Friday, 11 June 2004

Len Deighton: Yesterday's Spy (1975)

Edition: Warner, 1976
Review number: 1243

The plots of a fair proportion of the novels Deighton has set contemporary to the date of writing involve something left over from the Second World War. There is an obvious reason why this happens, other than that the Cold War itself could be viewed as arising from the Second World War; many of the spies and spy masters of the seventies were still people who had had their greatest successes at that time. Deighton also does this kind of plot superbly; it lends itself to the kind of questioning cynicism which is the trademark of his novels. (The particular question which lies in the background of Yesterday's Spy is: are those who fought side by side thirty years earlier still comrades in arms?)

Steve Champion was a wartime hero, a British agent who organised a resistance cell in the south of France, though he was eventually captured and tortured by the Germans. After the war, he had made the most of his contacts to become a very rich, but decidedly shady businessman, used occasionally by British intelligence. But now he has some scheme of his own in mind, and growing closeness to the Egyptian government (more radical in the mid seventies than since) has made him a dangerous man to know.

The narrator was Champion's second in command during the war, and has continued to work for "the Department" ever since. So he seems the obvious person to use to infiltrate Champion's scheme, though he is not keen to do it and the fact that he is the obvious choice makes it harder for him to convince Champion of his sincerity. (And, once he has done so, to ensure that his employers still believe he is on their side.) Generally this is familiar Len Deighton territory; the narrator's character is little different from that of the narrator of Spy Story. (He actually has the same boss, though he doesn't seem to work in the same branch of intelligence at all.)

This familiarity is something of a problem with Yesterday's Spy. It is basically Deighton by numbers, more like the product of a good imitator than of Deighton himself - lacking in truly original inspiration. It has interesting ideas - the involvement of Champion's young son, part of a subplot in which the boy is kidnapped from his mother after a divorce, for example, but not enough is made from them.

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