In the British secret service someone qualifies as a “slow horse” if they have messed up in some way. They have failed whilst on duty or possess some frowned-upon character flaw and have been exiled to Slough House in London. No glittering career, just dead-end jobs to do. The prospect of carrying out a real operation is a pipe-dream. Everyone has their own secret, their own reason for being there.
Things change when a young man is kidnapped and his captors threaten to behead him live on the internet. The slow horses get pulled into the situation and called to action, but all is not as it seems.
I came across this book by chance when Amazon was selling it cheaply. The reviews were good and the associated audiobook was also on special offer, so I gave it a go.
I’m glad I did. This is a quite a short, character-driven story and weaved through the whole thing is a seam of black humour and a healthy disrespect for those in power. I’m a big fan of Len Deighton and in particular his stories featuring weathered British spy Bernard Samson. If you like those you will feel right at home here.
With regard to the narration of the audiobook, at first I thought that the narrator was a bit dour but after a while you realise that this is perfect for the tone of the story. The humour comes over well, different accents are handled well and each character has their own voice. He can also ramp up the pace when necessary, something done in a seamless manner.
I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the book and the detailed characters. There are another couple of books in the series, and I’ll definitely be back.
Winter is a prequel to Len Deighton’s three trilogies featuring weathered English spy Bernard Samson. The inside cover of my old copy of the printed book explains why it is the “fourth book of the trilogy“, meaning that it should be read between the “Game, Set and Match” and “Hook, Line and Sinker” trilogies.
I read the trilogies for the first time over a decade ago and did not read Winter until later – I did not know about it at the time.
Over the last couple of years the books have been re-issued as audiobooks and I listened to them as they came out.”Game, Set and Match” came out in 2014 / early 2015, “Hook, Line and Sinker” followed later in 2015. Winter was not released until February 2016 which means that it has not been possible to listen to the books in their correct reading order until now . If you are interested in reading the Bernard Samson series then read Winter in its rightful place: fourth.
You won’t be disappointed.
The book is brilliant. It is the best book in the Samson saga (although the masterful Spy Sinker comes close). It is at this point in the proceedings that you start to realise the depth of planning that the author has gone to when putting this saga together.
Winter is very rewarding if you have read the preceding Samson stories. Getting to know Bernard’s father Brian and Werner’s father Isaac sheds more light on these central characters. Then there are the characters who only appear as old people in the trilogies – you get to see them in their youth. Certain influential characters from the trilogies have walk-on roles, giving you an idea of how they start out.
The story begins at the turn of the 20th century with the birth of a second son to Harold Winter, a German businessman. Winter is the story of the two brothers, with the focus on the younger son Paul. You follow their experiences as they grow up, through the first World War, the inter-war years and the second World War.
The eldest son, Peter, has an artistic streak and goes to work in the company firm. Paul goes into the military, has a dreadful experience in World War 1 and becomes a lawyer and a bureaucrat in the Nazi party.
One of the special aspects of this story is how it depicts the rise of the Nazis and how the German people turned to their political point of view. It is very unsettling seeing how the treatment of Jews moved from persecution to extermination and how the Nazi leadership seized control, stamping out any sign of dissent.
A strength of the book is how you can like the character of Paul and be sympathetic towards him yet you are increasingly appalled by his actions and attitudes.
You also get to experience the war from a German perspective, which becomes particularly impactful as you head towards the end of the story and see how the Germans themselves suffered through the devastation caused by RAF bombing of cities and huge losses on the battlefield. The Russian invasion of Germany was carried out without mercy. (This is also highlighted in Field Grey by Philip Kerr).
A word about the narration: the book is read by the same narrator as all the other Bernard Samson novels so you are listening to a voice you are already familiar with. He does the job well, as professionally as ever. However, there is one oddity here that I found initially off-putting: the text often mentions the different regional accents of Germany and how they sound to people from other parts of the country. To get over this point the narrator does not try to have the characters talking with different German accents but instead uses “equivalent” British accents. You get used to it but it is strange at first, and is particularly jarring right at the start of the story as you are immediately assaulted by a very distinct regional English accent. It’s not what you expect when you start listening to a book set in early 20th century Germany. I could understand how some listeners might not be able to get over this stylistic hurdle, although I can see why the decision was made to present the narration in this way.
The “Game, Set and Match” trilogy:
• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Berlin Game” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)
• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Mexico Set” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)
• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “London Match” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)
The “Hook, Line and Sinker” trilogy:
• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Spy Hook” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)
• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Spy Line” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)
• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Spy Sinker” by Len Deighton (audiobook version)
• Spare Cycles: Len Deighton books (my original reviews of the books)
• Harper Collins: Len Deighton audiobooks
The impact that exponential technological advance will have on the future of the economy really came into focus for me five years ago when I read “Race Against The Machine” and Martin Ford’s first book “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future” in quick succession. The two were both were very cheap, unprofessional looking e-books and the writing could be improved. They were pedalling ideas that were outside of mainstream thinking. People where just coming to terms with the bombshell that was the Great Recession.
Fast-forward to today and the ideas have come to the attention of the general public. Back then we had a chess champion beaten by brute-force computing and IBM’s Watson beating humans at a quiz show. Now we have self driving cars, a Go champion beaten by a computer program using machine learning and dire warnings from important figures in science and technology warning of the risks of artificial intelligence to the future of the human race.
Also, in the meantime both books have had an upgrade and big improvements in quality. “Race Against The Machine” became “The Second Machine Age” and “The Lights in the Tunnel” became “The Rise of the Robots”.
Although the message is largely the same as the earlier book, the author’s writing is much improved, the arguments are clear and supported with data, there is little repetition in subject matter and the book is kept short (350 pages / 10 hours).
This book won the prize for Best Business Book of the Year 2015 and it is easy to see why. However, I do wonder – as this book has come to the attention of the business community – whether a large part of the book’s audience will actually take heed of what is being said especially in regard to the issues of income inequality and productivity if large scale automation is undertaken. They certainly cannot now say that they have not been warned. Will business leaders believe that the message applies to others but not to themselves?
A note on the narration as I listened to the audiobook version: sometimes these business books end up being read by a default-American-voice which can sound very bland and unenthusiastic. In the worst cases, this can actively detract from the content of the book (The Second Machine Age is a victim in this regard). When I heard the voice of the narrator for this book I was initially concerned. In the end Jeff Cummins does a good job, adding intonation and a relaxed tone which matches the style of the text.
In conclusion, this book should be read by everyone. I would go as far as saying that the book is an addictive read (or listen). If you have not thought about the subject before, it will really give you something to think about. You may be persuaded at least that the author has a point or you may be convinced he is right. He sounds right to me.