Monday, 18 February 2019

Happy 90th Birthday, Len Deighton, from your readers

[Card courtesy of reader Peter Ashley]
Anyone born in 1929 - as Len Deighton was, 90 years ago today (18 February) - has experienced a world of unprecedented cultural, social and technological change: the war to end all wars; the end of colonlialism and the subsequent turbulence of numerous civil wars; the Cold War that followed the dropping of the most powerful weapon ever created; the rise of China and the ending of the Communist experiment; pax Americana; unprecedented global economic growth; consumerism; the dawn of the information age and the global connectivity of the Internet.

Through over five decades of writing, give or take, Len Deighton has documented many of these changes.

It seemed appropriate, as Deighton’s success ultimately has been determined by his readability and capacity to generate fantastic characters and stories, to ask other readers to share their thoughts on the question: What do Len Deighton’s books mean to you as a reader?

Read their thoughts, below:

Karl Gunnar Oen, Norway

"It would have been nice to say that this book sent me on a lifelong readership adventure. But no; in 1968 I was only nine years old and The Hardy Boys and Detective Nancy Drew were my favorites. At fourteen I came across a Norwegian edition of Bomber and I was hooked, and it proved to be for life.

Even in rural Norway, Deighton paperbacks were possible to acquire, and through struggling with his books I learned to appreciate the English language much more than the school system had taught me. I fondly remember reading Fighter while doing my military service, and devouring SS-GB as a student. Curiously, I held back on the Game, Set & Match trilogy, not taking it on until I was firmly established with a steady job and a wife. Then, I read the books in next trilogies as soon as they were published. I’m now on my third round of the Samson-novels, the first time I read it for the plot; the second time for the complexity of the relationships; this time around, the humour stands out. The books are so rich that I will certainly read them yet another time, as I have with most of the others.

The Nameless Spy, Colonel Stok, Pat Armstrong, Douglas Archer, Dicky Cruyer, Bernard and Fiona - and Werner: my reading life has been enriched through meeting them. The hours spent in their company, I would not have missed for the world.

Funeral in Berlin is my absolute favourite. Thank you, Mr Deighton!"


Jim Adams, Utah

"My late mother was an avid reader of fiction and, fortunately for me, owned all 10 books in the American first editions and passed them to me as she finished them. For that I’ll be forever grateful to her.

In one way I can especially identify with Bernard Samson. It’s an aspect of the series no one has mentioned yet, and I’ll try to explain with some background, if you’ll please indulge me. I served as a missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in northern Germany from 1968 to 1970, and after my mission I married a Berlinerin. My first mission assignment was in Spandau. 

When I was transferred to Hamburg six months later, I was shocked to hear how different the language sounded. I soon learned that what I’d picked up in Berlin was the distinctive dialect spoken in informal conversation all day, every day.

Like Bernard, I’ve been proud of my mastery of Berlinerisch lo these past 50 years, and I’ve been told by Berliners, including my wife, that my pronunciation is almost native. It somehow hurt my feelings too when Werner told his friend in Charity that his dialect wasn’t as good as he’d thought all along!

Bernard’s intimacy with Berlin, its language, its Stadtplan, its weather, the feeling of unease but also of adventure living in the divided city - an island of freedom in a sea of oppression - still resonates in my soul half a century later.
So for me, the magic of the books - beyond the wonderful characters, the intrigue, the almost prescient way the author weaves in a supposed MI-6 involvement in the eventual fall of the Wall - the thing that keeps me coming back to the series again and again is Bernard’s affection for Berlin and its brash, stubborn but deeply lovable people. I share with him a rich nostalgia for pre-Wende, post-war West Berlin.

It makes me rank the final page of Charity right up there with the last sentence of The Great Gatsby as one of noveldom’s supreme closings: that “perfect day long ago” when “the sky was blue and Berlin was heaven.”

Perhaps Fiona and Bernard are right - that happiness does come more often from memories than from the experiences that create them.
Thank you, Mr. Deighton, for memorializing the Berlin of my late adolescence in a way that I can return to any time simply by taking a book down from a shelf. You have my gratitude forever. And Happy 90th!"

Georgie Montmorency-Marchbanks, UK

"I first read the 1960s spy novels when I was thirteen (my school had first editions of The IPCRESS File and Funeral in Berlin in the library. Then I scoured secondhand bookshops for his other works. I assumed he'd not written anything novels since the 1970s; but then I discovered the Bernard Samson books, quite late in the day. Thereafter, I haunted the bookstores for each new instalment. I can vividly remember reading the ‘sixties novels as an adolescent: they had an electrifying effect on me.

You could say they changed my personality somewhat!"

Isyew, UK

"Dear Mr Deighton - that iconic photo of Michael Caine, trying to crack eggs to your satisfaction; you, poised with a raised wood spoon in your right hand, your left - hidden - poking the star as you tease him for his efforts. Wonderful!

I've come to appreciate how much your Samson series of books, in particular, influences my own debut novel. This strange desire to write for mystery novels who prefer to read with their brains engaged is strong.

Had you as an author aspired to influence society, I'm sure you would have instructed lads like me to rise up in the world, and not simply be content to serve the likes of Dalby, Dawlish and Dicky Cruyer all our lives.

You presented us us with muscular, frequently hilarious entertainment in your books and I, for one, am glad you did.

I love your impeccably research which underpins the credible words you create for your fictional characters - sharply drawn and tragi-comic in equal measure (as exemplified in the relationship between Bernard and Werner). I also enjoy what at first sight appear to be straight-line plots, but which offer up so much 'off screen' ambiguity.

You will always be to me a literary giant. Thank you."


Nick Flindall, England

"I first encountered The Ipcress File in 1962, shortly after its publication, and quickly realised that Len Deighton's novel was something very special. Its unique combination of acerbic wit, complex plotting, accurate detail and marvellous grasp of dialogue, characterisation and location made it stand out from the rest.

Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin and Billion-Dollar Brain were to follow over the next four years. I loved all of them and marvelled at the depth of knowledge and detailed research, and how anyone in their thirties could write so perceptively and engagingly.

Around forty-five years later, in a slightly tipsy moment, late night, fuelled with bravado, I completed an application form for the BBC quiz programme Mastermind.

My first choice of specialist subject was the 'Harry Palmer' novels. To my amazement and delight, I was asked for audition and accepted for the programme.

In preparation I read and re-read the books, obtained the silver jubilee editions, scoured the internet, made assiduous notes and prepared my own 'Deighton File' - a real labour of love. I have never tired of them and found many hidden gems which had escaped me.

In the year following transmission, it was Len's eightieth birthday. I sent him an email via his agents, congratulating him and mentioned my Mastermind appearance. I was thrilled and touched that he wrote back from the US and later signed some mementos from the programme.

Each year since then I've sent him a birthday greeting via his agents in appreciation of this kindness and to express the immense pleasure I have received from his books, and continue to do so."

Nick Elliott, author of the Angus McKinnon series

Funeral in Berlin was the first of Len's books I discovered. I was seventeen and from then until now, I've been hooked, lined and sinkered, reading and re-reading over fifty years pretty much everything he's written.

In the early years (pre-Samson) I remember on starting my first job as a trainee shipbroker in London looking for a flat to rent in Elephant & Castle. I even imaging owning a white, mud-splattered Jensen!

Much later, thanks in part to the Deighton Dossier, I watched Channel 4's 'The Truth About Len Deighton'. Later still I discovered an interview conducted in Portugal with Melvyn Bragg. Fascinating viewing!

The Samson trilogies were, without doubt, what motivated me to have a go at writing. With my Angus McKinnon thrillers I thought at first I could emulate Len's style: Bernard's humourous, caustic asides; the poignancy of his predicament; the characters he paints so vividly. But Angus had to find his own voice and I realised it would be a mistake to create a poor-man's Bernie Samson.

That said, I did borrow a few of his lines: 'When you point a finger at someone, remember there are three fingers point back at yourself.' I was worried about this until I discovered it originated with the Navajo.

I do admit that among the protagonists, my Oxford-educated Claire Scott is loosely modelled on Fiona Samson. Why wouldn't you?

So thanks, Len, and lang may yer lum reek!"

Matthew Comstock, United States

"There are so many positive things that one could say about Len’s Deighton’s writing. If I had to narrow them down, I would say his top strengths are his attention to detail, his sardonic sense of humour, and his keen understand ing of human nature. In reading Winter, the Samson saga, and SS-GB, I learned more about Germany and Germans that I ever could have in any history class.

I read all these books before setting foot in Germany (specifically Berlin) for the first time, and I felt they prepared me better than any travel guide or experienced traveler could have. Len’s one-liners, spoken by our anonymous hero of The Ipcress File, or Bernard Samson, or even Mickey Murphy would have impressed even Raymond Chandler. So much of Len’s dialogue has stayed with me, even after just one reading.

I can return to any of his works and still find something I missed in the previous reading. His understanding of human nature makes his characters so real, and coupled with his attention to detail, creates scenes that stay with you. An example: not long ago, I was a guest on a camping trip with campfire singing. One of the songs was ‘If you’re happy and you know it.’ My mind immediately went to that dreadful scene in SS-GB during the round-ups. Hemingway once said of C.S. Forester, “I recommend him to every literate I know.” I proudly do the same for Len Deighton."

Eero Raunio, Finland

"I have a clear visual image of late-teenaged me sprawled on our courtyard grass. It is high summer, probably 1969 ,in eastern Finland; it is eleven kilometres to the Russian border. An August sunday afternoon; thunderclouds are massing and swallows fly high. I am reading An Expensive Place to Die in translation and I transported to Paris, where I am smoking Gauloises and looking at the traffic around the Arc de Triomphe and all the blue exhaust smoke. It was a revolutionary book: international and European, and written in a distinct modern style. Five years later, I took to Gauloises. Finland was slowly opening its borders and getting a bit more prosperous.

Later, much later, I really got to Paris: a tourist trip, a small hotel behind the Louvre and visits to a bistro where the proprietor loved to hate tourists. I saw Paris through that same book and bought Sempé drawings too. I had started to collect ‘Deightoniana’.

So, here, finally, I have a long-sought-after opportunity to thank the author. Len Deighton opened up Europe for us Finnish readers. His books are many-layered things, and can be read successively, but each time in a new way. Please, do some more, and have fun doing so."

John McAtamney, United Kingdom

I first came across Len Deighton when a colleague at work lent me Goodbye, Micky Mouse in late 1982 He had just finished it and knew I was a pilot and interested in military history. From that moment I was addicted. I could relate to the characters, the technical details fascinated me and enhanced its authenticity. I loved it and wanted to read more.

I had watched the ‘Harry Palmer’ movies and had not realised Len was a historian who told history by way of a novel. I then read Bomber, Fighter and Blitzkreig and my addiction was not satisfied.

Then Berlin Game was published and I rushed out and bought the hardback version. I was not disappointed. This was my first Len Deighton spy novel. I do not think I have ever read a book that was so cleverly plotted, with such convincing characters and natural dialogue that drew me into the story. I was hooked and read Mexico Set and London Match as soon as they were published.

Each book developed the characters further and at different times I liked or disliked each character, as they all had their flaws and good qualities. As the Samson series progressed, the stories developed to the point where the series was greater than the sum of the individual books. I still read them all every year or so and even though I have read them many times, I still pick up different nuances. Len creates very credible characters.

I think I have worked with a Dicky, a Fiona, a Frank and a Mackenzie. Dicky’s dinner parties have that comedy and authenticity that come from experience. Of the Samson series my favourite is Charity which brings closure of a sort. I still want to know what happened after Fiona received Bernard’s letter, however: did Billy and Sally follow in their parents’ footsteps, and did Werner and Zena live happily ever after?

While waiting for the others in the Samson series to be published, I read all Len’s other novels from The Ipcress File to Violent Ward and thoroughly enjoyed them all.

So thank you Len for the reading pleasure you have given me over the decades. I hope you have a very happy birthday."

Simon Hamid, America

"The first time I read Len Deighton's work I was a young student in graduate school, struggling to fit in. Being brought up across cultures and countries always made me a little unsure of myself, mainly because it seemed others were unsure of me. Or at least it seemed that way!

Reading about Bernard Samson's life, his struggles and insecurities, and issues with acceptance, made me feel that I was not alone in feeling estranged. I loved the way the character made himself into a sort of working-class hero in his own mind. It allowed Bernie Samson to deal with the intrigues of the office, and also to feel a sense of purpose, as he could communicate across all social classes. He had a unique emotional understanding of people, if not of himself.

In the end, Len Deighton’s portrayal of Samson made me feel understood and more comfortable in my own skin. It finally seemed like there was a writer who could understand the isolation that comes from trying to fit in everywhere, and still remain selfishly unique. When I first became immersed in the initial Samson Trilogy (Game, Set & Match) I would often come across issues in real life and ask myself, “how would Bernie handle this?”

Thanks, Len! Your books have given me entertainment, but also consolation and contentment! Your writing made me realise, through fiction, that I was not alone in trying to live among different cultures, and that I could make my own space."

Peter Lees, United Kingdom

I picked Berlin Game from my father-in-law's bookshelves whilst staying there one Christmas about 10 years ago, just out of curiosity. I loved the combination of spy thriller (which I can't identify with) and acutely observed office politics (with which I can), and went on to read all the Bernard Samson books one after the other.

Last year, my father-in-law was terminally ill and pretty much all he could do was lie in bed and read - there was nothing I could do about that, but I was able to send down the rest of the Samson books (he had the first three) for him to read. So, in short, I love Len Deighton's books, especially the Samson series, and they are part of the bond I had with my father-in-law.

On a lighter note, French Cooking for Men is my go to for sauce bearnaise and hollandaise."

Tom Burroughes, London

"Len writes spy stories that were exciting and intelligent. His books were always full of sardonic wit and very sharp observation. I read and re-read them. His eye for detail is unsurpassed. And the characters are are people we have all, at one time or another, met and interacted with."

Derek Thompson, author of the Spy Chaser series

"Len Deighton’s books showed me - as a reader - a world of espionage and intrigue with flawed, down-at-heel characters that I could identify with. They also inspired me in my own creative writing and Len Deighton, along with Raymond Chandler, is one of the key influences in the way I think about character and dialogue. Len’s books show us the human side of Realpolitik, and that’s what I try to emulate in my own spy novels."

John Koenig, Wisconsin

"Mr. Deighton, I first read The Ipcress File many years ago, enjoyed it, remembered you, but didn’t return to your work for a couple of decades.

Thousands of books later, I find myself selecting one of your titles as a palate cleanser, a refresher for my brain, each time I find myself tired and underwhelmed by today’s novels. Your powerful characterisations, the sensitive context of Bernard Samson’s life in Germany, and the breadth of your intellectual interests combine to create the most satisfying career collection of books in my life. Now in my sixties, I find myself working through your non-fiction, notably the World War II books, with deep appreciation.

You have made a strong impression on my life. Thank you, sir."

Adam Nixon, England

"I’d read Billion Dollar Brain and Only When I Larf by the time I was ten, in 1968. My father always snapped up all the Len Deighton titles as fast as Len could pen them, and when he decreed I was old enough to accompany him to the cinema, the luscious movie versions of Billion-Dollar Brain and Only When I Larf fired me to read the books.

Unlike Ian Fleming and Cubby Broccoli’s creation of Bond, which portrayed spying as something far out of reach of everyday blokes; or the work of old misery-pants, John Le Carré, as fifty shades of brown, Len Deighton alone gave us something one can only describe as Cold War optimism: greasier guns, fairly fast cars, and slightly more affordable women, as long as you knew of a decent restaurant or two, or how to cook the stuff yourself.

So Ken Russell’s cool, computed Thunderbirds-for-grownups, and David Hemmings snogging Alexandra Stewart underwater, epitomised the 1960s for me, and what a wonderful world adulthood was going to be.

Conversely, in the 21st century, I was fifty and a failure before I discovered Bernard Samson. But oh what an antidote to middle-aged suicide Bernie is! Stirring up enough shared hatred for the Bret Rensselaers and Dicky Cruyers of this world, unashamed in unreliable narration and knowing that Len knows just how you feel, one also feels again the warmth and hope of childhood’s summer sun as you run to meet and play with Werner Volkmann, sliding down the hills of rubble in old bombed-out Berlin. Wonderful!"

Shane Whaley - creator, Spybrary podcast, Vermont

"I am a huge fan of your books, especially the Bernard Samson series. Berlin Game blew me away. I was listening to it via Audible, as I walked the streets of Berlin back in 2016, chasing Cold War ghosts in Lichtenberg.

Berlin Game was my constant companion on that trip. Well, that and lots of schwarzbier and doner kebabs. I remember leaving the Stasi HQ on Normannenstrasse, pressing play on my device, and listening to the scenes with Bernard Samson and Erich Stinnes which took place in that very building. It was quite an experience! I then went on to read all nine novels and the wonderful accompaniment of Winter. Those books were the catalyst for Spybrary, the podcast I set up to talk about spy literature.

The Samson series was too good to be shoved back on the shelf and forgotten about. I needed to talk to other spy fans about the characters, the plots, the locations, the twists and turns. I wanted to celebrate your writing, not in an academic way but as a fan of the spy genre.

On a personal note, I enjoyed the snippets of GDR history you weaved into the stories. You also refer to Bruckner in one of the books; curious, I listened to his eighth symphony and am now a huge fan! So, thank you for widening my musical tastes as well!

Quite simply, there would be no Spybrary podcast without your writing, Len. I wish you a very happy ninetieth birthday!"

Paul Neczypir, England

"It's forty-five years since I first began reading, and continually re-reading, Deighton's books, and there is no other author who has come close to giving me as much pleasure every time I begin again at page one.

The stories are plotted with such care and originality, and described in language so rich in humour and colour, that no story ever feels stale, however many times you've been there before. And I've never before encountered a historian who can offer so many fresh facts and insights on every single page that make you feel you'd never really understood the world you lived in until now.

What is his secret (apart from the extraordinary breadth and depth of his research, and the consequent originality of both his fiction and his non-fiction)?

I think that more than anything it's the way everything centres on the individual. Stories are driven by men and women trying to make sense of the world around them, and rarely being successful in doing so. And history is not the result of ideologies or social planning, but rather the end result of people adapting, coping or simply trying to take advantage of each other. We readers, as individuals, can finally see the world described in the way we experience it.

When you finish a Deighton book, you feel a better person for it. Or at the very least, a better informed one. A small personal note: the description of the tearful Gloria in the Sampson books, explaining how, as the English daughter of Hungarian parents, she aches for that national identity that most people take utterly for granted, struck such a note with me, as a second-generation immigrant. I've never known anyone other than Deighton to ‘get it’ with such clarity."

Scott Belliveau, Lexington, Virginia

"At thirteen years old, I spied a new book in my school library: Len Deighton’s Spy Story. The jacket copy promised something irresistible to a teenaged Cold War geek: a ‘brutal, devious conspiracy of East-West politics,’ featuring submarines, wargames, and spies and containing ‘unfailing suspense,’ and ‘sparking sardonic wit.’ And, boy, it delivered all that--and more.

That’s what Len Deighton has consistently done for me: Delivered. For example, he delivered a searing account of aerial combat in Bomber. He delivered a thought-provoking examination of the Battle of Britain in Fighter. His writing on food and drink delivered many happy hours in the kitchen and invaluable insights on ‘the good life.’ His spy fiction delivered amazing atmosphere, compelling characters, intricate plots, and, yes, that “sparkling sardonic wit.” Taking a tantalising answer to ‘What if?,’ he delivered the stunning, timeless SS-GB.

By spurring long conversations with family and friends, his books delivered cherished opportunities for us to come closer together. He delivered innumerable laughs, insights, and moments of suspense and excitement. He delivered welcome company in lonely hours. He delivered countless hours of enjoyment. Finally, he delivered an inspiring example of what a writer can do when he resolutely refuses to be pigeonholed, and, instead, follows his interests and his passions.

That’s what Len Deighton means to me as a reader. I hope that knowing this means something positive to him as a writer. Thank you, Mr. Deighton, and Happy Birthday."

Craig Arthur, New Zealand

"For me, Len Deighton occupies the same place in the post-War cultural landscape as The Beatles. Both emerged at the same time, in 1962, and like the Fab Four or the Rolling Stones he took what was fundamentally an American art form – in his case, the hardboiled detective novels of Raymond Chandler; in theirs, rock and roll – and imported it and reinvented it as a British art form, applying it to the sub-genre of the spy story we first saw in Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden and Graham Greene.

Packaged in the brilliant cover designs of Raymond Hawkey, Deighton gave the grey world of Maugham and Greene an air of pop art colour and striking simplicity, putting blood in its veins – again like The Beatles. In part, as with The Beatles, this was a class revolution and Deighton's novels reflect this in their satirical social outlook.

And, like The Beatles’ song-writing, Deighton continued to develop and reach new heights even his own early triumphs could not have predicted, culminating with the Bernard Samson series in the 1980s and 90s. Along with John le Carré’s Smiley/Karla trilogy, the Samson books represent the pinnacle of the spy novel.

And that's just scratching the surface in an oeuvre of such range, encompassing both fiction and non-fiction. I re-read Deighton's books every ten years or so and see them with fresh eyes each time, always noticing aspects that eluded me on earlier readings. I'm never disappointed."






Happy ninetieth birthday, Len.

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