By John Fullerton
I’ve always enjoyed Len Deighton’s novels, but in my late teens and early twenties I was only interested in ‘what happens next’ and I wasn’t mature or patient enough to appreciate them as I should. I’d buy each new book and read it hungrily and with great haste. What a waste!
During lockdown I re-read all 10 Bernard Samson spy novels and discovered both the depth of character and the subtle emotions that I’d missed.
The books are an extraordinary combination of domestic drama and boardroom comedy (sometimes the other way around, or so it seemed).
One can’t fail but identify with the bespectacled hero, Bernie himself, who’s probably the only capable, honest and hard-working character of the lot – but he’s denied staff status in British intelligence, a pension et al, while the appalling and indolent upper crust faker Dicky Cruyer preens and struts over his Spode china in his palatial office – a type that is all too obviously present in the higher reaches of what passes for the English political class today.
Bernie’s caustic, earthy wit certainly made me laugh at loud at times, while his affinity with Germany, its people and language only added to his likeable nature.
Winter – the first in the series – is really quite remarkable, not for the quality of the writing so much as the humane viewpoint of the author. It’s the history of a family across two world wars, and shows the origins of the major characters who reappear throughout the rest of the series.
Deighton condemns no-one. He takes no side. He distances himself, developing characters who turn out to be Communists or Nazis – and he does so in such a way that we regard them with interest and sympathy despite their moral failings. They’re not devilishly inhuman – they’re flawed human beings like ourselves. Pauli, for example, turns out to be a Nazi lawyer – yet we understand him and we see why he is what he is. Deighton is showing us how it was that millions of Germans became Nazi supporters or passive sympathisers, or were drawn to the opposite barricades, something that historians have sometimes failed to do. It’s quite an achievement.
In these ugly times, with democratic process undermined by rampant corruption and under siege from the far right, it seems particularly apt.
Deighton is far more than merely a thriller writer. He is a food writer, something of an accomplished historian, too, and his literary connections run wide and deep. He’s also an accomplished artist, having illustrated a number of book covers. The latest paperbacks reissued by Harper come with introductions by the author, and I learned and enjoyed much from his descriptions of how and where he wrote. Particularly striking was the way those ten novels lived in his head for a decade or more. He thought, ate, drank and dreamed his characters for all that time.
For lesser writers like myself, Deighton gives us not only great pleasure but also an important lesson in dedication and commitment.
Thank you, Len.