City of Gold by Len Deighton (1992)

Part one – Plot summary

Cairo during the war

Because of the chameleon on the book cover I thought this might be another novel set in South America, the setting of MAMista, but in fact this one is set in wartime Cairo – apparently known back then as the ‘city of gold’ – in January 1942, as Rommel and Montgomery push each other’s armies back and forth across North Africa.

The novel opens with Army Special Investigator, Major Albert Cutler accompanying a soldier, Jimmy Ross (accused of killing a superior officer under fire) back to Cairo by train to stand trial. Cutler has a heart attack giving Ross a golden opportunity to swap clothes, identity cards and so on, and arrive in Cairo masquerading as the special investigator. A confident actor, he hands over Cutler’s body to the officer meeting him at the station, Captain Marker, claiming it is Ross’s. From that point onwards Ross-as-Cutler is on tenterhooks, scared that at any moment his impersonation of the investigator will be discovered by the soldiers surrounding him. Captain Marker escorts him to the Army’s main barracks at Bab el-Hadid, where he is assigned rooms, introduced to his staff, and then shown around town by Marker, who is puzzled as to why he seems so nervous.

By this route we enter the lives of a circle of people living in the Cairo at this moment in history. Peggy West, a good-looking, 30-year-old senior nurse, who lost her only child to illness and whose husband, Karl, has been away on active service in Iraq for eighteen long months. We see her supervising her sometimes difficult or emotional nurses at the Base Hospital, often overcome by the sight of so many dying and mutilated young men.

Peggy relies on money from the slippery Solomon Marx, who lives on a houseboat on the Nile, and who we see talking with his partner, Yigal, in a conversation which seems to reveal that they’re working for the Jewish independence forces in occupied Palestine. Solomon asks Peggy to keep and eye on Prince Piotr Nikoleiovitch Tikhmeibrazoff, a large, imposing Russian émigré who rents the entire top floor at the Hotel Magnifico. Its Italian owner, Lucio wants him out so she can rent the individual rooms at much greater profit to the hordes of Allied officers swarming into the city and looking for stylish bolt-holes. Everybody gossips that the Prince is Rommel’s spy in the city – it is well known that Rommel is getting verbatim reports of British troop deployments from a well-placed spy. But the Prince rises above it all, continuing to host his stylish parties, one of which Ross is taken to by the only woman on his staff at the barracks, the phenomenally posh Alice Stanhope. Alice’s mother, also living in Cairo, knows absolutely everyone dahling.

Meanwhile, in the Lady Fitzherbert brothel in the notorious El Birkeh district of the city, we see two partners in crime, Sergeants Percy and Smith, not their real names, who have booked a room to share the money from their latest deals. But Smith is getting cold feet: the Army appointed a new auditor at his stores who is bound to find out that he’s been embezzling them on a grand scale. As he whines and wails, Deighton surprises us by having Percy move forward, place his hand over his mouth and stab him through the heart with an oriental dagger. A young Arab serving girl looks on while this happens, then goes to fetch towels and cloth to clear up the mess.

All this takes place in the first 60 or so pages of this 320-page novel to set the scene, the location, the atmosphere, to establish quite a large cast of characters, all with secrets or agendas or plans afoot, which the remaining 250 pages will bring to light and work through. I’ve been to Cairo; the city is fairly well evoked, but the dominant impression from these early pages is Deighton’s humourlessness and the flat, blank, factual, heartless way he describes violence and death.

Stereotypes and clichés

So the plus sides are: large cast of characters, intriguing setting, interesting plot arcs, Deighton’s in-depth knowledge of military history, strategy and hardware, and his taut clipped sentences.

Unfortunately, these strengths are related to a number of weaknesses. Many characters, yes, but too many of them are stereotypes, too many of them are famous for x, or a classic example of y, or a stock type of z.

She recognised it as one of Darymple’s stories. His skill as a storyteller was renowned throughout the clubs and bars of Cairo. (p.51)

Jeannie MacGregor’s grand-father had lived in a castle, and through him Jeannie claimed to be a direct descendant of Rob Roy, the famous Scots outlaw. (p.61)

Sayed was a handsome young man. His light-coloured skin and clear blue eyes were said in Cairo to be the legacy of Circassian concubines, women renowned for their beauty. (p.64)

‘I met an old chum in Shepheard’s bar last week. Toby Wallingford, RNVR, a very good pal. I thrashed him countless times at school; he says he still has the scars.’ (p.68)

‘Cleo’s club. Just about every crook and black-marketeer in Cairo visits this place at some time or other.’ (p.75)

‘They call him Zooly; he’s one of the richest men in this town. If you want a tank, or a virgin, or your enemy murdered, he’ll fix it for you – at a price.’ (p.75)

Short clipped sentences, yes, but this means the characters’ feelings or psychology are generally conveyed with crushing bluntness and obviousness. Deighton proved himself a brilliant popular historian with Blitzkrieg and Fighter. His thumbnail sketches of key figures in those histories, eg the tank commander Guderian or Wing Commander ‘Bomber’ Harris are more interesting and thorough than you might expect in a history. But they are nowhere near subtle or nuanced enough to appear in a novel, the form most concerned with psychological development and insight.

You could say that, as novelists go, Deighton is a very good military historian – a writer who is much more at home with the technical specifications of a Messerchmitt 109E or a brisk explanation of Rommel’s attack formation at El Alamein, than with the foibles of the human heart. Again and again you read sentences that might have come from a Mills & Boon novelette, especially when he’s dealing with his female characters. The issue of Peggy West having lost a young baby, thus making her forlorn, seems like something out of Catherine Cookson.

Had the baby lived, everything might have gone differently. (p.56)

It was a glorious smile, the sort of smile that a woman saves for the man she adores. Was it possible that she could fall in love with a man she’d only just met? The answer was yes. (p.97)

She wondered if this man would ever realise that she was desperately in love with him. Everyone who had seen her with him in the last few days seemed to guess. No matter how hard she tried, Alice could not keep it a secret from anyone except from him. (p.100)

She was beautiful, yet shy. She was eternally reticent, yet she knew so much. What a wicked twist of fate that he’d met her at a time like this. (p.98)

Yes, what a wicked, wicked twist of fate.

The plot(s)

Wallingford’s criminal gang

The 20 or so characters intertwine and interact. We have been introduced several times to a Lieutenant Commander Toby Wallingford, a posh boy who went to the same public school as some of the other officers, namely Captain Darymple. Wallingford gives out to his officer colleagues that he’s part of a hush-hush secret unit, often deployed to the front on high risk missions. Now we learn he is in fact a deserter who has set up a smuggling operation. Key to it is Percy, in fact a German deserter, the man we saw murder Smith in one of the opening scenes. Percy knows the position of various German and Italian arms dumps which were abandoned in the last retreat. Thus he is able to navigate Wallingford’s crew of criminals in lorries through the front line on what Wallingford tells everyone are hush-hush missions, to load up the guns and ammo, and drive them back to Cairo to flog on the black market.

One aspect of Wallingford’s operations is to kindly arrange a loan for his superior, Captain Darymple, who is always in debt. Wallingford drives him to a dingy Arab house, where Darymple signs a loan agreement with the cunning old Egyptian ‘banker’ and businessman, Mahmoud. Inevitably, within days, Mahmoud is calling for the short term to be repaid with interest, Darymple is begging Wallingford to help him, and Wallingford is kindly offering to intercede if Darymple will just sign a few forms and arrange the transit of some, er, goods. In other words, he co-opts Darymple into becoming an accessory to his black market organisation.

Another and persisting element is the existence of a massive arms dump, packed with Italian Beretta machines guns, at a place in no man’s land between the armies called Al Jaghbub. Wallingford’s plan is simple: to go and collect them and transport them back to Cairo and sell to Solomon. However, various things go wrong. For a start, we are introduced to a gung-ho American journalist, Harry Wechsler, and his Irish fixer, Chips O’Riley, who somehow get wind of the secret, and undertake a perilous drive out into the desert. Turns out British Army investigators are also there, question Wechsler, then order him to push off. The authorities decide to leave the guns where they are but spike them. Aware they’ve been found, but not of the decision to sabotage them, Wallingford tells Percy he’ll go ahead and sell them to Solomon Marx’s Jewish organisation, but they’ll have to collect them themselves.

Sayed el-Shazli

In a separate strand, Peggy West and Alice take an Army lorry and follow Sayed el-Shazli, a young well-connected Egyptian who’s part of the Prince’s circle, out onto the perilous Western road and then off to an out-of-the-way native village. Ross-as-Cutler had ordered Alice to tail him, thinking it would be a safe assignment around Cairo bars. Alice parks the lorry, tells Peggy to guard it, and walks into the village unaccompanied, ignored by the sullen villagers. Suddenly she realises she’s being followed and the Arab man moves closer then speaks to her. The atmosphere becomes sinister, as she is accompanied to the big house of the village where she finds Sayed and a fat, rich old pasha who proceeds to read her fortune as she sips the tea, becomes woozy and then passes out. I thought something bad might happen to her, but it turns out to be simple heatstroke. Sayed’s people look after her, and then return her to Peggy’s care.

King Farouk

On a higher political and diplomatic level, we see through the eyes of nervous Jimmy Ross the political crisis which flares up when the British diplomats (foolishly, in the opinion of the Army) force young King Farouk to change his government. The crisis atmosphere comes about because it seems as if the King will refuse, in which case the British will force him to abdicate. This is all told from the point of view of Ross who appears in the square in front of the palace at night, the whole city in an atmosphere of great tension, the soldiers on duty who Ross talks to uncertain what is going on. Eventually, in the early hours, Farouk concedes, changes government and remains king. The senior officers, brigadiers and the like that Ross talks to, think it’s all the fault of the damn fool diplomats, that the Army has enough on its plate fighting Rommel out West without having to worry about riots and insurrection back in Cairo.

Sayed’s humiliation

Prince Piotr takes his friends (Sayed, Peggy, Alice, Wallingford, Darymple) to one of Cairo’s swankiest restaurants to celebrate his birthday, partly because he knows the tubby 22-year-old King Farouk will be there (nickname: ‘fatty Farouk’) and he’ll be able to show off his acquaintanceship with him. The king grandly enters with his entourage, emphatically countering the rumours surrounding his abdication and the knife-edge political situation of just a few days before. Alice, Peggy and the other bien-pensant liberals are favourably inclined to him. Half way through the evening he sends over an equerry who conveys very polite birthday felicitations to Prince Piotr, compliments to the ladies, and then addresses Zeinab, the beautiful sister of Sayed: the king requests the honour of a dance. A private dance. At his palace. Leaving in fifteen minutes.

Stricken, tense, muttered conversations ensue, in which the Prince explains that neither Sayed nor Zeinab can refuse this ‘honour’; if they do Sayed will wake up dead at the bottom of the Nile. The Western women are outraged, and suddenly not so fond of the good-looking young king who now makes his exit, returning to the palace to prepare himself for his ‘dance’ with Zeinab. And then she goes mournfully, to be accompanied away by an equerry, in reality a glorified pimp for the fornicating king.

This proves an important turning point in one of the numerous plot strands, because Sayed is so embittered by this public and personal humiliation that he reveals to Alice, then Ross, that he is a member of the illegal Free Officers revolutionary organisation, working to overthrow British rule and establish a free monarchy. Not any more. Now he agrees to spy on it for the British. Alice fixes up a meeting with her boss Ross (all the time masquerading as the dead Special Investigator, Bert Cutler, and increasingly feeling relaxed and comfortable in the role) who conducts a fraught conversation which ends with him producing a blank piece of paper. ‘Write their names’, he says, knowing that once Sayed has crossed that Rubicon, and betrayed his colleagues, there will be no going back.

The tense psychology of spying, interrogation, betrayal, the links between individual behaviour and the broader political scene, descriptions of a lorry driven by nervous criminals making its way through a minefield in the Western desert – all of this is powerfully and persuasively done. It’s the softer, social sides of life, cocktail party chatter, and especially anything to do with women, their thoughts as they try on outfits for the party, their feelings and emotions, and especially his descriptions of falling in love or being in love, where Deighton is at his weakest.

The Jewish plotline

Ross/Cutler’s relationship with his boss, an unpredictable brigadier, is reminiscent of the Ipcress novels and the narrator’s insubordinate opinion of his superiors. There is a hilarious scene two-thirds of the way through where Ross has to listen to his boss banging on about the Jews, about the origin of Christianity, and about Jewish freedom fighters in Palestine. But the Jewish thread is compounded a few pages later when Captain Marker reports to Ross that the American journalist, Wechsler, has posted a long detailed piece to US newspapers explaining how the British used Jewish spies in the Levant from as early as 1940, on a promise to help them secure independence / fight the Arabs. Now the British are reneging on that promise, various underground Jewish organisations are finding ways to secure Axis munitions left in dumps in no man’s land.

These revelations put into context the activities of Solomon Marx and his colleague, who we met early on; they are one of these teams securing arms for the Jewish homeland. It explains the activities of Peggy West, who in a low-level way collects a stipend from Marx for spying for him. It puts in context Wallingford’s plan to flog the Italian machine guns at Al Jaghbub to Solomon which, we now realise, will be passed on to the Haganah or other Jewish militias in Palestine. It explains why the brigadier wants to set up a new unit to monitor Religious Subversives, namely whatever Jewish organisations they can locate. It explains why Captain Marker is riveted to discover, after extensive investigation, that Peggy West’s missing husband, Karl, is in fact a Haganah operative, with a long record of criminal convictions and two escapes from captivity. And explains why Marker decides to help Peggy’s long-expressed wish to find her missing husband; if they trail her, and she finds him, they can arrest him.

The Italian guns

Marker informs Ross that there’s been an incident at the Italian arms dump. Some Arabs turned up and insisted they had authorisation to remove them. The brigadier’s men were a bit trigger happy and the incident degenerated into a shootout in which eight Arabs were killed. So we have this information as we watch Solomon and Yigal drive to an appointment with Mahmoud. Wallingford had sub-contracted collecting the arms to Mahmoud, whose men are the ones who’ve been killed. The interview is tense because Mahmoud is convinced Solomon is in league with the British and partly responsible for the deaths, whereas Solomon doesn’t even understand what’s happened. On leaving the house Solomon and Yigal are arrested by British Army cops who Mahmoud has tipped off in revenge.

The Desert War

The scene then shifts for the last forty pages or so to a forward base in the desert. Captain Darymple has managed to arrange a transfer here, back to his old armoured car brigade, and away from Cairo where he learns there is now a contract out on him for non-repayment of Mahmoud’s debt. Here, by coincidence arrives Wallingford, along with Percy and a gang of his criminals. They are planning to go forward to steal more munitions from the desert. At the same time, Ross-as-Cutler arrives to seek help from the commanding officer. And also here is the ubiquitous Harry Wechsler and his gofer, Chips, wanting to see some real action for a change.

All these strands come together when the Germans make their presence felt and threaten to attack. The entire unit is ordered to withdraw, lorries, armoured cars and all. Their commanding officer, nickname Thunder, is just admiring the size and power of Wechsler’s V-8-powered lorry when it runs over a mine, exploding, killing Chips outright, fatally crushing Wechsler behind the engine block, burning and crippling all the passengers. The medic helps out as best he can before the rest of the convoy continues on to their main base.

Here, there are dramatic scenes as the commander in chief, Anderson, lets Wallingford know in no uncertain terms that he knows that Walingford and most of his men are deserters and criminals: they’ll be given guns to fight against the advancing Germans, but no forgiveness or amnesty, and all he can offer them is a decent burial.

The entire Wallingford gang plotline is over in a stroke. As part of this round-up Ross-as-Cutler goes to arrest Percy who he suspects (correctly) of being German. But Percy makes a break for it and runs off, scrambling up the nearest sand dune. Ross chases him, up sand dunes then down into a dry, hard, creviced valley bottom, all the time coming under fire from the German positions which are less than a kilometre away. Finally he rugby tackles him and starts violently beating him. An armoured car arrives, German rifle bullets pinging off it, sent by the commanding officer, and Ross pushes Percy into it and it returns them to the base. Here Ross interrogates Percy and finally cracks the ‘Rommel’s spy’ case which has hung over the whole novel.

The spy isn’t Percy, who is simply the low-level crook and black marketeer we’ve been led to believe. But before he deserted, Percy worked on Rommel’s signals unit, and here he had access to the signals being sent by the spy. So he is able to tell Ross that the information is being sent by an Axis spy within the US embassy in Cairo, the Americans being given privileged access to all British troop movements and strategy. Aha.

In the last page of this section, Ross has himself handcuffed to Percy, as they prepare for the final German assault, and tells him one of the commander’s staff has orders to shoot them both if the compound is over-run (to prevent knowledge that they know about the master spy, from being revealed to the enemy).

Tying up the threads

The setting cuts away to Cairo.

1. Alice is informed that Ross is alive. Just. He and the survivors of the unit were found some days after the Germans attacked and wiped them out. Almost all of them were dead, in fact the patrol thought Ross was dead, with badly burnt legs and exposure. But he was alive, still handcuffed to the dead Percy. She rushes to be by his side, convinced now that she loves him.

2. Ross is recovering in bed when visited by his ever-efficient adjutant in Special Investigations, Ponsonby. Unfortunately, when he was brought in he was so delirious that he gave his true name (Ross) to his rescuers, was tagged as such all the way to the hospital, where questions started to be asked. Ooops. They know he is Corporal Jimmy Ross; they know he was only masquerading as Major Cutler.

But Ponsonby has carried on being loyal to him and, it is implied, the brigadier has turned a blind eye while Ponsonby worked bureaucratic wonders. Ross has been declared dead some months ago, his death certificate associated with Cutler’s corpse from the train. But now ‘Cutler’ has also been declared dead, thus neatly solving the problem from an administrative point of view: for if the truth ever came out, that Ross had managed to fool all those people, including his superior, for so many months, everyone involved would look a complete ass. Better that ‘Cutler’ dies, and dies a hero, in the desert, giving his life fighting the Hun. And to those in the know, making the breakthrough with the Rommel spy case.

Ross will be given a completely new identity and packed off out east somewhere, India, Burma. Ross is briefly miffed that he won’t get any recognition for unmasking Rommel’s spy, but then is grateful to be free. Well, still in the army… Alice arrives full of love. Presumably their romance will blossom…

3. Peggy West arrives at Solomon’s houseboat after dark. She finds him badly wounded, sitting in the dark. He and Yigal were ambushed by Mahmoud’s men. Yigal is dead. A felucca of his people, the Jewish underground, is coming to rescue them. While they wait Peggy tries to clean and bind his wound. Solomon tells her that her husband, Karl, is dead. Maybe he only ever wanted the British passport. In a last gesture Solomon tells Peggy he’s giving her the houseboat. Its name is City of Gold. 

Peggy helps Solomon into the felucca which starts up an outboard and putters away in the dark night. Moments later soldiers arrive led by Captain Marker. He was the officer who met Ross-Cutler all those months earlier on his arrival in Cairo station. During the ‘trouble with Jews’ conversations he had mentioned to Ross that he was himself Jewish. Now we, Peggy and his own soldiers strongly suspect he has timed his ‘arrest’ of Solomon just too late to actually capture him. And, after his men have searched the houseboat and found nothing, he sends them away, and settles down for a drink with Peggy. She is realising she has no husband, no ties, a new property (the houseboat) maybe she can stretch her wings and live a free life for the first time. Marker finds her especially attractive and they flirt. Maybe their story, too, will have a happy ending.

Conclusion

The last 100 pages or so really pick up pace and intensity, Deighton’s clipped style well-suited to situations of men deceiving, double crossing and manipulating each other, to the edginess of combat situations, to moments of violence and physical action – like the lorry blown up by a mine and its grisly aftermath, or Ross’s desperate pursuit of Percy across the sand dunes under enemy fire.

It is the intensity of these closing scenes which stays in the memory and persuades you this was a good thriller, helping you to forget the first two hundred pages of social chit-chat, party conversation and attempts to convey a feminine perspective on emotions and feelings, which are a lot less convincing.

El Alamein

Throughout the book, there has been a continuous chorus of characters speculating about whether and when Rommel will reach Cairo, and the more thoughtful of them predicting that, if he does, the entire Middle East will fall to the Germans, who will then be able to push north and reinforce their forces fighting in Russia and, ultimately, win the war. (Deighton is, of course, no stranger to counter-factual speculation as one of his most successful novels, SS-GB, describes what England would feel like after the Nazis had in fact invaded and conquered us.) The speculation is in part fuelled by rumours that Rommel knows everything the British Army is planning to do before it does it, and therefore to win victory after victory. Therefore, the discovery by Ross that the enemy is getting their information from sources inside the US Embassy is absolutely vital.

Deighton tops and tails the narrative with quotes from a history of codebreaking which confirm that Rommel’s victories were in part based on these intelligence tip-offs – and that they abruptly stopped in the summer of 1942, therefore leaving him, for the first time, blind about British intentions.

A few months after the narrative ends, in October 1942, there took place the decisive battle of the Desert War, and one of the great battles of the entire war – the battle of El Alamein. Deighton has seeded clues about it by having characters refer to stopovers there, for Alamein was just an insignificant train stop in the desert until this historic event made its name famous. It was here that the British decisively beat Rommel and pushed his Afrika Corps into retreat. The very last lines quote Churchill as saying that, before El Alamein we never had a victory; but after El Alamein, we never had a defeat.

This places Jimmy Ross’s behaviour in impersonating a Special Investigator so thoroughly that he begins to solve his cases, and in particular his heroic chasing of the German deserter Percy across desert dunes under enemy fire, and, back at the base, his beating out of Percy the truth about the sources of Rommel’s intelligence – in a completely new light. In case it wasn’t obvious, Deighton is implying that Ross played a decisive role in winning the war. It is an example of Deighton’s super-dry humour that this entire novel makes a stroppy criminal corporal from Glasgow turn out to be a figure of world historical importance.


Part Two – First and third person narrators

If my summary of City of Gold seems a bit chaotic, if it’s hard to grasp who the lead characters are, I think this is a strategy or effect which Deighton deliberately seeks. In all his third-person novels characters are killed off almost on a whim because most of those novels, especially the ones about war (Bomber, Goodbye Mickey Mouse, SSGB) seek to depict the horrifying arbitrariness of accidents, pain and death.

In most of Deighton’s fiction – rather like in ‘real life’ – you are deliberately kept guessing which characters are ‘important’ and which ones are going to die horribly grisly deaths. As in ‘real life’, there’s a large cast and wildly unpredictable things happen ie the heart attack in the first chapter of City of Gold or Wechsler, who I was just getting to like, being killed in the blown-up lorry. In his 3rd-person narratives, it is as if Deighton is trying to teach his readers a lesson about how bloody awful life is.

This is one of the things which makes the first-person narratives so different from the third-person ones. In the third-person narratives, the narrator is rather formal and anything can happen, horrible unpredictable things can happen at any moment. It is a tense experience reading them, and often upsetting.

By contrast, the first-person narratives eg the Ipcress novels, the first-person Bernard Samson narratives or a novel like Violent Ward, feel warmer and funnier for several reasons, but a main one is because you are on the solid ground of knowing that at least the narrator himself is not going to be blown up in a lorry, cut down in a jungle ambush, vapourised by ack ack fire, or any of the numerous other fates awaiting characters in the 3rd-person texts.

Deighton is happier in the first-person narratives, and so is the reader.

City of Gold Dramatis personae

THE BRITISH ARMY

Major Albert Cutler – Army Special Investigator, recruited from Glasgow police force, accompanying Corporal Jimmy Ross in handcuffs back to Cairo for trial for assaulting an officer under fire, when he has a heart attack and dies.

Corporal Jimmy Ross, also from Scotland, is travelling in custody of Major Cutler until the latter has a heart attack, whereupon Jimmy gets the keys to the handcuffs, frees himself and swaps clothes and identity cards with Cutler. When the train arrives in Cairo Ross confidently adopts Cutler’s identity, handing over the body to Captain Marker and being escorted to his new offices in the huge Bab el-Hadid barracks. He was hoping he could do a runner and disappear into the Cairo crowds but now finds himself trapped in his new identity. But after a nervous few days he discovers that everyone accords an Army Special Investigator lots of respect, he discovers he likes ordering around other officers, having a slavish assistant (Sergeant Ponsonby) and very much likes the only woman on his staff, the stunning Alice Stanhope. He finds excuses to be near her, and gives in to her requests to actually do something instead of hanging round looking decorative. Thus he lets her follow Sayed, the personable, western-educated young Egyptian who is part of their social circle, a simple request which becomes complicated when she finds herself driving out to an isolated village and then surrounded by threatening armed men… In the event it is Sayed’s home village and she is perfectly safe. Through various encounters, at work and at the various cocktails parties described in the first half of the novel, we watch her and
Ross fall in love. As the months go by he begins to use his powers to seriously track down Rommel’s spy who everyone is talking about. This eventually leads him to the Western Desert where he tracks down Percy, the German deserter who is part of Major Wallingford’s criminal gang, and beats the truth out of him, before himself being badly wounded in a German attack on the Allied base. Badly burned and half dead, Ross is recovered after the battle is over, and brought back to hospital in Cairo.

Sergeant Ponsonby – ever efficient adjutant, always ready with his disgusting tea made with cloying evaporated milk, always ready with the correct file and always shifting responsibility for dodgy tasks, missions and reports onto other units so as to keep his boss squeaky clean. He carries on being super efficient even after, right at the end of the novel, it is revealed that Ross has been impersonating Cutler all along. Ponsonby manages all the paperwork so that Ross can remain free (although in the Army), assume a new identity, and start a new career out East.

The brigadier – Ross-Cutler’s superior at the Bab el-Hadid barracks. He is eccentric and unpredictable – as demonstrated in a long and very funny scene in the last third of the novel, when he prattles on about Jewish conspiracies and links it somehow to the founding of Christianity by that rascal, St Paul.

Captain Lionel Marker – Ross’s number one, the upright, punctilious officer who meets Ross at Cairo station and is taken in by him from the start, who escorts him around Cairo, introducing him to its criminal and ethnic communities, as well as to the polite society of various bars and hotels and into the elite social circle gather round Prince Piotr. When the issue of Jewish spies securing arms for the Jewish forces in Occupied Palestine rears its head, Marker points out to his boss, Ross, that he, Marker, is Jewish. This doesn’t bother Ross one way or the other, but it may explain the slight undercurrent when Marker, early on in the novel, is tasked with searching Solomon Marx’s houseboat, along with all the other houseboats moored along the Nile, for guns or other smuggled goods. At the very end of the novel, he definitely arrives to carry out another search of The City of Gold just after Solomon has left. Moreover, we know that Peggy West was married to a Jew and considers herself part Jewish. This may or may not explain the mild flirtation that Marker feels relaxed enough to begin with Peggy right at the end of the novel.

Captain Robin Darymple (page 50) – dashing public school chap who knew Wallingford at school and finds himself blackmailed, via his gambling debts, into getting involved in Wallingford’s shady schemes.

Lieutenant Commander Wallingford RNVR (page 76) Public school chap who happens to have deserted his unit and uses his public school connections (with, among others, Darymple) to maintain the fiction that he is commander of a hush-hush secret unit tasked with carrying our daring raids out behind enemy lines. Giving himself a naval rank was a smart move, since naval records are stored in Alexandria and difficult for Cairo Army intelligence to access. Wallingford is actually running a black market racket with a bunch of other deserters and Sergeant Percy, masquerading as a South African, in fact a deserter from the German Army.

Mogg and Powell, two deserters who are part of Wallingford’s gang.

Sergeant Percy is a German deserter. His unit was completely decimated in an Allied advance and so he walked East into our arms but managed to escape capture, dressing in British Army gear, pretending to be a South African and finding his way into ‘Major’ Wallingford’s criminal gang of black marketeers. He becomes an invaluable source for the location of various ammo dumps which he leads Wallingford’s gang to in the desert, which they can load up, drive back to Cairo and sell. Nonetheless, he has an uneasy relationship with Wallingford, having announced that it will soon be time for him to leave the gang, and I spent some time wondering whether this would lead to a fight, shootout or brutal stabbing, as in the early brothel scene. Instead, the entire Wallingford storyline comes to an abrupt end when they are revealed for the crooks they are in a British forward base which is then attacked by the Germans. We hear nothing more of Wallingford and can assume, as Ponsonby says in the hospital much later, that he like everyone else in the base was killed. But not before Ross, who is also there, chases Percy, captures him and beats the truth out of him about Rommel’s spy being a senior official in the US Embassy in Cairo. When the rescuing troops reach the destroyed base they find the badly injured and unconscious Ross still handcuffed to Percy, who is dead.

Lieutenant Andy Anderson (page 54) A blunt-spoken Yorkshireman who’s risen from sergeant in 12 months of hard fighting, and now commands the unit out in the desert where the novel reaches its climax: where Harry Wechsler and his gofer Chips, Jimmy Ross, and Wallingford and his black market team, all find themselves as the Germans launch an attack.

THE WOMEN

Alice Stanhope (page 46) Phenomenally posh and very attractive daughter of the woman who knows everyone, who has got her a job in the British Army investigations department, where she comes under Ross-Cutler’s authority, on the condition she doesn’t actually do any dangerous work, preferably no work at all. She chafes at these restrictions and so Ross, who is badly smitten by her beauty and grace, first makes her his personal assistant, then gives in and gives her some elementary trailing to do. A lot later, at the end of the novel, she is in agonies waiting to find out what happened to the forward unit she knows Ross was off to visit and whether he’s still alive. As soon as she knows he is, she runs off to visit him, in what promises to blossom into a wartime romance.

Peggy West (page 30) A good-looking, 30-year-old senior nurse. She married a Jewish man, Karl, in the 1930s and came to Egypt looking for adventure. Karl was despatched to Iraq on a five-year contract protecting oil wells, and she hasn’t seen for 18 months. We meet her as she collects a small stipend from Solomon al-Masri, which the latter claims comes from Karl. Deighton spends a lot of time describing her background, her parents’ hopes for her, the difficulties in her married life, but she doesn’t come alive for me as a character. She becomes a sort of chaperone figure to Alice Stanhope through the middle of the book. Near the end she visits the City of Gold houseboat to find Solomon Marx badly wounded in a shootout with Mahmoud’s men. She helps him leave, during which he hands over ownership of the houseboat to her, so that she greets Captain Marker, who arrives to search the houseboat, as its new owner, with a heady sense of freedom and the strong hint that they might be about to become an item.

Karl West – A Jew who marries Peggy and then disappears off to Iraq, allegedly on a five year oil contract. Solomon al-Masri claims to receive money from Karl which he forwards to Peggy but Peggy wonders if it’s just a way of getting her to spy for Solomon. Near the end of the novel, Captain Marker’s investigations show him that Karl is in fact a crook with a long criminal record, some of it connected to the Haganah and Stern Gangs in Palestine. He also discovers that Karl is dead.

Jeannie MacGregor (page 61) One of the nurses under Peggy West’s command.

THE JEWS

Solomon al-Masri, real name Solomon Marx (page 30) Lives on a houseboat on the Nile, which he has named The City of Gold. He and his partner, Yigal, are working for Jewish independence forces in occupied Palestine, sourcing information about the British, the Germans, the Arabs, where they can, and arranging the purchase and shipment of arms to the Jewish militias in Palestine. Wallingford, the black marketeer, over various scenes, tries to arrange the sale of Italian machine guns from an arms dump in the desert to Solomon. When Wallingford refuses to deliver them in person (knowing the British Army have seized them) Solomon in good faith commissions Mahmoud and his men to do it. But they are shot and eight killed by the Brits, making Mahmoud think it was a trap. Which explains why, when Solomon and Yizgal motor over to Mahmoud’s house, tucked away down Cairo’s narrow medieval streets, they are greeted very coldly and emerge from a puzzling meeting to be arrested by the British police who have been tipped off by Mahmoud. At the end of the novel Peggy West finds Mahmoud slumped in his unlit houseboat, late at night, having been badly wounded in an assassination attempt by Mahmoud’s men. A felucca of his people arrive and unload the badly wounded man who, in parting gesture, gifts Peggy the houseboat and reveals what she’s suspected – her husband is long dead. She is a free woman.

Yigal Arad (page 40) Palestinian born Jew and Solomon’s partner in their mission to get information and guns for their Jewish masters in Palestine.

THE ARABS

Mahmoud is a cunning old Egyptian ‘banker’ and businessman. We seem him in league with Major’ Wallingford, lending Datymple money solely to snare him in Wallingford’s schemes. We also learn that Solomon sub-contracted collecting the Italian Beretta machine guns from the oasis to Mahmoud for an appreciable sum. What Solomon didn’t realise is that the British Army had already found and claimed the cache. Therefore when Mahmoud’s men arrive to collect it they find themselves stopped, questioned and then fired upon by the Brits. Eight men die. Which explains why he greets Solomon and Yigal very coldly when they go to exchange payment, why he tips off the British police to arrest them both and then, at the end of the novel, is responsible for an assassination attempt on Solomon.

Sayed el-Shazli (page 64) Personable young westernised Egyptian who lives in the same hotel as Prince Piotr and so has become part of his social circle. He’s a student at the American University and an Egyptian Army reserve officer, but also active in a secret organisation of Egyptian Army officers who are planning to overthrow British rule and establish King Farouk on the throne of an independent Egypt. But after the King arrogantly commands his sister to attend him at his palace for a royal rogering, the bitterly humiliated Sayed agrees to become a spy on his independence organisation for the British.

Zeinab el-Shazli (page 64) Stunningly beautiful sister of Sayed. Her main function is to be propositioned by King Farouk’s staff in a stylish nightclub and, since she can’t refuse, going off with them, much to the anger of the white ladies present.

King Farouk Nicknamed ‘Fatty Farouk’, The 22-year-old king chafes at British rule over his country, nominally a free independent nation. But meanwhile he has time and money to live a sumptuous lifestyle and, as the Zeinab storyline shows, commandeer women for his pleasure.

THE ÉMIGRÉS

Prince Piotr Nikoleiovitch Tikhmeibrazoff (page 65) Large, tall, imposing Russian émigré who rents a whole floor at the Hotel Magnifico. He was abroad when his father died and he inherited vast estates, and when the Revolution broke out and he lost them all. He claims a general’s rank on doubtful grounds, lives magnificently and is widely – and incorrectly – thought to be Rommel’s spy in the city.

Lucia Magnifico (page 50) Daughter of Signor Mario Magnifico who founded the hotel of the same name in Cairo, where Prince Piotr now occupies an entire floor.

Harry Wechsler – Gung-ho American journalist, not particularly friendly to the Brits, pointing out that the US is now funding their war effort while the Brits are managing to lose everywhere. He is shrewd enough to figure out there’s some kind of scam surrounding arms dumps in the desert, and writes a long op-ed piece which gets published in American newspapers, explaining how the Brits gratefully used Jewish intelligence resources in Palestine and the wider Middle East at the start of the war, and promised help with the creation of a Jewish homeland. Now the Brits are trying to wriggle out of their promises, with the result that the Jewish organisations are engaged in securing arms from any source possible, preparing for the upcoming war with the Arabs, and this includes using agents like Solomon to secure abandoned weaponry. He’s following up on this story at a forward unit in the desert which comes under German attack. Leading a convoy of armoured cars and lorries, at the wheel of his own V 8-powered lorry, Wechsler runs over a German mine. Chips is killed instantly and Wechsler loses his legs and is impaled by various bits of the engine. He survives long enough to experience unbearable pain, before being given an overdose of morphine by the unit’s unqualified medical officer.

Chips O’Riley – Irish soldier, journalist who’s found a niche as a fixer and gofer and attaches himself to Wechsler. Has some witty repartee before being killed instantly in the lorry blown up by a mine.


Credit

City of Gold published by Pluriform Publishing in 1992. All page references are to the 1993 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

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

Winter by Len Deighton (1987)

‘And how would Himmler benefit?’
‘If Fritsch went, the Reihsführer-SS would also take the opportunity to extend his powers.’
‘Himmler, extend his powers? My God, the fellow has taken over all the police forces in Germany. And now he’s expanded this SS army of his to two regiments, plus a combat-engineer company and a communications unit.’ (Winter p.339)

‘I like diagrams.’ (Len Deighton, interview January 2014)

The Deighton Dossier seems to be the main site on the internet dedicated to Len and his work and contains lots of fascinating material, including a bunch of interviews from recent years. Reading through these one thing comes over loud and clear, which is Len’s fascination with technology. Whether it’s the early computers and word processors he wrote his novels on (an interest crystallised in Billion Dollar Brainwhich is about a vast super-computer), or the technical histories of tanks and warplanes which are at the heart of his two classic history books (Blitzkrieg and Fighter), Len is warmly sympathetic to the designers and engineers who overcame practical obstacles with inventiveness and creativity (and often critical of the politicians and senior civil servants who frequently made a complete shambles of deploying these wonderful machines).

This knowledge of Len’s profound interest in engineering, design, diagrams, maps, charts and technical details coloured my reading of Winter. This is by far Len’s longest book, an ‘epic’ novel describing the lives, loves and destinies of several German families – the wealthy parents, the sons and daughters, the husbands and wives, the friends and relations – from 1899 to 1945 ie through the Great War, the Weimar Republic, the rise of Hitler and World War Two.

Winter is very readable, being written in Len’s characteristic no-nonsense, factual style. It is packed to the gills with eye-witness accounts of world important historical moments and never misses an opportunity to reference the key technical, military, political and cultural events at each stage of the story. And this is part of the problem. It feels too schematic. Information trumps character.

Plot

Prosperous German industrialist Harry Winter has an American wife, Victoria Rensselaer, a mistress in Vienna and two blonde sons, Peter (b.1896) and Paul, born on the first day of the new century. The text jumps briskly between snapshots of key events in their lives, the chapters simply named after the relevant years (1899, 1900, 1906, 1908 etc).

We read about their privileged childhood in the Edwardian years and move swiftly to the outbreak of the Great War and their differing careers as soldiers. While slim elegant Peter remains an aloof officer, stocky clumsy Pauli serves in the trenches and, on one fateful occasion, breaks the rules to visit his brother behind the lines. This breach of discipline could be punished by death but instead he is consigned to a punishment battalion, then to a stormtrooper unit, which turns him a hardened fighter.

In the chaos of post-war Germany Paul finds himself drawn into the Freikorps, the anarchic militias of generally right-wing soldiers, formed to combat the communists in the street battles which shook many German cities. We meet Pauli’s friend Alex Horner; their tough bastard NCO, Brand, who helps get Pauli punished and then becomes a rising star in the Nazi movement; another tough soldier, Graf, who goes on to become a power in the Sturmabteilung.

We also meet Victoria’s American family, her father Cyrus and her adventurous brother, Glenn. One summer, back when the boys were still small the dinghy they were learning to sail in was blown out to sea, they both pitched over board and were likely to drown until saved by the rough, crude, son of a local pig farmer, Fritz Esser. Their paths are to cross and cross again as Esser also becomes a power in the Nazi Party, rising to become a senior adviser to Heinrich Himmler.

We meet the three pretty daughters of Frau Wisliceny: Inge worships Peter but Peter loves Lisl but Lisl marries Erich Hennig, the smarmy boy who rivals Peter at their shared skill of piano playing. Peter then breaks Inge’s heart by marrying an American woman (like his mother), Lottie Danziger, daughter of an American Jewish businessman. Inge, after years of mourning this decision, to everyone’s surprise abruptly marries the other brother, Pauli, in a whirlwind romance. Her support helps Pauli through his training as a lawyer and then as his early contacts with the Nazis evolve into full-time employment as a senior Nazi lawyer. Much later, disillusioned and cynical, she has a prolonged adulterous affair with Fritz Esser.

Problems

There is no denying the range of characters and the cleverness of the network of relationships Deighton builds up between them. It is a phenomenal feat of planning to map out the lives not only of the main players but of the thirty or so minor characters whose paths cross and recross the central narrative, and to dovetail all of them with the complex political events of these fraught years.

There is no denying Deighton’s extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the period, his grasp of the political, military and technological developments year by year, the sheer depth of  his research. If Len says the weather was terrible on Sunday April 10 1932, the day of the second presidential election, with pelting rain in Berlin (p.271), then you can bet the house this was the case and that Len has checked and double checked it. But:

a) Overfamiliarity I did the rise of Hitler for O-Level 40 years ago. My son did it for GCSE 3 years ago. My daughter is doing it this year. We are in the middle of the 100 year commemorations of the Great War, with the BBC and umpteen other outlets following the events day by day. A month ago was the 70th anniversary of VE Day, with ceremonies involving the Queen, and all autumn there are shows around the country involving flypasts of the remaining World War Two planes. All these events are marked by TV, radio, newspaper and magazine coverage. In other words – the political and military events surrounding the build up to, and the prosecution of, the First and Second World Wars, must be the most intensively written-about and repeatedly dramatised, described, raked over and discussed historical period in our culture. It is a very very familiar story.

b) Overschematic This tends to give the entire narrative an inevitable, predictable character. It is 1908, so the characters are at the Baltic Sea watching the Kaiser’s fleet of Dreadnoughts and wondering about German’s naval rivalry with Britain. July 1914? The characters are feeling tense about Russia’s mobilisation; surely this Balkan nonsense will blow over. Spring 1918? Could the two boys in different parts of the German Army be about to be swept up in the German Spring Offensive? Yep. Christmas 1918? Is it all over, and our boys are eye witnesses to German society collapsing into chaos with the Army fighting communist insurgents on the street. 1924? Are we going to learn how the Winter family has survived the appalling hyperinflation (very well) and their views on Hitler’s 1923 Munich Putsch? Yes. 1929, could one of the characters be directly involved in the Wall Street Crash (yes, old man Danziger (Peter’s father-in-law) who commits suicide when he loses everything).

The new trends and fashions sweeping Europe? Let’s give Pauli a glitzy birthday party featuring young women sporting the new ‘flapper’ look and a band playing the new ‘jazz’ music. Does the novel need insight into the extraordinary cultural turmoil and creativity of the era? Let’s have Peter the piano-playing Army officer very unexpectedly get a job playing piano for Bertolt Brecht’s theatre company, so he can tell stories about Brecht’s genius at directing and play the latest numbers written by Kurt Weill. Hey, here’s a new one called Mack the Knife!

And so it goes on in a rather inevitable way, perilously close to a dramatisation of the BBC Bitesize guide to German history. 1930 election giving the Nazis 100 seats in the Reichstag? The characters express their various levels of disbelief. 1933 election of Hitler as Chancellor? In various conversations the characters react. Pauli is an eye-witness to the Night of the Long Knives in July 1934: he personally accompanies Hitler, Goebbels and others to the hotel where Röhm and the other SA leaders are hiding out; he gives legal advice about how the sentencing and execution can be speeded up and then he watches his old colleague from the War, Graf, be shot by firing squad.

Indeed the two brothers, Peter and Paul, have an uncanny knack for being in exactly the right place at the right time. When the Army is ordered to storm the Kaiser’s Palace in Berlin to evict the drunken sailors who have taken it over (1919), Pauli is at hand to persuade big, bear-like Fritz Esser to leave the sailors who he’s spent most of the war promoting communist propaganda among, and to join Pauli and his fellow officer Alex Horner, in the new right-wing Freikorps.

This latter incident is typical of the way you feel the characters are manipulated to fit the events. I found it frankly unbelievable that Esser, the angry, illiterate son of the village pig man who’s spent most of the war as a communist agent provocateur, could be persuaded to abandon his comrades at the moment of their greatest peril to go on a Berlin pub crawl with Pauli and then, what the hell, join the proto-Fascist Freikorps. Once the deed is done he swiftly rises to become the Adjutant and admin to the Berlin Freikorps commander and, further down the line, right hand man to Heinrich Himmler.

This is phenomenally convenient to the narrative because it means Fritz can drop into Pauli’s apartment at will for the rest of the novel and tell him the latest about senior Nazi machinations, for example Himmler’s consolidation of power via the SS. Much later it allows him to spell out the tentative peace feelers Himmler puts out towards the end of the war, and the various unsuccessful conspiracies to assassinate the Führer.

Fitz’s repeated visits are given the fictional pretext of him having a long-running affair with Pauli’s wife, Inge. Maybe so. The affair is fairly well portrayed or repeatedly described – but I didn’t believe in it half as much as I believed Fritz’s insights into political and historical events, which seemed immediate and convincing. Information trumps character.

No doubt people’s beliefs were fluid in this chaotic period and real people did make astonishing and unexpected changes of belief and loyalty. But you expect a novel to explore the psychology of these characters, of their allegiances and beliefs. You could argue that a novel is useful insofar as it sheds light on the minds of others. This novel doesn’t do that so much. The characters are dexterously moved and manipulated to allow us to be eye witnesses to key events, and to witness the changing political currents of the period. Their motivation, their psychology, comes second.

Early in the novel we see how the brothers’ father, Harald Winter the banker, gains a parcel of land in Bavaria after the suicide of a Jew who owed the bank money. Anybody who knows about the subject will smile when they read it is near the pretty village of Berchesgarten, because we know this is where Hitler was to build his rural Bavarian hideaway. And sure enough, 300 pages later, Pauli and Peter are invited, along with his other neighbours, for an audience at Hitler’s house, after the Nazi Party has gained its first big election victory. Paul and Inge go so we can get a first-hand account of Hitler’s rambling speeches and compulsive mannerisms. But – true to the schematic, diagrammatic nature of the narrative – Peter refuses to go on the insistence of his Jewish wife, Lottie.

One brother has married Jew, one has married Aryan, with predictable divergence of destinies: German Inge insists Hitler’s speeches are all hot air designed to appeal to the sentimental German soul; Lottie the Jewess says, ‘But can’t you hear the genuine hatred of the Jews in his speeches?’ It is a problem that the different views don’t have the same imaginative weight: we overwhelmingly know which one was right, there is no imaginative freedom to choose between characters, the weight of history presses us down on one side.

Schematic conversations

Thus too many conversations relate schematically to the timeline and bear little relation to either the characters or to how people actually talk. ‘Have you heard about the Munich Beerhall Putsch?’ ‘You mean the attempt by the crazy man Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party to take over the regional government by force? Thank goodness it failed and he and all his colleagues were arrested!’ ‘Yes, but did you hear he wasn’t sentenced to hard labour, the judge gave him a six month sentence in good conditions and I hear he is dictating his masterwork, Mein Kampf which will set out his core beliefs and ideas for a Nazi-run Germany!’ That’s a caricature but lots of the conversations veer in that direction:

‘Pauli couldn’t come. Pauli’s packing to go off to Vienna…’
‘Vienna? So the Anschluss is happening?’
‘At dawn tomorrow, our troops cross the border. Please God the Austrians don’t start shooting.’ (p.342)

Or sound like Wikipedia articles rewritten into dialogue.

‘They’re not tanks at all,’ complained von Kleindorf, thumping the thin steel of the PzKw IA with his fist. ‘Five metres long, and armed with nothing better than a couple of machine guns. The damned thing only weighs six tons!’ (p.346)

Moral development

Literature courses teach that the classic novel deals with ‘morality’ and this long novel shows in detail how people lived under the Nazis and came to accommodations with them or thrived. One aspect of the novel is to suggest to the reader how any of us would continue to live, seek promotion or take opportunities under a regime which leads us step by step into horror.

The main vehicle for this ‘moral’ thread is Paul, initially the hesitant, clumsy, younger son, who ends up becoming a proficient lawyer and, when his lay clients dry up a bit, takes on work for the local Nazi office in Berlin and finds himself becoming more and more indispensable.

It is Paul who suggests how Hitler can concentrate power in his hands after the death of President Hindenburg by leaving the office of President permanently vacant and superseding it with office of Führer. It is Pauli who devises a short form of sentencing for the SS executioners to quickly mutter before they murder the top brass of the SA in the Night of The Long Knives. And then, very casually, it is mentioned that it is the quiet, patient lawyer Pauli who writes a paper suggesting that the newly formed concentration camps could and should become economically self-sufficient – which helps spur the organisational structure and purpose of the camps right across Europe.

And, in the only really chilling moment of the novel (I have read too many books and seen too many movies about the Holocaust or the fighting in Russia to be shocked by many of this book’s revolting details) Pauli admits that he was only able to prevent Peter’s Jewish wife Lottie being sent to a concentration camp by swapping her identity papers with his father – Harald’s – Jewish mistress in Vienna, Martha. In an electrifying scene Pauli is forced to admit what he has done to his own father who, with hatred in his voice, bans him for the family house or from ever visiting him again.

In such a vast and compendious novel other readers may well find scenes which horrify and move them, but that one did it for me.

Narrative voice

Deighton’s Bernard Samson spy novels are so enjoyable because they are told in the first person in a voice which is persuasively warm and human (lots of stuff about his wife and kids and sister-in-law etc), ironic and questioning (about his espionage work) and, from time to time, dryly funny (especially about his dim Oxbridge bosses). The convoluted plots are – for me – secondary to this very readable voice and to the reassuringly familiar, sitcom-ish quality of the small group of bickering characters who crop up in each book. If the novels are sometimes rather dry and lacking in emotion and depth, well, that can be put down to the narrator’s costive character.

It is in novels told in the third person that Deighton’s lack of interest in the subtlety of human psychology becomes a bit more obvious. In Goodbye, Mickey Mouse, whereas the technical descriptions of the American fighter pilots, procedures and planes are totally convincing, the main emotional relationships – between Jamie Farebrother and his father, and Jamie and his lover – are contrived and unconvincing, and Deighton’s attempts to bring them out, to describe them and extract from them generalisations about human nature, a little trite and superficial.

This novel, Winter, falls into the second camp, the factually super-researched, emotionally underpowered third-person narratives: fascinating in their skilled retelling of technical and historical detail, reassuringly familiar in ticking off all those GCSE Important Dates – often weak in terms of human psychology and characterisation.

Characters from the Bernard Samson books

Winter has the added attraction for Deighton fans of being the fourth in the series of novels about jaded spy Bernard Samson. As the story unfolds we read, with a thrill of recognition, names of characters we have come to know very well in the first trilogy of Samson novels, because we are reading about their parents.

Thus Harald Winter has married into the Rensselaer family, which makes Veronica’s brother, Glenn, Peter and Paul’s uncle. But it is another branch of the family we’re interested in, for when Glenn and Veronica’s mother dies, their father marries again, and it is one of the step-mother’s three children who has a child who will become the Bret Rensselaer who features so prominently in the Samson novels.

It is a thunderbolt when Samson’s father, Brian, makes his first appearance as an enthusiastic young intelligence officer on page 275. He goes on to play a more and more prominent role in the story as he is put in charge of Peter Winter. Peter had been visiting America at the outbreak of the war, is marooned there for years but, at the prompting of his uncle Glenn Rensselaer, agrees to work for the Allies and so is parachuted back into Germany just before the end of the war as an agent for British Intelligence, supervised by Bernard’s dad!

Similarly, as soon as the character Erich Hennig is introduced and becomes an item with Lisl Wisliceny, I realised she is the old lady, Tante Lisl, who Samson stays with whenever he’s visiting Berlin (in the spy trilogy), because it is in her house that his father set up shop immediately at war’s end, was married and raised young Bernard. The scenes of elegant salons, parties and piano recitals which we witness in this novel are her backstory which is referred to in the trilogy.

Another major character in the Samson stories is the German Jew, Werner Volkmann, Samson’s oldest friend. In Winter we follow the tribulations of his father, a fashionable dentist, who sees his practice destroyed by the Nazi boycott and who only survives by the slenderest of margins, becoming a gravedigger in Berlin’s Jewish cemetery, a job no Gentile will do, which ensures his survival.

In fact, it is through old man Volkmann’s eyes that we see the final Russian push into the heart of Berlin, and the terrifying arbitrariness of total war, as his colleagues decide to walk towards the advancing Russian infantry waving a home-made red flag – and are promptly machine gunned and run over by the advancing communists – whereas Volkmann simply sets off home to his wife and young children and himself only escapes an encounter with one of the last-minute SS execution squads because their officer happened to have his teeth fixed by Volkmann 20 years earlier, in the peaceful Weimar days. In increasingly horrifying examples, the novel powerfully demonstrates that it is by such slender threads that our fragile destinies dangle.

Unlike the rather heavy inevitability of the Political Chronology, these touches and flashing insights into the back stories of characters from the Samson novels are unexpected and delightful, giving a distinct layer of pleasure and enjoyment to what is a very enjoyable but very long and too-often wooden narrative.

Conclusion

It’s a challenging book – long, complex, historical – and not really quite a novel if novels are meant to be concerned with character, psychology and motivation. But as a fictionalised account of the disaster years of German history, as a gripping, comprehensive, awe-inspiring and very readable history lesson, and as a storming backgrounder to the Samson spy novels, Winter is a huge and hugely enjoyable read.

Related links

Paperback cover of Winter

Paperback cover of Winter

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.

My Enemy’s Enemy by Kingsley Amis (1962)

Meanwhile I put to myself the question whether the removal of all social workers, preferably by execution squads, wouldn’t do everyone a power of good. (Moral Fibre)

Amis wrote short stories throughout his career, often experiments for, or by-products of, the longer fictions so that the Complete Short Stories is 550 pages long. This is an early collection, published in 1962, of stories from the 1950s, the first three all based on Amis’s wartime experience in the Royal Signals Corp, several others referencing characters from the contemporaneous novels, and the final one – unexpectedly – showcasing Amis’s enduring interest in science fiction.

My Enemy’s Enemy (1955) A rather complicated story about British soldiers in a wire maintenance unit during world war II. When Oxford-educated Thurston hears that a line engineer he respects, Dalessio, is being set up by the jumped-up Adjutant to fail an inspection of his rooms by the General, Thurston knows he ought to tip him off but doesn’t. In the end, Dalessio is tipped off by another officer, his quarters are spotless, the Adjutant is furious blames Thurston, despite the latter having done nothing – and feeling bad about it.

Court of Inquiry (1956) Another Army story, with some of the same characters from the Signals unit featured above. During a move from one base to another, a soldier mislays an out-of-date power charger, and his superior takes the opportunity (unnecessarily and vindictively) to hold a court of inquiry about it. This, however, fails embarrassingly when one of the witnesses admits it was his fault, not the man being blamed.

I Spy Strangers – The third Army story set in the Signals Corp and featuring some characters from the above. Starts one week before the 1945 General Election which swept Labour to power and one of the officers has set up a dummy ‘Parliament’ in which the men take sides and debate the issues at stake in the election. The issues arising here (the men ranging from Communist to proto-Fascist) become entangled with personal conflicts and resentments between seven or eight officers which, to be honest, I didn’t really follow. The story progresses to the night of the Election when it is clear Labour has won its historic landslide and this prompts a drunken confrontation between some of the officers, one of whom is knocked off the stairs, breaking his arm.

Having just read David Lodge’s first novel, The Picturegoers, with its priggish revulsion from the contemporary world (his comments on 1950s rock’n’roll are amusingly short-sighted but especially the brutality of National Service – the latter of which goes on to be the subject of his second novel, Ginger You’re Barmy) I realise that, while the young Lodge (b.1935) prissily spurns modern life, cleaving to his high-minded Catholicism and to ‘Literature’, all evinced in an oddly formal prose style, Amis (b.1922) had the impact he did because he embraced the reality of life as it was lived in the mid-1950s, and did it in the prose style, the stroppy speaking voice, of his contemporaries.

[The unit debating club] resettled itself sulkily, feeling and muttering that it was always the bloody same: the moment you got a decent row going, some pernickety sod piped up with some moan about order. Might as well be sitting in the billet reading last week’s paper. (p.56)

Why Amis was publishing stories about the weeks before the 1945 General Election, in 1955 and 1956. Was it just a question of being famous and publishable and so clearing out his backlog? Did they actually date from the 1940s? The theme of all three is the petty bureaucracy of the Army and how the military environment gives perfect scope for people to cultivate petty rivalries, jealousies and vindictiveness.

Moral Fibre (1958) John Lewis, the protagonist of The Uncertain Feeling (published three years earlier in 1953) is living in shabby digs with his wife, Jean, in the south Wales town of Aberdarcy. A friend of hers is the self-righteous social worker, Mair, and John gets dragged in to her ‘treatment’ of a local delinquent, Betty. Betty has twin kids by one man, is shacked up with another (a Norwegian sailor) and at one point, when the sailor is away, goes out on the streets as a prostitute. –Throughout the story John is driven by the characteristic bolshie male idea that Mair the social worker and all her works are awful, but is uneasily conscious that he doesn’t have any alternative. The outrageousness of his attitude and his seething dislike of Mair made me laugh out loud.

Interesting Things (1956) A short short story about young Gloria Davies from the tax office, being asked out by old Mr Huws-Evans, twice her age, on a date at a cinema. As in David Lodge’s contemporary novel The Picturegoers (1960), the cinema is depicted as a kind of Sodom of snogging couples and people stuffing their faces noisily with peanuts and sweets. Huws-Evans bores her with speeches about tax affairs, takes her back to his house so he can have a shave (there to be met by his disapproving mother), then into a park where he makes a very clumsy move to kiss her and she realises in a flash that, for all his knowledge of personal tax allowances, he is in fact an unattractive sad old man. They continue on to the swanky party he’s been invited to where she immediately takes up with a young attractive man.

The most interesting part of the story is its references to other Amis texts: to an Italian restaurant called Dalessio’s – a Dalessio whose Dad runs a restaurant in south Wales is a key character in the first story in this collection, he is the man the Adjutant tries to get dismissed; and Huws-Evans describes the party they’re going to as featuring posh folk, including a dentist with an, er, sort of friend. This must be the dentist who keeps a mistress who hangs around with the ‘fast set’ attending the parties given by Mrs Gruffydd-Williams in That Uncertain Feeling.

Glimpses like this, of interconnections of characters across novels and stories, give a pleasing (and comforting) sense of the interconnectedness of stories and – we wish – of the world.

All The Blood Within Me (1962) A gloomy story about two men aged around 64 who catch the train to a town a bit north of London, there to attend the funeral of a woman, Betty, they were both friendly with. Slowly it emerges that the mousy, unsuccessful one of the pair, Alec Mackenzie, had – he thinks – a thirty-year-long, unexpressed but deeply felt, love for Betty. At the funeral service and at the burial, Alec is transported by fond memories of her but at the wake in a nearby pub, drunk, he foolishly has a bit of a go at the Italian man who married Betty’s daughter, Annette.

This prompts Annette to follow Alec outside when he goes for a fag, and to give him a piece of her mind. She dismays him by laying into her mother, into Betty, revealing that she was a spiteful mother to her and her brother who couldn’t wait to escape home, that she disliked the Italian husband, that she disapproved of the grand-children because on their Italian blood, and that she maliciously and cruelly dangled Alec himself on a chain, all the time laughing behind his back. His saintly image of his beloved shattered, Alec is devastated.

Maybe the moral of the story is the unknowability of ‘other people, Amis’s fundamental subject.

Something Strange (1960) Out of the blue, a science fiction story. Two couples are isolated in a metal sphere millions of miles from earth. Their monotonous routine of fixing equipment has recently been interrupted by strange happenings, sightings of objects speeding towards them, the suddenly enclosing of the sphere by an unknown substance etc. I was totally captivated and in the story when…

… they see a new ‘happening’ as if a door is opening and human shapes are approaching. Who unlock the sphere and lead them out. And reveal to the dazed and uncomprehending foursome that they have been part of a long-term psychological experiment, carried out by a fiendish regime which has now been overthrown by the chaps liberating them.

Like a lot of science fiction it is powerful and disturbing in the way it directly invokes basic fears and archetypes – yet silly and superficial at the same time, in being so easily explained and resolved…


Tricks and tics

Whatever Amis’s habit of writing ‘blah blah blah or something like it‘, ‘… or something’, ‘or whatever’. Deliberate posture of shrugging his shoulders, it’s too complicated, I’m a normal-bloke-not-a-ruddy-expert.

Ordinary speech The narrating voice has the ring of ordinary speech even when that involves clumsiness and repetition. He has the confidence to write down what people actually say: not all the time, but often enough to be striking. (Compare and contrast with David Lodge’s style which is always studied, limpid, classical and often a little dead.) It is light, flexible, funny.

The first person he saw on entering the dining-car was Bob Anthony, wearing a suit that looked like woven vegetable soup. (p.141)

Tones of voice Amis is extraordinarily sensitive to tones of voice and the countless ways there are to adjust tone and register for different situations or phrases. His lead characters, the narrator-substitutes, are phenomenally self-aware, full of words and strangled emotions but often speechless while they agonise about precisely which of the many available tones to say it in. They are also super-acute at noticing similar shifts of register in the people they’re listening to, detecting and categorising them with the precision of a collector.

The man spoke again. He was plainly drawing to a close, and now the hint of a new tone was heard, the detached disgust of a schoolmaster reading out some shameful confidential document he has snatched from the hot hand of one of their number. (p.151)

(I like ‘hot’. Adds precise detail to the thought.) But the main point is that, as Alec listens to the vicar’s long elegy for the departed Betty, he not only hears the words, he registers the changes of tone with which the vicar delivers them. Similarly, when her daughter is criticising the dead woman, Alec notices acutely how her voice changes.

At the mention of anger, anger itself returned to her voice, which had softened in the last minute or two. (p.163)

Bewilderment His heroes are bewitched, bothered and bewildered by life. There is a particular shape of Amis paragraph which describes a person or activity in acute detail only to end, ‘Why?’ Why? Why does he say that? Why do they do that? Why does he wear that? etc.

Alec found nothing to say; his attention was like a weight too heavy to move from where it had landed, on Bob’s suit. Why was he wearing it? He must have others. Where were they? (p.143)

An air of permanent amazement at other people’s sheer inexplicability – sometimes blank, serious and unnerving, but on many other occasions giving rise to a kind of hilarious exasperation, the fundamental tone and worldview of Amis’s fiction.


Related links

Penguin paperback edition of My Enemy's Enemy, illustration by Arthur Robins

Penguin paperback edition of My Enemy’s Enemy, illustration by Arthur Robins

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin (1943)

The Minister looked round with a very nice, rather practiced-looking smile and said, ‘These are the backroom boys, eh?’ (p.32)

Ever heard of the novelist Nigel Balchin (1908-70)? No, me neither. Came across this because it was adapted by Powell and Pressburger into a movie in 1949, starring David Farrar, a pretty much now-forgotten leading man of the time who also starred in Black Narcissus. As forgotten an actor as Balchin is a novelist.

Balchin’s biography

Balchin went to private school then Cambridge where he took a Natural Sciences degree before going to work for sweet manufacturers as a consultant, and where ‘he was intimately involved in the design and marketing of Black Magic chocolates and, he claimed, responsible for the success of the Aero and Kit Kat brands’ (Wikipedia). Sounds like early brand management.

Balchin wrote business books and screenplays besides his 15 or so novels. Another notable novel is Brightness Falls From the Air set during the Blitz. His first novel was published in 1934 which makes him roughly contemporary with Ambler (first book 1936) and Innes (first book 1937).

During the war he worked as a civil servant in the Ministry of Food and it is the crossover between research science and bureaucratic administration where this novel sits. It is not a war novel in the conventional sense. There is no action, no fighting, not even the Blitz, until the last 20 pages or so. Instead this novel is a riveting and completely convincing account of Whitehall gossiping and in-fighting. A wartime version of Yes, Minister. When the slimy civil servant Pinker tells the book’s hero that a new, rather notorious Minister is being appointed, he goes on to reassure him:

‘Oh, he’ll be alright. He’ll do as he’s told. In his last job I’m told they had a marvellous technique for dealing with him. They just used to tell him that he mustn’t bother with detail because  his time was too valuable. The old boy ate it, and they got him to the point eventually where they only sent him about two papers a week. They called it his ration.’ (1968 Collin hardback edition, p.112)

The first 160 pages are all like this, conversations in which lots of clever people talk about how they are going to control and manipulate other clever people.

The Small Back Room

The book consists of a first-person narrative by one Sammy Rice, lead research scientist in a down-at-heel experimental arms laboratory in England during the Second World War. We’re thrown straight into its office politics and relations, his subordinates Tilly and Corporal Taylor, his boss Waring, the Old Man, Professor Mair, in charge. People tired, wearing patched up clothes, smoking vile pipes, working in a dingy back room, talking spiffing.

Ideas have to be vetted, reports written up, updates presented at the monthly meeting, everything turned out in a hurry for a surprise visit by the Minister. Almost all the ideas are rubbish. The other civil servants are permanently manoeuvring for power. Rice is continually involved in conversations he doesn’t quite understand as departmental politics and alliances shift around him. Through a series of encounters he realises his demanding boss is being slowly surrounded by enemies and lined up for a fall in which he is unwittingly manipulated into playing a part.

The tone is unhappy, veering from long-suffering sarcasm to bitter satire. At its lightest it is similar to the tone of Len Deighton’s early novels which are also much concerned with Whitehall bureaucracy.

The Minister looked round and said, ‘Well, there’s certainly a lot of most interesting work going on here, Mair. Most interesting.’ Just to show how fascinated he was he made for the door. (p.32)

I worked in a government ministry for a while and experienced exactly such visits from the gods where my bosses rushed to put out the shiny goods and fell over themselves to demonstrate our achievements to the Big Man, while we foot soldiers laughed up our sleeves. When Rice meets the mover and shaker Sir Lewis Easton the latter complains that different groups aren’t co-ordinated, everyone works in silos instead of being joined-up. This issue was still being ‘tackled’ in the three ministries and government agencies I worked for in the 2000s. 1943, 1963, 2003: nothing appears to change.

And was wartime research really carried out by the bored technicians, ignorant managers and mealy-mouthed civil servants portrayed in this book – how terrifying!

The focus of the Whitehall scenes is a disagreement about the viability of the Reeves gun. Balchin’s book conveys with searing accuracy how one project can become the focal point for multiple storms: it divides opinion within Rice’s little team, sets his managers at loggerheads, provides a stick for the Army to beat the government agency responsible with, and becomes the pretext for a power grab by the seasoned committee man Sir Lewis Easton.

Around the middle of the novel there is a masterful account of a committee meeting where the warring factions converge and in which the narrator, as the technician with the figures, is put right at the epicentre of the argument, to his acute embarrassment.

Eventually the inevitable happens and Rice’s superior, the head of the Research Section, is squeezed out to be replaced by a man hand-chosen by Sir Lewis, who will toe the corporate line, who will cancel most of the informal (and most interesting) work they’re doing, and limit their (previously uncoordinated) work to official commissions coming through official channels.

It went on like that for about twenty minutes. He’d no idea what things were, or who the people were, or what we were doing, or whether it mattered. All he knew was that he was going to stop pretty nearly the lot. (p.149)

Is there anyone who’s ever worked at a large organisation, who hasn’t had an experience like that?

Oedipus

A decade before the story starts the narrator had his foot amputated and replaced with an artificial one, but it hurts all the time which makes him irritable. First novel I can remember reading which is narrated by someone in constant low-level pain. Not a comfortable read. And it colours his troubled relationship with fiancée Susan, particularly at the end of each day when he has to decide whether to take painkillers, drown the pain in whisky, or stay sober and tetchy.

His battle with alcoholism has escalated into peculiar role-playing with his girlfriend: on their ‘problem’ evenings they play act to diffuse the situation. On this evening, when he’s really angry with her for being late and leaving him alone with the bottle of whisky, he storms off down the pub, and it’s pre-arranged that she turns up there too, pretending not to know him, pretending to chat him up. This enables him to pour out all his bitterness and anger against her, to her, in her playacting role as shoulder-to-cry-on. And when he’s finally spewed it all out, they go back to the flat and have sausages and mash with wartime cabbage.

These are odd scenes. They’d seem weird even in a modern novel but are positively surreal set against the posh chaps-with-bowler-hats scenes of daytime Whitehall. (This sense of two rather different types of novel existing side by side in the same book is compounded by the advent of a third theme in the surprisingly nailbiting climax, see below).

The story of an inadequate man

Around page 120 there’s a fascinating scene between Rice and his girlfriend where she really indicts his personality, systematically showing him that he always chickens out of big decisions and then blames everyone else. This is disarmingly the kind of conversation real people have in real life, nothing like the brisk, plan-making of the thrillers. Rice denies it but Susan gives him such powerful examples he’s forced to accept it and go to sleep wondering if he really is such a loser, someone who evades decisions, avoids confrontation, always does what’s easiest, and then moans and complains when things don’t turn out as he wants.

She said, ‘You really are hopeless, Sammy. You seem to go out of your way to make – to make yourself useless… You won’t face things – not real things that are difficult. You just work on little easy things, like whether you like people or have known them a long time or something. You just want to be safe. When it gets difficult you run away.’ (p.126)

Unexplosive finale

These two strands come together in the last thirty pages of this short novel. In among all his other calls and contacts, Rice had had a few conversations with one Captain Dick Stuart about a spate of explosions killing peple who had picked up some kind of booby-trapped device. Rice met Stuart a couple of times and helped him with technical advice. At just the time that the big changeover comes between Rice’s easy-going old boss and the new, more by-the-book chap, Rice receives another call from Stuart who says they’ve found two examples of the device, unexploded on a Welsh beach, and asks for his help.

Relieved to be able to drop office politics and the criticism of his girlfriend, Rice takes the train to Wales only to be told, on arrival, that Stuart was blown up and killed trying to dismantle the first device. In a nerve-jangling final twenty pages to the novel, Rice follows Stuart’s notes as he dismantles the second device.

He is racked with nerves, becomes drenched in sweat, can barely see, and unscrews the tight fuse cap of the device with shaking hands. We feel the muscle in his thigh begin to twitch uncontrollably, the wire from the phone line around his neck brush for a second against the detonation terminals, we feel every inch of his fear.

And there, right at the climax of the novel, comes its great question: Rice spends an hour-and-a-half defusing the bomb, and, by a lucky chance, realises the location of the second fuse. By this time he is too weak and shaky to unscrew the second cap and it is done in a jiffy by the brave, strong, virile and whole-bodied lieutenant-colonel Strang, who has been overseeing the operation. Rice lies back and almost weeps. He had been determined to completely solve the problem or die in the attempt. He was at the same moment petrified it would explode and didn’t give a damn. But he ends up with the worst of both worlds, surviving but convinced he is a failure who ended up needing someone else to finish the job.

The question is: Is he right to feel this way? Is he a failure or a success? He is alive whereas Stuart is dead. He spotted the vital clue which Stuart missed. Using his method all similar bombs will be able to be defused. But he chooses to dwell on his physical weakness at the vital moment. Similarly, he retains his job where others have been fired. But he chooses to focus on how he missed earlier opportunities, offers from the oleaginous Pinker in a pub or in meetings with Sir Lewis Easton, where he could have manoeuvred himself into a better position. Sure he’s kept his job but with the grumpy resentment that he’s now being managed by idiots. Is he the self-pitying failure his girlfriend accuses him of being? Or is he actually reasonably successful but just twists everything so that it seems like failure in his tortured mind?

He returns to London completely demoralised and, on the last page, wanders into Hyde Park after dark at the end of his tether.

The moon was just going down behind a tree. I decided that when it disappeared I’d get up and go. I sat and watched it going and I knew there was no answer. If I’d been a bit sillier, or a bit more intelligent, or had more guts, or less guts, or had two feet or no feet, or been almost anything definite, it would have been easy. But as it was, I didn’t like what I was, and couldn’t be what I liked, and it would always be like that. (p.192)

This is an odd ending to an odd book. If it had stuck to the Whitehall merry-go-round theme and found some kind of fitting Yes, Ministerish ending to that plotline, it would have been one of the best books about office politics I’ve ever read. But it has this peculiar and insistent counter-theme which is almost tragic, or has a whiff of existentialism, concerning a man who is physically maimed and psychologically damaged and cannot be at ease with his own existence. That is the flavour which lingers when you close the book, and tends to eclipse the earlier, more humorous sections.

And then there is the nailbiting final sequence about bomb disposal, presumably a very early amateurish and more or less unsupervised bomb disposal, which also makes a powerful impression.

I think it’s the way it doesn’t really satisfactorily plumb the depths of any of these three subjects which has helped this novel sink into relative obscurity. But it’s a much more serious and searching piece of literature than the thrillers I’ve been reading recently, and well worth investigating.

Style

After the gripping narratives of Ambler and Innes it’s a shock to engage with Balchin. There is little or no dynamic to the story until the (exceptional) last twenty pages. Up till then everyone is stuck in the ruts of their boring nine-to-five, circling and conspiring against each other in the best bureaucratic tradition.

And after the thriller writers’ stripped-down, practical prose and dialogue, it’s like stepping into another world to hear Balchin’s characters talk: He and everyone he interacts with speak in old hat, clichéd, posh banter. Old chap, old man, old boy, sort of thing, for the love of Mike, the professor’s an old friend of the Minister, bung ho, what ho, oh I was at school with him, good show, good man, first-rate, frightful rot, ra-ther, get the wind up, prang, on the q.t., cheerful sort of cove etc etc.

(Note: It’s consistent with the jolly Battle-of-Britain bantering style, that – according to Wikipedia – this novel helped popularise the terms ‘boffin’ and ‘backroom boys’. If I’d read it in its year of publication I’d have wondered – like the protagonist does – whether anyone in Whitehall actually wanted to win the War or whether they were all too busy with their vicious little departmental in-fighting.)

All this said, Balchin does have a nifty way with a phrase. Earlier sections, in a nightclub, in a pub, in the office, sustain an entertainingly detached, satirical, sarcastic tone and pithy phrase-making:

He sat for a bit and stared into the distance as though he had known it once but proposed to cut it now. (p.82)

Easton turned his head very slowly and gave me the flat hard stare that served him as an expression of anger, surprise, interest and amusement, depending on the context. (p.85)

The doctor was a rather fat chap, very bald, with a red face and brilliant blue eyes. He had a hearty slap-you-on-the-back manner which he switched on and off like a motorist dipping his headlights. (p.99)

Dramatis personae

  • Sammy Rice: the narrator: research scientist with an amputated foot and artificial replacement, an inferiority complex and a drink problem. In love with…
  • Susan: his fiancée, who has to put up with Rice’s moods, bad temper, struggle with the booze. Also secretary to…
  • Waring: his boss, not a scientist, a PR man in Civvy Street, blissfully unaware of the complicated Whitehall politics surrounding him and his team – or is he? Is he in fact just effortlessly competent at playing the game?
  • Tilly: co-worker and scientist, the numbers man, always punching stats into his primitive calculating machine.
  • Joe Marchant: victim of the new broom who comes in and sweeps him right out of the department.
  • Corporal Taylor: working on fuses but troubled by his foreign-looking floozy of a wife.
  • Corporal Ellis: working on micro photographs.
  • Professor Mair: ‘the Old Man’, in overall charge of the research unit, we see him perform at various departmental meetings, before being ousted.
  • Dick: Sammy’s younger brother, twice-decorated RAF pilot.
  • Pinker: creepy civil servant acquaintance who’s always pushing for inside info about the department and conspiring to get other civil servants sacked: he’s managed 14 to date.
  • Iles: arrogant bureaucrat Rice encounters at a nightclub who thinks the services don’t deserve the wonderful civil servants who provide for them.
  • Sir Lewis Easton: chair of National Scientific Council. Extremely experienced political player ie slippery fish. Manages to get Mair ousted and replaced with his appointee, Brine, who knows absolutely nothing about their work.
  • Knollys: a pre-War friend working in a different lab, who has a whole sub-plot to himself exemplifying the utter absurdity of Whitehall life.
  • Hereward: Knollys’ boss who only signs off on ideas he’s persuaded he thought of himself.

The movie

Adapted into a movie by the famous British film-making team of Powell and Pressburger in 1949. Balchin himself worked on the script. It is long and pretty faithful to the novel but very wooden and stilted – though just about worth watching for the fine array of British character actors (Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack, Geoffrey Keen, Robert Morley, Patrick Macnee and a very young Bryan Forbes).

Surprisingly, given P&P’s reputation for oddity and the involvement of the author, they change the ending: the novel’s puzzled irresolute inconclusion is transformed into a happy ending: Rice defuses the bomb all by himself, returns to London feeling like a hero, on the back of this success is offered a job running his own department, and his beautiful wife rushes into his arms. The perennial cowardice of film makers.

It tells you a lot about the standards of the day that it was nominated for a 1950 BAFTA Award as ‘Best British Film’.

Related links

Cover of an early American edition of the Small Back Room

Cover of an early American edition of the Small Back Room

The Lonely Skier by Hammond Innes (1947)

I realised then that I was buried. I was frightened. I fought upwards with my hands, gripped in a frenzy of terror. (p.93)

Neil Blair had a nice little family business before the War, running a local newspaper in Wiltshire. After three years in the Army he returned and set up a printing business in Exeter but that folded. One day, up in London, he bumps into a tough-minded man he knew in the Army, one Engles, who served with him for a while before moving into Army Intelligence, now back in Civvy Street and making films. Engles asks Blair if he wants to make money spending three months in Cortina in the Dolomites as a script editor on a new film production, with maybe some other duties thrown in. The main other duty is to report if he sees a beautiful Italian woman whose photo Engels gives him. Little does he suspect that this innocent invitation will draw him into a web of intrigue and murder etc etc…

Blair travels to Cortina, to the Tre Coci Pass and, here at the main hotel, meets some of the novel’s characters. He then takes the sledge lift with Joe up to the rifugia or guest house atop the Col da Varda where he encounters the other characters (listed below). Slowly he realises that something is afoot but it takes him 120 or so pages to begin to work out what. It all goes back to a German Captain Stelben who owned the rifugia after the War before being betrayed to the British Army and committing suicide in prison. Newspaper reports of the events mention a certain Contessa who is his partner. Blair recognises her as the woman in the photo Engels gave him; then recognises her in real life at the hotel at the foot of the mountain.

Now that Stelben is dead, this disparate group assembles from across Europe for the official auction of the old rifugia – to everyone’s surprise the bidding for this old hut goes exceptionally high. Why? What is its value? What is hidden there?

Murder attempt

All these novels require a chase or pursuit or physically challenging incident to get the reader’s blood racing. Here, Mayne invites Blair for a supposedly innocent morning’s skiing. For a start, skiing in those days seems to have been more strenuous than in our time; it involves taking off the skis at various points to climb or walk across glaciers or up mountain sides to better positions. But it also turns out that Mayne has chosen a particularly treacherous ski run in order to get Blair skiing far faster than is safe and, suddenly leads him into a sheer cliff of snow and ice. Mayne avoids this at the last second but which Blair crashes right into.

The description of the early, innocent, stages of the skiiing expedition is interesting; the account of the dangerous ski itself is riveting; and the account of Blair’s fortuitous survival and of how he slowly, painfully digs himself out of the snow and finds his way back along the route in a howling snow-storm before collapsing just as the rescue party from the rifugia sights him, is involving and exhausting.

When he recovers Blair confronts Mayne with the accusation he tried to murder him, which Mayne blithely ignores, saying the whole thing was an unfortunate accident. Previously Blair’s room has been searched. And the night before he overheard two men out in the snow apparently discussing sabotaging the sledge-lift in order to kill someone, though he didn’t see who they were.

Blair now wonders if one of the people he overheard was Mayne who caught Blair eavesdropping and think that he – Blair – overheard more than he actually did. Was it this which inspired him to try and get rid of him on the treacherous ski journey? And so the suspicious circumstances and narrator’s uncertainty grow…

Nazi gold

But it is only with the arrival of Engels himself, travelling up the sledge lift with the Contessa, that the scene is set for the Final Act in what turns out to have been a long and complicated criminal conspiracy.

It’s about Nazi gold. At the end of the War Captain Stelben was in the Gestapo and put in charge of a transfer of gold from an Italian bank north to Munich. He diverted from his orders and got his men to take the gold in crates up the sledge lift to the Col da Varda and there bury it in the foundations of the anti-aircraft guns which he knew were being built. Then he massacred the men with a machine gun. He then escaped in the confusion at the end of the War, holed up in Greece, before returning to Italy and buying the rifugia. However, he was betrayed and handed over to the British Army for interrogation during which he committed suicide.

He left a number of people with partial knowledge of the theft and hiding: his girlfriend, the ‘Contessa’ – in fact one of a troupe of dancing girls and courtesans; Valdini who at one stage was the Contessa’s lover; Mayne, the Irish-American who the Contessa also was indiscreet with; Keramikos who heard the story from the sole survivor of the massacre, a German corporal hiding in Greece.

A closed circle mystery

The closed circle mystery is a specific genre of detective fiction, in which a limited number of suspects all have the means and motivation to have committed the murder which starts the action. There is no specific murder here; or, rather, there are quite a few murders but all carried out during the War and it is not a murder which needs a solution, but the precise whereabouts of the Treasure.

In this respect, maybe it is more like a buried treasure-pirate story – except that there are so many Nazi gold plots that ‘hidden Nazi treasure’ is probably as large a genre as ‘country house mystery’, eg Desmond Bagley’s debut novel, The Golden Keel also, as it happens, set in Italy.

Skiing

The novel explores in some detail the immediately post-War world of skiing, with its cable cars, sledge lifts, popular resorts and bars, refuges high up in the mountains as well as skiing terms and techniques. Is this the earliest adventure novel to take skiing as its central subject? It’s certainly the earliest one I’ve read which features not one but two thrilling ski rides, chases and murders.

Dramatis personae

  • Neil Blair: innocent first-person narrator.
  • Derek Engles: Neil’s Battery Commander in 1942 before he transferred to Intelligence. A dashing, exacting officer, it was in this capacity that Engles interviewed Captain Stelben and got some of the story of the hidden gold but not all. When he read a newspaper story about Stelben’s suicide it revived his interest and he sends Blair to be his eyes and ears until something definite crops up. When the Contessa and others arrive in Cortina it prompts him to come himself. In many ways Engles is the hero of the story, and Blair is the Nick Carraway to Engles’ dashing Gatsby figure, the rather naive bystander, witness, only survivor of the débâcle on the mountain top and its reluctant chronicler.
  • Joe Wesson: cameraman: a ‘fat sluggish ape’, completely innocent of the various goings-on around him.
  • Edoardo Mancini: biggest hotelier in Cortina, former sportsman run to seed.
  • Aldo: apelike waiter in the rifugio, the ski house atop Col da Varde in the Dolomite mountains.
  • Anna: flirtatious barmaid in the rifugio.
  • Kapitan Heinrich Stelben: Nazi officer who stole bank gold he was entrusted with and buried it atop the Col da Varda; he was captured soon after the War and interrogated by Engles, but escaped, adopting a new identity and buying the Col da Varda, before being captured a second time and committing suicide. Now the property is to be auctioned…
  • Contessa Forelli: previously known as Carla Rometta, a dancer and courtesan who attached herself to Stelben during his post-War life but has thrown in her lot with Valdini, whom she devastatingly revenges.
  • Stefan Valdini: ‘a dirty little Sicilian gangster’, one-time lover of the Contessa. Keramikos murders him, prompting her fiery revenge.
  • Keramikos: a visiting Greek, revealed to have been a Nazi agent; turns out Engles is more interested in him and the crimes he committed against British forces in Greece, than in the gold.
  • Gilbert Mayne: Irish but well-travelled, particularly in the States; revealed to be a British deserter become gangster who stole the deceased captain Mayne’s identity: he holds everyone up in the rifugia shoots Valdini and beats up the Contessa before meeting a horrible death.

Technical terms

You English…

Innes is at pains to distinguish between the fiery passionate Italians and the cold, stiff English.

‘I wonder whether you will understand. You English are so cold.’ (p.63)

‘You are so English, my dear – so delightfully English…’ Her expression as she said this was the equivalent of sticking out her tongue at me and my English ideas. (p.66)

This is similar to Eric Ambler who, in almost every one of his pre-War novels, has one character or another laugh at the English, at their political naïveté, their cold manner, their gaucheness in affairs of the heart. Since these books were written to be popular, one can only assume this was a widespread feeling the English held about themselves.

The movie – Snowbound

The book was almost immediately made into a film, Snowbound, released in 1948, directed by David MacDonald and starring Dennis Price, Stanley Holloway, Mila Parély, and Herbert Lom. It is, apparently, not so good, which explains why it isn’t even available on DVD nor on YouTube.

Rather naive cover illustration of an early edition of The Lonely Skier

Rather naive cover illustration of an early edition of The Lonely Skier

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (1939)

They were beginning to understand that a bored and wealthy Englishman who had hunted all commoner game might well find a perverse pleasure in hunting the biggest game on earth. (p.7)

This novel is much stranger than its blurb and reputation suggest. It is marketed as a thrilling ‘manhunt’ and while this is not untrue, it doesn’t capture the real essence of the book which is something weirder and more pagan.

The set-up

Rogue Male is narrated in the first person by an unnamed upper-class Englishman who has an odd way of telling a story. It starts rather confusingly in media res, at the moment just after he has been caught trespassing by the security people guarding the country house of the leader of a foreign country, beaten up, then thrown over a cliff and left for dead. For the narrator was – in his airily lackadaisical, Jeeves-and-Wooster kind of way – stalking the Great Leader of this country, at his rural estate. Why? Bored. For fun. Because – he claims – he had stalked most other game available and fancied it as a challenge, ‘for the fun of the stalk’. Characteristically, he defines this Quixotic quest with reference to the quintessential English upper-class sport:

… as I found myself getting a little nearer to the House with each night’s lodging I became obsessed by this idea of a sporting stalk. I have asked myself once or twice since why I didn’t leave the rifle behind. I think the answer is that it wouldn’t have been cricket. (Penguin paperback edition, p.15)

(The assumption is that the unnamed country is Germany – the narrator leaves his bags in Poland to cross the border and Hitler is pictured as seen through a telescopic sight on the book cover – but he isn’t actually mentioned anywhere in the text. )

You won’t of course mention my name, nor the name of the country to which I went from Poland and to which I am about to return. Let the public take its choice! (p.191)

After he has been caught five hundred yards from the Leader’s house, with the great leader actually in his gunsights, he is interrogated and horribly tortured by the Gestapo and then disposed of by being thrown over a nearby cliff. He bounces gruesomely on the way down but, as luck has it, lands in a deep soft marsh and so survives, reduced to a welter of agonised nerves, a bloody pulp.

It is at this moment that the author chooses to open the narrative and, after a brief recap of how he got there, the first third or so of the novel goes on to describe his slow, painful recovery in the (German?) woods, before he manages to steal some clothes, beg food and finally buy a small sailing boat which he lets drift downriver to a major seaport (Hamburg?) where he persuades an officer on an English ship to take him aboard and conceal him for the journey back to London.

Posh

Household went to Clifton public school (£32,000 per annum fees 2014/15) and Magdelen College, Oxford, before becoming a banker. This Rogue Male is the kind of plummy, all-competent and terribly posh hero Eric Ambler was reacting against with his rather left-wing engineers and journalist protagonists, much more everyman figures.

It is typical of Rogue Male (RM) that he is not only on first name terms with the (presumably German) ambassador to London, but rather inevitably has his own Jeeves-and-Wooster nickname for him – dear old ‘Holy George’. This breezy superiority extends to having influential friends in the Foreign Office and, when the police arrive in Dorset on his trail, he is, of course, on first name terms with the boss.

Half an hour later a police car came bumping over the turf and decanted an old friend of mine into the cottages. I had quite forgotten that he was now Chief Constable of Dorset. (p.101)

As soon as he talks to an Englishman (on page 40, when he has arrived at a port and spotted some English ships) he becomes conscious of his class, and there is a three-page-long and rather confusing disquisition about class in England. When he thinks of Devon his first thought, as a pukka gentleman, is of course of the county fox hunt: ‘I had never hunted with the Cattistock.’ (p.68)

When he goes to the cinema, a novel experience for such a posh outdoors man, he is typically stand-offish and disdainful of what was, obviously, a run-of-the-mill experience for most Brits then as now:

When the main feature, as I believe they call it, was at its most dramatic quarter of an hour… (p.65)

The narrator at one point says his home has been continually lived in for fifteen generations. We can assume this refers to a significant country house and an eminent family. Beyond posh.

Bruised and battered

If it is a familiar thriller trope that the hero experiences not only life-threatening situations, but also gets badly beaten (sadistic beatings in Bond, superhuman batterings in Alistair MacLean). If so, Rogue Male is a kind of high water mark or extremity: thorough torture by the Gestapo, thrown off a cliff, reduced to a bloody pulp, blind in one eye with no fingernails, the protagonist starts the novel very badly beaten up indeed.

Although he recovers physically, it is open to debate whether he really recovers mentally. The first-person narration gives us a window into a very peculiar mind. After a spell in London our hero realises foreign agents are on his tail and so – after very Woosterishly ordering a complete set of camping equipment from his man at Harrods, which is delivered to him on the platform of Wimbledon station – he heads down to Dorset where he finds an isolated bit of country, between two thick hedges and laboriously creates a modern version of Robinson Crusoe’s stockade, complete with entrances, chimney, camouflaged door and so on, and he lives on tinned food, slopping out his waste and never washing or changing.

And it is here that the enemy agents track him to his lair, where they simply place barricades over the main door and the chimney to trap him. The final third or so of the text is the account of RM going more or less mad, trapped inside his badger sett for over a week while his antagonist, an enemy agent masquerading as a plummy huntin’ and shootin’ military man, Major Quive-Smith, tries to persuade him to sign a confession saying he was put up to his assassination attempt by the British government. Which he refuses to do. Impasse.

Something has to give and the dénouement sees our man cunningly getting the better of the enemy, killing the main agent and forcing his underling to get a car and clothes etc and help him escape by ship to North Africa. From here, with a new look and identity, RM sends his account (the text of this novel) along with a covering letter to his friend and lawyer to publish if he choses, saying he is setting back out to the enemy country, this time to do the job properly!

Tarka

This summary makes Rogue Male appear a much more rational reading experience than it actually is. In fact, so totally does RM immerse himself in his natural environments – in escaping through Germany (?), but especially living wild in Devon – that it is like being inside the mind of an animal. Rather than an Ambler or Deighton thriller, it reminds me of Henry Williamson’s classic Tarka the Otter (1927) or the poems of Ted Hughes, which really take you inside the mind of a wild animal in all the crude single-minded functionality of animal life.

In one section the police come searching for him with bloodhounds so he mashes up some tin sardines with fertiliser, attaches them to a string and sets off to create a completely false trail leading miles in the wrong direction. This passage is a typical combination of low animal cunning and physical endurance, observed and written up with a lofty patrician ironic detachment, with the narrator’s characteristic ‘healthy insolence’.

The dry bottom began to look like a meet of the Cattistock. The couple of bloodhounds that I had expected turned up, towing a bloodthirsty maiden lady in their wake. She was encouraging them with yawps and had feet so massive that I could see them clearly at two hundred yards – great brogued boats navigating a green sea. She was followed by half the village of Sydling and a sprinkling of local gentry. Two fellows had turned out on horseback. I felt they should have paid me the compliment of wearing pink coats.

Away went the bloodhounds on the trail of the fertilised sardines, and away I went too; I had a good half hour’s law while they followed my bag through the hazels and heather. I crossed the main road – a hasty dash from ditch to ditch while the constable on watch was occupied with the distant beauty of the sea – and slid along the hedges into a great headland of gorse above Cattistock. There I wove so complicated a pattern that boat-footed artemis must have thought her long-eared darlings were on the line of a hare. I skirted Cattistock and heard their lovely carillon most appropriately chime ‘D’ye ken John Peel’ at my passage, followed by ‘Lead, Kindly Light’. It was half-past five and dusk was falling. I waded into the Frome, passed under the Great Western Railway, and paddled upstream for a mile or so, taking cover in the rushes whenever there was anyone to see me. Then I buried the sardines in the gravel at the bottom of the river, and proceeded under my own scent. (p.102)

Madness

At several moments, trapped in his underground lair, the narrator himself wonders whether he’s gone mad, and the narrative, supposedly written into an old notebook he’s taken with him, at moments questions why he’s doing what he’s doing, what his real motivation is, and whether he might not in fact be going mad. Writing the text is therapeutic.

I must try to make my behaviour intelligible. This confession – shall I call it? – is written to keep myself from brooding, to get down what happened in the order in which it happened. I am not content with myself. With this pencil and exercise-book I hope to find some clarity. I create a second man, a man of the past by whom the man of the present may be measured. Lest what I write should ever, by accident or intention, become public property, I will not mention who I am. My name is widely known. I have been frequently and unavoidably dishonoured by the banners and praises of the penny press. (Penguin paperback edition, p.14)

He isn’t a hero. Clear-headed and practical and loftily ironic in some respects, he is almost out of his mind, profoundly adrift, turning into a wild animal, in others.

Style

The alienness of the mindset which emerges from the book is partly created by the narrator’s odd way with the English language, a style askew, aslant from normal linear grammar.

Disgraced. A nasty word, that. I am not disgraced, and I will not feel it. (p.54)

I told him that if he ever got one postcard, he’d probably get a lot more; it was ever living to write the first that was doubtful. (p.55)

By God in all this immobility and carrion thought it does me good to think of the man I was! (p.94)

I will not kill; to hide I am ashamed. So I endure without object. (p.129)

The continual peculiarity of this idiosyncratic style might explain why Household, despite being a prolific and successful writer in his day, is now so little known today and the rest of his books sunk into obscurity. When you consider that Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep, was published this same year of 1939, it is like comparing the Future – a type and style of plot which will go on to become wildly successful in books and TV and movies – with a strange, preserved-in-amber oddity, a memento of a vanished class and a forgotten country. Which makes Rogue Male all the more worth reading for its unwitting opposition, on numerous levels, to our present-day all-enveloping consumerist culture.

Related links

The movie

Given the rate at which Hollywood gobbled up novels by Hammett and Chandler and Greene and Ambler, it’s no surprise to learn that Rogue Male was converted into the movie Man Hunt, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Walter Pidgeon, in 1941, just two years after the book’s publication. It was redone in a TV movie for the BBC in 1976, starring Peter O’Toole who helped get it commissioned, apparently as a present to his wife, Sian.

Wreckers Must Breathe by Hammond Innes (1940)

Hammond Innes

(Ralph) Hammond Innes OBE wrote some 34 novels, as well as children’s and non-fiction books, in a career spanning nearly 60 years from his first book, The Doppelganger (1937) to the last one, Delta Connection (1996). After private school he drifted through a number of jobs including journalist for the Financial News, all the time working on his early novels.

He was chuffed to get his first novel accepted by a publisher but not so pleased to find himself tied into a four-book deal at a low fee. He rattled these first four books out pdq before switching to new publishers with a better deal. Later in life he conceded that this first burst of piece-work taught him the craft.

Wreckers Must Breathe

Wreckers Must Breathe (1940) is Innes’ 6th book ie still very early. It’s a ripping yarn about a journalist/drama critic, Walter Craig, on holiday in Cornwall. His fishing boat is nearly rammed by a U-boat which he and the local fisherman mistake for a shark. Returning from the beach he falls in with a man wading ashore, leading him to suspect something odd is going on. That night he goes down to the shore with a local fisherman, Big Logan, only for both of them to be caught at gunpoint and taken aboard the aforementioned U-boat.

There is a thrilling sequence where the U-baot is forced to dive and our heroes wait as suspensefully as the german crew while a British cruiser tries to depth charge them. The U-boat survives and Craig and Logan are taken prisoner to a secret underground U-boat base worked into the remains of a ruined Cornish tin mine. (The book includes a clear diagram of the layout of the base which becomes very useful as the novel progresses.) Here they are forced to work helping maintain the small fleet of U-boats and all the time wondering how to either escape or blow the place up.

Maureen Weston’s story

Craig’s first-person narrative is interrupted half way through by a collection of documents which tell the story from the point of view of a lady journalist, Maureen Weston. She is contacted by Craig’s London paper to investigate his disappearance and her investigations are chronicled in telegrams, letters and transcripts of phone calls which the narrator claims to have later assembled. This harks back to the Victorian use of letters and other media in popular stories (think of Dracula) and is a reminder of the eternal problem of point-of-view in a novel.

These pages, Maureen Weston section of the novel, have their own distinct tone and style, different from Craig’s first person narrative, that of a tough, sardonic woman journalist. She’s a very modern and enjoyable character.

Weston pieces the bits of the jigsaw together and begins to realise:

  • the U-boat base is a disused tin mine right on the coast
  • it was abandoned after a disastrous flood
  • it was subsequently bought by an out-of-town businessmen who got local miners to dig a set of new exploratory shafts fanning out from a central cavern
  • he then supposedly abandoned his efforts
  • but they were in fact finished off by Germans brought over by U-boat.

She only completely confirms this on a trip down the mine with three local miners when they stumble into the base and are themselvescaptured and locked up in the cell next to Logan and Craig. The prisoners in the two cells realise they can communicate by morse code.

Tension

The situation might have drifted but great urgency is lent the story because early on Craig had discovered that the secret coastal meeting which they blundered into right at the start of the book was between a German spy handing over a naval document stolen from London to the U-boat captain. This document gives the co-ordinates for a rendezvous of Royal Navy ships in the North Sea. Thus tipped off the U-boats are planning to attack and sink the lot, with not only loss of British lives but giving the Germans important propaganda early in the war.

Showdown

In a sustained and bloody climax to the novel Logan, Craig and the three miners take out their guards on a submarine they’re loading, then seize large amounts of weapons and start a small war. They blow up the tunnels leading to their dock and use the U-boat’s main gun to destroy the entrance to the cavern, then fight off all-comers with small arms and hand grenades.

In a strange and haunting finale Craig sets fire to oil and petrol above a seam of limestone, knowing it will reduce the stone to quicklime and release large amounts of carbon dioxide. Our heroes lock themselves in the U-boat with its handy air supply and oxygen apparatus. The Germans try to break in using oxy-acetylene cutting equipment and are half way through cutting the U-boat hatch open when all sounds of activity cease.

When our heroes emerge, weating the oxygen masks, they find hundreds of Germans collapsed all over the docks due to asphyxiation. They escape into the older mine workings which they are cutting their way through when they are discovered and rescued by a Royal Navy party.

We, the readers, have known that all along the Craig’s newspaper had been informing the police about what Maureen Weston was discovering, and that the police had contacted MI5 who had pieced the whole story together and alerted the nearest naval force. Who come triumphantly to the rescue and take the Germans prisoner.

Thriller tropes

The opening passages of Wreckers Must Breathe are very interesting purely as social history. They capture the mood of England on the days leading up to the outbreak of World War II, giving a vivid sense of the fears and anxieties of ordinary people – and then the horrible sinking feeling as war is declared.

But once into the main body of the story, it is fascinating to see just how many tropes it contains which are staples of later thrillers, scenes I’ve read about or seen in movies countless times:

  • Crew trapped in a submarine while an enemy ship depth charges it, everyone silent, holding their breath, looking up.
  • The enormous elaborate underground U-boat pen built in an abandoned Cornish tin mine is described in great detail and sounds very like the secret baddy bases of the James Bond movies.
  • An impression reinforced when it is the setting for the final bombing and shooting spree which our heroes unleash as they try to escape, five of them taking on over 500 Germans.
  • The lady journalist is presented as genuinely strong, feisty, intelligent. But she also happens to be good looking and ‘startlingly provocative’. And, given the presence of a lady, certain tropes are inevitable:
    • inevitably she falls behind and the big strong fisherman has to go back to ‘rescue’ her
    • inevitably both he and the pretty lady are then captured and used by the Germans as human shields
    • inevitably, as the Germans open fire, big strong fisherman is able to nudge the machine gun their guard is using to open fire on Craig, thus saving his life – obviously he is then gun-butted in the face, a moment I’m sure I’ve seen in scores of movies
  • In a scene I’ve read and watched scores of times (Where Eagles Dare, The Great Escape) there is bitter enmity between Gestapo and ‘ordinary’ naval officer: for example the scene where the Gestapo man orders Big Logan to be tied up and whipped – and watches the scene with a sadistic glint in his eye – but on the second lash the commandant storms in demanding to know who gave the order for this, has a flaming row with Mr Gestapo which escalates until he punches Gestapo man and orders his guards to arrest and drag him off.
  • And the cavalry – well, Navy – arriving just in time to save our gallant heroes, as they’ve done the bulk of the work but when their strength is flagging and just as they think they’ll never be able to dig their way through the final rockslide.

I’d love to know whether these tropes were already established when Innes wrote (by whom?) Were they part of the pulp thriller underworld by then? Are any his creation?

The ghost of Conan Doyle

If thriller writers’ disclaimers actually reveal their influences, whose shadow they’re trying to escape from – if Desmond Bagley’s characters’ frequent claims that they aren’t James Bond tell you not so subtly what influence Bagley is seeking to evade – then the one literary reference in this book is to a much older but acknowledged master of popular tales and yarns who was publishing eerie stories right up until 1930. As Maureen Weston writes of her descent into the abandoned mine workings:

The whole thing is so fantastic. Do you remember Conan Doyle’s Tales of Horror and Mystery? Well, I feel as if I’m writing the diary of one of his tales of horror that will be found after I am dead and from which others will draw the wildest conjectures. Suppose there is an underground race and they are coming to the surface to conquer us? Stupid! But when you are deep in the bowels of the earth anything seems possible… (page 128)

And the final scene where the five breathing English survivors pick their way through the landscape of Germans asphyxiated by carbon dioxide is also from a different type of text than a straightforward War novel.

The sight was amazing. The whole dock seemed to be strewn with the bodies of German sailors. It was like rowing in some fantastic crypt filled with the dead. I looked at Davies, pulling steadily on the oars, his face obscured by the awful futurist mask. So one might depict a modern Charon rowing a new-comer to Hades across the river Styx… There were men everywhere, but not a soul stirred. It was like a place of the dead. And we five masked figures looked like five horrible ghouls picking our way amongs the dead. (p. 185)

This reads like Conan Doyle in fantasy mode. Or the sci-fi of HG Wells. One of the pleasures of Innes’ novels is that they are a little unstable; they admit other influences and styles which later, more professional thriller writers, more completely exclude. But here, early in his career and in the history of the genre, there is room for experimentation. Witness the strong Edgar Allen Poe Gothic feel of one of his first post-War novels, The Killer Mine.

Related links

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of Wreckers Must Breathe

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of Wreckers Must Breathe

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A long, bewildering, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Trojan Horse by Hammond Innes (1940)

As I saw it, this wasn’t just a single spy or a single criminal I was up against. It was organised espionage. The organised espionage of a power notorious for its efficiency and ruthlessness. (p.52)

Hammond Innes wrote over 30 novels from the mid 1930s through to the 1970s, becoming a byword for fast, thrilling adventure stories, and forming a link and father figure to the following generations of thriller writers (Alistair MacLean first pubd 1955, Desmond Bagley first pubd 1963).

This is his fifth novel, begun as Russia invaded Finland and published right at the start of the World War II. It is unusual in not being set abroad but almost all taking place in London.

The plot

Told in the first person by sensible barrister Andrew Kilmartin who is visited by ‘a tubby little Jew’ whose photo, he realises, he has seen in the newspapers because he is wanted for the murder of an engineer in Wales a few weeks previously. The visitor quickly reveals that he is Schmidt, a brilliant Austrian engineer who was forced to flee after the Anschluss (1938) and was taken in by his Welsh in-laws. Turns out he has invented a new lightweight alloy which will handle the strains of the new generation of diesel naval or airplane engines. Lighter alloy, lighter engines, faster ships and planes. The balance of the war could hang on this discovery. Schmidt claims he had nothing to do with the Llewellin murder and departs with cryptic clues about who is really responsible.

Kilmartin starts out sceptical and after Schmidt leaves is inclined to phone his friend at Scotland Yard. But he visits Schmidt’s old flat only to find it has been ransacked. One of the books on the floor has the same title as Schmidt’s clue and, when he takes it to his friend David Schiel the photogrpaher over on Shaftesbury Avenue, they discover a coded message written in ultra violet characters at the back of the book. Then David’s flat is ransacked.

Slowly a vast conspiracy is uncovered which includes the big and reputable industrial concern, Calboyd, along with its famously patriotic chairman, as well as one of the shrewdest financial journalists in the City, Max Sedel. He and David pick up on a clue in Schmidt’s coded message and drive down to Cornwall to discover it the hiding place of Schmidt’s daughter who has smuggled out the only existing prototype of the new engine on a motorboat. But as they arrive the motorboat is being impounded by the Royal Navy coastguard and they realise the impounding is only the first step in the boat being mysteriously stolen from naval dockyards, and then cunningly smuggled out of the country aboard a ship publicly proclaiming to be taking arms and munitions to our gallant allies in Finland.

1. Down in the sewer

But Kilmartin leaves it just a bit too late, he wants to sow up all the loose ends just a bit too perfectly and is just on the verge of contacting the police with all he knows when he finds himself suddenly captured and locked in a deep vault under a City of London bank. Only after some time has passed in despair of ever getting released or rescuing the boat does he see a rat disappear into a hole in the vault and set about a desperate attempt, first to dig out the mortar between some of the oldest stone and then, once he’s knocked a hole through, Kilmartin discovers he is in the maze of ancient sewers beneath the City of London. And he hasn’t gone far when he hears voices and sees torchlight and realises the baddies are after him… And so into a genuinely thrilling and very vividly described chase.

2. The Battle of Thirlmere

Once free Kilmartin discovers the police are now after him having been fed incriminating evidence by the network of enemy spies, and that Schmidt’s pretty daughter, Freya, has been kidnapped by them. He goes down to the Pool of London to see the very public sending-off the Thirlmere a boat ponsored by Calboyds and carrying arms and ammunition to Finland. Only Kilmartin knows that everyone involved is a German agent and that, once it leaves British territorial waters and its Royal Navy escort behind, it will alter course and steam to Germany not only with the supplies, but with the crucial prototype engine aboard.

Suffice to say Kilmartin smuggles himself aboard, along with his aide David, they rescue Freya from her cell then, along with Schmidt who had stowed away in disguise, they smuggle themselves into one of the half dozen or so tanks on the decks. Once the RN has departed, the ship hoists Nazi flags, the ‘aid volunteers’ arrest the loyal crew and the ship turns towards germany. But Schmidt, Kilmartin et al use the tank’s gun to blow up half the bride and machine gun half the enemy agents, release the loyal crew who set a new course back to England before the situation escalates even more with squadrons of British and German airplanes fighting it out in the skies above them.

Once back on English soil the authorities reveal that they managed to piece together all the evidence and clues AK had left them. Our man has saved the day! and won himself a pretty, brave fiancée!!

Disclaimer

There is the usual disclaimer that, although it reads like a melodrama/adventure/spy story, it isn’t really.

‘There’s no such thing as adventure, except in retrospect. You read stories or hear people talk of adventures. They sound exciting. But the reality is not exciting. There’s pain to the body and torture to mind and nerves, and a wretched death for most adventurers.’ (Fontana 1973 paperback edition, p.52)

Dramatis personae

  • Andrew Kilmartin: sober, sensible King’s Counsel: the lead protagonist in exposing a network of German agents in England, drawing on his experience of Intelligence work during World War I
  • Franz Schmidt: Austrian Jewish refugee from the Nazis, world-leading engine designer
  • Olwen Llewllin: married Schmidt; beaten in the street for being married to a Jew and dies in prison
  • Evan Llewellin: brother of Schmidt’s wife, who takes him in in Cardiff; murdered by Nazi agents
  • David Shiel: bohemian photographer with studios on Shaftesbury Avenue, becomes intimately involved as Kilmartin’s assistant in the adventure
  • Calboyd’s Diesel Company: leading British firm in this sector chaired by well-known captain of industry and philanthropist Sir James Calboyd, key members of the Board are exposed as Nazi agents
  • Desmond Crisham: Kilmartin’s contact at Scotland Yard who he drip-feeds his revelations for fear they are so scandalous Crisham will reject them out of hand – ‘one of the bulldog breed’
  • Cones of Runnel: buoys/landmarks off the Cornwall coast which are a key to Schmidt’s code, and help Kilmartin and Shiel track down Schmidt’s daughter
  • Freya: Schmidt’s daughter: an experienced sailor and engineer
  • Max Sedel: top City journalist, expert on aircraft industry and others; refugee from Germany: the fact that he has an uncontrollable hatred of Jews kind of suggests what is then revealed, ie he is the king pin of the Nazi organisation – a gangster, ‘a fanatic with boundless ambition’
  • John Burston: on the Board of Calboyds he discovers what is going on and is murdered
  • Baron Ferdinand Marburg – financier, Society figure, philanthropist – German agent
  • Sefton Raikes – works manager of Calboyd’s who disagrees with the direction of travel and is murdered
  • The Thirlmere – the steamer supposedly to take arms and munitions to plucky Finland; in fact loaded with tanks and weapons and Schmidt’s lightweight diesl engine

Related links

Pan paperback edition of The Trojan Horse

Pan paperback edition of The Trojan Horse

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A long, bewildering, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose (1992)

10 June 2012

Historian Stephen E. Ambrose published ‘Band of Brothers, E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: From Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest’ in 1992. It’s a remarkable story and finding one company which had such varied and yet emblematic experiences was a stroke of luck or inspiration.

The book is a little more confusing than the HBO mini-series based on it (transmitted in 2001). There are a lot more individuals in the book (and in reality, presumably) whereas the TV series did what all film and TV does, which is simplify and focus in on just a handful of individuals, allowing us to “get to know them” better.

In fact what came over most vividly to me is the hypertextuality of the book – Ambrose describes how the wartime closeness of the men of Easy Company led to various forms of postwar contact, from reunions to newsletters. It’s interesting to discover which of the characters were most proactive in these activities, and to realise that the characters we’ve read a lot about tended to be the ones who wrote and organised most. Maybe that’s inevitable but it makes you realise how skewed and partial the book potentially is. And, overlaying their stories, is the account of Ambrose’s increasing involvement with these men which leads him to commission them to write memoirs of their wartime deeds, or dig up letters and diaries. That’s what I mean by its hypertextuality – the way the book is made up of lots of other texts, sources, diaries, interviews, letters and memoirs.

It’s also a good example of the power of paratextuality. By this I mean that bits of the book normally thought of as peripheral or unimportant, in fact had as much impact on me as the main narrative, and radically changed my impression of the whole.

1. The final chapter, detailing the various soldiers’ post-war careers is in many ways more interesting than the preceding 300 page account of their wartime deeds. These few pages contain the seeds of a probing and maybe disturbing novel. The shiny heroes of the previous chapters move on into the Postwar world and become CEOs of big corporations or alcoholics, teachers or suicidal depressives. Some of these stories are just as poignant as anything told in the main narrative. For me, the stories told in these sections are better than a novel. They’re as brief as good short stories; their brevity is as suggestive as poetry.

2. The final section of acknowledgements details Ambrose’s intense involvement with the men of Easy Company, meeting with many of them on numerous occasions, attending their reunions, visiting with them the sites of battles described in the text, hearing about their attempts to stay in touch with each other or help comrades who’d fallen on hard times. Eventually he is elected an honorary member of the Company.

The depth of Ambrose’s involvement with these living men, the amount of activity the veterans kept up over the years, the large amount of texts they generated in a whole range of formats, and the poignancy of their post-war lives struck me as being more dense, more felt, more evocative and more moving and more complex than the war stories they are so keen to share.  And this depth and complexity and lack of happy endings, the messiness of their lives and of the way Ambrose got involved in those lives and became a player in the events he was describing, made me think of the book as much more of a modernist novel than you usually experience from a work of ‘history’.

‘Band of Brothers’ – HBO home page

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