Sunday 23 June 2013

A note for any collectors out there ....

A conversation this afternoon with friend and book dealer extraordinaire James Pickard of J P Rarebooks. He advises that he's just got hold of a number of extremely rare Deighton books and ephemera items (such as the marketing ephemera sent out with first editions of Billion-Dollar Brain to book sellers) which should be of interest to any collector of Len's works.

These haven't yet been catalogued on his website, so he advises to give him an email on jparebook [at] aol [dot] com

As well as these hard to find items (which I can advise, are hard to find) he tells me he has also got in his collection many first editions from Len's catalogue. So if blog readers are looking to fill in a missing part of your collection, it might be worth giving him a call.

James is also one of the foremost collectors of Ian Fleming's books and has many interesting tales to tell in that regard, too.

Saturday 15 June 2013

He's back! Alternative history with a twist ....

The genre of alternative history remains a popular staple in literature. One of the most recent examples published which I read - but found only moderately interesting - is Dominion by C J Sansom. Another recent example - which by contrast, I still enjoy - is of course Robert Harris' Fatherland. Both feature alternative histories involving an undefeated Nazi Germany.

SS-GB was Len's contribution to the genre and that time period. It's still regarded as one of the premiers examples of the genre. The grim fascination with the period and the willingness to contemplate the awfulness of the 'what if' scenarios of a Nazi victory from the comfort of an armchair also explains why the Second World War, and the Nazis in particular, is one of the main themes of the alternative history genre.

Er is Wieder Da (He's back! in English) has a twist on this - it's not so much an alternative history of Nazi Germany as much as an alternative contemporary history of this decade, contemplating what would happen if the Nazis - more strictly, Hitler - returned to modern Germany.

It's a fascinating premise, one I was keen to explore. It's currently only published in the original German (but such has been its popularity in Germany that English-language rights have already been sold to MacLehose). Timur Vernes is the author; he's one of a new generation of German writers starting to explore their wartime history in a more open and arguably post-modern way, to the extent where the Nazizeit is now the potential source for a humorous novel.

The premise is simple, but clever. Hitler is discovered having somehow reawakened in Berlin of 2011 and, after finding his way in modern society, becomes a TV demagogue on a comedy show hosted by a Turkish immigrant having been mistaken for a never-out-of-character comic act, having had his potential as an act recognised by TV producers. Hitler - still convinced of his messianic role to save the German people - again uses all his rhetorical power and charm to begin to sway the Germans through his own website - the Fuhrer Headquarters - after a video of him leaks onto YouTube. His bigoted rants are interpreted as a satirical exposure of prejudice, leading him to decide to start his own political party.

It's as much a story about the contemporary Internet-soaked, celebrity-obsessed culture in the West, which allows someone as obviously evil as Hitler to, somehow, become an overnight celebrity and be courted because he's controversial, opinionated, charming and, clearly, dead! The book, which has already sold hundreds of thousands of copies has unsurprisingly sparked debate in a country that has grappled for decades with Hitler’s legacy.

But as fewer and fewer citizens from that time are alive in German society, it has created a real debate in the country. Some, unsurprisingly, are critical of what it represents: Stern wrote that the book was an “outgrowth of a Hitler commercialisation machine that breaks all taboos to make money. ” The author sees it differently, and contributing to a debate: “[Hitler] is always the monster, and we can be comforted by the fact that we’re different from him. He continues to spark real fascination in people, just as he did back then when people liked him enough to help him commit crimes.”

The Nazis will always make tremendous fodder for fiction writers and especially thriller writers, because of the nature of the crimes committed under the regime and because it was the war to end all wars. This book is the first to take this subject matter a wryly humorous twist. Worth investigating when it comes out in English.

Monday 10 June 2013

The Americans are still coming .... show 2 quick review

Does ITV's The Americans have a chance of becoming one of the next 'must see' serials on TV? A new Homeland, perhaps? Might it do as well as BBC's The Fall.

Judging by Saturday's second episode, I think it does .... and can.

The actors - leads Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys - are excellently chosen as the Russian couple whose life is based on falsehood and fantasy as undercover Soviet spooks in suburban America, into whose lives the truth is seeping in and threatening to undermine everything they've devoted their lives too.

This weekend's show was a race-against-time story. Asked at short notice to bug Casper Weinberger's house - there's a name for the teenagers, one of the eminences grise of US diplomacy in the eighties - the Jennings choose to kidnap and poison the son of Weinberger's cleaner in order to get her to plant a device in his office.

It was fascinating to remember how much more challenging espionage was back in the 'eighties when, sans Internet and sans iPods and steady-state technology, secret recordings required a real to real tape recorder and transmitter the size of a small suitcase! Technology has made a spook's life a lot easier, surely!

Many reviews have pointed to the real-life discovery of Russian sleeper agents in the US in 2010 - one of the prompts for creation of the show was the discovery of the gorgeous Anna Chapman, Russian femme fatale and apparent embedded operative. Recent knowledge of this sort of real-life example does aid the viewers belief in the story and the question at the heart of it: do we really know the people we live across the street from, and spend our daily lives with? The premise, therefore, has currency (particularly in modern times when for Soviets one could read al Qaeda lone wolves or Chinese cyber agents). The scripts and the dynamic, tense relationship between the main characters I think creates real believability. The situations, the fears, the anxiety when they lie in bed, the show captures well the emotions anyone would feel when they fear the game is up and their life-long game of charades may be under threat.

At the heart of the show is a simple device to create tension - will they get caught by next door neighbour, a FBI lead agent ? It's a great way for the writers each episode to ratchet up the tension, tighter and tighter, with discovery coming closer and then - twang - like an elastic band snapping back, the Jennings can go back to living an apparently domestically happy life, until the next threat to their existence.

In terms of spy craft, it seems plausible enough, and clearly the show's creator being an ex-CIA operative ensures that what we see procedurally and out in the fields is likely to be pretty authentic.

There are obvious parallels between this story and Len's Game, Set and Match triple trilogy. At the heart of both stories is a marriage, a relationship between two people which is threatened and also driven by the global strategic power struggle between nations of millions, implacably opposed to each other and dedicated to defeating their ideology. Betrayal, loyalty, trust, denial - all are crucial human emotions that are essential to any good espionage story. This series seems to have it in spades, so far.

Do share views on show 2 below.