Tuesday, 6 January 2004

Len Deighton: Funeral in Berlin (1964)

Edition: Penguin, 1966 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1209

Because it is the main focus of the Bernard Samson novels, Berlin might appear to be something of an obsession with Deighton. It actually features remarkably rarely in his other novels, particularly considering its unique position during the Cold War as a bastion of the West surrounded by the Soviet bloc. It does, however, feature heavily in the third Harry Palmer novel, as the title obviously indicates.

The plot of Funeral in Berlin is apparently the mirror image of The Ipcress File, with Palmer trying to arrange the reception for a Russian scientist defecting via West Berlin. But it soon becomes obvious that this isn't quite what is going on - why, for example, are those involved so insistent that the scientist's fake papers should be in a particular name when any would do for what they are claiming to want them for?

The whole of this novel, like Deighton's first two, revolves around things not being quite what they seem, right up to the ending with its particularly surprising revelations. (This was not the first time I'd read the novel; I'd forgotten the details but remembered the gist - and still found it exciting.) Deighton's novels do tend to be designed around this kind of misdirection, and it is of course a style particularly appropriate to the spy novel.

The setting of Berlin is atmospheric, more because it is full of nervous, posturing tough guys (both would-be and really tough); the descriptions are not as fully developed as they became in later years when Deighton's novels increased in length (Funeral in Berlin is less than half as long than Berlin Game, for instance). The most sympathetic character, as far as Palmer is concerned, is a Russian KGB colonel; for him, the distinction in the espionage business is between professionals and amateurs, rather than between friends and enemies.

The world of the spy as documented by Deighton continued to be a male dominated one through his entire career, and in fact never completely loses the old boy network feel that Palmer is so cynical about in The Ipcress file (Bernard Samson complains about this twenty years later on). Here, the two female characters are good looking young women, one Palmer's secretary and lover who does most of the routine work assigned to him, and the other a rather naive agent for some other power, whose seduction of Palmer seems to have slipped out of a James Bond story. Having mentioned Ian Fleming's famous spy in this context, though, I should point out that Deighton has moved on from Fleming's insistent misogyny. (Palmer is a much brighter but less flamboyant character than Bond, too.)

Apart from The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin is the best of the Harry Palmer novels, sharing its best quality - an ability to surprise even after all these years.

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