Tuesday, 24 August 2004

Len Deighton: Mexico Set (1985)

Edition: Grafton, 1986 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1261

I don't think it would be possible to write sensibly about the second novel in the Game, Set and Match trilogy without giving away an important part of the plot of Berlin Game, the first one. So I'm not even going to try. Mexico Set is all about how Bernard Samson copes when his wife defects to the Russians after he uncovers the fact that she is a KGB agent (they were both senior members of the British secret service). So the novel is about Bernard's personal and professional difficulties; he has to try to work out how much of their marriage was a sham, t otry and be there for his children (which he fails miserably to do) and to deflect the questioning of his own loyalty by his colleagues - surely, they say, he should have suspected Fiona long ago, if he himself was innocent.

The plot of Mexico Set is about Bernard trying to persuade a KGB officer - Stinnes, who appeared at the end of Berlin Game and who works for Fiona- to defect. Once again, the narrative is cleverly done so that it doesn't just given an impression of Bernard's feelings, but also conveys something of how much he isn't saying. (How has this man, who views himself as reasonable and professional, come to be so feared by his colleagues?) The various backgrounds, from the sleaze of Mexico City to the paranoia of Berlin, are atmospheric and tightly integrated into the feelings that the novel produces as it is read - treachery is just so much more plausible in the settings Deighton provides for it. Everything about the novel fits together efficiently, and is about enhancing its effectiveness.

Mexico Set is mainly concerned with Bernard's character, which makes it seem a little low key for a modern thriller. Although the reader has the impression that there is not a great deal of action, in fact there is a fair amount of violence, all of it the consequence of some betrayal - by Fiona, or the deskbound officials in London (both of Bernard), or of one Russian agent by another. Betrayal is of course the main theme of the whole trilogy, but Mexico Set is remarkable for the number of different acts of bad faith.

Anyone who reads Berlin Match is very likely to read on through the rest of the trilogy (and quite probably through the other seven novels relating to Bernard Samson); together, they form one of the premier classics of the thriller genre. I am not quite sure how well Mexico Set would work by itself, having only every read it immediately following its predecessor, but I would certainly advise prospective readers to start at the beginning with Berlin Game.

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