Thursday, October 14, 2021

#1976Club: Catch a Falling Spy

I love spy fiction, and especially Cold War spy fiction. Len Deighton is one of my favorite authors in that genre. When I saw that one of his spy fiction novels was published in 1976 and I had not read it, I picked it to read for the 1976 Club. Deighton's first five fiction books featured an unnamed British spy. Three of those books were later made into films starring Michael Caine. The spy was given a name in the films: Harry Palmer. This book was the seventh and last book by Deighton that featured an unnamed spy, but he is not the same spy as in the earlier books. Not that it matters.

This novel felt like a world tour. It starts out in the Algerian Sahara Desert and returns to that spot for the denouement.  In between we visit multiple spots in the US and France and Ireland. The story is narrated by the unnamed British agent. It was originally published in the UK as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy.

In Algeria, the narrator and his partner in this mission, Major Mann of the US Secret Service, meet with Professor Bekuv, a Russian defector. The two agents are charged with getting Bekuv to the US and determining if he really has the information he is offering in return for asylum in the US.

In New York the agents try to get more information out of Bekuv. He demands that they bring his wife to the US to be with him, but our pair of agents are not committing to that. Then it turns out that a highly placed CIA operative has already gotten her over to the US, and the two are reunited. Bekuv is ditzy, focused more on communication with aliens in outer space and not interested in strategic scientific pursuits. His wife seems to be running the show. 

Mann and the UK agent meet up with Mann's wife and a friend of theirs, Red Bancroft. Red had shown up at a cocktail party earlier and the unnamed narrator finds her very intriguing and attractive. This foursome, plus the Bekuvs, head for the Catskills to celebrate Christmas. [If I had known this was set around Christmas time, I might have saved it for a December read.] They take the Bekuvs to Mass on Christmas Eve, and as they leave the church, Mrs. Bekuv is stabbed. By whom? For what reason? 

The agents want to know who Bekuv has been getting information on US scientific research. Mrs. Bekuv supplies the name of his contact: Henry Mann, an ex-CIA agent now living in France (and coincidentally an old friend of Major Mann). And at this point we are only at the one-third point in the book. So the rest of the book is spent chasing down leads from the intell they get and determining what to do with the Bekuvs. Is their decision to defect genuine?

My thoughts:

Happily, I liked this book best of all of Deighton's unnamed spy novels. This book (like others by Deighton) is often described as complex and confusing but it was fine with me. A more frenetic and active adventure than most cold war stories I read, but a lot of fun. The partnership between the UK agent and Major Mann adds interest and humor. They work well together.

This book highlights one of the costs of a career in the secret service. It is very hard to have a relationship of any depth or length. The British narrator falls for Red Bancroft, but she has needs and ambitions of her own. A major theme is the complexity of relationships of any type in spy fiction and the inability to really trust anyone.

I have noticed now that I am drawn to novels with defections and the problems surrounding them. I have read two other books about defections written in the 1970s. I wonder if that was a time when defections were of special interest? Robert Littell's debut novel, published in 1973, The Defection of A. J. Lewinter, is about the defection of a US scientist to the USSR. Charlie M (1977) by Brian Freemantle is about a Russian KGB official who wants to defect to the US.

The author:

Len Deighton. born in 1929, is best known for his novels, but has also written works of military history, screenplays and cookbooks. I have read all nine of the Bernard Samson series, plus Winter, a historical novel which features characters from the Samson series. I have read four of the Nameless Spy series and I like them, but I still prefer the Samson series. 

I am enjoying reading and reviewing novels from 1976 this week for the 1976 Club, hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings


Publisher:   Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1976 
Length:       268 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      Algeria, US, France, Ireland.
Genre:        Espionage thriller
Source:      I purchased my copy in 2015.


Rick Robinson said...

Another spy novel! I have to admit I got completely lost while reading your plot summary; I just couldn’t make sense of it. I vaguely recall trying one of Deighton’s books sometime in the mid-Eighties and not finishing it. I guess I’m just not a spy novel person, I even struggled to finish Le Carry’s Spy Came In From the Cold.

Rick Robinson said...

Damn. Le Carre

TracyK said...

Rick, I love spy novels. But I know many readers don't share my affection for that genre.

This one is really all over the place but I liked it. Some of Deighton's novels are not so complicated, and I do like other spy fiction authors who write more cerebral, slower stories. Like le Carre and Anthony Price and sometimes Charles McCarry.

dfordoom said...

I have this one in my To Be read pile at the moment. I've only read early Deighton, up to and including SPY STORY (which features an unnamed spy who isn't the same unnamed spy, or perhaps he is). I prefer Deighton to le Carre although I like both (and if I'm in a particular mood I might switch to preferring le Carre).

I adore spy fiction although mostly it's the spy fiction of an earlier era (writers like Graham Greene and Eric Ambler). I like the paranoid sort of spy thriller and Deighton's books certain qualify on that count. And Deighton's style is just so much fun - he could ramp up the paranoia and still be entertaining and witty.

Lark said...

I've only read one book by Len Deighton, but I really liked it. I should read a few more by him. Good to know this one was so much fun.

TracyK said...

Dfordoom, I still haven't read An Expensive Place to Die or Spy Story. And a lot of his standalone books, but I have copies of most of them. The other spy fiction author that I rate as high as Deighton is Charles McCarry, but I have many others that I like. Le Carre, Ambler and some newer authors. I have not read enough Graham Greene.

Margot Kinberg said...

I'm not the spy fiction reader that you are, Tracy, but I agree the Deighton's work is fantastic. He has a way of making the characters really human, and of weaving in some wit in a very effective way (at least I think so).

TracyK said...

Lark, I haven't read a book by Deighton that I did not like. I will admit the first one I read, and one of his most well known books, The Ipcress File, confused me completely. But I am glad I persevered and read more of his books.

TracyK said...

I think you have described his talents very well, Margot. The characters are always good, and interesting.

Sam Sattler said...

I've read quite a few of Deighton's spy novels, but not this one. Sounds good, especially the Algeria setting, a country I lived and worked in for almost ten years in some of the 90s and 2000s. I need to find this one, keep doing that to me. :-)

TracyK said...

Sam, I am sure you would appreciate the Algerian portions of the book. They are not very long and I do not know how realistic the portrayal of the setting is, although I think Deighton traveled a lot. I enjoyed those parts of it.

I haven't lived in very many places in my life, and haven't even traveled outside of the US really. Alabama and California, with a brief 2-3 months in Texas in the early seventies. I envy the traveling and living in other countries that you have done.

Katrina said...

I didn't realise this one was a 1976 publication otherwise I would have read it. It's also titled Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy.

TracyK said...

Katrina, that UK title for the book sounds nicer, but neither title makes sense to me (as far as the plot of the book goes). And in both cases, I keep switching "Spy" for "Star" in the title. Initially I had planned to read two translated mysteries for the 1976 Club, I will have to get to them sometime next year instead.

col2910 said...

I must try and get to Len Deighton two series next year. Or at least some of them. Brian Freemantle had another great book regarding defection that might be worth a look - Goodbye to an Old Friend.

TracyK said...

Col, I have several eBooks by Freemantle on the Kindle, and Goodbye to an Old Friend is one of them. I will see if I can fit it in soon. It isn't very long.

I do hope you try both of the series in 2022. I would like to see what you think of them.

dfordoom said...

Tracy, I haven't read Charles McCarry. I'll have to check him out.

As for Graham Greene, MINISTRY OF FEAR is not a bad place to start on his spy fiction. A very underrated book.

Greene's spy fiction ranges from light-hearted, whimsical and very funny (OUR MAN IN HAVANA) to incredibly dark and bleak (THE QUIET AMERICAN). And they're both great books. You can kinda tell that Greene was bipolar!

TracyK said...

Thanks for these suggestions, Dfordoom. I do have Ministry of Fear and a few other books by Greene on my Kindle, but I prefer to read hard copy editions. Either way though, I intend to read more of them.

kaggsysbookishramblings said...

I've not read Deighton, though Mr K is a huge fan of the Harry Palmer films. Great choice for 1976! I'd second the recommendation of Ministry of Fear - it's excellent!

TracyK said...

Kaggsy, I have to admit that The Ipcress File, both in book form and the film, was very confusing to me. But all the rest of the Harry Palmer films were a lot of fun.

I will be looking out for a copy of Ministry of Fear and other books by Graham Greene. I usually have a backlog on my TBR for someone like Greene, but for some reason I haven't run into the books at stores or book sales. So I will have to look for them specifically.

Simon T (StuckinaBook) said...

I'm glad someone got Deighton in, to truly represent the 1970s!

TracyK said...

That's true, Simon, he does a good job of describing the 1970s. The 1970s were not a great decade for me personally, so I remember the 1980s better.