This was a 99p special, and older readers will know that I do love a good spy novel. I haven’t read much Len Deighton, however. There was a copy of (I think) The Ipcress File in my parents’ house when I was growing up: a book published in the year I was born. I’ve no idea whose it was. I did read it once, but it didn’t take, so I guess that’s why I’ve always thought of Deighton as a low-rent Le Carré. I’m not sure I can even find a picture of the book cover, so I’m really not remembering it too well.
But the 99p rule applies, and I downloaded this thinking it might be a quick read. But it’s term time again and I’ve been mostly exhausted, so I barely managed half a chapter a night a lot of the time. But then when I was about halfway through, it did take, and I started to really enjoy it.
This is the first of what turned into nine books featuring Bernard Samson, a field officer for MI6 who has seen too many of his operations go South. It has a pleasing shape and (according to his afterword) Deighton has constructed the series so that you don’t have to read them in order. He originally planned six books, but clearly his publisher prevailed upon him for more. Berlin Game is followed by Mexico Set and London Match. Geddit?
Samson trusts no-one, not even his own wife, Fiona, whom he suspects of having an affair. Unusually, Fiona also works for the SIS, so she’s much less of a distant character than Smiley’s Anne.
A high-placed source in Berlin wants out, and Samson is tasked with settling nerves and trying to keep him in place a bit longer, if possible. But there are leaks all over the place, the network is nervous, and the KGB are everywhere. Written in 1983, the book also seems to be set around then, although Deighton doesn’t specify. The Berlin Wall is still there, so this is classic spy stuff: the genre is never better than when there was an actual wall between East and West, and there was no need for the metaphor of the iron curtain. And the fact that it was the Western part of Berlin that was fenced in makes it an even more fascinating situation.
This is long after Philby, and yet, the British Intelligence Service never really recovered. Once the head of your Russian section turns out to be a Russian agent, you’re fooked forever. The inability to trust people or believe in anything is the nihilistic heart of the genre, and Deighton creates this atmosphere of old school ties and clubbable chaps very well. Samson is (of course) something of an outsider, not one of the old school ties. He grew up in post-war Berlin and speaks German like a native. He has an old German friend, Werner: can he even trust Werner? The good thing is that at least Werner is up to something nefarious, some financial scam, which he operates across the wall.
Deighton takes his time with the build-up, happy to introduce the players, and show us something of how Samson operates. He doesn’t go across (under) the wall until quite late on, by which time you just know things aren’t going to go smoothly. By the time he works out who betrayed the Berlin network, you’re not surprised — but then nor is he.
I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed this, so I think I might be going in for another.