Wednesday, 10 November 2004

Len Deighton: Spy Sinker (1990)

Edition: Grafton, 1991
Review number: 1272

The final volume of the second Bernard Samson trilogy is absolutely and massively different from the five novels that precede it and the three that come after. Instead of narration by Bernard, with himself as the central character, we now get a (supposedly) objective third person narrative, which takes the setting back again to 1978 contemporary with that of Berlin Game and focuses on his wife, Fiona. (I say supposedly, because occasionally the objective mask is dropped, and remarks like one commenting that Fiona's public school background ideally prepared her for life as a double agent in East Germany are made.)

This sounds like a good idea; all along we have Bernard's not completely hones description of how he began to suspect his wife was a traitor, but then gradually discovered, following her defection, that she might be one of the most daring British agents of the Cold War. His position is as the victim of betrayal in both scenarios (as the husband of the agent, his particular difficulty is that he was left out of the secret). He is also not the central figure in his own drama, though the reader will tend to forget this because of the power implicit in being the narrator of the story. So how different is the picture from the point of view of the betrayer? This is Fiona's story, and it is perhaps to say something about her character that Deighton narrates in the third person, rather than producing a first person story from her side of things - more passive, perhaps.

In practise, it doesn't work as well as it sounds as though it should. Retelling the same story from a new point of view can work very well, when the new central character has something new to being to the tale (as in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, for example). Here, however, most of what we read either repeats what Bernard has said or is something the reader probably guessed from reading his account. (For example, we don't need to be given an explicit account to know that there must have been a high level meeting at which it was decided to keep the operation secret from Bernard.)

Another problem is that Fiona Samson is not as interesting or as believable a character as her husband. Of course, a large number of Deighton's earlier novels have central characters very similar to Bernard, so he had lots of practise before creating him, while Fiona is his only attempt at a female viewpoint character (barring short stretches from Only When I Larf). He may have been aware that she was less successful, and that is perhaps the reason why a fair amount of Spy Sinker concerns other characters - which in turn is a good reason why Fiona isn't given a first person narration.

As I have said before, to read Berlin Game is almost certainly enough to inspire you to go on and read the rest of the series, and there is certainly some interest here with the gaps that are filled in. But Spy Sinker is definitely the poorest of the Bernard Samson novels.

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