Len Deighton books

“Sharp, witty and sour, like Raymond Chandler adapted to the British gloom and the multiple betrayals of the private spy” – The Observer

I picked up this book as a beat up second hand copy, its pages fading to a great light coffee colour. The spine is beat and if it had any more wrinkles it would qualify for a pension. The quote on the back seemed to describe the book perfectly. This copy has obviously entertained many a reader.

Every new thriller these days promises a whizz-bang ride of a story and a fantastic sting in the tail. Every new thriller writer tries to invent their own flawed detective, dealing with their own demons and mysterious deaths; even better if they are on the trail of a twisted serial killer. Or something like that. With their fancy covers and designer quotes, the books gleam – promising everything but rarely delivering all the goods.

This book seemed to have a quiet confidence about it, as if it knew it was in a different class. Strange but true…

These books are often overlooked because they are set in the Cold War – a period that has been and gone, well overtaken by current events and seemingly irrelevant. Ever since reading The Day of the Jackal my opinion of these older books has changed and I was ready to give this a try.

The main character, Bernie Samson, is a middle aged, middle ranking official in the British secret service. He is pushed back into active service when one of their sources of information in East Berlin becomes convinced that he is about to be betrayed by a mole in the London office. Bernie is sent to calm his nerves.

Such a simple premise is possible because the book is totally driven forward by character. Conversations are perfectly pitched. The characters have their own individuality, mannerisms and moods. The importance of this cannot be overlooked. We are not dealing with the bright young things that appear in today’s thrillers. We are dealing often with a group of old men who increasingly feel bitter because they are no longer seen as relevant and are being sidelined. Cranky and set in their ways, they have had to ensure suffering.
They also have to face their own mortality.

The biggest character of all though belongs to Berlin itself. A city that is unique in the world, it has been totally defined and divided by the actions of men. The East side is dismal and foreboding, hostile and menacing, but it’s past glory and beauty still manages to resonate through. People there have adapted and they still have a pride in their home.

This book maintains the tension fantastically. You know what has to happen but you need to find out how and it doesn’t let you down. You won’t be disappointed.

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When Erich Stinnes is spotted in Mexico City, Bernard and Dicky are sent to investigate. Their job is to find him and “enrol him” – persuade him to defect. Events in the first book shape everything that takes place in this second part of the trilogy. Bernard is viewed with suspicion by the London office, and only the successful completion of the job will help convince them. His loyalty to the British secret service is put in serious doubt as elaborate games try to make him look like a traitor.

The tone of this book is different to that of the first – there is less of the banter that lightened up the introductory chapter. The higher personal stakes means the dialogue is more determined and sober.

Setting the story in Mexico City is incredibly clever; the contrast with Berlin could not be any greater. Where Berlin is damp, cold, and determined by man’s political desires, Mexico is ruled by the oppressive forces of nature – the harsh sun, high temperatures and pollution. Berlin is portrayed as very grey, whereas you are given the impression that Mexico is a bleached out yellow that permanently strains the eyes. Berlin is a police state; in Mexico the lawlessness runs wild. For Bernard, Berlin is very personal, whereas Mexico is detached and alien.

The story powers itself along, and although there are a couple of niggles, once it gets its claws in you, you can’t escape. The pressure never lets up. The book is hugely solid all the way through, and the last hundred pages just do not stop – all accusations and an explosive ending – perhaps the best thriller writing I’ve read since The Day of the Jackal. High praise indeed.

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The final part of the Game, Set and Match trilogy, and I’m racing through this series like nobody’s business. It’s strange how this trilogy has got me hooked – I’ve finished the lot within the last six weeks or so – this last book in under a week.

Fears abound in the London office that there is a second mole, and the finger of blame is pointing in more than one direction. It’s not doing departmental stability any favours at all.

The pace of this book is slower, after the full-on power of Mexico Set. The confusion of the characters, trying to figure out what is going on is passed directly to the reader, and it makes for a bit of a muddled middle section of the book. Just you’re starting to wonder if this is going to be a disappointing end to the trilogy, the last hundred pages kick in again. All of a sudden everything falls into place, and you settle back to see how it all plays out – it works fantastically well. You are immersed into what is going on, more of a spectator than a reader. The quality of the writing really shines through – you are flung along with the characters as the situation suddenly overtakes them and the final showdown occurs. There are repercussions, fallout and casualties. Riveting stuff.

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My unexpected odyssey into the world of the British Cold War intelligence community continues with the first book in the Hook, Line and Sinker trilogy. Again, Bernard, Werner, Frank et al are let loose. I’m still not quite sure why I like the central characters in these books so much, but they are still providing some of the best thriller action around. And not all is as it seemed at the end of London Match.

The book is a god-send for fans of the Game, Set and Match trilogy – it fills in a lot of the history of the characters, especially going back to the Second World War. You start to appreciate the importance of some of the background characters. How much people would get out of it all if they haven’t read the first trilogy is debatable, but who cares about them – that’s their loss. Berlin also returns as the centre of the action, which enriches the book further.

The story is set three years on from GSM and revolves around the discovery that some money has gone missing from the London Central coffers. Bernard is sent on a trip to the US to follow some things up, and it is downhill all the way for him from that moment on. In the years between the trilogies he has become more weary and disillusioned. As events unfold, he becomes increasingly paranoid – something that the author manages to portray particularly well – and ignores all warnings about following up the investigations into the dodgy cash.

The series of revelations that pop up along the way keep the story moving, and as this is a relatively short book Deighton is not afraid to pull some punches early on. Although this book ties up the plot nicely by the end, this installment leaves the story open enough to lead into the second book in the set. By the end you are looking forward to the continuation of the story. Part of this comes from knowing that the story comes to a head in the next book. The secrets and plots yet to be played out have less that 400 pages to do so. The final book deals with all the events from an alternative point of view.

So I won’t get distracted by writing about it all – I’ve got some serious reading to do…

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The events (chronologically) come to an end – we get to the end of the story. There is one more book written from an opposing point of view, but we now know how it finishes. I won’t say a lot – I don’t want to give the game away. We are back into Game, Set and Match territory where the fix is in and you just watch it unfold. But this time there are some nice surprises. This really does turn the whole story on its head.

It is a time of change for all the characters – the end of an era. Changes are occuring, older characters are reaching the end of their days and if the future is uncertain, then the past will never be the same. Bernard recognises this and there is a distinct feeling of melancholy before the set piece finale kicks off.

The story here continues apace, and although at some points you wonder where it is leading, once it starts it does not stop.

Overall, it’s a fitting send off for characters that you know so well.

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Now, this is how a true thriller is done. By far the best of the books in this trilogy, this book is nearly perfect. This is the story of Bernard’s wife Fiona, the one character that has the biggest impact, but the one that we know the least about.
This is no longer written in the first person – ie Bernard is not telling the story. This means that we see the events that featured in the GSM trilogy and the previous two books from a completely new perspective. We get to see aspects that Bernard was unaware of. We also discover that the impressions of some of the characters that we have been given are not entirely accurate. Fiona is not some hard nosed careerist that puts political belief above all else – she has her own personality and flaws.

And just as importantly, we see where the true power really lies…

The book starts in the late seventies and looks into the future and ways of manipulating the residents of Eastern Europe to voluntarily renounce socialism. This means that it is able to tie itself into the falling of the Berlin Wall – something that happened a little while before the book was published. As a result, the book is not seen as being made irrelevant by events of the day – instead, it is tying these fictional characters into current affairs (as they were) in the real world. And it works.

What’s interesting is that tiny little events in past books turn out to have a lot more importance. Things that may have previously seemed irrelevant are given new meaning. There are a few surprises along the way.

Best of all, the book reveals the answers to the many questions that have been present through the course of the two trilogies. Most importantly, we discover the truth about events surrounding Bernard’s father and how the events of the Second World War have shaped the lives of the many characters.

Deighton’s writing jumps from the page -the quality of the conversations returns to that of Berlin Game, and his observations of the differences between men and women are often spot on. With previous books I have said that the last hundred pages or so keep you on the edge of your seats. Here, the whole book is a joy and no chapter goes by without revealing a little extra about past events and supplying a new angle. The story is truely complete, and you understand the full scope of the intelligence and attention to detail that make up the two trilogies.

It’s worth reading the previous five books just to be able to round off the story in such style. I hope I’ve done enough to get you to read the books. It takes time to read six books, but not a second of that investment is wasted. It looks like some old fashioned thrills just can’t be beaten…


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For the first time in a number of years, I have returned to the Bernard Samson novels by Len Deighton.  The spy who is trying to deal with tumultuous times and events (with varying degrees of success) now features in his third trilogy.  Another two books and his story will be over…  I’ll miss him.

There are a few little contrived events at the beginning to get things underway,  but soon you are engrossed all over again.  If – like myself – you have read the previous seven books in the series, then you are getting exactly what you came for: plot twists galore, office politics and pithy, glorious, dialogue.  For all the action, this part of the story is about the characters.  It is setting the scene for what is coming next, and does an excellent job.  Roll on the next part…

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It is pretty remarkable that there can still be revelations in the ninth book of a ten book series, but it is clear – this story isn’t finished yet.  This time there is no introduction from the author to say that this could be read as a standalone book.  It couldn’t – any new reader would be lost.  Loyal readers will be pleased that the action kicks in from the start.  The dialogue is laser focused, the humour low key and dark.  I’m not sure why the death of Bernard Samson’s sister-in-law has become such a defining event in this trilogy (maybe there are some details from previous books that have faded with time from my memory), but it is centre stage here.  The book involves back and forth trips to Poland in a harsh winter, featuring some rather bleak descriptions.  Berlin features prominently too, but is its importance on the wane?  Financial cutbacks threaten London Central.  The cracks are showing.

I can only hope that the final book in the series – Charity – provides the story with the dignified ending it deserves.  Expectations are high.  I shall know soon enough…

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It’s over.  I’ve reached the end; the Bernard Samson 10 book saga that has been part of my life – on and off – for seven years has come to a close.  The questions have been answered.  I’ll say that it was a satisfying end, but wouldn’t want to go into any further detail.  It’s been a great ride… what a great achievement for an author.

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I found this book when browsing round a second hand book shop in a small town in Scotland, at the beginning of a few days off.

This was one of Len Deighton’s books I’d not tracked down – I now have a number of his books at home waiting to be read – and with some time on my hands I dived in. The book is quite short at 240 (yellowing, faded) pages, with a pretty straight forward setup – a Russian scientist defects so that he can continue his work searching for extra-terrestrial life. The US and British secret services have their own agenda, using him to find out who is leaking information to the Russkies.

The book is written in the first person, and is another in the series of books featuring Deighton’s nameless hero (called Harry Palmer in the Michael Caine films such as Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin.) Despite the excellent reviews (see the back cover) there’s something that has never quite clicked for me with the character, even in the earlier books. The book doesn’t deserve the praise – its no classic. There is a lot of great dialogue between characters, and an exciting car chase through the desert, but they are highlights not matched by the rest of the book.

For me the later Bernard Samson trilogies are a lot better – they are often absolutely stunning.

Deighton seems to be largely overlooked these days and it is a real shame. One day he will make a comeback, when people realise that old fashioned espionage brings adventure that modern day thrillers can only dream about.

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When it comes to Len Deighton books, I have read a fair few.  That means that every time I read one, there is one less to go before I have gone through them all.  Mercifully I know that the day that happens is still a good while off, but it will come, and it will be a sad day.

I’ve learned that – as with any author – there are the classic books or trilogies and there are the lesser works.  I don’t have enough time as I would like these days to read novels, and so when the opportunity arose, I cracked open one of the supposed vintage ones, and this spy story did not disappoint.

Despite being nearly thirty years old the story hasn’t aged as it is specifically set in the year 1979.  The  basic premise is that some files detailing a secret wartime meeting held between Winston Churchill and Hitler (discussing terms to end the war that would essentially hand victory to the Germans) have come to light, having been stolen at the end of World War 2 by some American soldiers.  Given the sensitive subject matter, the British, American and Russian secret services are all eager to get their hands on them.  Most of the people that learn of the files end up meeting a grisly end.

Deighton’s talent for writing fantastic dialogue between characters is much in evidence here, and you can easily find that a good fifty pages have gone by when you only meant to pick the book up for a short break.  Everything is exquisitely planned (in particular the intricate maneuvering between the different intelligence agencies) , and although the author does not really go in for last minute twists, you do get the trademark build up of tension.  In this case it takes some unexpected turns, but the plot leaves you suspecting some outcomes.  The thrill is being kept expertly in suspense, longing to have your suspicions validated or dashed.  As in the best Deighton books – for me the first two Bernard Samson trilogies – the final 100 pages truly flow, in a way that is almost cinematic.  It is hard to take your eyes away from the page.

This would make an excellent introduction to Len Deighton, and I’m sure would lead the reader to venture further into the murky world of espionage that is only really mastered by a few writers.

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james_bond_father_len_deighton

 

Imagine my joy at finding a new Len Deighton story whilst browsing on Amazon – it’s nearly Christmas [2012] and, frankly, it has come early.

He is in his 80′s now, but the story-telling skill and rich humour are still present.

I was listening to the audiobook version of Bomber recently and although I had to stop listening because I did not appreciate the narrator, having Len talking about the background to the book was fascinating.

This Kindle Short gives you some of the same insight into his life in the 1960s.

If you like Deighton’s other writing (or if you are a James Bond fan), then this is well worth investing in.

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15 comments

  1. Rob Mallows

    To get the full experience, you need to finish off with Faith, Hope and Charity. If you thought you knew everything about the characters in these six books, the final three change your perspectives again!

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