Sunday 24 December 2017

Book review: 'Dark Ocean' by Nick Elliott

The cover gives a big clue to the themes explored in the book!

The spy and thriller genre is built on winning formulas. And winning characters.

Le Carré had George Smiley. Deighton had the unnamed spy (later Harry Palmer) and Bernard Samson. Robert Ludlum had Jason Bourne. More recently, Jeremy Duns had Paul Dark.

When a writer creates a character that hits a nerve with readers (and editors), he or she would have to be a brave author to choose to abandon a winning formula. Character-based book series provide a wonderful marketing short-cut for readers; if they like the character, and the situations he or she finds themselves in, and they can anticipate what that character's future adventures will be like, then half your job of selling the book is already done.

So, when a relatively new author creates a character that seems to work, it makes perfect sense to run with that. That's the case with British author Nick Elliott's character Angus McKinnon, star of this, his second thriller set in the world of international shipping.

Write what you know is an oft-repeated trope for writers, and Elliott has done just that. His background is in international shipping and his knowledge of that world comes through in this book (and his first book, Sea of Gold) where authenticity and detail play an important role in creating a convincing backdrop for the story and the characters.

A maritime setting for a thriller is unusual, but not unknown (and here I think immediately of Horse Under Water as a relevant Deighton example), and certainly gives the author the scope for placing the storyline and characters in locations perhaps outside of the standard thriller geography. So that does give it a certain curiosity factor for the newer reader.

A marine insurance claims investigator - the job of protagonist McKinnon - doesn't have the immediate cachet of an MI:6 agent, a spymaster or an ex Special Forces assassin, but the character does have a knack for questioning everything and everyone, and tracking down the truth. Important qualities in any thriller hero.

Building on the themes prevalent in his first book, Sea of Gold - attention to detail, a rapid plotting pace, a broad international stage peopled with believable, but also exagerrated characters - Dark Ocean starts off in Hong Kong with a request from a local shipowner (as I said earlier, write what you know is a safe course to take!) and a claim on a mysterious lost carge from World War Two (not unnoticed parallels with Horse Under Water). Like any good thriller, there is a murder, a betrayal or two, shock discoveries and the ever present threat - implied and actual - of danger.

So, this book is not going to be winning awards for originality: it's building on tropes in the thriller and spy genre that stand the test of time, work most of the time and are anticipated by readers. If they weren't part of the book, one of the selling points of Dark Ocean would be lost.

Across nearly 300 pages of text, the protagonist gets a lot done and visits a lot of locations; the narrative text is pretty punchy and pacy, and largely dialogue driven. Elliott, while introducing some terrific details, doesn't seem to be an author who wastes valuable page space on exaggerated exposition or unnecessary detail. Where there is detail offered about the minutiae of international shipping insurance, sunken treasure or the characteristsics of global ports, it can drag a little, but is relatively easy for the reader to work through. It doesn't bring things to a juddering halt.

I like, therefore, that the emphasis is on dialogue to push character and plot development along; the narrative voice is fine, but not too obtrusive, serving the purposes of the plot pretty well. 

Saturday 23 December 2017

Merry Christmas to all Deighton Dossier readers around the globe

Even amidst barbarity, Christmas good will could still peek through in Berlin
Well, another year draws to an end and, as we approach the holiday season and New Year, I would like to say thank you, Merry Christmas and Yuletide felicitations to every Deighton reader and collector out there who visits this blog from time to time, and particularly those guests bloggers who've posted something on the site.

Posting up on the blog and the main website in 2017 has been down on previous years, for various reasons, but I hope that Deighton Dossier readers found interest in checking out some of our now ten years' worth of previous articles.

This year, as you sip your mulled wine or enjoy a mince pie, be thankful that you are not Bernard Samson, the hero of the Berlin Game ennealogy, having to be in frozen West Berlin on Christmas Eve, as described in London Match:
'And so it was that, on Christmas Eve, when Gloria was with my children, preparing them early for bed so that Santa Claus could operate undisturbed, I was standing watching the Berlin police trying to winch a wrecked car out of the water. It wasn't exactly the Hohenzollern Canal. Dicky had got that wrong; it was Hakenfelde, that industrialised section of the bank of the Havel River not far from where Hohenzollern joins it.
Here the Havel widens to become a lake. It was so cold that the doctor insisted the frogmen must has a couple of hours' rest to thaw out. The police inspector had argued about it, but in the end the doctor's opinion prevailed. Now the boat containing the frogmen had disappeared into the gloom and was left with only the police inspector for company. The two policemen left to guard the scene had gone behind the generator truck, the noise of which never ceased.
The inspector was in his mid-fifties, a tall man with a large white moustache, its end curling in the style of the Kaiser's soldiers. It was the sort of moustache a man grew to make himself look older. 'To think,' said the inspector, 'that I transferred out of the Traffic Department beause I thought standing on point duty was too cold.' He stamped his feet. His heavy jackboots made a crunching sound where ice was forming in the cracks between the cobblestones.
'You should have kept to traffic,' I said, 'but transferred to the Nice or Cannes Police Department.'

Tuesday 28 November 2017

[Guest post update] SS-GB and its place in the alternate history landscape .... revisited

In April, we published an article by Deighton Dossier reader and tier-one level collector Robert 'Raki' Rakison on SS-GB and alternate histories. He's been kind enough to provide an update on his research and to suggest some further reading which blog readers may find of interest.


Over the summer, there’s been a lot of activity in literary Spyland, leading up to the launch of John Le Carré’s Legacy of Spies on 7 July (no doubt you’ve all got your signed copies!!). In particular Waterstones Gower Street London had a “Summer of Spies” series of events, culminating with the Legacy launch. 

There were two events of particular Deighton interest: the first was a talk by Mike Ripley as part of the launch for his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang book on 22 August (KKBB is dedicated to Len) and the second, a talk on The IPCRESS File on 29 August attended by Ripley and Rob (editor of the Deighton Dossier). Around these two events there was a lot of wide-ranging Deighton discussion, including on SS-GB and alternate histories.
Mike Ripley mentioned that he’d already penned an article on SS-GB and alternate histories, and I reproduce his “Future Imperfect” below. It’s from a regular column he does for SHOTS Crime & Thriller e-zine, entitled “Mike Ripley’s Getting Away With Murder” and the article was from the August 2015 (No 105) issue: (Readers may want to subscribe, it's an excellent column)

Anyway, there are a few more books, again in order of publication, that I’d like to draw to your attention in the WW2 alternate history arena – a mix of some earlier material and more recent novels – which I hope you’ll find interesting. Len really did start a modern trend!!

1.   Dr Ewald Banse’s “Germany, Prepare for War!” (1934) (in German “Raum und Volk in Weltkriege” – literally “Space and People in the World War”). See 6 below.

2.   Katharine Burdekin’s (writing as “Murray Constantine”) “Swastika Night” (1937).

This takes place in a world where the Nazis and Japan defeated their enemies and conquered the world (from a modern perspective, the novel is an alternate history in which the Nazis won World War II, though at the time of its writing the war had not broken out and it was a work of speculative future fiction.)

It follows the protagonist, an Englishman in his 30s who works as a ground mechanic for the German Empire in Salisbury Aerodrome. He goes to Germany on a holy pilgrimage to see the holy sites of Hitlerism, the religion in this Nazi dominated world. These sites include the holy forest and the sacred aeroplane in Munich with which Hitler won the war by personally flying to Moscow, it is said. In this world Hitler is seen as a seven foot tall, long blonde haired, blue-eyed man who was “exploded” from the head of God the Thunderer and a god in his own right. He is preached about by "Knights" (a cross between the traditional, feudal knight and a priest) who pass this job down from father to son. Women are chattels, much as in Margaret Attwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. It was reissued in 1985.

Saturday 21 October 2017

The Ipcress File: a textual and critical analysis

Publicity photo from this iconic film of the book The Ipcress File

I'm pleased to share with you a long, detailed and thoroughly interestingly article by retired academic Dr Robert Lance Snyder, from the University of West Georgia in the USA. I was alerted to Dr Snyder's academic interest in The Ipcress File by Jeff Quest of the Spywrite website. A big thanks to Jeff for making the connection between the Dossier and Dr Snyder.

Dr Snyder's written a new contribution (downloadable in .pdf format, if you wish) for the website Connotations: A journal for critical debate. Titled "An Unparelled Plethora of Idiocy: Len Deighton's Political Skepticism [sic] in The Ipcress File", it's a lengthy, well researched and readable article which places the book (and subsequently, the film) in the context of the Cold War political era of the time, and identifies in Deighton's approach to the text the author's animus towards both "the inanity of Western capitalism" and "the vacuous rhetoric of communist socialism." It's serious analysis, highlighting how Len Deighton, like John Le Carré and Ian Fleming and a number of other spy fiction authors have earned their place as legitimate subjects of academic discourse, because of the impact on popular culture and the literary zeitgeist of their works.

Dr Snyder makes a very telling point in describing how The Ipcress File's success is down in large part to Deighton's readiness - planned or otherwise - to depart from the conventional certainties of the spy thriller genre and replace them with ambiguity and doubt about, frankly, who the bad guys are. Written in a modern academic textual analysis style, this article is worth reading as it does provide some new perspectives on a very familiar book.

Here's a short extract looking at the famous brainwashing set-piece in the novel:
"What exactly are we to make of this climactic scene and particularly Jay’s speech in light of his equivocal views regarding brainwashing? I. dismisses the declamation as mere rigmarole and equates it to the jazz vocalist’s “unparalleled plethora of idiocy” heard on the radio, but the peroration’s illocutionary effect, as already suggested, allows Deighton to acknowledge the “licensed selfishness” of Western capitalist culture. In terms of The Ipcress File’s plot, the antagonist’s monologue is meant to draw “the English patriot” out and convince him that they can transcend the ideological divide of their age by not choosing sides, thereby avoiding interpellation as subjects. Intuitively, however, the narrator appears to recognize how specious is this pitch by a practiced opportunist. 
He also understands that Jay’s readiness to extol brainwashing, or “thought reform” (302), as “the greatest step forward of the century” aligns him with the perpetrators of what prominent Cold War psychologist Joost A. M. Meerloo, no doubt influenced by the dystopian vision of Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), termed menticide."
Do share your reactions in the comments below.

Monday 28 August 2017

Deighton & Le Carré .... spy fiction titans cut from different cloth

(c) Tom Jamieson, New York Times
This recent New York Times profile of John Le Carré is part of the growing pre-launch hubbub surrounding his new novel A Legacy of Spies, which is launched in September with a live interview of the author at the Royal Festival Hall.

The fever pitch reflects renewed interest in Le Carré's fifty years plus career as a novelist of note, arguably the greatest spy fiction thriller writer. The success of the TV adaptation of The Night Manager in 2016 and the film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, brought Le Carré's writing to a whole new generation.

While Le Carré's career has continued without pause since the end of the Cold War, by contrast Len Deighton's career has - since his last published novel Charity in 1996 - in effect trasnmuted into a well-deserved retirement (which he enjoys and which he evidently has no desire to leave). As such, their public - and online - profiles has gone in dramatically different directions over the last decade and more.

A contemporary of Len Deighton - Deighton is 88, Le Carré will soon be 86 - John Le Carré's life and writing career in a number of interesting ways contrasts with Deighton's.

Thursday 3 August 2017

In the days before flat whites and skinny moccachinos, there was .... chagga

'Oh really, Bernard ...!"

This post was inspired by an email from Deighton Dossier reader Morgan Davies, who sent a link to a shop in London which is referenced frequently by everyone's favourite buffoonish (or is he?) spy in the Samson series of books, Dicky Cruyer.

The shop in question is H R Higgins, purveyor of fine ground coffee in London to the great and the good. Morgan confirmed they are still selling the mysterious "chagga" coffee, which was part of Dicky's daily routine as Head of German Desk at London Central, where he (in theory at least) had full control over agents like Bernard Samson in East Berlin.

This minor detail in an otherwise massive nine-volume text I think illustrates how great writers like Deighton and others use details and moments to round out their characters and deliver subconscious signposting to help the reader understand each character's personality and outlook, and their relationships to others.

Here's some classic back-and-forth repartée between Dicky Samson and his employee, Bernard Samson, when we first meet them in Berlin Game:

'He [Cruyer] had his coffee served in a fine Spode china cup and saucer, and he stirred it with a silver spoon. On the mahogany tray, there was another Spode cup and saucer, a matching sugar bowl, and a silver creamer fashioned in the shape of a cow. 
He sipped his coffee and then tasted it carefully, moving his lips while staring at me as if I might have come to sell him the year's crop. 'It's just a shade bitter, don't you think, Bernard?' 
'Nescafé all tastes the same to me,' I said. 
'This is pure chagga, ground just before it was brewed.' He said it calmly but nodded to acknowledge my little attempt to annoy him. 
'Well, he didn't turn up,' I said. 'We can sit here drinking chagga all morning and it won't bring Brahms Four over the wire.

In the reader's first experience of Cruyer and Samson's relationship over 'chagga', key things are established.

Friday 30 June 2017

What's the correct term for a group of spy writers?

Not a murder, or a gaggle. A 'briefing' of spy writers, perhaps, or a ... perhaps .... 'dossier of spy writers? Any ideas?

Why am I asking?

This great article on the Spy Writers blog reminds us that it's 33 years ago this week when Len Deighton, HRF Keating, Eric Ambler, Ted Allbeury, John Le Carré and Frederick Forsyth gathered for lunch at the Savoy. The occasion was a surprise 75th birthday for Ambler hosted by Len Deighton.

What a conversation there must have been around the table that day! Think about the collection of spy fiction classics that those around the table have shared with the world. A round table of spy fiction knights, if you will.

Wonder what the cake looked like!


On other matters, Waterstones Gower Street in London is holding a number of events under the 'Summer of Spies' theme, with guest speakers talking about all manner of spy fiction themes. On 29 August they are hosting one on The Ipcress File.

More information is available here.

The week before, writer Mike Ripley - of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang fame, which has just been published - will be talking about the golden age of British thriller books. More information here.

Wednesday 3 May 2017

Think you know a lot about British Thrillers? Think Again!

The cover illustrations beautifully hint at the material discussed by Ripley
Author and friend of the Deighton Dossier Mike Ripley - he of the Angel series of crime novels - has produced a super new reference work on the golden age of the British thriller which readers of spy fiction will find informative and revealing, very much a book that deserves repeated dipping into.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang - wow, what a cool title, straight off - is an authoritative exposition on how, to use its subtitle, "Britain lost and empire but its secret agents saved the world."

From the first Bond novel Casino Royale to the publication of The Eagle has Landed in 1970s, Ripley pinpoints these three decades as the period during which British authors - famous (Deighton, Fleming, Le Carre, Dick Francis ) and those now often overlooked by the current generation of readers (Lionel Davidson, Adam Hall, Gavin Lyall) - captured the imagination of readers worldwide in the post-war era with their tales of derring-do, spycraft, murder, and other written word adventures which, in the pre-Internet age, fuelled the imagination like very little else.

Saturday 22 April 2017

[Guest contributor] SS-GB and its place in the alternative history landscape

Fritz Kellerman, from BBC1's SS-GB

[Friend of the Deighton Dossier and noted Deighton collector Robert "Raki" Rakison provides his thoughts on Len Deighton's classic of alternative history - recently shown on BBC1 in a five-part series - and considers other speculative fiction novels and books from the same period which readers may wish to consider.]

The recent TV series for SS-GB and The Man In The High Castle have sparked a lot of interest about what would have happened if the Nazis had won World War Two. This interest in alternate histories is not new, even on film or TV.

Len Deighton wrote SS-GB (published in 1978) when he’d just finished researching, writing and publishing his military history book Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain and was about to do the same for Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk (1979) – both very readable, really excellent military histories. (In 1993 Len also wrote Blood, Tears and Folly: The Darkest Hour of the Second World War (to misquote Winston Churchill), a highly critical review of the period, up to the US coming into World War Two, with a reminder of how close to defeat the Allies were.

According to Len's "What if...?" article in the 18-24 February 2017 edition of the Radio Times, published to coincide with the recent SS-GB TV mini-series, in the mid-1970s, discussing the research for Fighter and Blitzkrieg, his editor made a comment to the effect that nobody knew what would have happened if Hitler had won the war. Len said that we did “to some extent” and Ray Hawkey (a close friend of Len’s, famously the dust jacket designer for SS-GB and most of Len’s books and producer of the British Hitler-head postage stamps, developed as a promotion for SS-GB) asked if it would make a book, an “alternative world story.”

Monday 20 March 2017

So ... what did you think? SS-GB has ended

The gravelly voiced Douglas Archer
Well, blog readers: Whaddya think?

Yesterday's episode certainly introduced the action and tension which some viewers seem to have felt was missing earlier on.

After "mumble-gate" and a drop-off in viewing figures after episode one, the five-part adaption of Len Deighton's SS-GB finished with the final episode last night introducing some radical departures from the source novel ... opening up a second series, potentially.

[The Radio Times has a useful guide on the differences between the TV series and the book, here.]

I would give the series four out of five stars, mostly because I found pacing issues in the middle, perhaps as a result of it being stretched out over five weeks (it may not feel different, for example, if binge-watched on DVD).

Critical response has been mixed. Seems to have been a marmite series: Those who want to bash the BBC hate it; it also became a meme linked to Brexit, with some drawing parallels between the Nazis in the 'thirties and the modern EU (face-palm!). Other critics have lauded the quality of the acting, the quality of the direction and the 'noir' element.

The world of Twitter has been its usual, crazy, bubble, with little or anything approaching effective commentary being possible!

What did Deighton Dossier readers think of the series - do share your thoughts.

Friday 24 February 2017

New profile of Len Deighton in Mail, part of SS-GB hullaboo

Amidst all the online Twitter hubbub over alleged mumbling in SS-GB on BBC1, there's been a significant upsurge in coverage of both the series and the author of the book on which it is based, Len Deighton.

The Deighton Dossier spoke briefly a while back to Nicole Lampert who writes for the Daily Mail, and her short profile article on Len Deighton was in the paper yesterday and is up on the newspaper's website, here. She has alighted on the 'mysterious, reclusive' author angle which, while cliched, isn't all that inaccurate - the author does value his privacy highly.

I'm pleased she used some of the information on the website I pointed her to as part of her research, and the Mail's picture library has clearly dug deep to find some new pictures of Len to illustrate the article.

Monday 30 January 2017

Would you collaborate, or not? SS-GB preview

That's core to the gripping story at the centre of this five-piece BBC drama out late February, according to co-writer Robert Wade, he of Spectre fame. The producers have drawn out this key characteristic in Len Deighton's book SS-GB and made it central to understanding the tension and uncertainty at the heart of this new drama.

This evening's screening of episode one of SS-GB by Sid Gentle Films shows that the BBC has on its hand a real audience winner and a production that has done justice to Len Deighton's original book and, according to his agent, satisfied the author too.

I won't give away any plot clues or spoil the story. Rather, I'll pick out a few highlights from the episode and the Q&A afterward with Sam Riley, Kate Bosworth, Neil Purvis, Robert Wade and producer Sally Woodward-Gentle.

But get ready for Buckingham Palace in ruins!!

Authenticity - the production quality on this series is up to cinema standards, as TV is now very much on a par with Hollywood in securing the best financing and TV. No expense has been spared on costumes, vehicles, tanks, Spitfires, but also little details like accurate train tickets, advertising, graffiti on the walls, London vernacular. Nothing jars.

London the star - the producers made the series entirely in central London with various locations, as they felt no other city could stand in for London. The director Phillip Kadelbach's secret was to use handheld cameras frequently, focus in tight on the main characters rather than rely on lots of wide shots (requiring CGI and thousands of extras) and keep the camera at Archer's eye level and follow him around, to give the impression of following him on a search for clues. It looks visually stunning, certainly.

Great performances - one of the standouts of the first episode was actor James Cosmo as Harry Woods, Archer's gritty, older detective pal. Wonderfully gritty.

Real Germans - with a German director the producers were able to bring in the cream of German stage and screen actors. Particularly menacing and already one of the standout performances is Lars Eidiger as Standartenfuhrer Dr Huth of the SS. For the first five minutes on screen, all we hear is his voice and silhouette as an autopsy is being carried out. This is an SS man with a mission, and huge charisma too.

Follows classic police procedural memes - the discovery of the murder above an antique shop is classic detective procedural - the long glances around the room, the fishing around in cupboards, the item tucked behind a draw, the hidden hiding place, the vital clue left behind, the disinterested 'seen it all before' police doctor. Great stuff.

Central St Martin's College - really stands in well for Scotland yard. The interiors and the classic wooden doors are perfectly wartime in tone. The sets have a real stability to them, literally and figuratively.

Fantastic title sequence - makes the viewer tingle with anticipation before the TV series starts. They are wonderfully done a mix of the modern and the old, as indicated by the modern typeface introducing the actors under which their names are written in German Gothic fonts. The colours are strongly the black, white and red of the Swastika flag and this ties together into the reveal scene of Douglas Archer at the end (below). Images dissolving into each other, colours bleeding into new images, it has the pace and feel of a classic Bond dramatic opening in which you pick up the main threads of the story before the programme's even started, but without revealing too much.

Beautiful colour and sound editing - the colour palette and feel are just right - lots of browns, smudgy dirty streets, under-lit pubs and kitchen parlours, all just right for a country struggling under the yoke of the Nazis. Most of the action takes place inside, but the sound editor brings to life offices, pubs, restaurants, whorehouses and other locations beautifully with some marvellous extraneous sound designs.

The writers are fans - clear from the Q&A that Purvis and Wade are fans of Deighton's book. They revealed they wanted to write it as a five-hour film, rather than a five episode drama series, as it has a complete story which lended itself to film making. The moral ambiguity at the heart of Deighton's story is something which they saw as central to the appeal of this film to TV viewers, sitting at home, who are asked to imagine - if this was happening outside your front door, what would you do?

Sunday 1 January 2017

Full site update complete: The New Deighton Dossier is up and running

One of my Christmas/New Year projects was to complete the upgrade to the Deighton Dossier website and archive, which has been online seven years now!

The site now includes lots more interactive galleries, embedded video and new information not on the previous version. Importantly, it has plenty of scope for expansion.

I'm particularly keen to feature more third party content - if you have any images/commentary/ideas for features you'd like to see the DD address, I'd be happy to feature it on the website if it's suitable.

Check out the screen shots below of the new site:

I've now used more lightbox reveal boxes to ensure long content such as interviews is more self-contained and accessible, and dedicated sub-pages have been added where appropriate to make it easier to navigate. One thing I haven't been able to do successfully is integrate the existing hosted Blog; what I may do eventually is add in a built-in blog, and simply transfer the existing information across.

If you spot any errors, do please add some comments below and I'll address them.

Thanks for continuing to visit the blog and the website, which is now the top result on any Google search on Len Deighton!