Monday, June 11, 2012

D is for Len Deighton

This post is my contribution to the Crime Fiction Alphabet community meme for this week. The letter is D, and this gives me the opportunity to feature an author I really enjoy reading. Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other D entries.

This is the year I discovered Len Deighton.  A couple of years ago I researched his books and wondered why I had never pursued them. When I attended the Big September Book Sale that I go to yearly, I picked up as many of his books as I could: The IPCRESS File, the first four Bernard Samson books (the Game, Set, and Match trilogy, plus Spy Hook), SS-GB, and Winter. So I was set.

The first book I read this year was The IPCRESS File. I have to admit I was disappointed. I found the book confusing and disjointed. I read many reviews afterwards. There were other people who had the same problems I had, but the vast majority loved it, and it is on many lists of iconic spy fiction.  Maybe on a re-read I will appreciate it more, and I just purchased the next two nameless spy books because I have read so many good reviews and articles.

This excerpt from an article at The Guardian describes a similar reaction from Kingsley Amis:
His first novel, The Ipcress File, was framed as a story told by the narrator to the Minister of Defence, who is cut off sharply when he tries to elicit an elaboration of a point:

    ''It's going to be very difficult for me if I have to answer questions as I go along," I said. "If it's all the same to you, Minister, I'd prefer you to make a note of the questions, and ask me afterwards."
    "My dear chap, not another word, I promise."
    And throughout the entire explanation he never again interrupted.

In an excoriating essay written in 1964, Kingsley Amis suggested that the reason for this was that the minister had fallen asleep. But later he changed his mind somewhat: in a letter to Philip Larkin in 1985, he wrote that Deighton's work was "actually quite good if you stop worrying about what's going on".
Moving on to the other books, I read Berlin Game, Mexico Set, and London Match in February of this year. I immediately became a Len Deighton fan.  And a Bernard Samson fan (the protagonist of the novels).  My brief reviews are here and here.

Next I read Winter, which is described as a prequel to the Bernard Samson series. Although it is not a mystery, some of the characters do get involved with the intelligence community during World War II.  It actually fits well between the Game, Set and Match trilogy and Spy Hook, because Spy Hook includes characters that are in Winter. This is the story of a family in Germany from 1900 to 1945. It is a very ambitious book and it did not grab me as much as the others, possibly because of the length. (My review here.) On the other hand, my current reading subject of choice is World War II and England and Germany, and it fit right in. It motivated me to read Richard J. Evan's The Coming of the Third Reich, which I am doing right now.

Spy Hook

And the last fiction book I completed was Spy Hook. This continues the story of Bernard Samson, an intelligence officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Like most spy fiction I have read, there is a large cast of characters, some continuing from the earlier novels, some new. Samson has personal relationships with old friends from Berlin and business relationships with other intelligence officers, and has to balance his loyalties and determine who he can trust. Family relationships are a big theme, probably one of the reasons I like the series. There is a  lot of traveling and investigation in this one; some of the earlier ones focused more on the day-to-day office experience of the intelligence officer.

I am deliberately avoiding much mention of the actual plot and what drives a lot of Samson's actions, because that could hamper the enjoyment of earlier books in series, if you have not read them. I do recommend reading them in order, and starting with Berlin Game. This one has a cliff hanger ending, which normally would annoy me, but since I know I will be continuing with Bernard's story, it worked well for me. I enjoy Bernard Samson's company almost as much as Archie Goodwin, the first person narrator of the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. 

Further reading

A list of all the Bernard Samson novels with year published:

1. Berlin Game (1983)
2. Mexico Set (1984)
3. London Match (1985)
4. Spy Hook (1988)
5. Spy Line (1989)
6. Spy Sinker (1990)
7. Faith (1994)
8. Hope (1995)
9. Charity (1996)

I do have plans for reading more Deighton this year. I will complete the Bernard Samson series, I hope. I have ordered Spy Line and Faith, and will be looking for Spy Sinker. I will definitely read XPD, and probably SS-GB.  Both of those are alternate histories. My husband read SS-GB a few months ago and rated it highly. And if there is time, the next two novels in the nameless spy series: Horse Under Water and Funeral in Berlin.

There are many more books by Deighton.  More in the nameless spy series, other fiction and non-fiction books.

This post is already much longer than I intended, so I will end with a couple of links.

The Deighton Dossier is just an amazing resource on Len Deighton and his books. There is so much more to know about him than I can cover here.

There is a nice review of Winter at Simon's Book Blog.  The blog appears to have reviews of most of Deighton's books.


Anonymous said...

Tracy - I'm glad you mentioned The Ipcresss File. I admit I've not read a lot of Deighton's work, but that was a good one. I think you've made a terrific choice for D :-).

Unknown said...

I like spy novels. I'll have to check out some in the series.

Rob Mallows said...

Thank you for the kind words about the Deighton Dossier website. It's a bit of a labour of love, but it's fun to do. It's being updated shortly with a new design! Keep visiting it for news about Len and all his works, old and (hopefully) new.

TracyK said...

I certainly will keep visiting. I have just scratched the surface of the information there.

srivalli said...

I picked up Deoghton's XPD for the A to Z reading challenge, for letter x. I didn't know anything about Deighton. Your write up makes me think that probably I made a good choice.

Deighton Dossier said...

Tracy, you must get around to Faith, Hope & Charity - they change your understanding of the story so far.

TracyK said...

I know. I keep getting hints of that when I read about the books, so I am not going to read another review until I am through all of the them. I am going to have to go into hiding and just read Len Deighton for a while.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Great overview Tracy and it is very good of you not to give away that pivotal ending to BERLIN GAME - I love Deighton, always enjoyed his work as a sort of hybrid of Raymond Chandler and Eric Ambler (I think that is a fairly commonly held view so shan't hog the credit for that potential insight). Now that he appears to have stopped writing, it is extraordinary to look at the way he chose to conclude his career with the 10-volume Samson saga, which is an amazing achievement. SPY SINKER is especially worth reading as it looks at the saga (up to that point) from a radically different point of view.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Sergio. I am eager to finish up at least that part of the series (Spy Line and Spy Sinker) soon.