Sunday 14 November 2010

The reissues (11) - Spy Hook

Spy Hook - photo (c) Harper Collins
After a blogging hiatus of a few weeks, I'm pleased to get back to blogging about the world of Len Deighton and bring you some news about the latest reissues from Harper Collins. Having brought out new editions of Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match, Bomber, Winter, and Len's two most famous cook books, the next off the conveyer belt are Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker. All three were reissued this autumn (along with Close-Up).

Spy Hook is the next novel in the nine-volume Bernard Samson series, and follows the tumultuous ending to London Match, which saw Bernard's wife Fiona - now a KGB colonel - outwit him on the streets of Berlin to get rid of a rival and plant further seeds of doubt in the minds of London Central about her husband's position.

Crucially, the action takes place three years on from Fiona's defection. It is evident in this story that those three years have taken their toll on Bernard: though now romantically involved with Gloria Kent from the office, his work has suffered and the hurt of being having been under suspicion by his colleague still eats away at him. Old friend shun him, and he's somewhat 'out of the loop', which for an agent is not a great place to be.

Questions still remain about his wife's defection and, like any good agent, in this novel Bernard starts to pick up the threads of what happened in Berlin and - through a fortuitous meeting with an old colleague in the US - he starts to weave together the strands of what happened to his wife ..... and comes up with a disturbing picture.

We meet a lot of new characters at the start of this trilogy, many of whom the reader will have met in the prequel, Winter, which was published shortly before the second trilogy. Crucially, Bernard stumbles across his old boss, Bret Rensselaer, who was - he thought - mortally wounded in the shoot out that was the denouement of London Match. What Bret has to say makes Bernard question everything that's happened since Fiona defected, and it sets up the next two novels nicely.

The new design
Designer Arnold Schwartzman - long-time friend of the author - has created a tour de force of book design with a design narrative that stretches across all nine books but which gives scope, in each volume, for cover designs that tell a story straight away and hint at the machinations and twists in the novel.

Again, he has used an image of 'Bernard Samson' - for me, it's not how I imagine Bernard to look from reading the texts, but it does provide a strong visual hook and emphasises that Bernard is at the centre of everything (but not always knowingly and often without being in control).

Once again, the Berlin Wall is themed in the front cover and on the images used on the back cover. The reader sees immediately how Schwartzman has "hooked" Samson's image on the sharp end of the hammer & sickle, suggesting - appropriately - the extent to which the character's arc in this story is controlled by malevolent forces on the other side of the wall. Schwartzman writes that the wall image on the front cover was taken at the time when the wall came down, adding a poignant touch.

With the fourth book, Schwartzman's clever touch of using air travel baggage tags to spell out Bernard Samson's name is beginning to take shape. On a bookshelf, with the six books lined up, it creates a visual unity which looks great and emphasises the  scope of these books.

The new introduction
This book stands alone as a story, but also propels along the meta narrative of Bernard and Fiona's relationship and its interlinking to shifts in the operation of the Cold War, in which both are inextricably caught up.

Deighton makes the point in his introduction that, having completed Game, Set and Match, he didn't want to go straight into writing another three books. In fact, he took himself away to write somewhere new, and put aside the existing plans he had for the next books in the novel. It had an effect - he wrote Winter, which I and many other readers regard as essential to understanding the wider Samson trilogy. Deighton explains why that needed to come first:

"I drafted a completely different book that would take a lot of time and energy. I decided that I must complete it before starting the second trilogy. A prequel seemed a valuable addition and almost a necessity. There were so many things I wanted to say about the characters that surrounded Bernard, especially the elderly ones. My story would have to cover a long period .... I decided to call it Winter. Much of Winter was already in my mind as noted extensions of existing characters. Winter [would be] a chronological story but it had to conform to my chart and the overall plan  - and all the biographical characterisations - for nine Samson books."
Deighton makes clear in his notes in this introduction that Spy Hook is about Bernard's shifting relationships with the women in his life - the abandonment (apparently) by his wife and the comfort offered to him by Gloria, who as the story unfolds is demonstrably the one certainty in his life; at least, that is what Bernard thinks.

But this relationship lies heavy on Bernard. This is a story about the impact of guilt, Deighton says, about Samson's domestic situation. It leads him to question everything and to try to get to the root of what really happened in Berlin. As Deighton writes:
"It becomes essential for Bernard to believe his wife is not only a defector but personally dishonest and disloyal and thief too. Only by proving this to his master and to himself will Bernard be able to shed, or at least be able to soften, the deep feelings of guilt he has about being in love with the much younger, and sometimes childlike, Gloria. It is the depth of his love for Gloria that makes his quest so important to him."
Spy Hook is where the Samson series goes to another level and becomes more than just a spy story. It is a multi-level, multi-character examination of human weakness and frailty, set against the last years of the Cold War.

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