Big Soft Girls and Jazz Workshops

Funeral in Berlin 3

published 1964

Funeral in Berlin 1

[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.

Funeral in Berlin 2

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.
‘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.

Funeral in Berlin 5

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…
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.
But after reading it I am not really any the wiser.

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.

Funeral in Berlin 6


  1. I couldn't agree more about that quote, Moira. I've no idea why that would have been chosen. At any rate, I do like Deighton's wit and skill at creating atmosphere. I'm glad you found things to like about this one, even if you didn't see it as Deighton at his best.

    1. I think he suffers because he's SO good when he's on top form, and that's why I was a touch disappointed.
      And as for that quote - it will remain forever a mystery I think...

  2. It's probably the most straightforward as regards plot of the three that were adapted for the cinema in the '60s (IPCRESS is fine, but when I first read it there were moments where I had to go back a bit and try and work out what was going on) although the tone, as you point out, is rather wobbly and makes it hard to enjoy.

    The Knickerbocker quote (that's a great title for a thriller!) does make him sound like a pretentious twonk, although it's possible that it could be a printing error. I remember ages ago reading someone making a bizarre statement in a magazine interview about people's existences depending on where they were 'lopped off the moon'. There was some debate about what this particular expression meant and someone finally asked the interviewee what on earth he meant. It turned out that the original interviewer had misheard the man's reply, and what he actually said was 'dropped from the womb'. It's probably not what happened here, but you never know.

    Some lare '60s paperbacks have absolutely wacky covers, so it doesn't surprise me about the wacky quotes. It does make you wonder whether anyone during the process of creating the paperback edition actually asked what on earth the quote meant. Maybe they did wonder, but were afraid of seeming dumb...


    1. Yes, the Guardian has a classic one where they quoted a football manager saying his club was the 'worst team in the League'. He was actually joking that they had the worst TEA in the League. It makes me laugh every time I think of it, and all journos look a bit shifty at this point as they think what could have gone wrong, and what actually did go wrong. I had a few moments myself that I'm not admitting. Apart from this, a written one. It had been typed as demon trators. So I corrected it to 'demon traitors' (not at all impossible in the context) - but actually it was the much blander 'demonstrators'....

      At Penguin I think it was the work experience intern: who EITHER got something stupid in as a joke, or else thought 'I ought to know what this means, it sounds clever.'

      Mr Knickerbocker's thoughts are quite beyond me though.

    2. To me the article reads like an apology for enjoying spy novels, much the way a reviewer twenty years earlier would apologize for reading detective stories.

    3. I do see what you mean. But 'big soft girls' is hard to parse. There is a UK expression (not really OK these days...) 'big girl's blouse' to imply a weak or feeble man, usually (I think) used ironically or affectionately, it's a joke insult. I don't know if this was the equivalent of big soft girls. Can't find the phrase elsewhere.

  3. It's bizarre, Moira! Somehow such a flavour of the sixties to the quote. I do like the detail you've quoted - he is so good at that. I like 'girls with silver hair eating Bockworst.'

    1. Yes that's true, 60s-ish. And yes - he is a very good writer.

  4. The only thing I read by Len Deighton that I did not like was Ipcress File, and at this point I would probably like it if I reread it. (It was the first thing I read by him and I was so disappointed.) It was way too confusing for me and it did not even make sense until I saw the movie later. This was more straightforward as ggary says, and it is still my favorite of the nameless spy series (that I have read). But those are not nearly as good as the Bernard Samson series, in my estimation. I love the quotes you chose. And that advertising quote is a mystery, but then I dislike and mistrust most quotes on book covers.

    1. And thanks for linking to my review. I got carried away thinking about Deighton.

    2. I am with you on the Samson stories: much the best of his books for me. But I liked the Ipcress File better than this, so we can still vary.
      I hate quotes that either spoiler, or get things badly wrong - and there are many of them. I suppose this is harmless in comparison. But you are right to mistrust...

  5. I've read the four unnamed spy books (or five if you count AN EXPENSIVE PLACE TO DIE) and a couple of the later standalones but I haven't sampled any of the Bernard Samson books. I guess it's about time I did.

    BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN remains my favourite. I loved the movie version as well (directed by Ken Russell of all people).

    1. For years I thought Billion Dollar Brain was some kind of children's film, it had that ring to it, like a Disney live-action. Still never read or seen it, but you are encouraging me to try. Ken Russell, hey? How unlikely.
      I do love the Samson books, as I say above.

    2. But Ken Russell directed The Boyfriend, and I love that film.

    3. True enough - I have very mixed reactions to Ken Russell, but always willing to give him a try. I watched The Devils after reading the book it was based on (in the early days of the blog), and was amazed by it, the production was so imaginative and unusual.

  6. I remember my brother going to school in the 1960's with someone whose father worked in the TV industry & everyone being astonished by the fact they had a colour TV - especially as we didn't have a TV at all then & didn't get a colour one until well into the 1970's. I also remember in SE England, 'Swiss' yogurt from the milkman in the early 60's - smooth, firmly set pots of plain, strawberry or chocolate. It was a real treat for a sickly child.

    1. You must have been southerners or posh! It definitely hadn't made it to the North till later in the 60s (along with pizza and proper pasta). I suspect that even if you had a colour TV there was nothing to see in colour in the early 60s...

  7. Being born in SE England certainly made us southerners, but sadly not posh - we had the same yogurt selling milkman (& absence of any sort of TV) as everyone else in the village. Living in a very rural area, we didn't see pizza until well into the 1970's & only tasted pasta with sauce after my mother saw a Sophia Loren recipe for bolognese in a newspaper at around that time :)

    1. I can remember a friend asking me if I knew where she could buy lasagne: it was as if she was talking a foreign language. However, I quickly discovered what delicious results could come from finding it. We didn't have fancy fruit and vegetables either - no peppers or avocados till later...


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