Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Heirs to Deighton? (2) - Rod Brammer

With each generation there come onto the scene writers in any genre of fiction who seek to mark out their own literary literary, take the genre down fresh pathways and give the reader something new to enjoy. But inevitably - and most would admit this - their writing is also influenced to a lesser or greater degree by the writers they themselves have read, devoured and been inspired by.

The publishing industry - recognising the marketing value of making links back to established icons of a genre - will often refer to an author as "the new XX" in their blurb. Clearly, most new writers want to be the new themselves but it's flattering and a great marketing boost to be compared to one of the acknowledged masters of a genre.

In the case of Len Deighton - now enjoying semi-retirement, and why not! - the question for fans of his books and the spy fiction genre more generally is: where do we turn for the same sort of thrill. Who can we consider an "heir to Deighton"? We already know that new writer Jeremy Duns - he of the excellent Free Agent novel published earlier this year - has been compared to Deighton; indeed, such a fan is he of Len's work that Jeremy contributed to the Deighton 80th birthday documentary on Radio 4.

I've been made aware of another contender to this crown. Elliott and Thompson publishers have alerted me to Rod Brammer, whose second novel Dismissed Dead was published just recently. A former naval intelligence officer, Rod has written a Cold War spy thriller set in East Berlin (that's already a plus), Russia and the UK. Brammer follows in the long line of Le Carré and Maugham and other intelligence operatives who have used their inside knowledge to create storylines that bristle with authenticity.

Brammer's agent hero, Keith Finlay (who featured in Brammer's first novel A Flag on the Abbey, a book I haven't enjoyed yet) is caught up in the world of espionage with a mission to meet a German professor who will help him smuggle a secret bullet prototype out of Berlin (echoes of Funeral in Berlin or Bullet to Beijing?). Captured by the Russians and subjected to brutal interrogration, and presumed dead by those back home, Finlay faces his toughest challenge yet.

Sounds fascinating. A review copy of the book is on the way and I aim to have a review of it up here on the Deighton Dossier blog. It already sounds to have all the ingredients of a great Cold War thriller and I'm sure Brammer's intelligence background will add tonnes of authenticity.

His publishers, in their marketing spiel, say this of Brammer: "Thrilling and suspenseful throughout, Dismissed Dead will appeal to lovers of the work of John Le Carré, Len Deighton and those intrigued by the mysterious world of Cold War espionage."

If anyone's read the book already and has thoughts on it - and how well it compares to Deighton's and Le Carré's novels - do leave comments on the blog. I'll share my thoughts when I've got through the book. Be interesting to hear anyone's opinion on what differentiates the work of the spy-turned-writer from that of the regular fiction novelist.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Der Mauerfall/The Berlin Wall's fall - a competition

"Like a skewer through a shish kebab" was how Len Deighton described the Berlin Wall in Berlin Game, bisecting the city and dividing the two sides and creating a permanent open wound between the two Germanies which kept the Cold War 'hot' for 29 years. The Wall also became a leitmotif in popular spy fiction and in the movies and its symbolic presence still resonates through the genre, even if only fragments remain of the original wall and memories among Berliners fade.

The 9th November is the anniversary of the Mauerfall, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its fall led to the swift demise of the East German regime, no longer able to keep its population from fleeing to the West. I thought I'd run a little competition for readers of this blog to mark this momentous event. The prize is a region-free DVD entitled The Berlin Wall: escape to freedom [run time 50 minutes, produced by Pegasus DVD] which documents not just the building of the wall - with some impressive graphic representations of its construction and operation - but also the many heroic attempts to cross it.

To win this DVD, answer this question:

To within the nearest 2 kms, how long was the Berlin Wall?

The prize will be drawn on or after 9 November 2009.

Entries can be sent to me at deightondossier-at-me-dot-com (you'll obviously need to convert that to standard format) or via the Deighton Dossier website.

Good luck.

No other prize is available
The site owner's decision is final
No correspondence will be entered into concerning this competition
Only one entry per person
Winner will be notified by email

Saturday, 24 October 2009

The reissues (5) - The Ipcress File

As previously mentioned on this blog, Harper Collins is drip feeding onto the book market a steady series of re-issues of all of Len Deighton's fiction output. The process began in May with XPD, Bomber, Goodbye Mickey Mouse and SS-GB, all editions carrying a new introduction by Len Deighton himself and sporting new front covers by his friend and associate, designer Arnold Schwartzman.

October has seen the launch of four more reissues, perfectly timed for the Christmas market - a Deighton novel is one images an easily marketable gift item. The first of the reissues covered on this blog is The Ipcress File, Deighton's first novel.

The new introduction
The story is familiar and, thanks to the film adaptation, firmly part of the canon of modern spy fiction. This is the book which introduced to readers the working class, sardonic, wise-cracking un-named agent who thanks to Harry Saltzman and Michael Caine has become universally recognised as 'Harry Palmer'. The milieu in which much of the book is set is swinging sixties London, particularly Soho and Victoria. In his new introduction, Deighton writes he drew heavily upon his time in London in creating the backdrop to the agent's work in the capital: "After completing two and a half years of military service I had been, for three years, a student at St. Martin's School of Art in Charing Cross Road. I am a Londoner. I grew up in Marylebone and one art school started I rented a tiny grubby room around the corner from the art school. This cut my travelling time to five minutes. I got to know Soho very well indeed. I knew it by day and by night. I was on hello, how are you? terms with the 'ladies', the restaurateurs, the gangsters and the bent coppers. When, after some years as an illustrator I wrote The Ipcress File much of its description of Soho was the observed life of an art student resident there." It becomes clear in the retelling of the creation of the Harry Palmer character just how much of Deighton's own life and experiences shaped it, except in one way. In the book, the character comes from Burnley (in the film, naturally, with Caine he became a Cockney). Deighton adds: "I suppose that intervention marked on tiny reluctance to depict myself exactly as I was. Perhaps this spy fellow is not me after all." He also replicated in the office banter with colleagues in W.O.O.C.(P). the atmosphere of his time as an art director in a Soho advertising agency, exchanging barbs with Eton-educated colleagues in their plush private members clubs.

Deighton gives some interesting perspectives on the books that he read which fuelled his creativity and drew him towards the written word and away from design: "At school, having proved to be a total dud at any form of sport - and most other things - I read every book in sight. There was no system to my reading, nor even a pattern of selection. I remember reading Plato's The Republic with the same keen attention and superficial understanding as I read Chandler's The Big Sleep and H.G. Wells' The Outline of History and both volumes of The Letters of Gertrude Bell. I filled notebooks as I encountered ideas and opinions that were new to me, and I vividly remember how excited I was to discover that The Oxford Universal Dictionary incorporated thousands of quotations from the greatest of great writers."

Interestingly, when I read this new introduction it felt familiar, and indeed shares much in common with the last Deighton introduction for a special edition, that for the silver jubilee edition in 1987. This reflects a frequent tendency of the author when recounting of his career and his writing to give away little new information in articles, books, forewords or interviews, and draw instead on a store of existing anecdotes which do often bear re-telling anyway.

The design
Harper Collins and Deighton pulled off a masterstroke in asking Arnold Schwartzman, a major international design figure, to create new front covers for these reissues. Ever since Raymond Hawkey stunned the book and design world with his cover for The Ipcress File - the use of large amounts of white, the use of B&W photography, the striking visual design and innovative typography were symptomatic of the new design wave in the UK led by Deighton and his art school contemporaries - Deighton's books have often represented innovation in book cover design. These new editions follow in that tradition.

The covers of all four 'Palmer' reissues have two central themes: the chessboard, the classic metaphor for the 'game' of espionage and counter-spying (which Deighton uses to full effect in Horse Under Water), and smoking, which was an essential element of popular culture during the Cold War.

Schwartzman provides an insight into his approach to the design for The Ipcress File. Each design element on the front cover points to a key theme in the book: "In seeking an appropriate ashtray, to carry through the 'smoking' theme, I accidentally came across a unique piece shaped like a hand gun, so I aimed it at a red chess pawn, which represents Ipcress's 'Red' Cold War antagonist." It's great fun looking across the design to identify the meticulous approach to symbolism that Schwartzman's employed: the Aquarius cigarette lighter is a reference to Deighton's use of the protagonists' horoscope to introduce each chapter; the syringe with made in the GDR obviously point to the use of psychotropic drugs to induce the psychosis central to the antagonist's plans to brainwash British scientists; the Savoy Hotel coat ticket references his and Deighton's shared affection for the famous London hotel. The fingerprints are Schwartzman's own, taken by a police sergeant in the 1970s as part of a design commission for The Sunday Times.

The pattern of shared symbolism across all four novels continues on the spine, where each of the four books has a stamp motif - in this case a Russian 4 kopek stamp commemorating the former Soviet spy Richard Sorge. Cigarette cards on the back cover depict military insignia from National Service, harking back to the protagonists background in the Army where he was involved in the black market, prior to being press ganged into W.O.O.C.(P).

He acknowledges Raymond Hawkey's original, iconic cover with the use of the gun-shaped ashtray mirroring the gun used in the original, and the retention of the wooden type font logotype used. Overall, the design elements capture perfectly the development of the consumer culture in the sixties at the height of the Cold War and serve as an excellent visual smogasbord to the complex - sometimes over complex - plot which Deighton weaves in the text.

The Ipcress File, Harper Collins 2009, RRP £7.99, ISBN 978-0-586-02619-9.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Interesting video series on Guardian Unlimited

The Guardian newspaper's website Guardian Unlimited has been running an interesting series of interviews and videos about the Berlin Wall and its demise in 1989, the anniversary of which is coming up soon. Can it really be 20 years since der Mauerfall?

There are an interesting range of videos on offer, all about five minutes; today's is about the night the wall came down and is full of interesting anecdotes from Berliners on both sides of the wall, on the night when the Cold War to all intents and purposes ended. Other videos give a revealing insight into what it was like to live in the shadow of the Wall on both sides of "the bleakest most brutal and inhuman bits of masonry ever built."

Fascinating stuff.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Behind the books - blog series on the 25th anniversary editions (2)

This blog continues my efforts to mine some of the hidden nuggets of insight and intelligence provided by Len Deighton in his forewords to the rare Silver Jubilee editions of his first 19 major works of fiction from 1987. A key point here is the phrase in Grafton's publicity 'major works'. There is one key omission - the book Only When I Larf, which was not reproduced in this set even though it was a significant seller (perhaps this was because it didn't appear in the US until 1987?). It should by rights come after An Expensive Place to Die.

In any case, here are the next three books. For each, I've picked out some of the most interesting things we learn from these forewords.

4. Billion-Dollar Brain (1966)
His fourth novel, continuing the story of the unnamed narrator ('Harry Palmer' in the movie adaptations) who, having moved on from W.O.O.C.P. is now freelancing as an agent for the Midwinter organisation (before being 'required' to work for the organisation again) which was set up to bring about the downfall of communism through running agents into Latvia. This is a complex story of intrigue, double crosses and the nascent impact of computer technology on the espionage world and society more broadly. It's success in the sales charts grew upon the impact of the three earlier novels and also the first film, aided by an innovative marketing campaign by the publishers Jonathan Cape involving the sending from Helsinki of hundreds of letters to the press and booksellers, purporting to be from Deighton and containing a notebook outlining his research behind the book and ephemera associated with Helsinki, the main location for the story.

Deighton, on a book defined as much by its locations as its characters: " I have always believed that the setting of a book must control the action. Typically, television uses its locations as an afterthought: a story using American characters in a typically American plot is outlined, and then someone says how about setting this one somewhere really exotic. The result is inevitably banal. For this reason I have always drafted my stories after going to see the proposed location.

And the settings I chose for this story were dramatic. The history of the Baltic communities has always interested me. At the time not many tourists visited the Soviet Republic of Latvia, and the ones who went did not choose to travel in the depths of winter. But I found it all rather staggering; the sight of a frozen sea with cars driving upon it was a sight I shall never forget. And the city of Riga was a world apart.

Having lived in New York City [Deighton had worked there as an advertising executive, albeit for a short time] I was pleased for an excuse to go back and see it again, and Texas hospitality is always exemplary. The story was planned to squeeze maximum value from the claustrophobia of the big city, and exploit the wide feeling of the cattle country, as well as the obvious contrast of heat and cold."

On the organisation of his research and character notes in preparation for writing, in the days before word processors and the Internet made collating everything together a doddle: " I was always looking for some new system which would allow me to write more efficiently and more quickly. Perhaps it was as well that I didn't know that it would never get any easier or quicker. For this book I decided that a file index system would help me organise my plot and I equipped myself with many large filing cards of various colours, a big box into which they fitted and a lot of tabs that would help me find the one I wanted. Although this contraption seems comical to me now, it was a help to have a filing card with cross references for research, and a card or card for each character, especially now that some of the same characters (Harvey Newbegin, Colonel Stok and the hero) had appeared in other books."

On the ambiguity inherent in continuing to use his unnamed spy hero as narrator, and the benefits this gave him in plot and character development: "The reader was not supposed to believe everything this first person narrative said, the reader was expected to judge it to some extent, as we judge the veracity of our friends when talking to us. I had started writing The Ipcress File with this idea and all the similar books after it employ the same device, and demand the same interpretation from the reader.

Although a Dr Watson was not essential to this sort of story, I was working towards the idea that a figure close to the 'hero' provides a simple and effective measure of explaining the plot through dialogue. Also I was beginning to wonder if the hero figure in my books was too unusual and eccentric for readers to identify with.

In some of the earlier books Dawlish - the hero's boss - had been a figure of sanity, a normal intelligent character who says the things that have to be said. In Billion-Dollar Brain, Harvey Newbegin (a minor character from Funeral in Berlin) provides the second half of a double act for explanatory purposes. But Harvey is not a character with whom many readers will identify, and Dawlish is now a long way away. For the time being the problem remained: the reader had to put up with the hero. But, as it turned out, the problem was solving itself. Despite all those built-in faults, readers actually liked him."

5. An Expensive Place to Die (1967)
Deighton's fifth novel continues with the device of an unnamed narrator; the reader is drawn into thinking by textual clues that this is the same narrator from the first four novels, though this is always implied and never explicitly stated. Such ambiguity was a feature of these books and it extended to some of the later novels with unnamed narrators which readers assumed were the same character, such as Spy Story and Yesterday's Spy. They were not, but in the foreword for this book Deighton confirms that An Expensive Place to Die was the "fifth and last in a sequence that began with The Ipcress File."

On setting the novel in Paris, a city he'd first visited as a teenager just after the Second World War: "I'd been to Paris many times before, of course. My first visit was back in 1946 when the black market was running wild and everyone was telling me that you could get exactly half a pound of finely ground coffee into a Lee Enfield rifle. That was the first time I'd been out of Britain. I was very young and my memories are vivid. I was staying in a squalid hotel in Place Blanche, and wondering if everywhere 'abroad' was like this. In those days I got mixed up with a good-natured gang of crooks, and my first acquaintance with Paris was the underworld. Many years later I met a Paris cop from the vice squad who took me back to all the places I knew, and quite a few more. It was this second tour of the seamier parts of Paris that made me start to write An Expensive Place to Die."

On his first abortive attempt to use Paris as a setting for a new story: " My first idea for a book about Paris was that it should be about the 'collections'. I'd once been a photographer and I knew many photographers [Deighton's photographic career began in RAF intelligence, taking photos from a Mosquito plane]. So I went with my photographer friends to Paris, to get the inside story of the fashion business. It was fascinating stuff - beautiful women and exquisite dresses, and the most cosmopolitan workforce imaginable. Many other writers could have used that wonderful opportunity to write a story. But I could not get it worked out satisfactorily. I abandoned the small gilt chairs of the 'collections' and went back to find my old Paris."

6. Bomber (1970)
Many readers and critics regard this as Deighton's magnum opus; it was chosen by Anthony Burgess as one of his top 100 works of fiction of the twentieth century and was turned into a landmark radio play by the BBC which was broadcast in real time on Radio 4 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the war.

On the origins of writing Bomber as a work of fiction, Deighton's first thought being to write a non-fiction work about the wartime bombing raids over Germany and developing a narrative drawing on is long-standing passion for aeroplanes and the importance of the fast developments of technology in shaping the outcome of the Second World War, about which he'd written in a series of articles for the Sunday Times Magazine: "It was a chance remark by a fellow-writer, Julian Symons, that triggered the idea that took me back to writing again [after Deighton has spent a couple of years writing and producing the anti-war film Oh! What a Lovely War.] He told me that I was the only person he could think of who actually liked machines. I had been saying that machines are simply machines. When the bank tells you that their computer made a mistake, they are not telling the truth: machines cannot make mistakes (and to say they do imbues them with human qualities they patently don't possess) - the computer simply has a fault. Few such faults deduct a neat ten pounds fifty pence from your balance, more likely it spews a hundred zeros or prints gobbledygook. If there is an error it's been put into the computer by a careless operator. In that respect, I'll defend machines.

That conversation set me thinking again about the bombing raids. And about writing a book about them. The technology was complex but not so complex as to be incomprehensible. Suppose I wrote a story in which the machines of one nation fought the machines of another? The epitome of such a battle must be the radar war fought in pitch darkness. To what extent could I use my idea to depict the night bombing war? Would there be a danger that such a theme would eliminate the human content of the book?"

On the crucial importance of lengthy and in-depth research to getting the technical aspects of the planes and the raids right, as this was important for framing the development of the large cast of characters whose lives were interlinked by the technology: "One large room in my home was almost entirely devoted to the project. I collected everything I could find: photos, books, letters, reports and tape recordings of interviews. One wall was almost covered with an aeronautical chart of northern Europe upon which the whole raid was plotted. Also there were target maps, air photos, briefings, teleprinter order and very big sectional drawings of the three different aircraft types.

I spent a long time talking to German in the region where my fictional raid was set - Westphalia - and also met many German ex-servicemen: night fighter pilots, controllers, commanders and flak gunners. The Dutch let me visit a military airfield, still in use but virtually unchanged since 1943. I'd flown in Lancasters and Mosquitos during my time in the RAF and I knew many, many veterans of Bomber Command. The BBC let me listen to recordings of aircrew. (This was very useful for getting the dialogue right and checking the wartime slang and syntax). The Imperial War Museum gave me all sorts of help and ended up showing me a roomful of German instructional films which I could look at without charge, providing I catalogued them. (This provided me with wonderful instructional films about the Junkers 88, which proved vitally important in the writing of the book.)

The next three books in this Silver Jubilee edition series are Declarations of War, Close-Up and Spy Story.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Competition, finally? Well, not quite...

I've come across this website on the Internet.

It purports to be a fansite about Len Deighton. It has very little original content in it and seems primarily just to be a series of links.

I suspect that, given the url - www.lendeighton.com - someone's been very clever and could be cyber-sitting the website url.

Nothing much for the Deighton Dossier to fear here.

Spy Fiction and Spy Fact - the connections

Interesting article in The Times from May 2009 by friend of this blog Jeremy Duns, who has re-tweeted about it (?!). He demonstrates that the creation of the MI-5 service in the UK - about which I'm reading currently in the excellent Defence of the Realm book - was in part influenced by the mania before and during the First World War for spy fiction, particularly stories about the threat of German espionage. Colonel James Edmonds was friends with William Le Queux, a writer who'd written a novel about the existence of German spy rings in the UK in a novel called The Spies of the Kaiser.

Duns goes on to recount how the path of spy fiction's growth mirrored closely the real-life development of the secret service during the thirties, when Somerset Maugham (himself an agent) and Eric Ambler set the scene for the genre to develop further as a form of fiction. Bringing his review into the sixties, Duns writes about the twist in the genre, with the uncovering of the Cambridge spy ring leading to a trend for stories about 'moles' by Deighton and others in the sixties and seventies. Despite the ending of the Cold War leading to the 'retirement' of some spy fiction authors, Duns notes a renaissance in the genre with in particular the Bourne films and the books of both Alan Furst and, of course, his good self, with the great reception for his Free Agent book.

An excellent article by Jeremy. Hat-tip to him, as the custom is nowadays (though few bloggers, in my experience, actually wear hats).

Behind the books - blog series on the 25th anniversary editions (1)

Recently I managed to get hold of a full set of all nineteen Silver Jubilee paperback limited editions of all of Deighton's fiction books up to 1987. Produced by Grafton to mark the 25th anniversary of the publication of Deighton's The Ipcress File, these editions - like the current new editions published in 2009 to mark the author's 80th birthday - contain an introduction by the author, each of which explains in some detail the origins and development of each book he'd written up to that point.

Some of the stories had been seen before in interviews and publicity material, but much of the insight was definitely new and gave the reader at the time a new perspective on familiar and much-loved stories: for example, Deighton confirmed that the main character in Spy Story - though it would appear from the text he is the same 'unnamed narrator' in the first four ('Harry Palmer') novels - is not the same character, though he bears some resemblance and works for the same organisation, W.O.O.C.P.

I thought I'd extract and reproduce below some of the most interesting vignettes from these forewords:

1. The Ipcress File
Deighton on his influences: 'At the time I wrote The Ipcress File I'd never read any of the James Bond books, and John Le Carré's Spy Who Came in From The Cold was still something to come in the distant future. My enthusiasm for Raymond Chandler, Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham is perhaps evident.'

On his roots as a working class Londoner and various critics' interpretation of the interplay of class and class envy in his characters: 'Memory plays tricks but it's probably true to say that the interplay between the characters was inspired by the brief period I spent working in a London advertising agency. [Deighton had been a designer and creative director after leaving the Royal Academy of Art, London] I was the 'technician' surrounded by clever witty young men who'd been to Eton together. I transplanted this scene, with added friction, into an intelligence agency office.

Some readers interpreted the book as a working-class crusade against private education. To some extent I was labelled. Later even my Bomber book was misinterpreted by some, and more recently the 'Game, Set & Match' trilogy has been seen as an attack on Oxbridge and all it stands for. This is not my intention and it never has been. I'd always had great sympathy for the people who'd had to put up with this intractable hero. Misunderstanding arises only if the reader accepts the hero's narrative as the objective truth. It is not the truth, there is not exact truth. What happened in The Ipcress File (and all my other stories recounted in the first person) is to be found somewhere in the uncertainty that the opinions of all characters provide.'

On the inevitable comparisons in the media between his 'unnamed spy' hero and Ian Fleming's James Bond character: 'At about the time that The Ipcress File was published the first James Bond film came out. My book got very generous reviews so that a friend of mine was moved to tell me that some critics has used me as a blunt instrument to batter Ian Fleming over the head.'

On his career switch from designer as a writer: 'I don't know exactly when I first felt myself to be a professional writer. When I looked back afterwards I found that even at college [St Martin's College and then the Royal Academy of Arts] my sketch books were getting more and more cluttered with written notes. Perhaps it was inevitable that I turned from drawing to writing. I am not sorry. No one ever gave an artist a chance to provide excuses for mistakes he made twenty-five years ago.'

2. Horse Under Water
On writing the difficult 'second book': 'Horse Under Water was my second book and I started writing it a month after signing the contract for The Ipcress File. I started it for the same reason that I started the rest of them: I was dissatisfied with my previous effort and I wanted to do better. Like most writers I become aware of a book's fault the moment it's taken away from me to go to the printer. By the time a book actually appears I dislike it more than any critic can.

A second book is widely believed to be the acid test of a writer, the one that decides if the first success was just a flash in the pan. My first book - The Ipcress File - still wasn't published by the time I went along to the publisher with the draft of my second one. The publisher wasn't encouraging. They sent me away with the book unread. It was their policy, they told me solemnly, never to even consider a 'second book' until they'd seen the sales of the first.'

On the value of extensive research to create believable characters and story lines: 'For me, the best part of doing the job is doing the research. The best research is done by talking to people but inevitably one sooner or later has to go to a library. For Horse I spent many hours in the library of the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. It was within walking distance of where I was living [Deighton had a flat in 29 Merrick Square near Borough, south London]. To add to my pleasure the library was being completely reorganised and the library staff provided me with a table and chair in the middle of all the chaos. It was wonderful! These unusual circumstances gave me a chance to go along the shelves finding documents and books that I didn't know existed. Some of the underwater warfare material had only just been downgraded to declassified and often they had trouble getting me to go home at night.'

On the decision to make the main character - who subsequently became known as Harry Palmer in the movie version - anonymous: 'After this second book was published I was frequently asked why the hero had no name. One Canadian reviewer told his readers that I'd claimed it was symbolic. There was nothing symbolic as far as I was concerned but I did have a hang-up at the idea of the author's name being different to the name of the narrator. This was an absurd reason but I couldn't dismiss it and by the time I got to the end of my first book I still hadn't named the hero. I was relieved to find that the publishers of The Ipcress File were happy to leave him unnamed, so I kept him anonymous.

There were advantages to having an anonymous hero. He might or might not be the same man. [Subsequently, in book like Yesterday's Spy and Spy Story, many readers assumed that the narrator, also unnamed, was the same hero from the first four novels. Deighton subsequently confirmed this was not the case, but his use of anonymisation created this sense of ambiguity and tension with the reader which gave him dramatic licence to hint at connections which may, or may not, be there.] This gave me a chance to make minor modifications as and when I wanted them. Looking back now it was capricious to say that he was from the northern town of Burnley. I had picked the place at random having remembered it on parcels I'd sorted for the post office while on vacation jobs from college. Burnley I found to be a lively, noisy town with delightfully friendly people. But the man from my story couldn't have come from here: could he? [In the film of the book Harry Palmer was played by a cockney, Michael Caine, and in hindsight it's surely the case that the character wouldn't have worked so well with a broad Lancashire accent].

3. Funeral in Berlin

On encountering the realities of Communist security in his research trips for this, his third novel: 'I'd already decided to drive to Czechoslovakia and use Prague as a setting for a book, now I decided to drive north from there and stay a little while in Berlin. It was a fateful decision, for Berlin has played a part in my life ever since.

If I tell you that I was taken to police headquarters in a remote part of Czechoslovakia's Tatra mountains and a week later picked up by a Russian Army motorway patrol and taken to their military police barracks, you might think I go around looking for trouble. I am the sort of innocent to whom things happen. In Czechoslovakia I'd provided myself with a visa to go camping. It gave me the sort of freedom of movement I always liked to have. I didn't want to book a series of hotel rooms and plan my journey in advance.... Alas the Czechoslovakian authorities were not flexible in such matters. If I had a camping visa, why was I staying in hotels? It was too cold for camping. Yes, but...! Socialism, Communism, Fascism, Nazism, these are all varying triumphs for the bureaucrat. But the Czechs treated me with great courtesy and when I showed no hurry to escape their clutches I was even showed round their extensive premises.'

On the lengthy delays experienced with the Russian border patrol guards on entering East Berlin, when problems with his visa for Berlin were identified - the destination had not been filled in by Czech officialdom - leading to his being held at the border; and his unusual approach to thawing East-West tensions: 'I will always remember the young Russian officer who spent an hour alternately questioning me and telephoning on a rather primitive phone that was obviously the army's old network still strung up from wartime. He finally stared at me for a long time, smiled and made a phone call in halting German explaining that it had all been a mistake. Now that he had looked closely at the visa it did say Berlin. Everything was in order. He would send an army vehicle with me to see that I found my way to the Adlon [East Berlin's swankiest hotel right by the Brandenburg Gate, hang-out of senior Nazis and diplomats during the war, and Communist generals thereafter]. He hung up the phone, smiled again, and gave me my passport. 'Alles in Ordnung' he told me. Luckily I had a bottle of brandy that I'd got from a duty free shop on the border. I gave it to him feeling that we'd delivered a minor setback to the international bureaucrats who are taking over the entire world.'

The next blog in this series, when it's up, will provide extracts from the forewords from Billion-Dollar Brain, An Expensive Place to Die and Bomber.

Saturday, 17 October 2009


I draw readers' attention to an article in today's FT newspaper by TV producer John Lloyd about the continuing appeal of the BBC One 'spy' show Spooks. I watched the first few series with Matthew Macfadyen, but I'll admit to having not watched the last few series. It's sometimes hyped as a British '24', and does adopt the same fast paced, multi-perspective presentation.

With the show coming back for an eighth season, this article is an interesting look back at how the show has developed since its inception in the post 11 September world we now inhabit. Lloyd's contention is that Spooks - with its fast pace, technology to the fore, action, strong female characters, at times soap opera-ish personal sub stories - was very much a spy fiction of its time: "When Spooks first aired in May 2002, it was regarded as a child of 9/11, just as John Buchan’s spies were children of the early 20th-century German threat, or Len Deighton’s and John le Carré’s of the cold war."

It has attracted its share of knockers. Some critics have complained that, with episodes about Mossad agents, anti-abortionists and vivisectionist terror threat it's often ignored the terrorist elephant in the room - the modern Islamo-fascist threat in the UK evidenced on 7 July. Then again, others have praised its focus on the relationships between the agents and the impact that secrecy has on individuals' capacities to relate to each other and leave behind the shadowy world in which they operate when they close the front door. It's also seen as bringing the spy story up to speed for a new generation hooked on Facebook, not Funeral in Berlin; Twittering instead of reading.

Very interested article, which portrays well a show which is of the post-ideological world where threat is as much emotional and non-rational as it is political and tied to any particular state structure. The agents in Spooks combat a chaotic threat in a chaotic world.

Monday, 12 October 2009

The Gehlen Networks - New spies for old

One theme which crops up from time to time in Deighton's works - in the Game, Set and Match novels with the Bernard Samson character, in particular the Winter prequel novel, detailing the post-war Berlin of his father; in XPD and Funeral in Berlin - is the role and influence of the networks set up by Reinhard Gehlen, which I've been reading up on recently online. It's a fascinating early part of the history of the Berlin spy networks and I've found some interesting snippets of information about it from my research. It's a fascinating story and you can see why Deighton would use it as source material for some of his stories.

In XPD, for example, Willi Kleiber, a German Moscow agent, leads the hunt for the Hitler Minutes at the heart of the story which were hidden by the Nazis in the Kaiseroda mine and subsequently found by the Americans. He is a former Abwehr officer who went to work for Gehlen after the war. In Funeral in Berlin, it is the Gehlen organisation which arranges the transfer of Semitsa from East to West Berlin (the chaps with the rimless specs and the hearse). Brian Samson - Bernard's father - was Berlin resident in the post-war period (which is covered in dialogue in Game, Set and Match, mostly when Bernard Samson chats with the Berlin Resident Frank Harrington) and dealt with many of Gehlen's agents.

Gehlen was a former Wehrmacht officer who was in charge of the Fremde Heer Ost unit (Foreign Forces - East) which gathered intelligence on tactics and personnel on the eastern front. In March 1945, as the Russians closed in, Gehlen and his associates micro-filmed all the files and stored them safely in drums, knowing the value of the intelligence. After capture, he was turned over to US army intelligence (or, it seems, spirited away by them!). In 1946 he returned to German to set up the 'Gehlen Organisation' of former German intelligence officers. A number of them were senior SS officers many of whom were on the central registry of war crimes suspects; clearly, the CIA was prepared to turn a blind eye. The hiring was overseen by Willi Krichbaum, his chief recruiter. Krichbaum, head of the dreaded Geheime Feld Polizei (GFP), recruited some pretty rogueish individuals into the network of agents.

The Gehlen Organization wasn't a total success, despite considerable funding by the US. Indeed, one author on the US and the Nazis, Richard Breitman, has written: "Reinhard Gehlen was able to use U.S. funds to create a large intelligence bureaucracy that not only undermined the Western critique of the Soviet Union by protecting and promoting war criminals but also was arguably the least effective and secure in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As many in U.S. intelligence in the late 1940s had feared would happen, the Gehlen Organization proved to be the back door by which the Soviets penetrated the Western alliance."

One mission by the Gehlen Organization was Operation Rusty that carried out counter-espionage activities directed against dissident German organizations in Europe. They assisted in the Berlin Tunnel which was constructed under the Berlin Wall to monitor East German and Soviet electronic communications, although it ultimately failed. The Gehlen Organization was eventually compromised by communist moles within the organization itself and within the CIA and the British MI6, particularly Kim Philby.

In the morally grey world of espionage, the aphorism of my enemy's enemy is my friend - or rather here, my former enemy - was, for the Gehlen organisation, most apt. One interesting paper from the US National Security archive provides more details on what the CIA knew - it's fascinating to read some of the original papers around the time the networks were being set up, which you can find at the bottom of the page linked to here. For a man who ran former Nazis as agents into the Communist East, Gehlen did okay for himself in the new Germany, his organisation subsequently becoming the BND (Bundesnachrictendiest), the German intelligence service.

Is anyone aware of any recent books, or articles about the Gehlen networks which they could recommend? There are some mentioned on Wikipedia, but it looks like they're out of print (one is by notorious historian David Irving!).

Were there any films or TV series made about it (either in English or, more likely, German?) There are some fascinating stories there which would make great fiction and non-fiction films.

Spies on celluloid

I missed this article in The Independent from a couple of weeks ago which is a rather fun review of the British spy film, and why the genre has lasted so long. The post followed the recent season of British spy films at the Cambridge Film Festival, which unfortunately I missed (did anyone visiting this blog go? What was it like?).

One interesting Deighton reference: 'Thomas Hennessey, co-author of Spooks: the Unofficial History of MI5, likewise names The Ipcress File as a spy film with at least a hint of credibility about it. "It's low-key. It's slow," he says approvingly of the movie adaptation of Len Deighton's novel that is as famous for its scenes of Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) cooking omelettes as for its action sequences.'

More broadly, reading this article reminded me there is something quintessentially English about the best spy films that set them apart from the Hollywood Bourne-a-likes. This I think reflects the fact that most of the 'characters' in the history of British spying were, until recently at least, proper 'Characters' in the best sense of the word. While we are nowadays told by our lords and masters to decry the role and influence of 'Oxbridge' in the espionage world - heck, the world generally - (though, as a Trinity Hall post-grad, I must humbly disagree) - I think the British upper middle classes really did provide some of the best back stories and characterisations for espionage film makers to draw upon.

But one gap instance springs to mind; one chap whose exploits, as far as I know, hasn't influenced the silver screen of spy moviedom, when they're tailor-made for same. The stories of Merlin Minshall, former MI-6 operative under Ian Fleming (whose biography Guilt-Edged is an absolute cracker) cry out to be made into a film. He is one of those classic English 'gents' whose exploits, disdain for authority and tendency to look down upon 'johnny foreigner' while romancing said johnny foreigner's women on foreign missions, and whole-hearted 'derring do' approach. It's no surprise that he is regarded by some observers as one of the influences on the James Bond characterisations.

Minshall was the first man to sail a barge across Europe by river before the war; during his trip, he 'fell in' with a Nazi spy ring and narrowly avoiding being killed by a German assassin with whom he'd courteously been making love in the weeks previously; he then single handedly tried to destroy a key Nazi shipping route on the convoy in what can only be described as a 'foolhardy' operation. Subsequent he was the first British agent sent into occupied France by submarine and later in the water 'discovered' a secret German army in the middle of the Congo! Having become the first man to motor-cycle across the Sahara! With real-life characters like Minshall to draw on from the war period onwards, it's no surprise British fiction writers and film-makers carved out their own niche.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Not quite a Knighthood, but an honour nonetheless...

I have clearly "arrived" in the world of bloggers who write about spy fiction and spy movie culture. David Foster, owner of the Permission to Kill blog - the corner of the blogosphere where espionage and popular culture crash head-on into each other to great effect, leaving none injured but everyone entertained - has invited me to join C.O.B.R.A.S.

Who are the C.O.B.R.A.S? The acronym stands for the Coalition Of Bloggers wRiting About Spies (note the clever work-around - C.O.B.W.A.S. doesn't have the same zing to it!) As the name suggests it is a group of bloggers who write about spies, and each one of them brings a unique and interesting slant to what they write about, covering film, television, books, comics, soundtracks and music. I've visited them all, and they're very professional, dedicated and enthusiastic about what they write.

My efforts to create an active online space for the UK author Len Deighton through the Deighton Dossier website - still the only updated and full online guide to everything he's ever produced, and more besides - have obviously struck a chord and they've asked me to join their august group. I'm pleased to join up these happy band of bloggers and would urge anyone visiting this blog to visit the other C.O.B.R.A.S.' websites:

The Double O Section

The Spy-Fi Channel

Bish's Beat

Mister 8

Spy Vibe

The Spy Report


p.s. No snakes were harmed in the posting of this blog item.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Enter now! Mister 8's cool new competition

Blogger extraordinaire and connoisseur of the design aesthetic and the many tropes in espionage storytelling Armstrong Sabian - he of the fantastic Mister 8 blog - is taking a well-deserved rest from his marathon stint blogging about all manner of things concerning Len Deighton's Harry Palmer stories and films. Having reached October, with 37 blogs on The Ipcress File alone (after originally pitching it as a month-long review), Armstrong is metaphorically pitching camp a quarter of the way up Mount Palmer, taking some oxygen, and planning for his next assault.

To keep readers amused he is running a little competition with the chance to win a Trivial Pursuit card which has been signed by Len Deighton himself, along with some other (yet to be advised) prizes. Your task: provide a glimpse of what an adaptation of Horse Under Water might look like. Design a movie poster, a scripted scene, a theme song, an animation, a trailer, a level from a video game, a comic, a selection from a radio play, etc.

Easy. Right? Of course, Horse Under Water is the great 'unfilmed' Harry Palmer/Michael Caine story (though Harry Saltzman had the rights) and was a departure from the other three films in that it was more adventure story rather than classic espionage tale, bringing together heroin smuggling (the 'horse' in the title'), Nazis (always good for a ripping yarn!) and scuba diving (flippers!) And it was set in Salazar's Portugal, not Eastern Europe. Plenty of scope for letting your imagination's run riot.

I'd encourage anyone visiting this blog to check out Armstrong's competition.

Armstrong's a talented chap - he did the excellent illustration of Len Deighton which is on the front page of my Deighton Dossier website.

New insights into the cloak-and-dagger world of British espionage

A big PR push this weekend for a new book about spying which includes the fantastic revelation that Britain's own secret service once kept an open file on the UK prime minister, suspecting him of extensive links with East European businessmen.

Defence of the Realm, a new official history of MI:5 by Christopher Andrew - appropriately enough, a Cambridge professor - is launched on Monday, and a fascinating read it would appear to be.

Professor Andrew was given unique access by MI:5- after being vetted, naturally - and while parts of his text have been vetted for reasons of national security, MI:5 would seem to be adopting an enlighted approach to corporate transparency in letting him reveal what he has in the book.

Some interesting revelations in the pre-launch PR spiel. The idea propogated by Peter Wright, the former MI5 officer, in his memoirs, Spycatcher, that Sir Roger Hollis, a former head of the agency, was a Soviet agent, are dismissed. But there is recognition that the agency was slow on the uptake about the threat to security from republican and protestant terrorism in Northern Ireland.

It seems that Professor Andrew has been given a lot of scope to be quite blunt (not Blunt!) about the organisation, being especially critical reviews say about out-of-touch f senior officers whose poor management and obsession with "domestic subversives" led to a crisis culminating in the conviction of Michael Bettaney, one of its officers, on spying charges in the mid-1980s.

The book describes the uneasy relationship between MI:5 and successive home secretaries, some of whom it would appear were scarily out of touch with what MI:5 did.

There's an interesting review of it in The Guardian. It was also featured heavily on the broadcast media this weekend, including BBC Radio 4 and Radio 5, and on the BBC's website. The fact that MI:5 had a (rather large one suspects) file on Prime Minister Harold Wilson, due to their suspicions of his links with trade unionists and eastern European shady business characters, clearly is the headline grabbing story from this book, but there are likely to be dozens of other fascinating insights. But I look forward to reading about the realities of Britain's anti-espionage efforts and understanding how close we came at times to complete disaster.

The book is launched on Monday. It is available for pre-order from Amazon.

The other side of the spying coin is the British intelligence service, MI:6, which at times had quite a difficult relationship with the sister service. The official history of MI:6, also founded 100 years ago this year, is being written by Keith Jeffrey, professor of history at Queen's University, Belfast. It will be published in 2010, but only covers up to 1949; one hopes that a second volume up to the present day will be released shortly thereafter!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The influence of the Wall on German literature

Journalist Anne McElvoy - who studied in East Germany and served as a reporter there, and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall from the Eastern side of the 'sperrzone' - is fronting a three-part Radio 4 series looking at the influence of the Berlin Wall on East German culture, with programmes about the experiences of three different East German writers

In the first episode on 6 October, she considers Christa T, who represents a generation who grew up under the shadow of the Berlin Wall. While they were believers in the ideals of socialism, they were frustrated by the realities of an oppressive state system. Christa T's writing showed that the gulf between those who built up the East German state and the next generation in the eighties was very apparent.

Each programme will be available to listen again for one week after broadcast on the BBC's excellent iPlayer.