Nowhere in Berlin will you find a statue dedicated to Fiona Samson, nor a headstone with the name of Erich Stinnes in the Doroteenstadt, the pocket-sized urban cemetery where East Germany’s communists used to plant some of their well-connected dead. But that might be asking a lot, given that they are both fictional characters (not that it kept Peter Pan out of Kensington Gardens) and Stinnes, though raised in Germany, was a senior officer in the Russian KGB. So, apparently, was Fiona, which accounts for the multiple dilemmas confronting Bernard Samson, Fiona’s husband and senior field agent for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service – “London Central” in spookspeak.
Those dilemmas become cumulatively more acute as one progresses through Len Deighton’s triple-dip trilogies that were published between 1983 and 1996. Setting aside the 1987 “prequel” Winter, in which superannuated characters from the Samson series appear in their youthful pre-war personae, the nine books in the sequence are: Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match, followed by Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker, and the loose end-wrapping Faith, Hope and Charity.
I have been on a re-reading binge and find all nine novels to be aging quite nicely, perhaps because they are only secondarily “about” Cold War intrigue, though they have got plenty of that. “Human relationships” are his real subject, Deighton once stated, and he is skillful enough to make British Intelligence work for him as the Church of England did for Trollope, as the framework on which the hidden professional and personal agendas of his characters enter into conflict with one another.
It is Bernard who supplies the first-person narrative that drives all but one of the nine volumes in the sequence. He is the consummate professional spook, but his knowledge of the Germans and their language has marked him for life as a field operative, a low-ranking technician and bruiser like the hero of The Ipcress File, the book that launched Deighton’s writing career (and Michael Caine’s acting career) half a century ago, back when the James Bond phenomenon was fresh and publishers and producers anxious to cash in on it.
Around half of Deighton’s four dozen plus books can be described as spy fiction, but you also have Bomber, which novelist Anthony Burgess placed on his list of 99 essential books since 1939, Blood, Tears and Folly, a brilliant “alternative” history of World War II, and compilations of the cult cookery columns Deighton wrote and illustrated for Britain’s Observer back in the 1960s.
Although the international settings of the Samson saga change from book to book, resolution of whatever situation is complicating, if not actually threatening, Bernard’s life invariably takes him back to Berlin, the divided and dangerous city where he was brought up and trained in spycraft by his late father, the Berlin station chief with the post-war occupation forces.
Did you ever say hello to a girl you almost married long ago? Did she smile a captivating smile and give your arm a hug in a gesture you’d almost forgotten? Did the wrinkles as she smiled make you wonder what marvelous times you’d missed? That what I felt about Berlin every time I came back here.
But his deepest feelings are reserved for his wife, Fiona. In addition to beauty (“wide cheekbones, flawless complexion and luminous eyes”), brains (honors, no, an honours degree from Oxford) and wealth (her father is an insufferable, overbearing rich bastard), she is a loving mother and wife, as outstanding a cook as she is intelligence strategist, socially at ease with the posh and mighty. She’s set to become the next deputy director-general of London Central. Oh, and she’s also a double agent taking orders from Moscow, as Bernard will have figured out by the end of the first volume.
Everything that happens after Fiona’s flight to East Berlin requires Bernard to come to terms with that monstrous act of betrayal, while trying to do his job, stay alive, raise his kids, console himself with Gloria (a sweetie half his age), steer clear of office politics and his sexually voracious sister-in-law, and keep his boyhood best friend and occasional London Central contract hire, Werner Volkmann, out of trouble – or else have Werner get him out of trouble when an operation goes south. More than once when Bernard is sent out on a mission everybody but himself knows has been compromised, the big question turns out to be not “Who on their side is only pretending to be a defector?” but the even more chilling “Who on my side is only pretending to be a complete fool.”
But then Deighton does something brilliant. Spy Sinker, the sixth volume in the series, abruptly rewinds the story and retells it all over again starting from before the point where Bernard became involved in it, reinterpreting everything that Bernard has confided to the reader in the first five books. The third-person, fly on the wall vision discerns things that Bernard was never meant to know, or else understood wrongly because he had been set up to do so. He’s an “unreliable narrator,” as Deighton has confirmed:
His role is important because the story is told through his voice. If the books were simply spy stories then it wouldn’t have mattered greatly if another person’s viewpoint had been used They could have been written in third person. But I wanted to write a spy story that was also about a marriage. For this I needed Bernard Samson’s voice.
So Bernard’s account now becomes just one element in the multi-layered storyline that emerges after it has been embellished with facts our hero was never privy to. At the same time it has been vacuumed clean of prejudices, resentments, and cheerful acts of character assassination that shaped his personal version of events. Bernard’s fatuous idiot of a boss, Dickie Cruyer, his avuncular mentor, Frank Harrington, and especially his best friend, Werner, turn out to be not quite the people he takes them for.
At the same time, use of the third person in Spy Sinker allows Deighton to bring out Fiona as a more fully realized character than her husband is capable of depicting, one who is painfully aware Bernard has never been able to get over the fact that she is the smarter partner, but loves him nonetheless. Says Deighton:
I have tried to show that Fiona’s life with Bernard was far from smooth or easy. Her academic success, and her flashy upper-middle-lass background has been a source of pride to him. But it is also a constant reminder of his own shortcomings. He loves her, but she represents a lot of things he doesn’t like. And she makes him part of a milieu he rather despises but can’t escape from.
It is no coincidence that several characters who seemed too exaggerated or simplistic – Fiona’s father is taken straight out of the Oxford Book of Hoary Clichés, under M for millionaire – are the same ones Bernard perceives as antagonists, after it is revealed how personal dislike is affecting his perceptions. By the same take, principal bad guy Erich Stinnes comes across as cosmopolitan, articulate, self-aware and deadly because Bernard is describing and characterizing his mirror-image double.
“You know what it’s like, and so do I,’ he said. ‘Both of us work the tough side of the business. I’ve been West a few times, just as you’ve come here. But who gets the promotions and the big wages – desk-bound Party bastards. How lucky you are not having the Party system working against you all the time.’
‘We have got it,’ I said. ‘It’s called Eton and Oxbridge.’
Once the cat is out of the bag, it is easy to spot the cues we missed. Without resorting to outright falsehoods, Bernard does what anyone could hardly resist doing in a situation like his: he makes himself look good. In real life, who among us can spit out a Raymond Chandler-class simile that stops the bad guys dead in their tracks, or have a wisecrack cocked and ready at the exact moment one is required? Well, Bernard can and does—or at least he makes it seem that way, when he includes any number of perfectly timed verbal felicities that had to have been written into the script long after the real-world dialogue took place.
Samson the story-teller is also a deft hand at withering sarcasm, as in “He was in that state of euphoria that I would have guessed only knighthood or a new Lloyd Weber album could bring.” To despise a person is to render judgment on him, and so risk misjudging him – which may be what he secretly wants you to do. But were those scornful words actually spoken at the time or thought up after the fact?
He’s also very good at aphorisms like “It is very hard sometimes to know how intensely we are loved, and of what value our presence is to those who love us” or “Fear is so unwelcome that it comes only in disguise, and guilt is its favorite one.” Now why can’t I spout stuff like that? And would I resist the temptation to embellish an account of myself with a few unspoken zingers? Of course not, and neither would you.
Most of all, Bernard never takes the reader entirely into his confidence. He acts on what he knows before he lets the reader know that he knows it, without quite revealing how he knows it—that Fiona was about to bolt for example. Nor is it altogether clear how he figured out that she was being exfiltrated back to Britain nearly four years later, her work as a double agent complete. The Russians did some figuring of their own, so Bernard has to make some quick moves to keep her from danger.
The Samson saga is notable for its vivid, camera-ready set pieces. The episode in Berlin Game where Bernard must extract information from a trained interrogator who knows all the tricks, is a favorite.
He was frightened of something quite different: he was terrified that damage was going to be done to the grand illusory image that he had of himself. It was part of my job to guess what frightened a man, and then not to dwell on it but rather let him pick at it himself while I talked of other, tedious things, giving him plenty of opportunity to peel back the scab of fear and expose the tender wound beneath.
Another is the bit in Faith where Bernard fights for his life in the cab of an eighteen-wheel semi hauling Saabs to Switzerland. Only Quentin Tarantino could do justice to this scary/grotesque close quarters explosion of violence: flailing, gouging and kicking.
In the three novels that follow Spy Sinker, Bernard again takes up his duties as unreliable narrator to bring the saga to a loosely ambiguous conclusion. For me, Faith is top-drawer Deighton, while Hope and Charity are the weakest of the lot. The Berlin Wall is still standing in 1987, when the series comes to an end, but it had already entered history by the time Deighton was writing his finale during the first half of the following decade.
By then, the intrigue seems contrived and superfluous, with a plot propped up by a McGuffin – a mysterious, unopened lockbox. The author (and the reader for sure) evidently cares far more that, after years of carnal cuddling, Bernard finally has come to admit that he loves Gloria, and is not merely grateful for her love. Meanwhile, Fiona is recovering from a major breakdown and determined to put her marriage back together while simultaneously attempting to find out if her own people had her scatty, drug-addict sister killed to provide the communists with a body they’ll think is hers.
With Bernard and Fiona entangled in their respective moral and interpersonal predicaments, chances of rebuilding their marriage are not looking real good, but if you have made it all this way through the last years of Cold War disco, what happens to them is going to matter more than all the cracks that are starting to appear in the Wall as the Samson saga comes to an end.
Robert Latona is a journalist based in Madrid.