An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (2013)

At some point I seem to have ceased to be an army officer and become a detective. I pound pavements. I interview witnesses. I collect evidence. (p.185)

The Dreyfus Affair

In December 1894 the French Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was tried and found guilty of passing French military secrets to the Germans and packed off to Devil’s Island, where he served five years penal servitude in gruelling conditions. But in 1896 evidence began to come to light suggesting the real spy was someone else, and implying that Dreyfus was the victim of a shabby kangaroo court, a victim of the widespread anti-Semitic and anti-German mood of the army. (Not only was he a Jew, he was a rich Jew, moreover his family came from the eastern province of Alsace, which France had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and had stayed there instead of fleeing the enemy, as ‘good patriots’ had done.)

Slowly pressure mounted for a retrial and the Dreyfus case became a lightning rod for the divisions which had divided France since the 1789 revolution – with right-wing, pro-Army and generally Catholic forces on one side, convinced there was some German, Jewish conspiracy to undermine France and her patriotic virtues – opposed to liberal, freethinking, anti-militarists on the other side, equally convinced the whole thing was a travesty of justice, an example of military high-handedness, a blatant cover-up of incompetence at the highest levels.

The whole affair dragged on for over a decade, with Dreyfus released from Devil’s Island and accepting a pardon in 1899 but battling on to establish his innocence, securing a re-investigation in 1903, then a retrial in 1904, which led to his complete exoneration and his restoration to the army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1906.

Harris has written a long, detailed and gripping recreation of the affair. It opens dramatically with Dreyfus being paraded in front of a baying mob of 20,000 Parisians and several army divisions, having his conviction publicly read out, his epaulettes torn off, his sword smashed in two, then dragged off to prison and a long sea voyage to his incarceration in the hellhole of Devil’s Island.

Georges Picquart

Harris has soaked himself in the history of the affair and the culture of the period – as the Afterword listing the works of reference he used amply indicates – and he manages to involve us in the convoluted series of conspiracies and investigations, which helps to make this book itself his longest (at 478 pages).

I was daunted by this sheer size and by the notorious complexity of the subject matter, but ended up being so gripped by Harris’s treatment that I read it late into the night and ended up wondering if it might be his best, and most gripping, novel – which is saying a lot after the compelling thrills of Fatherland, Archangel and Enigma.

It is a minor miracle (partly indebted to the historical facts, partly to Harris’s grasp of its complexity) that he has managed to identify and use the consciousness of just one first-person narrator to take us through the elaborate events and legal processes which is what the affair consists of.

This central character is Major (soon to be promoted Colonel) Georges Picquart, a bachelor of 40, who was a real historical figure right at the heart of the affair – present at Dreyfus’s arrest, tasked with reporting the first, secret, trial directly to the Minister for War, as a result promoted to head the Statistical Section (a secret intelligence section of the army’s intelligence division, the Deuxième Bureau) which had in fact gathered much of the evidence used against Dreyfus.

Here he slowly assembles the documents, the forgeries, the testimony from witnesses, which gradually cohere to suggest that Dreyfus was not guilty, that the real spy passing secrets to the German military attaché, von Schwartzkoppen, was an arrogant, loose-living officer named Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, and that Dreyfus was elaborately framed by a cabal of officers and their superiors who wanted to find a scapegoat and hush up the initial spying allegations quickly with oh what dire and unintended consequences.

Thus we witness all the key opening scenes through Picquart’s eyes – Dreyfus’s arrest, trial, and his big set piece humiliation in front of baying crowds. Because of Picquart’s position he also reads the pitiful correspondence between Dreyfus – with its harrowing descriptions of his solitary confinement in the tiny rocky islet in the Atlantic – and his poor wife, Lucie, left looking after their two young children. Picquart’s superiors are the Head of the Deuxième Bureau, of the General Staff and the War Minister himself, who we get to observe close up on numerous occasions, just a few among the cast of scores and scores of historical personages that Harris brings to life with astonishing attention to detail and verisimilitude.

And then we follow Picquart into the minutiae of the various investigations and surveillances he runs, and experience with him the sense of doubt, then suspicion, and then horrified certainty as he realises the French Army has convicted the wrong man and let the real spy go free. We follow his attempts to alert his superiors to what he has discovered, only to find them cold and unresponsive – either because they were directly involved in the original frame-up or because they realise that admitting it will expose the army to ridicule, and that the most senior figures – the head of the General Staff, the war minister himself – will be compromised.

After refusing to obey direct orders to close his investigations, after refusing to stop gathering evidence against Esterhazy, Picquart is finally unceremoniously shipped to a remote dumping ground in colonial Tunisia, transferred to an infantry brigade, and, when the result of his investigations start to leak into the newspapers, becomes an outcast among his brother officers, a traitor, a Jew-lover.

After putting up with the Tunisian heat and boredom for 6 months he makes a momentous decision, returns to Paris incognito, and hands over a detailed dossier of all the evidence to an old family friend, seasoned lawyer Louis Leblois, who himself hands it over to the Vice President of the French Senate, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner.

Back in Tunisia, Picquart watches from afar as a big political and press campaign begins to roll to get the Dreyfus case reopened.

But his superiors are almost certain he is responsible for the leak and soon he is himself subject to crude intimidation and then cunningly framed by the very staff in the Statistical Section who he used to manage. He is summoned back to Paris and tried using evidence – letters and telegrams – which have all been concocted to make it seem like he himself is a dangerous spy, and spends a long time in various prisons in and around Paris, trying, like Dreyfus, not to go mad.

Meanwhile the army ransacks his apartment, exposes his affair with a married woman – thus ruining her life – sets up another stage-managed trial to incriminate him, and generally abuses its power in every way conceivable to frame another innocent man.

In the final section Picquart loses all illusions about  his enemy, and openly collaborates with a committee of the Dreyfus supporters who now call themselves ‘Dreyfusards’, including the left-wing politician and future French Prime Minister George Clemenceau and the novelist Émile Zola. It is in January 1898 that Zola publishes his famous front-page article J’Accuse, for the first time naming all the guilty men Picquart has assembled information about, minutely detailing their roles in the various fabrications and cover-ups – a historic publication which only manages to get him arrested and tried for libel.

Right to the end of these tortuous proceedings, investigations, trials, retrials, conspiracies and incarcerations, Harris keeps up the totally addictive grip of his fast-moving, factual but beautifully paced narrative. I couldn’t put it down.

Pace and empathy

Why are Harris’s novels so compulsively readable? It’s a long book – 484 pages in the Arrow paperback – but it flies by, even with its freight of historical, legal and cultural complexity.

It’s due to at least two things: Harris’s clear, readable and attractive prose, and his very canny pacing of the way the central ‘secret’ – Dreyfus’s innocence, the identity of the real spy – is revealed.

In fact, this central structure of the ‘slow reveal’ is identical to the ones he used in his earlier thrillers: Fatherland where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation of the Holocaust, Archangel where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation that Stalin had a son and heir who is still alive, Enigma where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence that there is a traitor at the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre.

The fundamental journey is the same but the pleasure is in Harris’s tremendous skill at surprising the reader with carefully placed clues and insights. Somehow Harris takes you completely into the mind of his protagonists so that, although the reader knows in advance that there was a Holocaust and that Dreyfus was innocent, we still share the same growing suspicion, shock and horror as the central figure.

Even when, by half way through, the ‘secret’ is out and Picquart is fully convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence, he still manages to grip the reader by having us so fully on the side of his hero: as he anxiously waits in his Tunisian exile for events to develop, as he journeys alone and scared to Paris, as he has secret meetings with his lawyer friend, and then through all the rigours of his own arrest, imprisonment, rigged impeachment and further incarceration.

By this stage we are nearly as angry as Picquart, not only with the injustice of Dreyfus’s imprisonment, but with the combination of crude blundering and blackmail masterminded by his craven army superiors and their pawns and agents. And this anger, and an anxiety to see how and when the truth prevails, become the driving force of the reader’s involvement.

Style

I’ve noted in my reviews of other Harris’s other thrillers, that he varies his style to suit the subject matter and period: Enigma used a prose style just slightly tinged with 1940s slang and phraseology; The Ghost skillfully captures the middle-brow, humorous, self-deprecation of an easygoing modern-day jobbing author; The Fear Index is rich with terminology from the computer science and financial markets which are its setting.

Similarly, An Officer and A Spy mostly functions with what you could call Basic Thriller Style, a curt clipped statement of the facts.

We take a taxi across the river and I pay off the driver just south of the École Militaire. The remainder of the journey we complete on foot. The section of the rue de Sèvres in which the hotel stands is narrow and poorly lit; the Manche is easy to miss. It occupies a narrow, tumbledown house, hemmed in between a butcher’s shop and a bar: the sort of place where commercial travellers might lay their heads for a night and assignations can no doubt be paid for by the hour. Desvernines goes in first: I follow. The concierge is not at his desk. Through a curtain of beads I can see people eating supper in the little dining room. There is no escalator. The narrow stairs creak with every tread. (p.403)

After a while I realised that the very fact that he is a soldier adds a slight but detectable extra amount of curtness and clippedness. He is a military man used to thinking in terms of fact, figures, orders and instructions, and a Frenchman trained in clarity and logic.

But this is combined with Harris’s marvellous gift for selecting just the right detail to convey a scene or character. There is a tremendous economy to his writing and an impressive tact: just so much, just what is needed to paint a scene, and no more.

The following Thursday evening, at seven precisely, I sit in a corner of the cavernous yellow gloom of the platform café of the gare Saint-Lazare, sipping an Alsace beer. The place is packed; the double-hinged door swings back and forth with a squeak of springs. The roar of chat and movement inside and the whistles and shouts and percussive bursts of steam from the locomotives outside make it a perfect place not to be overheard. I have managed to save a table with two seats that gives me a clear view of the entrance. (p.109)

The present

Another very distinctive aspect of the narrative is that it is all in the present tense.

It was a considerable risk to do it this, as a narrative told in the continuous present can appear pretentious or stilted in the wrong hands. But Harris really is such a brilliant and intelligent writer that it works entirely as he intends it to, by creating a permanent present in which the narrator – like the reader – has no idea what is going to happen next. It adds tremendously to the tension and anxiety of the book, continually driving you on every page to experience the hero’s doubts and anxieties.

For several minutes I sit motionless, holding the photograph. I might be made of marble, a sculpture by Rodin: The Reader. What really freezes me, even more than the matching hand-writing, is the content – the obsession with artillery, the offer to have a manual copied out verbatim, the obsequious salesman’s tone – it is Esterhazy to the life. (p.162)

We sit with him. We are holding the new evidence, transfigured by its implications. 479 is a lot of pages to keep up this balancing act, but Harris does it brilliantly.

The hero as modern man

Coming to this novel after reading a series of Alan Furst’s historical spy novels prompts the thought that what Furst’s and Harris’s novels share is the essential amiability of the central characters.

Compare Georges Picquart with Fredric Stahl, the protagonist of Furst’s 2012 novel, Mission To Paris. They are both good eggs. Furst’s hero is as immune to the prejudices of his time (the 1930s) as Georges Picquart is to those of his (the 1890s).

For example, both of them are repelled by anti-Semitism. This was an extremely common prejudice throughout Europe, at all levels of society until well past the Second World War. Harris’s and Furst’s novels testify to this, the Harris novel tracking the rise of virulent anti-Semitism as the Dreyfus case drags on. And yet both these heroes don’t have a prejudiced bone in their body. They never give in to even the slightest racist thought for even a second. Not even in their darkest moments. In this respect, they are whiter than white, politically correct. Their instinctive revulsion from and contempt for the anti-Semitism of those around them withstands the toughest scrutiny of the modern liberal reader.

Similarly, both of them are immensely respectful of women; never let slip a sexist comment, don’t belittle women in word or deed; indeed, they both have the same kind of sensuous, smoochy affairs with women that require or imply that the women in their lives are themselves highly sexually aware, ‘modern’ and ‘liberated’ ie surprisingly anticipating modern attitudes.

Furst and Harris heroes are, in other words, modern men who reflect very accurately the most advanced, enlightened thinking of the 21st century – transplanted back into the clothes of a man in 1938 and 1895, respectively. If you actually read novelists from 1938 (Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene) let alone 1895 (Thomas Hardy, Henry James) you quickly discover they:

a) thought and wrote in a much more convoluted and less factual style than we do
b) were casually racist and sexist, not to mention snobbish, elitist and intolerant, without realising they’d said anything wrong – because those were the common values of the time
c) were very tight-lipped about sex, if mentioned at all

Not only that, but Picquart is winningly cultured and civilised. Harris goes out of his way to make him a man of culture, who knows a particular Paris church is famous because Saint-Saens plays the organ there, and who attends a performance of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune conducted by the composer himself, a man who whiles away boring journeys translating Dostoyevsky novels from the original Russian.

A mark of his urbanity and his ability to rise above petty mindedness (unlike so many of those around him) is his sense of humour.

Outwardly, I hope, I wear my usual mask of detachment, even irony, for there has never been a situation, however dire, even this one, that did not strike me as containing at least some element of the human comedy. (p.355)

Finally, and – crucially – these heroes are much the same at the end of the book as they were at the start. This is what keeps thrillers, by and large, from being considered ‘literature’. The characters undergo little real change. Picquart sees a lot, and tells us he experiences a lot, but he still uses the same snappy, confident, urbane tone at the end of the book as at the start. He’s learned a lot but is still essentially the same guy.

An indication of this lack of development comes right at the end of the novel. The payoff, the epilogue, the conclusion could have drawn a number of wide-ranging points from Dreyfus’s story: for example, what it tells us about the divided nature of French society, about French defeatism before the Great War (and indeed the Second World War), about the widespread presence of anti-Semitism in even an ‘enlightened’ Western nation, and so on.

Instead of opening up into historical perspectives, though, Harris deliberately and, I think, a little disappointingly, focuses the story right down to a Spielbergesque final moment.

In the epilogue (and, amazingly, this is true) the shamed Picquart, once a complete outcast from the French army has himself ended up becoming French Minister for War, and is asked for an interview by the newly restored Lieutenant Colonel Dreyfus. Both men are embarrassed as Dreyfus, finally, after their long odyssey together, says thank you. Picquart says shucks I could never have done it without you. Dreyfus replies, ‘No, my general, you did it because it was your duty.’ (p.479)

In other words, this final scene, for all the brilliance of the preceding pages, I think emphasises the essentially simple psychology, the innocence and apple pie goodness, of Harris’s hero. He and the reader have been on an extraordinary journey of investigation and understanding – but he is as solid, noble and conscientious at the bitter end as he had been at the innocent start.

What the thriller can tell us

Thus, lack of character development is one of the most obvious drawbacks of ‘the thriller’ as a genre, even very good thrillers like Harris’s.

But that said, thriller can do lots of things which more ‘serious literature’ can’t. They can have more breadth of character, range of incident, more extreme situations. Above all the thriller is interested in violence, fear, paranoia, surveillance, suspicion, enemies and the mindset which copes with constant threat, continual alertness and planning. It exercises ‘the predator mind’. And these, regrettably, are situations a lot of ordinary literature-reading people found themselves suddenly thrown into throughout the terrible 20th century.

So many of the thrillers I’ve read over the past two years self-consciously refer to the fact that this or that situation could be straight out of a shilling shocker, or cheap thriller or Hollywood movie – as if by confronting the fact that they’re using conventional thriller clichés and stereotypes they can somehow overcome it. Harris says something more interesting. As the narrator gives his lawyer a letter to be opened by the president of France ‘in the event of my death’, he is aware of how silly the situation is.

I suppose he considers it melodramatic, the sort of device one might encounter in a railway ‘thriller’. I would have felt the same a year ago. Now I have come to see that thrillers may contain more truths than all Monsieur Zola’s social realism put together. (p.303)

Thrillers deal with people plunged into extreme situations and, for all their obvious shortcomings, people are in fact plunged into extreme situations every day, and thrillers do tell some kinds of truths, not subtle truths about human nature, maybe; but truths about the human mind and the desperate measures it sometimes has to resort to.

Implications

As referred to, Harris is a writer of great intelligence and forensic ability, a lawyer or journalist’s ability to grasp the detail of a very complex subject and rewrite it in an orderly, comprehensible and indeed gripping way.

I mentioned the economy and tact of his style, above. But there is also the economy and tact of his entire approach. Although I don’t quite like the sentimental ending when Dreyfus and Picquart finally shake hands, I do like what Harris doesn’t do: he doesn’t preach. He doesn’t draw the umpteen conclusions he could have about Dreyfus being one of the first political prisoners, or a victim of a state cover-up, or about the ineptness of spy agencies or the stupidity of so much military ‘intelligence’, or the broader historical echoes: Dreyfus was a kind of proto-martyr for what would become a flood of state-sponsored show trials in totalitarian Germany and Russian in the 1930s and in other authoritarian countries since.

Instead the eerie anticipations of later regimes are left entirely to the reader to pick up. He compliments his reader’s intelligence with his restraint. Just the use of the word ‘dossier’ to refer to all the made-up evidence against Dreyfus is enough to remind the reader of the ‘dodgy dossier’ containing the ‘sexed-up intelligence’ which helped take the UK into America’s invasion of Iraq. This and other fleeting pre-echoes and premonitions are left entirely for the reader to detect, or not.

Subtlety. Tact. Discretion. These are just some among Harris’s many wonderful gifts as an unmatched writer of intelligent historical thrillers.

Dramatis personae

  • Alfred Dreyfus, captain in the French army, Jewish, wealthy, aloof, when some documents which imply that someone is passing French military secrets to the German military attaché are discovered by the French Deuxième Bureau, he is framed, evidence is twisted and handwriting experts are suborned to blame the entirely guiltless Dreyfus, who is tried in a secret military trial, convicted to life imprisonment, ritually stripped of military honours in front of a vast Paris crowd, and shipped to a tiny rock off the South American coast where a tiny prison and contingent of guards is kept solely to keep him in solitary confinement, with no letters or books, for five years.
  • Lucie Dreyfus, his wife, Pierre his son, Jeanne his daughter
  • Mathieu Dreyfus, his brother who leads the campaign for his release
  • Bernard Lazare, Jewish journalist the
  • Major then Colonel Georges Picquart
  • Anna, his older sister
  • Pauline Romazotti, grew up near the Picquart family, now married to Philippe Monnier, official at the Foreign Ministry, with whom Georges is having an affair
  • Louis Leblois, old schoolfriend and lawyer
  • Aimery de Comminges, baron de Saint-Lary
  • Blanche de Commanges, one of Picquart’s lovers
  • General Charles-Arthur Gonse, 56, Chief of French Military Intelligence (p.29)
  • General Mercier, Minister of War, to whom Picquart reports back an eye witness account of the Dreyfus kangaroo court
  • President Casimir-Perier, president of France
  • Major Henry, official in the Statistical Section of the Deuxième Bureau, a red-faced often drunk man who, it emerges, played a key role in framing Dreyfus
  • Captain Lauth of the Statistical Section
  • Monsieur Gribelin, the spidery archivist of the Statistical Section
  • Colonel Sandherr, Picquart’s predecessor as head of the Statistical Section ie he oversaw the faking of the evidence which framed Dreyfus
  • Jean-Alfred Desverine, young Sûreté officer Picquart gets seconded to his Statistical Section
  • Ducasse, young officer Picquart sets up in a rented flat opposite the German embassy in Paris to record comings and goings
  • Moises Lehmann, forger Picquart uses
  • Guénée, Statistical Section operative who has been assigned to surveil the Dreyfus family
  • General Foucault, French military attaché to Berlin
  • Armand du Paty de Clam, instrumental in forging evidence implicating Dreyfus
  • Operation Benefactor, the surveillance operation on Esterhazy instigate by Picquart
  • General Billot
  • General Boisdeffre, Chief of the French General Staff
  • von Schwartzkoppen, German military attaché in Paris
  • Alessandro Panizzardi, Italian military attaché in Paris
  • General Leclerc, Picquart’s commanding officer in Tunisia after he is transferred to the 4th Tunisian Rifles
  • Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, Vice President of the Senate to whom Picquart’s friend, the lawyer Leblois, gives Picquart’s dossier proving that Esterhazy is the spy and Dreyfus innocent
  • Colonel Armand Mercier-Milon, old friend of Picquart’s who is tasked with escorting him from Marseilles to Paris and there keeping him under guard
  • General de Pellieux, tough soldier leading the investigation into Picquart’s alleged treason and alleged fabrication of evidence against Esterhazy

Credit

An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

A Brief History of The Spy by Paul Simpson (2013)

An entertaining and eye-opening survey of the role of the spy since 1945.

The sub-title is Modern Spying from the Cold War to the War on Terror, but in fact the book reads as if it is in two distinct parts: 1. The Cold War. 2. The War on Terror, each of which has completely different rules and atmosphere.

Also it is a history of the spy, not of spying as a whole. As it progresses you begin to realise that a full and complete history of spying would itself be huge, and also just part of a wider history of ‘intelligence’ gathering in the broadest sense. This would be a vast, maybe an impossibly huge task, bringing in all kinds of electronic, remote and automatic surveillance and communications monitoring.

Simpson describes some of the most vivid instances of this kind of wire tapping and phone cable intercepting, but the focus of the book is on the stories of individual spies. He very usefully sets the stories against the main geopolitical events of the past seventy years, which are briefly described, but always to revert to the book’s core content, which is a set of 100 or so potted biographies of notable spies and summaries of their activities.

Sample spy stories

  • Igor Gouzenko, a lieutenant in Russian intelligence, defected in 1945 and implicated 21 Canadians as Russian agents, including Fred Rose, the only communist ever elected to the Canadian parliament.
  • Elizabeth Bentley, ‘the red Spy Queen’, who’d been working for the KGB since 1933, confessed to the FBI in 1945 and named 150 Americans working as Russian agents, and wrote a 107-page document detailing all aspects of Soviet spycraft and organisation in the US.
  • Georges Pâques, a key advisor to various French ministers through to the early 1960s, was a KGB agent with access to the entire NATO defence plan for Western Europe.
  • Gunvor Galtung Haavik worked at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1955 to 1977, and was a KGB agent the whole time, passing secrets to the Russians.
  • From 1953 GRU officer Pyotr Popov supplied the CIA with details of the organisation of Soviet military command, the structure of the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the USSR armed forces) and with names and operations of Soviet agents in Europe, before being caught and executed by the Russians.
  • Army sergeant and part-time pimp Robert Lee Johnson tried to sell his services to the KGB several times before getting lucky and getting assigned to the Armed Forces Courier Service at Orly airport. He was able to break into the top secret vault there, photograph and send the Soviets information about cypher systems and defence plans for the US and NATO.
  • Canadian economist Hugh Hambleton worked for the Russians from inside NATO between 1957 and 1961 and provided so much material that the KGB had to provide a black van equipped with a photographic library so that it could be speedily copied and returned. He spied for over 20 years.
  • British naval clerk John Vassall worked in the Admiralty and sent the Russians thousands of classified documents covering naval policy and weapons development. He did this for five years.
  • By 1960 the KGB had three agents working in the newly-founded US National Security Agency (NSA). Two cryptologists, William Hamilton Martin and Bernon F. Mitchell defected to Moscow and gave a press conference in which they revealed the NSA was spying on all sorts of countries ‘friendly’ to the USA.
  • Staff sergeant John Dunlap was chauffeur to the chief of staff of the NSA and from 1960 onwards supplied the Soviets with instruction books, manuals, and designs for the Americans’ cipher machines, up till 1963.
  • Head of the East German HVA (the intelligence wing of the dreaded Stasi) Markus Wolff, was said to have up to three thousand agents working for him at every level of the West German state. He became well known for the honey trap whereby handsome young men seduced older female secretaries working in West German government positions. Thus Irmgard Römer who worked at the Bonn Foreign Office, was persuaded by her handsome lover, a KGB agent, to give him copies of all the top secret telegrams she handled. Leonore Sütterlein, another secretary in the Foreign Ministry, was eventually convicted of passing over 3,000 classified documents to her husband who was in fact a KGB officer. When she realised he had only married her in order to access the documents, she killed herself.

And so on and so on, the book selecting some hundred – from what it suggests could easily be thousands – of similar stories.

1. The Cold War

Three or four big themes emerge fro this litany of betrayal:

Russia versus America

Simpson’s book overwhelmingly focuses on the conflict between communist Russia and capitalist America. The text proceeds decade by decade, setting the scene of major geopolitical events – the Berlin Airlift, the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, and so on – to explain the pressure of events which often motivated individual defectors and agents. For example, the KGB operatives who were disillusioned by the way the Russians crushed the ‘Prague Spring’. But the axis of battle is always between East and West.

There are sub-sections on other countries: Britain recurs, presumably because this is a British book by a British author, maybe also because we are so closely tied to the Americans thus there is a substantial section about the ‘Magnificent Five’ Cambridge spies in Britain, and brief references to the reorganisations over the period of MI5 and MI6. But of other security services with hefty histories of their own – BOSS in South Africa or Mossad in Israel – there are only fleeting references. Mostly – as with the East German Stasi or the Czech StB – they are only referenced insofar as they connect with the book’s main CIA-KGB axis.

A treachery of spies

Maybe the biggest revelation of the book is simply how many spies there have been. And how often their betrayals were on an epic scale: lots of the individuals mentioned here didn’t hand over bits and bobs to the other side, a file here or there – but spent years and years systematically copying, photographing and handing over the most sensitive, top secret material imaginable. Some needed sets of filing cabinets or even lorries to cart away the huge amounts of documents they betrayed. Others sent so much to the enemy their material was still being sifted and analysed five years later.

The sheer scale of the material these agents sold, passed on and betrayed raises two thoughts:

a) An impressive number of the traitors described here were obvious security risks: known alcoholics, unreliable, erratic, greedy or amoral materialists. As the list of traitors grows steadily longer through the post-war decades, it makes you seriously wonder about the ‘vetting’ techniques of all these so-called ‘security’ bodies. When you consider that the British traitor Kim Philby, a committed agent for the KGB, almost became head of MI6, you wonder whether the word ‘security’ actually means anything.

b) There was so much to betray. In movies the McGuffin or thing being stolen is always small and portable, nowadays just a disk or flash drive. But in reality, it consisted of hundreds, if not thousands, if not truckloads – of documents. The sheer weight of information betrayed and sold by both sides is staggering. And how can the security apparatuses on either side have survived having so much stolen and given away?

For example, the Manhattan Project which produced America’s atom bomb appears to have been riddled with Russian spies. So much so, that the Russians themselves detonated an A bomb just four years after the Americans (1949), based entirely on stolen US technology.

Looking back, did it matter that security around the bomb was so tight, when it appears to have been so comprehensively broken? As you read page after page of shocking revelations about how much has been betrayed, you begin to wonder whether anything can be kept secure.

Bureaucracy

Spying is about finding out information someone wants to keep secret. The modern industrial state generates information on a colossal scale, itself increased by many orders of magnitude by the advent of digital technology.

But even between 1945 and 1991, reading this book makes you realise that the spying, information and counter-espionage agencies were just part of vastly bigger military and political bureaucracies and organisations, themselves just part of vast nations with tens of millions of people, engaged in the enormous, multivarious tasks of creating and running the modern world. An indication of this is the six page glossary of organisation acronyms at the end of the book – ASIO, ASIS, AHV, BND, CSIS, CTC, DCI, FAPSI, FSB, GRU, HVA – and so on and so on.

The book gives the sense that there seems to be no end of projects and initiatives and reorganisations going on at any one time, and no end of alcoholics, gamblers, sex addicts or ideological fanatics ready to betray everything they know for money, love or political conviction.

2. The War on Terror

Al-Qaeda was set up at the end of Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan in 1988. It pledged itself to destroy America, kill Jews and restore Islamic purity. It funded and organised a string of attacks against US military and civilian targets throughout the 1990s, and ushered in a completely new era.

Looking back, various CIA etc experts make the point that the Cold War had rules and was played by ‘gentlemen’. Prisoners were interrogated, sent for trial and imprisoned. Periodically there would be prisoner exchanges, their spy for our spy. Both sides knew the rules and kept things more or less under control. (The Sovs routinely executed their traitors but then, so, in the 1950s, did America, for example the atom bomb spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.)

There is none of that with Islamic terrorism. They are not ‘gentlemen’. They want to die and take as many people as possible with them. It is almost impossible to infiltrate their small, loosely-organised cells. It presents an altogether different challenge.

The two most notable events in the ongoing Century of Islamic Terror were 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Simpson briskly retells the stories as colossal failures of intelligence:

9/11 There were lots of intelligence leads suggesting some kind of spectacular was about to take place against America, and even suggestions it might be done with planes acting as bombs. Some of the hijackers had been marked by intelligence services. There was just a complete failure to pull this intelligence together and to realise what it meant. Personally, I think hindsight is a great thing, everything is obvious once it’s happened. If the previous 200 pages had shown anything, it is the challenge presented by the sheer volume of intelligence information, the challenge of making sense of it all.

And there are some obvious historical parallels for the complete failure to anticipate major attacks which, in retrospect, seem obvious. For example, nobody at all expected the Great War. A lot of people were alarmed at the arms race with Germany, especially the naval arms race, but nobody expected the war to become quite the epic catastrophic it turned out.

And whereas the Second World War was a lot more expected, it still contained several stunning intelligence failures. The failure of America to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour is something historians still debate. More intriguing is the decisive event of the war, and of the 20th century, Hitler’s decision to attack Russia. If he hadn’t, Nazi Germany might have enjoyed prolonged hegemony over occupied Europe, but even though (this book says) over 80 separate reports reached Stalin about an imminent Nazi attack, he rejected them all as Western propaganda and so the red Army was completely unprepared for Operation Barbarossa when it kicked off on 22 June 1941.

Iraq Ironically, the opposite case: there was a dearth of solid intelligence but that didn’t stop politicians, specifically George Bush encouraged by Donald Rumsfeld, from twisting what intelligence there was into ‘evidence’ that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction he was prepared to use against the West at any point.

This is such a vast subject, and such an ongoing nightmare for the Middle East, all recently raked up again by the Chilcot Report, that there’s no point trying to summarise it. Suffice to say this book gives a useful historical perspective to recent events by briskly describing previous Western invasions or attempts at regime change, including the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in 1956 (the Suez Crisis) and the American attempt to foment an armed uprising against Castro in Cuba (1961), or the successful Anglo-American overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953, or the CIA-assisted overthrow of Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973.

The debacle in Iraq didn’t stop NATO from intervening in the Libyan civil war to bomb Qaddafi’s forces in 2011, and the British Parliament from voting to approve UK involvement in air strikes on Syria in 2015.

What is a spy?

In movies and fiction a ‘spy’ is a special agent who goes on a ‘mission’ often into enemy territory, to capture a gizmo or rescue a person or – in the more grandiose fictions – to foil a plot for world domination. The real life cases given here suggest that secret service work involves either:

  • being based in your home country
    • managing networks of agents overseas
    • analysing the ‘product’ ie trying to make sense of the reams of information they send back
    • doing counter-espionage ie trying to spot and control enemy spying going on in your home country
  • being posted overseas, generally working from an embassy, or being funded by your home government
    • engaging in propaganda work of some sort or another, providing money and materiel to political parties or activists
    • actively recruiting and running agents in sensitive positions who could supply ‘us’ with useful information

John le Carré is probably the novelist most associated with emphasising the humdrum, desk-bound, essentially administrative nature of most intelligent work, with only the occasional flash of violence out in the real world.


Credit

A Brief History of The Spy by Paul Simpson was published by Robinson in 2013.

Related links

Dr No by Ian Fleming (1958)

It is several months after the cliff hanger ending of From Russia with Love. On the last page of that novel Bond was kicked in the calf by the head of SMERSH’s Execution Division, Rosa Klebb, with a pointed shoe tipped with poison. Now we learn that it was fugu poison from the Japanese globe-fish, and that Bond would have died but for the prompt action of his friend Mathis, from the French Deuxième Bureau, who gave him the kiss of life until a doctor arrived with an antidote.

After some months resting and recuperating, Bond is given a ‘simple’ mission in Jamaica. The Head of station, Strangways (handsome man with an eye patch) and his female number two, Truelove, have disappeared, presumed absconded as lovers. We, the readers, know they were in fact assassinated by three black men (in a typical macabre Fleming touch, pretending to be blind), who removed their corpses in a hearse (!) and burned the station building to the ground.

In the Regents Park HQ of the Secret Service, M and the Chief of Staff (Bill) fill Bond in on Strangways’ last piece of work. Some rare ‘roseate spoonbills’ inhabit an island off Jamaica, Crab Key. The island was bought before the war by a Chinese-German businessman named Dr Julius No, who invested in a business reclaiming and selling guano. The war caused a boom in prices. But since the war ended the island has become off limits to locals and fishermen. In fact two long-term bird watchers from the American Audubon Society recently had some kind of accident: one of them died, the other washed up on the mainland with some crazy story about a fire-breathing dragon. When the Society sent a plane to the island’s small airport to investigate, it crashed, killing the Society’s members. Strangways was trying to get to the bottom of this nonsense, says M dismissively, when he ran off with Truelove. ‘Go and sort it out, Bond.’

Jamaica

So Bond flies to Jamaica (involving another typically detailed description of a jet airliner journey and of the view from the plane descending into the tropical island). He is delighted to be met by the Cayman Islander, Quarrel, who he worked with on the Live and Let Die adventure. Not so happy, however, to be photographed at the airport and then tailed into Kingston: someone knows he’s here.

In fact, in several ways he realises that he’s being followed and threatened. When he visits the Colonial Secretary, Pleydell-Smith, the latter is already aware of Bond’s existence, because he found Bond’s file lying around on his desk. Hmm. Who had got it out? When Pleydell-Smith asks his secretary to find the Crab Key file, Bond isn’t surprised when the secretary, Miss Taro, politely says it is empty. Her excuse is that Commander Strangways must have taken it. But she is a Chinese and, Bond strongly suspects, working for Dr No. Now he realises that the woman photographer who snapped him at the airport then turned up again at the beachfront bar where Quarrel and Bond eat dinner, was called Annabel Chung, and was also Chinese. Like Dr No.

Bond gets Quarrel to carry out a complicated subterfuge: finding and paying two men who look like them, to dress like them and drive Strangways’ old sports car (a Sunbeam Talbot) over the hills to a distant port. A day later he reads in the newspaper (the Daily Gleaner) that the car had a mysterious crash, killing both its occupants.

Someone is not only tailing him, but trying to kill him. The game is on!

Pleydell-Smith gives him a briefing about Crab Key which more or less repeats the one he had in London. The price of guano shot up during the war. Dr Julius No had bought the island and begun harvesting it before then, so must have made a fortune. Employs coolie labour which he probably works to death. But stays on the island, no-one sees him, doesn’t encourage visitors.

That night, retiring to his smart hotel bedroom, Bond is told a basket of fresh fruit was delivered courtesy of the High Commission. He’s suspicious. When he examines the fruit he finds a tiny discoloured pinprick in each item. He packs the box in a crate and sends it to Pleydell-Smith, a few days later getting a reply that each fruit was injected with enough cyanide to kill a horse. So…

In the middle of the night he wakes and lies stock still in terror, realising some kind of enormous insect is slowly climbing up his leg. In a gruesome piece of macabre horror, Bond realises it is a giant poisonous centipede and we are given a typically vivid Flemingesque description of precisely how it feels to have lots of little insect legs rippling up your leg, then stomach, then pausing at the heart (‘don’t bite, don’t bite’ Bond thinks) then, even worse, up to the beating pulse of the carotid artery in his neck, before finally climbing over his face, along his nose and through his hair, and finally, thankfully, off his body and onto the pillow. There is no explanation of how it got there, but Bond – having shaken it out of the bed and stamped it to death – realises he can’t leave town soon enough.

Repetition

Quarrel is worried at the prospect of this mission and asks Bond to insure his life, which Bond agrees to do for $5,000, with Quarrel’s family as beneficiaries. He and Quarrel drive over to the northern coast of Jamaica, to the very same bay – Morgan’s Bay – in which sits Surprise Isle, the base of Mr Big in Live and Let Die. Bond remembers the gruelling undersea trek out to the island in that book, and then the wildly improbable way he saved himself and Solitaire from being torn to shreds on the coral reef. He wonders where Solitaire is today, he has no idea… (p.60)

He and Quarrel have come to the north coast to set up base once again in the abandoned Beau Desert Plantation Mansion in order a) for Bond to train under Quarrel’s guidance, then b) to sail in a fishing boat to Crab Key and go poke around.

What is astonishing about Dr No is the prominence of this repetition: not just Jamaica, but the same abandoned plantation, Beau Desert, with the same view over the self-same Morgan Bay as in Live and Let Die, and then the same training regime (swim down the coast, run back along the beach) with the same aim – to go by sea into the Enemy Island (Surprise Isle or Crab Key).

Crab Key

After a week’s training, Bond and Quarrel set sail in Quarrel’s primitive sailing boat. Fleming vividly describes the journey, the different sounds of the waves as the sea changes from shallow shoreline, to reef, to deep ocean. In the final approach to Crab Key they take down to the sail to avoid radar and paddle till their arms and backs are breaking with the exertion. They pull the canoe up the sandy beach, hide it and their tracks and fall fast asleep.

Honeychile Rider

In the morning Bond is awoken by movement and opens his eyes on a vision: standing on the soft sand, silhouetted by the dazzling blue sea, is the naked figure of a stunningly beautiful woman, reminding him in her pose of Botticelli’s Venus (p.77). Her nakedness is accentuated and made powerfully erotic by just one accoutrement – a leather belt around her waist (just as Tatiana Romanova’s nakedness was accentuated by the black velvet choker she wears in Bond’s bed in From Russia with Love).

She is humming a calypso, ‘Marion/Marianne’ and Bond startles her by completing the verse she had started:

She turns, naked, but instead of covering her crotch conceals her face. Bond eventually realises that, although stunningly beautiful, she’s ashamed of the way her nose has been brutally broken and badly fixed. She says her name is Honeychile Rider and, in another whopping coincidence, that she lives in the very same Morgan Bay where bond and Quarrel are based, in the ruined Grand House along from Bond’s base in Beau Desert. She is of white parentage, in fact her family claim descent from one of the first settlers, given land by Cromwell for signing Charles I’s death warrant (though there is no ‘Rider’ in Wikipedia’s list of regicides). Her house was burned down and her parents killed when she was five. She lived among the ruins with a black nanny who resisted all attempts to send her to school etc till the nanny died when she was 15.

Since when she has had to fend for herself, teaching herself about the world from an old set of encyclopedias, although throughout her childhood she had accumulated an in-depth knowledge of animals and sea creatures. It is this which has brought her to Crab Key, for over the past year she has been learning how to collect rare shells and send them to a merchant in New York who pays her good money. She is saving up the money to fly to New York and get her nose fixed.

Altogether a beguiling mixture of naivete and sophistication, a well-spoken wild child. A fantasy creation, but a fascinating and persuasive one.

The machine-gun boat

Suddenly they hear the sound of a motorboat puttering round the headland. Quarrel appears and says it’s the bad guys. All three of them retreat up the beach and burrow into the sand just beyond the treeline. A motorboat putters into the bay and the black security guys aboard use a loudspeaker to tell Bond and the others to come out with their hands up. Obviously our guys don’t move, or only to burrow deeper into their shallow sandy trenches.

Having warned them several times, the motor boat opens up with a heavy-duty machine gun (a Spandau, Bond thinks). It slices the mango trees above them to ribbons in a storm of metal, the slicing, ringing shots reminding Bond of battlefields in the Ardennes in 1944 (p.77).

Eventually the boat stops firing and the loudhailer tells our heroes that they’ll be back, with the dogs, and it motors out of the bay. Bond, Quarrel and Honeychile emerge from their trenches and see that Honey’s boat has been torn to shreds by the bullets. Now the only way she can leave the island is in Bond’s boat – destiny has thrown them together!

To avoid the security posse, Bond and Quarrel decide to go inland along the small creek which crosses the beach near them. So they pack some food and guns and set off. Cue an atmospheric description of wading up a muddy, swampy, tropical river, bursting pockets of disgusting marsh gas as they go, feeling horrible, slimy things wriggle from under their feet, occasionally stooping to wipe off the leeches.

The posse

Quarrel stops because he can hear the dogs. Then they all hear the sounds of whistles, dogs, the security guards. Honey has the idea of cutting some bamboo shoots and using them as breathing poles from underwater. Bond leads the way through a gap in the mangrove into a hidden pool and they all go underwater, breathing through the hollow poles. They feel/hear the search party barking and splashing past, give it an extra five minutes, then Bond emerges from the water.

But he thinks he can still hear something, a stealthy tread, but before he can warn them the others have made loud spluttering and coughing sounds. The stealthy creeping stops. Bond realises someone was cannily following the main search party. He signs the others to go back underwater. Sure enough, seconds later they feel someone coming into their little pool. When a foot treads on Bond’s shin, he erupts from the water and, just as the bad guy’s rifle butt cracks down onto his forearm, he pushes his revolver right against the chest of a big black guard and pulls the trigger. Bond is thrown backwards but he sees the man, his chest ripped open, disappear back into the water with a horrible gurgling sound.

Honey is appalled and Bond apologises, then leads the gang further upstream. They come to the end of the mangroves, to a more open stretch where they can see the big sugarloaf hill covered in guano, with a set of pre-fabricated Quonset huts at its base. As dusk falls they press on to the inland lake which is the source of the river, pushing through sandy grass to some abandoned huts where they make camp for the night, and eat cold rations.

Along the way they have come across various places which are blasted and scorched, with the bodies of countless birds. Honey explains she’s seen the ‘dragon’ on a number of occasions using its fiery breath to burn and roast the birds and their colonies. Obviously Bond doesn’t believe in any dragon, but he’s intrigued: why has Dr No gone to such trouble to create some kind of ‘dragon’, but more pressing: what has he got against the damn roseate spoonbills?

The abandoned huts are the setting for Honey to add more detail to her backstory, including how her nose got broken: Mander, the overseer of the old estate, was always pestering her and one night arrived drunk and ready to rape her. She fought back and he broke her nose before carrying out the deed. Bond marvels at her beauty and strength and independence, as the confiding of secrets draws them together and they begin to fall in love with each other under the bright stars. If you allow yourself to go with it, it is an exotic and romantic interlude.

The ‘dragon’

In the middle of the night Quarrel wakes them to say he hears the ‘dragon’. Lumbering across the lake comes something with two piercing eyes, the outline of a tail and wings and fire trembling at its mouth. But Bond can also hear the rhythmic pulsing of an engine, probably a diesel. He tells Quarrel to go over one side and fire the rifle at it. Bond will stay this side and try to take out the lights or tyres. But this leads to tragedy. Because Quarrel starts firing first, the dragon turns in his direction and lets out a long stream of fire. Christ, Bond thinks: a flame-thrower! There is one piercing scream from the bushes where Quarrel had been hiding, and then silence. Sickened, Bond (and Fleming and the reader) vividly imagines the warm, friendly man now reduced to a smoking crisp, and the searing unbearsable pain which were his last moments.

The dragon turns towards Bond who fires futilely at the big wheels he can now see, then a loudspeaker tells him to drop his weapon and come out. Honey has run to be by his side and so Bond has to surrender. The back of the ‘dragon’ opens and two black guys with guns get out. They fix handcuffs on Bond and the girl and shepherd them into the back of the vehicle, though not before Bond has walked over to see Quarrel’s body (it is much worse than he’d imagined), cursing himself for dragging Quarrel and the poor girl into this mess (p.104).

The ‘dragon’ wheels and rumbles like a sort of tank on its huge airplane wheels across swamp and marsh, then uphill, then pulls through gates into a compound. Bond and the girl are pushed out at gunpoint, ushered into one of the Quonset huts and along to a doorway.

The luxury trap

When they go through, they are dumbfounded. Suddenly they are in a space which looks like the reception of the swankiest of hotels. Two Chinese women – Sister Lily and Sister Rose – come forward respectfully, tutting over the state of them, removing the handcuffs and apologising for their treatment, saying their rooms await them, with fresh food and clean clothes.

This is a brilliant surreal coup, anticipating the surreal oddity of much 1960s fantasy fiction, like the TV series The Prisoner. Forgetting the brutality of their big black guards and their murder of Quarrel, Bond and Honey fall in with the role of being pampered guests at an upmarket spa. They are shown to their luxury rooms, his and hers, equipped with clean kimonos to wear, deep baths and showers with brand name soaps and bubble baths – Floris Lime bath essence for men, Guerlain bathcubes for women. They wash and clean thoroughly and Honey, now totally at home with Bond, flirts naughtily, inviting him to join her in her bath, before they tuck into a delicious breakfast of bacon and eggs, pineapple juice and coffee. Which is drugged. Honey passes out on her bed; Bond staggers towards his and also passes out.

This surreal chapter ends with a very tall figure, hours later, spectrally entering their respective rooms, pulling back the sheets and examining the naked bodies of his captives, before pulling the sheets slowly back up, using not flesh and blood hands, but eerie, spooky, metal claws! Ooooh flesh-creeping stuff.

Dinner with Dr No

Hours later, Bond and the girl awake to be waited on again by the decorous Chinese ladies. They point out the evening wear which has been laid out for them, and present them with luxury menus from which to choose dinner with Dr No. Will 7.45 for 8 be acceptable?

They wash and dress, Bond amused at Honey’s uncertainty in such ‘civilised’ surroundings, and then they are escorted into the grand dining room of Dr No, an enormous room, beautifully furnished and lined with books, except for the furthest wall which is a shiny black. Slowly Bond and Honey realise this wall is made of glass and directly next to the ocean; they are under sea-level, with the tops of the waves appearing right at the very top of the glass, and so are looking into a real life aquarium of the sea, where they watch, fascinated, as various fish and creatures flit including, memorably, a lazy shark.

Dr No arrives and invites them to sit to dinner. He is well over 6 foot tall, with a curious head shaped like an inverted raindrop, black circles for eyes, and two metal pincers for hands. As in most of the books, the baddie now proceeds to give a full account of his complete autobiography (p.133+), designed to show how his twisted and megalomaniac worldview came about.

(Rarely, for a Bond book, there is little food or opportunity for meals in Dr No, cf for example, Diamonds Are Forever. The dinner with Dr No is almost the only swanky meal Bond enjoys: he orders caviar, grilled lamb cutlets and salad, and angels on horseback, and Honeychile has melon, roast chicken à l’Anglaise, and vanilla ice-cream with hot chocolate sauce, p.123. Yummy. Incidentally, Bond orders a medium Vodka dry Martini, ‘shaken but not stirred’ (p.128), only the second time this formula appears in the books.)

Dr No’s autobiography

Dr No was the son of a German Methodist preacher and a Chinese mother in Peking. His parents abandoned him to be brought up by an aunt. As a youth he was drawn into the ambit of the Chinese criminal gangs, the Triads, in Shanghai, before gang warfare threats caused him to be smuggled into the USA. Here he rose to have responsibility for a lot of Triad money which he has foolish enough to steal. The gang tracked him down and systematically tortured him to reveal where he’d hidden the money. When they failed and he continued to hold out, they cut off both his hands and shot him through the heart. What they didn’t know was that No was the one in a million human beings who have their heart on the right side of their chest, and so he survived.

In hospital recovering, and getting used to the metal hands the state fixed him with, he recast his identity. He called himself doctor because it arouses trust; he gave himself a new surname, No, as a rejection of the father who abandoned him (this reminded me, obscurely, of Malcolm X rejecting his surname/slave name), he had traction to make himself unusually tall.

He emerged from hospital with a new identity, collected the hidden money and set out to find the most isolated spot on earth. He found it in Crab Key, bought it, and used his money to import coolie labour from the mainland and set up a guano-harvesting business. No goes on to explain his need for the utter isolation which gives him complete control over his little kingdom.

No had just arrived at a position of complete control over a self-sustaining colony, when the interfering Audubon Society in America announced that they planned to expand the little colony of two bird-watchers on the island, to build a hotel and make it an international destination for birdwatchers. That explains why No terrorised the two Society bird watchers (making the fatal error of letting one of them survive and make it back to Jamaica) and then arranged for the airplane of Society members to crash and kill them.

Bond takes every opportunity to needle and satirise No to his face. As in other captive situations, Bond’s aim is to unsettle the baddie and also to distract him by fiddling with his cutlery or food and making broad gestures with his hands. This is because, at key moments, Bond palms a sharp steak knife and, after he’s lit the cigarette No offers him, the cigarette lighter.

Missiles

In a surprise development, No then reveals that he didn’t just create a self-enclosed community of peons on an isolated island to gratify his power lust; he has recently taken things a step further. He has been using a powerful radio transmitter to interfere with US Army missile testing which is based on the Turks Islands, a few hundred miles away. No’s people have decoyed several experimental US missiles to crash land at marine locations where they have been able to salvage them and sell them on to the Russians!

This was a big game, a game that explained everything, a game that was certainly, in the international espionage market, well worth the candle. (p.144)

This Cold War/missile plotline feels what my kids call a bit ‘random’, a bit tacked onto the main narrative, to give it a spurious contemporary relevance and urgency. It hadn’t been referred to at all by either M or the local officials in Jamaica in his briefings (surely disappearing US missiles would have been jangling both their bells), and isn’t referenced again at the end of the adventure.

The pain challenge

At the end of the meal, No reveals that his own terrible experiences have given him a horrible, clinical, detached interest in human pain and that he will be using his two guests as lab animals. They were drugged to ensure they had plenty of rest, and now he has fed them good food. They are in their prime and ready for the experiment to begin. The girl will be staked out on a beach over which the island’s thousands of crabs swarm up out of the sea; at first they will crawl over her splayed, naked body with no curiosity, but sooner or later one will nip her and draw blood which the others will taste, and also nip and then they will begin to feed in their thousands, eating her alive (p.147). It will be fascinating to observe.

As this description progresses Honey faints and Bond goes to leap to his feet but an enormous black guy is behind him and grabs his body, holding him in a vice-like grip in his chair.

(The Chair Scene: chairs are dangerous things in James Bond. He was tied to a cane chair with the seat removed in order to be horribly tortured in Casino; and then again secured to a chair while one of Mr Big’s goons deliberately broke his little finger in Live and Let Die; and now this.)

No explains that he has created something special for Bond: a pain challenge, a pain Olympics, a pain odyssey. He will be watching at every point. Enjoy, Mr Bond. Hurling curses and abuse at No, Bond is hustled out of the dining room, up a lift, and along a crude concrete corridor and thrown into a cell.

The Tunnel of Pain

The cell is bare apart from a chair and a grille covered with wire up near the ceiling. It is the only way out; obviously it is the beginning of the test; no point hanging around. There begins an amazing sequence in which Fleming submits his character to a staggering series of tortures and suffering; has any author ever submitted his creation to such pain? Briefly:

When he touches the grille he is electrocuted and regains consciousness on the floor with burned hands. Second time round it’s not electrified and he a) rips it out on the wall b) takes the time to unravel the wire grille and shape the wire strands into a coiled, long, wire harpoon. He folds it double and slips it inside his trousers, and then heaves himself up and through the grille. He turns out to be in a circular tunnel just wider than his shoulders.

  • First, as he crawls along it, the metal walls slowly become hotter: he tears of strips of shirt and binds them round his hands and feet, but despite them is badly burned on the now scorching metal, screaming when his bare skin touches it. Eventually the metal cools.
  • Next the tunnel take a vertical turn and he has to inch himself painfully upwards, sometimes slipping depressingly back down it.
  • Eventually, more dead than alive he flops over the tunnel where it levels out again. As he proceeds, there are portholes at strategic places where the security guards’ faces leer and grin at him.
  • As he wearily proceeds, bleeding, his burns blistering then bursting, he becomes aware of a grille in front of him with red eyes behind. Horrifyingly it is a cage full of giant spiders. Distraught, Bond has to cut the grille open (with the knife he secreted at dinner) and then uses the cigarette lighter he also palmed, lighting it to drive the monsters back. But sooner or later they are crushed up against the other end, and Bond has to slash around him with the knife and the push himself on through the disgusting dead bodies, to the next grille and cut his way through.
  • Out in the clear tunnel again, he faints.

Fleming records Bond’s suffering in vivid detail. This was the sequence which seared itself on my memory when I first read it as an eleven-year-old. Rereading it, I see how Fleming slowly degrades and dehumanises his hero. By the end Fleming has stopped describing Bond as a human being; he has become an animal running on instinct. A rag. An object.

Critics at the time and down to our day are quick to sniff out places where Fleming patronises or condescends to his women or black characters. But this pales into insignificance compared to the dehumanising degradation he repeatedly subjects his hero to, and nowhere more than in this sequence which subjects Bond to cruel and degrading treatment, sinking him below the level of subhuman.

The stinking, bleeding, black scarecrow moved its arms and legs quite automatically. The thinking, feeling apparatus of Bond was no longer part of his body. It moved alongside his body, or floated above it, keeping enough contact to pull the strings that made the puppet work. Bond was like a cut worm, the two halves of which continue to jerk forward although life has gone and been replaced by the mock life of nervous impulses… (p.166)

Coming round some time later, Bond weakly drags himself forward until he realises the tunnel is sloping downwards, and then more so, and suddenly Bond finds himself slipping and sliding, and then falling directly down the vertical tube.

The giant squid

And then he is out of the tube falling 100 foot vertically into the Caribbean water beneath. He just has time to take a breath and try to arrow his body, so that he dives through the water rather than smacking against it and breaking countless bones. When, after a long time, his body finally returns to the surface and breaks water and he can breathe again, he realises he’s near a fence which stretches across this little bay and extends under the water.

Slowly, wearily, painfully, he pulls himself up the wire fence, noticing the odd, long black strands which seem to be trailing from it down into the water – then realising it is his blood, he is bleeding thick blood from countless burns and wounds. But as he watches he becomes aware of a bubbling under the water and, to his horror, a giant squid appears just below the surface and in a flash a long catcher tentacle leaps up out of the water to touch his foot, then calf, then thigh.

Dazed and dizzy Bond waits till the ‘hand’ of the tendril is up to his chest, then viciously slashes at it with the knife. There’s an explosion of activity in the water and other tentacles shoot up to grab him and pull him down towards the enormous clacking beak at the centre of the monster. Bond feels himself slipping downwards until he is hanging down by one folded leg, then chooses his moment – letting himself drop and using the ‘harpoon’ made of twisted grille wire, which he made what seems like months ago and has accompanied him in his trousers – falls and jabs it directly into one of the enormous eyes peering up at him, pushing deep, deep into the jellied orb.

He comes too, again, hanging painfully from the wire fence in total blackness, his limbs painful to move. Slowly he realises his face and eyes and whole body have been plastered in a huge squirt of poisonous ink from the squid. It is gone, nowhere to be seen. Slowly Bond wipes the muck from his eyes and crawls inch by inch along the top of the wire fence to the nearest headland.

No’s death

Bond collapses on a path next to the fence and catches his breath. Then peers round the corner of the rock and sees: a quayside, Dr No supervising an enormous crane which holds a sort of icing sugar sack through which huge amounts of guano are being directed down into the empty hold of a cargo ship docked alongside.

Nerving himself for a final effort, Bond sprints the hundred yards to the crane and, under cover of the noise, pulls himself up into the cab, ruthlessly stabs his steak knife down deep into the carotid artery of the black cab driver, yanks him out of the seat as the guano stream goes out of control, then pulls the correct levers and turns the steering wheel away from the ship and towards the quay, directing a huge stream of guano with it. At first Dr No shouts with irritation, then Bond can see the sudden realisation on his face, as he turns to run, but it is too late. Bond stops the crane’s extended arm directly over the gangling sadist and in a split second his body is buried in tons and tones of stinking bird crap.

Escape in a ‘dragon’

Mission accomplished, Bond leaps out of the cab, runs along the quayside and up to the hole in the cliff where the conveyor belt bringing the guano comes out. There’s a walkway alongside it and Bond sprints up it till he collides with a figure dressed in overalls and, after some desultory rough and tumble, realises it’s Honey. Honeychile alive! Quickly she tells her story: being a lifelong friend of animals and a water baby it turns out that she was not afraid of the crabs which crawled over her, and spent her time loosening one of the stakes they’d used to spread her on the sand. As soon as one was free, it took a few minutes to loosen the others, clamber up the beach, find some spare overalls in a locker, and here she is! Not particularly plausible…

They hide as some security guards go running past, then head down a corridor and arrive – very fortunately – in the chamber where the ‘dragon’ is kept. Bond locks the chamber door, they climb into the ‘dragon’, fire up the engine and smash through the doors of the ‘dragon’ shed. Crunch and munch over buildings, over the perimeter fence along tracks and over marshes. After a while they hear the tracker dogs pursuing them, so Bond parks on the edge of a bog and, as the dogs arrive, shoots a few through the gun slit, and the rest of the pack turn on the wounded ones in a frenzy. Yuk. In this book the bloodshed seems to go on forever. But now Bond’s battered, bleeding, broken body is at the end of its tether.

Epilogue in Jamaica

Cut to Bond in the High Commissioner’s office back in Kingston, talking to him, the Assistant Commissioner, Brigadier of Police and local Navy representative. They agree to send a visiting Royal Navy ship to Crab Key to mop up Dr No’s associates.

Fleming backfills the events leading up to this scene. How Honey helped Bond out of the dragon and into Quarrel’s boat; how she sailed capably back to Jamaica; how she helped him out of the boat and into the Beau Desert house, washed and tended his wounds and then laved him in antiseptic, while he screamed and wept at the pain; before driving him to Kingston Hospital where proper doctors tended to his wounds. And then onto the Queen’s House and presenting his story to the gathered officials. (Doing it this way, as a flashback, allows Fleming to skip over the events quickly and, especially, to avoid Bond’s report to the British officials ie skip a great deal of repetition).

Glad to be out of the house of bureaucrats he guns his car at all speed back to Morgans Bay. Here Honey is waiting for him in the ruins of the old mansion which have been her home. To Bond’s surprise her secret lair is surprisingly clean and she has laid a neat table and prepared cold lobster and home-made mayonnaise under a chandelier lit with candles.

Honey had asked him to join her in her sleeping bag when they camped by the lake on Crab Key, but Bond had refused, needing to keep his mind clear. She had invited him to join her in the bath in Dr No’s weirdly luxurious hotel-prison and, again, he had refused. Both times Honeychile pointed out that he owed her, owed her ‘slave time’. Now, for the third time, she indicates the homely bed she’s slept on for years, carefully laid with a clean new double sleeping bag, unzipped, open and waiting. Now Bond must fulfil his ‘slave time’ debt to her. He begins to object and the novel ends with a smile, on Honeychile’s commanding voice saying with mock sternness: ‘Do as you’re told!’

Critics accuse Fleming of being sex-mad or stuffing the books with sex. This long and very physical narrative has a number of moments of flirtation and sexiness – but not one actual act of coitus. ‘Literary’ and ‘comic’ authors like David Lodge or Howard Jacobson have much, much, much more sex in them and no-one seems to complain, in fact they win loads of prizes.


Enjoyment of life

There are some scattered references to sex, there are fast cars and gambling, there is the swift, effective handling of the melodramatic plot – but what strikes me and appeals most to me about the Bond books is the tremendous sense Fleming gives of his hero being a fit, healthy man who is sensuously aware of his own body, of its powers and passions, and who loves and enjoys his life.

Bond exercises, he works out, he has bracing cold showers, he stands naked in hotel rooms and saunas, rejoicing in the life that is in him. He flies around the world, stays in luxury hotels, eats choice meals and knows his beverages. He sails, scuba dives, swims and knows how to drive a fast car. And of course he has a well-publicised taste for light sado-masochistic sex (although all this really seems to amount to is some spanking, maybe grabbing the woman’s hair curing coitus: nothing compared to Fifty Shades of Grey). And his author subjects him to staggering amounts of damage and torture – maybe more in this book than any other – but all of which has the effect of emphasising the value of life and health, and make this reader grateful for the sheer glory and power of existence.

Compared to the suicidal adulterers of, say, Graham Greene’s fiction, or the pessimistic vision of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), or the nihilism of Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (1957), or Samuel Becket’s despairing dramas (Waiting for Godot was first performed in the year Casino Royale was published, 1953) – compared to the dour, depressive negativity of so much ‘serious literature’, Fleming’s fiction chooses life, affirms life, celebrates life, which is most keenly felt at the edge of danger and death.

I think Fleming’s fictions’ whole-hearted embrace of the good things of life – physical health, mental alertness, the beauty of the world, stunning landscapes and ravishing women, fast cars and exciting sports – outlive and outweigh the silly plots and remain to this day powerfully written affirmations of the wonder of being alive. I think this is the secret of his enduring success.

The Blue Hills was a comfortable old-fashioned hotel with modern trimmings. Bond was welcomed with deference because his reservations had been made by King’s House. He was shown to a fine corner room with a balcony looking out over a distant sweep of Kingston harbour. Thankfully he took off his London clothes, now moist with perspiration, and went into the glass-fronted shower and turned the cold water full on and stood under it for five minutes during which he washed his hair to remove the last dirt of big-city life. Then he pulled on a pair of Sea Island cotton shorts and, with sensual pleasure at the warm soft air on his nakedness, unpacked his things and rang for a waiter.

Bond ordered a double lime and tonic and one whole green lime. When the drink came he cut the lime in half, dropped the two squeezed halves into the long glass, almost filled the glass with ice cubes and then poured in the tonic. He took the drink out onto the balcony, and sat and looked out across the spectacular view. He thought how wonderful it was to be away from headquarters, and from London, and from hospitals, and to be here, at this moment, doing what he was doing and knowing, as all his senses told him, that he was on a good tough case again. (pp.33-34)


Bond details

In the second chapter Bond is told he must give up his beloved .25 Beretta 418 handgun. It was the silencer momentarily snagging in his pocket which helped Klebb overcome him in Russia. Instead, M orders him to take the advice of the Secret Service Armourer, Geoffrey Boothroyd, and replace it with a Walther PPK 7.65mm.

The sound of bullets from the heavy Spandau machine gun remind Bond of his wartime experiences in the Ardennes (p.77), presumably in the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 to January 1945.

More calypso

In chapter four, Quarrel takes Bond to the seafront bar, the Joy Boat, where there’s a live band which, among others, plays this song.


Credit

Dr No by Ian Fleming was published in 1958 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1960 Pan paperback, 1972 edition (price: 30p).

Related links

Other thrillers from 1958

The Bond novels

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

Dark Star by Alan Furst (1991)

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

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

1. Silence in Prague

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

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

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

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

2. Rue Delesseux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Iron Exchange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The Renaissance Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Poste Restante

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Overlapping characters

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

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

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

Sensuality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

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

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst (1988)

This is an awesomely atmospheric, wide-ranging and astonishingly knowledgeable novel. The terms ‘spy novel’ or ‘thriller’ don’t get close to conveying the panoramic reach, the range of characters and places, and the magical depth of research which make it less a novel and more a portrait of an entire continent in crisis.

A spot of biography

Furst, born in New York in 1941, wrote four novels in the late 1970s and early 1980s which weren’t particularly successful. Then in 1984 he was commissioned by Esquire magazine to write about a journey down the Danube. Inspired by the scenery and history of Eastern Europe, he conceived the complex spy thriller, Night Soldiers, published four years later in 1988. This was the first of a series of 12 historical espionage novels all set in Eastern and Central Europe during the dark days of the 1930s and on into the Second World War, which have cemented his reputation as one of the most intelligent and distinctive spy writers of our time.

Night Soldiers is long, at 511 pages in the HarperCollins paperback. It is divided into five sections:

1. Levitsky’s Geese

It is 1934 and after his simple-minded brother, Nikko, is beaten to death by the village fascists, Bulgarian peasant Khristo Stoianev is recruited by a peripatetic Bolshevik talent-spotter, Antipin. He travels down the Danube with his minder, across the Black Sea and then up to Moscow where he joins a spy school run by the NKVD (precursor of the KGB) in Arbat Street. In his class are a number of other characters who reappear throughout the book: Colonel A.Y. Vonets aka Sascha (p.61/415), small intelligent Ilya Goldman, lanky Drazen Kulic, Kerenyi, the quiet Pole Josef Voluta.

After a training exercise in a deserted village in which the results were manipulated by the bosses, Kulic jokingly carves the text BF825 into the train carriage taking them back to Moscow – all it means is a made-up name Brotherhood Front and that unit 8 (his and Khristo’s unit) should have come first, unit 2 second and unit five third (p.88). It is a small joke, but it will resonate through the rest of the book, thousands of miles away and years later.

Claustrophobic terror is the atmosphere of the whole novel, from the very opening when Khristo’s brother is killed, throughout the training period when they see some of their instructors themselves (eg Major Ozunov) denounced as traitors and dragged off for interrogation and execution. In one terrifying scene, Khristo is forced to execute his lover, the tough communist zealot Marike, whose loyalty doesn’t save her. With no explanation he is taken from the training school to an interrogation centre, down into the cells, all the time being told a conspiracy has been uncovered and terrified that it is he who is about to be tortured. But they open the door to a cell and point out the traitor kneeling in the corner of the room and put a gun into his hand, and it is only when he is directly behind her that he realises it is his Marike…

The opening scenes are written in an uninflected language whose simplicity captures of the simplicity of rural peasant life. In Moscow the language becomes more interesting as Furst conveys the stifling terror of Stalin’s purges, and the narrative is packed with tiny details – of Bulgarian village life, food, tradition, or of Moscow’s streets, slang, traffic – which are utterly convincing. Food in particular. After shooting Marike he is taken back to the barracks where the fat old matron is making lunch and she gives him an extra portion of pelmeni, ground pork and onions wrapped in dough and boiled then served with sour cream and hot tea (p.66).

2. Blue Lantern

Madrid 1936. The embattled city is surrounded by the army of General Franco which has staged a coup against the elected left-wing government. Varieties of left-wing political groups and volunteers from the rest of Europe and America are defending the city, with some forces scattered in the country outside. It is here that Khristo (under the nom de guerre Captain Markov) and several of his colleagues from Arbat Street are sent, to support the counter-fascist struggle. Here we meet Andres Cardona, another Russian pretending to be a Spaniard (real name Roubenis), his American girlfriend Faye Berns, their friend Renata Braun. Khristo and Kulic are supervised by the suave NKVD officer and poet Sascha. There are lots of Spanish characters, lots of references to Spanish food and customs and use of Spanish phrases, as well as a thorough grasp of the complex and dark politics of the struggle. This section could almost be a novel in its own right, it has such a powerful atmosphere.

It is named after an incident where a blue lantern is lit by a fascist spy on top of an apartment block containing (unknown to its inhabitants) a big arms dump for the Nationalists. Faye spots it as she is taking turns on lookout duty atop a nearby building and a) bravely goes up the dark stairwell to get it b) moves it to her building, which has a big machine gun sited on the roof. Thus, when a German fighter-bomber from the Condor Legion flies low on a mission to bomb the building with the blue lantern, it finds itself being strafed by machine gun bullets and abandoning the task. Petrol tank ruptured, the plane crash lands in the countryside nearby where, it is strongly suggested, the local peasants show the German pilot no mercy (p.138).

But the revolution is eating itself; Stalin’s paranoia extends even here and Khristo finds himself one of many called in for interrogation by a terrifying General from his own side, General Yadomir Ivanovich Bloch aka Yaschyeritsa, the Lizard. Almost everyone thus called in ends up sent back to Moscow to be tortured and shot – in a powerful scene his control, Sascha, reveals that he too has been ordered home and gives a long drunken account of the infighting at the top of the NKVD which is resulting in entire sections being decimated. So Khristo crawls to the Lizard and begs for another chance. He just makes it, and is told to spy on Cardona, to get something incriminating which the Lizard can a) sell his bosses b) use to get Cardona arrested.

The scene cuts to Kulic, now Lieutenant Kulic commanding a group of Spanish fighters in the Guadarrama west of the city. A city car drives up and he is told by NKVD apparatchik Maltsaev that four of the men are traitors – which means they signed up at some stage with a farming union which has affiliated itself with the anarchist POUM movement. Kulic’s orders are simple – to execute them. He marches them off into the woods separately from the rest of the group, ostensibly to gather firewood, then raises his gun… But can’t do it. He explains his orders and why he is disobeying them, and they nod and head off west towards Portugal. Feeling the same frustration and sense of being trapped as on the training exercise, Kulic carves BF825 into a tree, a minuscule gesture of revolt.

Sascha returns to Moscow where he is given a good desk job and is relaxing when one day he is arrested and starts being beaten and interrogated in the car. They beat him continually until he names and implicates everyone he knows. Seems they were after his superior General Grechko, but along the way Sascha had named Khristo.

Back in Madrid Khristo is at the apartment of Andres and Faye and Renata when they get a phone call tipping them off that they are about to be arrested. Khristo recognises Goldman’s voice; they agree that if they ever get back in contact they’ll use the BF825 sign. The foursome pack and leave in five minutes. Fifteen minutes later the door is kicked down by the arresting party, but they are gone.

They drive north to the French border on a hair-raising journey where the car keeps breaking down and through various patrols and frights. At a little sea port they pay everything they have to an old fishing boat captain who chugs them round the coast and dumps them on the beach at St-Jean-de-Luz, where they are immediately arrested by French police (p.204).

The men Kulic let go are caught by Nationalists near the Portuguese border and tortured to tell their full stories. The information is passed up the chain to a German officer advising the fascists. He turns out to be an NKVD double agent and passes the information that Kulic is a traitor back to Moscow. From here it is passed to General Bloch in the field, who passes it on to his fixer Maltsaev. Maltsaev assigns Kulic and his men an assault on a fascist-held police station in an outlying village. It is a trap. His men are wiped out by machine gun fire and Kulic feels a mortar shell rip off half his face, his eye, then all is darkness.

3. The World at Night

Khristo is in Paris. Through illegal means he forged an identity and finally escaped the French internment camp (Renata and Faye had been released immediately; Andres had produced a forged Greek passport and been released, p.217). Now Khristo has become Nikko Petrov, known to everyone as ‘Nick’, the popular waiter at the Brasserie Heininger, run by the massive shaven-headed Turk Omaraeff. In one heart-stopping moment he is addressed as ‘Captain Markov’, his name in Madrid, but it is by Faye Berns, bumped into in the street by coincidence. They have a long lunch and reminisce about Madrid before she catches her train…

This is another very densely researched, written and felt section, with many characters and details. We get to know the wildly cosmopolitan clientele of the restaurant who assemble every night to party till dawn in the hectic, end-of-the-world mood of 1937, including a number of posh Brits and recklessly rich Americans. We see behind the scenes at the brasseries, where Omaraeff is king. Unfortunately, he knows Khristo is an ‘operator’ and asks him – well, blackmails him – into getting hold of a pistol and training a small group of watchers to establish the comings and goings of Soviet couriers who are routinely taking gold consignments to a Swiss bank in the city. But things go badly wrong. The gold robbery Khristo thinks he’s involved in turns into the assassination of a Soviet courier, Myagin, with several related deaths. And then a murder squad comes to the Brasseries and shocks even its jaded clientele by pulling out machine guns and shooting up the chandelier and decorations before pursuing Omaraeff into the ladies’ toilet and blowing his head off.

In among this mayhem Khristo had advertised in the newspaper using the BF825 signal and, to his amazement, receives a reply and makes a rendezvous with Ilya Goldman, the man who saved his life in Spain. Goldman updates Khristo (and us) about the fates of various characters met either in Arbat Street or Madrid – Sascha arrested, Kulic betrayed by his own side in Spain but then escaped, Voluta the quiet one in Arbat Street turns out to have been an agent for a Polish nationalist organisation, NOV (p.267).

Goldman warns Khristo the NKVD are operating in Paris, tracking down defectors. In fact someone they both know was very publicly hacked to death with an ice pick by NKVD assassins who escaped in a fast car before the cops arrived. Violence from the East has spread its tendrils even into Paris.

Throughout this section Khristo has been consoled by a romantic love affair with the beautiful Aleksandra. Their sensual sex, dressing up and role playing, her warmth and affection are the only things which keep him going. After the meeting with Goldman Khristo hurries back to the apartment but Aleksandra has gone. He finds marks of her fingernails on the wooden doorframes which she clutched onto for a second before being dragged away. She has vanished into the maw of the century of death like so many millions of others.

There is some complex plot: An Englishman named Fitzware tries to recruit Khristo who tells him to get lost, but Fitzware knows a lot about Omaraeff and knows Khristo bought the gun which carried out the Myagin assassination. In the scene with Goldman Khristo tells him that Omaraeff was behind the assassination of the courier Myagin. This information is probably fed back up the chain and leads to the commissioning of the machine gun thugs who murder Omaraeff at the Heininger. In a key scene Fitzware meets with Théaud, a young man in the DST, French equivalent of MI5. Irritated with Khristo for not signing up with him, Fitzware tells Théaud about his involvement in the Omaraeff affair. But Théaud is horrified, because the newly elected Popular front government of France is closely allied with the Soviet Union, the last thing it wants is a scandal implicating their Russian friends. So the pair cook up a solution which is for the French authorities to arrest Khristo, hold the trial in camera to avoid publicity, and imprison him for life.

Khristo moves apartment again, keeping one step ahead of the assassins, but after Aleksandra’s abduction has lost the will to live, spending days staring at the wall or weeping. On 23 July 1937 he is arrested as an accessory to the murder of Omaraeff and sentenced to life imprisonment. The narrative describes the cell, six feet by four feet, the cot bed tied to the wall during the day, the daily meal of mashed lentils and sandy bread, the ‘exercise’ twice a week, for one hour, where he briefly meets the other convicts. The window is thick yellow glass, with just one tiny fragment in a corner broken. Through this tiny hole Khristo can just about see the blue sky, and it is this one fragment of the outside world which keeps him alive.

Surprisingly, he gets a letter from Aunt Iliane, obviously his fairy godmother, Ilya Goldman, telling him that their cousin Alexandre is better after a bad experience and has gone abroad for her health. Khristo reads the letter and weeps and turns over on his cot towards the wall.

Because there’s been such a large and fluctuating cast of characters, because so many of them have been arrested, murdered, executed, killed in combat – the reader easily thinks this is the end of Khristo, leaving us with a very heavy heart.

4. Plaque Tournante

The narrative makes a surprising leap to an advertising company on Madison Avenue, New York, introducing us to bored copywriter Robert Eidenbaugh. To his own surprise he is approached by a friend working for the OSS and recruited. After extensive training he is parachuted into occupied France in autumn 1943. His mission is to base himself in a rural French village and organise resistance. To this end we meet and get to know half a dozen inhabitants of Cambras, their families, their lives and loves, in yet another section which could almost be a stand-alone novel.

After this long excursus it is a surprise to return to Khristo in his cell. Gruelling description of his mental state during his long imprisonment and deterioration. In July 1940 there is a scrap  of paper under his bowl of soup with ‘BF825’ scratched on it, and a time 2:30. At that time he is released from prison by a French priest who walks him through a series of open doors and into the open air. Freedom. Along with many other dangerous men he is being released as the German armies advance into France.

There is a thrilling sequence describing how he arms himself, steals a car and escapes from Paris, charitably stopping to pick up a handful of the most pitiful refugees he sees among the crowds fleeing the capital. He is flagged over by two ageing sisters, Sophie and Marguerite who are trying to help their sick boss, Antonin Dreu, who has in fact had a stroke, on the grass verge by a river. Khristo struggles to give him the last rites in Bulgarian and then the two sisters prevail on him to join them. The boss knew a cataclysm was coming and bought a cottage in the country which he stocked with tinned food. It is too good an offer to refuse, and Khristo hands the keys to the stolen car to his little group of refugees, then gets in the big sedan of the two sisters and drives them to the isolated cottage in the hills.

For several years they live very quietly together, ignoring the war. But Khristo feels increasingly guilty at his inaction and in the winter of 1943 makes himself known to the local Resistance. By January 1944 he has been recruited into the extensive network which Eidenbaugh has organised and leads, though himself under instruction from the shadowy, sleek Frenchman, Ulysse.

Winter turns into spring and a fascinating account of French resistance organisational structure, its tactics, and accounts of its sporadic attacks on German targets and persistent low-level sabotage. The section builds up to an attack on German forces in the village of Cabejac, led by Eidenbaugh under his nom de guerre Lucien. But this turns out to be a trap, the Germans are waiting for them, there is a firefight and Eidenbaugh and Khristo only escape because a little boy whistles to them, and guides them through the maze of back gardens, rooftops and then a long gruelling elbows and knees crawl through a disused sewer out beyond the village boundaries, from where they escape.

They are debriefed by Ulysse, over extended conversations, shown photographs, asked to identify the forces that attacked them. Ulysse tells them the entire population of Cabejac was exterminated by the Germans for collaborating. Eidenbaugh’s nerves are shot. He is being exfiltrated to Switzerland. Does Khristo want to go with him? Yes. So, after a nerve-wracking search of the peasant vegetable cart he is driving as cover by a punctilious German at the border, he finally escapes into Switzerland, to a half-hearted ‘internment’ which in fact amounts to him reading newspapers from his homeland and writing intelligence reports. In one of them he comes across a photo of Faye Berns, now a leading light in the American war effort, and thinks of the days in Madrid.

Bessarabia

It is December 1944 and Ilya Goldman has been buried in a crap job as an inspector of the gold mine labour camps of the river Kolyma. Here, in camp 782, to his astonishment he meets Sascha, the one-time dandy and poet, now a wreck of a haggard survivor, prisoner number 503775, who promptly blackmails his old friend, threatening to tell the authorities about his membership of the sinister BF825 brotherhood unless Ilya can get him a transfer to a camp in European Russia, from which he plans to flee to Romania. The other part of his plan is to get Ilya to convey to Voluta of the Polish NOV organisation, the fact that Sascha wants to defect and bears a lot of valuable information for the West. (As an example he says he knows that operative Andres from Madrid was killed by slow acting poison on orders of the NKVD in 1937.) Sascha will make his way to the village of Sfintu Gheorghe, there to be collected on a certain date. There are some highly believable sequences which show the elaborate lengths Ilya must go to in order to forge the transfer documents for Sascha. But he does it.

In a complete switch of scene which we are by now used to, we see Khristo approached by the American intelligence agency, the OSS and asked to perform a mission in Prague, operation FELDSPAR. He is given some training then parachuted in with a new model of lightweight radio. He hides in a bombed-out factory and his mission is to use the cover of being a Yugoslav munitions worker in order to send radio messages to a specially adapted RAF Mosquito, describing the war effort and situation in Czechoslovakia for his US masters. There is a lot of circumstantial detail, not least the taking of a plump Czech lover, Magda. It is she who stuns him one day by bringing a message from a Mr BF825 to meet at a certain bar at a certain time. Khristo is terrified. Someone not only knows he is here, but knows his past that far back. Is he about to be handed over to the Germans? Executed by the NKVD?

In the bar he is astonished to be met by Voluta, the quiet Pole who Goldman told him had turned out to be an agent for Polish intelligence all along. They don’t speak, but eat separately, till Voluta palms him a note which Khristo reads in the toilets, saying let’s meet on the bridge tonight. But when he goes to meet Voluta, way after curfew, on a dark deserted bridge, he watches helplessly as Voluta is shot dead from a passing car. NKVD? Germans? Not Germans because the rendezvous had been staked out by German intelligence, one of whom follows Khristo back to his bombed-out warehouse base and dies a horrible death.

But Khristo had got enough of the message about Sascha to wind up affairs in Prague. To his amazement Magda helps him escape to Bratislava, by tucking him under the rug in a carful of her friends dolled up to the nines, stinking of perfume and booze which they drive there, getting through every checkpoint on the way by saying they’re going to meet their German boyfriends and show them a good time. Let out of the car in Bratislava, Khristo takes in the bodies of German deserters hanging from the lamp posts and the silhouette of the bombed-out derricks.

He watches in surprise a tug pulling barges full of German wounded being strafed by a Russian jet and then, on an impulse, dives into the wide Danube river and just about manages to swim out to the tug and pull himself aboard by a trailing rope.

Now begins a long rather hallucinatory journey down the river Danube on the tug Tiza, skippered by the immense, confident capable Annika. She doesn’t mind having an able-bodied man to help her out and they form a rough wartime alliance as she sets off in company of several other tugs, back east along the river. At Budapest this rough friendship comes to an end as Khristo is arrested and interrogated by the occupying Russians but then released, he is obviously a river rat and they have bigger concerns as their army fights its way into Eastern Europe. Khristo wanders through bombed-out Budapest and then sets off on foot along the road bordering the river south towards Yugoslavia, becoming progressively more hungry and thirsty, dirty and careless as he proceeds.

He is lucky enough to be hailed by a Russian soldier in a rowing boat, a man who had both legs blown off by a landmine, and would welcome some able bodied help. Khristo rows, the man gives him clean water and food. Near the town of Osijek Khristo sees the insignia BF825 carved into the bow of a rotting barge. He abandons the rowboat and says hello to the old geezer fishing from the barge, who stiffly stands up and takes him to his son.

It is the badly disfigured Drazen Kulic, who escaped from Spain and made it back to his native Yugoslavia to become a partisan. Kulic takes Khristo up to their mountain headquarters. He explains the ‘mission’ – to identify Sascha and protect him until handed over to the Americans, if they show up. He warns Khristo he has a bad feeling about it all; it might be a trap. He takes Khristo up to their little partisan graveyard and shows him the headstone of Aleksandra. Goldman managed to get her safe passage this far south and Kulic protected her until she eventually took up arms and fought with them and was killed in a firefight with the Germans.

Kulic arranges Khristo’s passage on a barge named Brovno. This carries him further down the Danube to the village of Sfintu Gheorge, where Khristo a) witnesses a drunken village celebration, as someone has left the villagers a surprise present of food, fruit and vegetables b) climbs up into the dark attic of the local church, whispering Sascha’s name only for – pop – a gun to flare in the dark and to be shot in the chest. Down the ladder he falls and crawls out into the night eerily lit by flames from the village bonfire and celebration, and down after him comes Sascha, now almost mad, run-down, disorientated. Against all the odds he has made it this far but when he heard a Russian voice his first instinct was to shoot.

As he dies Khristo dreams men approaching and lifting him, a boat, a flying boat, water, engines, all supervised by an American with a machine gun.

In a complete break from this gripping narrative, we are suddenly in Palestine in April 1945, where the tired reception clerk Heshel Zavi at an immigration centre is processing yet more refugees. Number 183 in front of him turns out to be more able and biddable than most of the specimens he sees, and volunteers to help, to become a night watchman, maybe more. This one will go far, thinks Zavi. It isn’t made explicit but this would seem to be Goldman, and the reader is happy that he has survived the bloodbath and the cumulated weight of his story adds to your understanding of the founding of the state of Israel.

The very last  scene moves to a third party point of view, a little in the manner of Graham Greene, who liked to switch things away from his protagonist at the last moment. In Greene it is done to emphasise the author’s despairing world-view and to belittle the protagonists. Here it does the opposite, and the novel ends with a very American happy ending, as two enthusiastic women greeters whose job it is at the New York docks to greet veterans of the European war with fresh doughnuts and coffee, watch an unusual Slavic-looking man, walking with a limp and touching his hand to his left side as if in pain (and that’s what identifies him to the reader as Khristo) look around disoriented as he reaches the bottom of the gangway. A young woman waves to him and they meet, shake hands and then, under the approving gaze of the two greeters, link arms and walk away.

Their names aren’t mentioned but it must be Khristo, patched up and returned to the States by American intelligence after performing sterling work for them, being met at the dockside by Faye Berns, with the very strong implication that, with all their shared memories, they will fall in love.

It is an immensely moving finale to an epic novel, and gives the reader a very profound sense of what America meant to so many people in the later 19th century and throughout the 20th century, escape, a real sanctuary from the terrors of a Europe gone mad, in the most literal sense, the land of the free.


Comments

Tough start The first 60 or 70 pages set in a peasant village in Bulgaria are very slow moving and don’t give any sense of the breadth and scale which the novel will eventually cover, nor the epic range, nor the large cast of varied characters whose stories shed light on a dozen countries. First time round I found it hard getting past this opening, but it is well worth persevering.

Permanent menace Furst establishes the atmosphere of menace right for the start, when Khristo sees his simple-minded younger brother get kicked to death in front of him by local fascists, who then attack a meeting of sympathetic villagers organised by the Bolshevik, killing another man and locking the others into a house which they set fire to. The atmosphere of permanent menace and unease increases in the Moscow of 1934, with the trainee spies under observation at every point. In fact from start to finish you are in a world where every single conversation is the intersecting point of multiple motives, from the personal, to the highly political, via a maze of conflicting power struggles.

Vignettes I came to this book having just read a couple of John le Carré novels, which had very defined lead characters and very strong central narratives. I found Night Soldiers a relief because it was much more contingent feeling: it contains hundreds of anecdotes and vignettes, some only peripherally related to the central characters, and with no very strong sense of a central narrative. For long stretches I wasn’t sure who were the central characters – after Khristo is put in a Paris prison I really thought that was the last we’d hear of him and the new section which begins with the American I thought might signal a completely new series of episodes.

This is a good thing because a) it made the novel a lot less predictable, in fact it made it drastically unpredictable throughout the second half, which made it feel much more tense and interesting; b) it made it feel panoramic: scores of episodes give a powerful sense not just of a handful of lead characters, but of an entire culture, of an entire continent, hurtling to destruction.

Lyricism And, surprisingly for a book which contains so much brutal violence and so much cynical betrayal, there are scenes of great lyricism, especially the moments when Khristo is in his lovers’ apartment with Aleksandre, moments when the smoke for his Gitane cigarette spirals delicately towards the ceiling, or Aleksandre’s silhouette is captured against the skylight, moments which feel like a powerfully atmospheric black and white photo from the era. The very harsh world the characters inhabit is leavened by these moments of sensuality and feeling, to give the whole production a very distinctive, smoky, richly varied flavour.

This is a stunningly brilliant book.


Credit

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

HarperCollins paperback edition of Night Soldiers

The artwork for these HarperCollins paperback editions brilliantly conveys the atmosphere and setting of the novels, with the use of moody b&w shots of some European urban scene with shadowy figures under streetlamps at night. They are credited to Willy Ronis/Rapho/Network.

Related links

1988 Night Soldiers – An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star
1995 The Polish Officer
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith (1989)

‘Zina said words freed you or fucked you or turned you inside out. Every word, every single one, was a weapon or a chain or a pair of wings.’ (p.275)

Polar Star is a brilliantly interesting, richly diverse and engaging thriller. It is 437 pages long in my 1990 Fontana paperback edition and divided into three sections: Water, Earth, Ice.

Water (217 pages)

At the end of Gorky Park – the bestselling novel which introduced the character of coldly effective Moscow detective Arkady Renko – our hero had uncovered a smuggling ring led by a rich American who was paying off corrupt Soviet officials. The bloody shootout at the climax of the novel is set in New York but, although given the chance to run away with the woman he’s fallen in love with, Irina, Arkady refuses and returns to the Soviet Union.

Now, eight years later, Cruz Smith published this sequel, and it seems a similar period has elapsed in Arkady’s life. Gorky Park was set in spring and summer 1977, Polar Star refers to the ‘New Thinking’ inaugurated by Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985…

Polar Star is the name of an enormous fishing factory ship, which has been working the Bering Sea for four long cold months, its 250 crew processing the vast hauls of fish brought to it by four supporting catcher boats. These latter are American and the two nations are collaborating via a jointly-owned company which shares the profits.

The novel opens powerfully with a vast net full of fish being hauled up the ramp onto the Star and among the tens of thousands of pollock, cod, crabs and so on which pour onto the boat, comes the corpse of a young woman, Zina Patiashvili, a popular member of the catering staff. Grizzled old sea captain Viktor Marchuk sends for – who else – Arkady Renko, a man with a shady background who has been expelled from jobs all across continental Russia till he arrived in the far east of the country at Vladivostock, and who has been working on the ship’s disgusting, below deck ‘slime line’.

Flashbacks

In flashbacks we learn that, immediately upon returning to the USSR after the events of Gorky Park, Arkady was incarcerated in a psychiatric institute where he was interrogated with the use of drugs by the authorities who, more than anything else, wanted to know the whereabouts of his girlfriend/lover Irina. As he doesn’t know, he couldn’t tell them. In a strangely moving scene, he is visited one day by the KGB major, Pribluda, who started Gorky Park as Arkady’s bitter enemy, but ended as his grudging ally. Paying back a debt incurred in the earlier novel, Pribluda smuggles Arkady out of the prison and onto an eastbound train, complete with new clothes and fake papers. ‘Stay out east and no one will bother you.’ (pp.111-124)

Other flashbacks fill in Arkady’s years on the run from one low-paid job to another, always staying one step ahead of KGB agents, travelling across Siberia until he arrives in Vladivostok. Here, desperate to escape land, he signs on to the Polar Star for a long, rusty, salty year, working on the ‘slime line’, gutting and cleaning fish for the freezer, eight hours a day, day in, day out.

Arkady’s investigations

Now Arkady finds himself unwillingly tangling with the pushy third mate in charge of the investigation, Slava Bukovsky, and with the shipboard commissar or Party enforcer, Volovoi. The ship doctor Vunai and officials gather together to declare Zina’s death an accident, but Arkady embarrasses them by almost certainly proving it murder. Over the next 200 pages we follow Arkady – liberated from the prison of the below-decks production line – and given carte blanche to explore the intricate world of ship-board life, its complex network of friendships and alliances.

The Russians

  • Zina Patiashvili – Arkady finds out a lot more about her. Far from being the non-entity she appears at the start, Arkady finds a stash of tapes she’d made recording her conversations and encounters: she had sex with a ‘lieutenant’ in what might be a secret intelligence room somewhere on the ship; there are tapes of a man singing traditional Russian slave songs. Searching her cabin thoroughly he finds uncut precious stones sewn into the lining of one of her jackets. There was more to her than meets the eye.
  • Captain Marchuk – gruffly honest, he turns out to have had a one-night stand with Zina back in Vladivostok. He describes picking her up in a bar and going back to her apartment which looked like it was shared with an absent man – and this opinion is repeated by the radio officer, the one Arkady later identifies as the ‘lieutenant’ in Zina’s recordings of their encounters. Both thought Zina was living with someone back in Vladivostok – so who was he? What was she doing with the hidden jewels? Who else had she had sex with?
  • Volovoi – in the early phases Arkady is opposed by the political commissar, Volovoi, who wants Zina’s death to be a simple accident, for his own and the ship’s good. Volovoi is in charge of two snoops or sneaks, Skiba and Slezko, who follow Arkady.
  • To his dismay, the third mate, Slava Bukovsky, is put in charge of the investigation, something he is completely unprepared for.
  • We get to know Arkady’s room-mates – Gury fermenting illegal alcohol from every sort of rotting vegetable matter, Kolya Mer the would-be scientist and botanis, and Obidin the devout Russian Orthodox. It is in the details of their characters and lives and hopes, trammeled by Soviet society, that Cruz Smith scores imaginatively time after time.
  • Natasha Chaikovskaya is the very large young Russian woman – the classic Russian shot putter – and a fiercely orthodox Communist Party activist, who works on the slime line alongside Arkady and starts the novel as his enemy, but gets to see his dedication to the job at first hand and becomes his assistant for the middle sections.
  • Karp Korobetz – the chief trawlmaster turns out to be Arkady’s bitterest enemy, a man Arkady helped convict 15 years earlier, consigning him to a prison camp in Siberia, where he got himself covered in the tattoos of the urka the professional criminal and convict.
  • Hess – mysterious Fleet engineer who appears out of nowhere to be at the captain’s side for the meetings where the captain tasks Arkady with finding the truth about Zina. Arkady suspects, then confirms that Hess is from Naval Intelligence. He has a small cabin in the prow of the ship which is equipped with sonar machines attached to a long cable lined with detectors which the Polar Star trails behind it. Aha. The ship has a secret espionage function. Is that what Zina had stumbled across? Is that why she was murdered?

The Americans

  • Captain George Morgan of the American catch-ship Eagle.
  • Susan Hightower, one of the Americans on permanent secondment to the Star, she was on the deck of the Polar Star and saw Zina the night she went missing. What did they say to each other? Susan starts off very antagonistic to Arkady, this jumped-up fish-worker turned investigator, but ends up falling for him, in fact they end up sleeping together – though right to the end keeping their emotional distance.
  • Ridley and Coletti, cocky unpleasant workers on Morgan’ ship.
  • Mikhail ‘Mike’, a Russian-born Aleutian Islander, also working on the Eagle.

Arkady’s snooping around the ship awakens dark forces. After he has emerged from the mysteriously empty forward hold – which he went to explore wondering whether it contained the secret chamber referred to on one of Zina’s tapes – he is mugged, has petrol-soaked rags thrust in his mouth and a sack pulled over his body. A belt is tied round his middle and he is carried by several men at speed along gangways till he is thrown into the fish cold storage room.

Cruz Smith gives an absolutely brilliant description of an intelligent man quickly starting to freeze to death. Arkady tries a number of futile remedies – within a minute he is shaking too hard to strike the matches in his pocket – and is only saved because the sound of his demented laughing penetrates the padded door as someone happens to be passing. It is Natasha, and it is from her rescue and the subsequent effort she puts in nursing him back to health that their friendship grows, and then he recruits her to help him.

Scared now, of further attack, extra pressure is added when word gets around that Arkady’s investigations may lead to the cancelling of the long-promised shore leave on Dutch Harbour, in the Aleutian Islands, the main reason most of the crew sail on the wretched ship. His shipmates turn surly, there are not so subtle threats against him. The rumours were deliberately spread by commissar Volovoi who wants to return to port with 100% good conduct record for the journey.

At the climax of the section Slava comes bounding into the captain’s cabin declaring he’s found a suicide note from Zina. Thus the crew can go ashore at Dutch Harbour, and a lot of the pressure seems to be released. But Arkady knows there was no suicide note where Slava claims to have found it.

Earth (56 pages)

Arkady watches the crew go ashore. Then, to his surprise, the mysterious German, Hess, in charge of the ship’s secret monitoring equipment, smuggles him ashore where he is free to roam the streets of the little town watching the crew go mad shopping and getting drunk in the town’s one hotel. Susan the American lures him away from the bar to her room where, surprisingly, she is ready to go to bed but Arkady, standing by the window, happens to see ‘Mike’ the Aleutian leaving the back of the hotel.

Arkady apologises to the now furious Susan and slips away to follow the Aleut, up the hillside towards a secret door in the hillside. He enters to find a secret workshop containing a beautiful half-built native kayak. This, native boat building, was mentioned on one of Zina’s tapes. Did she sleep with Mike, as well? Either way, Arkady discovers Mike – who only went through the door a minute or two before Arkady – is dead, a pair of workman’s scissors expertly stabbed through the back of his neck. Yuk.

Arkady is still bending over the body when the commissar Volovoi arrives, having followed him, accompanied by the massive bulk of Karp Korobetz carrying an axe. Volovoi predictably accuses Arkady of the murder. He casually orders Karp to hit Arkady, at his whim, as he tries to beat the truth out of him. But in a weird and intense scene Volovoi badly miscalculates Karp, goading him almost as much as our hero, until Karp turns on his master and – amazingly – plunges a knife right into his throat, forcing Volovoi to sit back on a bench where he gazes astonished at himself bleeding to death. Then Karp turns back to the business of killing Arkady. There is a long cinematic fight which ends with Arkady desperately throwing a paint pot which knocks over a lantern which starts a fire. As the fire takes and grows, Karp calmly closes the door to the workshop and locks Arkady inside.

Desperately, through the flames, Arkady builds a shaky tower of barrels allowing him to swing some netting up towards a hatch in the ceiling of the workshop, which he manages to force open to emerge gasping, beaten and singed onto the hillside.

Ice (54 pages)

In the final section the Polar Star steams north into the Arctic circle, breaking the ice for the American catch ships following behind it. We find out that after escaping from Mike’s fiery workshop, Arkady had thrown himself into the harbour of Dutch Harbour and got himself fished out, pretending to be drunk, the seawater erasing the smell of smoke and explaining his bruises.

He knows Karp is still after him but has no evidence and doesn’t understand why Karp harbours such animosity to him. How are Arkady’s investigations threatening him? How is Karp connected to Zina? The official line is that Mike and Volovoi got drunk together on their shore leave and accidentally set off a disastrous fire. Captain Marchuk and his sidekick Hess realise something else happened but – as usual – Arkady refuses to contradict the official version, keeping everything he knows to himself.

In this the final section a number of things happen:

  • Karp and his men again try to kill Arkady who escapes into the cabin of Susan Hightower. In a James Bondish way she, drunk, seduces him and reveals that she works for American intelligence. She was recruited by Captain Morgan four years earlier. Morgan is hoping to capture some of the cable lined with echo equipment which the Soviets are using to spy on US submarines.
  • Karp traps Arkady again, this time on the half frozen ramp sloping down into the sea up which the fishing nets from the catch ships are hailed. As he closes in, Karp confirms our man’s suspicions that he is running a drug smuggling operation. Small packs of American cocaine were included in the nets of fish routinely transferred from the American ship Eagle in exchange for larger packs of Russian marijuana.
  • Zina was Karp’s moll. She seduced all the men she needed to in order to get herself onto the ship and then to get the lie of the land. Thus she slept with Slava to get recommended to the crew, with the captain to get him under her thumb, with Volovoi to scare him, with the radio officer Nikolai to understand the range and power of the radios, she used sex as an exchange for information, but all the time remained loyal to Karp’s massive, Siberian love.

The Polar Star‘s spying cable gets caught in something and the ship slows and then comes to a standstill amid the ice. The Eagle a few kilometers south is quickly iced in. Arkady takes a chance, dresses warm and descends to the ice and sets off through the fog across the creaking treacherous ice to the American ship, becoming aware halfway that a figure is following him.

Because of the fog Arkady can sneak unobserved onto the ship and begins to search it when he is confronted – again – with the bulk of Karp. It is finally confirmed that Karp needs to kill Arkady to smother the evidence of his drug running and that he and Zina were lovers and that he saw the opportunity of setting up a drug smuggling operation with the Americans and brought Zina in to help him.

Playing furiously for time, Arkady explains he thinks Zina was killed here, on the American boat. Suspicious, Karp lets himself be talked into helping Arkady search the boat while the three crew are above deck trying to clear the ice. They have just found the storage locker where Arkady realises Zina must have been hidden after being killed, a set of bolts in the side explaining bruises on Zina’s corpse, and even a lock of her hair snagged in the door – when a pair of guns appear at their heads.

It is Ridley and Coletti, the Eagle’s crewmen, along with Morgan the captain. In an intense, knife-edge scene they admit to the drug smuggling and agree to kill Arkady. But the captain objects to this – ‘I’ve gone along with the drugs but there’s to be no killing’ – while Arkady simultaneously plays on Karp’s anger by goading Ridley to admit he slept with Zina and then – when she inconveniently appeared on the ship that fateful night – killed her – ‘Sure, she was in the way.’

Suddenly it all kicks off and in a few confused seconds the captain makes a move on Coletti who shoots and badly wounds him, Arkady fires the flare he’s been keeping in his pocket at Ridley, confusing him long enough for Karp to fling a three-tined grappling hook around his face, pulling him backwards screaming then binding it round his body, throwing the rope over an overhead cable and hauling Ridley’s wriggling body up into the air till he’s dead. Keeping Coletti covered, they help captain Morgan back to his feet, who promises to radio the Polar Star that two seamen are making their way back across the ice.

And here, on the polar ice, in the middle of nowhere, lost in the fog, Arkady and Karp have their final reckoning.

Thoughts

This Fontana paperback version of Polar Star is physically longer than Gorky Park (430 v. 350 pages) because it is printed in larger font with fewer words and less information on each page. Its physical thickness, the embossed cover and the lighter pages all made it feel more like a light airport novel than the dense, intense Gorky Park and the text itself reinforces the impression.

There are poetic flashes which gleam like fish scales on the water, but fewer than in the earlier book. Also, whereas every element of the Moscow book was foreign, from the street names to the food served in the horrible cafes, and although in this one the political commissars, and every aspect of life on the fish factory ship reek of Soviet privation, low expectations, shabby goods and drunkenness, and give it a powerfully claustrophobic, spied-on feel – nonetheless, the basic setting of being at sea is rather more international – or nationless – than the first novel. The descriptions of rusty bulkheads, salt-tanged air, mildew, breaking waves, remind me of the numerous other seaborne thrillers I’ve read by Alistair MacLean or Hammond Innes.

Also, we are a little more used to Arkady’s character and to the rhythm of these books: the most important one being his frustrating habit of discovering all sorts of things about the case but not telling  his superiors who go on thinking he’s wasting his time or, worse, is somehow responsible for crimes when we, the reader, have seen him get beaten, shot at and run over by the real baddies umpteen times. Something of the rhythm and feel of the book are, therefore, less intensely fresh than Gorky Park.

But in a way this helps to make it a slightly easier-to-read and therefore more entertaining and in some ways, more powerful book.

Poetry

There is less of the inspired, poetic use of language than in Gorky Park, but it is still here, like threads of gold buried in the weave of the novel, which occasionally gleam into the light.

He wore the enlightened expression of someone who enjoyed the wrong notes in an amateur piano recital. (p.91)

[Marchuk] poured more water for himself, studying the silvery string of liquid. (p.101)

Pribluda killed the engine, and for a moment there was no sound except the settling of snow, all those tons of flakes gently blanketing the city. (p.119)

Under his cap Pribluda had little eyes driven deep as nails. (p.119)

Water so cold seemed molten. Sea water started to crystallise at 29ºF, and because it carried so much brine it formed first not as a solid but as a transparent sheen, undulating on black swells, going grey as it congealed. (p.293)

These occasional flashes are the icing on the cake of a novel which handles its subject matter with supreme confidence. The book conveys astonishing and thoroughly researched insight into the Arctic fishing trade, with all its equipment, processes, the smell of the sea and the rotting fish, and the very rough camaraderie of a large crew at sea for prolonged periods. Much of the poetry is in the information, the depth of knowledge, which allows Smith to describe the ship, its work, the vividly drawn crew members and the freezing seas with such brio.

Soviet

And throughout you are aware of the series’ unique selling point – it is written by an American but set in Soviet Russia and conveys an unparalleled depth of insight into Soviet life and manners.

In the middle of the long table was a pot of cabbage soup that smelled like laundry and was consumed with raw garlic offered on separate plates, along with dark bread, goulash and tea that steamed enough to make the cafeteria as foggy as a sauna. (p.321)

I liked the notion that one form of Russian rebellion against the stifling communist bureaucracy was to create a whole underground of music based on criminal and prisoner songs, songs of crime, drunkenness and loss comparable to the popularity of the blues in the west.

I liked the idea the KGB is a name to inspire fear but also, among the officers, tired exasperation at the way they’re always sticking their nose in – Hess, the sound engineer who works for Naval Intelligence, doesn’t care about the murders on the ship, he is only concerned that the murders will give the KGB the opportunity to discover the expensive spying equipment installed on the Polar Star and steal it.

In a quietly persuasive scene, Captain Marchuk explains that the ship was delivered to Russia brand new from a Polish shipyard, with gleaming fixtures, and then the KGB descended and stripped it of everything valuable, taking all the linen and cutlery, the bulbs, all the fixtures and fittings, and replacing them with substandard Soviet work. In this scene, and numerous others, Smith paints a portrait of a society ruled by fear and run by an elite gluttonous with corruption. Several characters discuss the astonishing greed of Brezhnev’s daughter Galina, well known for her addiction to diamonds. (Her Wikipedia article confirms that she smuggled jewelry out of the USSR on such a scale as to threaten de Beers’ monopoly!)

Arkady’s nemesis, Karp, covered in tattoos except where his skin has been removed with acid by labour camp authorities, is a strangely attractive figure. He has survived the worst the Soviet system can throw at him and has become a kind of superman, effortlessly confident on the icy ramp of the ship where everyone else slips over, calmly confident in fight situations he knows he will always win – and full of stories, from the pimping and robbery he practiced in Moscow, which led eventually to the murder which saw him caught and condemned to life in Siberian labour camps, working in a reindeer slaughterhouse, hunting in the wild. His description of hearing a snow tiger prowling near one camp is hauntingly memorable.

But then so is the whole book. It is a brilliant work.


Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Spy Hook by Len Deighton (1988)

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

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

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

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

Dramatis personae

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

The ambience

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

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

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

The plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Winter

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

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

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

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

Grumpy old man

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

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

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


Atmosphere of age

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related links

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Hook

Grafton paperback cover of Spy Hook

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

London Match by Len Deighton (1985)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sitcom

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

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

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

Timeframe

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

In a nutshell

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

The plot

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

Mrs Miller

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

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

Kidnap

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

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

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

Samson’s personal life

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

The defector Erich Stinnes

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

The case against Bret

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

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

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

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

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


Dramatis personae

Personal life

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

The Department

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

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

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

Other characters

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

Finale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Expertise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Communism

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Granada paperback cover of London Match

Granada paperback cover of London Match

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

Mexico Set by Len Deighton (1984)

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

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

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

Bernard Samson’s private life

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

Berlin childhood

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

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

Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

Dramatis personae

Personal life

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

The Department

  • Richard ‘Dicky’ Cruyer – Controller of German stations, Oxford man, Samson’s immediate boss, fussy, self-interested.
  • Frank Harrington – pipe smoking, 60-year-old head of the Berlin Office (the job Bernard’s father had), in this novel we are told he regards himself as a kind of guardian to Samson.
  • Bret Rensselaer – mid-fifties, confident American (an American high up in MI6?), head of the Economics Intelligence Committee of SIS, sleek, suspicious. His plans took a knock with the defection of the agent called Brahms Four in the previous novel, upon whose steady flow of economic intelligence about the Russkies Bret had built a little empire within SIS.
  • Henry Tiptree – contemporary of Dicky’s at Balliol college, Oxford, and now SIS’s man in Mexico where he lends Dicky and Samson a notably clapped-out car, before mysteriously appearing 150 pages later in the Berlin boarding house Samson routinely stays in. Is he following Samson? Is he investigating him?
  • MacKenzie – the probationer in the Department, tasked by Samson with finding out who the nurse was who hijacked him, and who is discovered dead in the safe house in Bosham.
  • Sir Henry Clevemore – Director-General of the Department, who Samson thinks is more or less gaga.

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

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

Other characters

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

The plot

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

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

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

There are a handful of colourful events.

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

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

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

Prime suspect

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

Mexico two

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

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

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

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

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


Describing Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expertise

Man of the world As pointed out in my review of Berlin Game, the thriller writer or his protagonist, need to show us he is a man of the world, an expert in many forms of knowledge, and so the text is dotted with offhand insights and knowing asides.

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

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

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

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

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

Foodie We know Deighton has special knowledge and expertise when it comes to cookery and cuisine because of his successful cook books. No surprise, then, that his narrator is a knowledgable guide to the food of Mexico, and even more so, the tastes and aromas of Europe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Granada paperback edition of Mexico Match

Granada paperback edition of Mexico Match

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

Berlin Game by Len Deighton (1983)

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

Samson trilogy

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

Overview

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

Bernard Samson

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

First person narrator

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

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

The plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dramatis personae

In the service

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

Other characters

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

Finale

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

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

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

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

Prose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV adaptation

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

Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

%d bloggers like this: