy drinking that set Mary against him, nagging him to stop until he took to hiding bottles and lying about them, and then everything else. Finally, Mary made a ‘cry for help’ overdose which actually resulted in her dying – since when he hasn’t cared about anything.

And now this man Bond arrives with his accusations. ‘How did you know?’ Smythe asks. Bond explains: The glacier has given up the dead body of the Oberhauser, along with his identity papers. The bullet holes in the skull made the cause of death obvious. His family identified the British officer he left with, all those years ago. The trail led to the Foo Brothers who have admitted their role in disposing of the gold. It is a cut-and-dried case.

We realise the flashback narrative we’ve just read was also Smythe telling Bond the true story. Confessing. Bond stands; the interview is at an end. He says the police will be here to arrest him in a week at most and prepares to leave. ‘Yes, but why do you care, why are you here?’ Smythe asks him, puzzled.

James Bond looked Major Smythe squarely in the eyes. ‘It just so happened that Oberhauser was a friend of mine. He taught me to ski before the war, when I was in my teens. He was a wonderful man. He was something of a father figure to me at a time when I happened to need one.’ (p.44)

What can Smythe say. Bond looks at him with contempt, and departs.

And so Smythe has a few more stiff drinks, slips on his diving mask and goes out into the sea in search of a scorpion fish to tempt his ‘Octopussy’ with. And sure enough he finds one, with its odd ‘eyebrows’ hanging over its glaring red eyes, and the spine of venomous quills rising from its back. As he goes to spear it, the fish darts up and under Smythe’s stomach and then off into a crevice in the reef. But Smythe spears it a second time and wades out of the sea holding his trophy aloft. Only when he sits on a rock on the beach does he realise there’s a numb patch on his stomach. Christ, the bloody scorpion fish must have stung him with is poisonous barbs! He knows from the books that he could be saved by anti-histamines and antibiotics, but the nearest doctor is an hour away. And he knows he has just fifteen minutes to live.

Smythe pulls on the mask, determined to continue his silly experiment and wades back out into the reef with the dead scorpion fish on his spear. He arrives at the Octopussy’s grotto, but is delirious with pain by now. ‘Octopussy, octopussy, look what I’ve brought for you,’ and he feebly jabs the dead fish at the octopus. But Octopussy recognises a real feast when she sees one and darts out a tentacle which grips Smythe’s arm. And then another tentacle. And, as Smythe screams into his mask, the octopus’s other tentacles close around him, pulling him into range, and the creature’s big sharp beak starts to bite!

Comment

What sets the story apart is the sense of gnawing guilt for his wartime crime which both made and ruined Smythe. He is no typical Bond baddy, no garish ogre. He is an all-too-fallible human being. The gruesome climax of the story has all the elements of the sadistic and macabre which Bond fans could want – but it is the surprising psychological power of Smythe’s wartime narrative which lingers in the memory.


Credit

Octopussy and The Living Daylights by Ian Fleming was published in June 1966 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1985 Panther paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1966

The Bond novels

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

Dark Star by Alan Furst (1991)

That was the nature of the intelligence landscape as he understood it: in a world of perpetual night, a thousand signals flickered in the darkness, some would change the world, others were meaningless, or even dangerous. (p.67)

Alan Furst’s second novel covers similar territory as the first, territory he has subsequently made his own in a series of 14 novels about espionage in 1930s Europe. This one felt even more complicated than its epic predecessor, Night Soldiers, because although it features one protagonist, André Szara, foreign correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Pravda, both he and the reader are kept permanently confused by the bewildering hall of mirrors, the complex overlay of conflicting intelligence agencies and missions, in which he finds himself.

1. Silence in Prague

Part one finds Szara sent on journeys to Ostend, Prague and Berlin to write propaganda pieces for Pravda. But his experience is a confusion of secret meetings and instructions; in one set he is despatched to Berlin to meet an industrialist, Baumann and during a formal dinner with Herr and Frau Baumann (and a young Fräulein invited along to make up the numbers) Herr B very subtly makes it clear that, as Jew, he is against the regime. When Szara goes to visit him at his factory the next day, he realises it doesn’t just make steel, it makes high-tensile steel used as control rods in airplanes. Herr B shares with him production figures, which Sazara’s NKVD masters will use to calculate the German war effort.

The shy young woman is Marta Haecht. Szara is attracted to her, offers to walk her home, instead she comes to his hotel room and to his surprise they have championship sex. He is in love, a poet masquerading as a hack.

But parallel to this, Szara had been approached by a Russian on the Ostend ferry who asked him to keep an eye on another Soviet operative, one van Doorn, real name Grigory Khelidze. A day later he sends a message to his approacher, telling him which hotel Khelidze is staying in. The next morning he gets, along with his morning coffee and roll, a shred of paper naming a cafe. He goes there and is approached by a woman calling herself Renata Braun, who takes him to Khelidze’s hotel room, where they find the man horribly murdered and sprayed with acid. While Szara is sick, Braun searches the dead man’s belongings and finds tucked away a folded-up piece of paper which turns out to be the chit to a left luggage deposit box in a Czech railway station. Is it a trap?

Feeling like he is in way over his head, Szara sets off to Prague and, paranoid that his every step is being watched, finds the station, the box and the ancient suitcase inside. Back at his hotel room he rips open the concealed bottom to find a cache of documents going back to Tsarist times which seem to be records of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, in their dealings with a Bolshevik activist – known only as DUBOK – who was in fact a double agent, one of their informants. Sweat breaks out all over Szara’s body as he realises the dates and other references can only be to Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, also known as Stalin!

2. Rue Delesseux

It is spring 1938. Back in Moscow his ‘debriefer’, another Jew, Abramov, listens in horror to Szara’s experiences, then fills him in on the background to these puzzling events. There are different factions in the NKVD, arranged in khvosts or ‘gangs’ – a southern or Georgian one, an intellectual Jewish one, probably others, all of which operate abroad and conspire against each other; and there’s the Comintern, which has its own agenda abroad, and which Khelidze worked for – and the status of all of them is permanently unclear as the entire apparat is subject to wave after wave of purges. The Red Army has been decimated by Stalin’s purges; he, Abramov, suspects there is an anti-Jewish pogrom going on which might affect them both. The only protection he can offer Szara is to go officially on the payroll of the NKVD.

And so Szara undergoes spy training and then is sent to Paris to run the OPAL network, as well as manage ‘product’ from Herr Baumann and his German military secrets.

And so this 70-page section is about the nuts and bolts and personnel of the network of agents Szara runs in Paris, with a side responsibility for messages from Baumann in Berlin. One of the most interesting elements is that his control, based in Belgium, is the same Ilia Goldman who played such a large part in the first novel, Night Soldiers, here shown as an epitome of efficiency and professionalism.

The focal point of the section is a big stake-out he and operatives carry out after a tip-off from an agent who has taken a lover who works in a German liaison office. They arrange a meeting place for a VIP German visiting Paris, then stake it out and take photos. To Sazara’s amazement the man meeting the Nazi turns out to be a senior NKVD officer, Derzhani. What? Why?

After the VIPs have their meeting, our guys wrap up the surveillance and think they are getting away safely, when a slick car draws alongside driven by the security men who’d accompanied the Nazi. There is a car chase through the streets of Paris – for a moment they think they’ve lost the Germans and Szara alights at a remote Métro station, but moments later the car he was in is rammed by the pursuing Nazis and his agent, Sénéschal, killed. Back at the office he develops the 11 precious prints of the meeting, which Sénéschal died for. What the devil does it mean? Who is the Nazi, obviously a big wig? And what is a senior NKVD director doing in Paris without him or Goldman being told, and why is he meeting a Nazi? Szara hides the prints and tells no-one.

In the previous section, after he hid the Okhrana files, Szara was unnerved to hear an acquaintance at a cocktail party in Paris jokingly refer to the story – that Stalin was a Tsarist agent – in front of an American magazine editor, Herbert Hull. A continent away, months and many other incidents, later, Hull is invited from New York out for a country party with the kind of liberal intellectuals he knows, the Mays. After a day’s healthy activities, they have a lovely diner, then chat about politics and literature in front of a nice log fire, and Hull casually mentions the story about Stalin being a spy – ‘oh, that old one’, his host replies – but Hull goes on that he met someone in Europe who had some kind of evidence to back it up, and so he’s drafted an article on the subject. Days later his magazine offices are burned down, all proofs, all the furniture, files and records burned to ashes, and the gallon drum which fuelled it placed in the middle of the floor. Hull gets the message, his little magazine folds, and he soon gets a job with one of the New York glossies and forgets about the Okhrana story.

This anecdote is hugely thought-provoking, making the reader realise that the viper’s nest of espionage which the competing powers created in Europe extended far beyond its shores. Will this incident contribute somehow to the overall narrative or will it, like so many in Night Soldiers, simply add to the atmosphere of tension and paranoia, and to the sense of panorama – the fearful sense that similar incidents, spying, betrayals and deceits are happening all across the world…

3. The Iron Exchange

Szara meets Sergei Abramov on a deserted beach in Denmark, shows him the photos of the stakeout. Abramov says they can be interpreted in a score of ways; more importantly, he fills him in on latest developments in Moscow, namely Yezhov has been overthrown as head of the NKVD, replaced by Beria, one of the Georgian khvost. Along with Yezhov went his wife and any intellectuals or writers close to him, for example Isaac Babel. They speculate on how much of an anti-semitic pogrom it is – but then non-Jews disappear too, all the time.

Abramov tells Szara his stock is not high, to recover respect he must go in person to Berlin and tell Baumann to give more information, compromising information, about all the other board members and managers of his steel mill (because the apparat clearly expects Baumann to be done away with like all the other German Jews and wants to identify his successor).

So Szara goes to Berlin. He stays at the Hotel Adlon but is very keen to meet up again with Marta Haecht the young woman he slept with on his last visit. When he gets in touch, amazingly – in this world of dead and disappearing people – she is still alive and they meet up and they resume their relationship exactly as before, with her posing in silk underwear, whispering naughty words in his ear and play acting sex frolics. Ie they create a super-sensual world of their own in the disused apartment of an artist in the old Iron Exchange, a half derelict building in Berlin.

On a first meeting Baumann, in his home, refuses to tell more information about his firm, so Szara gets permission for a second go, which is a more elaborate rendezvous at a synagogue after hours in a Berlin suburb. They’ve barely begun negotiating when they hear a mob chanting and singing, which turns out to be Nazis who attack, ransack and set the synagogue on fire. Terrified, Baumann and Szara only just manage to escape undetected onto the roof of a nearby shed, wait till the crowd marches drunkenly off, then make their way back to the NKVD driver who’d waited for them.

What we have just witnessed is part of Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, the infamous night when the Nazis organised gangs to ransack and attack synagogues and Jewish businesses across Germany, supposedly in ‘revenge’ for the assassination of a Nazi diplomat in Paris by a young Jew. Szara drops Baumann back at his house and returns to his lovers’ apartment at the Iron Exchange deeply shaken.

There are numerous other plot strands and events, in this and each of the sections, but this is by far the most dramatic of  this part. This novel, more so than Night Soldiers, feels deeply involved with history, in fact several of the sections are divided into sub-sections marked with specific dates and explanations of key incidents in the countdown to war, so that we – like the characters – are hurtled along by the terrifying pace of events.

During this trip he briefly meets Nadia Tscherova, heavy drinking actress in Berlin, code name RAVEN head of a sub-network for OPAL, who turns out to be the sister of Colonel Alexander Vonets aka Sascha, who played such a large role, especially in the climax of Night Soldiers (though obviously Szara doesn’t know that).

Having failed to get more information out of Baumann, in fact having to doubt whether the information he is giving is actually correct, having reunited with Marta but realised she is not as innocent as he first thought, having worked with a sarcastic fellow journalist Vainshtok to file some innocuous cover stories, and having witnessed terrible scenes of Jews being humiliated all across Germany, Szara finally concludes his mission and takes the train back to Paris.

Here he is debriefed by his control, Goldman, a presence throughout the text, receives messages from other agents and resumes the running of the OPAL network, in among which he receives an invitation to a very up-market Parisian club, the Renaissance Club. The opulence of serious wealth, unobtrusive waiters, leather chairs. In a private room he is greeted by Joseph de Montfried, from one of the wealthiest families in France.

Their conversation brings the bubbling issue of the Jews to the fore in the novel. We’ve known from the start that Szara is a Jew from Poland, who has had a continuous trickle of memories from his brutal youth (the pogroms, beatings and murders of Jews there – in the synagogue he remembers details of ceremonies including the ceremony for cleansing a raped woman – a common occurrence). Goldman his control, is a Jew. General Bloch who interviews him on a train in the first section, is a Jew. And the man who debriefed him in the old days when he was just a journalist, who suggested he enrol as a full-time agent, and who still meets him from time to time, Abramov, is a Jew. The whole novel is set against the unfolding nightmare of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, while back in Moscow Stalin’s purges continue to gobble up huge numbers of people, many of whom are Jews so that Abramov and Szara speculate whether one element of the purges is a covert pogrom.

It is in this atmosphere that de Montfried launches on a long passage of historical exposition, an encyclopedia-style explanation of the background to the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the ongoing issue of Jewish emigration to Palestine. Briefly, the British have limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to a tiny quota based on official emigration certificates; de Montfried wonders, in a polite and lofty way, whether Szara can obtain any. Szara’s NKVD straitjacket is chafing. He is sickened by events around him. He promises to do what he can.

Out of the blue Abramov orders Szara to meet him in Switzerland and bring an unusual amount of money. At the office appears Maltsaev, a slick unpleasant operative from Moscow, who is to accompany him and the money. We know that Maltsaev is the angel of death – in Night Soldiers he brought word to Kulic in the mountains that he had to execute some of his own partisan group. And so it is here – after a hair-raising drive to the village where Abramov is holding out, the latter bolts at the sight of Maltsaev, making it half way across a snowy meadow before he is gunned down.

Szara conceals all emotion, even as they bury the body, but his mind is racing. He speculates that Abramov must have shown people the photos taken in the garden in Paris of the secret meeting, maybe in some kind of power play that failed and rebounded on him. Hence the flight and execution. Maltsaev cordially tells Szara that he thinks he, too, should have met Abramov’s fate, but orders from high up were to preserve him. Shaken, Szara returns to Paris.

4. The Renaissance Club

Szara has become an habitué of the Bar Heininger. This is just one in a whole series of jolts of recognition to the reader who has read Night Soldiers, because a surprising number of characters, incidents and locations from the first book crop up throughout this one. The first time it happened was childishly exciting, the second time exciting – this is the 6th or 7th strong overlap, following hot on the heels of Maltsaev and complementing the persistent presence of Goldman as Szara’s immediate boss, the same Goldman who played such a pivotal role in Night Soldiers.

These aren’t coincidences, the two texts interpenetrate at multiple levels in numerous places via quite a few characters and this slowly changes your perception. These are the same sort of people, in the same profession, living through the same historical period; it comes to seem inevitable that there will be a lot of overlap.

So the reader of Night Soldiers remembers that the Bar Heininger was where Khristo hid out after fleeing from Civil War Spain, and where three hoodlums arrived one night with machine guns to shoot the place up and assassinate the head waiter, Omaraeff, because of his involvement in a hit on a Soviet diplomat. As a cynic predicted at the time, this bit of underworld violence has made the place more fashionable than ever and now – two years later in 1939 – Szara routinely hangs out there to play up his ‘cover’ role of high-visibility Pravda journalist.

Among the innumerable exiles and counts and princesses and poets and playwrights to be found in the Bar every night is the posh, promiscuous Lady Angela Hope. She invites Szara to a private dinner at Fouquet’s, for which he makes a big effort to press his suit and buy a new shirt. After some brief flirting, there is a knock at the door and they are joined by Roger Fitzware (who is an agent of British Intelligence; he appeared in Night Soldiers where he tried to recruit Khristo and, angry at being rebuffed, suggested to French intelligence that they lock him up).

Now Fitzware tries to recruit Szara and Szara lets him, but at a price. He offers information about German steel wire production (the ‘product’ from Baumann in Berlin), but to be paid for with emigration certificates to Palestine. They haggle and settle on 500 certificates per batch of Baumann information. Szara is sickened, but cold; this is the world he lives in.

Much else happens. One of the OPAL operatives, a prostitute, passes on the briefcase of a German officer which is full of Polish phrasebooks for fellow Wehrmacht officers. Goldman appals Szara by giving him advance warning that Stalin is about to make a pact with Hitler. In May 1939 Molotov replaces Litvinov as Soviet Foreign Minister, a signal to the alert that Soviet foreign policy will be conciliatory to Germany (and Litvinov was a Jew, difficult for the Nazis to respect).

Szara is sent on an official assignment for Pravda to Poland just days after the Nazi-Soviet Pact is announced 23 August 1939. Thus he is on a sleepy provincial train trundling towards Lvov when it is dive-bombed by a Stuka, the first he or any of the passengers know that Germany has invaded. Recovering from blast injuries in hospital he is called to the office of a Polish officer, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Vyborg (p.278) who from that point keeps Szara at his side as they set off on the journey to Lvov and find themselves caught up in the German advance, witnessing the Germans fording the river River Dunajec under Polish artillery fire from close up, and on into a gruelling eye-witness account of the Polish Army’s defeat and retreat over the next 30 pages, so packed with incident, vignettes, walk-on characters and vivid scenes, they could almost be the basis of a novel by themselves.

5. Poste Restante

The final eighty pages are among the most exciting and dazzling I’ve ever read. Szara is recovering in a spa hotel near Lvov which has been taken over by diplomatic personnel from all countries fleeing the fighting when NKVD arrive and start processing everyone. This includes the angel of death, Maltsaev who, in a gripping moment, after interviewing Szara in one of the pools in the basement casually asks him to go ahead of him up the spiral staircase. There is a cinematic moment as Szara refuses and says, No, after you to Maltsaev who also refuses. there is a standoff for a few long seconds then Szara pulls his gun and shoots Maltsaev once, then again, drags his body to a cubicle and hides it. He has burned his bridges. He is now a fugitive.

He clutches the briefcase which contains  his false documents and walks calmly down the steps and into one of the parked cars of the NKVD officers, starts the engine and drives off before anyone can stop him. There follow three paranoid, intense days north through Poland to Lithuania, avoiding the invading German army to the West and Russian army to the East. He in fact makes it safely to Kovno where he finds tens of thousands of refugees ahead of him and no places available on any of the boats leaving the port for months.

After days selling the car then other valuables to feed himself, and after scary encounters with possible NKVD agents or plain thugs, he takes another approach when he hears the Germans are evacuating ethnic Germans back to the Fatherland. He pays a lot of money to a Lithuanian criminal to get the passport of a German man dying in a local hospital and have his photo pasted into it, and then undertakes the terrifying experience of being processed onto one of the Volkdeutsch repatriation boats at Riga. The journey gives him the chance to see the Germans up close, their inferiority complex coming out as anger. They are poisoned with themselves, he thinks, these monsters at the heart of Europe.

But his plan to slip away once the boat arrives in Hamburg underestimate German efficiency, as all the Volkdeutsch are corralled off the boat and onto a train taking them to Berlin for a triumphant rally. At the station Szara does, finally, manage to give officials the slip and rings the only person he trusts in Berlin, the agent Nadia Tscherova. Something clicked the first time they met and now there is an extraordinary interlude, for he finds her the mistress of a German general (away in Poland) set up in an astonishingly opulent mansion. Here she gives him a good bath, a good shave, a good meal and then there is some characteristically Furstian championship sex, deep and sensuous, with role playing and hard words before they collapse exhausted in bed. In the middle of a continent gone mad, there is time for pleasure, for the life of the senses, for poetry, for delight.

After several days he must move on, clean shaven and well dressed but in fact is picked up by the Gestapo an hour after leaving Nadia’s house, as he tries to board a train and finds an alert is out for his stolen passport. There are tense scenes in Columbia House, Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, and a lot of very intelligent insight into the psychology of interrogation, in light of which Szara comes clean about his full identity to the officer interrogating him, who is now worried to have such a high profile Russian prisoner on his hands at such a fraught political moment.

Thus it is that footsteps come clanking down the cold corridor to his cell and he is yanked out of his room and dragged to another room where we are fully expecting him to be beaten to death, but instead is presented with a wobbly character wearing a uniform over his pyjama trousers, released into his custody, ushered into his car and driven for hours into the remote hills where they pull up at an inn. Inside is Herbert van Polanyi who now gets a long speech of exposition.

Turns out von Polanyi is a senior official in the Foreign Ministry, still largely run by the kind of landed aristocrats Hitler and his gang despise. He was ‘running’ Baumann all along, deliberately getting him to feed Szara the steel production figures. the reason why leads to a long explanation of the political relationship between Russia and Germany, of their co-operation throughout the 1920s, the setback of Hitler’s election, but then the way both dictators came to understand each other. It is a long and fascinating and intelligent analysis. I haven’t brought out how intelligent the continual presence of Furst’s analyses of situations, of geopolitics for the micro to the macro scale, are, throughout these books.

Von Polanyi recognises Szara as a professional who has now become rootless, he is a man without a country. He is going to set him free on the understanding that he may be able to do them all a service and prevent Europe falling to a Hitler-Stalin tyranny. They shake on it and his man drives Szara to the Swiss border.

There then follows an intensely described section where Szara goes seriously underground, into the criminal underworld of Budapest, Athens, Smyrna. He begs, he is beaten up, he thieves, he loses weight, grows a moustache, gains a permanent scar, changes the man he is, ending up washing pots for a woman restaurant owner in Turkey, finding peace or oblivion on a straw mattress on an old door in a filthy cellar, where, in his little spare time, he writes out a full account of everything that happened to him and tries to piece together how the conspiracies he was involved in played their part in the collapse of civilisation.

When, in May 1940, he reads that the Germans have invaded France, he shakes the Turkish woman by the hand, shaves and presents himself at the docks as a patriotic Frenchman ready to do his duty, and as such is welcomed aboard a steamer setting off for Marseilles, and welcomed there as a hero. He makes his way across southern France and back to Switzerland for where he contacts his super-rich contact in Paris, de Montfried. He is cabled money which allows him to rent an apartment and begin planning. He makes wide contacts and does background research until he thinks he has identified an NKVD network. Then he contacts von Polyani, saying he is ready to go to work.

The funny little man who liberated him from Columbia House meets him in Zurich and hands him an envelope. Within are half a dozen nuggets of information suggesting Germany is planning to invade the Soviet Union, up to an including the operation codename, Barbarossa. The new thin, moustachioed, scarred Szara will feed this information to the NKVD network. He will use the skills he has acquired for good; he will alert the Russians to the coming invasion, he will prevent the triumph of evil.

The final act in the book is the fruition of his love affair with Nadia Tscherova. The little man took back to Berlin a message for her and a few weeks later, Szara is waiting at the Swiss border as a plush Mercedes crosses it with no questions asked. Half a kilometer down the road it stops as agreed. He rushes to open the door and into his arms comes his love, Nadia’s drive to freedom paralleling her brother Sascha’s escape to freedom at the end of Night Soldiers and the image of lovers embracing after long separation also ending both books.


Overlapping characters

  • Ilya Goldman trains at the NKVD academy in Arbat Street along with Khristo in Night Soldiers, and plays a key role in the narrative, saving Khristo’s life and freeing his kidnapped lover.
  • We learn (to our shock) that it was Goldman who organised the abduction of Khristo’s lover, Aleksandra, in Night Soldiers.
  • General Bloch aka Yaschyeritsa or the Lizard, subjects Szara to an intimidating interview on a train in the first section. He is the same General that Khristo found himself begging for his life to in NS.
  • Nadia Tscherova in a big coincidence is sister to Colonel Vonets aka Sascha, who plays such a large role, especially in the climax of Night Soldiers.
  • Maltsaev is a bringer of orders to execute in Night Soldiers and here. We are glad to see him shot dead.
  • Roger Fitzware, MI6 man, plays a small but key role in both books, suggesting Khristo’s arrest and imprisonment in Night Soldiers and recruiting Szara for MI6 in Dark Star, so that Baumann’s information is shared with British Intelligence.

1. Overlapping characters like this give a sense, not exactly of verisimilitude – surely the world isn’t this small – but of a graspable fictional universe. There is something gleefully childish about recognising this character from that scene and discovering, ‘Oh, so that’s what happened to them.’

2. It occurs to me that another aspect of having so many recurrent figures is a dramatic irony, that we readers often know the past or future of a character which everyone in the fiction doesn’t. a) That’s standard dramatic irony, but b) it also reinforces the atmosphere of endless smoke and mirrors in the bewildering world of espionage, the sense of multiple levels, in fact a never-ending maze of levels, of secrecy, of characters never knowing what becomes of each other.

Sensuality

In among the densely described and densely analysed historical background and the complex mesh of conspiracies, are islands of tremendous sensuality. In Ostend Szara visits a nightclub where the showgirls came prancing out wearing zebra masks and nothing else, whinnying and shaking their bums at the male customers. Szara takes one of them back to his hotel room. Later he has a one-night-stand with the shy young Fräulein he meets at the dinner at Herr Baumann’s, and then is haunted by the memroy until he can see her again months later. These encounters are described with great lyricism and sensuality.

When I read The Polish Officer years ago, I thought Furst’s sensuality was a little over-ripe. Now I see it as a congruent part of the fantasy of these novels. All the historical accuracy in the world, all the paragraphs explaining the NKVD and Comintern and Red Army purges, can’t conceal the poetic power of the prose, which is permanently striving for lyrical description. The sensuous sex scenes are just a fragment of the larger lyrical sensibility, a poet’s sensibility seared by the brutalities of the 20th century.

It snowed on the night of the sixth, and by the time Szara and Maltsaev left the Gare de Lyon on the seventh of February the fields and villages of France were still and white. The nineteenth century, Szara thought with longing: a pair of frost-coated dray horses pulling a cart along a road, a girl in a stocking cap skating on a pond near Melun. The sky was dense and swollen; sometimes a flight of crows circled over the snow-covered fields. (p.223)

Note that it is not a poetic use of language – Martin Cruz Smith is my prose poet of the moment, a man who can bring off unexpected and miraculous turns of phrase. Furst’s language is plainer, Furst’s is a poetry of perception: the poetry is in the selection of detail which gives his prose the power of a certain kind of realist painting. On almost every page there is finely perceived detailing which brings to life the scores of minor characters which bristle throughout the narrative.

The owner was a Hungarian, a no-nonsense craftsman in a smock, his hands hard and knotted from years of cutting and stitching leather. (p.255)

He leaned out the window and peered down to find the old woman looking up at him from the yard. She stood, with the aid of a stick, like a small, sturdy pyramid, wearing sweaters and jackets on top, broad skirts below. Her dogs, a big brown one and a little black and white one, stood by her side and stared up at him as well. (p.269)

Vyborg’s driver was a big sergeant with close-cropped hair, a lion-tamer’s moustache, and a veinous, lumpy nose that was almost purple. He swore under his breath without pause, swinging the big car around obstacles, bouncing through the fields when necessary, hewing a path through the wheatfields. (p.281)

No special words or magical phrasing. It is the density of fully imagined detail, and the wealth of fully imagined people, places, scenes and events which fill the narrative to overflowing, which give this book its breath-taking and epic quality.


Credit

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst was published in 1988 by The Bodley Head. All quotes and references are to the 1998 HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe.
1995 The Polish Officer
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in Franceen

Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)

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

Robert Harris

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

Fatherland

In 1992 Harris took the publishing world by storm when he published his first novel, Fatherland, set in an alternative world where Germany has won the Second World War. The two big turning points in this version of history were that:

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

Now:

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

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

Xavier March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris’s style

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

The comedy of alternative history

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

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

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

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

The Holocaust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

Robert Harris’s novels

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2003 Pompeii (set in the ancient world)
2006 Imperium (set in the ancient world)
2007 The Ghost
2009 Lustrum (set in the ancient world)
2011 The Fear Index
2013 An Officer and a Spy
2015 Dictator (set in the ancient world)

Charity by Len Deighton (1996)

‘You don’t like any of your old friends these days, Bernie. What’s happened to you? Why are you so caustic? Why so suspicious of everything and everyone?’
‘Am I? Well I’m not the only one afflicted with that,’ I said. ‘There is an epidemic of suspicion and distrust. It’s contagious. We are all in its grip: you, me, Fiona, Gloria and the whole Department…’ (p.183)

This is the tenth and final novel in Deighton’s series about 40-something SIS agent, Bernard Samson, his wife and family and the small group of friends and colleagues who have shared his trials and tribulations for the previous nine novels and the 10 or so years they cover (1977 to 1988).

As usual for the series, the story is told in a straightforward chronological way by Bernard himself in a first-person narrative, very much from his (limited) point of view, and in his own dry, sardonic voice. It’s divided into roughly three subject areas: straightforward espionage or spy episodes; family matters; office politics.

Spy stories

The novel opens dramatically with Bernard accompanying a very ill colleague, Jim Prettyman, back from Moscow on the Moscow-to-Paris train, along with a qualified nurse. Bernard notices the nurse fondling a pretty brooch and asks to have a look; she says Prettyman gave it to her and Bernard recognises it as having belonged to his dead sister-in-law, Tessa.

As the train trundles over the shabby, frozen border into Poland, Bernard is taken aside by Polish Security Police for questioning, and mournfully watches the train pull off without him. For the next week he is kept in an unheated cell in a fortress-cum-barracks and intensively questioned about his role in the abduction of George Kosinski and the related shooting of Polish security agents. These events had formed the dramatic climax of the previous book, Hope and Bernard is guilty as hell of everything they accuse him of, but sticks to his cover story that he is a German businessman. Although he is quite badly beaten up, he knows it is nothing compared to what they could do and sure enough, after a week, he is driven back to the station and placed on the next Moscow to Paris express. They know he knows they know he did it; but someone somewhere has ordered his release. Why was he arrested? Why was he released? It is never explained. It is an example of the puzzling randomness of the way things work in the Communist bloc…

Family matters

The Samson books are as much about families as about spying. The central event of the entire series was the revelation that Bernard’s wife, clever Oxford-educated Fiona, was a double agent working for the KGB and her hurried flight to the East, with Bernard close on her tail. This fills the first three books. In the second trilogy Bernard slowly realises Fiona has in fact been working for us all along and, after her absence of three years working as a double agent in the East, Bernard plays a big part in helping her escape back to the West.

But a) during the escape Fiona’s sister, Tessa, is shot dead b) during her long absence Bernard has fallen in love with an SIS colleague half his age, Gloria Kent. Although Fiona’s mission was part of long-term plans to undermine the East German government by supporting dissident civil society groups, it is also, on another level, a story about a man whose wife betrays and deserts him. Thus the domestic and emotional impact of Fiona’s desertion, not only on Samson but on his children, her sister and brother-in-law and on her father, are all described at length and repeatedly, in long conversations, at lunches, drinks or dinners.

In fact, the novels contain hundreds of pages which are devoted to the dinner parties and drinks parties and Sunday lunches at Fiona and Bernard’s house or George and Tessa Kosinski’s flat, or at Dicky Cruyer’s place or at Leith Hill in Fiona’s father’s luxury pile, or out in the Cotswolds at the rambling old farmhouse, Whitelands, belonging to the Department’s creepy eminence grise, Silas Gaunt.

A lot of narrative time is spent admiring the fixtures and fittings of various abodes, complimenting the wine and the cooking, being shown holiday snaps or latest additions to collections of swords or antique cars or oil paintings or vintage wine. A LOT of time is spent discussing how Bernard’s two children, Billy and Sally, are getting on at their prep school, with their private tutors in French and Maths, in the school soccer team, what presents they’re being bought for Christmas or their birthdays, and so on.

And this cosy, companionable family-ness, its domesticity, is one of the appeals of the series. It extends beyond England to Germany where so much of the action is set, to the run-down hotel in Berlin kept by old Tante Lisl, where Bernard grew up as a boy and where the shabby attic room is always kept for him; it includes his chats, sometimes about work, sometimes about family matters, with his oldest school-friend, shady businessman and sometime Department contractor Werner Volkmann, and his trouble with women (his two wives, Ingrid or Zena).

Also there are endless repeats of the scene in the office of Frank Harrington, long-time Head of the Berlin Office of the SIS, who plays with his smelly old pipe or shuffles his collection of vintage jazz records, while Bernard tells him yet another far-fetched interpretation of the latest perplexing plot twists. Here’s Frank fiddling with his beloved Dunhill pipe, accompanied by a dash of Deightonian humour:

He was smoking happily now, poking at his pipe bowl with the blade of a penknife, and attending to every strand of burning tobacco with all the loving care of a locomotive engineer. Or a dedicated arsonist. (p.171)

Office politics

The third element is the endless jockeying for position, promotion and office which goes on inside ‘the Department’. On an almost continual basis the entire cast of characters can, at the drop of a hat, start speculating about who will replace the gaga old Director-General, who will get the Deputy DG job, is Fiona in with a chance? Will it be Bernard’s slick superficial boss, Dicky Cruyer? Or will he be blocked by the much smarter but older American, Bret Rensselaer? And so on.

Since both Fiona (once she’s returned) and even Samson, are qualified, in their different ways, for promotion, many of their conversations (once she’s returned to the West) move easily between discussion of family affairs, into details of various spy operations – especially as the central plot rotates about Bernard’s wife and then, after her escape, about the true fate of his sister-in-law, Tessa – and both bleed into the office politics, as the success or failure of various plans and operations boosts or hinders the key players’ various hopes for advancement and promotion.

Each of the novels contains a canny mix of these three threads which are each, in their different ways, equally absorbing though, for me, the distinctive feature of the entire series, is the time and attention paid to domestic arrangements. You don’t catch James Bond fussing about what’s for dinner tonight or who’s going to buy little Billy’s birthday present.

The plot

After being released by the Poles (why was he arrested and beaten, why was he released?) the scene cuts to Bernard (still rather bruised) and Fiona staying at her father’s luxury pile near Leith Hill, Surrey. It is just into the new year of 1988 (the previous novel, Hope ended on Christmas Eve 1987) so only a few weeks after Bernard had virtually kidnapped his brother-in-law (revealed as being a spy for the Polish secret police) out of Poland and smuggled him back to the UK to be interrogated and maybe charged with treason. At the end of the previous novel we had also seen Gloria and Bernard going to bed in what seemed to crystallise his choice of her over his wife, Fiona. Which makes this scene where he is docilely accompanying his wife to his father-in-law’s house a little puzzling. Bernard is seriously confused about which of these two beautiful women he really loves…

At Leith Hill the father-in-law, David Kimber-Hutchinson, holds a big dinner party where the guests discuss political developments of 1987-8 ie Chancellor Kohl inviting Honecker to the West, along with the political and economic situation in the East. Later, Fiona explains in some detail to Bernard the way money is being channeled into East Germany in numerous sophisticated attempts to undermine the regime. (These kind of geopolitical discussions are relatively rare in the books: when they occur it is pretty obviously to provide the rationale for the entire plot ie that Fiona ‘defected’ in order to establish contact with civil society groups in the East who could destabilise the regime, and that that plot is working. Ie they exist to justify all the time and effort spent on the Fiona Plot.)

To his astonishment, Fiona’s father broaches the ludicrous suggestion that George tried to kill him; he had a headache in Poland and George gave him some local headache tablets which David kept and then, back in England, fed to the family cat who promptly died. Bernard listens respectfully, thinking what a melodramatic old queen his father-in-law is. David goes on to explain his presence in a photo of George in Warsaw that so startled Bernard in the previous novel, when he was shown it, as simply being a result of having been invited out there to help George locate Tess, Fiona’s sister. (For a while this photo had been a loose thread, leaving us wondering whether the father-in-law was involved some scam, as almost everyone else in the family has been. But no. Shame, actually…)

Bernard is confirmed as deputy to Frank Harrington, Head of the Berlin Office. Frank knew Bernard’s dad and promised to look after young Bernie, so they’ve always had a close nephew-and-uncle relationship, with Bernard amused by Frank’s endless fussing with his pipe, his string of unsuitable affairs, and his canny way of avoiding trouble.

Bernard drives out to Whitelands, Silas Gaunt’s rambling farmhouse in the Cotswolds. Here he discovers Gaunt is packing up and moving into sheltered accommodation as he has recently been diagnosed as too ill to keep up the house. Bernard makes sympathetic noises but extracts from Silas a reluctant confession that he knew about the cock-up over Tessa’s shooting; but Silas insists he had out-sourced the whole thing to the Americans, it was their decision to hire Thurkettle, nothing to do with us, old chap etc. He provides the familiar rationalisation that we had to make the opposition think Fiona was dead, at whatever cost, otherwise they would immediately have changed all their codes and procedures and ‘Fiona’s years of courage and jeopardy would have been in vain.’ (p.82)

Bernard meets ‘the Swede’ downstairs in a second-hand bookshop in Charing Cross Road. The Swede is in fact a former Luftwaffe pilot (his back story is given with typical Deightonian thoroughness and historical detail on pages 90 and 91). We met him in the previous novel when he flew in to Poland and picked up Bernard and his brother-in-law George at the book’s exciting climax.

a) The Swede reveals he was on standby to fly Jim Prettyman out of Germany on the night of the famous Tessa shooting. He had been commissioned to bring in a secret box file, though Prettyman never turned up to collect it. b) Bernard asks him if he can do a mission for him, Bernard. The Swede guesses what it is. Bernard wants to kidnap his two children from the care of his smothering, smug father-in-law, collect dishy young Gloria and have the Swede fly them to Ireland, where Bernard will arrange flights on to South America, somewhere with no extradition treaty. The Swede says it is a bonkers idea but he’ll do it. The whole mad scheme shows us that, despite performing his spousal duties with Fiona, his heart is still with Gloria…

Bernard is panicked to receive a phone call from his son’s school saying his son’s school bus has overturned and there are some injuries. (In the previous novel a character had pointed out that the KGB always take revenge on those who betrayed them, giving the example of a double agent who was given a new identity in the States, but whose family the KGB tracked down and assassinated one by one. What if the same happens to Fiona, because of her super betrayal? Once this worry has been planted, it allows Deighton to scare us with of happenings like this, which make us think maybe the novel will be ‘about’ the KGB’s revenge.)

In the event his son Billy hadn’t even been on the bus. Bernard had driven down there with Gloria, who’d given him the message at work, and this gives her an opportunity to tell him a few home truths: that he doesn’t know his children any more, they’ve grown away from him; for her to pour scorn on his ludicrous proposal to run off with the kids; and they end the journey back to London with a blazing row. Hmm. His plan of starting a new life with her and the kids not going so well, then. As he gets out of her car he leans down to apologise but Gloria, very angry, drives off…

Next day Bernard drives to Berwick House where George Kosinski – Bernard’s brother-in-law who he had revealed to be a spy in the previous novel – is being kept and interrogated. The interrogation is getting nowhere and Bernard has been ordered down there to have a go himself. But a) he finds George feeling cocky enough to turn the tables and threaten Bernard, saying he has enough evidence to prove that Bernard wanted Tessa killed, which b) makes Bernard so angry he grabs George and shouts in his face. It also makes him realise, on the journey home, that George is small fry; he may have reported tittle-tattle back to the Polish security services but he wasn’t a planner or a doer. MI5, who are holding him, will probably release him on condition he scuttles back to Zurich and keeps stumm.

On the way back Bernard and his Special Branch driver stop at a pub for a drink. In the loos Bernard is attacked by two heavies and, because he happens to have a gun on him, first uses it to hit them hard in the face and arm, then steps back, brandishing it, to stop the fight. They say it wasn’t him, it’s the Swede they’re after. Bernard sends them packing and gives his Special Branch bodyguard, still sitting happily at the bar, a flea in the ear for completely failing to help him.

Later that night, at home with Fiona after discussing George’s likely fate, there’s a call and Bernard is summoned to jump into a waiting car and taken to a derelict house in south London. Here, in the garage, he finds the body of the Swede, dead, with his skull crudely staved in by a hammer. There is some colourful description of the Special Branch and MI5 officers attending, namely one ‘Squeaky’ King and the fractious relationship between ‘Five’ and the Department. No indication who murdered the Swede, and Bernard doesn’t know why anyone should. There goes his scheme of flying to Ireland. Gloria is angry with him and the Swede is dead…

Bernard is then summoned to a meeting with Bret Rensselaer (now acting Deputy Director-General), Dicky Cruyer, Head of Ops, and the D-G himself, fussing over his ancient Labrador and, in a running gag, never able to remember Bernard’s name, this time calling him Simson. But beyond the jokes they reveal they knew the Swede was going to be killed. It was done by a hitman from Dresden. They had to let it go ahead otherwise it would have blown the agent who informed them. Bernard is appalled. The reader is appalled.

Back in Berlin, Bernard is visited by Cindy Prettyman, Jim’s first wife. In an earlier novel she had been fairly innocent and inoffensive. Here she has been transformed into a harridan who swears at Bernard a lot and wants him to get rid of the security box her ex-husband dumped in her office and asked her to look after last year, at the time of the Tessa Fiasco. Bernard is left wondering: was Cindy involved in the murder? What is the significance of this security box? Has it got money in it, the payoff for Thurkettle, something valuable to Prettyman?

Once again in Frank’s office Bernard watches the old man tap the window and look out at the snow while Bernard tells him what he’s been doing for Dicky. There’s a fuss about some old uranium mines over in the East. It’s coming in a bit late in the story, but could this be what the novel’s ‘about’? Could there be a surprise twist where it all turns out to be about getting our hands on commie uranium or preventing them using it to make nuclear weapons?

Bernard meets Werner at the derelict Tegel airport on the edge of West Berlin to review the story so far. To his surprise he finds Werner going back over the night of the shooting and asking Bernard how he’s so certain of his memories: maybe, in all the confusion, he shot Tessa? What? It feels like every possible logical combination is being wrung from this one tragic event, which happened four whole books ago. The reader is becoming a bit impatient.

Bernard motors out to meet Jim Prettyman. Years ago Jim, his wife Cindy, Fiona and Bernard were friends, playing pool in a bar near the office. But Jim was into statistics and his skills got him a job in the States where he changed his name to Jay and got married to a new wife, Tabby, with useful State Department connections (divorcing the now-embittered Cindy). Now he’s terminally ill and Tabby’s looking after him in a house near Heathrow.

In his sick room there is a big confrontation scene where Bernard and Jim exchange conflicting versions of what happened the night Tessa died. Prettyman agrees that Thurkettle, the ex-CIA man, was hired by Silas Gaunt to do the hit. He even claims he arranged a meeting between Silas – who he describes as completely crazy – and Thurkettle in London the preceding week. That night it was Thurkettle who shot Tessa, cut off her head and switched it for the head containing dental work replicating Fiona’s, in order to fool the KGB, and then set fire to the car – this was all Gaunt’s plan, but Jim (like the reader) thinks it was pretty stupid – a car fire wouldn’t burn a body sufficiently to hide its essential features; they might just notice her head had been mysteriously cut off.

But Jim denies killing Thurkettle, saying he arrived at the meeting spot primed to pay him to find him already dead. The plan had been to take Thurkettle on to a plane and fly him back to England but when he found a corpse, he rifled its pockets, found the brooch (the brooch he later gave the nurse in chapter one) among other things, and left. Bernard goes off wondering how much of this is true.

— For the reader the point is that Bernard now more or less knows the truth of what happened. He doesn’t seem particularly upset about it and, because we readers learned all this three books ago, it doesn’t come as much surprise to us either. As we enter the last 75 pages of the entire series, I wondered whether there was going to be some final Twist and Surprise that would make us sit up and gasp.

Chapter 10 An Autobahn exit. The German Democratic Republic Bernard and Werner drive along the Autobahn to the exit where Prettyman told him he rendevoused with Thurkettle on the Fateful Night. They find two East German farmers working in a field and who, with a little Western money, remember the camper van being parked there for a few days on the night. When they’re shown to the exact spot, Bernard and Werner find the remains of a motorbike concealed in a ditch and then, a bit further along, Thurkettle’s corpse, rotted and eaten away. Bernard locates the bullet holes in Thurkettle’s coat and then the gun Thurkettle was shot with. Beneath the corpse is a bag of dollars, Thurkettle’s payment for the hit. Yes: all the evidence is here confirming the story he’s pieced together.

Werner hurries him along and back into the car – it is strictly illegal to drive off the Autobahn in the East, and being found in possession of a gun and corpse! They’d be locked away forever. As they drive back into the West in a sleet storm Bernard puts his last question to Werner: Was it him who supplied Prettyman with the gun he used to shoot Thurkettle? Werner refuses to answer in such a way that Bernard knows he’s correct.

Pretty much the whole secret is out now. Tessa is dead; she was killed by an ex-CIA hitman on orders from SIS high-ups, notably creepy Silas Gaunt; Prettyman was the middle man who organised logistics then shot Thurkettle to assure his silence (why? Thurkettle was a pro; he’d have kept stumm anyway); Werner played a small part in supplying the gun. ‘Well done, Bernard,’ says Werner. ‘You’ve pieced it all together with superhuman skill; now let it lie.’ But he can’t, of course.

Chapter 11 The SIS offices, Berlin Bret and Dicky and Gloria have flown into Berlin for a security conference. First of all Bernard accepts a report from a local officer, Larry Bowers, that proves the East German uranium mine we heard about earlier has only a minimum staff and is barely being kept open: so the novel is not going to turn out to be about that, after all. Shame, really.

— Most of this chapter is devoted to a big party Werner hosts at his new grand house out by the Wannsee. It is a really massive fancy-dress party with the theme of ‘gold’, featuring lots of diplomats, local businessmen and politicians, movers and shakers, with a live band playing 1930s dance tunes and a massive buffet feast. Bret and Dicky and Frank and Gloria and Werner and Zena are all there.

In the middle of the festivities Cindy Prettyman (who we’d learned earlier was staying with Werner) comes down the stairs, wearing only a slip, her hair dishevelled, distraught and brandishing a pistol. Bernard and Werner go slowly up the stairs towards her as she threatens first one then the other. She accuses them both of stealing the security box from her office, the security box she’d mentioned earlier to Bernard and was trying to either get rid of or possibly use as some kind of blackmail threat. Either way, it’s gone now and she is very cross about it.

Werner makes a move towards her and she shoots, winging him in the head. Bernard flings a glass at her but is beaten to it by an Army redcap who rugby tackles her, all of them falling to the bottom of the grand stairs in a big pile. Frank Harrington steps forward from the band podium to thank the Volkmanns for a novel and imaginative charade, ha ha ha, trying to present it all as a weird party entertainment, and while the spotlight is on him speaking soothing words, the bodies are swiftly cleared away.

A lot later that night Bernard is allowed into his hospital room to see Werner, who was more injured by the fall down the stairs than the shot. He admits Cindy was right to be cross; he, Werner, broke into her office earlier that day and stole the damn security box. Cindy had come to think it was valuable and the Department would either a) pay for it or b) it would be some kind of lever to help her get back into contact with her estranged husband. Now she’ll be charged with attempted murder.

Arriving back at Tante Lisl’s hotel, Bernard is handed a telegram from Prettyman’s second wife, Tabby. Jim has passed away, but before he did so he asked her to send him the message that Bernard had guessed everything correctly, that Prettyman did everything Bernard accused him of. Bernard is still not sure whether he is doing a last piece of lying to cover someone else…

Chapter 12 The SIS Residence, Berlin Bret Rensselaer chairs a meeting of Bernard, Frank and Dicky. With little preamble they go into discussing the events of the Fateful Night and integrating Bernard’s findings into what they already knew. The only new thing is that Bret is determined to blame Silas for everything; Silas became unhinged; Silas thought the Service should go beyond its traditional intelligence-gathering role into positive action, violent action if necessary. It was Silas who wanted to protect Fiona’s work by making the KGB think Fiona was dead. It was Silas who cooked up the whole cockamamie plan to make sure Thurkettle murdered Tessa, cut off her head etc, burned the car with her body in it, then motored off to meet his contact, Prettyman, who proceeded to execute him. Blame Silas. — Is that it? Is that the pay-off to the last three novels, and to the entire series?

And the security box which Werner stole from Cindy’s office? Bret says Frank’s handyman is even at this moment sawing it open in the workshop. What! No! shouts Bernard and hares off down the backstairs of Frank’s rambling house (banging into the Director-General himself who is in a secret passage listening to the meeting with headphones) running down the stairs, out into the garden, along to the workshop, seizing the handyman just as he begins drilling to the box, and pushing them both out, away and down onto the frozen ground as the workshop explodes. It was a bomb.

Bernard had suspected for some time this was the significance of the mysterious box file which had been one of the numerous threads in the novel: it was the way the Swede had confirmed it was on his plane, the one which was meant to carry Prettyman away from the Tessa Murder, which gave Bernard the clue. Thus Tessa would have been killed by Thurkettle. Thurkettle killed by Prettyman. Then Prettyman and the Swede blown up in mid-air as soon as they opened the box.

For this reader there are still a few loose ends, loose ends which could only be tied up by going back and reading the relevant section of Spy Sinker again which, to be honest, I can’t be bothered to do. Tessa’s dead. It was a dodgy plot. Palming it off on Silas just about explains it away. After a certain point – this point – I’ve stopped caring about the details.

With all the main strands of the spy plot finally resolved, there’s family life and office politics to tie up: Bret tells Bernard he has proposed to Gloria and she said Yes. (This is, to be honest, completely unbelievable. Bret, as Bernard points out, is old enough to be Gloria’s grandfather.)

Bret reminds Bernard of the personal debt Bret owes him; in one of the earlier novels Bret was suspected of himself being a mole and made his way to Berlin to the only man he knew he could trust, Bernard. Now he’ll repay the debt. Bernard will finally get a full-time contract with a pension and all the perks; Bret will do what he can to see Bernard is eventually made Head of the Berlin Office when Frank Harrington retires (which will be soon), a post which everyone has always felt he should have.

And Bret (like the fairy godmother in a nursery story) gives Bernard a third piece of news/wish come true: he gives him a long letter Fiona wrote during her recuperation which eloquently states how much she loves Bernard, that he is kinder and more sensitive than everyone realises etc. Bret explains that Fiona is only burying herself in her work because she feels rejected by Bernard. ‘Go tell her how you really feel, you schmuck.’ And so the novel ends with a decisive closing of the entire Gloria love affair and the promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

Thus the three strands – espionage, family matters and office politics – are all neatly wound up and dovetailed, with the espionage – nominally the subject of the whole series – here, as everywhere else, feeling like it’s actually the least important of the three.

Anti-climax

It is hard to resist a sense of anti-climax: endings are always difficult; it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Unlikely though it sounds, basing the three books of the first trilogy around the notion of a married spy discovering that his spouse is a double agent, does work and is gripping and interesting. Similarly, the first two novels of the second trilogy successfully plant the seed and then craftily reveal the fact that Fiona is a triple agent, pretending to work for ‘them’ but really working for ‘us’. Very clever.

But the murder of Tessa in the rainswept Autobahn roadworks on that fateful night is not, I think, an interesting enough subject to sustain this last trilogy. The second instalment, Hope, is the best of the three because it takes us to an entirely new location, Poland, which Deighton describes with trademark historical, cultural, linguistic and geographical thoroughness. And because for most of it the subject is not ‘Who killed Tessa?’ but ‘Where is George?’, which was a welcome new theme.

But this final novel is solely about ‘Who killed Tessa?’ and the crucial flaw is that in novel six – Spy Sinker – Deighton told us. We know who killed her and why. It wasn’t very convincing then and it has become even less convincing as we’ve read on. Spy Sinker is a powerful novel and works in an interesting way because it sheds wholly new light on the five books that preceded it, undermining all the previous narratives, recasting everything we and the narrator thought had happened, and that was a bold and really effective stroke.

But, unless something stunningly new was to be revealed, it also meant the succeeding trilogy couldn’t show us anything new. And, despite a few red herrings and false trails, Charity indeed adds almost nothing to what we knew before, throwing in a few new characters (the Swede, Prettyman’s involvement) but leaving the outline of the story exactly as we already knew it.

Weakest of all is the way Deighton ends up pinning the blame on Silas Gaunt, presented as a Machiavellian super-brain in the previous novels, who is now suddenly described as unbalanced, bonkers, who crossed the line, who went too far, and who we now see being packed off to sheltered accommodation for the mentally ill. It was all Silas’s fault. Oh. OK. So there are no twists, turns or surprises at all. It is hard to avoid a sense of anti-climax.

Charity

The religious connotations of the titles – faith, hope and charity – are almost completely ignored. Deighton is not, thank God, Graham Greene, with his reams of doggerel theology. The word faith is mentioned a few times in Faith – Bret gives Bernard a Bible to use as a code book for a handful of ‘secret’ messages he sends him. I don’t think hope is mentioned at all in Hope; if it was George Kosinski’s hope of finding his wife Tessa, alive, it is cruelly dashed.

And, in the kind of dry joke which takes us right back to the start of the Deighton’s career, reminding us of the sly jokiness of the Ipcress novels – it turns out that Charity has no profound symbolic or moral meaning at all. Charity is the name of the half-senile Director-General’s raddled black Labrador.

Charity is a knackered old beast which slobbers and drools and is on its last legs.


Related links

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.

Faith by Len Deighton (1994)

‘If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s being able to sort out complicated technical material so it can be understood by the layman.’
‘Yes, you have a mechanical mind, Dicky, I said.
‘So why don’t you wind it up this week? Yes, I’ve heard that joke, Bernard. It’s time you got some new ones.’
Naughty Bernard: no coffee for you today! (p.275)

Recapping the Bernard Samson novels

Deighton is happier in his first-person narratives. This book’s predecessor, Violent Ward, also a first-person narrative, was warm and funny, unlike the two before that, MAMista and City of Gold, which felt hard-hearted, cold and cruel.

This is the first of the third and final trilogy of novels starring 40-something British intelligence officer Bernard Samson and it is, as most of its predecessors in the series, told in the warm, friendly, ironic tones of Bernard himself.

Bernard lives in London and works for MI6. In the first trilogy (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match) his gorgeous, clever wife Fiona was exposed as a high-level ‘mole’ in the Department and forced to flee in a hurry to East Berlin. He is understandably upset she has lied to him for so long and finds himself falling for a new, rather gorgeous young Department employee, Gloria.

In the first two novels of the second set (Spy Hook, Spy Line) Bernard began to suspect – and then had it abundantly confirmed – that Fiona was in fact a triple agent and had been working for us all along. Her defection, and all her ‘spying’ against us before it, had been stage-managed solely to allow her to go East posing as a hero of Socialism, adopt a high-level KGB role in East Berlin, and then spy for us. Although this revelation explains lots of things which have been puzzling Bernard, it in some ways makes her deceit and betrayal even worse. In the second trilogy young Gloria moves in with him and becomes a new mother to his two young children, Billy and Sally.

Eventually, after several hard draining years in East Berlin, Fiona’s mission there is concluded and the Department arranges for her return. But the rainswept night of her final escape back from the East to our side turns into a bloodbath: Samson and Fiona manage to escape but the young agent accompanying Bernard – and Fiona’s sister, Tessa, who had drunkenly tagged along for the ride – are shot dead in a confused shootout, as are the East German agent Stinnes and another bystander, Harry Kennedy.

After Bernard and Fiona have fled the scene, the ex-CIA psychopath-cum-hitman Thurkettle who, unknown to both of them, has been masterminding this carnage, burns Tessa’s body in one of the cars left at the scene, and throws the bodies of British agent, Stinnes and Harry into a deep ditch – part of the roadworks where the whole shambles took place – where they will be covered with concrete and never found. He then motorcycles off to meet the middle-man who is due to give him his money – only to be himself assassinated and his body hidden. The whole sequence is shockingly brutal and cynical.

Still reeling from this bloodbath, the reader progresses to the third book of this second trilogy, Spy Sinker, which abruptly departs the storyline altogether and a) is told in the third person b) goes all the way back to 1977 to recap the events which led to Fiona’s ‘defection’. In line with my theory about Deighton’s points of view, this third-person narrative is much more detached and harder-hearted than the previous five, warm and chatty first-person narratives. It reveals that just about everyone in his life has lied to and betrayed Samson, who emerges as an unwitting pawn in numerous scams and stratagems, and paints a very unpleasant picture of human nature.

Among many other revelations is that it was the head of the Department himself, the D-G, and nice old Silas Gaunt, who cooked up the plan to smuggle Fiona back out of the East and conceived the idea of murdering her sister, Tessa, in order to sever her head and replace it with a model of Fiona’s head containing a set of teeth which perfectly match Fiona’s (!) The intention is to make the East German security police, the Stasi, think their defector boss, Fiona, really had died in a tragic car smash and burn-out. They will thus be lulled into a false sense of security and carry on using the same codes etc, while our chaps debrief Fiona in a safe house in California, and so we can go on tapping the Ossies for a bit longer.

For this end, apparently, Fiona’s own sister was deliberately murdered, decapitated and burned. Call me old-fashioned, but the horror, the cruelty, as well as the stupidity and callousness of such a plan burned out of me all sympathy for the MI6 depicted in these pages. And the charming, humorous banter of the earlier books, Bernard’s droll first-person commentary on his bosses and colleagues in ‘the Department’, was irreparably undermined.

Damaged mood

So when we open this novel, the first in the third and final trilogy, to find Bernard’s narration picking up the story in late 1987 – cheerfully telling us he and Fiona have more or less recovered after a long period of recuperation and debriefing in California – and are now back in London, and back at work together – the reader cannot read his breezy tones in the same way as before. We now know his point of view is limited and plain wrong about numerous key issues. We know he is the victim of a terrible conspiracy. Moreover:

a) Even a reasonably gullible reader like me cannot really believe that a woman can see her own sister shot dead in front of her (some of Tessa’s blood spattered onto Fiona’s coat and face), know it’s partly her fault, and then soon be completely back in the swing of the old job, fussing about the furniture and the trivia of office politics. It doesn’t hang properly. She would be devastated.

b) We, the readers, are nervously aware that, sooner or later, the secret of what happened to Fiona’s sister will come out – and the consequences will be terrible for everyone, including us.

The Bernard Samson universe

It’s a longish book, 360 pages, but it flies by. For some reason Deighton seems at home in this story and his prose is warm and relaxed. It’s tempting to say that the cocky young narrator of the Ipcress novels has grown up, has a wife and kids, but still has the same dry sardonic attitude towards his bosses or his pompous old father-in-law, here showing off about his expensive new artist’s ‘studio’:

‘It’s a place I come when I have to think,’ said David
‘Do you spend much time here?’ I asked.
Fiona glared at me but it went right over David’s head. (p.170)

Bernard and Fiona have been left a swish, Mayfair apartment in Tessa’s will, her husband – George Kosinski, Bernard’s brother-in-law – having moved to Switzerland for tax reasons. They are reunited with their children who, during their sojourn in California, have been looked after by Fiona’s pompous but wealthy father down in Leith Hill, Surrey. And they immediately go back to work full-time, getting reinvolved in Departmental politics, notably lots of fussing about whether their boss, Dicky Cruyer, will get promoted from Head of Ops to Deputy DG of the ‘Department’, and fretting about which office the newly-promoted Fiona will get, and so on. When I was off work with stress, I was only allowed back in stages, initially working part-time, given careful increments of work to re-adapt, monitored and subject to weekly meetings with HR to make sure I could cope. None of that here. Everything is back to ‘normal’ in one leap.

For example, Dicky hosts an excruciatingly embarrassing dinner party where his wife, fed up of all his affairs, is drunk and sarcastic in front of the usual characters – Bernard, Fiona, Gloria, Bret. There is a similarly fraught social Sunday at the father-in-law’s, attended by old Silas Gaunt, the shaggy, overweight, retired but still very influential eminence grise of the Service who we know, but Bernard doesn’t, conceived and carried out the entire Operation Sinker to send Fiona to the East and the blood-curdling plan to bring her back.

Early on Bernard flies back to Berlin where he stays with old Tante Lisl who we last saw wheelchair-bound but who’s had hip replacements and is noticeably more mobile and sprightly. He visits the elderly Frank Harrington, head of the Berlin Field Unit, friend of Bernard’s dad, still hankering after a move back to London and a ‘gong’. Then he hitchhikes down to Zurich to visit his best friend from his Berlin childhood, Werner Volkmann, who has left Lisl’s niece, Ingrid, to take up again with his youthful, go-getting but deeply untrustworthy girlfriend, Zena.

In other words, the old gang’s all here. The plot feels mostly concerned with taking Bernard to all his familiar places and touching base with all the faces we’ve gotten to know so well from the previous six novels, so that we can sink back into the warm comfort zone of the Bernard Samson soap opera.

There is a plot about spies and stuff but really, rather than a spy story which shows us some of the agents’ private lives, these novels feel more like a soap opera about a circle of middle-class people, with homes in Mayfair and the Home Counties, who have Sunday lunches, dinner parties, evenings in cooking and moaning about the office – and ever so occasionally, go off and do some dodgy dealing behind the Iron Curtain. All swathed in, delivered with, Samson (and Deighton)’s trademark dry humour.

As I said it, a movement in the next row of machines revealed the inquisitive and unfriendly eyes of a man named Morgan peeping over the top of the bull-pen. Morgan was a malevolent denizen of the top floor who was working on a PhD in gossip. (p.134)

Gloria

And threaded throughout the book is the domestic difficulty Samson has with the fact that, not only did he shack up with the gorgeous Gloria after Fiona ‘betrayed’ and ‘abandoned’ him, and end up falling seriously in love with her; but that, now Fiona is back, both women are working for the same Department, in the same building, on the same floor. Samson has painful conversations with Fiona, who can’t forgive him for ‘betraying’ her with another woman (er, hang on); and even more painful conversations with Gloria, who can’t bear it that she’s suddenly been shut out of his life.

The Gloria-Fiona thread is another way in which the novels feel more like a soap opera, with lots of tearful accusations and bitter recriminations etc, than a straight spy thriller.

(And there is a Gloria sub-sub-plotline: She refers now and then to her father, who was an émigré from Hungary, came to London as a trained dentist and ended up as a contractor to the Department, for example doing dental work on deep undercover field agents so their teeth looked like they’d had bad Eastern Bloc dental work. She mentions here and there that, while Samson was recuperating in the States, her father’s contract with the Department was terminated, very aggressively; officers came and removed all of his dental equipment. Thus rendered unemployed he has taken up the offer of a job back in Hungary, even though it is still communist and he might be running some risks for ever having left. –Now we know something neither Bernard or Gloria know, which is that the key to the whole swap-Tessa’s-body-for-Fiona’s plan was to supply Tessa’s corpse with a young woman’s head (burned beyond recognition) which contained teeth identical to Fiona’s – and, I don’t think it was 100% confirmed, but the strong presumption in the earlier novels is that it was Gloria’s father who supplied the head with the fake dental work ie he was a crucial element in the conspiracy and this explains, to the alert reader, why he has been shut down and shuffled off abroad. Where, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if something bad does happen to him as Gloria frets to Bernard in their one or two conversations on the subject.)

The plot

Collecting VERDI

Samson is asked to go over the Wall to visit a senior KGB man who might want to defect, code name VERDI. So he goes across the Wall and is driven to the rendezvous by a callow new agent, Robin. When they arrive at the spooky silent house in an East German village the guy they’re due to meet is dead in an armchair, his head blown off. As they leave, they are tailed by a car, so Samson stops on a deserted country road, gets out in an initially friendly way but then shoots at the car, hitting one of ‘their’ men, before jumping back into his own and screeching off.

The Delius network

Samson and Robin drive to a friendly church, the base of one of the many ‘networks’ we ran over in the East (this one code-named Delius). They are welcomed and sheltered by the pastor and this enables Deighton to expand on, or refresh our memories about, the Fiona-defecting plotline. To recap: Bret Rensselaer had identified a decade earlier that the East German churches might form a perfect channel of resistance to the communist regime. So Fiona was chosen to volunteer to spy for the KGB to build up a cover here in the West, before ‘defecting’ to the East, where she could take up her double agent role. There, from her senior position in East German intelligence, she began her real work for us, networking with German churches and encouraging them to speak out against the regime.

Fiona’s mission

You can see what Deighton is doing here, tying his heroine to actual developments in the real world, for the East German churches genuinely were among the focal points for growing resistance to the régime in the late 1980s. But, also in the real world, all the unrest – from churches to other civic groups, intellectuals and opposition parties – was only allowable because of the example of perestroika set by Gorbachev in Russia. It was Gorbachev lifting the lid which led to the collapse of the Eastern bloc, not the subversive activities of nice, public-school-educated English ladies. Deighton’s sleight of hand works… up to a point.

On a practical point: wouldn’t Fiona’s KGB bosses have noticed her anti-KGB activities? Just a little? Wouldn’t she have been very closely monitored indeed, followed every hour of the day, by her touchy new employers? She probably couldn’t go to the loo without them knowing: how, then, could she possibly have arranged meetings with all the leading subversive forces in the country and given them support, money, advice, without the KGB knowing a thing about it, in fact all about it? — Best to put the implausibility of the whole plotline to one side, and enjoy the show.

Rendezvous with Werner

After getting safely back to the West, Samson hitchhikes down to Zurich to see his old mate, Werner Volkmann. For some reason, on the way he has a punishing fight with the trucker who picks him up, leaving him uncertain whether it was an assassination attempt or just a psycho trucker. And the lift after that is with a police inspector who menacingly warns Samson that he better not cause any trouble or get arrested, or else he will have a hard time in the cells. Maybe these two encounters are to establish the tough, manly world of the thriller, the ‘real’ world of crime and law enforcement, of beatings-up on dark rainy nights, which we are meant to be in…

In Zurich there’s some business about safe houses, and having to contact Werner via secretive émigrés and the like, all enjoyable spy hokum, which gives way quickly to the two old buddies meeting up and having long chats about women and life. Werner has been sidelined by London, again (even though we know Werner was Fiona’s case officer, or official liaison channel with London, through her years in the East and so was, at one point, central to the biggest operation in MI6’s history). It feels like that has been quietly forgotten in order to restore the buddies-against-authority vibe Samson and Werner had in the earlier books. Much of the plot has a strong sense of déjà vu, not in the details, just in the feel and recurring situations. In fact more than once Samson himself comments on it, saying he feels like he’s been at this dinner party, or had this conversation with Frank, before. And he has. But the reader doesn’t mind because it’s all done with good humour and intelligence. We like these dinner parties. We like these clever conversations.

Dicky Cruyer’s plan

It transpires that Dicky Cruyer wants to make his name and secure promotion by smuggling VERDI out of the East. VERDI is something to do with the KGB’s vast new computer database and so would be able to tell us all their secrets. However, he was also involved in the investigation into Fiona / Tessa’s death. Samson keeps telling people, especially Werner, that deep down Fiona is traumatised and will never be the same. (That’s what Deighton has to have him say to give the novel some kind of psychological plausibility, but it doesn’t actually show it much. In all the conversations at home, in the office, dinners at home, meeting the kids, dinner parties out and Sunday lunches at her father’s, Fiona comes over as an absolutely normal, pukkah, upper-middle-class gel without a shadow of trauma. Deighton tells but doesn’t show her alleged unravelling.)

Meanwhile, we learn that Fiona hired an American ex-agent and freelance snoop, Timmerman, to go looking for Tessa out East. And late on in the novel we discover it was his body that Samson found at the rendezvous, not VERDI’s. Was Timmerman murdered because he had discovered too much? What does ‘too much’ actually mean? Remember, Samson himself doesn’t know anything about the conspiracy to murder Tessa and try and con the other side that her body was Fiona’s. (Most of this novel seems to be about the way various different characters either know this murderous truth and are probably hiding it (Rennsaeler? Frank Hutchinson? The DG?) or are blissfully ignorant of it and groping to find out (Fiona, Tessa’s husband George, and Samson himself)).

VERDI’s version

Eventually VERDI ie Andrey Fedosov is successfully smuggled out of the East and Samson and Werner are charged with looking after him, though Samson is very unhappy that it has to be in a Departmental flat in Marylebone instead of the big country estate surrounded by CCTV and security guards which they usually employ for the purpose. The latter, Dicky tells him, is being refurbished due to ‘asbestos in the roof’.

In one of his first presentations to our boys, Fedosov tells Werner and Samson that Tessa was never killed! At the confused shootout by the Autobahn in the rain, it was the KGB woman officer charged with getting Fiona back and despatched to intercept her as soon as the KGB knew she’d done a bunk, it was this KGB woman who was shot! What? And that the drunk Tessa we saw climbing into Samson’s transit van as he left a hotel party to collect Fiona, and who we saw shot in the confused handover, was not shot at all but seized by the opposition in all the confusion and taken to a Stasi interrogation centre. What? This is completely against all the versions of events we’d previously read. Can it possibly be true?

Either Deighton is giving himself an ‘out’, a way of providing the happy end to the Tessa affair that we softer-hearted readers would like to see pulled out of a hat. Or, more true to thriller conventions,  Fedosov has been allowed to defect and to tell this story in order to put Samson off the grisly reality which Spy Sinker seemed to describe: that Tessa was deliberately murdered on the orders of people in his own Department. This way it looks like the woman killed was a baddy and Tessa is alive: this gets the Department higher-ups off the hook and, hopefully, will ease Fiona’s guilt. Then if Tessa proves irrecoverable or her body turns up, it can conveniently be blamed on the evil KGB instead of our own bad guys.

A family affair

And so, despite cursory nods in the direction of glasnost and the vast social and political changes affecting the world in 1987, the plot has turned into an entirely family affair. Again. Maybe the whole trilogy will circle round the question: Who killed Tessa? Was she actually killed at all? Will Fiona’s investigations uncover the truth? Will the bad guys in the Department manage to keep the real events a secret? Will Samson get to the bottom of things or will he continue to be the patsy for much larger, much cleverer forces, that he was revealed to be in Spy Sinker?

Having told his version of the Tessa affair with a big smile on his face, Fedosov settles back into an armchair in the safe house, and is promptly shot through the heart by a long range sniper bullet. Werner and Samson throw themselves to the floor and crawl across to check but… yep, he was killed instantly. It’s almost as if someone wanted him to come West, tell his fiction about Tessa and then… bang!

The novel ends with Werner and Samson awaiting being called into the official enquiry into why and how they let Fedosov be assassinated. There’s another strong sense of déjà vu as, once again, Samson and his pal are in the doghouse – but also a familiar feeling that the entire trilogy will be about unravelling just one ‘secret’, as the previous trilogies – despite all the local colour – boiled down to one question: Is Fiona really a Russian spy?

Will Deighton manage to pull it off, to supply enough twists and turns to keep us reading, and yet deliver an outcome which is both unexpected and emotionally satisfying? The only way to find out is to read on, which is what makes this, like all the novels in the series, so fiendishly complex, entertaining and compelling.

Credit

Faith by Len Deighton was published by Harper Collins 1994. All quotes and page references from the 1995 HarperCollins paperback edition.


Related links

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.

Spy Line by Len Deighton (1990)

This is the second novel in the second trilogy about 40-something British intelligence agent, Bernard Samson. At the end of its predecessor he was on the run in Berlin, an arrest warrant issued by his own side for treason, presumably because he had been investigating (and publicising) a top secret slush fund which his wife – Fiona, who we saw defecting to the Russians in the first trilogy – helped set up and administer.

Summary

To cut a long story short, in this novel we find out that his wife is what he had come to suspect, a triple agent – working for British Intelligence for ten years, while all along pretending to be a KGB spy and sending the Russkies important information, then (at the climax of the first novel) pretending to be forced to flee after her own husband ‘outed’ her as the senior ‘mole’ in the Department – but secretly continuing to work for us from the senior position she is given in the KGB’s East Berlin office.

The Plot

Deighton is much more attracted to cosy domesticity than life on the edge. It’s a little disappointing that his ‘life on the run’ amounts to simply holing up in a dirty squat in a rundown part of Berlin for a week or two. There’s a colourfully seedy scene of Samson sitting drinking with Rudolf Kleindorf, ageing owner of a dance and strip club where old lags come to exchange gossip and information. And we accompany him back to his dirty, noisy squat. But we and Bernie have barely experienced the lowlife for more than a few pages before the head of Berlin Office, Frank Harrington, sends a man to fetch him to witness an interrogation. Oh. They knew where he is all along.

Rather puzzlingly, Samson goes along to watch this interrogation, the questioning of an East German operative. The only bit of interest being when he indicates a photo of Erich Stinnes (a KGB agent who featured largely in the first trilogy) and makes a throwaway reference to seeing him using a ‘white powder’. Drugs? More to the point, security is so lax that Samson overhears a remark which makes it clear this isn’t a defector but an ongoing agent who is about to be sent back to the East. Why did Frank invite him to watch this? Were a few snippets of information mentioned in the session somehow important? Who to?

Teacher

The Department employee who took him there – Teacher – drives him back to his own apartment to meet his wife and have lunch. Much more energy goes into describing the Teachers’ apartment and his wife, Clemmie’s, unhappiness at the coldness of Berlin and the rudeness of Berliners, than did painting Samson’s life in hiding. Domesticity and marital relations, soft furnishings and food are more persuasively described than jeopardy. (Later, we learn from one of the countless gossipy conversations Samson spends the book having, that Clemmie has run off with an American record producer who was passing through Berlin.)

His old mate Werner says, ‘This is silly, why don’t you come back and stay at Tante Lisl’s boarding house?’ and so Bernie moves back into his old room at the top of the building and sees for himself the ‘improvements’ Werner is making to the old place. And realises that Werner has fallen in love with Lisl’s rather stern niece, Ingrid, daughter of her sister Inge. (We learned a lot about the backstories of these two ladies in Deighton’s epic novel about Germany 1900 to 1945, Winter). Zena, Werner’s tough, young, self-centred wife, appears to have flown the coop.

Rehabilitation

Soon enough Head of Berlin Office Frank Harrington drops by and says London Central have made Samson an offer: sign all the official secrets stuff and resign: he can work out his notice in a menial job but retire on a full pension. They’ve never trusted you, Frank explains, since your wife was exposed as a KGB spy.

But Bernard refuses; resigning would admit some degree of guilt and collusion. ‘Well, go back anyway, the charges have been dropped,’ Frank says. Just like that. On the run, hiding out — oh you can go back now. It’s all very anti-climactic. No chases, no shootouts, no tension. Samson flies back to London, is reunited with his girlfriend, Gloria, and his kids, Sally and Billy, then goes back to the office where everyone treats him as if nothing had happened at all. Bit puzzling.

He’s called into the office of a previously unmentioned character, the Deputy Controller of Europe who turns out to be a tough, balding Australian, Gus Stowe. In the usual roundabout, tortuous way these conversations take place, Bernard realises he’s being sent on a hush-hush mission to Vienna, code name Fledermaus.

Stamps in Salzberg

He flies to Vienna and then on to Salzburg where, amid all the Mozart kitsch, he meets his contact, Otto Hoffmann, who turns out to be a stamp collector attending a big five-day philatelic auction. There is a lot – an awful lot – of detail about stamp collecting. (There is a lot of detail about stamps sent from Zeppelins before the war, which may or may not be a reference to the involvement of the Winter family with zeppelins, as described in Winter.) Bernard is given money and told to bid for one particular lot, an envelope with rare stamps on it.

In the actual auction, Samson is surprised when someone else bids getting on for double the price he was instructed to offer and wins the envelope. Samson tracks down the American collector who made the successful bid, Bart Johnson, and they both go to the cashier where you pay and collect your item, only to find someone else claims to have paid more and made off with it. Johnson is furious. Samson tags along with him out of curiosity (what’s going on?) and they go back to the hotel where they’re both staying and make a date to meet for drinks and dinner. Bernard is back in his room freshening up when he hears a (small) explosion, runs along the hall and finds Johnson has been the victim of a particularly nasty type of bomb, planted in the hotel electric shaver. It has blown his hand and face off. As other guests come pouring in, Samson makes good his escape wondering (like the reader) what the hell is going on.

The man who had given him the instructions about bidding for the envelope had also given him instructions about who to take it to in Vienna, one Baron Staiger. Bernard flies to Vienna, takes a cab the scheduled apartment and walks up to meet Baron Staiger who turns out to be – no other than Otto Hoffmann.

In another of the surreal scenes which litter these novels, Staiger is holding a super-refined party for Vienna’s upper crust in which Bernard feels very out of place, and which climaxes with the arrival of the triumphant soprano from the nearby opera house. Only when the party is quite over does Staiger talk to Bernard and declares himself pretty relaxed about the loss of the envelope – because he has it right here in his pocket! He had heard the Americans were going to bid for it so he was the other, mystery, bidder on the phone who drove the price way beyond Bernard’s limit, and ducked in to claim it before Johnson made it to the claims desk.

Staiger opens the envelope and it contains Czech security passes for himself and Bernard. Why, the reader asks, was this ridiculous charade necessary, except to pad the novel out with colourful scenes in Salzburg, a surreal stamp collecting convention, and the utterly unnecessary murder of an American?

Into Czechoslovakia

Next day Staiger drives Bernard across the border into Czecholsovakia (lots of local description, lots of Deighton-esque history of the Sudetenland under the Nazis and then under Stalin) accompanied by a Czech security car and then up to a mountain cabin which is crawling with security men, guns and ferocious guard dogs, before depositing Bernard outside a farmhouse.

Bernard goes in to find his wife Fiona who proceeds to confirm all his suspicions: she is a triple agent, she is so sorry for all the deceit and worry but they couldn’t tell him, her life depended on him acting genuinely outraged (the KGB have been tailing and watching his reactions to her desertion), and now she is coming back, in just a few weeks she’ll be back in the UK: ‘Oh I do love you darling,’ ‘and I love you, darling’.

This is even more surreal than the stamp collecting convention. If she’s such a professional, if this is the climax of 10 years of planning, why oh why is she risking it all for a rushed sentimental meeting with her husband? In full sight of about twenty Czech security police who will report every centimetre to their KGB bosses? Isn’t the room bugged? Won’t they guess what she’s doing? Did this clandestine meeting really require all the rigmarole of the stamp collecting convention and bidding? Why doesn’t she simply complete her mission and arrive back in London safe and sound, without the exploding stamp collectors and high risk tryst?

Gratifying though it is to have Bernard’s (and our) suspicions confirmed, this whole scene blows an enormous hole in the novel’s credibility. The one thing she asks him to do is get back from her sister, Tessa, the expensive fur coat her father bought her. The reader immediately thinks it must contain some microfilm or equally precious artifact.

Part two

Staiger drives Bernie safely back to Vienna and he flies back to London, to the embrace off his girlfriend Gloria, and the children, but inside is in complete turmoil. He tells no one about seeing his wife.

Instead the next 30 pages or so describe Bernard and Gloria attending a carefully choreographed dinner party at his boss, Dicky Cruyer’s house, complete with detailed description of every course of the meal and Dicky’s difficulties ‘carving’ the enormous poached salmon which is the opening course. It’s in this chatty, gossipy, homely surrounding that, as so often, a number of the guests (who are all ‘in the business’) discuss recent events and broach new ventures. Thus Samson finds himself asked to help the CIA in the form of Posh Harry, the Hawaiian fixer we met in the first trilogy and who played a central role in the odd Californian excursion in Spy Hook.

Parties

No sooner is this dinner, complete with cigars and port for the men, more or less over than Gloria begs Samson to be allowed to go on to a party his brother-in-law George Kosinski (the used car salesman) and wife Tessa, are going to. Very swanky place in Pimlico and a swanky party hosted by a German prince, known to all and sundry as Joppi.

Later, driving Bernard home, his brother-in-law confides that he thinks Tessa is on drugs: did he notice the slightly hysterical atmosphere at the party? People were taking drugs upstairs. And did he notice the sinister guy with a beard fringing his chin? Tessa’s been getting friendly with him; George thinks he’s a dealer and is selling her the stuff.

Rolf Mauser

The next day Samson meets Rolf Mauser, yet another ageing survivor of the war, who tells him Kleindorf, the nightclub owner we met in the first chapter, is dead. He was smuggling drugs. The official cause of death is suicide by overdose but Mauser has information one of his dancers injected him with raw heroin. Mauser explains the raw heroin arrives in East Berlin, then is smuggled West to be refined, before being smuggled back again for sale.

So is the novel about drug smuggling between East and West Berlin?

Thurkettle

Samson goes for the boozy lunch with Posh Harry that was arranged at Dicky Cruyer’s party but, on returning, begins to be questioned and then interrogated by Harry’s boss, John Brody. Turns out Johnson, the American stamp enthusiast in Salzberg, was a CIA man tasked with bringing in another ex-Company man, one Thurkettle, a hardened murderer and hit man who has gone rogue. Almost certainly it was Thurkettle who murdered Johnson. The Americans are suspicious of Samson’s involvement. He realises the description of Thurkettle fits the man George thinks is peddling drugs to Tessa.

Silas Gaunt

Next Samson motors out to the Cotswolds, to the country house of long-retired old Silas Gaunt, who, like so many of the characters, knew his father. In a refreshing bit of plain speaking the ailing Gaunt – warned by his doctor he is at death’s door – confirms all Samson’s suspicions: Fiona is a triple agent; she was recruited at Oxford; only old Gaunt, the doddery DG and Samson know the truth. If they all died, Fiona would be trapped. Gaunt makes Samson witness him signing a long document which he says is a detailed account of Fiona’s case which will exonerate her.

Over the next few days Samson has to process this devastating information. So his wife is a heroic agent, good. But she hid it all from him for ten years, and deserted him and his children without a qualm. Did he ever really know her? Could he ever trust her again? What are his feelings for her and how does effect his feelings for young Gloria, who is making such an effort to be a good lover and surrogate mother to his two children?

A few days later his boss, Dicky Cruyer, orders Samson to accompany him on a trip to Berlin. Dicky is actually hoping to make it a dirty weekend with Tessa, and Samson is cross at being pulled in as some kind of accomplice, but the jaunt is justified by meetings with Frank. After the usual lengthy chat, reminiscence, drinks and cigars, Frank eventually comes out and tells Samson he is being instructed to drive a van which is going to pick up an agent from the other side, accompanied by the young desk officer Teacher who we met early in the novel. If there is a problem, Teacher has instructions to kill the agent rather than let him fall into the hands of the opposition.

The reader begins to have a bad feeling the agent will be Fiona and that something will go wrong and he will have to shoot her…

Finale

The novel does climax in a bloody mess. Werner, his old friend, organises a big fancy dress party for the opening of the new, repainted Tante Lisl guesthouse. 150 guests are fired up and dancing as a fierce thunderstorm breaks outside. In the middle of the noise, Teacher comes looking for Samson: he’s received the signal – they must go to the rendezvous. The only catch is Teacher has come to the party in a joke gorilla costume and no-one has a suit for him to change into; in fact, he almost comes to blows with Werner trying to nick one of the latter’s suits, and is eventually forced, very unhappily, to drive on this important mission wearing his gorilla costume. And, at the last minute, Tessa, in a flighty yellow dress and stoned out of her mind, insists on climbing into the back of the van and no-one can persuade her out.

Shootout

Teacher, Samson and Tessa drive slowly in the transit van in the thundering rain along the West-heading Autobahn looking out for a parked car. Eventually they see lights and a darkened car parked by a load of giant earth-moving machines in an area roped off for repairs. It is pitch black and pouring down with rain. Teacher gets out and is moving towards the car when lights go on, there are shots, Teacher hits the car a few times before being himself shot down. Tessa comes floating out the back of the van and waltzes towards the German car when she is shot twice with a shotgun which tears her apart, blood pouring over her dress. Another woman’s voice shrieks, it is Fiona. In the drenching rain and darkness and confusion Samson has made it up onto the tracks of a giant digger and uses its raised shovel to steady his aim as he shoots and kills the two East German men. One of them is Erich Stinnes; Samson shoots him in the neck and watches a great spurt of blood shoot up against the motorway lights.

But there was a third man, now hidden, who had used a silencer. Samson stands stock still in the pouring rain waiting for something to happen. The man shouts over to Samson in an American voice. It is Thurkettle the assassin. Samson shouts to Fiona to move from the East German car to the van and start the engine. When she’s done so, he makes a run for the other van door. There are no shots. They’re being allowed to escape. They pull away from the scene of the shootout and Fiona drives through the rain and into West Germany in silence, her knuckles white against the wheel. In the rear view mirror they see a great gout of flame and hear an explosion: the East German car has been blown up along with all the evidence. Thurkettle has stage managed the whole thing…

Soldiers greet them at the checkpoint. Fiona is sedated, and they are loaded aboard a plane headed for America.

Aftermath

The novel ends with Samson and Fiona holed up in the luxury safe house-cum-prison on the California coast which we first saw in the previous novel. It is owned by millionairess Mrs O’Raffety, and the base where Bret Rensselaer is undergoing his long, painful rehabilitation after being shot at the climax of London Match. Turns out the whole thing – the Fiona defection – was his scheme and now it falls to him, as her case officer, to debriefing her. Days, weeks, and months go by. They are both trapped. Samson gloomily realises they might be there for years.

Samson learns the story being put about is that he has run off with Tessa. This explains their joint disappearance. Fiona slowly thaws out and talks to him. He tells her he thinks Tessa’s drug addiction was fostered as part of the plan. Tessa was lured to Berlin by a combination of Dicky and Thurkettle (who Samson is now certain he saw at Joppi’s party and who George warned him about), and encouraged to get into the van. Then she was deliberately murdered, so that her body would be found in the burnt-out car, and the enemy think it was Fiona.

Can the Department have done that? Murdered one sister to save the other? Bernard and Fiona huddle under blankets one cold Californian night looking out past the security fence into the darkness of the ocean with no hope.

This is a decisive shift in the tone of these novels. Whatever happens now, the murder of her sister will cast a long shadow over Fiona’s mental health, their marriage and numerous other characters. Will they ever be able to get back to England, their children and a normal married life? It seems impossible.


Atmosphere of old

I was too old for rough stuff: too old, too involved, too married, too soft. (p.37)
I was too old to get angry twice in one day. (p.219)

So many of the characters are old old old:

  • Tante Lisl and her sister Inge, into their 80s
  • Frank Harrington past retirement age in his middle 60s. ‘Frank was too old to be involved with Operations. Too old, too squeamish, too weary, too good-hearted.’ (p.271) ‘Frank was past retirement, soon he would be gone.’ (p.272)
  • John ‘Lange’ Koby in his seventies (p.44)
  • local fixer Kleindorf in his 70s
  • harsh old Wehrmacht officer Rolf Mauser in his 70s
  • Bart Johnson looks in his 60s
  • London CIA man John Brody, ‘He was old, a bald man with circular gold-rimmed glasses…’ (p.209)
  • Silas Gaunt, long since retired colleague of his father’s, ‘… was old and becoming more exasperating every time I saw him…’ (p.221) ‘… now he was old and he’d withdrawn into his own concerns with ageing, sickness and death.’ (p.224)
  • ‘Some people – including me – had said that Bret Rensselaer was too old ever to become a full-time Departmental employee again.’ (p.301)
  • ‘Mrs O’Raffety, the artistic old lady who owned the place…’ (p.303)

It is the central aspect of Samson’s character, indeed the main premise of the whole series, that Samson is the son of a man who was at the heart of British Intelligence in Berlin immediately after the war, and grew up among his father’s friends and colleagues, who provide the novel with its sense of breadth and historical depth.

But it inevitably means that, by the later 1980s, a lot of these characters are due to die off and with them will go the emotional background, the memories of his Berlin childhood and everything which makes Bernard Samson such a unique character.

Soon – very soon – Silas and Whitelands and all they meant would have vanished from my life. My mother was old and sick. Soon Lisl would be gone, and the hotel would be unrecognisable. When that happened I would no longer have any connections with the times that meant so much to me. (p.239)

Insofar as he is the nexus of all these relationships, a product of this history, Samson’s character – and the worldview of the novels which relies so heavily on the long shadow of world war two – has a limited shelf-life.


Related links

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Line

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Line

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.

Mexico Set by Len Deighton (1984)

‘That bloody Werner has been seeing Stinnes,’ said Dicky. He was pacing up and down chewing at the nail of his little finger. It was a sign that he was agitated. He was often agitated lately. Sometimes I wondered that Dicky had any nails left.
‘So I hear,’ I said calmly.
‘Ah,’ said Dicky. ‘I thought so. Have you been going behind my back again?’
I salaamed; a low bow in a gesture of placation, ‘Oh, master. I hear this only from Harrington sahib.’
‘Cut out the clowning,’ said Dicky. (p.173)

Mexico Set is the hugely enjoyable second volume in the Bernard Samson trilogy, following immediately on from Berlin Game, what seems to be a matter of weeks or a month or so later, and with almost all the same characters. In the first novel Samson exposed his wife as the senior ‘mole’ in the Department, a part of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), forcing her to flee to the East (arranging his release from East Berlin Stasi headquarters in the process).

The continuity of plot and the familiarity of almost all the characters makes it seem a little like a soap opera or long-running TV series like Friends or Scrubs. It feels like Deighton himself is confident and at ease enough with the characters to muck about, to play, to experiment with their behaviour, to explore their hinterlands more.

Bernard Samson’s private life

Samson’s private life is a mess. He is now single, in charge of two school age children and living in a sizeable house in West London with a nanny and a Portuguese cook. On his SIS salary he can’t afford to keep this up any more without Fiona’s income and trust fund, as his wealthy father-in-law is quick to brutally remind him (chapter 10), threatening to take him to court for custody of the children. the threat of a court case would bring Samson’s bosses into the picture, leaning on him to reach a settlement (ie cave in to his father-in-law) in order to avoid publicity about Fiona’s defection, which they have so far successfully suppressed.

Berlin childhood

Worth emphasising again that Samson’s big selling point, his distinctiveness as a character, comes from the fact that his father before him was in British Intelligence, based in Berlin – and that his dad didn’t send him back to England to a pukka public school. Instead Bernard went to school in Berlin a) making friends with a number of Berlin boys, many of whom have turned out to be handy contacts in adult life, b) coming to know Berlin like the back of his hand c) speaking German like a native and with an acute awareness of different accents and dialects.

We are told that he left school at 16 and didn’t go to university, hence the other consequence, d) his ingrained contempt for his public school and Oxbridge-educated colleagues in the Department, an amused contempt which is identical to the attitude of the narrator of Deighton’s early Ipcress novels.

Mexico

Why Mexico? For the slender reason that Werner Volkmann, Samson’s ‘oldest and closest friend’ (p.16) from his Berlin childhood, is on a second honeymoon there with his gimlet-eyed wife, Zena (the cynical 22-year-old who was briefly the mistress of Frank Harrington, the ageing head of the Department’s Berlin office, in the first novel). While there they spot the Berlin-based KGB officer who interrogated Samson at the climax of the first novel, one Erich Stinnes, in the club frequented by the German emigré community. This is enough, apparently, to prompt Samson and his boss, Dicky Cruyer, to fly to Mexico City where Cruyer – in the usual way of characters in this book – takes some time getting round to explaining to Samson that the Department want Samson to invite Stinnes to defect.

Volkmann has found out that Stinnes is connected to a well-off German businessman, Paul Biedermann. Samson schlepps out to Biedermann’s mansion by the ocean, only to find it deserted, to break in, and then a few hours later hide when Stinnes and a goon arrive. He (conveniently) overhears their conversation which amounts to an explanation that Biedermann is working for the KGB, before they get impatient and leave.

Based on all this, a few days later, Samson arranges via Biedermann to meet Stinnes again, at his seaside mansion, before the two men take drive out to sea in Biedermann’s luxury boat, and it is here that Samson makes his offer to Stinnes – money, a house, a new identity, what does he think? Stinnes says Yes, give him a month to round up the kind of information he knows London will want him to bring, and which will ensure his VIP treatment.

Back in Mexico City Samson’s shallow boss, Dicky, is well pleased with this result and goes sight-seeing and shopping for presents before they both fly back to London. But Samson, as ever, has misgivings. It was – as in the previous novel’s quick identification of the traitor Giles Trent – too easy.

In fact a third of the way into the book (p.132) the characters leave Mexico never to return and the action returns to the familiar office and home locations in London, and the guest house and various bars in Berlin which we are familiar with fro the first book.

Dramatis personae

Personal life

  • Bernard Samson – 40-something intelligence agent, sardonic, clever, tough.
  • Fiona – his wife who also worked in the Service and was revealed, in Berlin Game, to be a KGB agent, fled behind the Curtain.
  • Tessa – Fiona’s younger sister, posh, feisty, her marriage to George an art dealer is on the rocks, she fancies Bernard like mad.
  • George – Tessa’s husband, a self-made Polish immigrant used car salesman who Tessa has been serially unfaithful to.
  • Gloria Kent – luscious young secretary who Samson gets transferred to his office, as a joke takes to a dinner party at Dicky’s, who is initially very cross that she’s been manipulated but when Samson carries on being strictly professional over the following weeks, well, she falls in love with him 🙂

The Department

  • Richard ‘Dicky’ Cruyer – Controller of German stations, Oxford man, Samson’s immediate boss, fussy, self-interested.
  • Frank Harrington – pipe smoking, 60-year-old head of the Berlin Office (the job Bernard’s father had), in this novel we are told he regards himself as a kind of guardian to Samson.
  • 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 the previous novel, upon whose steady flow of economic intelligence about the Russkies Bret had built a little empire within SIS.
  • Henry Tiptree – contemporary of Dicky’s at Balliol college, Oxford, and now SIS’s man in Mexico where he lends Dicky and Samson a notably clapped-out car, before mysteriously appearing 150 pages later in the Berlin boarding house Samson routinely stays in. Is he following Samson? Is he investigating him?
  • MacKenzie – the probationer in the Department, tasked by Samson with finding out who the nurse was who hijacked him, and who is discovered dead in the safe house in Bosham.
  • Sir Henry Clevemore – Director-General of the Department, who Samson thinks is more or less gaga.

His room was dim and smelled of leather chairs and dusty books that were piled upon them. The D-G sat by the window behind a small desk crowded with family photos, files, trays of paperwork and long-forgotten cups of tea. It was like entering some old Egyptian tomb to chat with an affable mummy… I suppose everyone had the same protective feeling when talking with the D-G. That’s no doubt why the department was something of a shambles. (p.323-324)

Sir Henry is made to be such a clapped-out figure of fun it slightly risks derailing the novel altogether into Carry On Spying territory. Odd.

Other characters

  • Werner Volkmann – Samson’s oldest friend from his Berlin childhood, big, bearlike, he runs a successful if unofficial import-export agency into East Berlin but is keen to work for (and be paid by) the Department.
  • Zena, Werner’s wife, young tough, ambitious. Show me the money.
  • Erich Stinnes – thin professional KGB man who was itching to ‘interrogate’ Samson in Stasi headquarters in Berlin in the first novel, but was restrained by the defecting mole, obviously his superior who, in the big revelation scene, turns out to be Samson’s wife, Fiona.

The plot

Like a game of chess the plot revolves around this key move of getting Stinnes to defect and what it would mean. We only actually meet him and hear him speak briefly. The vast majority of the narrative is given over to different permutations of characters discussing at great length whether: Stinnes is genuine KGB; whether he genuinely wants to defect; whether he is genuinely alienated by Fiona taking over as his boss in the East Berlin KGB, or whether Fiona is arranging for him to defect and take with him a load of misleading information.

While the will he/won’t he debate goes on, another layer of meaning opens up as colleagues suggest to him that Stinnes might defect and incriminate him, Samson, as in some way supporting and collaborating with his wife. He might be framed. Assuming he is innocent. Samson is shocked to realise that almost the whole department suspects him. In fact, it is obvious that Fiona’s defection will contaminate him; during 14 years of marriage, surely he suspected something. Samson is shocked when Frank Harrington, the man who keeps telling him he feels like a father to him and has tried to protect him – nakedly offers him encouragement to go now, leave from his Berlin house now, to the other side, before London traps him. Even Frank thinks he is a traitor.

But then the whole tenor of the book, the whole experience of reading it, is to be immersed in this wilderness of mirrors where absolutely everyone suspects everyone else all the time, and Samson is wandering through it, lying and deceiving like the others, simultaneously trying to read his colleagues multiple motives.

There are a handful of colourful events.

1. Samson offers a pretty young nurse struggling with her broken down car a lift to her hospital when she pulls out a hypodermic syringe full of poison and orders him to drive to Heathrow where he is astonished when Fiona gets into the back of the car. She offers him a deal: keep his hands off Stinnes and she will leave the children be, and not try to contact or snatch them (something which has been worrying Samson ever since her departure). When nurse and Fiona exit the car he is so stunned he needs time to work out the implications and so fails to report the incident to his bosses. Big mistake.

2. Samson tasks a keen young colleague to track down the nurse. This he does too well because Werner calls him from a safe house in Bosham, Sussex, where Samson arrives to find various female paraphernalia – definitely connected with the nurse (the syringes) possibly a place where Fiona has hidden and altered her appearance – and the corpse of the young apprentice who has been brutally and repeatedly shot.

3. Just after Frank Harrington makes his sheepish suggestion to Samson that he defect, now, while he still can, Harrington receives an official call that Biedermann has been stopped at Orly airport, Paris, carrying top secret NATO documents. Samson flies there and is allowed to see Biedermann and begins to realise it is a set-up. Bidermann had never seen the documents, the driver of the taxi which took him to the airport for a normal domestic flight to his Italian holiday home, came running after him and said Monsieur you left these in the taxi, thrusting them into Biedermann’s hands and he was going to turn them over to the cops or someone when he was himself arrested ‘on a tip-off’. Samson is pondering all this when a junior cop gives him sandwiches and a coffee to take into Biedermann which he does, then returns to the French inspector’s office who yells, sandwiches? coffee? for a suspect? And when they race down to the cell Biedermann is very dead from cyanide poisoning.

Prime suspect

Samson is recalled to London where he is subjected to a prolonged grilling by Bret, with Cruyer and Harrington and others in attendance. Their accusation is that he knew about Fiona. He is a fellow KGB spy. He has deliberately slowed down ‘enrolling’ Stinnes to in fact make it fail because Stinnes would incriminate him. Similarly, Biedermann knew too much about him which is why he murdered him. This long chapter airs all the possible permutations, all the ways of interpreting events up to this point though Samson eventually wriggles free by shouting them all down, shouting his innocence, and asserting the rule that a case officer continues with his case until formally dismissed. He is going to bring Stinnes in, and he gets up and walks out.

Mexico two

On page 345 (of the 380-page novel) we arrive back in Mexico City for the finale ie the planned defection of Stinnes. First Samson rendezvous with Werner and Zena: he is worried by how they both refer to Stinnes by his first name, Erich and Zena in particular seems fond of him. Then he meets up with Henry Tiptree, the upper class desk johnny who infuriates Samson by saying that he, Tiptree, has been given authority to manage the defection. To his horror he’s changed the rendezvous with Stinnes from busy Garibaldi Square to a private bank nearby.

Up rickety backstairs and through a steel door into a setup which is more a money-laundering racket than a bank, go Tiptree and Samson, the latter not at all surprised to find Zena there, assuming she’s come to get her claws on the money. This is counted out by the crooked owners of the bank as per Tiptree’s instructions but things go wrong with the sudden appearance of the big hood who accompanied Stinnes to Biedermann’s oceanside house all those weeks previously and has appeared by his side periodically, the brute Moskvin.

He and a sidekick pull out automatic weapons and tell everyone to put their hands on their heads. He is KGB and he has been ordered to execute Stinnes when he walks in. Is this Fiona’s doing, reaching out to kill her deputy all the way from Berlin? Zena reveals her part in the betrayal by pleading with Moskvin, saying they promised not to harm Stinnes. So it turns out she has been reporting back to the KGB all along. Steps slowly and ominously mount the stairs towards the steel door but Zena flips and attacks the kid with a machine gun like a wild cat. Moskvin steps over to punch her which gives Tiptree the opportunity to pull out a Browning pistol and shoot him in the leg.

The ominous footsteps turn out, comically, to be those of a little boy sent by Stinnes to find Samson and tell him he is waiting at the place they arranged. Samson grabs the money, leaving Tiptree pointing a gun at the others and with some explaining to do as and when the police arrive. He hops over the back wall ducks along an alley and finds Stinnes waiting in a taxi, and off to the airport they go, job done.

As this is the middle instalment of a trilogy, I imagine the full implications of this will become clear in the next book (as many of the implications of the first book only unfolded in this one).


Describing Mexico

Deighton’s descriptions of the sights and sounds and smells of Mexico City are full and persuasive: the oppressive humidity, the surrounding mountains and melodramatic scenery.

From [the balcony of Werner’s flat] was a view across this immense city, with the mountains a dark backdrop. The dying sun was turning the world pink, now that the stormclouds had passed over. Long ragged strips of orange and gold cloud were torn across the sky, like a poster advertising a smog-reddened sun ripped by a passing vandal. (p.15)

Or his impression of the jungle as he drives through it to Biedermann’s ocean front mansion.

The jungle stinks. Under the shiny greenery, and the brightly coloured tropical flowers that line the roadsides like the endless window displays of expensive florists, there is a squelchy mess of putrefaction that smells like a sewer. (p.30)

But dominating everything is the size and noise of the vast metropolis, the appalling smog, the vast tides of people, the canned music spurting from a hundred cheap radios, the garish street markets and the appalling food: Samson the foodie has an amusing prejudice against hispanic cuisine with its countless ways to recycle the same boring tacos and awful reheated bean sludge (in London Match he says: ‘my dislike of Spanish and Portuguese cooking is exceeded only by my dislike of the fiery stodge of Latin America’ (p.185)) , though even here he is never at a loss when it comes to food facts.

[Dicky] read the sign. ‘What are carnitas?’
‘Stewed pork. He’s serving it on chicharrones: pork crackling. You eat the meat, then you eat the plate.’ (p.61)

He may not have realised his wife was a KGB spy, but about food – as about German accents, the map of Berlin, guns, computers and the minutiae of KGB and wartime Nazi organisations – Samson is never wrong.

Expertise

Man of the world As pointed out in my review of Berlin Game, 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 so the text is dotted with offhand insights and knowing asides.

She had that chin-up stance that makes so many Mexicans look as if they are ready to balance a water jug on their heads. (p.23)

Paul Biedermann had become unreservedly American in a way that only Germans are able to do. (p.49)

It was, of course, that sort of evasive temporising that armchair psychologists call ‘displacement activity’. (p.51)

He stubbed out his cigarette. He had that American habit of stubbing them out half smoked. (p.294)

They all kept their hands on their heads, and they all had that patient and passive visage that makes the people of Latin America so recognisably different from the Latin people of Europe. (p.375)

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 is a knowledgable guide to the food of Mexico, and even more so, the tastes and aromas of Europe.

It was an old German custom to offer schnapps with the eel and use the final drain of it to clean the fingers. But like lots of German customs it was now conveniently discontinued. (p.240)

[The coffee] had that bitter smell of the high-roast coffee that the French like so much. (p.295)

War knowledge And as we know from his deeply researched histories of World War Two and the novels based on them, Deighton has an extraordinary knowledge of WWII history, weapons and hardware and, especially, organisational structures.

[The Russians had] gathered together the scattered remnants of SS unit Amt VI F, which from Berlin’s Delbruckstrasse – and using the nearby Spechthausen bei Eberswalde paper factory, and forgers housed in the equally nearby Oranienburg concentration camp – had supervised the manufacture of superb forgeries of everything from Swedish passports to British five-pound notes. (p.260)

Bureaucracy There are countless references to the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Whitehall, to the endless delays of Civil Service bureaucracy, references to characters being worried about their pensions, and so on – the same humorous, long-suffering attitude of the Ipcress narrator.

Then there is the permanent thread of resentment Samson has against public school desk men, and the Oxbridge mafia – ‘those stony-faced Oxbridge men in London Central’ (p.298). There are frequent references to the nepotism and string-pulling which got a lot of their colleagues their jobs (unlike him, of course). It’s not a pose – Samson really doesn’t like these guys.

Morgan was a white-faced Welshman whose only qualification for being in the department were an honours degree in biology and an uncle in the Foreign Office. He looked at me as if I were an insect floating in his drink…. On the day I leave the department I’m going to punch Morgan in the nose. It is a celebration I’ve been promising myself for a long time. (p.309)

And office politics Almost more fatal than anything the KGB can pull is the complex backstabbing, alliance making and breaking, the manoeuvring and manipulation within his own little department, which is going on all the time and which actually makes up a lot of the text. In a sense very little happens in these novels, apart from a few florid scenes – kidnapping by the nurse, the dead body in the safe house, Biedermann poisoned in the cell. Only at the end is there a shootout and positively no car chases.

It is much more psychological than that. The book, both these books, are almost entirely about the rotating ever-shifting relations, the mistrustful probing and evasive conversations between Samson, Cruyer, Rensaeller and Harrington – all the rest is local colour or the minimum amount of events necessary to create a satisfying sense of conspiracy and skulduggery.

And cutting through it all is Samson’s resolute non-Oxford attitude, his contempt for the pipe-smoking, donnish desk jockeys who rule over him, and his sometimes comically crude assessments of what is really going on in the innumerable meetings, conversations and interrogations which the book is full of.

Good old Dicky… He’d realised that this might well turn out to be the opportunity he’d been waiting for; the opportunity to dump a bucket of shit over Bret’s head. (p.311)


Related links

Granada paperback edition of Mexico Match

Granada paperback edition of Mexico 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.

Berlin Game by Len Deighton (1983)

I’d been trying to read other people’s minds for most of my life. It could be a dangerous task. Just as a physician might succumb to hypochondria, a policeman to graft, or a priest to materialism, so I knew that I studied too closely the behaviour of those close to me. Suspicion went with the job, the endemic disease of the spy. For friendships and for marriages it sometimes proved fatal. (p.82)

Samson trilogy

After six books about the Second World War, Deighton returned to the world of espionage with Berlin Game, introducing the 40-something spy Bernard Samson. I imagine he planned it as a trilogy with its sequels, Mexico SetLondon Match but I wonder whether he realised he’d go on to write another six novels about Samson, making a trilogy of trilogies, nine novels in all.

Overview

This is a very enjoyable spy novel. As you’d expect from Deighton, the depth of research and knowledge shine through on every page, in two ways in particular: his description of working for British Intelligence, its central London offices and security procedures, the organisational structure, the paperwork, the office rivalries and politicking, are all convincingly portrayed (who knows whether they bear any resemblance to ‘the truth’). But the main arena for Deighton to display his knowledge is Berlin, the city, its geography, the U-Bahn and seedy back streets, the river and lakes, the people, their customs and their characteristic German accent. Though over half the novel is set in diesel London, Berlin is the imaginative heart of the book.

Bernard Samson

When the novel opens Bernard Samson is just short of his fortieth birthday. He works for Britain’s Intelligence Service – like his father before him, who brought him up in Berlin after the War. Samson is past active field duty and has been safely driving a desk in London for the past five years. He is married to Fiona, herself quite senior in the Service – which struck me as unusual: a husband-and-wife MI6 team! She is from a well-off family and brought a lot of money to the marriage so they live in style – they have a Portuguese cook and two children, Billy and Sally, 10 and 8 years old. In what is presumably the author’s in-joke, Samson is described as wearing horn-rimmed glasses (p.13), as virtually all Deighton’s spies do, and as Deighton himself did in those stylish photos of him from the 1960s.

First person narrator

The novel is told in the first person, from Samson’s point of view (reminding this reader of the first person narratives of the Ipcress novels). The choice of a first person point of view is important because it gives the author all kinds of means of control. In a book told by a third person narrator, like Deighton’s previous novel, Goodbye, Mickey Mouse, there is an expectation that the narrator is being straight with you, telling you the facts, and that they know the facts, as confidently and completely as a historian or a policeman giving evidence. Part of the pathos of GMM comes from the plain, factual style of presentation of what, in the end, become horribly upsetting events.

Samson’s first-person point of view creates a completely different effect. Now we don’t know what the facts are, we don’t really know what’s going on, for two reasons: a) because Samson doesn’t know what’s going on and has to piece it together b) because (just like the Ipcress narrator) at essential moments he skips over key bits of knowledge. The glaring example is towards the end of the book, where he tells the escaping spy von Munte that he knows who the mole in the Department is without even looking at the evidence von Munte has just risked his life to extract from his office (in East Berlin). In fact, he tells von Munte, but he doesn’t tell us – like a crossword, we are meant to have solved the mystery by ourselves with a limited number of clues.

The plot

The plot is complicated but can be summarised quite simply: there’s a communist spy in Samson’s Department of British Intelligence.

It all starts when a high-profile agent working for us in East Germany for decades – codename Brahms Four (who, we eventually learn, is one Dr Walter von Munte, p.266) – announces that he wants to quit and come West. There is debate in the Department about who should be sent to a) check what’s happening b) if necessary, facilitate his escape. From early in the novel it’s clear that Samson, with his background growing up as a child in Berlin and his wide web of local contacts, is the man for the job. But as he makes a few preliminary trips to Berlin, and meets various of his contacts – prompting numerous reminiscences about his childhood there, as the son of a father working for British Intelligence immediately after the war – he (and we) get a sense of far more complex wheels-within-wheels, of a bewildering matrix of relationships which bind together various players. Through this miasma of conversations, hints and tips Samson begins to suspect there is some kind of leak our end.

Rather like John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, most of the emphasis is on a small number of personnel within the Service who we see in a variety of meetings, conversations, dinner parties, in their clubs, at the office, and so on, as they all probe and suspect each other. It’s more like a detective story than a thriller. There are no car chases or shootouts – though there are a few tense moments with guns in pockets – there is one murder (a mistake, as it turns out).

A lot of time is spent by Samson meeting his old contacts in Berlin and piecing together events from five years or so back, when there was a particularly flagrant security leak from the Berlin office. Who was in the office at the time? Who could it have been? The head of the Berlin Office, ageing Frank Harrington, who Samson discovers has squirreled away a foxy young mistress in a house in the Berlin suburbs? But this young woman turns out to be the wife of Werner Volkmann, one of Samson’s schoolboy friends who’s gone on to set up a network in East Germany, ostensibly supporting the work of Brahms Four and a wider network of agents but who, Samson comes to realise, has been using British funds to build up a profitable black market import-export business.

Is it Samson’s immediate boss, Dicky Cruyer – no, too easily confused and panicked, with no German language skills. Or the only American working for the Department, smooth-talking Bret Rensselaer? He had access to the secret information on the night of the leak, and he has certainly built up a nice little empire in Economic Information: maybe he was placed there by the Soviets?

Then again, what about Giles Trent, the nervous bachelor who Samson catches meeting a KGB agent in a Soho chess club, and is making further enquiries about when he makes the surprise move of trying to kill himself (pills). Dicky is on the scene quickly, followed by Samson who is authorised to take Trent to a safe house. Here Samson establishes that Trent has been passing information to Russian contacts, in a complex blackmail set-up which started with his spinster sister being enticed into a love affair with a Russian man, who then started strong-arming Trent into working for them.

Samson has his doubts. It’s all too pat. Letting himself be overheard in the Soho club was amateurish, as were the incriminating bits of equipment (secret radio etc) found in Trent’s flat when it was searched. Almost as if he is a patsy, a deliberate decoy, to distract attention away from the real, much higher-placed, mole. At the safe house Samson bullies and threatens Trent with gaol, not for him but for his sister, unless he co-operates in a plan Samson cooks up to get Trent to continue passing intelligence to his Russian contacts, and offer them a comprehensive breakdown of the whole East German network. The idea being this will flush the high level spy from cover…

Unfortunately, word gets back to the Brahms Four network (ie Trent tells his Russian controller he is about to pass on a goldmine which will blow apart the East German networks, which the East German networks find out about and take seriously) and one of them comes over to London, ostensibly to meet Samson, but in fact to assassinate Trent. With Samson’s gun, borrowed for the purpose. It is an embarrassing moment when Samson has to tell one of this old Berlin friend, when he returns a day or two later with a now-used gun, that he has murdered Trent on a misunderstanding, in fact contrary to Samson’s own cunningly contrived plan, in fact… partly because of him.

Last, and hardest to contemplate, there is Samson’s own wife. In the first half of the novel Deighton plants seeds of doubt about whether she is having an affair. Rich, attractive, younger than him, she has worked her way up in the Department on her own merit. Having done modern languages at Oxford she speaks good German and Russian. She has access to high level information and, on several occasions when he calls late at night, doesn’t answer the phone. Does she get lonely during his frequent trips to Berlin? Has she started to have an affair? A colleague at the Department reports that he saw her being taken out to dinner by smooth-talking Bret Rensselaer: is she sleeping with him?

Deighton shows us plenty of domestic scenes, as they drive with the kids out to Silas Gaunt’s big Cotswold house for a posh weekend party or go to their son’s sports day, or make dinner, eat, drink, watch the telly or go to bed together, during which there is the usual to-and-fro of married banter, but slowly more interspersed with tougher questions, until Samson eventually accuses her flat-out of having an affair…

they negotiate that difficulty (she flatly denies it) but behind the (possible) personal betrayal, a far worse doubt is growing in Samson’s mind: the possibility that she, his wife, may be the high-level mole. Now he thinks about it, she was introduced to him at a party all those years ago when he was already a junior officer in the Department and he helped his new love to get a job within the Department (he seconded her application): was it all a set=up? Fro the very beginning was the entire affair, and then marriage, planned by a cold-hearted, scheming KGB agent and her controllers? Has he spent the past 14 or so years providing the perfect cover for her treacherous spying?

Could it be Fiona? It’s got to be one of them…. hasn’t it?

(If crime thrillers seeking to identify the murderer are ‘whodunnits’, then spy thrillers which are about tracking down ‘moles’ and double agents, are ‘whoisits’.)

Dramatis personae

In the service

  • Bernard Samson – 40-something intelligence agent, sardonic, clever, tough.
  • Fiona – his wife who, quite early on, he starts to suspect is having an affair with…
  • Bret Rensselaer – mid-fifties, confident American (an American high up in MI6?), head of the Economics Intelligence Committee, is he having an affair with Fiona? They were see together in a restaurant; when confronted she replies that he was vetting her, all senior personnel are having private interviews… maybe…
  • Tessa – Fiona’s younger sister, posh, feisty, married to George an art dealer who’s always away so she’s having an affair with Samson’s boss, Dicky Cruyer, in between teasing Bernard.
  • Sir Henry Clevemore – very pukka old fogey, Director-General of the Department who Samson thinks is almost gaga (p.52).
  • Richard ‘Dicky’ Cruyer – Controller of German Stations, Samson’s immediate boss, who he thinks is permanently confused and too dim to be the mole. He agrees with Dicky to keep the Trent suicide attempt secret for the time being…
  • Giles Trent – nervous, older operative in the Department who Samson tails to confirm he is meeting a KGB agent at a Soho chess club but before he can be hauled in for interrogation, Trent tries to kill himself. Revived he is kept in a ‘safe house’ where Samson bullies him into continuing to feed information to the Russians, including a bogus plan to blow the entire East German network, a plan which results in Trent being assassinated by one of that network, a man Samson knows well.
  • Frank Harrington – fussy, worried head of the Berlin office, 60, about to retire, is he a double agent?
  • Silas Gaunt – retired, fat bon viveur with an enormous house in the Cotswolds where he holds ‘weekends’, himself a former member of the Department, so the weekend described in the novel turns into an unofficial meeting with Cruyer and Rensselaer on how to handle the Brahms Four situation.

Other characters

  • Werner Volkmann – old friend in Berlin who Samson grew up with, allegedly doing badly in business after being boycotted by the Department, but who Samson finds flourishing, and who turns out to be a vital help in the book’s final tense scenes in East Berlin.
  • Zena, Werner’s wife, supposedly run off with a Coca Cola salesman, Samson finds her shacked up in a love nest paid for by none other than Frank Hutchinson, head of Berlin office! But when Samson spooks her, then watches the house to see what she’ll do, he is surprised to see her leaving in a car driven by her supposedly cuckolded husband, Werner. What are they up to?
  • Rolf Mauser – an ageing member of the East Berlin network, who visits Samson in London very mysteriously, not telling him he’s about to carry out the ill-judged execution of Trent – and who puts Samson up on his last, tense mission to East Berlin.
  • Dr Walter von Munte – the agent codenamed Brahms Four who, although he has been supplying information from the Deutsche Notebank, through which came banking clearances for the whole of East Germany, to Bret Rensselaer’s section for twenty years – helping Bret’s empire-building and rise to power – is actually only known by name and sight to Samson. Twenty years earlier Munte came back to save Samson when he was about to be caught by the Stasi in Weimar, which is why Samson is honour-bound to go back to Berlin and save him, now. (There is a good overview of von Munte’s role in London Match, page 48.)

Finale

All these complicated strands – and Deighton’s encyclopedic knowledge of Berlin – are pulled together when Samson takes it upon himself to get Frank Harrington (who he now knows is not the spy) to smuggle him into the East (through Berlin’s underground tunnels at midnight). The plan is to co-ordinate the Brahms network (with help from Rolf and Werner) to smuggle out von Munte and his wife.

These final thirty or so pages are tense to start with, but Deighton piles on the pressure when it becomes clear the Stasi have been tipped off about his mission and are one small step behind him, arriving to arrest Rolf Mause while Samson himself is in the (long, unlit) hallway of the same building, before he is whisked away by the dependable Volkmann, but then nearly caught by the Stasi when he rendezvous with von Munte’s wife at their East Berlin allotment hut, before the climax – a chase through the woods next to the Müggelsee, a lake to the east of Berlin, on a public holiday when the area is crowded with singing, jostling drunks, Samson weaving through the crowd trying to draw the pursuers away from old von Munte as he runs to the safety of Volkmann’s waiting car.

In decoying the Stasi agents away from von Munte, Samson lets himself be captured and taken to Stasi HQ in Normannenstraße. And this is the final scene of the novel, as his captors – and Samson – wait for the high-level KGB colonel who is the mole, the spy in the Department, to arrive. We know now that the mole knows that Samson has got hold of the evidence which clinches their identity, a hand-written document, part of the security leak back in 1978 which found its way to the KGB files and which von Munte risked his neck to go to his office to secure. Thus alerted that their identity is known, they have had to flee from London and, Samson is confident, will be forced to make a deal to release him.

Who will it be? Will the betrayal turn out to be bitterly personal as well as professional?

Prose

To say that Deighton has a number of prose styles might be overstating it; but he has a number of prose strategies which he deploys on different occasions and with varying degrees of success:

Plain Most of the text is in flat, plain, unadorned prose. Functional. I speculated in my reviews of his histories Blitzkrieg and Fighter that the enormous amount of research he put into them, presumably reading thousands of pages of bureaucratic documents, administrative papers, official histories and so on, all written in dead, flat, factual style, had had a flattening, deadening impact on Deighton’s fictional prose.

I sipped a little beer and looked round the room. It was a barren place; no books, no pictures, no music, no carpet. Just a TV, a sofa, two armchairs and a coffee table with a vase of plastic flowers. In the corner, a newspaper was laid out to protect the floor against oil. On it were the pieces of a dismantled racing bicycle that was being repaired to make a birthday present for his teenage son. (p.137)

No colour, no metaphors or similes, no interpretation, no overview or opinion about the scene. Just the facts. The bare facts.

After I rang off, I returned to my desk. When I unwrapped the pistol, I found a series of holes in the woollen scarf. Rolf Mauser had wrapped the gun in it before shooting Trent. A revolver can’t be silenced any other way. I had to use a magnifying glass for a clear sight of the marks left on the bullet cases by the process of hand-loading. There was no doubt that the bullets had been specially prepared by someone with gunsmith’s tools and powder measure. (p.249)

Facts. Technical knowledge. Spycraft. Delivered in plain, colourless prose.

Dry humour The welcome return to the first person narrator allows humour to re-enter Deighton’s world. Samson’s voice is a repeat or an echo of the cocky, sardonic narrator of the Ipcress novels, and there are some very funny moments when he deflates his bosses’ pretentions.

His visit to the estranged Mrs Volkmann in the house where Frank keeps her and where, it turns out, she is in charge of a kennel full of aggressive Alsatian dogs, combines vivid description of the setting with the main purpose – to try and establish what, if anything, Frank has been betraying to her, and whether she is working for the Russians or for the Brahms network – gilded with sly jokes.

I could see a wired compound and a brick outbuilding where some dogs were crowding at the gate trying to get out. ‘Good dog,’ I said, but I don’t think they heard me… She looked at my face. Whatever she saw there amused her, for she smiled to show perfect white teeth. So did the dog. (p.144)

Class consciousness One comedic, or sardonic, running thread is Samson’s permanent awareness/grudge that his superiors in the Department all went to public school and Oxford (notably Balliol college, famous to this day for its course in Politics, Philosophy and Economics). He has the same chippy, contemptuous attitude to this upper class mafia as the Ipcress narrator had. Right at the end his East German Stasi interrogator says:

‘How lucky you are not having the Party system working against you all the time.’
‘We have got it,’ I said. ‘It’s called Eton and Oxbridge.’ (p.318)

Relationships In my review of Goodbye, Mickey Mouse I argued that a new type of discourse had entered Deighton’s fiction, surprisingly obvious and banal truisms about relationships, about human psychology, and dodgy generalisations about gender. They crop up here, too.

I turned to go, but women won’t let anything end like that. They always have to sit you down at the table for a lecture, or write you a long letter, or make sure they have not just the last word but the last thought too. (p.324)

The Ipcress narrator had girlfriends but the nuts and bolts of the relationships – in fact sometimes almost everything about them – was only slyly hinted at. I liked that. These last few novels have become more middle-aged, with frequent generalisations about men and women and married life and parents and children which I found not only otiose, but worked against the illusion that the protagonist is sharp and clever. They make the characters look dull and predictable.

Knowledge Not only must the thriller writer display his (vastly) superior knowledge about spy organisations, the police, hardware and so on, but about the more devious aspects of human nature. He must display his knowledge of men, of the ways of the world.

He had the compulsive desire to drink and nibble that is often a sign of nervousness. (p.114)

His face was tanned in that very even way that comes from sun reflected off the Pulverschnee that only falls on very expensive ski resorts. (p.84)

We want to trust the thriller writer, to put ourselves in the hands of a vastly more worldly-wise, far-travelled, and sophisticated mentor. And so…

Old It is obligatory for all thrillers to refer to the protagonist suddenly feeling old, the implication being that living such a rough, tough life ages you, weighs you down with experiences, feelings, knowledge we ordinary mortals (the readers) just can’t understand. Samson is at his son’s sports day.

I watched the race. Good grief, the energy those kids had; it made me feel very old. (p.211)

I’d forgotten what it was like to be a newly ‘deposited’ field agent with false papers and a not very convincing cover story. I was too old for it. (p.257)

TV adaptation

The entire trilogy was adapted for TV by Granada, starring Ian Holm as Samson. Full details on Wikipedia. I’d love to see it. What a drag it’s not available in any format. All I can find is this trailer copied from what looks like a VHS recording of the Australian broadcast.

Related links

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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