Saturday, 14 August 2004

Len Deighton: Berlin Game (1983)

Edition: Grafton, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1259

While no one who read The Ipcress File could deny that Len Deighton was one of the great spy fiction writers, several of his other novels seem quite tired. With Berlin Game, and indeed the whole of the Game, Set and Match trilogy, everything came together once again; this story would no doubt join Deighton's debut in many fans' lists of the absolute top spy stories. It is not surprising that Bernard Samson dominated the rest of Deighton's output in the same way that Harry Palmer did in the sixties.

From a plotting point of view, there are a lot of points of similarity between the two novels. Both are supreme examples of the "which of my colleagues is a traitor" storyline, and both are told by a world weary, cynical narrator. Both are set mainly in London, but with a second focus elsewhere - in each case, somewhere crucial to the unravelling of the treachery: Berlin here (obviously) and an American nuclear testing facility in The Ipcress File; the London scenes are mainly about office politics. Like Palmer, Samson doesn't quite fit in; twenty years after The Ipcress File, the secret service is still full of Oxbridge types who look down on someone who never went to university at all; both narrators have a serious chip on their shoulder about this, and the attitude is something of a constant theme in Deighton's writing about the secret service as part of the British establishment.

The main difference between the two narrators is in the situations of the narrators in the two novels. Bernard Samson is considerably older, and he is married (to another senior official from "the Department") with two youngish children. Harry Palmer's career began during the Second World War, Bernard grew up in post-war Berlin. These two changes make considerable difference; Bernard is willing to attribute more complex motives to those around him, and recognises shades of grey in treachery which would never occur to Harry. Bernard is so world weary that each betrayal just adds its bit to the total sadness in the world; there is nothing to be surprised about, no real blame to award, for treachery is only to be expected. And yet, even so, those around him describe Bernard as an optimist.

So Bernard Samson is an older, more settled character, and that affects every aspect of Berlin Game, from the amount of action to his analysis of motivations. Even without many of the traditional thrills of the genre, the novel keeps the reader enthralled from beginning to end. It is the characterisation of the narrator which does this - Deighton is subtle enough that we don't just get Bernard Samson as described by himself, but are able to see through that to a real character underneath. The Ipcress File might be more original (Berlin Game being very much derived from it), and it might have had more influence on other writers; but in Berlin Game Deighton has created not just another classic thriller, but one which is in my opinion better than its model.

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