Tuesday, 28 November 2017

[Guest post update] SS-GB and its place in the alternate history landscape .... revisited

In April, we published an article by Deighton Dossier reader and tier-one level collector Robert 'Raki' Rakison on SS-GB and alternate histories. He's been kind enough to provide an update on his research and to suggest some further reading which blog readers may find of interest.


Over the summer, there’s been a lot of activity in literary Spyland, leading up to the launch of John Le Carré’s Legacy of Spies on 7 July (no doubt you’ve all got your signed copies!!). In particular Waterstones Gower Street London had a “Summer of Spies” series of events, culminating with the Legacy launch. 

There were two events of particular Deighton interest: the first was a talk by Mike Ripley as part of the launch for his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang book on 22 August (KKBB is dedicated to Len) and the second, a talk on The IPCRESS File on 29 August attended by Ripley and Rob (editor of the Deighton Dossier). Around these two events there was a lot of wide-ranging Deighton discussion, including on SS-GB and alternate histories.
Mike Ripley mentioned that he’d already penned an article on SS-GB and alternate histories, and I reproduce his “Future Imperfect” below. It’s from a regular column he does for SHOTS Crime & Thriller e-zine, entitled “Mike Ripley’s Getting Away With Murder” and the article was from the August 2015 (No 105) issue: (Readers may want to subscribe, it's an excellent column)

Anyway, there are a few more books, again in order of publication, that I’d like to draw to your attention in the WW2 alternate history arena – a mix of some earlier material and more recent novels – which I hope you’ll find interesting. Len really did start a modern trend!!

1.   Dr Ewald Banse’s “Germany, Prepare for War!” (1934) (in German “Raum und Volk in Weltkriege” – literally “Space and People in the World War”). See 6 below.

2.   Katharine Burdekin’s (writing as “Murray Constantine”) “Swastika Night” (1937).

This takes place in a world where the Nazis and Japan defeated their enemies and conquered the world (from a modern perspective, the novel is an alternate history in which the Nazis won World War II, though at the time of its writing the war had not broken out and it was a work of speculative future fiction.)

It follows the protagonist, an Englishman in his 30s who works as a ground mechanic for the German Empire in Salisbury Aerodrome. He goes to Germany on a holy pilgrimage to see the holy sites of Hitlerism, the religion in this Nazi dominated world. These sites include the holy forest and the sacred aeroplane in Munich with which Hitler won the war by personally flying to Moscow, it is said. In this world Hitler is seen as a seven foot tall, long blonde haired, blue-eyed man who was “exploded” from the head of God the Thunderer and a god in his own right. He is preached about by "Knights" (a cross between the traditional, feudal knight and a priest) who pass this job down from father to son. Women are chattels, much as in Margaret Attwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. It was reissued in 1985.

3.   Peter Fleming’s “The Flying Visit” (1940).

A short satirical novel by Ian Fleming’s older brother, about an unintended visit (by parachute!) to Britain by Adolf Hilter, so really an alternate history!! This is a virtually forgotten gem of a book by PF. With incredibly wide-ranging interests, PF mostly wrote non-fiction, but this is one of his three novels, another of interest in the spy genre being “The Sixth Column: A Singular Tale of Our Times” (1951 – 2 years before “Casino Royale” was published) and supposed to be a “wry and insightful commentary on Post War/Cold War England; the book is a razor sharp send-up of the spy novel genre”; nothing to with alternate histories!! 
4.   H.V.Morton’s “I, James Blunt” (1942).

See Mike Ripley’s “Future Imperfect” below. Mike says this was the book that inspired Len to write SS-GB and that it was possibly the earliest alternate history, but we know now that’s not the case…..

5.       Vita Sackville-West’s “Grand Canyon” (1942).
Again see Mike Ripley’s “Future Imperfect” below.

6.       Peter Fleming’s “Invasion 1940 (1957), reissued as “Operation Sea Lion”.
Ian’s older brother wrote this excellent book about the invasion that never was 13 years after the end of WW2, so it’s almost contemporaneous. The invasion didn’t happen, mostly because Hitler was convinced the British would capitulate, air supremacy for the Luftwaffe could not be guaranteed as a result of the Battle of Britain and continued British Naval supremacy.

It takes over from where Len’s “Blitzkrieg” finishes. It’s worthwhile in the context of alternate histories because it discusses the fact that during WW1 there was a lot of British propaganda about what might happen if the Germans invaded, with stories and a play describing the “what-ifs”. Strangely there was virtually nothing before or during WW2 (but see “Swastika Night” above)– people just did not believe Hitler would invade! PF mentions that the only “what if” book he was aware of was a German book, published in the UK as “Germany, Prepare for War!” (1934) (in German “Raum und Volk in Weltkriege” – literally “Space and People in the World War”) by a German academic, Dr Ewald Banse. This book describes the invasion of Britain, though the Nazis tried to suppress it, because in 1934 they were not ready to show their war-mongering hand.

7.       Niall Ferguson’s ”Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997).

Niall Ferguson is a Scottish historian who was the Laurence A Tisch Professor of History at Harvard Harvard University, and is currently a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution,Stanford University and visiting professor at the New College of the Humanities. He writes and speaks about international history, economic and financial history and British and American imperialism. 

He is known for his provocative, contrarian views. Ferguson's books include my favourite, War of the World (2006), as well as Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (2008) and Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), the latter three which he has presented as Channel 4 television series. I’m just about to read his latest book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (2017). 

Ferguson champions counterfactual history, and has edited this collection of essays (by leading historians from Andrew Roberts to Michael Burleigh, as well as himself), about nine of the most decisive moments in modern historyexploring what might have been if they had never happened. So what if Britain had stayed out of the First World War? What if Germany had won the Second? How would England look if there had been no Cromwell? What would the world be like if Communism had never collapsed? And what if JFK had lived? 

Ferguson likes to imagine alternative outcomes as a way of stressing the contingent aspects of history. For Ferguson, great forces don't make history; individuals do, and nothing is predetermined. Thus, for Ferguson, there are no paths in history that will determine how things will work out. The world is neither progressing nor regressing; only the actions of individuals determine whether we will live in a better or worse world. His championing of the method has been controversial within the history field. In a 2011 review of Ferguson's book Civilization: The West and the RestNoel Malcolm (Senior Research Fellow in History at All Souls College at Oxford University) stated that: "Students may find this an intriguing introduction to a wide range of human history; but they will get an odd idea of how historical argument is to be conducted, if they learn it from this book."

Ferguson’s book came before Robert Cowley’s collections What If? (1999) and More What If? (2001) cited in my first article, as well as Peter Tsouras’s collections, Hitler Triumphant (2006) and Third Reich Victorious, which are only about WW2.

8.       Murray Davies’s “Collaborator (2003).

The novel is premised on the successful German invasion of Britain in September 1940. The reason for this success is never clearly explained, but a major factor appears to have been the transfer of the French navy to the Germans after the fall of France. Battles were fought on British soil in London and Ashford, and the Irish Free State is also occupied. In the end, King George VI and the rest of the British Royal Family and government flee to Canada, where Winston Churchill leads a government in exile. 

In London, Samuel Hoare leads a collaborating government, while the Duke of Windsor returns to become regent. The Germans are attempting to charm the British people into submission. Organisations sprout up promoting Anglo-German friendship. However there is a darker side to the occupation as one hundred people have been killed in Liverpool and Glasgow. Jewish people are beginning to be persecuted, whilst a resistance movement is steadily growing. The novel begins in December 1940 with the return of Sergeant Nick Penny, the “collaborator” of the title, to his home in an unnamed West Country port town. A former prisoner of war, he had been captured in the aftermath of the successful German invasion of Britain. A former schoolteacher, his ability to speak German had secured his release to work as a translator for the military governor of region, Generalleutnant Kurt von Glass. 

Glass soon puts Penny to work in organizing the "Anglo-German Friendship League", which is designed to foster greater unity. Penny is uncomfortable with his current position, and is viewed with suspicion by much of the community. In March, however, the German invasion of the Soviet Union breathes new life into the resistance as Communists now join the effort. Becoming involved with the resistance, Penny assists in a number of their operations, informing them of an attempt by the IRA to assassinate Glass and helping to smuggle a Danish scientist and his wife out of the country. Yet these are isolated successes amidst a series of setbacks, as the Germans disrupt operations and shut down networks. 

Glass himself soon leaves Britain to serve on the Eastern Front; his departure coincides with the roundup of foreign-born Jews by the authorities. Penny is surprised when the resistance suddenly contacts him in July with a new mission: to smuggle out Otto Frisch, who the Gestapo has discovered knows information which could be vital to the development of a "superbomb". Traveling to Liverpool, they succeed in persuading Frisch to agree to escape. Avoiding discovery, Penny hides Frisch among a family, where he poses as a visiting relative. 

The Germans order a second round-up of the Jews, though, this time including native-born British citizens. Frisch is captured and Penny tries to stage his escape from the concentration camp the Germans have built. Pursued by the authorities, they make it to London and warn the resistance, but they are unable to stop a double agent using the credentials given to him by the Gestapo to get through security at the coronation and setting off a suicide bomb that kills the Regent and assembled German leadership. In the aftermath, the Germans retaliate by massacring over 100,000 people (including Penny's remaining family), triggering a nationwide rebellion that threatens the Germans' hold on their empire.
9.       Harry Turtledove’s “In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2003).

The title comes from the fifth verse of the 23rd Psalm. The novel follows the struggles of a family of secret Jews in Berlin, nearly 70 years after a Nazi victory in World War II. The events in the story follow a common theme of Turtledove's work, transplanting one set of historical events into another setting. In this case, the decline of the Soviet Union in the 1990s (with characters based upon Mikhail GorbachevBoris Yeltsin, and others) is translated to the Third Reich in the current century (and the secret Jews, who survived the Holocaust by passing as Gentiles, are reminiscent of the Marranos who were Jews living in Iberia in the fourtheenth/fifteenth centuries who converted or were forced to convert to Christianity, yet continued to practice Judaism in secret). 

The novel depicts a world where the US remained isolationist and did not participate in WW2, allowing victory to the Axis Powers, who divided the world among themselves. WW3 occurred later, with the Axis Powers defeating the US and CanadaGavriel David Rosenfeld, in his work The World Hitler Never Made, notes that unlike other alternate histories that deal with a Nazi victory, In the Presence humanizes the Nazis, which he believes would have been impossible in earlier years where the trend was to show the Nazis in alternate histories as the "incarnation of evil."

However, despite Turtledove's reputation as an acclaimed and skilled writer in alternate history, and being Jewish, he received a lot of criticism for the novel, because “most American audiences do not wish to humanize the Nazis.” Turtledove has also written The War That Came Early series, a hexalogy describing an alternate WW2 which begins in 1938 over CzechoslovakiaHitler's War (2009); West and East (2010); The Big Switch (2011); Coup d'Etat(2012); Two Fronts (2013) and Last Orders (2014). Although I’m familiar with Turtledove’s work – mostly alternate history fantasy and SF – I haven’t read any: they were recommended by Mike Ripley.
10.   Jo Walton’s “The Small Change Trilogy (2006-2008). 

Farthing (2006), Ha'penny (2007) and Half a Crown (2008) are set in a Europe where the UK leaves WW2 in 1941. The series begins in 1949, eight years after the "Peace with Honor" was negotiated between the UK and Nazi Germany by the Farthing Set, and England has completed its slide into fascist dictatorship. Then a bomb explodes in a London suburb investigated by Peter Carmichael, a Scotland Yard inspector The last book is set in 1960 with Carmichael now the commander of the Watch, Britain's distinctly British secret police. It's his job to warn the Prime Minister of treason, to arrest plotters, and to discover Jews.

The midnight knock of a Watchman is the most dreaded sound in the realm. A global peace conference is convening in London, where Britain, Germany, and Japan will oversee the final partition of the world. Hitler is once again on British soil. So is the long exiled Duke of Windsor, and the rising gangs of "British Power" streetfighters, who consider the Government "soft," may be the former King's bid to stage a coup d'état. Amidst all this, two of the most unlikely persons in the realm will join forces to oppose the fascists: a debutante whose greatest worry until now has been where to find the right string of pearls, and the Watch Commander himself. Another Ripley recommendation - see Mike Ripley’s “Future Imperfect” below.
11.   Stephen Baxter’s “Weaver” (2008).

Weaver is the fourth book in his Time's Tapestry series, which features science-fictional interventions into our past from an alternate-history future; the four novels, which cover life in Britain are Emperor (2006) – 4BC-418AD, Conqueror (2007) – 607AD-1066AD, Navigator (2007) – 1070AD-1492AD, and Weaver, in which Adolf Hitler decided to launch Operation Sea Lion in 1940, shortly after a more devastating version of Dunkirk resulted in a shortage of British Army soldiers. 

However, due to Winston Churchill's lobbying of President Franklin Roosevelt and his Congress, there is some US military assistance provided. As with France during WW1, there is only partial occupation of southeastern England, and a Nazi "Protectorate of Albion" (similar to Vichy France) is established. The Nazis occupy a band of territory that stretches from Portsmouth in the southwest, including communities like Tunbridge WellsHorshamHastingsPevenseyDoverFolkestone and Gravesend. They establish a puppet regime in Canterbury led by renegade English Nazi collaborator Lord Haw Haw, and while London remains unoccupied, the adjacent occupation results in the evacuation of senior governmental personnel, politicians, King George VI and his royal family to elsewhere in Northern England. As in "our" timeline, Hitler still launches Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union, but there are other divergences, as the Japanese Empire has sufficient manpower to invade Australia in this timeline as well, although no other details are forthcoming.The series ends in 1943 (in a different timeline than our own).

I hope you found these additional suggestions interesting.


Mike Ripley: Future Imperfect 
"I recently found myself in a keen discussion with an erudite crime fiction fan on thrillers with settings which involved an alternative version of the history of World War II. The discussion was prompted by news of an American television adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi classic The Man in the High Tower and that a script had been commissioned by the BBC for a film of Len Deighton’s marvellous thrillerSS-GB.

It was Len Deighton who told me of one of the earliest examples (possibly the earliest) I, James Blunt, a novella by travel-writer H.V. Morton published in 1942 and now really quite rare. It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the popular heart-throb minstrel of the same name, of course. The James Blunt in question is a 61-year-old retired tradesman living in a Surrey village five months after ‘The Capitulation’ when Hitler won the war and leafy Surrey became part of ‘German England’.
The novella takes the form of a diary, written in secret by James Blunt, covering the period September 1944 to January 1945. Blunt is no action hero – in fact there is virtually no ‘action’ in this 56-page story, but there is suspense and a growing atmosphere of fear and suspicion generated by the fact that this most English piece of England is being “Germanised” – or rather Nazified as news is replaced by propaganda, rumours abound, people disappear or are deported to work in Europe, children attend kindergartens which follow a Nazi curriculum and when the postman delivers the mail he does so with a “Heil Hitler!”. Worst of all is the total paranoia of the consequences of being caught helping a fugitive from the occupying forces as in all probability it would involve being betrayed by one’s own neighbours. 
I, James Blunt is, in effect, a patriotic rallying cry. The ‘diary’ ends suddenly and dramatically - just as Blunt, late one night, is considering destroying it as its very existence is now a crime, there is a knock on his door… And then comes a ‘dedication’ from the author reminding “all complacent optimists and wishful thinkers” that the war was (in mid-1942) still far from won and with warning that “the scientific extermination of British nationality would be the first act of a victorious Germany”.At about the same time as H.V. Morton (who had reputedly said in early 1941 that “Nazism has some fine qualities”!), an author who was to be better known as a poet and gardener, Vita Sackville-West, was also busy producing a cautionary ‘what if’  version of contemporary history. 
Grand Canyon, which was also published in 1942 (and which I have seen in a Sackville-West bibliography described as “an awful novel”) is set in a world where Germany has defeated Britain and America has ‘satisfactorily concluded’ its own war with Japan and centres on the residents (emigres and refugees) of a hotel near the Grand Canyon, over which the US Air Force is conducting manoeuvres. The moral here is that the war is not over and, as the author attempts to show ‘the terrible consequences of an incomplete conclusion or indeed any peace signed by the Allies with an undefeated Germany…’ 
More recently, in 2014, Israeli-born sci-fi and fantasy author Lavie Tidhar produced A Man Lies Dreaming, which has been described as “a twisted classic” – and I think it is. 
The alternative historical set-up here is that the Communists take power in Germany in 1933, dismantling the Nazi party and exiling the Nazi hierarchy, many of whom move to England, including its former leader, ‘Wolf’, who becomes, by 1939, a private detective! In a wonderfully clichéd noir plot which involves Jewish gangsters, white slavers, an American plan to destabilise communist Germany (and Russia) and a Nazi-inspired Jack the Ripper roaming the streets, this is dark, dark matter – and in places, caustically funny. Wolf, the detective who does good mostly by accident, is a repulsive figure and gets satisfyingly beaten up and graphically tortured on numerous occasions before facing a fate (for him) worse than death, and it is all done in the best/worst possible taste in the tradition of a classic pulp novel. 
Which is the point, really, as the titular man who lies dreaming is Shomer, a writer of Yiddish pulp fiction in the 1930s (based on a real writer); a prisoner in Auschwitz and the misadventures of Wolf pounding the mean streets of London are his revenge. 
For lovers of black literary humour, this book is a must, if only for the scenes where Wolf the penniless author of Mein Kampf rages at his agent (Curtis Brown) for not getting him a deal on the sequel and then has to be ejected from a literary soiree by Leslie Charteris and Evelyn Waugh! 
A Man Lies Dreaming, I, James Blunt and Grand Canyon cannot really be classed as conventional thrillers, though more recent attempts to twist the tail of history certainly can and Robert Harris’Fatherland, Jo Walton’s Farthing  series, Murray Davies’ Collaborator, C.J. Sansom’s Dominion, D.J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction and Guy Saville’s recent ‘Afrika Reich’ novels have all been thought-provoking and exciting additions to the genre. 

        Yet it is, as with The Man in the High Castle, to the field of science-fiction that I return to promote one of my favourite slices of alternative history, this time Nazi-free, the 1968 masterpiece Pavane by Keith Roberts, which depicts an England (specifically Dorset) where the Catholic Church has dominated life (restricting science, technology and progress) ever since the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I in 1588! 
This is a novel of interlinked stories, almost a tapestry of stories, set in a 1968 where the main form of transport is a wagon train pulled by steam traction engines and crossbows are the favoured weapon. It is highly imaginative, exciting and almost certainly still in print somewhere."

Saturday, 21 October 2017

The Ipcress File: a textual and critical analysis

Publicity photo from this iconic film of the book The Ipcress File

I'm pleased to share with you a long, detailed and thoroughly interestingly article by retired academic Dr Robert Lance Snyder, from the University of West Georgia in the USA. I was alerted to Dr Snyder's academic interest in The Ipcress File by Jeff Quest of the Spywrite website. A big thanks to Jeff for making the connection between the Dossier and Dr Snyder.

Dr Snyder's written a new contribution (downloadable in .pdf format, if you wish) for the website Connotations: A journal for critical debate. Titled "An Unparelled Plethora of Idiocy: Len Deighton's Political Skepticism [sic] in The Ipcress File", it's a lengthy, well researched and readable article which places the book (and subsequently, the film) in the context of the Cold War political era of the time, and identifies in Deighton's approach to the text the author's animus towards both "the inanity of Western capitalism" and "the vacuous rhetoric of communist socialism." It's serious analysis, highlighting how Len Deighton, like John Le Carré and Ian Fleming and a number of other spy fiction authors have earned their place as legitimate subjects of academic discourse, because of the impact on popular culture and the literary zeitgeist of their works.

Dr Snyder makes a very telling point in describing how The Ipcress File's success is down in large part to Deighton's readiness - planned or otherwise - to depart from the conventional certainties of the spy thriller genre and replace them with ambiguity and doubt about, frankly, who the bad guys are. Written in a modern academic textual analysis style, this article is worth reading as it does provide some new perspectives on a very familiar book.

Here's a short extract looking at the famous brainwashing set-piece in the novel:
"What exactly are we to make of this climactic scene and particularly Jay’s speech in light of his equivocal views regarding brainwashing? I. dismisses the declamation as mere rigmarole and equates it to the jazz vocalist’s “unparalleled plethora of idiocy” heard on the radio, but the peroration’s illocutionary effect, as already suggested, allows Deighton to acknowledge the “licensed selfishness” of Western capitalist culture. In terms of The Ipcress File’s plot, the antagonist’s monologue is meant to draw “the English patriot” out and convince him that they can transcend the ideological divide of their age by not choosing sides, thereby avoiding interpellation as subjects. Intuitively, however, the narrator appears to recognize how specious is this pitch by a practiced opportunist. 
He also understands that Jay’s readiness to extol brainwashing, or “thought reform” (302), as “the greatest step forward of the century” aligns him with the perpetrators of what prominent Cold War psychologist Joost A. M. Meerloo, no doubt influenced by the dystopian vision of Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), termed menticide."
Do share your reactions in the comments below.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Deighton & Le Carré .... spy fiction titans cut from different cloth

(c) Tom Jamieson, New York Times
This recent New York Times profile of John Le Carré is part of the growing pre-launch hubbub surrounding his new novel A Legacy of Spies, which is launched in September with a live interview of the author at the Royal Festival Hall.

The fever pitch reflects renewed interest in Le Carré's fifty years plus career as a novelist of note, arguably the greatest spy fiction thriller writer. The success of the TV adaptation of The Night Manager in 2016 and the film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, brought Le Carré's writing to a whole new generation.

While Le Carré's career has continued without pause since the end of the Cold War, by contrast Len Deighton's career has - since his last published novel Charity in 1996 - in effect trasnmuted into a well-deserved retirement (which he enjoys and which he evidently has no desire to leave). As such, their public - and online - profiles has gone in dramatically different directions over the last decade and more.

A contemporary of Len Deighton - Deighton is 88, Le Carré will soon be 86 - John Le Carré's life and writing career in a number of interesting ways contrasts with Deighton's.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

In the days before flat whites and skinny moccachinos, there was .... chagga

'Oh really, Bernard ...!"

This post was inspired by an email from Deighton Dossier reader Morgan Davies, who sent a link to a shop in London which is referenced frequently by everyone's favourite buffoonish (or is he?) spy in the Samson series of books, Dicky Cruyer.

The shop in question is H R Higgins, purveyor of fine ground coffee in London to the great and the good. Morgan confirmed they are still selling the mysterious "chagga" coffee, which was part of Dicky's daily routine as Head of German Desk at London Central, where he (in theory at least) had full control over agents like Bernard Samson in East Berlin.

This minor detail in an otherwise massive nine-volume text I think illustrates how great writers like Deighton and others use details and moments to round out their characters and deliver subconscious signposting to help the reader understand each character's personality and outlook, and their relationships to others.

Here's some classic back-and-forth repartée between Dicky Samson and his employee, Bernard Samson, when we first meet them in Berlin Game:

'He [Cruyer] had his coffee served in a fine Spode china cup and saucer, and he stirred it with a silver spoon. On the mahogany tray, there was another Spode cup and saucer, a matching sugar bowl, and a silver creamer fashioned in the shape of a cow. 
He sipped his coffee and then tasted it carefully, moving his lips while staring at me as if I might have come to sell him the year's crop. 'It's just a shade bitter, don't you think, Bernard?' 
'Nescafé all tastes the same to me,' I said. 
'This is pure chagga, ground just before it was brewed.' He said it calmly but nodded to acknowledge my little attempt to annoy him. 
'Well, he didn't turn up,' I said. 'We can sit here drinking chagga all morning and it won't bring Brahms Four over the wire.

In the reader's first experience of Cruyer and Samson's relationship over 'chagga', key things are established.

Friday, 30 June 2017

What's the correct term for a group of spy writers?

Not a murder, or a gaggle. A 'briefing' of spy writers, perhaps, or a ... perhaps .... 'dossier of spy writers? Any ideas?

Why am I asking?

This great article on the Spy Writers blog reminds us that it's 33 years ago this week when Len Deighton, HRF Keating, Eric Ambler, Ted Allbeury, John Le Carré and Frederick Forsyth gathered for lunch at the Savoy. The occasion was a surprise 75th birthday for Ambler hosted by Len Deighton.

What a conversation there must have been around the table that day! Think about the collection of spy fiction classics that those around the table have shared with the world. A round table of spy fiction knights, if you will.

Wonder what the cake looked like!


On other matters, Waterstones Gower Street in London is holding a number of events under the 'Summer of Spies' theme, with guest speakers talking about all manner of spy fiction themes. On 29 August they are hosting one on The Ipcress File.

More information is available here.

The week before, writer Mike Ripley - of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang fame, which has just been published - will be talking about the golden age of British thriller books. More information here.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Think you know a lot about British Thrillers? Think Again!

The cover illustrations beautifully hint at the material discussed by Ripley
Author and friend of the Deighton Dossier Mike Ripley - he of the Angel series of crime novels - has produced a super new reference work on the golden age of the British thriller which readers of spy fiction will find informative and revealing, very much a book that deserves repeated dipping into.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang - wow, what a cool title, straight off - is an authoritative exposition on how, to use its subtitle, "Britain lost and empire but its secret agents saved the world."

From the first Bond novel Casino Royale to the publication of The Eagle has Landed in 1970s, Ripley pinpoints these three decades as the period during which British authors - famous (Deighton, Fleming, Le Carre, Dick Francis ) and those now often overlooked by the current generation of readers (Lionel Davidson, Adam Hall, Gavin Lyall) - captured the imagination of readers worldwide in the post-war era with their tales of derring-do, spycraft, murder, and other written word adventures which, in the pre-Internet age, fuelled the imagination like very little else.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

[Guest contributor] SS-GB and its place in the alternative history landscape

Fritz Kellerman, from BBC1's SS-GB

[Friend of the Deighton Dossier and noted Deighton collector Robert "Raki" Rakison provides his thoughts on Len Deighton's classic of alternative history - recently shown on BBC1 in a five-part series - and considers other speculative fiction novels and books from the same period which readers may wish to consider.]

The recent TV series for SS-GB and The Man In The High Castle have sparked a lot of interest about what would have happened if the Nazis had won World War Two. This interest in alternate histories is not new, even on film or TV.

Len Deighton wrote SS-GB (published in 1978) when he’d just finished researching, writing and publishing his military history book Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain and was about to do the same for Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk (1979) – both very readable, really excellent military histories. (In 1993 Len also wrote Blood, Tears and Folly: The Darkest Hour of the Second World War (to misquote Winston Churchill), a highly critical review of the period, up to the US coming into World War Two, with a reminder of how close to defeat the Allies were.

According to Len's "What if...?" article in the 18-24 February 2017 edition of the Radio Times, published to coincide with the recent SS-GB TV mini-series, in the mid-1970s, discussing the research for Fighter and Blitzkrieg, his editor made a comment to the effect that nobody knew what would have happened if Hitler had won the war. Len said that we did “to some extent” and Ray Hawkey (a close friend of Len’s, famously the dust jacket designer for SS-GB and most of Len’s books and producer of the British Hitler-head postage stamps, developed as a promotion for SS-GB) asked if it would make a book, an “alternative world story.”

Monday, 20 March 2017

So ... what did you think? SS-GB has ended

The gravelly voiced Douglas Archer
Well, blog readers: Whaddya think?

Yesterday's episode certainly introduced the action and tension which some viewers seem to have felt was missing earlier on.

After "mumble-gate" and a drop-off in viewing figures after episode one, the five-part adaption of Len Deighton's SS-GB finished with the final episode last night introducing some radical departures from the source novel ... opening up a second series, potentially.

[The Radio Times has a useful guide on the differences between the TV series and the book, here.]

I would give the series four out of five stars, mostly because I found pacing issues in the middle, perhaps as a result of it being stretched out over five weeks (it may not feel different, for example, if binge-watched on DVD).

Critical response has been mixed. Seems to have been a marmite series: Those who want to bash the BBC hate it; it also became a meme linked to Brexit, with some drawing parallels between the Nazis in the 'thirties and the modern EU (face-palm!). Other critics have lauded the quality of the acting, the quality of the direction and the 'noir' element.

The world of Twitter has been its usual, crazy, bubble, with little or anything approaching effective commentary being possible!

What did Deighton Dossier readers think of the series - do share your thoughts.

Friday, 24 February 2017

New profile of Len Deighton in Mail, part of SS-GB hullaboo

Amidst all the online Twitter hubbub over alleged mumbling in SS-GB on BBC1, there's been a significant upsurge in coverage of both the series and the author of the book on which it is based, Len Deighton.

The Deighton Dossier spoke briefly a while back to Nicole Lampert who writes for the Daily Mail, and her short profile article on Len Deighton was in the paper yesterday and is up on the newspaper's website, here. She has alighted on the 'mysterious, reclusive' author angle which, while cliched, isn't all that inaccurate - the author does value his privacy highly.

I'm pleased she used some of the information on the website I pointed her to as part of her research, and the Mail's picture library has clearly dug deep to find some new pictures of Len to illustrate the article.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Would you collaborate, or not? SS-GB preview

That's core to the gripping story at the centre of this five-piece BBC drama out late February, according to co-writer Robert Wade, he of Spectre fame. The producers have drawn out this key characteristic in Len Deighton's book SS-GB and made it central to understanding the tension and uncertainty at the heart of this new drama.

This evening's screening of episode one of SS-GB by Sid Gentle Films shows that the BBC has on its hand a real audience winner and a production that has done justice to Len Deighton's original book and, according to his agent, satisfied the author too.

I won't give away any plot clues or spoil the story. Rather, I'll pick out a few highlights from the episode and the Q&A afterward with Sam Riley, Kate Bosworth, Neil Purvis, Robert Wade and producer Sally Woodward-Gentle.

But get ready for Buckingham Palace in ruins!!

Authenticity - the production quality on this series is up to cinema standards, as TV is now very much on a par with Hollywood in securing the best financing and TV. No expense has been spared on costumes, vehicles, tanks, Spitfires, but also little details like accurate train tickets, advertising, graffiti on the walls, London vernacular. Nothing jars.

London the star - the producers made the series entirely in central London with various locations, as they felt no other city could stand in for London. The director Phillip Kadelbach's secret was to use handheld cameras frequently, focus in tight on the main characters rather than rely on lots of wide shots (requiring CGI and thousands of extras) and keep the camera at Archer's eye level and follow him around, to give the impression of following him on a search for clues. It looks visually stunning, certainly.

Great performances - one of the standouts of the first episode was actor James Cosmo as Harry Woods, Archer's gritty, older detective pal. Wonderfully gritty.

Real Germans - with a German director the producers were able to bring in the cream of German stage and screen actors. Particularly menacing and already one of the standout performances is Lars Eidiger as Standartenfuhrer Dr Huth of the SS. For the first five minutes on screen, all we hear is his voice and silhouette as an autopsy is being carried out. This is an SS man with a mission, and huge charisma too.

Follows classic police procedural memes - the discovery of the murder above an antique shop is classic detective procedural - the long glances around the room, the fishing around in cupboards, the item tucked behind a draw, the hidden hiding place, the vital clue left behind, the disinterested 'seen it all before' police doctor. Great stuff.

Central St Martin's College - really stands in well for Scotland yard. The interiors and the classic wooden doors are perfectly wartime in tone. The sets have a real stability to them, literally and figuratively.

Fantastic title sequence - makes the viewer tingle with anticipation before the TV series starts. They are wonderfully done a mix of the modern and the old, as indicated by the modern typeface introducing the actors under which their names are written in German Gothic fonts. The colours are strongly the black, white and red of the Swastika flag and this ties together into the reveal scene of Douglas Archer at the end (below). Images dissolving into each other, colours bleeding into new images, it has the pace and feel of a classic Bond dramatic opening in which you pick up the main threads of the story before the programme's even started, but without revealing too much.

Beautiful colour and sound editing - the colour palette and feel are just right - lots of browns, smudgy dirty streets, under-lit pubs and kitchen parlours, all just right for a country struggling under the yoke of the Nazis. Most of the action takes place inside, but the sound editor brings to life offices, pubs, restaurants, whorehouses and other locations beautifully with some marvellous extraneous sound designs.

The writers are fans - clear from the Q&A that Purvis and Wade are fans of Deighton's book. They revealed they wanted to write it as a five-hour film, rather than a five episode drama series, as it has a complete story which lended itself to film making. The moral ambiguity at the heart of Deighton's story is something which they saw as central to the appeal of this film to TV viewers, sitting at home, who are asked to imagine - if this was happening outside your front door, what would you do?

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Full site update complete: The New Deighton Dossier is up and running

One of my Christmas/New Year projects was to complete the upgrade to the Deighton Dossier website and archive, which has been online seven years now!

The site now includes lots more interactive galleries, embedded video and new information not on the previous version. Importantly, it has plenty of scope for expansion.

I'm particularly keen to feature more third party content - if you have any images/commentary/ideas for features you'd like to see the DD address, I'd be happy to feature it on the website if it's suitable.

Check out the screen shots below of the new site:

I've now used more lightbox reveal boxes to ensure long content such as interviews is more self-contained and accessible, and dedicated sub-pages have been added where appropriate to make it easier to navigate. One thing I haven't been able to do successfully is integrate the existing blogger.com hosted Blog; what I may do eventually is add in a built-in blog, and simply transfer the existing information across.

If you spot any errors, do please add some comments below and I'll address them.

Thanks for continuing to visit the blog and the website, which is now the top result on any Google search on Len Deighton!