|Raymond Chandler had a clear picture of a hero
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
“He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.
“The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.”
But Bernard Samson and Harry Palmer differ in one important aspect and it’s an aspect that is essential given the dates that the two stories are set. In reality, the uniformed forces, the police and the military are staffed by people of conservative political views. As well they might be. The police and the military are there to preserve society, and not just from outsider. They will resist change to society in all aspects.
These men are the descendants of the tribal sentries who’s task was to protect the tribe from external AND internal threats. They enforce the status quo and they don’t much care for change.
This almost makes Harry Palmer an anomaly. But he occupies a time when there were enough Nazis and Nazi artifacts still around to maintain a continuity with the Second World War. In wartime Britain’s Left and Right had been united against fascism. Harry Palmer is from that earlier time. He’s a war veteran and his war had been fought against a capitalist ideology.
To Harry Palmer, capitalism had no inherent advantages and in Horse Under Water we get a look at an establishment villain who carries all the baggage of the complex relationship the British ruling class had had with its wartime enemy. Henry Smith would have been a key man in occupied Britain working for the Nazis. Yet post war he’s remained a part of the establishment! Harry is expected to protect him despite the fact that he made his money in a way that Harry Palmer disapproves.
There’s a wonderful scene where Harry has his ‘chin wag’ with Smith. A parody of the bit where James Bond comes head to head with the sinister mastermind. Smith wants to put Harry in his place and Harry responds in a fashion appropriate to the sort of hero that Raymond Chandler defined.
One cannot find such a scene, villain or sentiment in the Samson stories. In fact, Bernard’s comments on the fate of Rosa Luxemberg are informative. Luxemberg was a leader of the communist Spartacus League who campaigned to stop Germany fighting in the first world war. She was beaten up, tortured and shot by members of the German cavalry. Bernard expresses dismay that, ‘Now they name streets after her.’
It’s tempting to imagine that the protagonist speaks with the same voice as the author. But such a view does not, I think, reflect the view of the man who produced ‘Oh what a lovely war.’ So I take Samson as a realistic characterization for the type of person who would then occupy Bernard’s profession. By the period of Bernard Samson the cold war had become competition between two different ideologies. Moreover, the populist socialism of the 1960s had been replaced by the free-market fundamentalism of the Thatcher era. And the men who had participated in the Second World War had passed on. Len Deighton had perhaps concluded that there was really no longer a place for such a man as Harry Palmer in the security services of Mrs Thatcher.
Of course, we do get a few hints that Bernard’s life might have gone a different way. There are a few suggestions of an interest in design and architecture but Bernard followed in his father’s footsteps. And adopted the ideology of the profession, perhaps as much out of love for his father as anything else.
At the end, of course, Bernard and Harry are still genuine heroes, incorruptible and loyal. And, I know many men like Bernard, ex-military types, and I like them and admire their work ethic, sense of duty and loyalty. But somehow I can’t like Bernard quite as much as I like Harry Palmer. Which is why I still find myself going back to the 1960s.