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.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene (1978)

He told himself that he was a free man, that he had no duties any longer and no obligations, but he had never felt such an extreme solitude as he felt now. (p.215)

Greene was 74 the year this novel was published. The pace of the book is slow and steady and unhurried, the opposite of, say, the helter-skelter of violent incidents in a thriller like Len Deighton’s SS-GB, published the same year. And the prose of this, Greene’s later period or style, is similarly cool and clear and unhurried, lucidly unfolding descriptions, events, thoughts, dialogue, in a measured, stately pace. You can open it at almost any page and immediately start enjoying the clear, declarative sentences, arranged in a logically advancing order in beautifully weighted and judged paragraphs.

Sample quote

Colonel Daintry had a two-roomed flat in St James’s Street which he had found through the agency of another member of the firm. During the war it had been used by MI6 as a rendezvous for interviewing possible recruits. There were only three apartments in the building, which was looked after by an old housekeeper, who lived in a room somewhere out of sight under the roof. Daintry was on the first floor above a restaurant (the noise of hilarity kept him awake until the small hours when the last taxi ground away). Over his head were a retired businessman who had once been connected with the rival wartime service SOE, and a retired general who had fought in the Western Desert. The general was too old now to be seen often on the stairs, but the businessman, who suffered from gout, used to get as far as the Carlton Club across the road. Daintry was no cook and he usually economised for one meal by buying cold chipolatas at Fortnum’s. He had never liked clubs; if he felt hungry, a rare event, there was Overton’s just below. His bedroom and his bathroom looked out on a tiny court containing a sundial and a silversmith. Few people who walked down St James’s Street knew of the court’s existence. It was a very discreet flat and not unsuitable for a lonely man. (pp.84-85 of the Penguin paperback edition)

Textual analysis

This, the opening paragraph of Part Three, Chapter 1, Section 2, is packed with information:

  • There is no physical description of Dainty. His physical appearance is of little or no concern.
  • Instead noscitur a socio – one is known by the company one keeps – and Daintry is firmly situated in a web of relationships which place him very solidly in the security wing of the military establishment. His flat was previously used by MI6; was passed on by a fellow security officer; his neighbours are an ex-SOE officer and ex-Army officer.
  • Geographically, he is located in the heart of London’s Establishment clubland, in St James’s Street, opposite the Carlton Club If you consult a map you’ll see this is just behind The Ritz, on the way down to St James’s Palace, and just round the corner from the Reform Club and the Travellers Club, which both feature in the novel.
  • An upper-class mindset which extends to his shopping habits: not Sainsbury’s, not Waitrose – Fortnum’s.
  • The one glimpse of what you might call real life – the noisy restaurant downstairs – is mostly there to emphasise his solitary, unclubbable nature, and to highlight the contrast with the sad final words of the paragraph – ‘a lonely man’.
  • But in among this litany of loneliness is a sliver of winter sunlight: the view from the bedroom onto the (inevitably small, this is central London) court which contains ‘a sundial and a silversmith’. This is an unusual splash of (admittedly wintry) alliteration from so cold and uncolourful a writer as Greene. And it has a subtle symbolism: the sundial evoking the inflexible passage of time and, by implication, the withered, near-retirement mentality of the unhappy Colonel, and somehow the second-rate, silver nature of his existence. (Elsewhere Greene describes the gold-rimmed glasses of his main South African interrogator and the gold ring the second, thuggish, interrogator has on his punching hand – from which he extrapolates that South Africa itself is a virile, sun-filled, golden country. But not cold, cramped England. The best we can hope for a thin parings of silver…)
  • Because the whole passage feels very English and Londony and cramped and confined and claustrophobic:
    • In terms of Daintry the man, we are told of his appallingly limited diet: he is rarely hungry and then only buys cold chipolatas, symbolising the notorious absence of gastronomic savoir faire in the public school-educated British upper classes so satirised by the French and Italians. (In other scenes there are a number of discussions about food, especially Lady Hargreaves’ famous steak and kidney pudding; the characters spend half a page contrasting steak and kidney pudding with steak and kidney pie.)
    • And the flat itself is such a cramped, inconvenient space: the noise of the restaurant below keeps him awake, the view is into a tiny court. Can you imagine an American security officer putting up with these Dickensian conditions for a minute?
  • Finally, if we reread the paragraph we can admire the logic and clarity with which the information unfolds, is set down in an orderly manner almost like an intelligence report except that, unlike a report, it has dots of imagery which convey the information in a different sort of way: the cold chipolatas sum up a lifetime of bad food; the noisy restaurant symbolises everything Daintry excludes himself from; the tiny courtyard offers a bleak, superficially impressive, but ultimately empty recompense for the life of secrets and evasions which Daintry has chosen, and which – we later learn – has resulted in his divorce and all-but-estrangement from his only child, a grown-up daughter.

There are similar amounts of precise information and imaginative wealth on almost every page of the novel, which is why I think it is so good.

The plot

Maurice Castle is an anxious, middle-aged man, living in a suburban house in Berkhampsted, commuting every day to his office in St James’s, bantering with his younger colleague Davis, wryly amused by the latter’s frustrated lust for their uninterested secretary, Cynthia. What makes him different is he works for MI6, in a department known as 6, his section is 6A, and he and Davis receive encrypted messages from a network of agents in southern Africa. Slowly, in his stately late-period prose, Greene paints a very realistic portrait of the little office with its daily frustrations, lunch at the pub, drinks after work at one of the London clubs.

Castle is called in to meet ‘C’, the head of the organisation, who we also see at his large country house, entertaining various other officers on ‘the firm’ on a pheasant shoot: Watson, Castle’s section chief, Percival, the sinister ‘doctor’ and senior adviser, and Daintry, who’s been called in to do a security review of Castle’s section. Because there is a leak. Some of the information about situations in south African nations is getting to the other side. We witness conversations between Daintry and C and between C and Percival where they speculate who the leak is; on the flimsy basis that Daintry caught Davis taking an office file in his briefcase out to read over lunch, and that Davis told Castle a white lie – that he was going to the dentist when he was in fact taking Cynthia on a lunch date – the finger of suspicion, in a very amateurish way, points towards Davis. Castle contributes his pennyworth by describing to C the way Davis is restless, unhappy and wants a foreign posting. Aha. Chap wants an easy escape once we rumble him, eh?

Indeed, the whole story is set in the world of ‘chaps’. They all went to public school, then knew each other or of each other, at Oxford or Cambridge, before going on to eminent careers in the law, medicine, in the Army, in government, in Whitehall – running the country. Daintry, a little outside these circles, provides an uneasy contrast when he attends the shooting weekend at C’s, finding it hard to read the code and manners of the English upper classes. The (completely innocent) suspect, Davis, is outside the magic circle altogether, having gone to a grammar school and Reading university, the poor fellow, part of the reason it’s so easy to dispense with him…

While this is going on, Castle reflects anxiously on his past, on his time as an MI6 agent in South Africa, how falling in love with a black woman broke SA’s race laws, resulting in him being called in for interrogation by South Africa’s police, and the oblique threats made by the intimidating BOSS interrogator against, not him, but his lover, Sarah. Released from questioning, Castle used his contacts in the anti-apartheid underground to spirit him and Sarah across the border to Mozambique, and on to England, where he married Sarah and, when she had her baby (by another, black, lover) was happy to adopt the boy – Sam – as his own son. She is the (colourful, foreign) love of  his life.

Now, in a grand irony, the very same BOSS officer who interrogated him seven years ago, has flown to England to be liaison between BOSS and MI6 on a new project, Operation Uncle Remus. It is explained to Castle (and the reader) that a capitalist South Africa is vital to Western interests, as the free world’s largest supplier of gold, diamonds and uranium. Threatened by Soviet-backed communist guerrilla forces in Namibia and Mozambique, Operation Uncle Remus plans to bring together intelligence from SA, the CIA, MI6 and other western agencies, to guarantee SA’s government. At its heart is the plan to develop tactical battlefield nuclear weapons which would be deployed against any communist forces invading from those countries… with obviously devastating consequences not only for the force targeted but all the nearby civilians.

Half way through the slow unfurling of this story, with its multiple characters, settings, strands and dynamics, two major events take place.

  1. We had previously witnessed the sinister Dr Percival discussing in a speculative way with Hargreaves and Daintry the various ways to poison or kill a man so as to leave no trace. To this reader’s surprise, he goes ahead and poisons Davis (one of their own operatives) with a natural fungal toxin, designed to build up, make someone ill and slowly die over a period of time with symptoms identical to liver failure. In fact, Davis dies unexpectedly quickly, within 24 hours. C flies back from Washington for the funeral, knows Percival murdered one of their own men, but is merely irritated. Colonel Daintry remembers the creepy conversations he’d had with Dr Percival and strongly suspects Percival murdered a man on little or no evidence and silently disapproves. Castle keeps his suspicions about Davis’s death to himself. But they all accept this murder of one of their own men which I find completely extraordinary.
  2. Not least because, in the major revelation of the book, we learn that Davis was completely innocent because it is the protagonist of the novel – Castle himself – who is the spy leaking information. Having been merely a harassed middle-aged office worked in part one, in the second half of the novel – once his secret is revealed – we delved deeper into the psychological motivation and and experience of being a double agent, a traitor. We witness Castle going to a safe house to meet his control, a Russian named Boris, and Greene fascinatingly explores the psychological dependency of the agent on his master. For Boris is the only person in the world who knows the complete truth about Castle and to whom he can be completely honest. Not to his wife, not to anyone else can he pour out his burdened soul. Their conversations are like therapy or (of course, this being Greene) like the Catholic confessional, from which he emerges purged and lighter in heart. In these scenes it is revealed that Castle’s treachery is not ideological – he liked some communists he met in SA but is not himself a believer – but due to simple gratitude: it was a communist, Carson, who was instrumental in smuggling Sarah to freedom when she was in danger of being arrested by BOSS. Castle owes him/the Party her life and all his subsequent happiness. His betrayal is based on love. Aha… It is the same psychodrama as fuels so many other Greene novels where it is the ‘finer feelings’ which lead us into squalid betrayals (cf Scobie’s pity for Helen Rolt which leads him into a love affair with her and then to break various police rules in order to help her, in The Heart of The Matter).

Greeneland

1. Apothegms This is a very familiar Greene trope, one of his favourite paradoxes – love is more dangerous than hate – up there alongside ‘pity is more fatal than anger’ and ‘betrayal is the greatest form of fidelity’, and so on. There are typically grand-sounding Greene apothegms scattered through this text:

‘We are grateful to you, Maurice, but gratitude like love needs to be renewed daily or it’s liable to die away.’ (p.260)

I guess many of his devotees like these wise sayings and ‘profound insights into human nature’ which are always inserted at the appropriate moment in the appropriate place – but I don’t. They come too easy, they are too glib for my taste and, on examination, most of them turn out to be empty rhetoric – but in this novel there are not too many of them. There is more of the slow steady encrustation-of-detail type writing that I quoted above, writing which embodies its meaning via literary techniques – assonance, imagery, rhythm – rather than proclaims it in sound bites like t-shirt slogans.

2. Downbeat And, skimming back through the novel now, I realise a lot of the sections end on a miserable downbeat: Castle thinks that Davis, in death, is finally ‘free’; Sarah wonders if Castle will ever be ‘free’ to tell her the complete truth; Castle dreams of drifting down an African river to a mythical place called Peace of Mind; Castle’s secret sorrow is that he failed to protect his first wife, killed by a buzz bomb during the Blitz; steady drip-drip of images of misery…

He took the glasses to the kitchen and washed them carefully. It was as though he were removing the fingerprints of his despair. (p.211)

It sometimes seems as if books like this are written to make their middle-aged, menopausal, miserable male readers feel less wretchedly alone. Feminists of my generation talk glibly about how the world is run by men, by the worldwide Patriarchy who own, run and control everything. Why, then, are the older male characters in the novels of Greene, Le Carré, Len Deighton or the contemporaneous ‘comedies’ of Kingsley Amis, David Lodge or Tom Sharpe, so bloody miserable?

[Daintry] felt guilty of failure – a man in late middle age near to retirement – retirement from what? He would exchange one loneliness for another. (p.169)

[Halliday said] ‘It’s been a lonely life, I have to admit that.’ (p.219)

But what makes this one of Greene’s best novels – for me – is that he doesn’t belabour these points: there aren’t entire sections lecturing the reader about love and hate and betrayal and guilt and all the rest of Greene’s miserabilist worldview. The tangle of motivations are embodied in the story which, because of its slow, convincing accumulation of the details of the lived life of its numerous interlocking characters, are more emotionally and imaginatively powerful than the blunt lectures and fancy aphorisms which disfigure so many earlier Greene novels.

More plot

After Davis’s death, Castle writes his Russian control a letter saying he daren’t send any more information. If they now adopt radio silence it will persuade his firm that the innocent Davis was the leak and guarantee his – Castle’s – safety. However… He then has the interview with Muller, the man from South African security, who tells him about Operation Uncle Remus, including the possible use of atomic weapons which would, of course, slaughter large numbers of black civilians as well as any invading forces, were they to be deployed… And so, in a typical Greeneism, it is pity and concern which betray Castle into betraying himself, which prompt him to make one last communication with a control who might, for all he knows, have left the country, with a word-for-word copy of Muller’s notes which the BOSS man left for him at their meeting. Except that the BOSS man’s report was a trap, deliberately filled with standout phrases different from all other versions; if this one is leaked, the case against Castle will be conclusive.

And now Castle gives way to paranoia and the final 80 pages or so of the novel successfully convey his increasingly sickening feeling that his superiors are onto him. He sends Sarah and Sam to his mother’s house, telling her to tell some cock-and-bull story that they’ve had a big row – but in fact because he wants to face whatever happens next alone. After waiting a tense day in the empty house he is visited by Daintry, himself a disillusioned loner, who chats about Davis’s death and his marital problems. Castle unwisely assures him Davis was innocent. Of course, he could only be sure of this if he knew someone else was guilty, and only be 100% certain of it if the guilty man was himself. Daintry drives off, stops at a pub and phones in a report to Percival and C, saying he strongly suspects Castle is the leak. Muller has already driven out to Sir Hargreaves’ country pile to tell him the same thing, based on his meeting with Castle. Ports and airports are alerted with copies of Castle’s photo. The net is closing in.

Then, as he sits sweating and panicking in his house, one of Castle’s contacts unexpectedly knocks on the door – not at all the man he was expecting  – an English communist party member of long standing, who drives him to a hotel near Heathrow while they debate the rights and wrongs of Soviet communism a bit half-heartedly. Here Castle is to wait for the next link in the escape chain but, most unfortunately, bumps into an acquaintance from America who insists on making a date for a drink at the bar. Once safe in his hotel room Castle has barely settled before another stranger knocks, identifies himself as the next link in the escape route, trims Castle’s hair and eyebrows, applies a thin fake moustache and gives him a white cane and fake passport. Castle is to pretend to be blind and catch the next bus to the airport and the next flight to Paris. In the lobby the American he met earlier runs up to castle as he walks by, recognising Castle’s outline – but then thrown by the strange face and white stick… He stands staring as Castle enters the bus…Will he call the authorities…?

The narrative switches to Sarah’s point of view as she arrives and stays with Castle’s unfriendly mother, and the unfriendly days pass and Sam doesn’t like his new school and Sarah has no-one to talk to and the reader is wondering whether the Yank tipped off the authorities and Castle is being held and interrogated.

None of Greene’s novels really strike me as thrillers because a thriller must grip and thrill with the excitement of fast-moving action. I’m not sure any of Greene’s novels do that; what he excels at is creating an atmosphere of dreadful anxiety and unease, with a growing feeling of suicidal despair.

The reader’s anxiety is laid to rest when the narrative switches back to Castle in Moscow. He has escaped. He is safe. We see him being introduced to his ‘luxury’ flat by a grumpy KGB officer (jealous because it has furniture), and to other exile English spies, a uniformly sad bunch. But all Castle wants is for Sarah and Sam to be brought out to him, to be reunited with his only love.

But history never repeats itself; there is no Carson to arrange her escape as in South Africa. And Greene twists the knife deep into the heart because Sam, the beloved son who he unquestioningly adopted and raised as his own, turns out to be the stumbling block. Sam is too young to have been put on Sarah’s passport. She could be smuggled out somehow, but neither officially nor unofficially would she make it with a young boy in tow, too obvious.

And so the novel ends with a heart-breaking phone call when, after weeks of frustration, Castle finally gets through to his mother’s number, Sarah answers the phone and they have a page declaring their love for each other and stuttering over how and when they will ever see each other again. Then, receiver still in hand, she realises the line to Moscow has been cut. It isn’t stated explicitly, but the strong implication is that they will never be reunited. All his secret work and betrayal was motivated by the one desire to keep them together and it has, instead, forever torn them apart. I, for one, had tears streaming down my face.

Related links

Penguin paperback cover of The Human Factor, illustration by Paul Hogarth

Penguin paperback cover of The Human Factor, illustration by Paul Hogarth

Greene’s books

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

The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall (1965)

The zip on the briefcase was the interlocking plastic flange type and opened silently. Inside was the folder with the black cover. It was the memorandum… It would contain all the information they could give me, all the names, suspects, dossiers, leads and theories they could cull from the whole of the Bureau files, a complete and exhaustive breakdown of the field. (p.20)

This is a cold-eyed, cold-hearted spy thriller about a non-Jewish concentration camp survivor tracking down former Nazis. The tone of the novel is dictated by his sporadic memories of the unspeakable atrocities carried out by the Germans against their Jewish prisoners. No laughs, no colour, no colleagues or clubs, no music or art or galleries – just a solitary man trudging the streets of Berlin, moving from hotel to hotel, and soon making the horrifying discover that he himself is being hunted by the very organisation he’s trying to expose.

Elleston Trevor

Elleston Trevor (1920 – 1995) was a British novelist and playwright who wrote prolifically under at least eight different pseudonyms. Under the name Adam Hall he wrote no fewer than 19 spy novels featuring the tough secret agent, Quiller, from Quiller’s début in 1965 to his final appearance in 1996.

The Quiller Memorandum

It is Berlin in the freezing winter, snow everywhere. Quiller isn’t his real name – we don’t find out what that is. He works for ‘the Bureau’ – we don’t really know what that is, either, though he explicitly denies that it’s MI6. He has a set of codewords which is the only way he has of identifying other agents, as well as a set of terminology not usually found in other spy books – ‘tags’ are people tailing him, ‘flushing’ is losing a tag, ‘doubling’ is double crossing.

We learn he was at Dachau concentration camp during the War. He saw Jews being murdered, he saw Nazi guards and officers at work, he has a scar on his leg picked up at Dachau, and somehow he set up a network smuggling Jewish prisoners out of the camp. He has been working undercover for nine months in modern Germany, tracking down ex-Nazis and delivering dossiers about them to the Z Commission which then arrests them and delivers them to the Nazi trials in Hanover.

A contact meets him to explain that one of the biggest names is back in Berlin – Heinrich Zossen, a leading Nazi who he last saw twenty years ago at the edge of an execution pit in Dachau. The contact, Pol, is from the Berlin office of ‘the Bureau’, otherwise known as Berlin Control. Pol gives him a list of other Nazis they’re looking for – a memorandum (the original title of the novel was The Berlin Memorandum). Quiller’s task is to track them down. Rather melodramatically, Pol says he is the sole man standing between two armies poised to go to war.

Quiller has a fortuitous encounter with a girl called Inga who, after inviting him back to her flat for a drink, tells him about her harrowing experiences of being a nine-year-old in Hitler’s bunker which has left her with lots of unresolved ‘issues’. She reveals she used to be a member of Phönix, an underground group of ex-Nazis.

A Jew Quiller knew from the camp, who now works in a germ warfare lab, Sol, contacts Quiller and is on his way to meet him when he is assassinated. Shortly afterwards Quiller is picked up by some of the Phönix group, led by the cold-eyed boss, Oktober. They inject him with various drugs and interrogate him.

(The use of drugs in interrogation reminds me of the similar scene in Len Deighton’s thriller, An Expensive Place To Die, where the unnamed spy narrator is injected with LSD.)

The Nazis want to know the location of Quiller’s superiors, the office of Berlin Control. Quiller knows they will raid it or bomb it, so he resists during a prolonged and hallucinatory scene, until he hears Oktober order him to be shot and dumped in the river. When Quiller comes to, wet, near the river, he realises it was a ploy. And it works because, once he has made it back to a hotel and cleaned up, he goes back to Inga’s flat seeking – as the narrator explains in brutally clinical language – the sexual release of the man who has escaped death. Only to find Oktober there and ready to torture the girl in front of him to get details of the Bureau, its code words and tradecraft etc.

Cold psychology

Though there are occasional flashes of colour, metaphor and simile in the writing, on the whole it is cold-eyed and factual. There is none of the humour of Len Deighton, the stylishness of Ian Fleming, none of the agonising theology of Graham Greene, none of the fast-moving excitement of Alistair MacLean, none of the subtle plot and counter-plot of 1960s John le Carré.

Instead the narrator is detached from everything around him, including himself and his plight, much given to analysing his physical and mental reactions to situations as if from a clinical distance. He liberally uses psychoanalytical terms to analyse his own and other people’s motivations.

I was helpless in a situation of rapidly increasing strain, and however much the ego and superego tried to rationalise and seek comfort or simple acceptance, the id knew I was in bad trouble and was ready to throw the switch and relieve the strain by blacking out. (p.117)

Everything is coolly analysed in this cold, detached manner. Even his return to Inga’s flat Quiller makes cold and detached by describing himself and her as mating animals. To say there is little or no feeling in a book which prides itself on its coldness is an understatement.

It was no good thinking, this is no prelude to love. There would be nothing of love. This was the prelude to something that we would each act out for our own reasons: the simple biological urge to impregnate and be impregnated, the needs of dominance, subjection, identification, a lot of things known and unknown, an act of catharsis to let the fiends come out and perhaps to let others in. The beast with two backs would lord the jungle for a time, then it would die, without knowing why it had lived. (p.108)

Twice Oktober captures Quiller and twice – after the drug interrogation, and after they’ve tortured Inga to try and get him to talk – they let him go without a scratch. Each time Quiller guesses that the Nazis hope he will lead then to Berlin Control – and so he goes wandering round Berlin refusing the temptation to ring his office or to post a message – but this blank and circular repetitiveness eventually stretches credulity. Basically he walks the streets for hours and hours with no purpose except not to contact his base.

A Modesty Blaise-style shootout would have lightened the mood and lifted the tension. And they’re Nazis, for God’s sake. Surely they could extract any the information they wanted from a helpless prisoner pretty damn quickly? The entire premise of the plot – that the Nazis have Quiller in the grip twice but fail to extract the simple information of where his Bureau office is – simply doesn’t convince. Why don’t they look it up in the phone book? Are we to believe that a network of Nazis based in Berlin is not capable of working out where the HQ of a Western spy network is based?

The novel features an elaborate double bluff where the Phönix organisation let Quiller into their base and let him see a big tabletop plan of a Nazi takeover of the new West German army. It is only when they release him that Quiller concludes the whole scene was an elaborate ruse to provoke him into contacting his Control, so they can find out where it is.

And yet, at the end of the novel, it appears that there actually was a Nazi plot to seize control of the army. And that the character Sol, who was shot on his way to meet Quiller, had in fact been working for the Nazis and been tasked with producing vials of fatal germ warfare bugs.

But, unfortunately, by this late stage of the story, I’d stopped caring…

Disconnect

There’s a radical disconnect between the majority of the plot – which consists of Quiller stumbling round Berlin trying to shake off his tails (or ‘tags’ as they’re called in this book) and getting picked up twice by the group and having sex once with Inga – between this very small set of rather dull and silly incidents – and the vastness of the supposed conspiracy to seize the German Army and then all Europe! The disproportion seems quite mad. There is none of the sense of a huge and monstrous conspiracy being slowly unveiled with a masterly sense of pacing which makes, for example, the early thrillers or Robert Harris (Fatherland and Archangel) so breath-takingly exciting. Excitement doesn’t seem to be Hall’s aim at all.

Memo style

The style often descends into memo or Powerpoint format. ‘Situation: Being followed. Decision: ditch tag at next junction.’

Quiller’s favourite phrase is ‘no go’, which is his stock response to umpteen calculations he coldly carries out on the odds of various course of action. ‘No go’ began to really get on my nerves.

Towards the end of the book, the prose reduces further and further to bullet points and lists of issues and actions.

Paramount consideration: protect the Bureau from risk. Worst eventuality: death and no signal sent, my people back where they began. (Who would replace me? Dewhurst? Disregard likelihood) Programme: send signal by direct phone if absolutely certain unobserved. If impossible, wait for the bullet in the neck and try to – (Disregard).

I suppose it’s an interesting experiment in style, and it obviously struck a chord in 1965 as The Quiller Memorandum became a popular bestseller – an exercise in alienation, an essay in a certain kind of masculine psychology, a modish assemblage of contemporary concerns in the era of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’. But I found it a difficult and, for the most part, deeply unrewarding read.

Spy boom

The Berlin Memorandum was published in 1965, at the height of the 1960s spy movie boom. The same year saw the release of Thunderball – the decade’s most popular Bond film – as well as The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Like them, Memorandum was swiftly turned into a movie, just a year after publication, in 1966, with a sparse repetitive screenplay by Harold Pinter, directed by Michael Anderson, and starring George Segal, Alec Guinness, Max von Sydow and Senta Berg. The movie accurately captures the blank and puzzling sense of dislocation of the book. I thought it was dire.

The TV series

Ten years after the Quiller novels began publication they were turned into a 13-part BBC TV series starring Michael Jayston, which transmitted from August to November 1975. I remember watching and loving this TV series, mainly for Jayston’s understated acting style, the same Michael Jayston who played the part of Peter Guillam so beautifully in the 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy. Sadly, the series is not on YouTube or available on DVD, though someone has uploaded the funky jazz-fusion 1970s theme tune.


Related links

The Quiller novels

  • 1965 – The Berlin Memorandum Quiller tangles with a group of neo-Nazis led by Oktober, trying to get details of their organisation til the capture and interrogate him to get the details of his organisation.
  • 1966 – The 9th Directive Quiller is in Bangkok where he uncovers a plot to assassinate ‘a leading Royal’, which he incompetently fails to realise is really a disguised plot to kidnap the said VIP. After much shooting and a high-speed road chase, the Royal is exchanged for an enemy spy on the Chinese border.
  • 1968 – The Striker Portfolio Quiller investigates the unexplained crashes of NATO’s latest high-speed jet and uncovers a sinister conspiracy.

Billion Dollar Brain by Len Deighton (1966)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killer?

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


Class consciousness

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

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

Olde England

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

Influence of films

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

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

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

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

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

Raymond Chandler

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

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

Humour

Still plenty of dead-pan humour.

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

Jazz

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

Related links

1966 Penguin paperback cover of Billion Dollar Brain

1966 Penguin paperback cover of Billion Dollar Brain

The movie

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

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

Len Deighton’s novels

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

To Catch A Spy edited by Eric Ambler (1964)

Seven short stories about spies, selected and with a genial introduction by Eric Ambler, who gives a useful summary of the spy genre from the turn of the century up to the early 1960s:

  • the late-19th century background of Sherlock Holmes/Rider Haggard popular adventure yarns
  • then suddenly the first classic spy novel, The Riddle of The Sands (1903)
  • the unexpected and not at all thriller-ish The Secret Agent (1907) by literary novelist Joseph Conrad
  • a flood of popular spy novels by the prolific William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • then the sequence of five Richard Hanny novels by John Buchan (1915-1936) raising the tone
  • overlapping with the proto-fascist Bulldog Drummond stories by ‘Sapper’
  • the standout early spy novel of them all, Ashenden (1928) by Somerset Maugham
  • the comic spy novel The Three Couriers by Compton Mackenzie
  • then Graham Greene’s secret agent novels of the 1930s – A Gun For Sale, The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear
  • overlapping with Ambler’s own six great thrillers set in the murky eastern Europe of the late 1930s
  • the hiatus of the war
  • then the explosive rise of Ian Fleming (first Bond novel 1953)

Writing in the early 1960s Ambler is unaware that the release of the early Bond movies (Dr No, From Russia With Love) would spark a spy boom, including Len Deighton’s fabulous Ipcress File novels (1962-67), the comic strip adventures of freelance agent Modesty Blaise (1965), the Quiller spy novels of Adam Hall (debut 1965), the ‘agent’ novels of Alistair MacLean, the arrival on the scene of Desmond Bagley who wrote spy novels in the early 1970s, and the most enduringly successful of English spy novelists, John le Carré (first novel 1961). Many of these novels were filmed very soon after publication to create a tidal wave of spy books and movies throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Spies went from being a minority pulp interest to becoming big money literary and Hollywood genres.

Ambler is no scholar but you can’t fault his opinions:

  • The Riddle of the Sands ‘one of the finest books about small sailing-craft ever written.’
  • ‘Although, on the whole, Buchan’s spy stories achieved a higher level of reality than those of Oppenheim, and were certainly better written, they had peculiar defects. His spy-heroes were mostly hunting-shooting-fishing men who went about their work with a solemn, manly innocence which could lapse into stupidity.’
  • Ashenden ‘is the first fictional work on the subject by a writer of some stature with first-hand knowledge of what he is writing about.’

The short stories

The Loathly Opposite by John Buchan (21 pages) Buchan’s pukka heroes – Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and others – are sitting round jawing when one of them, Pugh, remembers his World War I work supervising codebreakers who struggled to crack the work of one particularly fiendish German coder and how, years later, recovering from war nerves, it turns out the mild-mannered German doctor treating him at a sanatorium is one and the same coder. Well, well.

Giulia Lazzari by Somerset Maugham (56 pages) One of the short stories which make up Maugham’s masterpiece, Ashenden (1928). In his frigid, well-mannered prose the narrator describes being given a mission by his controller, R. A dangerous Indian nationalist and terrorist, Chandra Lal, has fallen (improbably) in love with a travelling Italian entertainer-cum-prostitute who performs as an ‘exotic’ Spanish dancer, known as Giulia Lazzari. She’s been arrested in England and is being sent under guard to the French border with Switzerland because Chandra is in Switzerland.

Ashenden’s mission is to keep her under arrest and coerce her into persuading her lover, Chandra, to cross the border into France where he can be quickly arrested by the authorities, who can’t touch him in neutral Switzerland. Ashenden politely but implacably wears Guilia down until she consents to write the fateful letters asking her lover to join her. The whole affair ends squalidly when, cornered in a waiting room of the ferry by which he’s crossed the lake into France, Chandra swallows poison and dies immediately. As promised, Ashenden gives the broken Giulia the papers she requires to travel to Spain, and feels degraded.

The First Courier by Sir Compton Mackenzie (79 pages) Broad good-natured comedy. Year two of the Great War and Roger Waterlow is a naval officer, fed up with acting as intelligence officer in an unnamed boiling hot city (unnamed but obviously in Greece). He has a fat incompetent number two, a dodgy Cockney driver, a boss (Captain X) back in London who ignores his pleas to be transferred, and a clutch of comedy French diplomats to deal with.

Just as remarkable as the many genuinely amusing comic scenes, is Mackenzie’s often weirdly  convoluted prose, which maybe explains why he’s so little read today.

His own reward would be the Légion d’Honneur, the scarlet ribbon of which would seem to a little man so fond of dark habiliments and obscure subterranean trafficking a whole world of vivid colour. (1984 Bodley Head large print edition p.124)

The French Naval Attaché waved cordially to Waterlow as he mounted his car where, so full of nervous energy was he in repose, he seemed to flutter in the hot breeze like the spruce little tricolour on the bonnet, himself in that huge Packard like the flag a miniature emblem of his country. (p.130)

I Spy by Graham Greene (5 pages) A young boy sneaks down into his father’s tobacconist’s shop after dark to nick a packet of cigarettes and smoke a crafty fag. Approaching footsteps make him hide under the till from where he hears the conversation between his father and two official-seeming men, as his father scoops ups some packets and grabs his coat before going away with them. He appears to have overheard his father being arrested by police… Only a spy story in the broadest sense of the word ‘spy’, in which almost anyone overhearing anyone else hidden in a closet could be said to be ‘spying’.

Although famous for the variety of exotic locations for his fiction, I’m not the first to point out that Greene’s mind and imagination were often very mundane and humdrum.

Belgrade 1926 by Eric Ambler (31 pages) A chapter from The Mask of Dimitrios, which many consider Ambler’s best novel from the six he wrote before World War II, considered by most critics to be his finest period. It is an episodic novel about a writer’s quest to track down a legendary criminal, Dimitrios, which takes him across Europe to meet various people who knew Dimitrios and who describe key episodes from his life – hence the text is so easy to divide into sections.

In this excerpt the writer, Charles Latimer, writes to his Greek informant describing a long encounter with ‘G’, a spymaster in Eastern Europe, now based in Geneva. Working for Italy, G organises a scam to blackmail an official in the Defence Ministry in Belgrade to bring him charts of the marine minefields Yugoslavia is laying down in the Adriatic. G hires Dimitrios to act the part of playboy, and between them they flatter the clerk and his wife with high living and promises of big jobs until they lure them into a casino, where they arrange for them to lose a fortune. Thus, in fear of being exposed, of losing his job and going to prison for debt, the clerk is persuaded to steal the charts for a night and bring them to Dimitrios who will photograph them.

The clerk brings the charts, alright but unfortunately Dimitrios double crosses G, demands the photos of the charts at gunpoint, before going off to sell them to the French embassy. G has no choice but to inform the Yugoslav authorities, who promptly change their minefield arrangements, arrest the clerk and sentence him to life imprisonment. Dimitrios disappears. G concludes his business and leaves town.

You can see how, in Ambler’s hands, the spy story is more about betrayal and double crossing than glamorous adventures. That is how he made his name, moving the genre decisively away from the schoolboy heroics and naive patriotism of Buchan and Sapper into the amoral modern world – where it has firmly stayed ever since.

From A View To A Kill by Ian Fleming (40 pages) A motorcycle courier riding from NATO to SHAPE headquarters is assassinated by an identically-dressed motorbike courier, who takes the wallet full of battle plans and disappears. James Bond is staying overnight in Paris en route back to London from a bodged job in Hungary. He is ordered into going along to SHAPE HQ to help out the investigation and is not welcomed because SHAPE has its own security service and can do without the British Secret Service’s interference, thank you very much.

Bond pricks up his ears when casually told about the gypsies who camped in the forest during the winter. He goes and stakes out the gypsies’ old camp, which is when he sees the high-tech doors to the secret Russkie base open up and three men bring out the motorbike the assassin must have used. Next day Bond impersonates the daily courier and entraps the baddie into following him, but shoots first and kills him, then takes his team of four agents to capture the remaining men in their underground base. This leads to a shootout and Bond is rescued by the rather sexy woman agent who collected him from his hotel at the start of the story. Mmm. ‘Will you have dinner with me tonight?’ ‘Of course, commander.’ Perfectly, effortlessly entertaining.

On Slay Down by Michael Gilbert (24 pages) Never heard of Gilbert but this is arguably the best short story in the book. Two elderly middle-aged men, friends from the first war and both in ‘the Service’, discuss the need to assassinate a woman secretary who – investigations show – has been passing information to the enemy.

One of them, Calder, drives out to the fake rendezvous they’ve arranged between her and her contact, arrives way before her and sets up shop with a rifle. She arrives, gets out her car and he is about to shoot her when an Army lorry appears and the driver starts taking pot shots at rabbits. Smiling, Calder waits for the soldier to shoot and instantly fires, as if an echo, killing the woman. He packs up and leaves.

However, the two men running this grim project are puzzled that, by a few days later, the body has still not been found or reported. They track down the identity of the soldier, an officer, who was driving the lorry and nearly interrupted Calder’s assassination. Turns out he is now leading a small exercise in the same area.

Calder, obviously with the blessing of higher authority, dresses up as a senior officer in the man’s regiment and confronts the soldier in his tent. There can be only one explanation – the soldier must have found the body and, thinking he’d killed a harmless civilian, buried her. So, asks Calder: ‘Where did you bury her?’ The soldier’s first reaction is to reach for his pistol, but he thinks better of it and admits everything. In fact, he buried her on the very spot where their tent is pitched; he was horrified to find an exercise was planned for the same area and made sure he got there first and pitched tent above the grave. At which point Calder reveals his identity and… offers him a job in the Service. As he later recounts to his partner, over their evening game of backgammon.

‘He realised that he wouldn’t be able to get his gun out in time, and decided to come clean. I think that showed decision, and balance, don’t you?’
‘Decision and balance are most important,’ agreed Mr Behrens. ‘Your throw.’

Like the Bond, despite a spot of killing, this is essentially a comic story, slick and clever. Ambler, in his introduction, says it could have been retitled ‘On Slay Down, or the Recruitment of 008‘.

First sentences

Burminster had been to a Guildhall dinner the night before, which had been attended by many – to him – unfamiliar celebrities. (Buchan)

Accurately conveys Buchan’s milieu of upper-class, professional men who, however, are Country not Town; hunting, shooting, fishing types who mix with the rich but don’t know much about corrupt city ways, about this art or literature malarkey, dontcha know. Hence the importance of the ‘- to him -‘ clause. The hero is high-born – but pure.

Ashenden was in the habit of asserting that he was never bored. (Somerset Maugham)

Not only portraying the lofty detachment of Ashenden, the fictional writer-spy, but Maugham’s own enjoyably seigneurial tone.

It was hotter than ever in the city of South-East Europe some time round about the second anniversary of the war. (Mackenzie)

Sets the tone of complaint, one aspect of the Mackenzie’s comedy about the unhappy Naval officer forced to become a spy in this feverishly hot Mediterranean location and constantly moaning about mosquitoes, the awful food and the absurd machinations of the local French officials.

Charlie Stowe waited until he heard his mother snore before he got out of bed. (Greene)

Indicates the mundane banality of Greene’s settings and the flat, colourless tone of his prose. Why is he so famous, then? Due to his gimlet-eyed focus on seediness and loss, deception and guilt.

My dear Marukakis, I remember that I promised to write to you to let you know if I discovered anything more about Dimitrios. (Ambler)

Obviously the Ambler story’s format of a letter dictates the tone a bit, but this opening is nonetheless strongly indicative of Ambler’s good humour and amiability. His novels are excellent company.

The eyes behind the wide black rubber goggles were cold as flint. (Fleming)

You can immediately see the change in tone: Most of the preceding stories (with the exception of Greene’s cold-eyed heartlessness) have exuded chaps-in-the-club-with-a-cigar bonhomie. Fleming introduces pure physical excitement, a foretaste of the sadism, sex and shiny gadgets his novels delight in and which made him the most successful spy writer of all time.

‘The young man of to-day,’ said Mr Behrens, ‘is physically stronger and fitter than his father.’ (Gilbert)

Rather suave, man-of-the-world savoir faire of two older male friends discussing their professional interests ie security, spying and agents.

Conclusion

Of these seven texts the Maugham, Mackenzie and Ambler are in fact chapters from longer works. Maybe there aren’t (or there weren’t in 1964) that many good spy short stories.

Related links

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of their plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

The Russia House by John le Carré (1989)

It is the time of perestroika and glasnost. Poor ill-fated Mikhael Gorbachev is trying to modernise the great failed Soviet experiment. An Anglo-Polish emigré publisher is in Moscow for a trade fair. A strange woman approaches and asks him to take a package on behalf of the publisher whose stand is next door but who hasn’t shown up. He does. He smuggles it back to Britain. He presents it to the Security Services. And thus begins the plot of The Russia House, le Carré’s 12th novel.

Her indoors Most le Carré protagonists have sad, broken, jaded middle-aged man-of-the-world relationships with woman. Over the course of the Smiley trilogy I became weary of Smiley’s failed marriage to the absent-but-constantly-asked-about Anne. It became a tic, the tired man’s failed marriage a synecdoche – his failure in this respect, and her betrayals and infidelities in another respect, standing for the multiple betrayals and failures of the milieu, of the spying life as a whole.

There was little of this in A Perfect Spy – or rather Pym’s asides about betraying his wife Mary and the suicide of his father’s Jewish refugee mistress, Lippsie, though they recur like motifs, are swamped by the other highly coloured and varied material.

But in The Russia House with its relatively smaller cast, the periodic narrator – the Service lawyer who gives the false name of Harry – rarely reflects on the action without referring to his oh-so-doomed affair with Hannah, wife of the senior partner at his law firm, and oh the betrayals and oh her long-suffering and oh I wish he would shut up.

‘And, God help me, I think of Hannah again. He has woken the pain of her in me as if she were a brand new wound.’

This self-pitying stance, this attitude of the jaded man of the world sadly lamenting the little lady feels incredibly forced, dated and patronising:

‘Married, Harry?’
‘Not so you’d notice,’ I replied.
‘Hell does that mean.’
‘I have a wife in the country. I live in the town.’
‘Had her long?’
‘Couple of lifetimes,’ I replied. (page 134)

Posh Like all the many 20th century English writers who went to public school (how many of them didn’t?), le Carré can satirise the preposterousness of his class, but he can’t escape it. The tone strays into PG Wodehouse territory. The shabby but pukkah publisher, Barley, whom a Russian dissident has sent secret documents to, is the drunk, jaded owner of a feeble publishing house, in reality funded by his maiden aunts but he went to Harrow, dontcha know? In one scene Harry the narrator is sent to manage the aunts:

I had already squared the sainted aunts [comic reference to the dated exclamation]. Over luncheon at Rules [posh restaurant or club] I had wooed and won [Wodehouse comic hyperbole] the Lady Pandora Weir-Scott [posh], better known to Barley as the Sacred Cow [learnèd joke, geddit] on account of her High Anglican beliefs [who cares which strand of Anglicanism people belong to nowadays: the high Anglicanism is a pointer to class].

[Harry then tells her he’s authorised to award her a bursary for deserving publishers even though there are other contenders.]

‘Well I’m a bloody sight more deserving than anybody,’ [bathos of titled posh girl turning out to be rude and selfish…] Lady Pandora averred, [ironic use of high diction], spreading her elbows wide to get the last scrap out of her lobster […and comically greedy and graceless]. ‘You try running Ammerford [presumably her stately pile] on thirty thousand a year […and comically unself-aware, ignorant of her wealth and privilege].’ (p.136)

Le Carré’s narrators often satirise, in a fairly familiar way, the English upper classes. But they are part of it, they come from the same cloth, with the same assumptions, style, phraseology, in-jokes, public school fetish for games, its anti-intellectualism and, when it really matters, its well-known fondness for treachery and unreliability. In the Russia House an Old Harrovian ends up betraying his country and the surrounding posh boys Harry and Ned sympathise with him. Is anybody wonder the Americans mistrust them?

Paucity of plot Not much happens. The Soviet physicist with his ludicrous talk of changing the world may or may not die a natural death. No-one else dies or is even threatened. British publisher is approached with Russian secrets. British Secret Service coach him to go back to Russia to make direct contact with dissident physicist and get more. Publisher falls in love with physicist’s former lover and turns himself in to the Soviet authorities on condition she is not harmed. She isn’t, he disappears for a while but then reappears in his Lisbon flat where Harry meets him for an all-night chat in which the events recounted in the novel are clarified.

Traitor or not There’s a built-in limitation to the outcome of these kind of books in that it is binary: either they’re a spy or they’re not; either a traitor or loyal. In Tinker Tailor is Haydon, Bland or Esterhase a traitor? In The Perfect Spy is Pym a traitor? In The Russia House will Barley be loyal or a traitor?

I didn’t feel the slightest shred of tension, possibly because the two previous novels had covered similar ground but with much greater psychological depth and variety. By page 300 I quite wanted it to hurry up and be over. Le Carré himself seems to lose interest at the end of the book: the last 20 pages or so are disconnected fragments. The interest, in other words, isn’t in the plot, it lies elsewhere.

World-view It is, I suggest, partly in the posh but jaded, the shabby English milieu of 50-something, public-school-educated white men drinking scotch and gin in embassies and clubs, in safe houses in Hampstead and secret meeting rooms in Whitehall, the world of their cynicism and mutual loathing and their failed marriages and ungrateful children. These are not young people’s books. It is a Daily Telegraph mind-set, of retired military men who think the modern world is going to the dogs.

Pen portraits But the interest is also in le Carré’s phenomenal ability as a writer. Sometimes he’s flat and factual, but sometimes he can turn on a sixpence and conjure magic out of the air. Many pages in his books contain vivid, leaping turns of phrase; a good example is his way with quick devastating portraits of minor characters:

A burly man came tripping down the crazy-paving path to greet us. He wore a blazer of British racing green and a tie with gold squash rackets on it, and a handkerchief shoved into his cuff.
‘You’re from the Firm. Well done. I’m O’Mara…’
O’Mara had grey-blond hair and an off-hand regimental voice cracked by alcohol.His neck was puffy and his athlete’s fingers were stained mahogany with nicotine. (page 222)

There was a knock at the door and Wintle came in, an eternal student of fifty-seven. He was tall but crooked, with a curly grey head that shot off at an angle, and an air of brilliance almost extinguished. He wore a sleeveless Fair Isle pullover, Oxford bags and moccasins. He sat with his knees together and held his sherry glass away from him like a chemical retort he wasn’t sure of. (page 223)

I had to Google Fair Isle pullover and Oxford bags to find out what they were. I suspect they were old-fashioned in the 1980s of loadsamoney and the Stock market Big Bang. Now they’re getting on for needing footnotes, like a lot else in the novels.

Anti-Americanism This is the first of his novels where Americans play a major part and le Carré’s characters pour various forms of scorn on them. They have money the Brits can’t dream of, technology we can’t afford, and it is no surprise when they pretty much take over our contact, our case and our man. And inevitable that they prompt snideness and awe and resentment in the British characters.

… the American interlopers… They wore navy blazers and short hair, and they had a Mormon cleanliness that I found slightly revolting… I looked again at the new Americans, so slight, so trim, so characterless… (page 218)

The implication being that we Brits are the opposite: scruffy, hairy, unshaven, ramshackle and stuffed full of character, which generally seems to mean knowing the rules of cricket and being a drunk. O’Mara and Wintle stand as good examples of the Brits; Bob, Cy, Sheriton and Brady standing for the can-do, gung-ho, over-confident Americans. But our Old Harrovian betrays them too.

Credit

The Russia House by John le Carré, published in 1989 by Hodder & Stoughton. All quotes from the 1990 Coronet paperback edition.

The movie

The novel was swiftly turned into a movie, directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer and released in 1990. Apparently it was one of the first movies to be shot on location in the newly ex-communist Russia.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
%d bloggers like this: