Thursday 13 August 2009

The reissues (3) - XPD

Today's blogpost covers the third reissue XPD, originally published in 1982. It's one I'm actually reading right now, having not read the original novel for, ooh, at least sixteen years. It's already proving a cracking read, with a lot of the detail and characterisation leaping off the page along with the as-ever cracking dialogue. The plot? A group of ex GIs, charged with shipping back to the US the gold stored by the Nazi leadership in the Kaiseroda Mine, have in their hands something much more valuable ... and dangerous: documentary proof of Winston Churchill's wartime discussions with Adolf Hitler to seek a peace and cede control of Europe to the Nazis.

When these papers threaten to come to the surface after the GI's banking business set up with the stolen gold mysteriously starts to tank, MI:6, the CIA, the KGB and, it would appear, a group of Germans seeking to resurrect the Third Reich, are all drawn into a relentless - murderous - search for the papers in a story stretching from the Hollywood Hills to Hamburg. It was (is) one of Deighton's best sellers and remains, as he says in the introduction, "one of my favourite books."

XPD is a term coined by Deighton for the novel. It stands for 'expedient demise', sanctioned acts of murder or 'wet jobs' necessary to protect state secrets and security. In his introduction to this new edition, Deighton reflects (again) on the crucial importance of research and first hand evidence in creating believable characters and detailed, well-wrought plotlines. He recalls here discussions with "at least twelve" Germans who at some point had come face to face with Hitler. Similarly, the stories surrounding the hidden Nazi gold are as authentic as possible, drawing on official US and German archives; indeed, much of what he used was declassified on his request. The power of author celebrity, no doubt! He recounts days spent in the back of a police interceptor in LA, getting the details of police procedure exactly right and consulting with one of the leading figures in the LAPD Intelligence division.

As was the case with Fighter and Bomber, Deighton's skill as a historian - when applied to fiction and non-fiction - can create some ripples. Here he recounts the negative reaction to one of the advertising posters, mocked up to show Churchill and Hitler shaking hands, including questions in the House of Lords:

"The furore caught me completely by surprise. I was in California and found myself accused of running a cunning advertising stunt from afar. I did not know whether to be flattered or insulted. I had always been a devout admirer of our wartime prime minister and I remain so. In any case, it seemed a sad reflection on our times that these displays of frantic, if not to say antic, indignation were prompted by a story about Churchill attempting to negotiate peace. Could it really be defamatory to say that someone had tried to avoid the chronic misery and tens of millions of deaths in that terrible war?"

You get a sense of righteous indignation from Deighton caused by frustration when the facts of history - and their interpretation by historians or novelist - prove inconvenient for those for whom an established myth is important. This was certainly the case in the seventies when his assessment in Fighter of the Battle of Britain as a close-run thing, and not the glorious victory portrayed in the movies and post-war histories, led to clashes in the letters pages of the Telegraph from outraged flyers.

The front cover of this new edition shows this mocked-up photograph in a dossier montage by Alfred Schwartzman. In the context of everything we know know about the Second World War, it is still startling enough to make you ponder....'well, might it have happened'. Believability - that's one of the characteristics of Deighton's fiction which gives it staying power.

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