Friday 27 November 2009

Looking down the back of the literary sofa...

Friend of this blog and one of the UK's top thriller writers Mike Ripley has a brand new venture out which seeks to resurrect long-lost literary gems from the archives.

Ostara Publishing’s new imprint Top Notch Thrillers aims to revive Great British thrillers which do not deserve to be forgotten. A recent news release informs me that each title has been carefully selected not just for its plot or sense of adventure but for the distinctiveness and sheer quality of its writing. Mike - author of the award-winning ‘Angel’ comic thrillers and former crime fiction critic of the Daily Telegraph - will be the series editor. He currently writes the Getting Away With Murder column for the e-zine Shots which is linked to on this blog.

Says Ripley, of this new venture: “There is a staggering variety of style and breadth of imagination in British thriller writing which is in danger of slipping from popular memory. I think of the Sixties and Seventies as a Golden Age for British thrillers, much as the 1930s were for the detective story. The big names are still remembered, if only just – writers such as Alistair Maclean, Len Deighton and Gavin Lyall – but many are unjustly forgotten. It is a labour of love for me to bring back some of the favourite titles of my youth and put them before a new generation of readers before it’s too late.

The first four Top Notch Thrillers, published this month, are Snake Water by Alan Williams, The Terrible Door by George Sims, Night of Glass by Philip Purser and A Clear Road to Archangel by Geoffrey Rose. Eight more titles are expected in 2010.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Callan is no more...

Sad to hear of the death of TV actor Edward Woodward at age 79. He was best remembered for The Whicker Man and as David Callan, secret agent and hitman performing assassinations for the UK secret service in Callan, first shown on ITV in the 1970s but repeated a number of times.

Apropos of nothing, my mother apparently sat next to Woodward in class when at school!

Sunday 15 November 2009

Competition - win a copy of Dismissed Dead by Rod Brammer

Below on the blog is my review of Dismissed Dead by Rod Brammer, whose work is marketed as appealing to fans of Len Deighton books.

His publishers Elliott and Thompson have kindly given me a brand new paperback copy of the book to give away to Deighton Dossier blog readers who can answer this simple question:

What is the latin genus of the common grey squirrel? [Read the relevant link to the Telegraph story in the review to understand the squirrel link!]

The contest is open until 30 November 2009. Entries are by email through the main Deighton Dossier website or through this blog (via my profile) or via deightondossier [at] me [dot] com.

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

Spy fiction review: Dismissed Dead by Rod Brammer

I blogged recently about a new book which I'd been sent by the publisher - Dismissed Dead by Rod Brammer, author and enemy of squirrels everywhere - which had an intriguing strapline, "One man left behind in East Berlin" and publishing blurb which said any fan of Len Deighton's work would enjoy this book. Well, there's a challenge. I've reviewed the book below and included a brief Q and A session which Rod Brammer kindly provided for me after an interesting - and revealing - interview over the 'phone.

Dismissed Dead by Rod Brammer, Elliott and Thompson £7.99, ISBN 978-1-9040-2772-0

This is the second book following the exploits of Royal Naval intelligence officer Keith Finlay. Set in the sixties, twenty-six year old Lieutenant Finlay is charged by his Admiralty bosses with going over the wire into East Berlin - or in this case, struggle under it - through the....frankly...shit of the Berlin sewer system, to meet up with a scientist who can provide British intelligence with a copy of a new type of Red Army bullet capable of cutting through Britain's tank armour.

Having read Jeremy Duns' excellent Free Agent earlier this year which also goes back to the an unknown corner of the Cold War in the sixties for inspiration, I saw parallels with this book. In the case of Dismissed Dead, the unknown corner is the soviet republic of Turkmenistan in central Asia, where Keith Finlay is held in a Soviet army hospital having been captured during a firefight at the East German border in which, selflessly, his comrade-in-arms Major Patrick Canavan helps him get the bullet back to the British forces on the other side of the fence, but is subsequently killed. The guilt lays heavy on him. Finlay is presumed killed in action - his personnel file marked "Dismissed Dead" - and, out of sight and out of mind from the British secret service, he has to win a battle of wills with the lead KGB interrogator and the attentions of the luscious - but duplicitous - female KGB spy/nurse Daria.

Naturally - like all good secret agents should - he succumbs to her sexual charms before - through a UK mole in the hospital staff - contact is made with the secret service which must exfiltrate him, disguised as a shepherd travelling anonymously through the dangerous hillsides of Afghanistan - so, nothing changes there - and get him back to the UK where, psychologically scarred, Finlay has to assess his motivations as an agent and re-establish relations with his family who - his aunt aside - already consider him dead.

The majority of this book takes place not in Berlin, as the title and cover would suggest, but in the Turkmen hospital where Finlay has to deal with the psychological terrors of Soviet torture. So, that was a bit of a surprise - I think Berlin is always a great character in itself in any Cold War spy novel - but Brammer does nevertheless create a convincingly claustrophobic  atmosphere in the KGB hospital.

It's obvious from reading this part of the book that much of the harsh reality of the treatment of enemy agents - and the moral and physical strength required to sustain hope thousands of miles behind enemy lines - comes either from Brammer's own direct experiences as an agent or is based on real operations undertaken by British agents at the height of the Cold War. Rather like Len Deighton's novels, the story is augmented and supported by realism and demonstration of believable detail. You can sense the anguish and pain Finlay goes through.

Keith Finlay - welcomingly politically incorrect and womanising (though Guardian readers would call him sexist!) and in the mould of a Harry Palmer character - but from the hunting rather than the football classes - is a tough, no-nonsense agent who regularly rubs up authority the wrong way and does things his own way (it would be a poor spy story in which any agent followed the rules and health and safety guidance!). He has the stomach to not only survive but escape Soviet capture and regain his freedom and his mind. At times, the character felt very autobiographical - perhaps a little too much with some of the family back story and figures of speech - and his 1960s view of the world, while authentic, may jar a little with modern readers. But, there's real scope for development with this character, who is both apparently an extraordinarily effective agent but also full of doubt about whether the role he performs is right.

Heir to Deighton? Well, no. And I don't think the author would necessarily say so either; that's the marketing team talking. Nevertheless, he has the benefit of some fantastic experiences - and characters - from his own career to fall back on in developing this character. His book is a good straightforward spy story, a plane or train thriller that has enough to sustain it.

I finished with some questions about gaps in the understanding of Finlay's character, but that is probably a function of my not having read the first book and the fact that - as the author indicates below - this is a story over a number of books in which the full impact of Keith Finlay's career choice - and the competing pulls of family and country - play out.

Q and A with Rod Brammer, author

Having read the book, Rod was kind enough to chat to me over the phone and give some insight into his career as a naval intelligence officer and to help me understand the extent to which his life and career has nourished the character and stories of Keith Finlay, naval intelligence operative. Much of what Rod told me about his life in naval intelligence I cannot probably safely reveal, but he did spin magnificent tales of the times he met Ian Fleming - of course, himself a former naval intelligence officer - and the genesis of the James Bond character, another agent who was known to Rod. Anyway, I asked Rod to respond to a number of questions which occurred to me upon reading this, his second book:

Deighton Dossier: How much of the character Keith Finlay is based on yourself?
Rod Brammer: This is the most frequently asked question about the books. My answer is invariably the same: as much as you yourself want it to be. The detailed portrayal of the world of sixties' Whitehall, and the disdain the main character shows for the non-service personnel, is easily explained. In the main, civil servants have neither the education, vision, breadth of knowledge or the training to think laterally, everything is therefore done in straight lines. They simply "follow the yellow brick road.”

DDThe torture scenes in the book, when Finlay is interrogated by his case officer Gregor, were pretty convincing. Were they drawn from any particular experiences or true stories?
RB: That particular section of Dismissed Dead was actually written thirty years ago, and was largely taken from the original de-briefing notes. These notes are held in a solicitors safe, in Winchester, Hampshire, to be given to my family after I pop my clogs. In fact, I cannot now remember what I wrote in that section of the book -  I have never read it since it was printed. I refused to proof read it or even look at it. Well, would you want to go back there?

The character of Keith Finlay is sixty seven now. The physical scars are mainly faded - the mental ones not. The next book, Too few to mention, covers some aspects of torture visited on a colleague of his, who was sent home in a body bag. In my books I am keen that the reader knows the true cost sometimes visited on intelligence agents, in order that the population at large can sleep safe in their beds.

DD: One of the trends in modern spy fiction I see is that the lead characters are often flawed individuals, whose hang-ups and personal life frequently help define the tone and direction of the plot. How would you describe Keith Finlay's flaws?
RB: Character is defined in childhood. If you read A Flag on the Abbey [the first Keith Finlay adventure] you will see that his upbringing was unconventional by today’s standards. He probably thought - if in fact he ever thought about such things - that his life was entirely normal. Using the vernacular of the period, Finlay’s family are “landed gentry”, certainly not nouveau riche. He was raised by a doting, autocratic aunt, an extremely beautiful lady of outspoken attitudes, who described the Prime Minister of the time as a “dreadful little oike.” Finlay was created as outspoken and bluntly to the point. He has the capacity to offender, but his attitude to those in authority or in his life whom he offends is pretty disdainful. Finlay has been described as being as "politically correct as a cluster bomb". He had - and still has - a weakness for girls in jodhpurs.

DD: Though the front cover portrays Berlin, the bulk of the story takes place in central Asia. Why did you choose to develop this theme in the plot, where Finlay plays the long-game in central Asia while captive in a KGB hospital.
RB: In my experience, when an operation goes wrong - as Operation Kingstone does in the book - it is much the same as throwing a bucket of milk on concrete. It runs everywhere and cannot be controlled. So an agent has to adapt to it, rather than fight against it.

DD: When compared with modern agents like those portrayed in BBC's Spooks series, your character of Finlay is a middle class, middle England, public school, womaniser. In this politically correct, sanitised age, is there still demand for such an old-school character from modern readers?
RB: I am glad you asked that question. Finlay would answer with malicious glee when he talks about what he thinks of the Foreign Office and MI6.  He would describe FCO and MI6 staff as a 'bunch of pansies'; to be fair, in my experience these types would often in turn refer to members of the recce group as 'knuckle draggers'. In the fifties and sixties the only place where a boy could get a decent education was a public school. Finlay would not hold in high regard the middle class types who are now running things.

DD: What next for Finlay?
RB: There are going to be eight books in the Finlay series. Already completed are
A Flag on the AbbeyDismissed Dead and The Corncrake Man. Book three, currently titled Too few to mention, is almost completed. It details Finlay’s homecoming and his one year’s sick leave which in fact doesn’t happen. In four months he is called back, dealing with the beginnings of the IRA campaign in the UK. This is a disaster for the section, as two men are brought home in body bags from France. They had been working on the anti drugs job; their deaths were horrible. A short interlude is called for - Finlay deals brutally with the drug barons. He is no longer the happy-go-lucky operative he was, not after Kingstone.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner...

...of the Deighton Dossier's Berlin Wall anniversary competition.

Ari-Pekka Sihvonen was picked out of the hat from those who provided the correct answer to the length of the Berlin Wall (155 km). He wins a copy of the DVD telling the history of the wall and the many escape attempts across it.

Thanks to everyone who entered.

Monday 9 November 2009

Twenty years ago today....

The more one reads about the history of the GDR and its huge security and espionage apparatus, the more one marvels at the manner of its demise: part people's revolution, part bureaucratic screw-up.

Twenty years ago today, GDR Politburo member Günter Schabowski gave his famous press conference in which he read out a statement concerning changes to the state law regarding travel outside the GDR for its citizens:

"Privatreisen nach dem Ausland können ohne Vorliegen von Voraussetzungen (Reiseanlässe und Verwandtschaftsverhältnisse) beantragt werden. Die Genehmigungen werden kurzfristig erteilt. Ständige Ausreisen können über alle Grenzübergangsstellen der DDR zur BRD beziehungsweise zu Berlin (West) erfolgen."

[Simple translation] "Private travel into foreign countries can be requested without conditions. Permission will be granted instantly. Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR into the FRG or Berlin (West)."

He jumped the gun, however, the commencement of the new travel law not being scheduled until the following day and the border guards and Stasi not in a state of readiness to deal with the consequences. Unsure of what the schedule was, he improvised. Never did an ad hoc decision - to advise the media the law was effective immediately - has such a stupendous effect on modern history. The law was in effect straightaway - "ab sofort".

This was an unprecedented change by the SED, and was clearly a major measure in response to the months of street demonstrations and meetings by citizens proclaiming "Wir sind das Volk (we are the people)." From a country that has spent the last twenty-nine years investing enormous sums of money in keeping its people in, to now hear proposals for a loosening of travel restrictions brought utter astonishment, not least to the journalists listening to Günter Schabowski's hasty press conference.

The people didn't hestitate for further clarification, and the system which upheld the Cold War was fatally flawed.

Sometimes, fact is definitely more dramatic than fiction. I'm not sure if any of the great spy fiction writers could have drafted such a dramatic denouement.

Reproduced below is the text of that press conference. It makes for fascinating reading:

Friday 6 November 2009

Another Cobra in the nest*

Armstrong Sabian over at Mister 8 has advised that we have another new member of the CO.B.R.A.S. stable (Coalition of Bloggers wRiting About Spies). The Illustrated OO7 is Peter Lorenz' blog looking at all thing Fleming and Bond-related from a design and book history perspective - he's clearly an avid collector. I'd encourage readers of this blog to take a trip over to Peter's and check out some of the great images that are up there.

* ...that's assuming Cobras live in nests!

Sunday 1 November 2009

The Deighton File on Radio 4 again

Today on BBC Radio 4 The Deighton File - the 30 minutes radio documentary about the life and work of Len Deighton first broadcast in May 2009 - was re-broadcast. It will be available for another week to listen to on iPlayer. It's worth listening to to hear some new angles on familiar stories and understand how Deighton developed some of his key characters.

This was an excellent piece of storytelling by the producer Patrick Humphries, who as well as interviewing Deighton - his first broadcast interview for a few years - talks to Edward Milward-Oliver, novelist Jeremy Duns and Sir Max Hastings among others about the significance of Deighton's works and their impact on popular culture.

The illustrator's art - Penguin

One of the lesser known aspects of Len Deighton's world is his pre-Ipcress File career as a designer and illustrator of note. In the fifties, Deighton - along with a number of contemporaries who went on to define the sixties avant garde and supported the massive cultural changes centred around Soho - was a graduate of the Royal Academy and for a time a freelance illustrator. One of his commissions was from Penguin publishers, for whom he went on to produce a number of covers for novels such as The Disenchanted by Budd Schulberg, Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night.

I recently purchased a book by the Penguin Collectors Society called Penguin by Illustrators, which is an interesting review of Penguin's place in the development of the book cover from the perspective of the designers and illustrators who maintained and developed the distinctive Penguin brand. Contributors to the book include design luminaries such as Quentin Blake, Jan Pienkowski and Alasdair Gray, as well as Deighton himself. The book itself charts the development of the distinctive Penguin design, from the horizontal striped design to the switch to a vertical design, and the shift from black & white line designs to full colour illustrations in the sixties and seventies. Flicking through it are some familiar covers for authors such as George Orwell, Roald Dahl and E. M. Foster.

Deighton's two-page contribution covers his role as consultant, anthologist, designer and illustrator for Penguin. Here's an extract:
"Long, long ago I lived in Central London. I was easy to reach. I delivered on time, and had never been known to turn away a paid job. I became an artist of last resort and often faced ferocious deadlines: 'I know it's Friday afternoon, Len, but we need it Monday morning so I'll get the proof round to you tonight ... or maybe first thing in the morning.' At Penguin, my drawings were seldom modified by orders from above - maybe they should have been. Not enough time, I suppose.
The result was a mixed bunch of covers; from them I recall John Wain's Hurry on Down, my Budd Schulberg cover for The Disenchanted and Iris Murdoch's Under the Net as being reasonably successful. The colour bands went from horizontal to vertical to make more room for cover drawings, many of which were hurriedly produced and not good enough. While money and time were lavished upon typographic perfection the artist was the last in line when it came to fees.
The advantages of using commissioned illustrations comes from the artist's skill and experience. While cover illustrations and books can vary immensely, photographs will always resemble other photographs. What photographs can equal the drawings by Paul Hogarth for Graham Greene and George Orwell, the ones that David Gentleman did for C.P. Snow's books, Romek Marber's cover for Simenon?
The cover should bring a subtle and intimate promise of what the writer has contrived: not a display of pyrotechnics."
For anyone interested in the contribution that illustrators and designers make to the success of any book, this book offers an excellent insight.