Saturday, July 22, 2023

SS-GB: Len Deighton

SS-GB is an alternate history in which England has been invaded by Germany. 

Summary from the flyleaf (dust jacket) of my edition:

1941, and England invaded – and defeated – by the Germans...

The King is a hostage in the tower, the Queen and Princesses have fled to Australia, Churchill has been executed by a firing squad, Englishmen are being deported to work in German factories and the dreaded SS is in charge of Scotland Yard. London is in shock. The very look of daily life is a walking nightmare of German uniforms, artifacts, regulations. There are collaborators. There are profiteers. But there are others working in hope, in secret, and desperate danger, against the invader. And still others are living strangely ambiguous lives – none more so than Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer ("Archer of the yard" as the press like to call him), trying to maintain a peculiarly, almost sacredly, British institution under a Nazi chief.

At the start of the story, Archer is working on what looks like a routine murder case, working under Gruppenführer Fritz Kellerman of the SS. However, that case leads him into encounters with people in the Resistance and he soon has a new assignment, working under an enemy of Kellerman's, Standartenführer Huth, also part of the SS, but under orders from Himmler. 

The people in the resistance who contact him want to rescue the King from the Tower of London and move him to the US. The powers in the US don't want the King to be in North America at all. And there are groups of Germans who are willing to help with any attempt to move the King out the UK. The plot has many twists and turns, and you never know who is trustworthy and who is not. 

My Thoughts:

I have mentioned often on this blog that Len Deighton is one of my favorite authors. I love his writing. This book is no exception. This book is more like his Nameless Spy series in that many of the characters remain a mystery to the reader (or at least to this one). In the Bernard Samson series of nine books you get to know the characters much more. 

Many of Deighton's novels are set in Germany, during the Cold War.  He has a great depth of knowledge of German history, including the years during World War II, so I trust his descriptions of the various German organizations, including the SS, the Gestapo, and the Wehrmacht (military). I find it really hard to keep up with all the military and other titles for the German characters, which is a problem I have with a lot of World War II novels. But that is not the author's fault.

This is a pretty depressing novel; it feels very real and scary. At about 3/4 of the way through I was sure that the story was not going to end well. I was only half right. The ending is ambiguous but hopeful. Nevertheless, I am so glad that I finally read this book, which has been on my TBR pile for 13 years.

We started watching the TV miniseries adaptation of this book (from 2017)  a couple of days after I finished reading the book. It was interesting to see this approach to the book. In the two episodes I have seen so far, it is pretty close to the book, and I like the actor playing Douglas Archer. 

Apparently there are many books depicting an alternate ending to World War II where the Nazis win the war. I have read The Man in the High Castle by Philip Dick, but I have not yet read Fatherland by Robert Harris. This Wikipeda article lists many such depictions in literature and film.

I liked this assessment from Mike Ripley's review at Shots Magazine:

Len Deighton’s SS-GB is a remarkable thriller, starting as a whodunit, morphing into a spy story and then a conspiracy thriller with global implications, but ultimately it is a novel about a decent man trying to do good job of upholding the law even as his world crumbles around him. 


neer said...

I must have Len Deighton during my college days but hardly after that. Have one book on my shelves, will read it one day. Does this book mention what happened to the British empire? How did the Nazis rule India and Britain's other colonies?

neer said...


TracyK said...

Neeru, that is a very interesting idea. No, the book doesn't cover that subject nor that much time. But I wonder if there are other alternate histories that do.

Cath said...

I can remember picking Len Deighton books up from the library for Peter, years ago. He was addicted! I've never tried one, not sure they're for me, but the plot you decribe really drew me in. I sometimes wonder how close we actually came to the scenario in this book.

Sam said...

I'm a huge fan of alternative history novels, and because of that, SS-GB was my introduction to Deighton's novels. I remember most how horrific a thought it was that the Nazis could have taken Great Britain and how different the world might be today if that had happened. And that it was so close to happening in the real world... I've gone on to read lots of Deighton, but this is still one of my favorites of his - although I think his spy novels are also very good.

TracyK said...

Cath, I only have six of Deighton's books on my shelves left to read, and two or three others that I have never found copies of. I would like to reread the Bernard Samson series. Does Peter still read spy fiction and what authors is he reading now?

Something I read recently said that it would not really have been possible for Germany to succeed and take over the UK. I wish I could remember where I read that.

TracyK said...

Sam, I have not read that many alternate history novels; for some reason I buy them and then put off reading them. And then when I do read them, I usually enjoy them. I still have a copy of Fatherland by Robert Harris which I bought years and years ago. But now that I look at the subject matter, I think I would like it.

Deighton is one of my two favorite authors of spy fiction; Charles McCarry is the other one.

Sam said...

Tracy, Harry Turtledove is known for his speculative history series, but I seldom see him mentioned anywhere. That said, he's written a couple of my favorite alternate history standalones: In the Presence of Mine Enemies and Ruled Britania.

The first novel assumes that German wins WWII and now rules most of Western Europe and North America. It's written from the perspective of an army officer in Berlin who is hiding his true identity as a Jew. Very tense and suspenseful.

The second is set in 1597 after Spain has ruled Britain for more than ten years. Along comes Shakespeare who is inspired to write his greatest play that will incite a revolution against Spanish rule. Also very good.

TracyK said...

Sam -- When I worked at an academic publishing company I knew a couple who read a lot of novels by Harry Turtledove. I was mainly interested in mysteries then and wasn't interested in alternate history, but I was aware of his books. Both of those books that you mention sound good. I will see if I can find a copy. I suppose those must be in science fiction at the book sale. I will have to ask my son about that.

You are right, I don't hear much about him anymore. And he sure has written a lot of books.

Bill Selnes said...

TracyK: Interesting post. I have not read SS-GB but have read Fatherland. It is depressing and fascinating and a very good book. After reading it I researched how likely it was that Germany could have successfully invaded England. The strong evidence is that they lacked the capability to mount an attack across the English Channel even if they had control of the air. They had never prepared for an attack across the Channel. They had neither the vessels nor naval support to make an invasion.

TracyK said...

Bill, Thanks for that information. That sounds like what I read, and I am glad to hear that you found that opinion via research.

Good to hear that you liked Fatherland, and I am more motivated to read it now.

Cath said...

No, Peter doesn't read much in the way of spy fiction any more. He always used to mix that with science fiction but now he reads nearly exclusively science fiction. At present he's reading my copy of Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (I haven't read it yet) and says it's very good. He's just been told he has cataracts which can be operated on whenever he's ready so print size is now a bit of an issue too.

Reading the various comments here about the possiblity of Hitler invading Britain in WW2. Bill's comments were especially interesting and make me feel relieved! I did know that towards the end of the war the Nazis were so short of men that they were recruiting teenagers... you can't mount an invasion of a country like that. I do also think that if he tried and succeeded he might've found he'd got a tiger by the tail. I think of my father and uncle and their 'bolshie' (if you know that that term means) personalities and really the whole population was like it back then. Awkward and difficult and not great with authority. Very interesting topic and it would be interesting to read some non-fiction around the subject.

TracyK said...

Reading more science fiction was one of my goals for this year and I haven't done great with that so far. However, this weekend I went to a yard sale (next door) and bought four huge science fiction anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois, and last night I read a novella from one of them (published in 1990). I also got a copy of one of Terry Pratchett's books, Unseen Academicals.

I will probably be having cataract surgery done in 2024, I wasn't quite ready for it this year when I saw my doctor. Small print is a issue for me and I have to have a lot of light to see well at all.

Some reviews on SS-GB said they thought that the British would not have accepted the occupation so easily, even though there was much mention of resistance too. And most of the people in the book that were not resistance had young children to consider. Even though it was an unsettling book it was very interesting.

Lark said...

It's always a good feeling to get another book off your TBR pile...especially one that's been there for years and years. :D

TracyK said...

Lark, I bought this book at book sale along with 5 or 6 other Len Deighton books in 2010, having faith that I would like his writing. I read all the others in 2012, the year I first started blogging. But this one I kept putting off. Luckily, my husband read this one in 2012 and kept telling me how good it was.