[The unnamed narrator is in Berlin to mastermind a spying operation]
Just a little way down the street beyond the shell of the Gedächtniskirche with its slick modern tower – like a tricky sort of hi-fi speaker cabinet – apeing the old broken one is Kranzlers, a café that spreads itself across the Kurfürstendamm pavement. We ordered coffee and the US army major sat on the far side of the table and spent ten minutes tying the laces of his shoes. Across in the ‘Quick Café’ two girls with silver hair were eating Bockwurst. I looked at Johnnie Vulkan. Growing older seemed to agree with him. He didn’t look a day over forty, his hair was like a tailored Brillo pad and his face tanned. He wore a well-cut Berlin suit of English pinhead worsted.
On the Ku-damm the pavement cafés had closed their glass sides tight and turned on the infra-red heating. In the glass cases diners moved like carnivorous insects. Here the well-dressed Insulaner ate, argued, bartered and sat over one coffee for hours until the waiters made their annoyance too evident.
commentary: There are books by Len Deighton that I have liked a lot more than this one, which I found problematic (though I know for many people it’s a favourite). I thought it had very awkward changes of tone between Austin-Powers-like 60s spyworld, and what happened in the concentration camps in WW2, and I found that hard to take. On the other hand there were the usual fine Deighton jokes:
Jean said ‘Whom do you feel like?’
I liked that ‘whom’ – you’ve got to pay real money these days to get a secretary that could say that.And
‘Keep a foot in each camp, Johnnie,’ I said, ‘and they’ll build the barbed wire through you.’I was fascinated by the details of 1964 life – the milkman delivers yogurt with the milk (he most certainly wasn’t doing that in Liverpool in that era: we’d never heard of yogurt) and someone wants a 21-inch colour TV with a remote control, which astonished me. Girls do the twist in nightclubs, but the offices of Spy Central are heated by coal fires.
There are strange footnotes: insulaner, above, is explained as: 'islanders – Berliners’ name for themselves.' And there are also some intriguing facts:
June the sixth, 1944, was D-Day; up till then you British had lost more people in wartime traffic accidents than you had lost in battle.- referenced convincingly in the footnotes.
But what really fascinated me about the book was the quote from Life that publishers Penguin chose to put on the back cover.
What on earth does this mean? And why in this world would you ever use it as an advertising quote?
I managed to track down the original review in Life magazine in April 1965, and this is the surrounding paragraph:
The thriller is borrowing the props of the conventional “literary” novel…But after reading it I am not really any the wiser.
No wonder a newspaper reviewer breathlessly declared that “the vitality of the modern thriller flows directly from the bloody realities of our embattled day”. Next, big soft girls will read Len Deighton aloud in jazz workshops. The real question is not whether the new thrillers are literature (the answer is no) but whether they really do tell anything about the latest symptom of fiction’s increasing inability to get to the terrifying matters of our time.
Conrad Knickerbocker wrote it: that sounds like a made-up name but isn’t. His father was a well-known journalist, Conrad was a book reviewer at the NYTimes. You might also conclude that he was a pretentious jackass (read the whole thing below, sorry it is small and hard to make out) and I would not argue.
But I am lost in the thought of some young assistant at Penguin deciding this was the way to go with the publicity.
If you have any ideas about what it all means, please do share them in the comments below.
With thanks to MCG for drawing my attention to this.
Len Deighton plainly loves Berlin, and he also loves the cafes there. The black and white photos above are ones I originally found for a blogpost on his book Spy Sinker. The top one is from the Federal German archives, and shows a café in Berlin in 1972. The lower one was taken by Willy Pragher and is on Wikimedia Commons: it was taken in the Kurfurstendamm in 1960.
Tracy over at Bitter Tea and Mystery liked this book more than I did, and Martin Edwards wrote about the Michael Caine film (which I haven’t seen) here.