Wednesday 30 November 2011

Competition - win a Top Notch thriller

Author Mike Ripley - who's a keen reader of this blog - has made it his own one-man mission to resuscitate, rescue and re-purpose British thriller books that have gone out of print but which deserve their day in the sun again. His Top Notch Thriller imprint has over the last couple of years republished over fifteen books by British thriller writers.

I've just finished a great little story: Cold War, by David Brierley.

It's set in Paris in 1979 and follows the trail of a young, CIA-trained agent Cody, who's now left the CIA and is living in Paris with her lover. She gets caught up in the fever pitch of the election in France when it appears sinister forces are set up to bring down the Government. Though she is trying to escape the spying game, after a former colleague reveals to her secret information before he is killed, she is forced to track down the real story behind a scientist, Jean-Louis Ladouceur.

From being a by-stander at a shooting, Cody becomes the central player in a spy drama that moves from Paris to Berlin and tests her agents skills to the limits.

It's a good read, which I polished off commenting on the train over one week. Always good too to read stories with female espionage heroines, which in 1979 were still a relatively new phenomenon. Author David Brierley was described then as a new name joining the range of the world's great spy fiction writers.

To celebrate Mike's efforts in promoting British thriller writers, I've agreed to run a little competition for Deighton Dossier readers. The prize: a copy of another Top Notch Thriller - Undertow, by Desmond Cory, the story of Johnny Fedora, a half-Spanish, half-Irish assassin contracted to British Intelligence, who's charged with getting to grips with a KGB plot to uncover secrets from a sunk U-Boat in the Mediterranean (shades of Horse Under Water!). This character made his debut in 1951, two years before the arrival of James Bond.

To win this book, please answer this question (and send your answers to me at deightondossier [AT] me [DOT] com):

What is the name of the film about German U-Boats by Wolfgang Petersen from 1981, which starred Jurgen Prochnow?

Competition closes 12 December. No correspondence will be entered into. Judge's decision is final. One winner from the winning answers will be picked at random. Winner will be notified through email.

Good luck, readers!

We have a winner: Matthew Comstock!

Monday 28 November 2011

Ken Russell, RIP

British film director Ken Russell died over the weekend, after a long illness. He was 84 years old.

Famous for films like Women in Love and the Who's Tommy, he was also the director of the third Harry Palmer movie - Billion-Dollar Brain. Filmed in 1968, the film is not as fondly remembered as The Ipcress File or Funeral In Berlin, but it arguably had much going for it and was certainly visually very appealing.

After two 'conventional' directors in Guy Hamilton and Sidney Furie for the first two movies, producer Harry Saltzmann plumped for someone a little more unconventional for the third movie; but this only his second major feature and one year before Women In Love, which attracted attention for its male nude wrestling scene (one suspects Saltzmann might have thought twice had Russell already made this film and thought: 'Is this my guy?').

The location shooting in Finland is spectacular and arguably it must be difficult to make a duff film in such a beautiful location. It works along at quite a pace and the battle on the ice, as Midwinter's troops race to Latvia, is pretty spectacular and demonstrated the financial oomph the studio was putting behind the Palmer character after the successes of the first two films. Obviously a scholar of film history, the scene on the ice, between the two onrushing armies, is an homage to Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky film of 1938.

The music is excellent, too: the score offers a relentless, harsh mood (like the Baltic weather), with a focus on brass and percussion including three pianos; the score constantly varies the main theme. What it lacks, maybe, is the cockney charm of London or the Cold War vitality of Berlin from the earlier two films.

Friday 25 November 2011

The reissues (15) - Charity

After nine books (if you exclude Winter), with Charity Len Deighton brought the curtain down on - according to The Times - "one of the great literary achievements of British fiction." Having dealt in the first trilogy with the knowledge that his wife is a defector, only to discover in the second trilogy that Fiona's defection was in fact the greatest infiltration success of London Central and he was the crucial - unwitting - pawn in this most elaborate of espionage chess games, Charity rounds of the Samson story.

Bernard is still working for Frank Harrington in Berlin but increasingly caught up in the machinations of his brother-in-law George Kosinzki who is supporting the growing Catholic church movement in Communist Poland. Samson is increasingly anxious to find the truth about the defection of his wife and the death of her sister during the mission to exfiltrate her. A meeting with a former colleague, Jim Prettyman, reveals that he was responsible for hiring the hit man who killed Tessa, Fiona's sister. What is worse, Bernard realises there is no future for him and girlfriend Gloria, who is now carving a career for herself in London Central and sharing a bed with Bret Rensellaer.

Bret holds an inquiry in to Tessa's murder which uncovers that Silas was solely responsible for Tessa's death, and had gone to great, murderous lengths to keep the operation secret by trying to murder various of Bernard's contacts and friends who'd been forced to become involved. Betrayed by the department that now seeks to repay his loyalty, Bernard asks Fiona and their children to join him in Berlin, his true home.

The new introduction
What's most interesting in this new introduction is that Len explains his "obsession" with Berlin, which I've always maintained is one of the central 'characters' in the books, because the city and its inhabitants is so wonderfully described that the reader totally understand the mixed feelings Bernard has about the city and its people. That sentiment too is understood by Deighton:
"Berlin is like an ever-present character in my Bernard Samson books. It hovers over the action like a storm cloud even when the action moves to a different locale. But Berlin has no speaking part. It is the action and the inter-action that must always dominate stories of the type that I write. Berlin is the backdrop but the people who strut and posture on the stage together create a mood of drama, farce, horror or knockabout horror that must be maintained through all the stories. When I wrote Winter, a story of Berlin the first half of the twentieth century, and the prelude to the Bernard Samson stories, the ghosts danced in my head.
As a historian, Deighton tells the reader that he has had a fascination for all things German for many decades, and displays his grasp of the strategic imperatives which drove the development of Berlin - and Germany - from peasant economy to economic powerhouse in just over a century and a half. Across three pages, Deighton displays his knowledge of Berlin's history to explain its role in the ups - and many downs - of German culture from the Kaiser time right up to the fall of the Wall. Berlin is a city of contradictions - cultural centre drawing in people from all across central Europe, yet one which is dominated by the German army, to the extent that in the nineteenth century revenues from one particular toll gate went straight to the German army. Makes for fascinating reading for anyone interested in understanding the dynamics that have created this most tumultuous of cultures. 

There is an interesting part of the introduction in which Deighton seeks to respond to critics' descriptions of the novels and their classification as spy thriller. Despite his apparent Prophet status in understanding the structure forces that eventually brought down the wall - the Catholic and Lutheran churches - and reflecting them in the heart of his novel, Deighton insists the stories are not political thrillers. They are, Len insists, comedy dramas about love and marriage, of a man with two women in his life.

The new cover
The spine motif - torn up plane tickets spelling out BERNARD SAMSON - is complete with this book, and the total effect when all nine books are place side to side is very pleasing. Arnold Schwartzman explains the front cover image - of Samson's image behind a push-bell directory - is to suggest Samson as the 'third man' of the story, an unreliable narrator; it also suggests the third book, of the third charity. The best image is on the back: a Russian ashtray on which lies a lit cigarette with lipstick, hinting at Fiona's central role in this whole drama.

The quality of thinking that has gone into all nine of the covers of this triple trilogy is immense, and I think that Schwartzman's design deserve consideration alongside Ray Hawkey's original covers for the trilogy.

Monday 21 November 2011

Well, that's annoying ...

Where are all our postings?
I've just discovered that the Deighton Dossier online forum - established for over two years and with 250 members - has been, well, wiped. Like some secret Stasi file, the contents have gone. It's empty. Barren. Void of opinion.

I had had an email from Forumer, the hosts, saying it was being updated. Some update!

It's damned annoying, that's what it is. The forum had been a great place for readers of the blog and the website to post up their comments on Deighton's books and more widely the Cold War and spy fiction in general. All gone. Not a hint of why. Oof, I'm angry!

But in the spirit of the residents of America's hurricane alley, when you lose something important in a storm, well you just start rebuilding straightaway. And that's what I'll do with the forum. I've reconstituted it on Proboards and you can now access it by clicking on this link.

So, if you've visited it before and made comments, please go back to it and sign up again and start adding new themes, ideas and reactions to the blog and the website.


All back to normal, after Forumer's hiccup losing our forum during their server exchange. Original forum - with original postings - now back up and live online, at the usual address.

Sunday 20 November 2011

The reissues (14) - Hope

(c) Harper Collins
After a gap of a few months (and a delivery of another pack of four review copies) I want to pick up on the coverage and review of the reissues of Len's works by Harper Collins. I'm now at reissue no 14 - Hope - book three of the Faith, Hope and Charity trilogy, the last of the three trilogies charting the betrayal - domestic and political - experienced by world-weary middle-aged spy Bernard Samson.

This story charts Bernard moving closer to solving the mysteries of his wife Fiona's defection - and subsequent triumphant return after being unmasked as London Central's most successful mole in the KGB in Berlin - and the tragic death of her sister in Fiona's exfiltration in the mud of a building site by the side of an autobahn outside East Berlin.

At the start of this novel, the reader finds Bernard and Fiona struggling to get back to how things were pre-defection. This story - less action packed than earlier episodes - is more reflective, and places much of the dialogue and plot around new evidence of the ties that bind the main characters. Deighton in this novel in effect asks the reader: can treachery in a marriage, let alone the spying game, ever be reconciled?

It starts in London. Bernard is confronted with an injured man on his doorstep one evening; the prelude to a series of events that starts to uncover the facts behind Tessa Kosinski’s murder in Berlin and paints the department in an unfavourable light, by revealing, piece by piece, the machinations of old hands Silas Gaunt and Bret Rensselaer - Bernard's boss - so bringing Bernard into conflict with his superiors once again. The injured visitor on his doorstep points to Poland, home of his brother-in-law George Kosinski, so Bernard travels there with his immediate superior Dicky Cruyer to find out exactly what keeps his brother law travelling regularly to Poland. What he finds prompts further soul-searching, as he edges nearer the truth.

The new introduction
When one places the Samson series of within the historical context, they seem particularly prescient, foreshadowing as they did the inner contradictions that led to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall (the series starts in 1984 and continues up to early 1988, just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall). Deighton confirms that in setting out the story - to be written, remember, over nine books over a series of seven years in the end - he was taking a risk:
"My whole Bernard Samson story was based on the belief that the Berlin Wall would fall before the end of the century. There were many times I went to bend convinced that this assumption had been a reckless gamble, and there were many people asking me where the plot was going. Sometimes I thought I heard a measure of Schadenfreude. More than one expert advised me to forget the Wall, tear my plan down and radically change its direction. I didn't yield to my fears. I stuck to my lonely task and to the original scenario and was eventually vindicated."
Some readers do sometimes point out that the last three novels of the series are the three least strongest, perhaps because the story was in the end overtaken by events; Hope appeared in 1995, six years after the Wall fell. With the main character (arguably) in the Samson series now gone - the Wall itself - the tension built into the story was, perhaps, lost through the march of history itself.

Nevertheless, Deighton was correct to alight on Poland as the likely wick which, once lit, would explode and undermine the Soviet rule of Eastern Europe from within. The election of a Pole Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II was, Deighton writes, one of the first sustained challenges to Communist rule and an opposition supported  by the US with additional funding from the thousands of Polish emigres with family behind the iron curtain. In giving primary to George Kosinski in the novel, Deighton wanted to highlight the tension under which the Poles lived: should they simply put up with their Eastern neighbour, whose tanks were parked just across the border in Belarus, ready to invade, or look west and seek the support of the western nations (to whom Poland was heavily indebted).

Of course, as the reader has encountered over the last few books, Fiona Samson's undercover work in Eastern Germany was also aimed at providing financial and practical support to religious groups as the source of internal pressure in that country which would finally crack the fragile constructed edifice that was the 'second' Germany. Only in this case, it was the Lutheran church rather than the Catholic.

The year of the story (1987) is one in which tumultuous background events - close to home and on the world stage - suggested a coming storm (literally, in the case of the great hurricane in the UK) and a shifting of the foundations on which Cold War uncertainties were faced. Behind the Iron Curtain, pressure was building as the economy stagnated and the communist regimes could offer their people little respite.

As Deighton writes, with a devastating collapse of the world's financial markets and President Gorbachev meeting Pope John Paul in the same year, the tides of history were pointing to something. For Bernard Samson, it also suggests that his quest for the truth is coming to a conclusion and that he is edging closer to the dark secrets on which the UK's efforts to undermine the communist regimes of Berlin and Warsaw were based. Hope sees a tougher, more hard-bitten Samson than the desk-bound agent first met in Berlin Game, Deighton comments, but he is still a character which the reader trusts and wills redemption for.

The new cover design

Arnold Schwartzman here chooses to portray Bernard Samson looking through a pub window, emphasising - with the window from a pub - that Bernard is in the 'last chance saloon'. It's a lovely idea, although I'm not sure if the cover image is just a little too busy and evidently a PhotoShop amalgam that, for me, doesn't quite work. On the back cover he places a model of Tower Bridge across an old map of Berlin, drawing an analogy between the Thames and the Wall, both in some senses dividing two great cities. It is also a metaphor for the placing of something quintessentially English behind the Wall - Fiona.

Friday 18 November 2011

Shelf life ....

On the shelf
A visit to my local Waterstones recently: Harper Collins' reissues of Len's books. All good.

Monday 14 November 2011

In the trenches of public opinion ...

Very interesting article on the BBC website today concerning Oh! What a Lovely War, the Joan Littlewood stage show about the First World War which, according to the article led to a major change in the public's attitude towards the great war. Former BBC radio producer Charles Chilton wrote the original treatment which, when picked up by theatre producer Joan Littlewood and put on at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, it was a major cultural event:
"Littlewood gave the show a new political bite, as befitted a nation growing tired of deference. The family of Field Marshal Douglas Haig wanted to stop the show reaching the West End, claiming the portrayal of him was a crude caricature."
Of course, Oh! What a Lovely War was subsequently produced by Len Deighton in 1969 (he also wrote the script). Richard Attenborough starred in the movie which - with its cast comprising the creme de la creme - presented a coruscating view of the "donkeys" who led the British "lions" in such catastrophes as Verdun and Paschendaele.

Interestingly, however, the article fails to reference Deighton's connection to this movie.

Friday 11 November 2011

War in real time ....

Len Deighton's Bomber is being broadcast this afternoon on BBC Radio 4 Extra, in real time, according to the BBC's Blog, to mark Armistice Day, today.

For those of you not familiar with this work, it's significant because Bomber covers 24 hours in the life of a crew of a Lancaster bomber involved in a failed raid over Germany. The key to the original radio version by the BBC is that when broadcast, in the 1990s, it was done so in real time - i.e. in sections across 24 hours - so that when time references were made in the play by the characters, they corresponded to real life!

The tension, according to the writer of the Radio 4 Extra blog, is real!

Check out the link here for more information.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Tracking down Bernard Samson ....

On my last trip to Berlin one of the things I did was to spend a little time tracking down and photographing the locations of some of the key places which feature in the Bernard Samson series of ten books. Any fans of the series who are going to Berlin at any time can use this map as a reference.

However, it's not complete. There's an open invitation to blog readers to add to this map any key locations that I might have missed (particularly from the last two trilogies).

View Bernard Samson's Berlin - Len Deighton's Berlin in a larger map

Monday 7 November 2011

Of spies and science fiction ...

A Neuromancer, hard at work
William Gibson, creator of some of the greatest modern science fiction stories and characters, is something of a spy fiction fan, according to a recent interview in the Paris Review magazine reveals which I've been made aware of through links elsewhere.

The critically acclaimed writer of such books as Neuromancer and The Difference Engine has apparently taken inspiration from Len Deighton and John Le Carré in his works, taken by their creation of different versions of the "anti-Bond". I'm sure the Paris Review won't mind me quoting a snippet from the interview to illustrate:

"When science fiction finally got literary naturalism, it got it via the noir detective novel, which is an often decadent offspring of nineteenth-century naturalism. Noir is one of the places that the investigative, analytic, literary impulse went in America. The Goncourt brothers set out to investigate sex and money and power, and many years later, in America, you wind up with Chandler doing something very similar, though highly stylized and with a very different agenda. I always had a feeling that Chandler’s puritanism got in the way, and I was never quite as taken with the language as true Chandler fans seem to be. I distrusted Marlow as a narrator. He wasn’t someone I wanted to meet, and I didn’t find him sympathetic—in large part because Chandler, whom I didn’t trust either, evidently did find him sympathetic.
But I trusted Dashiell Hammett. It felt to me that Hammett was Chandler’s ancestor, even though they were really contemporaries. Chandler civilized it, but Hammett invented it. With Hammett I felt that the author was open to the world in a way Chandler never seems to me to be.
But I don’t think that writers are very reliable witnesses when it comes to influences, because if one of your sources seems woefully unhip you are not going to cite it. When I was just starting out people would say, Well, who are your influences? And I would say, William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, Thomas Pynchon. Those are true, to some extent, but I would never have said Len Deighton, and I suspect I actually learned more for my basic craft reading Deighton’s early spy novels than I did from Burroughs or Ballard or Pynchon.
I don’t know if it was Deighton or John le Carré who, when someone asked them about Ian Fleming, said, I love him, I have been living on his reverse market for years. I was really interested in that idea. Here’s Fleming, with this classist, late–British Empire pulp fantasy about a guy who wears fancy clothes and beats the shit out of bad guys who generally aren’t white, while driving expensive, fast cars, and he’s a spy, supposedly, and this is selling like hotcakes. Deighton and Le Carré come along and completely reverse it, in their different ways, and get a really powerful charge out of not offering James Bond. You’ve got Harry Palmer and George Smiley, neither of whom are James Bond, and people are willing to pay good money for them not to be James Bond."