Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Mexico Set by Len Deighton

published 1984






Mexico City airport was packed with people. There were Indian women clasping sacks of flour and a sequin-suited rock group guarding their amplifiers. All found some way to deal with the interminable delay: mothers suckled babies, boys raced through the concourse on roller skates, a rug pedlar – burdened under his wares – systematically pitched his captive audience, tour guides paced resolutely, airline staff yawned, footsore hikers snored, nuns told their rosaries, a tall Negro – listening to a Sony Walkman – swayed rhythmically, and some Swedish school kids were gambling away their last few pesos…

Werner was sitting on another of Dicky’s many cases. He was wearing a guyavera, the traditional Mexican shirt that is all pleats and buttons, and with it linen trousers and expensive-looking leather shoes patterned with ventilation holes. Although Werner complained of Mexico’s heat and humidity, the climate seemed to suit him. His complexion was such that he tanned easily, and he was more relaxed in the sunshine than he’d ever seemed to be in Europe.




observations: I liked Berlin Game so much that I immediately bought a hardback omnibus of all three in the first Bernard Samson trilogy. I should warn anyone else doing this: do not look at any of the peripherals of this giant brick-like volume until you have read most of the first two books. The jacket copy, and an introduction written later by Deighton himself, give away half the plot. The blurb is particularly bad – it spoilers the first book, yet at the same time seems to have been written by someone who hasn’t read the books AND is illiterate: quite an achievement. My friend Margot Kinberg took bad blurbs as a topic on her Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog recently, and got a considerable response from her followers. The discussion is fascinating: you can read it here. I’m only sorry I hadn’t read this book in time to add it to the list of felons.

The blurb describes Mexico City (ie the place) as ‘the melting pot – in a very literal sense – which will leave the role of no character unchanged’. Nothing in the book bears this out (quite apart from the misuse of ‘literal’), but the atmosphere of the city is very well done, and made a change from the grim ambience of London and Berlin. (The Cold War was cold, ‘in a very literal sense.’)

The narrator, Bernard, mentions a character as having a PhD in office politics, and that’s a qualification you would have to give Deighton: who knows whether he ever actually was a spy, but you’d put good money on his having worked in offices while he cast a sharp eye about him. He is really excellent, and very very funny, on the way hierarchies work. Bernard’s increasing gloom over all this is a joy to behold, though Deighton does warn us not to take everything he says as gospel.

The character-drawing is also brilliant: ‘Dicky sighed the way he did when one of the clerks returned to him top-secret papers he’d left in the copying machine’. You could read a whole James Bond book without finding that level of one-sentence skewering.

And still seven more books to go….

I assumed, simplistically, that the special Mexican shirt mentioned above might be something bright and gaudy, but apparently not. This picture of guayaberas (the photographer’s preferred spelling) is from Wikimedia Commons, and was taken by Maurice Marcellin.


Mexico has featured before on the blog: Three entries on Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano; Carol Anshaw's swimmer at the 1968 Olympics (fabulous picture); Ayelet Waldman's sleuth visiting a market; Frida Kahlo in Barbara Kingsolver's Lacuna.

10 comments:

  1. Len Deighton is a terrific author. I grew up on his novels though I haven't read anything by him in over two decades. I think I should pamper myself with his Bernard Samson trilogy. Thanks, Moira.

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    1. I don't know why it took me so long to get round to him, Prashant, I had read the odd thing by him, and liked them, but hadn't sought them out. Now I am intending to read the whole triple trilogy, and am really delighted to have them lined up.

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  2. Moira - Thank you for the kind mention. I appreciate it. And thanks too for the blurb warning about this one. I think Deighton is so very talented , and one of his skills is an eagle eye for details. And yet, his stories aren't overburdened with minutiae. And yes, the wit is definitely there.

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    1. Exactly Margot - so clever, and easy reading at the same time. And I was one of many people who enjoyed (and cheered on) your take on blurbs.

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  3. I love this series so much. I have got to get back to it (at book 7). I started reading Deighton in 2012, and I could not believe I had missed him all these years. I love Werner and the relationship he and Bernard have. I am probably missing someone, but I would say that Deighton is my #2 favorite author after Rex Stout. I have only read three non-Bernard books, and none were as good as those. But still...

    In one of my reviews I quoted Deighton, who said that you can start anywhere in the series. I, of course, disagree, but it is his series.

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    1. I am so with you Tracy - I too can't believe that I didn't read these years ago. I remember I had friends who were waiting for the new books, buying them the day they came out, so I have no excuse, I didn't listen to my friends! And yes, I read him saying that, and totally disagreed... you certainly have to read the first one first, you can't read it after the others. And in progression they read particularly well...

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  4. Omigosh. More good books. I haven't read books by Len Deighton, and am not drawn to espionage-type plots. Day to day life is enough and murders within a country are enough for me without international intrigues.

    But I may try one. Can you suggest one book by him? I can't take on a series, even a trilogy. My TBR stacks and lists are humongous and I'll have an anxiety attack if I add much more!!!

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    1. I know what you mean Kathy, but as Tracy and I say above, once we read him we wished we'd started earlier. I liked the Ipcress File - this is one blog entry on it, with a link to another: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/dress-down-sunday-ipcress-file-by-len.html - though not as much as these...

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  5. One of these days, I'll get around to him......hopefully

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    1. I'm going to keep pushing him at you as I work through the series...

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