Congo by Michael Crichton (1980)

This book recounts the thirteen days of the last American expedition to the Congo, in June 1979 (p.xii)

Crichton’s habit of stuffing his techno-thriller novels with factual digressions, losing no opportunity to give the reader the full fruits of his up-to-the-minute research about the geography and climate and culture and peoples of the book’s setting and then stuff it with a cornucopia of gee-whizz gadgets, especially anything relating to computers, often completely overwhelms the plot.

Sometimes his books feel like a series of educational magazine articles only just held together by contrived storylines, which, as soon as you stop and think about them, you realise are utterly preposterous. And then there are the so-called ‘characters’, who are given names, ages and CVs but remain little more than cardboard cutouts.

According to Wikipedia, Crichton pitched the idea of writing a modern-day version of King Solomon’s Mines to 20th Century Fox who bought the film rights before the story had even been written, paying him a $1.5 million advance for the novel, screenplay and as a directing fee.

It sounded like a good idea but the result of this big, expensive promise was a serious case of writer’s block, as Crichton struggled to make a start and then to create any kind of coherent narrative. And boy, does it show. He ended up throwing about five separate plot ideas into the mix in the hope that they’d somehow add up to a ripping yarn, and overloading the text with every factual digression he could think of in order to give the text a sense of substance.

Congo is a messy, scrappy, dumb mess of a book, but some of the factual background is interesting; you don’t get to read novels about Africa that often; it was interesting to see what was considered up-to-the-minute technology in 1980 and compare it to the present day; and there was a kind of dumb dogged interest in the narrative itself: I was curious to see what preposterous, contrived and absurd incident he’d chuck in next to try and keep the whole thing afloat. Probably the encounter with the angry hippopotamuses wins the prize for silliest episode.

No doubt hippopotami do have the character and temperament he describes in a typical Readers Digest digression about them, no doubt they do attack by raking their razor sharp teeth sideways over their intended victim, no doubt this would rip and deflate an inflatable raft. But it’s still silly.

1. Earth Resources Technology Services and the race for IIb diamonds

Earth Resources Technology Services Inc (ERTS) is a Houston-based American corporation devoted to locating and extracting rare and precious minerals and resources for industrial use. It is (inevitably) run by a maverick genius R.B. Travis (backstory p.17). The hottest computer analyst in the corps is 6 foot-tall, cold, calculating Karen Ellen Ross.

The entire plot rotates around the desperate search to locate a rumoured source of ‘Type IIb boron-coated blue diamonds’ (pp.109, 115) in the dense rainforests of the Virunga region, in the remote eastern part of the vast Congo jungle. Extended factual digressions explain that this particular type of diamond is very valuable as semiconductors, ‘important to microelectronics applications’, and since, as Crichton explains at length, the future is going to be all about faster and faster computing speeds, possession of a source of diamonds which speed up computer technology will be vastly valuable. Especially the future of weaponry.

Computer speed now stands at the centre of the armament race…The new generation of optical computers will be dependent on the availability of Type IIb boron-coated diamonds. (p.342)

This is why the ERTS expedition into the Congo is not alone, but is shadowed every step of the way by a ‘consortium’ of industrial rivals, made up of a temporary partnership of German and Japanese industrial interests. These guys are hacking into ERTS’s radio communications back to Houston as well as vying for important resources for such an expedition, not least the services of the renowned White African mercenary Charles Munro (backstory pp.101 to 103) who, after bargaining with all the interested parties at his plush pad in Tangiers, opts to go with the ERTS expedition.

So the fact that the ERTS team is trying to get to the rumoured location of the diamonds before their rivals is supposed to give the narrative grip and thrill. For me, it didn’t at all. If this had been a Hammond Innes or Desmond Bagley novel, then this story in and of itself would have been enough, and people would have got killed, probably in gruesome circumstances and it would have felt desperate and tense. At no point did this book feel desperate and tense.

2. The ‘Consortium’

Anyway, it’s not as simple as that. Crichton adds in a few other plot strands which, in my opinion, had the effect of turning what could have been a decent thriller into a ridiculous cartoon. First, there is the important fact that the expedition led by Karen Ross and which recruits Charles Munro, is not the first one sent by ERTS. An earlier one had gone out and the novel actually starts with this first team, camped in the darkest rainforest as the old Africa hand they’ve hired to guide them, Jan Kruger, fires up a satellite video connection with ERTS Houston to report on progress.

But in the 5 or 6 minutes it takes both sides to establish contact (remember the book was written in 1979, 42 years ago, and all the technology is accordingly basic or old fashioned) the entire expedition is wiped out, every member massacred and the campsite wrecked. By the time the camera comes online there’s no-one there. Karen Ross is at the Houston end in charge and she gets the techs to rotate the camera on its tripod, thus surveying the wreckage, then a dark shadow moves across the screen and the camera is smashed, signal ends. What was it? What wiped out the expedition?

Very early on I figured it was either a lost tribe of humans or human-gorilla mutants, as anyone who’s watched a thousand rubbish American films or watched episodes of American adventure TV shows could entirely have predicted.

3. The lost city of Zinj

But meanwhile, I have to explain about the lost city of Zinj. Yes. That’s really what it’s called. Crichton gives us a number of digressions about the (patchy) history of Western exploration into the Congo jungle or up the Congo river (he is particularly fond of the expeditions of Henry Morton Stanley for the simple reason that Stanley was the great pioneer and explored further and more definitively than all previous explorers).

Anyway, Crichton makes up a legendary lost city of Zinj (pp.58 to 60, 82), a clear hommage to the great late-Victorian adventure storytellers such as Rider Haggard (She) and Conan Doyle (The Lost World) and the novel reaches its climax when our heroes arrive after many adventures, at the lost city of Zinj and discover its connection both to a) a culture which use to mine the very type IIb diamonds they are looking for but which also holds the key to understanding

4. Amy the talking gorilla

Yes. A talking gorilla. Because after the first expedition is wiped out and while Karen Ross is persuading Travis that she is the person to lead the second expedition a) to find the diamonds b) to discover what happened to the first expedition, ERTS contacts one of the leading researchers in America into teaching apes American sign language. As you might expect this leads into several lengthy digressions about the entire history of trying to teach apes language, right up to the present (well, 1979 when the book was written) and researchers have managed to teach chimpanzees 200 or so ‘words’ in American Sign Language (vide Washoe, Koko) (pp.35 to 38 and 292).

The researcher is named Peter Elliott (backstory pp.35 to 41), 6 foot tall and bearded, and Peter has been leading Project Amy, i.e. seven years or so of teaching a tame gorilla named Amy to an advanced level of communication. The text settles into conveying their conversations as Peter signing or saying something and Amy’s replies are given in italics. In reality I understand communication between humans and gorillas is very limited, but in this tall story Peter and Amy can hold lengthy discussions.

Now why does ERTS and Karen Ross want a talking gorilla to go on an expedition to the lost city of Zinj in search of industrial diamonds (see how ludicrous the plot is when you spell it out in black and white?)? Because the brief shadow that flickered across the camera of the massacred first expedition looked like a gorilla. So why not take a talking gorilla along in the hope that it can act as ambassador to whoever or whatever massacred the first team.

But why would a comfortably placed American academic want to leave his cosy perch at the University of California at Berkeley to go on some cock and bull expedition into remote rainforest? Crichton must have spent a while mulling over what could possibly motivate Prof Peter Elliott to leave his crib and in the end comes up with a plausible reason.

He invents the notion that Elliott’s work just happens to have recently been picked upon by a high-minded organisation devoted to liberating primates from scientific experiments, the Primate Preservation Agency (p.43). They’ve written harsh articles, are picketing his university office and published Elliott’s address such that he is living in fear of a possible attack. Thus when he gets a call late one night from Karen Ross asking if he wants to pack up and go on a journey to gorilla country in eastern Congo, he leaps at the chance.

And Amy the gorilla is going along, too, of course. The practicalities of ‘explaining’ all this to Amy, and packing for her, and getting her onto a plane and so on, quickly become so ludicrous that…

There’s another element to Amy which is that, when Amy likes doing finger drawings of images she tells Peter she sees when she’s asleep. And these drawings are often of what might be taken for buildings with half-moon entrances. And guess what? Other illustrations of the conjectured lost city of Zinj show it as having half-moon-shaped entrances. Are the dreams actual memories of seeing such a place or ancestral (pp.41 to 42)? Or could this be an example of genetic memory (cue a Crichtonian digression about the history and provenance of genetic memory, ‘Genetic memory was first proposed by Marais in 1911…’ p.46).

5. Congo civil war

There have been a number of civil wars in the region known as the Congo including the massive Second Congo War (1998 to 2003). But back at the time Crichton was writing (1979) the war he refers to involved Ugandan troops fleeing across the border into Zaire when theior country was invaded by Tanzania (p.100). In Crichton’s hands this morphs into a campaign by some parts of the Zaire army to exterminate the Kigani tribe of cannibals. Our heroes go to lengths to avoid both these violent elements, the Zaire army and Kigani, at least until the very end of the book (see below).

Its relevance to the story is that at several key moments the Ross expedition finds itself enmeshed between warring parties, most importantly when they are flying in a small aircraft towards the site of the lost city of Zinj and come under attack from heat-seeking missiles. As you might imagine, the resourceful ERTS team have snappy modern technology to foil the missiles and survive. But it’s just one more element which triggers umpteen Crichtonian factual digressions, and which Crichton throws into the mix hoping something will stick.


An American company which specialises in sourcing rare and precious raw resources sends 24-year-old  computer whizzkid Karen Ross, along with ape linguist Peter Elliott, his talking gorilla Amy and African mercenary Charles Munro (plus half a dozen Kikuyu porters) into the remote eastern Congo to find the lost city of Zinj in order to find out what happened to the previous expedition and locate the source of the rumoured diamonds which are worth a fortune in industrial processes.

Fact obsessed

As well as the factual digressions on every page, Congo also features academic footnotes and no fewer than three pages of references at the end, including academic papers in learned journals to show just how much research Crichton has done. Some of the many magazine-style digressions concern:

  • Henry Morton Stanley (xii-xiii, 60, 83, 154, 169, )
  • animal rights (50-52)
  • the history of Congo (57-60)
  • the Pearl thesis of animal intelligence (pp.76-77)
  • competitive advantage in information technology (73)
  • the Great Rift Valley (pp.83-84)
  • albedo ie using different light reflection levels to distinguish ancient forest from secondary growth (85-87)
  • B-8 problems in computing (90)
  • holographic night goggles (99)
  • the future of superconducting computers (116-118)
  • computer message hacking (128)
  • electrophoresis and the difference between gorilla and human hair (129)
  • the character of Kikuyu tribesmen (they love to talk) (147, 155) and consider themselves all ‘brothers’ (190)
  • China’s spy operations, foreign aid to and influence in Zaire (147-149)
  • how to distract surface to air missiles with rolled up balls of in foil (156)
  • how automatic parachutes work (162)
  • the Kigani, a tribe of cannibals Crichton appears to have invented (170-172)
  • description of the Kigani’s belief in magic of Angawa
  • cannibalism in central Africa (172-173)
  • Zaire government genocide against the Kigani cannibals (175)
  • levels of electronic jamming and ‘interstitial coding’ (p.180)
  • the rate of global species extinction (189)
  • pygmies and their definitions of different types of ‘death’ (193-196)
  • the Congo river i.e. although it’s vast it’s not easily navigable (201)
  • the character of the hippopotamus (207-209) just before they attack our heroes
  • a history of the attempts to climb Mount Mukenko (which our heroes parachute onto and have to climb across) (218)
  • what to do when faced by a charging male silverback gorilla (don’t move and look at the ground) (230-231)
  • Degusto’s infra-red light technology for making out images hidden under dirt, sand, vegetable matter etc (250)
  • Maurice Cavalle’s 1955 paper ‘The Death of Nature’ (252)
  • the legend of the kakundakari, African equivalent of the yeti (262-263)
  • chimpanzee violent behaviour, especially kidnapping and eating human infants (266)
  • Freud’s theory that a dreamer, confronted with the reality their dream is based on, is often surprisingly apathetic (274)
  • British scientist R.V.S. Wright’s attempts to teach an orangutan to use tools (293)
  • DNA similarity between humans and chimps i.e. 99% identical (294)
  • S.L. Berensky’s 1975 paper about primate language suggesting the apes are smarter than humans (296)
  • the difference between different sign languages of different nations (297)
  • primates stop fighting if infants get in the way or are taken up by one or other of the combatants (312)
  • the origin and periodicity of solar flares, one of which interferes with our heroes communications back to Houston (314)
  • which part of the brain language comes from (Broca’s area) (335)
  • explanation of brontides, the loud explosions that accompany earthquakes (335)
  • most people caught in a volcanic eruption die from the poison gas (336)
  • General Franklin Martin’s Pentagon presentation which argued that Zaire had been vital to US military efforts since the war because of its mineral resources and also that super-fast computers would being to an end the age of nuclear weapons (340-343)
  • US military Project Vulcan to detonate timed resonance explosions in order to graduate the impact of eruptions of Mouna Loa in Hawaii (347-349)

But none of this blizzard of factual information can prevent Congo from being preposterous bollocks.

The expedition encounters a handful of problems such as flying through an anti-aircraft attack mounted by the Zaire army, parachuting into the jungle (everyone lands just fine), rafting down some river into the remote East (they are attacked by angry hippopotami), and trekking across the unstable crust of recently active volcanoes (the Virunga range of volcanoes, as described in an extended factual digression which names the main ones as being Mukenko, Mubuti, Kanagarawi, p.84), all in order to reach the lost bloody city of Zinj which, they eventually discover, is now an overgrown, empty ruin.

a) This is more extensive than they expected. They use high tech radar stuff to see through the layers of grime to the extensive reliefs which describe the ordinary life of the city centuries ago when it was inhabited. The carvings appear to show the inhabitants mined extensively and seem to have trained gorillas to act as security and police (!!) and this is the ridiculous reason for:

b) The final revelation that the previous expedition wasn’t wiped out by gorillas as science currently knows them, but by a new species of intelligent gorilla which the Zinjans bred and developed.

Luckily our heroes had put up an electrified fences round the perimeter of their camp and had brought along loads of fancy laser-guided machine guns which do a good job of killing some of the New Species of Gorilla when they launch their inevitable attack.

Other reasons this is a terrible book

1. Format

In The Andromeda Strain Crichton used the format of a report produced by an enquiry into what went wrong at a virus isolation unit. The pseudo-scientific/bureaucratic format worked well. Here he uses the tone of something more like a documentary. In particular he keeps writing that ‘many months later Peter Elliott realised his mistake’ or ‘speaking later, Karen Ross explained why she made this decision’.

Presumably the narrative is cast in this format to give it the feel of a later report or documentary. But it has the unintended side effect of confirming that the three main characters all survive. In other words, it destroys all suspense or sense of jeopardy. We know they all get out alive. OK, then, well, why bother reading to the end?

2. Out of date

Crichton busted a gut doing all that research and shoehorned it into his text throughout and yet… it’s all hilariously out of date. If you want to read about how fiddly it was to rig up a satellite camera link in 1979 or how big and fast people in 1979 thought computers would become in the 1980s then this is the book for you. There is, quite obviously, nothing about the internet, smart phones, social media or any of the other tech discoveries of the past 40 years. It’s sweet that Crichton thinks ERTS’ technology is ‘staggering’ because it can acquire 16 new satellite images of the earth per hour (p.20).

Acronyms and initialisms

I found it more enjoyable collecting a list of the acronyms than following the ridiculous plot which came more and more to resemble a movie-length episode of Scoobie Doo. My only excuse for reading such twaddle is I was on holiday and picked it up for £1 in a second hand shop.

ADP – Animal Defence Perimeter (p.238)

APE – Animal Pattern Explanation (p.307)

APNF – Animation Predicted Next Frame (p.27)

ASL – American Sign Language aka Ameslan (p.36)

BF – Bona fortuna = good luck (p.123)

C3I – Command, control, communications and intelligence units (p.74)

CFS – Congo Field Study (p.351)

CCR – Communications Control Room (p.12)

CCT – Computer Compatible Tape (p.21)

ECM – Electronic Countermeasures (p.179)

ERTS Earth Resources Technology Services

FZA – Forces Zairoises Armoises, Zaire army (p.157)

GPU – Geopolitical Update (p.98)

LAC – Local Atmospheric Conditions (p.351)

LATRAP – Laser-Tracking Projectile, which consists of multiple LGSDs attached to sequential RFSDs (p.280)

MERS – Mineral Exploration Rights, such as you negotiate with the host government (p.25)

NCNA – New China News Agency, cover for Chinese espionage (p.148)

PNF – Predicted Next Frame: technology for improving poor quality images (p.27)

PPA – Primate Protection Agency (p.43)

PSOPS – Prior Significant Orbital Passes by Satellite (p.97)

RC – Resonant Conventionals: timed explosives (p.345)

SESC – Space Environmental Services Centre in Boulder Colorado (p.315)

Triple E – Expedition Electronics Expert (p.74)

UECL – Unit Extraction Cost Limit (p.115)

WEIRD – Wilderness Environment Intruder Response Defences (p.242)

I work in the civil service and so I recognise the mindset which says that, if you spell something out in title case i.e. you capitalise the names of things it immediately makes them more important; and if you can make an acronym out of them, it makes them sound really grand and makes you sound very big and important when you casually allude to acronyms or initialisms which other people don’t understand.

Bearing this in mind helps to explain why America has some 35 distinct intelligence agencies, each with its own shiny logo and acronym and whip-smart, fast-talking executives, and they all failed to prevent 9/11. And why the US Army, possibly the world epicentre of grand-sounding acronyms, nonetheless made a complete bollocks of invading Iraq and liberating Afghanistan. (I mention this because America’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan was all over the news as I read Congo so the comparison made itself.)

No amount of clever-sounding names and titles and acronyms and hi-tech gadgetry can redeem ignorance, stupidity and terrible decisions. Or, in this case, an embarrassing train wreck of a novel.

The end

Our heroes are attacked a couple of times in their camp. Elliott undertakes a ridiculous plan to record the grey gorillas’ strange whispering language, to use Houston’s computers to analyse and interpret it, and then to play it back to attacking gorillas in order to stall them. Despite all the improbabilities Elliott makes this work in a matter of hours and during the next gorilla attack it does, indeed, manage to slow and halt the attack of the puzzled silver gorillas, although a torrential tropical downpour interferes with the experiment.

What brings this farrago of nonsense to an end, in the best boys own adventure tradition, is a huge volcanic eruption which starts rocking the ground during what had promised to be the gorillas’ final assault, when they have killed a few more porters and have our heroes pinned to the ground about to crush their skulls.

The ground starts shaking, the gorillas flee, random lightning strikes electrocute a few more of the African porters, as our dazed heroes grab their most important possessions and flee the ruined camp, trekking through jungle while ash falls all around them, the earth trembles, the volcano spews ash and lava.

They arrive at the crashed container plane of the rival consortium which had been shot down a few days earlier by Zaire army forces (they’d heard the plane flying overhead and seen the surface to air missiles fired at it a few days earlier).

First our heroes have to fight off the Kigani cannibals who were in the middle of eating the dead consortium members and resent being turfed out of the plane’s treasure trove. But then Ross discovers huge tanks of propane in the plane which are designed to inflate a balloon which the consortium had brought along for precisely such an emergency!

And so the preposterous narrative ends with Ross, Elliott, Munro and the couple of porters who haven’t been killed by the silver gorillas or the bolts of lightning or the volcanic ash or the poison gas, inflating, climbing into and flying off over the jungle in a big balloon, a very Jules Vernes ending to a novel which sets out to be a homage to the great Victorian adventure writers but turns into a car crash of overcomplex but completely improbable narrative, drowning in endless Readers Digest factual digressions and hosted by characters which make a puddle look deep.

And the Lost City of Zinj? In the finest tradition of the old storytellers, is buried forever under half a mile of volcanic ash so nobody will ever be able to check the three explorers’ bold claims. It’s almost as juvenile as saying: ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream.’

The movie

The original deal had been for Crichton himself to direct the movie version and from 1981 to 1987 he maintained the hope of directing it with Sean Connery in the lead, but that version of the project never came to fruition.

Instead Congo was finally made into a movie in 1995, directed by Frank Marshall and starring Laura Linney as the permanently stressed-out woman scientist, Dylan Walsh as the sensitive primatologist, Ernie Hudson as the mercenary and hunter who leads the group and Tim Curry as the camp Romanian millionaire who finances the whole farrago.

I don’t mean to be rude but when two leads in what is meant to be a serious thriller played defining parts in Ghostbusters (Hudson) and The Rocky Horror Show (Curry) you know you’re talking about a turkey.

I’m not at all surprised to learn the movie version received a critical drubbing and was nominated for not one but several Golden Raspberry awards, given to real stinkers.

Michael Crichton reviews

The Ipcress File by Len Deighton (1962)

‘It’s a confusing story,’ I told him. ‘I’m in a very confusing business.’ (p.2)
‘You’re a cool young man,’ he said. (p.293)

This is Deighton’s début, his first and still most famous novel (partly because of the great success of the iconic movie version made just a few years later – in 1965 – starring Michael Caine in one of his earliest roles). The book made Deighton a household name overnight. Having never read it before, I was very surprised to find how arty, elliptical and detached it is; funny, stylish, poised tiptoe on the verge of ‘Swinging London’ and hugely enjoyable.

The Narrator

The story is told in the first person by an unnamed Narrator (the name Harry Palmer appears to have been invented for the film – the Narrator specifically says his name is not Harry in chapter 5). He is 5 foot 11 inches tall, dark-haired, round-faced with a jutting cleft chin. He has deep-sunk blue eyes with bags under them and wears horn-rimmed glasses. He’s from Burnley, where he attended grammar school. He is a male employee of British Security and old enough to have had experience of World War Two – there is an implication he was born in 1922 or 1923, thus turning 40 when the series begins.

The immediate and enduring impression is that our man is intelligent and cultivated, knowledgeable about food and clothes and music – he references Kierkegaard and Brecht and Xenophon, he likes the jazz of Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz but also recognises Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.

And he knows his food and drink. He describes the coffee made in various Soho coffee bars in loving detail, is precise about his sandwich fillings, notes exactly how their Lebanese contact prepares his kebabs:

The smell of Dgaj Muhshy (chicken stuffed with nutmeg, thyme, pine nuts, lamb and rice, and cooked with celery)… First sambousiks (small pastries containing curried meat served freshly baked)… (Ch 7)

And he is cocky, stroppy, facetious and sarcastic in a post-Angry Young Men way. His Burnley origin (in Funeral in Berlin he is described as ‘an upstart from Burnley’) contrasts with the various public school-educated intelligence officers he has to deal with. Humour is his weapon; insubordination is what the Army calls it. He is sardonic about the Army and its tangled bureaucracies, keen to avoid paperwork, grumpy about his back pay and delayed expenses. He rarely misses an opportunity to answer back, or to be smarter, dryer, wittier than his ‘superiors’.

Detached and elliptical

And distanced from the action, even when it involves his own beatings and imprisonment – an Asperger’s syndrome level of alienation from himself and events around him. Everything is described in a wry, elliptical style. For example, I only realised that he had slept with his attractive secretary, Jean, when he casually says, ‘While standing still, her smooth body would move – slowly and imperceptibly – under the thin summer uniform fabric, and I would think of the small circular gold ear-ring of hers that I had found in my bed-clothes on Wednesday morning’ (Ch 21). At least, I think that means he slept with her. Almost no other reference is made to it, certainly there is no description of the lead-up to the event or the event itself. That is what I mean by ‘elliptical’. There is a lot of up-front detail, but the ‘important’ facts are frequently deliberately buried.

This is his description of a band playing at a party.

Three army musicians moved coolly and mathematically within the modal range of ‘There’s a small Hotel’ and linking modulated inversions walked around the middle eight with creditable synchronisation. Here and there a laugh walked up the foothills of noise. (Ch 21)

This is how clever, stylish and self-conscious the narrative is throughout. One of the many gimmicks is his habit of recounting snippets of overheard conversation, fragments of speech. Touch of James Joyce.

I left the Horseguards Avenue entrance, and walked down Whitehall to Keightly at Scotland Yard. Inside the entrance an elderly policeman was speaking into a phone. ‘Room 284?’ he said. ‘Hello Room 284? I’m trying to locate the tea trolley.’… (Ch 15)

These ‘overheard fragments’ occur frequently and their inconsequentiality does… what? Reinforces that he’s a spy who notices everything? Are examples of dry humour? Or that his world is made up of fragments which have a hole at the centre, where the Narrator’s character should be.

In a similar spirit of decentring the narrative, he opens a newspaper and spends a page summarising all the main stories – or lists the offers in the junk mail which has come through his letterbox this morning:

Tuesday was a big echoing summer’s day. I could hear the neighbour’s black Airedale dog, and they could hear my FM. I sorted the letters from the mat; Times magazine subscription dept said I was missing the chance of a lifetime. My mother’s eldest sister wished I was in Geneva; so did I, except that my aunt was there. A War Office letter confirmed my discharge from the Army and told me that I was not subject to reserve training commitments, but was subject to the Official Secrets Act in respect of information and documents. The dairy said to order cream early for the holiday and had I tried Chokko, the new chocolate drink that everyone was raving about. (Ch 14)

Mordant commentary on our times? Satire? Plain laughs? There’s lots of this dead-eyed observation and it is deliberately deployed to almost completely conceal any sense of the Narrator’s feelings or emotions, and also to obscure numerous crucial moments in the plot.

(This wilful obscurity is the opposite of the breathless physical involvement created by Alistair MacLean’s intensely physical thrillers – the breathless The Golden Rendezvous and The Satan Bug were published this same year, 1962 – or the minute descriptions of Bond’s tribulations – 1962 saw publication of the ninth Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me.)


The plot is long and convoluted. The story opens with the Narrator (N) being transferred from his one-time boss, Colonel Ross’s part of military intelligence, to the newer, smarter so-called WOOC(P), run by younger man, Dalby. Whereas le Carré’s Circus is a rather vague organisation, populated by ageing men who meet in their various London clubs, Dalby’s small defined team have their offices in Charlotte Street. The Narrator spends a lot of time going to a small screening room to familiarise himself with the appearance of one Jay, a man with a long history of espionage, working for Polish government in exile, then returning to work for the Polish communists. He was with the exposed spies Burgess and MacLean when they made their flight abroad. He doesn’t really know why and we, like the Narrator, are in a fog of confusion. He makes the point he has some 600 files open on his desk, any of which require further action.

Dalby tells him Jay is involved in the abduction of top-ranking scientists, one (Raven) has just gone missing. The Narrator is ordered to find Jay and offer him £18,000 for Raven’s return. N meets Jay in a Soho bar, and then pursues him upstairs where he sees, through a window, the unconscious body of the scientist laid out on a roulette table. As he’s pondering his next move Raven is picked up and carried out by Jay’s bodyguard, nicknamed Housemartin. The Narrator breaks through the window to give chase but Housemartin gets away and the Narrator blunders out of one of the exits of the club to find the police closing in, for some reason; maybe they’d been tipped off, too.

Lebanon Dalby orders the Narrator to accompany him to the Lebanon where they ambush a car carrying Raven into the interior, a violent scene where they use a sticky bomb which burns and melts the baddies, who they shoot just to be sure. They then hole up in the safe house of a Lebanese drug smuggler who HMG now use as an agent, before flying him by helicopter to a nearby ship, then N and Dalby fly home.

The empty house Back in London, Housemartin is reported as having been arrested by enterprising police after he crashes a car. But by the time the Narrator arrives at the police station, Housemartin has been visited by other ‘officials’ and killed. (I never really understand why – simply to stop him talking? Surely he was tough enough to withstand a British interrogation.) Housemartin had been seen leaving a darkened house in a suburban street, so the Narrator orders a large-scale assault on the house and leads it, breaking in with a colleague, before the other police advance. But they find it completely, stripped and abandoned – empty except for a large glass tank which turns out to contain a tape machine and some old tape.

Soho Back to the office and the daily routine: managing the wise old lady who knows everything, Alice; wangling a pretty young secretary, Jean; dealing with the toffee-nosed twit Chico; listening to Carswell’s complex statisticical analyses of where the missing scientists worked, correlated with other aspects of their lives; worrying about various other ‘cases’.

Tokwe atoll When, out of the blue, Dalby, the Narrator and Jean are ordered to an atoll in the Pacific as guests of the Americans to watch the explosion of a new nuclear device. The setting is vividly described in its surrealness, thousands of American soldiers in a home from home on a barren rock. However, things turn odd: The Narrator receives warnings from old friends in the CIA that he is being set up. Jean, also, tells him that Dalby has told the Yanks the Narrator is a double agent. (It seems a long way to go to set him up.)

In a difficult-to-follow sequence Dalby invites the Narrator to drive with him to a part of the island where his old friend Barney is reported as having had an accident, but at a crucial place, a massive flare goes up blinding him, it is near a watch-tower to which a high-powered cable has been attached frying the American soldier inside, and the Narrator discovers in his car high powered insulation gloves and cutter. He is being framed for murdering the guard, and somehow sending high-speed TV images of the test site to a Soviet submarine which had surfaced and fired the flare. I think that’s what happens, it is written very obscurely and doesn’t quite make sense.

American interrogation He is thrown in a cell and beaten up the Americans, before being interrogated at length for weeks, given physical tests, forced to tell his life story etc. Nothing he says can clear him: all the evidence implicates him. Then he is told he is being exchanged with American spies the Hungarians are holding (?). He is injected with anaesthetic and has woozy memories of being loaded aboard an ambulance and a plane and an ambulance, again, and then –

Hungarian prison He awakes in a Hungarian prison cell. For the next 35 days or so he is fed little or nothing, and routinely beaten and roughed up, with very little purpose, just to reduce him to a state of complete incapacity. He is visited by a junior official from the British embassy but doesn’t really believe in him. Finally, he manages to escape by knocking the kind old man who sometimes visits him unconscious, making his way to an empty office, tripping the fuses for the entire building, thus opening the window without setting off the alarms, making it across the garden and over the wall.

On the run He blunders into the allotment of a grumpy old geezer who tells him he is in Wood Green, north London. The whole thing has been a deception. He has no idea who put him there or why. He makes a coded call to the dad of a colleague from the War who gives him a place to stay in London and some old clothes, while he collects money, passports, a gun, from safe locations he had set up earlier. He returns from one outing to find the dad murdered and his house turned upside down, and goes on the run again, switching taxis and buses to shake any tail. Then hires a private detective and a car and drives down to Dalby’s house. He has no idea what is going on but Dalby is his immediate superior and must be able to help.

Dalby Dalby welcomes him into his Surrey home without batting an eyelid. He tells him he had been kidnapped by Jay who was demanding a ransom of £20,000. Glad you’ve escaped, old chap, now we’ve work to do back in Charlotte Street. Reassured, the Narrator returns to his car and is about to return to London when the private detective who’s accompanied him says, what about the other men surrounding the house? What? The Narrator goes back and through the window sees Dalby talking to Murray, one of his colleagues – and to Jay!! Is Dalby a double agent after all? As he’s pondering all this, he feels a gun in his back – it is his colleague Murray, the one who was in Dalby’s living room a few moments earlier – happening to be in the kitchen he heard Dalby’s alarms being set off and came out to warn the Narrator – and to tell him that he (Murray) is himself an under-cover intelligence agent pretending to be on Dalby’s side. He has just started doing this when, unfortunately, the private detective the Narrator brought with him from London clobbers him, knocking him out.

Jay Really confused, the Narrator and detective hide until Jay gets into his car, then tail him back to London and the Cromwell Road, turning off near the Brompton Oratory. They walk up to the door Jay entered, pondering their next move, when two of his goons corner them from the rear – they have themselves been tailed and are now forced up to Jay’s hyper-modern flat at gunpoint. There is a surreal scene with Jay, the master-crook, who chats to the Narrator while he spits and prepares a lobster – with typical Deighton élan the Narrator minutely observes the culinary details. Jay explains the brainwashing technique he’s been perfecting. He says some 300 people have passed through the technique to date. Someone called Henry phones him and tips him off that the police are closing in. Jay remains calm and unflustered and tells his goons not to shoot.

Resolution The Narrator’s first boss, Ross, reveals all – well, nearly all, and the Narrator fills in the remaining gaps in a long exposition at the end. Jay had been kidnapping scientists and other top chaps and selling them on to whoever bid for them, with the help of traitor Dalby. But in the past year he’d been developing a new line in brainwashing – wearing down people using a number of different techniques – they were subjecting the Narrator to it in the fake Hungarian prison; another approach was to submerge victims in a big tank of water with earphones clamped to their head to aid disorientation and ‘softening up’: it was this tank and bits of the tape which were found in the abandoned house which the Narrator arranged to be raided. Some 300 eminent persons had passed through the technique and rounding up all Jay’s accomplices, and identifying the victims of the scheme, takes some time.

The odd scene in the nightclub where the Narrator sees Raven’s body on a roulette table is explained as an early attempt to frame the Narrator – they were going to plant a hypodermic needle on him, and the police were closing in on the club on Dalby’s orders with a view to finding the Narrator red-handed. But he was impatient, followed Housemartin and broke out of the building just before the police broke in.

Ross takes the Narrator to meet an Eminent Person who congratulates N on doing such a splendid job – at the same time, by implication, demonstrating that Ross can be trusted – but the Narrator ruins the moment by demanding to know who the ‘Henry’ is who rang Jay to tip him off. It must have been someone very high up indeed. The atmosphere turns frosty. The Eminent Person says they are trying to track him down. The Narrator wonders… is there a cover-up?

And Jay, is he thrown into prison for his crimes? No, he is paid £160,000 to co-operate with British Intelligence.

The American brigadier who had supervised the Narrator’s interrogation on the atoll appears and confirms that, with a lot of help from  Jean, the Americans eventually figured out how Dalby framed him. He’s in the clear.

In a sly last two pages, the Narrator gives false passports and money to the old man who had acted as his gaoler in the fake gaol, and tickets to Prague, and tells him that he is in fact working from Russian intelligence. ‘This, too, was a spy’s insurance policy.’ (p.326)


The book is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and almost always maintains a dry ironic humour – a tone established on the first page.

      They came through on the hot line at about half past two in the afternoon. The Minister didn’t quite understand a couple of points in the summary. Perhaps I could see the Minister.
Perhaps. (p.1)

‘Perhaps’ is a one-word paragraph. It a) satirises the absurdly periphrastic circumlocutions of the Civil Service b) captures at a stroke the narrator’s amused and satirical attitude. It is playing with language and with the layout and formatting of texts. This playfulness continues throughout the novel.

A lot of the humour is in the dry dialogue, mostly too long to quote properly. I like this exchange at the big party the Americans throw on the atoll. Dalby is talking about the American brigadier they’ve just met.

‘Wanted to borrow you for a year,’ Dalby said. We both continued to look at the dance floor.
‘Did he get me?’
‘Not unless you particularly want to go. I said you’d prefer to stay with Charlotte.’
‘Let me know if I change my mind,’ I said, and Dalby gave me the slanted focus. (p.217)

A writer like le Carré gives you very long passages of dialogue in which you can observe the characters subtly and astutely positioning themselves. Deighton feels the opposite. From whole conversations just a sentence is selected as the sassiest, most oblique or telling. When Ross raids Jay’s house and brings the Narrator’s wayward flight to an end, Deighton selects only two sentences of dialogue. (Bear in mind that the Narrator has just spent half an hour chatting to Jay while the latter very elaborately prepared lobster in champagne – all the time wondering whether he was going, eventually, to be bumped off. Finally Ross and his men arrive.)

Ross made a joke then. He said, ‘Do you come here often?’
‘I do,’ I said. ‘I know the chef.’ (p.299)

He is smart and sardonic about the people he works with. But he has a flashy way of describing nature, too, of backgrounds and settings and environment.

The rain dabbed spasmodically at the glass pane, and another plane ground its way across the sky. (p.113)

‘It’s OK,’ I told him, ‘and thanks.’ Outside the clouds had put dark glasses on the moon. (p.221)

Uneven style

The prose is, then, a funny mix of tones and voices, the most consistent of which is a very dry wry sense of humour and a tremendous understatement. But there are unexpected patches of poetic prose, and sections of technical specification. No wonder contemporary reviews called the novel ‘zany’ or referred to Deighton as an ‘oddball’.

Though some of the text is zippy and smart, others parts have an oddly formal voice: given a choice he will always say ‘upon’, ‘within’, whilst’ instead of on, in, while. He cordially dislikes the chinless public schoolboys he works with but sometimes the prose adopts their patrician tone.

As Adem finished speaking a radio somewhere within the house pierced the grey velvet twilight with a needle of sound. The polished opening notes of the second movement of the Jupiter. It seemed that every living thing across the vast desert space heard the disturbing chilling sound. For those few minutes of time as the wire edge modulated to a minor key and as the rhythm and syncopation caught, slipped and re-engaged like a trio on a trapeze, there was only me and Adem and Mozart alive in that cruel, dead, lonely place. (Ch 7)

From inside the house the crick-crack of freshly ignited fruit-tree wood proclaimed the approach of dinner-time.

The window swung open and Murray dived head first through. I saw the soles of his hand-made shoes (eighteen guineas) with a small sticky rectangular price tab still affixed under the instep. (Ch 12)

No-one answered, and here and there an unkind grin clearly stated the social alienation that his success had wrought. (Ch 20)

There was a smell of freshly ground coffee, a spitting of grilling bacon, and a big coal fire that had reached that state of perfection that the manufacturers of plastic fronts for electric ones seek to emulate. (Ch 27)

‘Seek to emulate.’ He’s a late-1950s Soho coffee bar author using a late-Victorian idiom to… to do what precisely? To mock the modern world? To mock himself? On every page it feels like the text is very knowing about being ‘a spy novel’, in fact about being a fiction at all. The ostentatious correctness of passages like these are part of the performance.


Although the Narrator enjoys undermining the public school world of clubs, school ties and official culture, yet he is not in full-throated rebellion against it. In fact, as noted above, in some places he seeks to outdo it in punctiliousness, as he frequently outdoes his superiors – Ross and Dalby – in general, technical and cultural knowledge.

In fact, he has an ambivalent attitude towards ‘pop’ culture – liking it as rebellion, but despising so much of it as kitsch rubbish. By the time I read them in the 1970s the once Angry Young Men of the 1950s had become grumpy old men, complaining how standards had slipped, everyone was scruffy, no-one had any manners. In among the self-consciously cool attitude, there are signs of incipient Kingsley Amis grumpiness here:

Behind Jay’s voice I could hear the radio playing very quietly. An English jazz singer was even now Gee Whizzing, Waa Waa and Boop boop booping in an unparalleled plethora of idiocy. (Ch 30)

Steady on, grandad. He’s in the Soho coffee house and Notting Hill bedsit-land world enough to write about it, and vividly, but he hasn’t embraced it to the exclusion of all else, as the pop artists and pop culture would just a few years later; in his mind he is rising above it. He writes scornfully of Chico, the upper-class twit in his office who parades an endless list of relatives in high places with spiffing country estates, or his boss the public-school-educated Dalby with his bourgeois tastes; but is himself scornful of plebeian culture, of pop music and strip clubs and the daily papers. He is a grammar school boy, caught between public school toffs and the roughs from the secondary modern. But in the world he moves in, it’s mainly toffs that he meets and so are the most prominent subjects of his satire.

The iced Israeli melon was sweet, tender and cold, like the blonde waitress. Corrugated iron manufacturers and chinless advertising men shared the joys of our expense-account society with zombie-like debs with Eton-tied uncles. (Ch 8)

(The Establishment, the nightclub hosting jazz and satirical comedy acts, had opened in Greek Street, Soho, three months before the novel was published. Satire – sending up the MacMillan government and chaps in bowlers and umbrellas – but satire which itself wears a tie and is fussy about the cut of its suit.)


The smart savviness of tone is exemplified in numerous exuberant, sometimes rather far-fetched, similes and metaphors:

His profusion of long lank yellow hair hung heavily across his head like a Shrove Tuesday mishap (Ch 1)

The Colosseum – Rome’s rotten tooth – sank behind us, white, ghostly and sensational. (Ch 5)

He was about in his mid-sixties; gentle and humorous with a face like an apple that’s been stored through the winter. (Ch 7)

Like a clumsy Billy Bunter the machine heaved itself hand over hand into the sky. A touch of rudder had the tail rotor slip it sideways, and, silhouetted against the five-o’clock-shadowed chin of twilight, they hedge-hopped in 100 mph gallops across the sea. (Ch 7)

Outside, the driver of a wet fish van was arguing violently with a sad traffic warden. The traffic had welded itself into a river of metal… (Ch 16)

She came into Led’s old broken doorway and into my life and like the Royal Scot, but without all the steam and noise… Her face was taut like a cast of an Aztec god. (Ch 16)

Tokwe Atoll was a handful of breakfast crumbs on a blue coverlet. (Ch 18)

The enormous juke-box glowed like a monkey’s bottom, and the opening bars of a cha cha cha rent the smoke. (Ch 18)

Wriggling away from the legs of the tower, black smooth cables and corrugated pipelines rested along each other like a Chinese apothecary’s box of snakes. (Ch 19)

The sun was a two-dimensional magenta disc, and the sunset lay in horizontal stripes like finger-nails and torn gold lacerations across the ashen face of the evening. (Ch 20)

Outside the clouds had put dark glasses on the moon. (Ch 21)

It is confident and brash. Look at me, watch me write!

Jean stopped and turned back to me; across her gold face a strand of black hair hung like a crack in a Sung vase. (Ch 20)


Complementing the elliptical and often puzzling approach is the paraphernalia surrounding the text. The novel is presented as an official report to give us readers the sense of being given privileged access to this top secret world – and yet with strange contradictions which confused me:

  • the fly leaf says The Ipcress File / Secret File No. 1 as if we are about to read a sequence of secret files and this is the first – but there is no other file (readers had to await the next book in the series, Horse Under Water, to realise that that was File No.2)
  • the text purports to be an official intelligence agency report and includes a graphic of the header of an official War Office document
  • there are numerous footnotes explaining espionage-related references, initialisms etc throughout the text, and
  • the novel proper is followed by 20 pages of appendices, very thoroughly following up on references in the text, with detailed explanations of events in history, the neutron bomb, Indian hemp, secret operations, an excerpt from a manual on handling guns etc etc

So the novel is presented masquerading as an official report – BUT

  • Nothing could be less report-like than its self-consciously writerly style. I thought there was a tremendous clash between the would-be bureaucratic format in which it’s laid out and the jokey, angled style it is actually written in.
  • This report scenario – The Ipcress File / Secret File No. 1 – is contradicted on the very next page by the brief prologue which describes the Narrator going for a meeting with a Minister who says ‘Just tell me the whole story in your own words, old chap.’

So the text simultaneously claims to be a spoken verbatim account and an official report with appendices, notes etc. Which is it?


Furthermore, how do we square its presentation as official report with the fact that almost all of the 32 chapters have, as epigraph, the horoscope for that week (they’re all for Aquarius so presumably that’s the star sign of the Narrator):

Aquarius Jan 20-Feb 19: If you are a stick-in-the-mud you’ll get nowhere. Widen your social horizons. Go somewhere gay and relaxing.

(This particular one jokily/ironically prefaces the short chapter where the Narrator has escaped from prison and makes a rendezvous with an old friend who gets him clean clothes and puts him up at his place.)

I suppose the horoscope thing is meant to be a joke, a witty commentary on the text, a dig at the trashiness of contemporary culture (joining the slighting references to beatniks, loud music, junk mail etc) or just stylish and witty – though I confess I was struggling enough just to figure out what was going on in the main story and so quite quickly stopped reading them.


In the end, the puzzling pieces of jigsaw are more or less pulled together to explain what happened and it is part of the book’s cool appeal that not all the loose ends are tied up or even explained. In terms of plot I was astounded that the trigger for the dénouement seemed so simple: Dalby is exposed as a double agent because he has invited the kidnapper-baddy to his house for cocktails, and the Narrator sneaks up and sees them through the window. After all the divagations and confusions, the plot isn’t solved by elaborate cerebration or cunning calculation, but by sneaking up and looking through a window: Famous Five!

But the plot is only one element in this remarkably fresh, original, elliptical, funny and hugely enjoyable spy novel.

The movie

is a 1960s icon starring a young and gorgeous Michale Caine as the hero (here named Harry Palmer) with a classic score by John Barry and supporting appearances by umpteen London buses. Wisely, the screenwriters drop the atom bomb atoll sequence and other distractions to make the plot more straightforwardly about the brainwashing technology and the slow revealing of Dalby the double agent.

Related links

Papaerback cover of The Ipcress File

Paperback cover of The Ipcress File

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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