Spy Story by Len Deighton (1974)

Dawlish collected my empty cup. ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Pat! You’re dripping blood all over the carpet.’
‘It won’t show,’ I said. ‘Not in that lovely humming bird pattern.’ (p.193)

Hooray! The anonymous protagonist of Deighton’s Ipcress novels is back! We know (well, suspect) this because the narrator recognises jovial, plump Soviet agent, Colonel Stok who pops up at various key points of the plot, just like he did in Funeral In Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain – and because Dawlish, his boss in the Ipcress novels (head of WOOC(P)), crops up here as the narrator’s ex-boss. And because he has the same cheeky chappy approach to his job, his wife and life. Surely it’s the same guy?

The plot

He appears to have escaped (retired, been pensioned off) from the Secret Service and now, under the name Pat Armstrong, is working at a computerised war games simulation centre in a Gothic revival house in north London. It’s still a bit hush-hush but he is no longer an agent in the field, he has a flat and a nice wife, Marjorie, who is a doctor — even if his and his colleagues’ lives are disturbed a bit by the arrival of brashtalking US Marine Colonel Schlegel, who has been seconded from the States and put in charge of the war games centre.

BUT strange things start to happen after he’s returned from the latest in his routine trips out with nuclear subs under the ice. The car he and his colleague are travelling in is rammed and nearly driven off the road. Then, back in London, when his car breaks down he makes an unscheduled visit to his old flat (for which he happens to still have the key) and is astonished to find it is still full of clothes like his, books like his, photos of him, except looking slightly different – as if in every way someone is impersonating him.

Strangest of all, he uncovers a fake back to the wardrobe which leads into the next door flat, the first room of which has been converted into some kind of medical facility with machines. He goes home and doesn’t mention it to his wife…

A few days later, after his wife has left for work, the door is kicked open and he is attacked by East European goons who are in a fair way to killing him before they are called off the last minute by Colonel Stok, the same stocky, genially thuggish Soviet agent we have met in the Ipcress novels. But they continue to ransack his flat and blow up the old wall safe looking for something, before leaving without any explanation.

A few days later there is a big set-piece dinner party at the enormous house of Armstrong’s very upper-class colleague, Ferdy Foxwell. An MP, a professor, a philosopher, some Lords etc. Over port they discuss current affairs in a right-wing kind of way. Also attending is Armstrong’s old boss, Dawlish, who we know from the Ipcress novels to be head of WOOC(P), a part of British Intelligence. He smoothly invites Armstrong to rejoin the Service. Armstrong bluntly refuses.

But the strange thing is that, later that night, he’s called to the police station to collect one of the guests, a publicity-seeking MP named Ben Toliver, who had hogged the limelight at the dinner party but then been involved in an obscure car crash with East European heavies driving a lorry. Toliver completely denies the acccident took place and is backed up by the young lady who was in the car at the time.

What is going on?

Turns out a renegade group of right-wing Brits led by the egregious MP Ben Toliver has concocted an elaborate plan to smuggle a willing Soviet Navy Admiral into the country and keep him safe for a while in Armstrong’s old flat using his identity. Hence the old clothes, books, possessions and lightly doctored photos which he found there. And hence the medical room containing a dialysis machine, since the Admiral has kidney disease and the clique are luring him to the West with the promise of better medical care and a kidney transplant.

Armstrong’s snooping takes him to a chi-chi French restaurant where he eyes up the sexy young owner and the gawky unwell waiter; she says come back at lunchtime. He picks up his wife Marjorie and takes her there for lunch only to find it completely abandoned. To his wife’s horror, Armstrong breaks in. Every scrap of paper or evidence is gone, along with the girl. Outside he realises the place is under surveillance. His wife catches a cab back to her hospital work, then a Special Branch car pulls up and asks Armstrong to get in. Reluctantly he does and is driven to a heliport, from which a helicopter flies him to an airfield from which a small plane flies him to a tiny island off the Scottish coast.

Here he is greeted by Toliver and his crew, an eccentric circle of huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, right-wing types who are all involved in the conspiracy. Quite honestly, I didn’t understand why they brought Armstrong there. It seemed obvous to me he would betray them and he does. Are they that dim?

After a predictable grand meal with much port and right-wing chat, Armstrong goes up to bed to find a piece of paper slipped under his door indicating a rendezvous in the dilapidated greenhouse. When he goes there he is surprised by none other than the sexy restaurateur who turns out to be the loyalist daughter of one of the conspirators and tries to shoot him with a shot gun, wounding him in the arm and side on her second attempt.

Badly injured and losing blood, Armstrong has a nightmare escape around the precarious clifftops of the island in a howling blizzard, at one point disturbing a vast colony of gulls which attack him like a scene from The Birds. Finally he makes it across the ramshackle derelict footbridge to the mainland and stumbles into the nearest village more dead than alive.

Where, in a scene reminiscent of a 1950s farce, he encounters not only soldiers prepped for action, but his bosses Dawlish and Schlegel in an outlandishly garish holiday camper trailer where they offer him a cup of tea and cake and then complain that he’s bleeding on the carpet (see quote at top).

Unsurprise

This is a distinguishing feature of Deighton’s fiction, the lack of surprise, the understatement, the dry wit, the playing-it-cool. Some pretty strange things happen – your whole life is being replicated in your old flat by complete strangers, you get beaten up by Russian thugs – yet he carries on making coffee in the morning, going to work, arranging to go out with his wife, ho hum.

On the ice

The final 50 or 60 pages are completely different in feel from everything which preceded them, as big Ferdy, the narrator and Schlegel ship out on a nuclear submarine under the Arctic. In a move which makes less sense the more you think about it, the bosses (Dawlish and Schlegel) seem to have quietly accepted that this renegade team led by Toliver can go ahead with their madcap scheme of getting hold of a Soviet Admiral; despite the attempt of one of them to murder the narrator. They make no attempt to cross to the island or capture the gang.

Instead they put the narrator up with a hoary old Scotsman who nurses him back to health over the next few days. Then Schlegel arrives with Ferdy and they all drive along to the nearby nuclear sub base where they are accepted aboard a nuclear sub for the next patrol under the ice.

The journey under the ice is conveyed with Deighton’s trademark technical knowledge and provides the only real stretches of tension in the book, as Schlegel forces the captain to navigate genuinely dangerous routes under the pack ice, before compelling him to surface so that Schlegel can receive a radio call.

It is a pre-arranged signal from the Russian conspirators and prompts Schlegel, Ferdy and the narrator to walk a mile or so across the ice with the corpse. Corpse? Fifty pages back Armstrong’s wife had recounted seeing Toliver at her hospital arguing with the morgue people: presumably he was arguing about getting hold of a corpse which had recently died of kidney disease. The plan is to give the Admiral’s people the corpse, so they can dress it in an Admiral’s uniform and crash the helicopter and burn the corpse or in some other way pretend the Admiral has died. Thereby covering his defection. By this stage I was confused about the extent to which Schlegel and his team are going along with Toliver’s plan. What has happened to Toliver and co?

But in a move which is now becoming quite familiar, Ferdy, Schlegel and the narrator are greeted at the Soviet helicopter on the ice, not by the Admiral’s people but by – guess who? – Colonel Stok. That guy turns up whenever Deighton’s plot has painted itself into a corner.

He is accompanied by the same toughs who beat Armstrong up in his flat and a fight breaks out, before the helicopter takes off with the toughs holding on to Ferdy, and Armstrong foolishly grabbing Ferdy’s legs. Up into the air they fly till Armstrong fires into the cockpit, wounding the tough holding Ferdy who lets go, and he and Armstrong plummet to the ground. Ouch. Some time later Armstrong regains consciousness and begins a gruelling march across the ice to where he hopes the submarine is, supporting the injured and incoherent Ferdy all the way.

Deighton doesn’t really do tragic or intense. He is far too suave and knowing. Colonel Stok’s appearances have an element of pantomime about them and defuse any tension. Poor fat Ferdy ‘dies’ on the long march back to the submarine, but this doesn’t appear to dent anyone’s mood.

Compare & contrast with the intense, totally serious and viscerally thrilling account of surviving on the ice in Alistair MacLean’s riveting novels The Longest Night or Ice Station Zebra to see how essentially lightweight, comic and entertaining Deighton is.

What happened

Armstrong wakes up in a Norwegian hospital bed, having been found by a search team from the sub and brought back under sedation to civilisation. Again, this final scene is played for comedy, with Schlegel explaining what the whole cockamamy mission was about while Dawlish comments archly between slowly eating the grapes he himself brought Armstrong (in a gag I’m sure I’ve seen in countless old movies).

Turns out the Department allowed Toliver’s silly plan to go ahead because they knew it would fail and Stok and his KGB colleagues would foil it – at which point the Admiral would be arrested and sent to Siberia and so would all of his family, and this includes his sister. And his sister was about to head the Soviet delegation to the Reunification of Germany talks which have been mentioned intermittently throughout the novel, glimpsed in newspaper headlines or overheard on the radio.

So everything that happened, the beatings and violence and deaths and deceptions, were all part of a calculated plan to scupper the Germany reunification talks, which would have had a devastating impact on NATO and Western security. Aha.

The novel ends on a belly laugh as, once Armstrong has digested this rather mind-bending scenario – and is swallowing the fact that he’s lost his job, his cover, his girl (she leaves him half way through the book) and nearly his life (twice) — Dawlish tentatively wonders if he would consider helping them out with a little problem they’ve got… small security thing… would he be interested?

Conclusion

My son looked at the book and said, ‘Has he given up on titles, then?’ Surely Len could have thought of something a bit more inventive.

Just like the Ipcress novels, each chapter opens with a themed epigraph – here, they are excerpts from the War Studies book of rules eg

The actions of the civil power will not be included in the TACWARGAME.
RULES. ‘TACWARGAME’. STUDIES CENTRE. LONDON

which have a similarly cool, tangential relationship to the actual plot as in the earlier novels i none that I could discern.

But, in a way that is hard to define, the thrill has gone. The style is a lot more open and readable than the Ipcress novels and, well, more boring. It allows you to follow the plot and spot what seemed (to me, anyway) to be great yawning holes of improbability. These also occurred in the earlier books but were masked by the dazzlingly elliptical presentation.

Ten years into his (prolific) writing career, Deighton’s style has married, settled down, had kids and got a mortgage. Despite flashes of brilliance, and the same highly knowledgable, urbane tone, he’s not the flashy young joker he used to be…

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Paperback cover of Spy Story

Paperback cover of Spy Story

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.

Billion Dollar Brain by Len Deighton (1966)

‘There’s only one General Winter,’ Stok said, ‘and he’s on our side.’ (p.229)

In the year England won the World Cup, Len published the fourth in his series of spy novels about the unnamed employee of the WOOC(P) section (the initials are never explained) of British Intelligence.

First thing you notice is there’s less of the paraphernalia – none of the ‘Secret File 1’ and ‘2’ which were stamped on the covers of its predecessor The Ipcress File and Horse Under Water. Still divided into sections and chapters but these only have children’s nursery rhymes as epigraphs, not the elaborate crossword clues of Horse nor the chess tips of Funeral In Berlin. (Not that I’ve ever heard any of these nursery rhymes. Just possibly he’s made them up. Reading Deighton makes you suspicious of everything.)

Hey diddle dinkety, poppety, pet,
The merchants of London, they wear scarlet,
Silk in the collar and gold in the hem,
So merrily march the merchant men. (p.171)

There are fewer footnotes and only three appendices. The text is longer, with some paragraphs sounding a bit anonymous, just good effective description, lacking the zing of almost every sentence in Ipcress. And I felt in some way there was more of a focus on character, less on style: the young Finnish girl Signe, and the KGB colonel, Stok, both emerge very clearly as strong characters, in a way characters in earlier novels didn’t so much. In the end, the entire novel feels like an enquiry into the fantasy-driven manic-depressive character of Harvey Newbegin, the Russian emigre turned double agent, who struggles to tell fact from fantasy.

Altogether, it feels a tad less ‘zany’ and elliptical than the previous three novels, a tad more traditional – though still very obviously from the same stable.

The plot

Helsinki Snow and cold. The Narrator is told by his boss Dawlish to adopt a false name, Liam Dempsey of Eire, and visit a correspondent, Olaf Kaarna, in Helsinki. Liam finds Olaf dead in his apartment, covered in raw egg (?). As the Narrator explores the apartment, the lift comes up and he encounters a 17-year-old Finnish beauty, Signe Laine. She clumsily tells him she’s working for British Military Intelligence then introduces him to her lover, who is none other than the American ex-agent Harvey Newbegin. We encountered this man in Funeral In Berlin where he was being dismissed from the US State Department, and the Narrator suggested to his boss they recruit him, though this is blocked by higher-ups.

England Instead the Narrator allows himself to be recruited by Newbegin for his organisation. Newbegin explains it’s run by a right-wing American billionaire (General Midwinter) who plans to overthrow the Soviet Union. He despatches the Narrator back to London to make a secret rendezvous with one Pike. Pike takes him to meet his brother, Dr Ralph Pike, a research scientist (though pretending to be posh English, both are obviously foreign, the Narrator finds out Latvian, Stok later reveals, Latvian war criminals). They give him a package to deliver back to Helsinki. Once alone the Narrator takes it to Dawlish and his people – it is a pack of six eggs stolen from the Porton Down Research Institute. Aha. Germ warfare. They switch them for a pack of harmless household eggs and the Narrator sets off to fly back to Helsinki. However, at the airport his luggage and everyone else’s is stolen, including the eggs.

Helsinki Back in Helsinki the Narrator allows himself to be seduced by the teenage Signe. She tells him all about Newbegin’s spiteful wife back in the US and how Newbegin is sending a lot of the money he gets paid back to his wife’s bank account. Seems as if Newbegin is obeying the instructions of his employer but, cynically, doesn’t expect the plan to succeed.

Newbegin tells him more about the organisation – all the missions are worked out by a massive computer, all agents report back to it whether successful or failed, and the computer calculates new plans and orders. They call it the Brain.

Helsinki Newbegin and the Narrator receive the biochemist Dr Pike from London, equip him in parachute gear, rendezvous with a plane on the ice which takes off to parachute Dr Pike over Russia. The Narrator doesn’t know what Dr Pike intends to do there but thinks he’ll be captured immediately. Newbegin is cynical about the whole deal, and is just taking the money.

Leningrad Newbegin and the Narrator fly to Leningrad and rendezvous with an Italian girdle salesman named Fragolli. They exchange the eggs – aha – so the Narrator realises they were stolen at the airport by someone working for ‘the Organisation’. Fragolli says the Narrator has to memorise a message and fly to Riga with it. The Narrator meets up on the Leningrad metro with another familiar face, Colonel Oleg Stok, the joking KGB officer from Funeral In Berlin.

He was a heavy muscular man of about sixty. He had a round face that hadn’t done much smiling until middle age, and an uptilted nose that perhaps had been busted and reset by a plumber. His eyes were small black sentries that marched up and down, and his hands were bunches of bananas unsold over the weekend. (p.91)

The hold-up Stok warns our man not to get caught up with these fantasists but the Narrator travels out to the frozen woods outside Riga to help with the ambush of a Soviet truck carrying supplies: the bald-headed man in charge wants the ration books which will reveal a lot about front line troops dispositions. But the gangsters he’s hired are just thugs and, once they’ve intercepted the truck, they casually kill the bald-headed man and it’s only by assaulting the lead gangster who’s holding a machine gun and then running into the woods that the Narrator survives. Here he bumps into the mounted Soviet army unit which is about to surround the gangsters, and gets hit over the head, knocked unconscious.

Regains consciousness in a barracks under a pile of corpses and terrifies the guard who enters and thought he was dead. Then enters Colonel Stok (he turns up everywhere like the fairy godmother). Told you not to go, he says. He takes the Narrator to a restaurant where they see Dr Ralph Pike enter and spot them. Narrator realises he is being set up – Pike’s arrest will coincide with the Narrator being seen with Stok, and Midwinter’s Organisation will think the Narrator betrayed him.

New York and General Midwinter Next the Narrator leaves Russia and flies in to New York where he meets the short billionaire ‘general’ giving a fancy dress party at which Mozart is being played by a live chamber orchestra. Newbegin is there and very drunk but he and the Narrator dance a duet together. Later that night Signe turns up as he’s eating in a diner. It’s not a chance encounter: the Organisation instruct him to move in with her. She continues to tell the Narrator about her confused love affair with Newbegin, while seducing him.

Texas Next the Narrator flies in Midwinter’s private jet to Houston Texas, is driven north to the general’s big private ranch. Lots of security, and ‘the Brain’ turns out to be a three-storey building, complete with airlocks, compulsory showers and antiseptic white clothing before you can enter the dirt-free white corridors around which are located the vast $100 million servers of the largest computer in the world, all tape and punch cards – very 1960s. The Narrator does the 14-day induction course to enter the Organisation. Also sees the tensions in Newbegin’s marriage from close-up: Mrs N is the general’s right-hand lady, tough and ambitious for her husband, while Newbegin secretly thinks it’s bunk.

New York The General summons the Narrator to his skyscraper, where he’s doing riding an exercise bike in the centre of a vast gym or, later, watches hawks among New York’s high-rise buildings with binoculars. Turns out Newbegin has done a bunk across the Mexican border. The General asks the Narrator to track him down. The Narrator tells the General that his plans are mad, that the Russians will never ‘rise up’ against their rulers, that Newbegin faked the British and Finland ‘networks’, pocketing the funds he was given for fake agents, and stashing all the money in a bank account held by Mrs Newbegin.

Charlotte Street Back in his dingy Charlotte Street office, the Narrator discusses the case so far with his boss, Dawlish (and allows the reader to catch their breath).

  • Newbegin faking agents and salting away their pay
  • Newbegin passing all the Organisation’s information on to the Russians, who are probably also paying him
  • Newbegin arranged assassination of Kaarna at the start of the plot, because he was finding out too much
  • Newbegin arranges the theft of the (switched, non-Porton Down) eggs at the airport
  • Newbegin tries to have the Narrator assassinated by the gangsters on the road outside Riga
  • Newbegin suggests to Stok that he be seen with the Narrator just before Pike is picked up, thus throwing suspicion on the Narrator. (The General had spotted the reason for this last ploy: casting suspicion on the Narrator gave Newbegin just the extra bit of time he needed to make his arrangements to flee across the border into Mexico and then – who knows where?)

Track him down, says Dawlish, if necessary, get rid of him. But in fact Newbegin comes to the Narrator’s flat in London and asks a) can he be given a home by British Intelligence (No) b) can he hide out there for a few days (Yes) c) will the Narrator come to Helsinki to persuade Signe to run away with him (Reluctant yes).

The Narrator takes some other agents and the police to arrest Dr Pike for smuggling the virus eggs out of Porton Down, a broadly comic scene counterpointed with the very smart party his wife struggles to continue hosting downstairs.

Helsinki Newbegin and the Narrator fly back to Helsinki and are met with Signe who has fixed up a dummy apartment to decoy any tails, and a secret apartment where they go and hide out. (How do they do this without British police and/or American agents noticing?) Uncharacteristically, the Narrator tells us what is going on ie Dawlish ordered him to have Newbegin arrested by American agents not on British soil, for minimum embarrassment. Newbegin is convinced he wants to defect. They get on a train to Leningrad, and are kissed goodbye at the station by Signe. On the train journey Newbegin tells the Narrator he really loves Signe, she really loves him. He also says it was Signe who assassinated Kaarna as well as several other agents- in fact, she is the Organisation’s assassin in the region. –As she has told so many flighty fancies it is difficult to know if this is true or not.

On the train Newbegin and the Narrator talk, the latter trying to persuade him not to defect, to do a deal with Midwinter. Russian border guards order Newbegin off the train, then try to shoot him but he just about makes it back to the train as it pulls off. Newbegin accuses them of being his, the Narrator’s agents; the Narrator counters that they were US agents paid to assassinate him. They make it Leningrad and are walking down the Nevsky Prospekt, Newbegin saying he feels ill, his elbow hurts, everything is black, and then he suddenly steps out in front of a bus and is instantly killed. What? Standing behind the Narrator is Colonel Stok (he turns up everywhere) who whistles up a Zis car and takes the Narrator directly to the airport.

Epilogue As with all the other novels, you feel the bulk of the story is over, but there’s a final act. Back in Britain, the Narrator and Jean are ordered to drive down to Salisbury where Dr Pike’s brother is being kept in a mental ward by the Army, overseen by Ross, the Narrator’s boss in The Ipcress File. Reason being, revealing that top secret viruses were being smuggled out of Porton Down would damage our relationship with the Americans. They are to pressurise him into writing a letter to his wife telling her to emigrate – because Ross has tipped off Special Branch who are going to arrest her, for it was she who actually handled the stolen eggs, and evidence has just come in that she couriered another stolen set to Russia just a week earlier.

The Narrator and Jean track Mrs Pike down to a prep school Christmas show and there is another farcical scene where their whispered argument backstage is counterpointed with the innocent children singing nursery rhymes on stage. She agrees to go. In a comic last page Dawlish admonishes the Narrator for turning up at passport control with a child still wearing its panto costume.

Killer?

I personally didn’t understand whether the Narrator did or didn’t push Newbegin in front of that bus. And there’s a suspicion that the assassins who tried to kill Newbegin in the snow might have been British. What to believe? Nothing more is heard of the Midwinter organisation, as if this setback would have neutralised it, which seems unlikely…


Class consciousness

Most of the British agents went to public school, as did the Narrator’s boss, Dawlish (Harrow).

‘What are the socialists going to do about the public schools?’ he asked. I was one of the few grammar-school boys that Dawlish ever came in contact with. He considered me an authority on all aspects of left-wing politics…
‘Send their sons to them,’ I said. (p.188)

Olde England

Just placing a chapter describing New York with its millionaires, 24-hour culture, aggressive, competitive, can-do atmosphere, before a chapter describing the offices of the Narrator’s intelligence unit, with its rickety stairs, badly fitting carpet, peeling wallpaper, and fires that don’t work, is satire without lifting a finger.

Influence of films

Difficult to tell the direct influence of films and the experience of film-making on thriller writers – Greene, Ambler, Innes, MacLean, le Carre, Deighton, all had plenty of movies based on their novels. But what is for the first time slightly detectable in this book is the anxiety, the self-consciousness, which thriller writers acquire, as they realise the kinds of scenarios and scenes and dialogues they are inventing often come perilously close to those used up and turned into clichés by the vast film factory. They then all develop this strange compulsion to highlight the fact that the scenes and dialogue sound as if they’re coming from bad films – as if that somehow defuses the issue instead of highlighting it…

So we meet again, Colonel Stok?’ I said like they say it in films. (p.92)

I splashed more [cold water] over my face. It looks therapeutic in movies but it made me feel worse than ever. (p.107)

[She] sipped at the champagne and narrowed her eyes at me in a gesture of passion that she had seen in some bad film. (p.143)

We show some of them the dirty tricks, but it’s pretty elementary because none of those boys are likely to be used in any sort of field work. They don’t get much more out of it than they would from reading a James Bond paperback. (p.148)

Raymond Chandler

My feeling in the earlier novels that Deighton was channeling Raymond Chandler, especially in the American sections or around American characters, is confirmed by the scenes set in New York and Houston in this book. Not oppressively – he retains his own oblique English attitude. But sometimes:

The prowl-car boys handed me downstairs and gave me the hands-flat-against-the-roof-of-the-car routine while they frisked me. (p.169)

Humour

Still plenty of dead-pan humour.

[The chauffeur] rolled a cigarette across the width of his mouth without using his hands. I followed him. I’d follow anyone who can do that. (p.147)

Jazz

The Narrator is old enough to be a jazz fan, and not to like the still-not-quite-born-yet rock music. When he thinks he might be about to die he jokingly hopes his sister will get his hi-fi and LP collection ‘some of the Goodman ones are quite valuable’, meaning the Benny Goodman albums. Jean sends him a message in New York asking him to bring back discs by John Coltrane, Roland Kirk and Sonny Rollins (p.136).

Related links

1966 Penguin paperback cover of Billion Dollar Brain

1966 Penguin paperback cover of Billion Dollar Brain

The movie

This novel was made into the third of the trilogy of movies starring Michael Caine as Deighton’s unnamed spy who, for the purpose of the movies, is named Harry Palmer. It was directed by once-notorious British director Ken Russell and is one of his least preposterous creations. As a reviewer on Amazon pithily puts it:

‘Ipcress’ is brilliant.
‘Funeral’ is good.
‘Brain’ is weird but watchable.

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.

Funeral In Berlin by Len Deighton (1964)

‘What I’d like is an interest-free loan of eight hundred quid to buy a new car’, I said.
Dawlish gently packed tobacco into the bowl of his pipe with a match. He put the pipe into his mouth before looking up at me.
‘Yes,’ he finally said.
‘Yes I want it or yes I can have it?’ I said.
‘Yes, everything they say about you is true,’ said Dawlish. ‘Go away and let me work.’ (Chapter 13)

Funeral In Berlin, the third novel of the Ipcress File tetralogy, strikes me as being more relaxed and funnier than its predecessors.

‘Do you ever imagine what it would be like to be on the moon?’ Sam said.
‘Nearly all the time,’ I said. (Ch 15)

The humour works better and the disconnected, angular style is, initially at least, less impenetrable than in The Ipcress File. Several times I even thought I knew what was going on.

‘I never joke, Chico. The truth is quite adequately hilarious.’ (Ch 13)

Street smart

Just slightly pre-Swinging Sixties, when people still talked about ‘beatniks’ and hang out in Soho coffee bars and the most raucous sounds seem to come from loud jazz. A world where the nameless narrator is keen to demonstrate his street smarts, his cool, his savvy.

Charlotte Street runs north from Oxford Street and there are few who will blame it. By mid-morning they are writing out the menus, straining yesterday’s fat, dusting the plastic flowers and the waiters are putting their moustaches on with eyebrow pencils. (Ch 13)

The colour and detail of ‘pads’ which are about to feature in colour supplements about Jean Shrimpton or Burt Bacharach.

I walked into the lounge. It was about thirty foot of ankle-high carpeting from silk wall to silk wall. The cocktail cabinet was in the corner. I opened it and was socked in the head by pink neon. (Ch 14)

And yet, as I’ve noted before, the cool of Deighton (b. 1929) is combined with what later generations, or even the Beatles generation (b.1940) would think of as still very high-brow intellectual pursuits: when he wines and dines the sexy American girl he’s picked up – or who’s picked him up – they agree to go to a concert at the South Bank of Charles Ives, Berg and Schoenberg. In fact the Schoenberg piece – Variations for Wind band – appears three times, in different places, like a leitmotiv.

Security Service savvy

Deighton does a very good job indeed of conveying how we imagine the Security Services to actually be ie a pettifogging bureaucratic cross between the Army and the Civil Service, snowed under with paperwork, fussing about pay and pensions and expenses, thrilling to little perks like luxury lunches at the club – except that the petty jealousies and rivalries which plague all bureaucracies in this context overlap with very real plots and conspiracies to frame each other (as in Ipcress) or to hamstring each other’s projects to double-cross or treble-cross the Russian or German or Israeli secret services.

Textual apparatus

The security savviness is reinforced by more of the elaborate apparatus surrounding the text that was deployed in Ipcress and Horse Under Water:

  • each short chapter has a date stamp (eg Berlin, Monday, October 7th)
  • plenty of footnotes explicating obscure Security Service or military practice, 18 in the first 60 pages alone
  • half a dozen appendices at the end of the text giving longer explanations of key aspects
  • as Ipcress File had horoscopes at the head of each chapter, so each of Funeral‘s 52 chapters has an epigraph which is a rule or tip about chess. I play chess pretty well so was mildly interested in some of them, but they added nothing to my enjoyment and, as far as I could see, nothing to the meaning of the story so, like the horoscopes, I learned to ignore them

The plot

The same unnamed, first-person narrator from The Ipcress File, same boss – Dawlish – as in Horse, same secretary and staff in the same dingy Charlotte Street office. He’s in and out of Cold War Berlin handling the defection of a Russian scientist, Semitsa, reputedly an expert on enzymes, the deal being arranged by their Berlin fixer and chancer, Johnnie Vulkan.

Slowly it appears this is a red herring and the plot is really about the legacy of the war, about the fate of a German murderer who was in a concentration camp during the Nazi era and who has survived into post-War Berlin, although wanted by both the Communists and the Israelis.

The progress of the plot and of the Narrator’s efforts are closely monitored by the Russian General Stok, who pops up throughout the book, initially hinting that he himself wants to defect and that Semitsa’s passage will be a dry run for him; later, coming clean that he just wants to keep an eye on everything. Stok is a broadly comic character, permanently making toasts with vodka and caviare, engaging in witty banter with the wryly understated Narrator. Though there are a couple of sinister moments when he is pulled over by police in East Germany, then in Czechoslovakia, and thinks he might be about to be arrested – only for Stok to emerge from the shadows with a big grin and a bottle of vodka!

In Ipcress the narrator says plots aren’t as easy to define or tie up as writers of spy fiction would have you expect. He has some 600 files open at any one time, each of which is highly complex and may not even be a definite ‘case’, may just be an accidental overlapping of circumstances, while real ‘cases’ ie interconnected purposeful events, are going undetected.

All three novels enact this sense of uncertainty. It’s difficult to know what’s going on because in the ‘real world’ which the spy inhabits, everyone is lying, everyone has multiple identities and concealed agendas, you’re not even certain what your ‘own’ side wants, let alone the other official agencies, let alone the numerous freelancers you continually meet and are continually making dubious offers.

Thus for most of the novel it’s difficult to know whether this is:

  • a true case of a Russian scientist defecting
  • something to do with the Grehlen Group, a branch of German Intelligence – creepy Teutonic types we meet a couple of times – do they have a cunning plan to hijack Semitsa, or something more concealed?
  • a dummy run for General Stok’s plan to defect. Turns out he doesn’t want to. Is he willing to help Semitsa’s defection? In the event – No.

The main love interest is the gorgeous Samantha Steele, who seduces the Narrator while posing as an American agent. In the final quarter she is revealed as an Israeli agent and for a while it seems the plot might be about the Israelis tracking down a concentration camp guard who was responsible for murders in the death camps, and is still alive, therefore deserves punishing…

Only towards the end does it become clearer, that Johnnie Vulkan has taken British money to facilitate the smuggling of the Russian scientist Semitsa, across the Berlin Wall hidden in a coffin – hence the title – but double crosses the Narrator and the British by selling Semitsa on to Sam and Israeli Intelligence. But when Vulkan and the Narrator open the coffin as delivered to them in a West Berlin garage, they find no scientist, just a load of propaganda pamphlets. It seems this is a joke the ubiquitous Colonel Stock has played on them; not only did he never intend to defect himself, he never intended to supply any Russian scientist – all along he simply wanted to poke and pry into British Intelligence methodology.

But, in any case, Vulkan doesn’t give a damn about Semitsa or the Israelis – all along Vulkan had insisted the papers for the ‘corpse’/coffin be made out in the name of one Brouma. For a while it seemed to be merely a coincidence that, upon deeper investigation, this Brouma had been a real person who had survived for a while in Treblinka concentration camp before being murdered on the long walk West escaping the advancing Russians. Or maybe had lived on – maybe his death/murder were really a story and Brouma was in fact Vulkan or one or other of his dodgy underworld contacts.

The Narrator probes this murky history on a vividly described trip to Prague where he meets two ageing Jews who survived the camps and knew the real Brouma. It is typical of the novel (and of ‘reality’?) that they give sharply differing accounts of his character and fate…

But it’s simpler than that. Brouma did exist and did die but his family had left him a fortune in Swiss bank accounts. Therefore the entire scientist-smuggling operation was, for Vulkan, purely a pretext to get his hands on a set of British government-authenticated identity papers in the name of Brouma. He would then use these to reclaim Brouma’s fortune. It is a straightforward criminal scam.

However, after the Narrator and Vulkan open the coffin and discover it contains no Russian scientist, they argue and fight. Through sheer (bad) luck the Narrator knocks Vulkan backwards onto a rack of drills and Vulkan dies a horrible agonising death from a punctured lung. The Narrator promptly packs him into the coffin in time for the Israeli agents to arrive and collect it at gunpoint. This team is led by his brief one-time lover Sam Steele, also known as Hannah Stahl, who explains to the Narrator that they need Semitsa because his innocent-sounding work on enzymes is in fact into nerve gases, and this information will be vital when the next Arab-Israeli War breaks out.

Boy, is she in for a surprise when she opens the coffin and finds no Russian scientist, just the embarrassing corpse of a Berlin playboy and chancer.

And then there’s the departmental politics back in dear old London, where the narrator can never be sure whether his boss is backing him up or framing him, or whether other departments like the War Office or Foreign Office or Home Office are helping whatever it is he’s trying to do, or are playing completely different games in which he is only a pawn.

As with the previous novels, the plot felt like it was over with the failure of the Semitsa defection, but there is one last act, where the homosexual official in the Home Office, Hallam, who had made out the documents in Brouma’s name which were destined for Vulkan, turns nasty. He takes the Narrator to a fireworks night display in a bombed-out vacant lot near Gloucester Road. Here, amid the bangs and crashes, and in an impenetrably thick London fog, Hallam tries to shoot the Narrator, confirming the Narrator’s hunch that he was in on Vulkan’s scam and is now after the Broum documents (worth quarter of a million pounds).

Only in the final wind-up conversation with his boss does it emerge that they both knew that Hallam was on the verge of being sacked for his ‘homosexual tendencies’. This is what drove him to throw in his lot with Vulkan and then to make a rather panicky attack on the Narrator – the latter avoids his shots while throwing fireworks at him until Hallam’s long flamboyant scarf catches fire then ignites the bottle of booze in his pocket – whooosh!


What gives the novel its peculiarly Deightonesque quality, is that the narrator – who holds all the cards ie has his suspicions and is calculating the angles on all the scenarios mentioned above – does not share this knowledge with the reader. In this novel, as in Ipcress, it is only at the very, very end that any kind of order or pattern emerges from the events described, and then only in laconic conversations with his secretary or boss – and even this ‘final roundup’ still leaves holes in the narrative and motivation.

Multiple points of view

In a technical development over the previous two novels, some of the chapters take the perspective of characters other than the main narrator. These chapters are told by an omniscient third-person narrator who allows us into these other characters’ thoughts. This is a small mercy and makes Funeral easier to enjoy, if not exactly to follow, than Ipcress, which is so dominated by the concealing, allusive style of the narrator. Deighton relaxes (slightly) and draws extended pen portraits of other key characters and these are enjoyable in their own right. (It is one of them – Hallam the homosexual – who gives us a brief description of the anonymous narrator: ‘An upstart from Burnley – a supercilious anti-public school technician who thought he was an administrator.’ (Ch 2))

Smart similes

In this slightly more forgiving book the similes also seem less incongruous, more of a piece with the humour. Similes, like metaphors, are after all, a kind of joke, a revelation of incongruous similarities.

‘Ha ha ha,’ said Stok, then he exhaled another great billow of cigar smoke like a 4.6.2 pulling out of King’s Cross. (Ch 6)

Damp leaves shone underfoot like a million newly struck pennies. (Ch 15)

Now the powdery skin [of his face], sun-lamped to a pale nicotine colour, was supported only by his cheek-bones, like a tent when the guy ropes are slackened. (Ch 16)

Though some of the comparisons, as in Ipcress, strain a little harder than others.

From underfoot the sweet smell of damp grass rose like perfume. Birds were still singing in the trees that stood across the major surgery of sunset like massed artery forceps. (15)

Inside the semi-precious light of the stained glass softly dusted the smooth, worn pews, and a complex of brass candlesticks glinted like a medieval oil refinery. (15)

These last two betoken the fundamentally anti-Romantic, unsentimental stance of his no-nonsense Narrator: he dumps his girlfriend/secretary of the first book, Jean, to have an affair with the leggy American agent, Sam Steele; then arranges for her flat to be burgled to establish who she really is, confirming his hunch that she is an agent. He mistakenly beats up an elderly messenger in the street in Berlin and has no regrets (Ch 19). He kills two more major – and rather sympathetic – characters (Johnnie Vulkan and Hallam) with no qualms. And this hard attitude extends all the way down to small descriptions and casual phrases.

In Horse Guards Avenue and right along the Thames Embankment, hollow tourist buses were parked and double-parked. The red-cloaked Horse Guards sat motionless clutching their sabres and thinking of metal polish and sex. In Trafalgar Square pigeons were enmeshed in the poisonous diesel gauze. (Ch 17)

I walked out along the moonlit sea front. The phosphorescent breakers crumbled into shimmering lacework and the moon was an overturned can of white paint that had spilled its contents across the sea. (Ch 24)

This tough but humorous tone is the distinctive feature of the novel’s worldview and of its prose. Tough but humorous also characterises Raymond Chandler’s innovative style in the detective genre, and it is probably the humour – along with the impenetrable plots – which are Deighton’s big contribution to the spy novel. A tone of underplayed humour which is perfectly captured by Michael Caine’s performance in the movie adaptations of these books.

‘I wish you would try to understand,’ said Stok. ‘I am really sincere about giving you my allegiance.’
‘Go on,’ I said. ‘I bet you say that to all the great powers.’ (Ch 5)

The anxiety of influence

By 1964 there was quite a boom of spy TV shows and movies:

  • The Avengers TV series started in January 1961
  • The Modesty Blaise cartoon strip started appearing in the Evening Standard in May 1963
  • The Man From UNCLE TV series started in September 1964
  • Bond movies – Dr No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964)

which is reflected in the text. When the Narrator is arrested in East Berlin and taken to a police station, he reflects: ‘I knew there must be a way out. None of those young fellows on late-night TV would find it any sort of dilemma.’ (p.34). The Narrator gets a bit riled when ordered to give Hallam some money to establish his identity:

Who the hell is he going to think I am if I don’t give him four half-crowns – James Bond?’ (p.57)

Then his employee, upper class twit Chico, comes in.

‘I’ve got a file from A.E.A.S.D.’
‘What?’ I said.
‘Atomic Energy Authority, Security Department,’ Chico said.
‘That’s better,’ I said. ‘You’ve been watching those spy films on TV again.’ (p.68)

Spy fictions went from a minority genre to becoming big business in books, films and TV in the early 1960s, so that by the late 1960s TV schedules were full of special agents and the cinemas bulged with Bond lookalikes. Why? Is it as simple as that the genre is desperately romantic? Handsome capable men defeat baddies, bed willing dollybirds, get to drive fast cars and play with guns. Fulfilling every adolescent boy’s fantasies?

Homosexuality

Hallam the Home Office official is gay – the narrator teasing him for his campness from the beginning – but then his chief significance becomes that his homosexuality has made him a ‘security risk’ and led to his early retirement – and it is this, the official attitude, which drives him into criminal behaviour. In the final pages, the hero and his boss discuss the stupidity of anti-gay laws which make it easier to turn closet gays into security risks. It was only in 1967 that homosexual acts in private between two men over the age of 21 were decriminalised.

Cars

Quite a lot of driving around. Only when you look up the cars mentioned in the text do you realise how antiquated they are, how distant that world is, how long ago it all was.

The movie

Michael Caine was signed up to reprise the role of Harry Palmer he first played in the film version of The Ipcress File. The movie was released in December 1966 and was directed by Guy Hamilton, who had directed Goldfinger in 1964 and went on to direct three other Bond films in the early 1970s.

‘Girls always make passes at spies who wear glasses.’

Related links

Cover of the 1964 Penguin paperback edition of Funeral In Berlin

Cover of the 1964 Penguin paperback edition of Funeral In Berlin

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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