Friday, 9 July 2004

Len Deighton: XPD (1981)

Edition: Hutchinson & Co, 1981
Review number: 1249

The second of an (otherwise unrelated) trio of Deighton novels concerned with the Second World War, XPD is actually set in 1979, contemporary with its writing. It is close as Deighton has got to the idea driven thrillers of Frederick Forsyth, and has many similarities to The Odessa File, published almost a decade earlier. It deals with a plot by a group of former SS officers to sieze power in Germany. Their plans are based around the publication of some Third Reich documents about a secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in June 1940, in which Churchill offered a British ceasefire on terms that would destroy his reputation, if known. These papers ended up with a huge consignment of looted gold in a salt mine, and the American soldiers charged with removing it at the end of the war proved to be less than totally honest. They managed to steal enough gold to set up their own private Swiss bank - and they picked up the documents at the same time.

The story becomes exceptionally complicated, and in the end is not among Deighton's most plausible plots, even if the original idea was obviously sparked by thoughts about oddities in published details of Churchill's itinerary in June 1940. (We see the central character of XPD carrying out what must be the same research in the middle of the novel.) The SS officers' plot is bizarrely backed by the KGB, something which might have made more sense in the late seventies than it does now, and I found it hard to see how the documents, however scandalous, could cause the kind of chaos in West Germany that would have been needed for the coup. Indeed, it occurs to several of the characters to wonder who precisely would care enough if the meeting became public knowledge. (When one says "It would destroy the Tory party", that does seem to be the most likely consequence, and unpleasant though that may have seemed to Margaret Thatcher, the newly incoming prime minister at the time, I could hardly care less.)

The title comes from a subplot; there is clearly a leak exposing details of the British Secret Service investigation into the affair, and at one point the central character of the novel, heading the investigation, wonders if he has possibly been made the subject of an expedient demise order or XPD, which is basically an instruction to kill an agent who has become a liability. This becomes another part of the plot which doesn't quite work for me, as it seems to be a paranoid fantasy and remains unconnected to anything else in the novel for too long.

Comparing XPD and The Odessa File does reveal how much better Deighton is at characterisation than Forsyth. The background, whether flashbacks to the forties, the Hollywood film industry or the meeting rooms of Whitehall, is also extremely well done. Were it not for the clunkiness of the plot, this could have been one of Deighton's best novels.

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