Dismissed Dead by Rod Brammer, Elliott and Thompson £7.99, ISBN 978-1-9040-2772-0
This is the second book following the exploits of Royal Naval intelligence officer Keith Finlay. Set in the sixties, twenty-six year old Lieutenant Finlay is charged by his Admiralty bosses with going over the wire into East Berlin - or in this case, struggle under it - through the....frankly...shit of the Berlin sewer system, to meet up with a scientist who can provide British intelligence with a copy of a new type of Red Army bullet capable of cutting through Britain's tank armour.
Having read Jeremy Duns' excellent Free Agent earlier this year which also goes back to the an unknown corner of the Cold War in the sixties for inspiration, I saw parallels with this book. In the case of Dismissed Dead, the unknown corner is the soviet republic of Turkmenistan in central Asia, where Keith Finlay is held in a Soviet army hospital having been captured during a firefight at the East German border in which, selflessly, his comrade-in-arms Major Patrick Canavan helps him get the bullet back to the British forces on the other side of the fence, but is subsequently killed. The guilt lays heavy on him. Finlay is presumed killed in action - his personnel file marked "Dismissed Dead" - and, out of sight and out of mind from the British secret service, he has to win a battle of wills with the lead KGB interrogator and the attentions of the luscious - but duplicitous - female KGB spy/nurse Daria.
Naturally - like all good secret agents should - he succumbs to her sexual charms before - through a UK mole in the hospital staff - contact is made with the secret service which must exfiltrate him, disguised as a shepherd travelling anonymously through the dangerous hillsides of Afghanistan - so, nothing changes there - and get him back to the UK where, psychologically scarred, Finlay has to assess his motivations as an agent and re-establish relations with his family who - his aunt aside - already consider him dead.
The majority of this book takes place not in Berlin, as the title and cover would suggest, but in the Turkmen hospital where Finlay has to deal with the psychological terrors of Soviet torture. So, that was a bit of a surprise - I think Berlin is always a great character in itself in any Cold War spy novel - but Brammer does nevertheless create a convincingly claustrophobic atmosphere in the KGB hospital.
It's obvious from reading this part of the book that much of the harsh reality of the treatment of enemy agents - and the moral and physical strength required to sustain hope thousands of miles behind enemy lines - comes either from Brammer's own direct experiences as an agent or is based on real operations undertaken by British agents at the height of the Cold War. Rather like Len Deighton's novels, the story is augmented and supported by realism and demonstration of believable detail. You can sense the anguish and pain Finlay goes through.
Keith Finlay - welcomingly politically incorrect and womanising (though Guardian readers would call him sexist!) and in the mould of a Harry Palmer character - but from the hunting rather than the football classes - is a tough, no-nonsense agent who regularly rubs up authority the wrong way and does things his own way (it would be a poor spy story in which any agent followed the rules and health and safety guidance!). He has the stomach to not only survive but escape Soviet capture and regain his freedom and his mind. At times, the character felt very autobiographical - perhaps a little too much with some of the family back story and figures of speech - and his 1960s view of the world, while authentic, may jar a little with modern readers. But, there's real scope for development with this character, who is both apparently an extraordinarily effective agent but also full of doubt about whether the role he performs is right.
Heir to Deighton? Well, no. And I don't think the author would necessarily say so either; that's the marketing team talking. Nevertheless, he has the benefit of some fantastic experiences - and characters - from his own career to fall back on in developing this character. His book is a good straightforward spy story, a plane or train thriller that has enough to sustain it.
I finished with some questions about gaps in the understanding of Finlay's character, but that is probably a function of my not having read the first book and the fact that - as the author indicates below - this is a story over a number of books in which the full impact of Keith Finlay's career choice - and the competing pulls of family and country - play out.
Q and A with Rod Brammer, author
Having read the book, Rod was kind enough to chat to me over the phone and give some insight into his career as a naval intelligence officer and to help me understand the extent to which his life and career has nourished the character and stories of Keith Finlay, naval intelligence operative. Much of what Rod told me about his life in naval intelligence I cannot probably safely reveal, but he did spin magnificent tales of the times he met Ian Fleming - of course, himself a former naval intelligence officer - and the genesis of the James Bond character, another agent who was known to Rod. Anyway, I asked Rod to respond to a number of questions which occurred to me upon reading this, his second book:
Deighton Dossier: How much of the character Keith Finlay is based on yourself?
Rod Brammer: This is the most frequently asked question about the books. My answer is invariably the same: as much as you yourself want it to be. The detailed portrayal of the world of sixties' Whitehall, and the disdain the main character shows for the non-service personnel, is easily explained. In the main, civil servants have neither the education, vision, breadth of knowledge or the training to think laterally, everything is therefore done in straight lines. They simply "follow the yellow brick road.”
DD: The torture scenes in the book, when Finlay is interrogated by his case officer Gregor, were pretty convincing. Were they drawn from any particular experiences or true stories?
RB: That particular section of Dismissed Dead was actually written thirty years ago, and was largely taken from the original de-briefing notes. These notes are held in a solicitors safe, in Winchester, Hampshire, to be given to my family after I pop my clogs. In fact, I cannot now remember what I wrote in that section of the book - I have never read it since it was printed. I refused to proof read it or even look at it. Well, would you want to go back there?
The character of Keith Finlay is sixty seven now. The physical scars are mainly faded - the mental ones not. The next book, Too few to mention, covers some aspects of torture visited on a colleague of his, who was sent home in a body bag. In my books I am keen that the reader knows the true cost sometimes visited on intelligence agents, in order that the population at large can sleep safe in their beds.
DD: One of the trends in modern spy fiction I see is that the lead characters are often flawed individuals, whose hang-ups and personal life frequently help define the tone and direction of the plot. How would you describe Keith Finlay's flaws?
RB: Character is defined in childhood. If you read A Flag on the Abbey [the first Keith Finlay adventure] you will see that his upbringing was unconventional by today’s standards. He probably thought - if in fact he ever thought about such things - that his life was entirely normal. Using the vernacular of the period, Finlay’s family are “landed gentry”, certainly not nouveau riche. He was raised by a doting, autocratic aunt, an extremely beautiful lady of outspoken attitudes, who described the Prime Minister of the time as a “dreadful little oike.” Finlay was created as outspoken and bluntly to the point. He has the capacity to offender, but his attitude to those in authority or in his life whom he offends is pretty disdainful. Finlay has been described as being as "politically correct as a cluster bomb". He had - and still has - a weakness for girls in jodhpurs.
DD: Though the front cover portrays Berlin, the bulk of the story takes place in central Asia. Why did you choose to develop this theme in the plot, where Finlay plays the long-game in central Asia while captive in a KGB hospital.
RB: In my experience, when an operation goes wrong - as Operation Kingstone does in the book - it is much the same as throwing a bucket of milk on concrete. It runs everywhere and cannot be controlled. So an agent has to adapt to it, rather than fight against it.
DD: When compared with modern agents like those portrayed in BBC's Spooks series, your character of Finlay is a middle class, middle England, public school, womaniser. In this politically correct, sanitised age, is there still demand for such an old-school character from modern readers?
RB: I am glad you asked that question. Finlay would answer with malicious glee when he talks about what he thinks of the Foreign Office and MI6. He would describe FCO and MI6 staff as a 'bunch of pansies'; to be fair, in my experience these types would often in turn refer to members of the recce group as 'knuckle draggers'. In the fifties and sixties the only place where a boy could get a decent education was a public school. Finlay would not hold in high regard the middle class types who are now running things.
DD: What next for Finlay?
RB: There are going to be eight books in the Finlay series. Already completed are
A Flag on the Abbey, Dismissed Dead and The Corncrake Man. Book three, currently titled Too few to mention, is almost completed. It details Finlay’s homecoming and his one year’s sick leave which in fact doesn’t happen. In four months he is called back, dealing with the beginnings of the IRA campaign in the UK. This is a disaster for the section, as two men are brought home in body bags from France. They had been working on the anti drugs job; their deaths were horrible. A short interlude is called for - Finlay deals brutally with the drug barons. He is no longer the happy-go-lucky operative he was, not after Kingstone.