Friday, 1 May 2015

Spy Line by Len Deighton



published 1989



Spy line


[Bernard Samson is in Berlin for a key meeting, and gets caught up in a social event with old friends]

It was something more than the official reopening of the hotel. And it was Frank’s presence at the party at Lisl’s on Sunday evening that told me that he felt the same way. Frank was past retirement, soon he would be gone. Looking back on it afterwards, I saw that he regarded it as his very own gala finale… Lisl’s was the only place in Berlin to celebrate, and having decided that, he was at his most ebullient and charming. He even wore fancy costume: the Duke of Wellington! ‘It’s the end of an era,’ said Lisl…

‘There must be a hundred and fifty people out there,’ [Werner] told me. ‘Half of them gatecrashers. The word got around I suppose; they’re all in costume.’ It was typical of him that he should show a trace of pride that so many should want to gatecrash his party. ‘Do you want the Duchess to tell your fortune, Lisl?’

‘No, I don’t,’ said Lisl.

‘They say she’s a witch,’ said Werner as if that was a recommendation.

[During the party, a message comes that the key players have to head for a rendezvous]

‘Go! Go! We’ll sort it out at the checkpoint,’ I yelled. Teacher let in the clutch and there was a squeak of rubber and a sickening bump followed by a woman’s scream….

‘I’m here, darling,’ said a voice from the back. ‘I can guess who you are going to meet. If you dare to try throwing me out at the checkpoint I’ll scream it aloud to the whole world. You wouldn’t like that, would you?’


 
Spy line 2
 
 
 

observations: Len Deighton’s masterwork (amongst an absolutely extraordinary output – his list of published books, fiction and non-fiction, is astonishing) is the triple trilogy, plus one prequel, of Bernard Samson books. Last year I embarked on the series, and blogged on the first four. There was then a gap while I had a book-buying embargo and cleared some bookshelves. Now I’m going for five more, and this is the next one along.

Deighton always says the books can be read as standalones, can be read in any order – but as I’ve said before, the daring reader can disagree with that. So I will try to avoid spoilers, which does rather limit what I can say about the plots – which are steeped in the ways and lives of Berlin in the year or two before the wall came down.

But as ever there are plenty of great clothes descriptions – and in this one a fancy dress party, something I always strongly approve of. A number of the characters leave the ball in dramatic circumstances to head for a vital meetup, so the van is being driven by a gorilla, and there is a random extra person in the back dressed as a butterfly. It is the strongest and strangest kind of black comedy/tragedy, and the events will reverberate through all the books to come.

The book also features Deighton’s terrific character-drawing and clever aphorisms, for example:
Werner would have been the perfect spy: except that perfect spies, like perfect husbands, are too predictable to survive in a world where fortune favours the impulsive. 

I can truly say that most of the worst experiences of my life sprang from some notion, order, favour or plan that I first encountered over a cup of Dicky’s wonderful coffee. 
‘I’ll leave it for the weekend; they might respond again.’ Good old Frank: never hesitate to do nothing.

There is also an excellent toxic dinnerparty, something I always enjoy. In fact you could argue that Len Deighton is the Anthony Powell of the espionage world – Powell’s books always move from one social setpiece to another, and that’s what these books do.

The top picture, from the National Library of Wales, shows a ball in Wales in the 1950s, but the smart people and the unlikely skeleton fit this book, and what happens after the party - it seem just right.

The other photograph shows modern remnants of the Berlin wall,and was taken by Audrey Stafford last year. 


















16 comments:

  1. Moira, yesterday, I revisited the Books by Weight exhibition almost a stone's throw from my office and saw a lineup of paperbacks by Len Deighton including his Bernard Samsom trilogy. I resisted the temptation of buying any because I want to reduce my own pile of books first. I have LONDON MATCH, the concluding book in the series, and will read it after books one and two. In the past I have read Deighton's standalone novels, like XPD, set in post-WWII.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He is such a good writer. And I know the feeling well - a bargain on a writer I like, but a reluctance to increase those huge piles of books...

      Delete
  2. Maybe 2016 will be Deighton reading year for me? I shouldn't leave it too long.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suspect that once you start you will really like him. Time to get going!

      Delete
  3. Ah, so glad to see this here, Mora! Deighton has that great combination of wit, eye for detail and plotting that makes a book really work - at least for me. And I find it interesting, too, that he's got the ability to give you details about a person (including clothing) without overburdening. Not easy to pull of!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I so agree, Margot, he is such a talented writer: and clever, serious, funny and tense is not an easy combination to bring off, but he succeeds every time.

      Delete
  4. Oh dear. I tried Len Deighton a long, long time ago, and didn't get along with him at all. You make him sound more appealing than I remember, but I'm not sure I could cope with a re-read... nor even for wonderful descriptions of clothes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The only thing I would say is that I felt rather like that about him - I read something years ago and thought it quite routine, but had a completely different reaction to a different book this time...

      Delete
  5. Moira: Having just finished a modern spy thriller, Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews, the contrast with Deighton is so extreme. None of the current spies even attend a party let alone a fancy dress supper. Spies of yesteryear had more interesting lives.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Give me a book with a social event every time! Although Palace of Treason did sound good in your review.

      Delete
  6. I started out with Deighton's Ipcress File, and did not like that one so well. But I love the Bernard Samson books, as you know. I keep hoping to get to #8 in the series, but it gets pushed back.

    I had forgotten about the costume party and the gorilla driving the van. I remember being very confused by that series of scenes. I seem to remember a toxic dinner party in the 7th one also, but maybe I am confusing that one with this one.

    And I am on the "must read in order" side for this series.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh there's definitely many toxic dinner parties in this series, Deighton likes describing them. And the food is so much of its era - in one of them there is a catered, very posh, dinner party, and one of the courses is microwaved frozen mini-pizzas.

      Delete
  7. Thanks for reminding me about him, Moira. I have so much enjoyed Len Deighton in the past - and I have a copy of The Ipcress File on my shelves which I mean to read.
    The fancy dress party sounds wonderful. I'm going to have one in a story one day.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh please do - then I can do a blog entry on it...

      Delete
  8. Isn't he a good writer - I really must read him again, and surely from the beginning. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm sure I'm going to need to read them all again, in the light of later revelations...

      Delete