Friday, 23 December 2011

The reissues - the job is done .....


Arnold Schwartzman, Len Deighton's friend and collaborator on a number of books, emailed me recently to say he's now completed the full set of covers for the Harper Collins reissues of all of Len Deighton's fiction works.

Having seen them all, I can say they're on a par with the original set of Ray Hawkey covers, in the sense in which they innovate and provide a consistency of design across all the books, and give the book buyer a clear sense of what themes the book is exploring.


Reproduced below are the covers for the final four books in the reissue series, coming out in 2012. Noticeably, Arnold's chosen to adopt a common theme running across the books, of a pair of spectacles, worn by the hero. The 'spy with no name', a certain Harry Palmer? Given that Palmer (unnamed spy) isn't in Spy Story, for example - based on my understanding of the story and a reference by Len in a previous edition - might this cause confusion? To the book-buying public, probably not. The covers are on a par with all the others produced so far, and Arnold's to be congratulated on revitalising Len's existing collection of stories.





Friday, 16 December 2011

Bored already? ....

Nick Jones, chronicler of all things books in Lewes and writer of the Existential Ennui blog, has put up an interesting post about The Ipcress File, in which he references well known comments by author Kinglsey Amis in an article called 'A New James Bond', in a published collection of essays, Kingsley expresses frustration with the complex plot:
"tough sledding with The Ipcress File... The endless twists and turns of the plot, the systematic withholding of clues and even of settings in time and place..."
Great article that's worth checking out.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Shelf Life redux...

Blog reader Richard Corles has shared a picture of his bookshelf, showing his collection of Len Deighton first editions, including it looks like a mix of US and UK first editions:

So I thought, what about asking other blog readers to send in photos of their own bookshelves and collection of Len Deighton books (or, indeed, any other relevant author). To kick things off, here's part of my collection of Deighton's books, including the reissued Game Set and Match series with the spine design spelling out 'Bernard Samson':


If you want to post up a picture of your bookshelf, send me a photo (max 2MB).

Dutch blog follower Arthur Nutbey has sent in a photo of his shelf; he tells me he takes off all the dust covers to make it more 'library-like':


Thursday, 8 December 2011

Sci-Fi? Ah, no, San Francisco

A number of readers - including author Jeremy Duns, who dragged himself away from his plagiarism research to Tweet me - have alerted me to an excellent overview of Len Deighton's work in the SF Daily. That's SF for San Francisco, not Science Fiction as I first thought, confused.

The article - here - by Casey Burchby, makes the case that Deighton's works have stood the test of time, as we near the fiftieth anniversary of The Ipcress File next year in 2002. I think Casey's opening analysis of Len's position in the literary world is pretty accurate:
"For many of us, Len Deighton may be a shadowy name at best. His best-sellerdom, though it lasted decades, is now a memory. (His most recent novel was published in 1996.) Yet Deighton is one of the best writers of the second half of the 20th century, being a master of spy fiction as well as a major contributor to the literature of World War II in fictional and nonfictional forms."
Well worth a read.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Competition - win a Top Notch thriller

Author Mike Ripley - who's a keen reader of this blog - has made it his own one-man mission to resuscitate, rescue and re-purpose British thriller books that have gone out of print but which deserve their day in the sun again. His Top Notch Thriller imprint has over the last couple of years republished over fifteen books by British thriller writers.

I've just finished a great little story: Cold War, by David Brierley.

It's set in Paris in 1979 and follows the trail of a young, CIA-trained agent Cody, who's now left the CIA and is living in Paris with her lover. She gets caught up in the fever pitch of the election in France when it appears sinister forces are set up to bring down the Government. Though she is trying to escape the spying game, after a former colleague reveals to her secret information before he is killed, she is forced to track down the real story behind a scientist, Jean-Louis Ladouceur.

From being a by-stander at a shooting, Cody becomes the central player in a spy drama that moves from Paris to Berlin and tests her agents skills to the limits.

It's a good read, which I polished off commenting on the train over one week. Always good too to read stories with female espionage heroines, which in 1979 were still a relatively new phenomenon. Author David Brierley was described then as a new name joining the range of the world's great spy fiction writers.

To celebrate Mike's efforts in promoting British thriller writers, I've agreed to run a little competition for Deighton Dossier readers. The prize: a copy of another Top Notch Thriller - Undertow, by Desmond Cory, the story of Johnny Fedora, a half-Spanish, half-Irish assassin contracted to British Intelligence, who's charged with getting to grips with a KGB plot to uncover secrets from a sunk U-Boat in the Mediterranean (shades of Horse Under Water!). This character made his debut in 1951, two years before the arrival of James Bond.

To win this book, please answer this question (and send your answers to me at deightondossier [AT] me [DOT] com):

What is the name of the film about German U-Boats by Wolfgang Petersen from 1981, which starred Jurgen Prochnow?

Competition closes 12 December. No correspondence will be entered into. Judge's decision is final. One winner from the winning answers will be picked at random. Winner will be notified through email.

Good luck, readers!
________

We have a winner: Matthew Comstock!


Monday, 28 November 2011

Ken Russell, RIP

British film director Ken Russell died over the weekend, after a long illness. He was 84 years old.

Famous for films like Women in Love and the Who's Tommy, he was also the director of the third Harry Palmer movie - Billion-Dollar Brain. Filmed in 1968, the film is not as fondly remembered as The Ipcress File or Funeral In Berlin, but it arguably had much going for it and was certainly visually very appealing.

After two 'conventional' directors in Guy Hamilton and Sidney Furie for the first two movies, producer Harry Saltzmann plumped for someone a little more unconventional for the third movie; but this only his second major feature and one year before Women In Love, which attracted attention for its male nude wrestling scene (one suspects Saltzmann might have thought twice had Russell already made this film and thought: 'Is this my guy?').

The location shooting in Finland is spectacular and arguably it must be difficult to make a duff film in such a beautiful location. It works along at quite a pace and the battle on the ice, as Midwinter's troops race to Latvia, is pretty spectacular and demonstrated the financial oomph the studio was putting behind the Palmer character after the successes of the first two films. Obviously a scholar of film history, the scene on the ice, between the two onrushing armies, is an homage to Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky film of 1938.


The music is excellent, too: the score offers a relentless, harsh mood (like the Baltic weather), with a focus on brass and percussion including three pianos; the score constantly varies the main theme. What it lacks, maybe, is the cockney charm of London or the Cold War vitality of Berlin from the earlier two films.

Friday, 25 November 2011

The reissues (15) - Charity

After nine books (if you exclude Winter), with Charity Len Deighton brought the curtain down on - according to The Times - "one of the great literary achievements of British fiction." Having dealt in the first trilogy with the knowledge that his wife is a defector, only to discover in the second trilogy that Fiona's defection was in fact the greatest infiltration success of London Central and he was the crucial - unwitting - pawn in this most elaborate of espionage chess games, Charity rounds of the Samson story.

Bernard is still working for Frank Harrington in Berlin but increasingly caught up in the machinations of his brother-in-law George Kosinzki who is supporting the growing Catholic church movement in Communist Poland. Samson is increasingly anxious to find the truth about the defection of his wife and the death of her sister during the mission to exfiltrate her. A meeting with a former colleague, Jim Prettyman, reveals that he was responsible for hiring the hit man who killed Tessa, Fiona's sister. What is worse, Bernard realises there is no future for him and girlfriend Gloria, who is now carving a career for herself in London Central and sharing a bed with Bret Rensellaer.

Bret holds an inquiry in to Tessa's murder which uncovers that Silas was solely responsible for Tessa's death, and had gone to great, murderous lengths to keep the operation secret by trying to murder various of Bernard's contacts and friends who'd been forced to become involved. Betrayed by the department that now seeks to repay his loyalty, Bernard asks Fiona and their children to join him in Berlin, his true home.

The new introduction
What's most interesting in this new introduction is that Len explains his "obsession" with Berlin, which I've always maintained is one of the central 'characters' in the books, because the city and its inhabitants is so wonderfully described that the reader totally understand the mixed feelings Bernard has about the city and its people. That sentiment too is understood by Deighton:
"Berlin is like an ever-present character in my Bernard Samson books. It hovers over the action like a storm cloud even when the action moves to a different locale. But Berlin has no speaking part. It is the action and the inter-action that must always dominate stories of the type that I write. Berlin is the backdrop but the people who strut and posture on the stage together create a mood of drama, farce, horror or knockabout horror that must be maintained through all the stories. When I wrote Winter, a story of Berlin the first half of the twentieth century, and the prelude to the Bernard Samson stories, the ghosts danced in my head.
As a historian, Deighton tells the reader that he has had a fascination for all things German for many decades, and displays his grasp of the strategic imperatives which drove the development of Berlin - and Germany - from peasant economy to economic powerhouse in just over a century and a half. Across three pages, Deighton displays his knowledge of Berlin's history to explain its role in the ups - and many downs - of German culture from the Kaiser time right up to the fall of the Wall. Berlin is a city of contradictions - cultural centre drawing in people from all across central Europe, yet one which is dominated by the German army, to the extent that in the nineteenth century revenues from one particular toll gate went straight to the German army. Makes for fascinating reading for anyone interested in understanding the dynamics that have created this most tumultuous of cultures. 

There is an interesting part of the introduction in which Deighton seeks to respond to critics' descriptions of the novels and their classification as spy thriller. Despite his apparent Prophet status in understanding the structure forces that eventually brought down the wall - the Catholic and Lutheran churches - and reflecting them in the heart of his novel, Deighton insists the stories are not political thrillers. They are, Len insists, comedy dramas about love and marriage, of a man with two women in his life.

The new cover
The spine motif - torn up plane tickets spelling out BERNARD SAMSON - is complete with this book, and the total effect when all nine books are place side to side is very pleasing. Arnold Schwartzman explains the front cover image - of Samson's image behind a push-bell directory - is to suggest Samson as the 'third man' of the story, an unreliable narrator; it also suggests the third book, of the third charity. The best image is on the back: a Russian ashtray on which lies a lit cigarette with lipstick, hinting at Fiona's central role in this whole drama.

The quality of thinking that has gone into all nine of the covers of this triple trilogy is immense, and I think that Schwartzman's design deserve consideration alongside Ray Hawkey's original covers for the trilogy.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Well, that's annoying ...

Where are all our postings?
I've just discovered that the Deighton Dossier online forum - established for over two years and with 250 members - has been, well, wiped. Like some secret Stasi file, the contents have gone. It's empty. Barren. Void of opinion.


I had had an email from Forumer, the hosts, saying it was being updated. Some update!


It's damned annoying, that's what it is. The forum had been a great place for readers of the blog and the website to post up their comments on Deighton's books and more widely the Cold War and spy fiction in general. All gone. Not a hint of why. Oof, I'm angry!


But in the spirit of the residents of America's hurricane alley, when you lose something important in a storm, well you just start rebuilding straightaway. And that's what I'll do with the forum. I've reconstituted it on Proboards and you can now access it by clicking on this link.


So, if you've visited it before and made comments, please go back to it and sign up again and start adding new themes, ideas and reactions to the blog and the website.

Update

All back to normal, after Forumer's hiccup losing our forum during their server exchange. Original forum - with original postings - now back up and live online, at the usual address.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The reissues (14) - Hope

(c) Harper Collins
After a gap of a few months (and a delivery of another pack of four review copies) I want to pick up on the coverage and review of the reissues of Len's works by Harper Collins. I'm now at reissue no 14 - Hope - book three of the Faith, Hope and Charity trilogy, the last of the three trilogies charting the betrayal - domestic and political - experienced by world-weary middle-aged spy Bernard Samson.

This story charts Bernard moving closer to solving the mysteries of his wife Fiona's defection - and subsequent triumphant return after being unmasked as London Central's most successful mole in the KGB in Berlin - and the tragic death of her sister in Fiona's exfiltration in the mud of a building site by the side of an autobahn outside East Berlin.

At the start of this novel, the reader finds Bernard and Fiona struggling to get back to how things were pre-defection. This story - less action packed than earlier episodes - is more reflective, and places much of the dialogue and plot around new evidence of the ties that bind the main characters. Deighton in this novel in effect asks the reader: can treachery in a marriage, let alone the spying game, ever be reconciled?

It starts in London. Bernard is confronted with an injured man on his doorstep one evening; the prelude to a series of events that starts to uncover the facts behind Tessa Kosinski’s murder in Berlin and paints the department in an unfavourable light, by revealing, piece by piece, the machinations of old hands Silas Gaunt and Bret Rensselaer - Bernard's boss - so bringing Bernard into conflict with his superiors once again. The injured visitor on his doorstep points to Poland, home of his brother-in-law George Kosinski, so Bernard travels there with his immediate superior Dicky Cruyer to find out exactly what keeps his brother law travelling regularly to Poland. What he finds prompts further soul-searching, as he edges nearer the truth.

The new introduction
When one places the Samson series of within the historical context, they seem particularly prescient, foreshadowing as they did the inner contradictions that led to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall (the series starts in 1984 and continues up to early 1988, just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall). Deighton confirms that in setting out the story - to be written, remember, over nine books over a series of seven years in the end - he was taking a risk:
"My whole Bernard Samson story was based on the belief that the Berlin Wall would fall before the end of the century. There were many times I went to bend convinced that this assumption had been a reckless gamble, and there were many people asking me where the plot was going. Sometimes I thought I heard a measure of Schadenfreude. More than one expert advised me to forget the Wall, tear my plan down and radically change its direction. I didn't yield to my fears. I stuck to my lonely task and to the original scenario and was eventually vindicated."
Some readers do sometimes point out that the last three novels of the series are the three least strongest, perhaps because the story was in the end overtaken by events; Hope appeared in 1995, six years after the Wall fell. With the main character (arguably) in the Samson series now gone - the Wall itself - the tension built into the story was, perhaps, lost through the march of history itself.

Nevertheless, Deighton was correct to alight on Poland as the likely wick which, once lit, would explode and undermine the Soviet rule of Eastern Europe from within. The election of a Pole Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II was, Deighton writes, one of the first sustained challenges to Communist rule and an opposition supported  by the US with additional funding from the thousands of Polish emigres with family behind the iron curtain. In giving primary to George Kosinski in the novel, Deighton wanted to highlight the tension under which the Poles lived: should they simply put up with their Eastern neighbour, whose tanks were parked just across the border in Belarus, ready to invade, or look west and seek the support of the western nations (to whom Poland was heavily indebted).

Of course, as the reader has encountered over the last few books, Fiona Samson's undercover work in Eastern Germany was also aimed at providing financial and practical support to religious groups as the source of internal pressure in that country which would finally crack the fragile constructed edifice that was the 'second' Germany. Only in this case, it was the Lutheran church rather than the Catholic.

The year of the story (1987) is one in which tumultuous background events - close to home and on the world stage - suggested a coming storm (literally, in the case of the great hurricane in the UK) and a shifting of the foundations on which Cold War uncertainties were faced. Behind the Iron Curtain, pressure was building as the economy stagnated and the communist regimes could offer their people little respite.

As Deighton writes, with a devastating collapse of the world's financial markets and President Gorbachev meeting Pope John Paul in the same year, the tides of history were pointing to something. For Bernard Samson, it also suggests that his quest for the truth is coming to a conclusion and that he is edging closer to the dark secrets on which the UK's efforts to undermine the communist regimes of Berlin and Warsaw were based. Hope sees a tougher, more hard-bitten Samson than the desk-bound agent first met in Berlin Game, Deighton comments, but he is still a character which the reader trusts and wills redemption for.

The new cover design

Arnold Schwartzman here chooses to portray Bernard Samson looking through a pub window, emphasising - with the window from a pub - that Bernard is in the 'last chance saloon'. It's a lovely idea, although I'm not sure if the cover image is just a little too busy and evidently a PhotoShop amalgam that, for me, doesn't quite work. On the back cover he places a model of Tower Bridge across an old map of Berlin, drawing an analogy between the Thames and the Wall, both in some senses dividing two great cities. It is also a metaphor for the placing of something quintessentially English behind the Wall - Fiona.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Shelf life ....

On the shelf
A visit to my local Waterstones recently: Harper Collins' reissues of Len's books. All good.

Monday, 14 November 2011

In the trenches of public opinion ...

Very interesting article on the BBC website today concerning Oh! What a Lovely War, the Joan Littlewood stage show about the First World War which, according to the article led to a major change in the public's attitude towards the great war. Former BBC radio producer Charles Chilton wrote the original treatment which, when picked up by theatre producer Joan Littlewood and put on at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, it was a major cultural event:
"Littlewood gave the show a new political bite, as befitted a nation growing tired of deference. The family of Field Marshal Douglas Haig wanted to stop the show reaching the West End, claiming the portrayal of him was a crude caricature."
Of course, Oh! What a Lovely War was subsequently produced by Len Deighton in 1969 (he also wrote the script). Richard Attenborough starred in the movie which - with its cast comprising the creme de la creme - presented a coruscating view of the "donkeys" who led the British "lions" in such catastrophes as Verdun and Paschendaele.

Interestingly, however, the article fails to reference Deighton's connection to this movie.

Friday, 11 November 2011

War in real time ....

Len Deighton's Bomber is being broadcast this afternoon on BBC Radio 4 Extra, in real time, according to the BBC's Blog, to mark Armistice Day, today.

For those of you not familiar with this work, it's significant because Bomber covers 24 hours in the life of a crew of a Lancaster bomber involved in a failed raid over Germany. The key to the original radio version by the BBC is that when broadcast, in the 1990s, it was done so in real time - i.e. in sections across 24 hours - so that when time references were made in the play by the characters, they corresponded to real life!

The tension, according to the writer of the Radio 4 Extra blog, is real!

Check out the link here for more information.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Tracking down Bernard Samson ....

On my last trip to Berlin one of the things I did was to spend a little time tracking down and photographing the locations of some of the key places which feature in the Bernard Samson series of ten books. Any fans of the series who are going to Berlin at any time can use this map as a reference.

However, it's not complete. There's an open invitation to blog readers to add to this map any key locations that I might have missed (particularly from the last two trilogies).


View Bernard Samson's Berlin - Len Deighton's Berlin in a larger map

Monday, 7 November 2011

Of spies and science fiction ...

A Neuromancer, hard at work
William Gibson, creator of some of the greatest modern science fiction stories and characters, is something of a spy fiction fan, according to a recent interview in the Paris Review magazine reveals which I've been made aware of through links elsewhere.

The critically acclaimed writer of such books as Neuromancer and The Difference Engine has apparently taken inspiration from Len Deighton and John Le Carré in his works, taken by their creation of different versions of the "anti-Bond". I'm sure the Paris Review won't mind me quoting a snippet from the interview to illustrate:

"When science fiction finally got literary naturalism, it got it via the noir detective novel, which is an often decadent offspring of nineteenth-century naturalism. Noir is one of the places that the investigative, analytic, literary impulse went in America. The Goncourt brothers set out to investigate sex and money and power, and many years later, in America, you wind up with Chandler doing something very similar, though highly stylized and with a very different agenda. I always had a feeling that Chandler’s puritanism got in the way, and I was never quite as taken with the language as true Chandler fans seem to be. I distrusted Marlow as a narrator. He wasn’t someone I wanted to meet, and I didn’t find him sympathetic—in large part because Chandler, whom I didn’t trust either, evidently did find him sympathetic.
But I trusted Dashiell Hammett. It felt to me that Hammett was Chandler’s ancestor, even though they were really contemporaries. Chandler civilized it, but Hammett invented it. With Hammett I felt that the author was open to the world in a way Chandler never seems to me to be.
But I don’t think that writers are very reliable witnesses when it comes to influences, because if one of your sources seems woefully unhip you are not going to cite it. When I was just starting out people would say, Well, who are your influences? And I would say, William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, Thomas Pynchon. Those are true, to some extent, but I would never have said Len Deighton, and I suspect I actually learned more for my basic craft reading Deighton’s early spy novels than I did from Burroughs or Ballard or Pynchon.
I don’t know if it was Deighton or John le Carré who, when someone asked them about Ian Fleming, said, I love him, I have been living on his reverse market for years. I was really interested in that idea. Here’s Fleming, with this classist, late–British Empire pulp fantasy about a guy who wears fancy clothes and beats the shit out of bad guys who generally aren’t white, while driving expensive, fast cars, and he’s a spy, supposedly, and this is selling like hotcakes. Deighton and Le Carré come along and completely reverse it, in their different ways, and get a really powerful charge out of not offering James Bond. You’ve got Harry Palmer and George Smiley, neither of whom are James Bond, and people are willing to pay good money for them not to be James Bond."



Sunday, 16 October 2011

Relax in your favourite armchair and read a Romantic story ...

Is Harry Palmer a Romantic hero? A Romantic with a capital 'R', a part of the literary tradition of Rousseau and Wordsworth?

Well, that wasn't my first reaction when reading the novels, but it was what Fred Erisman read into his reading of Deighton's first six novels. And he shared this idea with other fans in the April 1977 edition of Armchair Detective.
Life before the Internet was an innocent age

I'd never seen a copy of this American magazine, but I made a serendipitous find on, where else, eBay! The Armchair Detective was a quarterly journal devoted to the appreciation of mystery, detective and suspense fiction. I write 'was', as it's now longer a going concern, having grown from simple fanzine produced on a mimeograph (Ed - there's one for the teenagers!) to a quarterly journal matching in quality the output of many of the more established literary papers. And then, sadly, gone. The reviews are scholarly, intensely researched and backed up by references (as this article is) and often - as in the case of the front cover - innovative in design.

Now, of course, fans of any genre of fiction or the arts are connected by the Internet, and everyone's a critic and a reviewer - we're spoilt for choice. This blog for example is a true antecedent of the cut-and-paste efforts of yesteryear and supports the tradition in the digital age.

Back to the article. Erisman's initial thesis approaching Deighton's novels is interesting: the spy as 'romantic', linked to the ideal of Romantic thought derived from Rousseau and Wordsworth. His thoughts are personal, intellectual, and he displays emotional individualism. He acts from personal principle rather than from expediency.

The first six novels, Erisman writes: "convey a sense of the aimless intricacy of an intrigue-ridden society, pervaded by obscurity and betryal." Within this world, the unnamed spy (Palmer) is, he says, "Deighton's answer to the problems posed to the individual by contemporary life." This is a spy seeking personal satisfaction and freedom, while doing his job; he is dissatisfied with the world. Palmer, Erisman guesses, is "a Thoureauvian questing after inward reality in a twentieth-century setting." That's a deep analysis one rarely sees in connection with Deighton's novels. The writer goes on to critically deconstruct Deighton's texts, looking at notions of friendship, love and deception within the novels and for the most part, what he presents are ways of viewing the characters that I for one hadn't considered before.

He quotes a lovely perspective by another critic, James D'Anna on how the character epitomised the moral duplicity and uncertainty at the heart of the Cold War: 
"the dominant colour of the Cold War is neither black nor white, but grey ... the issues in the East-West conflict are as blurred as a defective television tube."
Overall, this review provides something new by placing Deighton's hero within the pantheon of Romantic heros. One wonder if that was what Len had at the back of his mind when he developed the character?

Update

The cover design was at first a puzzle for me as I wrote on this blog. As eagle-eyed readers have commented - and thanks for their input - the car is a Jensen, and therefore it's clearly a reference to a line by Harvey Newbegin, 'Harry Palmer's' old spy pal in Billion-Dollar Brain, on the day the former met the latter:
'The first time I ever saw him was in Frankfurt. He was sitting in a new white Jensen sports car covered in mud, with a sensational blond, sensational. He was wearing very old clothes, smoking a Gauloises cigarette and listening to Beethoven on the car radio and I thought, "Oh boy, just how many ways can you be a snob simultaneously".'
I didn't spot it, as it's been a while since I've read Billion-Dollar Brain all the way through, and the image didn't look much like Frankfurt, but that clearly seems to be the reference and I should have spotted it. My bad! Well done to the blog readers who pointed out my error 

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Old-school cuisine ... at a pinch!

(c) Teri Pengilley
Instant whip was always a handful to whisk and you never got it completely smooth, a residue of sickly powder laying at the bottom of the dish. Such was the state of cooking in the sixties.

The Independent's Gerard Gilbert cites this out-of-a-packet pudding as one of the great milestones of cooking in the sixties. Is Instant Whip the nadir of home-spun cooking or the start of the foodie revolution which transformed Britons' eating habits and led us directly to Jamie Oliver and Ready Steady Cook? Gilbert talks to Valentine Warner, the star of a new TV series Eat the Sixties, to answer that very question.

Warner turns to one of the great cookbooks of the sixties to argue that Britain's palate was changing for the better, and Chicken Kievs and Smash instant potato were merely the culinary foothills of a long slog up Mount Cuisine:
'Valentine Warner is knocking on my front door with the ingredients for chicken kiev and prawn and avocado cocktail, as well as a copy of Len Deighton's Action Cook Book. The spy novelist who gave us Harry Palmer was also an enthusiastic chef who wrote a newspaper recipe column throughout the Sixties. "This is actually a really good little cookbook," says Warner, showing me the cover of a man ladling spaghetti from a saucepan as a girlfriend encouragingly tousles his hair from behind (this is the 2008 reprint – knowingly sexist). "There were more men left to their own devices to get on with it... the bachelor in the kitchen."'
Great nostalgic stirrings reading this article. As a child, Instant Whip was a super treat, for which a whisk a procured and much furious beating and stirring later I was eating the sickliest, treacliest .... tastiest pudding around.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

In the lair of the Wolf - understanding the Stasi's top spymaster

When you're a spy, how do you measure success? In the case of Markus Wolf, the chief of the East German foreign intelligence service the HVA - Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung - he can look back during a 40-year career with the Stasi at the successful deep penetration of West Germany's intelligence and political structures, and the creation of an overseas agent network that was highly regarded/feared by both sides of the Cold War, and think: job well done.

And yet, like a uniformed King Cnut, ultimately his professionalism and skill was unable as part of the East German political and security leadership to hold back the tide of contradictions in a system that - ultimately - failed economically, politically and morally. How he addresses these twin tracks of professional pride and political failure make the autobiography I've just completed a fascinating read. That, following retirement, he became a Gorbachev follower and in 1989 ended up speaking - now as a writer - to one of the dissident protest forum's that sprang up in that year, is just one of many surprising facts in this book.

Man without a face provides a useful counterpoint to any conventional western understanding of the thrust and parry of Cold War espionage. Wolf comes across as immensely proud of what he achieved, the professional standards he introduced, the innovations his team developed - in particular, the use of Romeo agents to hook unsuspecting West German women into sharing intelligence - and the society which he was defending.

And yet, throughout the book, he expresses significant doubts: about the realities of the comradely relationship with the KGB, about the lives of agents sacrificed to achieve the bigger goal of defending the GDR, and the realities of defending the indefensible when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the Stasi files, the reality of East German was exposed for all Germans to see. It is, in its way, a wonderfully expressive defence of the personal over the political.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

A film, you say? Heralding a return to the public consciousness of the spy novel? That's popular? Creating myriad articles in international media? One of Le Carré's novels? No, sorry, haven't heard anything

With Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy now out in the cinema - and I look forward to seeing it very soon - the slew of positive media coverage of the film, and more broadly the spy novel genre continues apace.

UK media reviews so far have been generous to a fault: The Guardian (five stars), The Daily Telegraph, (five stars), The Times (also five stars), the Daily Mail (a-ha, only four stars!), the Daily Express (ooh, only 3 out of a possible 5), The Sun (back to 4 out of 5) .... they all pretty much love it. And journalists are loving the chance to explore a genre that one might had thought had, Bond apart, slipped from the media's and indeed the popular consciousness. Cue some cliché heavy, but entertaining writing about "the spying game".

William Boyd in The Guardian gives us an A-Z of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; his colleague Agnes Poirier meanwhile looks at the film from the point of view of the UK's national psyche. In The Telegraph, meanwhile, Marie-Claire Chappet gives us her 'inside guide' to the skills and codes of 'spy craft'; in the same paper, Josie Ensor goes for a baser approach to the film, asking if Oldman is sexier than Guinness. One suspects this matters little to about ninety percent of the people going to this film!

In The Times, Ed Potton describes this film as "the ultimate British espionage thriller" (subscription website). Now, that's some boast up against adaptations of Greene, Deighton, Fleming and others. But, he writes, "everyone's talking about this film". Mary Bowers in the same paper reports on John Le Carré's public endorsement of the film through his appearance at the BFI at the premiere earlier this week.

Blog reader Morgan Davies spotted a great article in the Irish Independent which gives a pretty thorough run-down of the great British spy thrillers, right from Greta Garbo in Mata Hari to the present day. Deighton's Harry Palmer was, the writer says, "clever, but he never really had a handle on what was going on in the unending chess match between east and west." And that's the same for many thrilling cold war literary heroes.

All good stuff, and great to see British writers, and British film-making (with a clear Swedish tinge!) grabbing the headlines. Oscar a-hoy, no doubt!

Readers of this blog are welcome to add links to any other interesting reviews and particularly features in the UK and international media, and share their thoughts about the movie.


Saturday, 10 September 2011

More Le Carré carry-on in the Telegraph

A very interesting article in today's Daily Telegraph by Toby Clements, who seeks the source of the current upsurge in interest in John Le Carré.

Entitled 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A love letter to John Le Carré', Clements aims to establish what it is that makes John Le Carré's stories fresh and accessible to a modern audience, through the new film starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley.

Clements alights on ambiguity as the secret to this sustained time on the literary stage, with no signs yet as the author approaches eighties of slipping off into the wings. The ambiguity is in the characters - Smiley is anything but the obvious spy, for example: cuckolded, respectful to some extent of his opposite number, his morality is not clear cut, nor are his relationships with the people and the operation of the Circus.

The ambiguity is also in Le Carré as an author, and in his writing, where Clements writes that he challenges the reader to treat the prose rather like a case officer: what's important, what's between the lines, what is noteworthy? The author's own background, and the blurring of his career as a spook with his life writing about them, also adds to this feeling of the "morally ambigious" in all his works.

His last comment is noteworthy: "Len Deighton and Alistair MacLean can only be read ironically". Hidebound by history, he suggests, these authors are no longer 'relevant' in a way that Le Carré is, and offer the reader only curiosity. The modern audience cannot effectively tune in, and reads them only to remember nostalgically how things were. His suggestion that modern audiences are drawn to the drab greys and shabbiness of seventies London in the film is telling.

But then, applying this criteria to other historical and spy fiction novelists - Fleming, Ambler, Greene - that gap between the then and the now is always going to be widened year on year as the world moves on. But if the story, the characters and the plots have real value and sustainability, they can survive the march of history. 

And of course, this upsurge in discussion about Le Carré is driven by the inexorable push of the media marketing machine that is Hollywood. Were Tarantino to make good on his promise to film Game, Set and Match; or Ridley Scott, perhaps, to update the Thirty-Nine Steps, then we might see similar media debate about Deighton and Buchan.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Smiley culture

It's official. The world has had enough of the war on terror and the war in Libya: everyone's nostalgic for the Cold War. Well, judging by the ubiquity of George Smiley and the new film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in the media and online, the Cold War is back, back, back. It's like it's never gone. This most famous of Cold War spy thrillers is even being referred to on the comment pages of our national newspapers, a sure sign that a cultural phenomenon is emerging.

Gary Oldman's portrayal of the taciturn and morally ambiguous spy-hunter is everywhere this week as reviewers return from the screening sessions for the new movie and file their copy. And they're in universal agreement: the film's a cracker. Numerous reviews all point to Oldman's George Smiley as worthy of an Oscar. Derek Malcolm in the Evening Standard highlights Oldman's portrayal as more "introspective and less knowable" than Guinness' version; Time Out's Dave Calhoun's picks out the film's seventies verisimilitude; The Guardian's Xan Brooks talks of a director - Tomas Alfredson - who's more fascinated with the detail than the denouement, the journey rather than the destination; the Daily Telegraph's David Gritten writes that the film is simply a "triumph".

Consequently, lips are being licked by every spy fiction fan across the globe. Pub bores will also soon start regaling those who'll listen with their opinion that "it won't be as good as Alec Guiness's version". Judging from the new trailers, pub bores up and down the land will have to be buying a few pints by way of apology It looks very, very good.


What comes across from the trailers and the reviews is the pace. Or lack thereof. This is a slow - apparently, at times, slightly ponderous movie. It is the antithesis of the fast-paced, whizz bang crash of the 007 and Bourne spy movies which, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, have largely been Hollywood's staple of this genre. Here is a film which, in the way it apparently winds up the tension and the uncertainty, successfully mirrors the book it portrays.

All the reviews refer to Guinness and the seminal BBC TV series; I've yet to find a review that doesn't. This begs the question can a film maker really ever escape the artistic visions of those who've trodden a familiar path before, particularly when many feel the mould should have been broken after the first pot? The verdict seems to be yes.

That's perhaps surprising because the movie industry - particularly Hollywood - has a long-track record in getting re-makes of much-loved British film and TV spectacularly wrong: Sylvester Stallone in Get Carter. No further questions, m'lud! Having a Swedish director, perhaps, seems to be the key; Tomas Alfredson is schooled in the European school of pathos, character, drama and subtlety.

So. A much-loved British spy novel from a generation ago, with an instantly identifiable central character, previously filmed, and seared into our collective cultural memory, emerges onto the global stage in a remake.

I've no doubt that given the expected success of TTSP - with Oscar's already being polished, judging by all the online and offline comment - in some Hollywood office a producer is already asking the question: "what about The Ipcress File, huh?"

What about it, indeed. One word: unthinkable.

However, might that same cigar-smoking producer (one always assumes producers smoke, somehow) not also conceivably ask the question ..... "what about Game, Set and Match?"

Now that's a different question!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Desert island discovery

Through regular blog correspondent Bryan Graham, I've uncovered the list of tunes chosen by Len Deighton for his appearance on Desert Island Discs in 1976.

For anyone who doesn't know, this is a BBC Radio 4 series which has been running since the war, in which famous individuals are invited to select eight records which they would like to have with them, were they stranded on this mythical desert island, along with a luxury item and a book.

Len appeared on 19 June 1976. His choices were these:
  • Ludwig van Beethoven, Für Elise, Soloist: John Ogdon
  • Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars, Stars Fell On Alabama
  • Johnny Cash, There ain't no easy run
  • Gwendoline Brogden, I'll make a man out of you
  • Maurice Ravel, La Valse, Orchestra: Swiss Romande Orchestra
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Concerto No 11 in F, London Symphony Orchestra
  • Neil Diamond, Crackling Rosie
  • Gustav Mahler, Ich hab' ein glühender Messe (from Lieber eines fahrenden Gesellen), Halle Orchestra.
The latter piece Len picked as his favourite tune. His favourite book was The Art of Modern French Cooking - perhaps not surprising, as in his early twenties in Paris Len spent time in some of the great Parisian kitchens learning from top chefs. And his luxury was a photo darkroom, reflecting his early career as an RAF photographer and his long-standing interest in photography.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Just Len...

Bang! Bang!
I have eagle-eyed reader of this blog Bryan Graham to thank for spotting this article on The Guardian's website. Len Deighton is one of 16 thriller and crime writers asked by the paper to pick their own favourite writers. The article appeared last month as crime writers gathered in Harrogate for the annual Crime Writing Festival.

Len's pick is Richmal Crompton, author of the Just William books. He cites young William Brown's undaunted opposition to authority - be it the school teacher or the village policeman - is one of the characteristics of Richmal Crompton's schoolboy character that entranced him and other readers. He sees the evidence of Crompton's writing in other characters:
"It is William's spirit of upbeat anarchy that distinguishes so many British crime stories from their tough-guy American counterparts. His pronouncements are social, political and philosophical but his adventures are catastrophic. William does not recognise catastrophe. Britain's wartime slogan "Keep calm and carry on" might have been his motto. Is William English, rather than British? I think so. Is he a male chauvinist pig? Undoubtedly. Did Richmal Crompton know what she was doing? Perhaps not: but what writer does?"
Also asked to pick their favourite writers as such crime and thriller writing luminaries as Lee Child, Frederick Forsyth, Nicci French and PD James.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Concrete wall, iron curtain - Berliner Mauer, 50 years on

It would get bigger.
Fifty years ago, as Deighton writes in Berlin Game, the first people to know anything was wrong were the cab drivers of Berlin, who were unusually being stopped and searched when they crossed the boundaries between the allied zones and the Soviet zone, something that on every other night would be routine.

The uneasy existence of the four-power control of occupied Berlin was to become even more so with what followed. Over the next four nights, as barbed wire and breeze block fell across what were once busy streets, brother was separated from sister, grandmother from grandchild, friend from friend. There was little East Berliners could do but watch or, in rare cases, make a last bid for freedom.

The building of the Berlin Wall – which began not with an iron but rather a steel barbed wire curtain - ‘Stacheldraht’ in German – stretched across roads, parks, through buildings, even crossing rivers. The pompously named ‘anti-fascist protection rampart’ would not come to look like the Wall we all remember until the concrete version was put up in 1965, and improved in design in 1975.

It's completion and subsequent operation - it was, in effect, a 161 km long machine of torture and repression which required constant manning and maintenance - kicked off a deep freeze in the Cold War.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Holy Trinity

It's almost Stasi-like, the way Amazon.com watches my buying habits and knows what I like. I shouldn't listen to it, but it frequently - too frequently, judging by the amount of times I read its name on my bank statement - knows what I'll like to read.

Take Charles Cumming's The Trinity Six. This was recommended to me on Amazon and I took a punt and purchased it. I'm glad I did. This is a thriller that ties together old-school Cold War skulduggery and a modern-day conspiracy trope in a tense drama with many levels which, chapter by chapter, illuminates a twisting plot which delivers handsomely.

The plot centres around the discovery of the identity of the possible Sixth Man linked to the Cambridge Spy ring by Dr Sam Gaddis, Russian expert and biographer of the current Russian leader who sounds, and appears, libellously like Vladimir Putin. Gaddis is an academic, not a spy - think AC Grayling with a gun - and when given box after box of files with a 'story' in them by a journalist friend, who subsequently mysteriously dies, Gaddis slips out of academic mode and becomes a hunter of some very deeply buried secrets. The plot is as thick as a well-stirred béchamel sauce, as a conspiracy is uncovered which binds MI:6 and the Kremlin together in an unholy - and murderous - embrace.

The books reads easily, the dialogue is realistic and the descriptions and the procedure suitably authentic to give the reader the impression that they're at the heart of something big. It is written cleverly enough that when new plot lines are revealed, more are added so that you never know exactly what's been going on until the last few chapters.

It's positive that the novel has three strong female characters who rightly reflect the modern world of espionage and counter-intelligence - Tanya Acocella is the young agent who's given a task by C that she thinks is the path to fast career progression but instead - as she finds out how she's being hoodwinked - is a fast track to the murderous heart of British intelligence and the risk of being killed by President Platov's merciless agents. She is written with a lot of vim and vigour, Cumming cleverly plotting a slow realisation of the truth over the story that sees her move from watcher to partner of Gaddis, keeping him alive long enough to bring the truth to bear.

I like Cummings' style, and this was a worthwhile read, keeping me entertained on every chapter. At no stage did I contemplate not finishing the book; each chapter asked enough new questions to make me skip right on. His inside knowledge of British security services is obvious - he was recruited by MI:6, working for them for a year before turning to writing.

On the back of the hardback edition, the praise for Charles Cumming includes the following:

"The best of a new generation of British spy writers taking over where Le Carré and Deighton left off."

I wouldn't disagree. An enjoyable book and, at only £12 for the hardback edition by Harper Collins, good value for money in these austere times.

The only downside? The cover. Ach! Readers of Private Eye will know that the magazine is great at pointing out the lack of creativity in book covers these days, with publishing houses spotting a trend ..... and flogging it to death. This book is added to that little list of dishonour. A mournful, shadowy figure walking away into the middle distance makes its appearance on the cover of this novel, just like many other thriller novels. It's supposed, you know, to illustrate the life of the spy, always alone, on the run, being watched, having to ... ah, you know the rest. Subtle, it ain't.

Where are the Ray Hawkey's in publishing nowadays? You despair, sometimes.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

The reissues (13) - Faith

Faith reissue with new cover
by Arnold Schwartzman
The Harper Collins Deighton reissue production line remains in full flow. With Faith, Hope and Charity, along with Close-Up recently appearing on bookshelves, the reissues - complete with new introduction and new cover designs - now number twenty.

Faith is number seven in the Bernard Samson triple trilogy. The reader starts the novel having already absorbed a huge number of stories, events, twists and surprises over the previous six parts: Fiona's betrayal, Bernard's struggle over his two loves, the crisis of confidence within London Central, Werner's hidden past and Dicky Cruyer's career overtaking Bernard (he's now acting Director of Operations when the novel starts).

Bernard is still seeking the truth and is in Magdeburg - grimy, run-down, bleak, utterly East German. He's after Verdi, a KGB defector who has promised him access to the KGB mainframe and information about the death of Fiona's sister Tessa. Fiona, now working for Dicky, is as determined as Bernard is to find the truth. Others in London, evidently, are not.

Dealing with the stress of managing the Verdi operation, the reader finds Bernard also having to grapple with the repercussions of a mixed-up career and home life; and Bret's back and evidently back to seize control of the steering wheel, with support from Gloria. The Verdi mission ultimately fails, and the truth about Tessa's death is nearer the surface, but still waiting to be solved. Bernard must keep digging and have faith he'll find the truth.

The new introduction
Much of this story is set in East Germany and in his introduction Deighton explains that his knowledge of Germany and his extensive list of contacts and friends - 'German history has always obsessed me' - has allowed him to weave authenticity into every paragraph of the novel. So, a throw-away line in the novel, that Adolf Hitler's remains were kept by the KGB in Magdeburg, is a product of a lot of research into evidence from Soviet files indicating that after the Soviet secret police discovered them in the ruins of the Reich Chancellory, they were taken first to Magdeburg, then on to Moscow. Deighton's research, he says, confirms they are still there, 'like the revered body fragments of an ancient saint.' He recounts too that much of his findings from hours spent in Germany talking to people and checking officials didn't appear in the novel. Scope for a fourth trilogy, one day, perhaps?

From this new introduction the reader picks up not just the care and attention paid to the hugely complex story lines, but Deighton's genuine affection for the characters which - over ten books - have had more time to grow and evolve than most characters in a novel. Bernard, Fiona, Tessa, Dicky et al lie at the heart of the novels, Deighton reveals, and they have left a lasting impression:
"Writing ten books about the same small group of people is a strange and demanding task. I am a slow worker, and I don't take regular vacations or set work aside for prolonged periods. Ten books meant about fifteen years, during which these people, their hopes and fears and loves and betrayals were constantly whirring about in my brain. They disturbed my sleep and invaded my dreams in a way I did not enjoy.... Unlike the content of my other books, Bernard Samson and his circle became imprinted on my mind and remain there today."
That certainly came across when I chatted with Len earlier this year. These characters live with him; in a way, he knows them as well as any spouse, lover or therapist would do and consequently, the actions and words of each are so honed and utterly believable. Deighton told me that dialogue is crucial in his novels and he's always sought to present and use it with authenticity.

The new cover design
The spine motif - Bernard Samson's name spelled out in torn strips of airline baggage tags - is now almost complete with Faith and on the bookshelf it creates a great effect, meaning the reader wants to display these books together; he or she wants to revel in the sheer bulk and width of the story he or she has enjoyed up to this point.

The lace curtain on the front cover is, Arnold Schwartzman notes, an obvious but subtle metaphor for the Berlin Wall - or anti-fascist protection rampart (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall)  as it was more formerly known. But the way Samson is portrayed behind it is unusual, but has a purpose:
"I discovered that by placing a larger-than-life photograph of Samson in the window it created a rather surreal effect. Rather like Kong peering in at an unsuspecting Fay Wray, Bernard looms behind the curtain, an unwilling outside ostracised from domestic comfort."
I also really like the motif on the back cover: a traditional paper cut heart (Wycinanki in Polish) torn asunder by a KGB badge, representing very clearly the impact that Stinnes and indeed London Central has had on the relationship at the very heart of this story. It's a lovely touch and like all the new covers in this series, portrays the  complexity of the story - labyrinthine even, at this stage - through the every-day in some stunning visual images against a clear white background (again, the link back to the pioneering white covers of the 'Palmer' novels of the sixties).

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Room for one more?...

It's difficult to disagree with The Independent's choice of the top 10 spy novels: Riddle of the Sands, Thirty-Nine Steps, Spy Who Came in from the Cold. All good. No filler.

But. No Ipcress? Berlin Game? Funeral?  Ah well.

Where's the blu-tack again?.....

.... is the frequent call in houses around the world when someone has a new poster. And, invariably, it's right at the back of the kitchen draw along with balls of string, dead batteries, scissors, pegs (singular), and other detritus.

Why might you need blu-tack? Well, to put up this handsome poster of Jane Fonda as sixties space starlet Barbarella, before the whole Viet-Cong thing and the inevitable slide into actually very lucrative fitness video and a marriage to the equally lucrative Ted Turner.

This is the gift on offer in a competition by Jason Whiton of the ever-excellent Spy Vibe website, which is part of the COBRAS collective. This sounds like an anarchist theatre group but is in fact the online grouping of a great bunch of websites devoted to all themes spy, and related cultural themes and memes.

What's the task? Send an email. Simple as that. The (very, very short) instructions are on the website, so do check it out. If the prospect of winning a cool sixties poster isn't enough, you can read about all manner of things: the Man from U.N.C.L.E., the Persuaders, Mrs Peel in Underwear, Mission Impossible.

So, get on over to ..... WHAAAT? Mrs Peel in Underwear? [click]

Friday, 8 July 2011

Soho Spaghetti

I was a little late on this one, but last week saw the death of Mario Cassandro, London restaurateur and arguably a man who changed the British palate with his authentic Italian trattoria in Soho, Terrazzo.

For the first time in sixties London, he served authentic pasta, in an informal atmosphere, and made it popular. In a London still used to rationing and Brown Windsor soup, he couldn't really fail.

Alastair Scott Sutherland wrote about his impact in the excellent book The Spaghetti Tree, to which Len Deighton wrote the forward. It recounts how Cassandro literally changed everything about eating out: mood, menu, waiting, dress code, wine.

In the sixties it was the place to be seen - a social nexus. Len Deighton and David Bailey were early patrons. Deighton wrote portions of his first book here, and was introduced to his great friend Michael Caine here too.

And famously, Deighton referenced it in The Ipcress File, giving the restaurant a great bit of PR:

"In London with a beautiful girl, one must show her to Mario at la Terrazza," says our unnamed hero!

Listen to it while you can on Radio 4's The Last Word obituary programme.

The Telegraph also carries a nice obituary. as does The Guardian.

A pocket full of spy....

Is it possible to have such a thing as negative innovation? Retro-creativity? Backward-looking foresight?

In publishing, perhaps so. The future - if you read the pages of the major newspapers and online sources - is electronic. It's 'e'. e-Books. e-Readers. e-Novels.

The days of the book, you might think, are numbered. The paperback is headed in a few years for the great bookshelf in the sky. The irrational turn-on one finds in opening a brand new hardback book is a fleeting pleasure to be enjoyed while you can and soon lost to the biblophile. In the brave new world of literature, there's no sifting through the first few pages, the swish of the paper and the smell of the just-off-the-presses text hinting at the reading pleasure ahead. Just text. Efficient, clean, text, just there. Ready.

At the touch of a button. Bing - there you are. New novel. Exactly like all the other new e-novels. A great story ... but, somehow, not the same. The traditional book - spine, cover, pages, turned over corner, is on the canvass. Bloodied.

Ah, now, look....see, the book's put in a parry. It's fighting back, getting in a punch or two, thanks to a great little innovation which, while it may not hold the electronic hordes at bay, might take a few of the e-book sluggers down in a brave - but perhaps foolish - rearguard action against the ropes.

What do I mean? Flip back books. I stumbled across them in my local bookshop, the name front of mind thanks to a great radio marketing campaign. And what a pleasure! All the sensation of a real book, but with half the fat, metaphorically speaking.

A simple innovation of printing a novel with the pages turned bottom to top, rather than the traditional right to left, and the pages made of super-thin paper, allows the book to be truly pocked sized - and smaller than an e-reader, I might add - but retaining all the tactile sensations of a traditional tome.

I picked up le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in this format, not having read it for many years. The flip back book makes the story of George Smiley tracking down the activities of 'Gerald' and 'Lapin' in creating merry havoc in the Circus a real reading pleasure. It's easy to hold one-handed - great format for packed commuter trains, where one free arm's the best you can hope for - and the pages can be turned with the merest push from your thumb, as thin and delicate as a layer of a mille-feuille pastry.

In the book market, anything that provides competition and user choice is welcome, and this new format - sure, a little pricey - adds something new and I take my hat off to the people at Sceptre for taking a leap of faith.

I await with interest news of other thriller writers coming out in this format!

Thursday, 30 June 2011

By George .... they've only gone and done it.

Different actor, same spy

Produce a re-make of a much-loved TV series that is, which, by the looks of it, doesn't make you want to throw away your Kia-Ora and hunker down in front of the small screen. 

Courtesy of the Guardian's website, I've been watching the trailer for the new re-imagining of Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley.

It's both instantly recognisable, and somewhat different, with the cream of the crop of English actors and a cinematic quality not evident from the excellent BBC mini series. The best bit? The music - monotonous, compelling, hinting at danger, providing the right tone for what looks like a faithful re-imagining.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Well, that's the holiday reading sorted ....

Thanks to the good folks of the Harper Collins publicity department, I have received in the post the latest paperback reissues of Len Deighton's books: Close-Up, and the last trilogy of the Samson triple trilogy: Faith, Hope and Charity.

The new introductions by Len are very, very interesting .......

Monday, 20 June 2011

Quick news roundup: palmer, putin, pictures

When not watching Ipcress File, he shoots tigers
Having fifteen minutes to spare for a trawl through the alphabet soup that is the Internet brings up interesting snippets of Deighton and spy-related news from time to time. Today is no exception. Here's a disparate a bunch of items:

First up, according to Michael Caine, the KGB used to learn a thing or two from the silver screen. Across a number of news media is a report from his interview with entertainment newswire WENN (I can't find the original) in which he says a Russian friend tells him Vladimir Putin and colleagues in the KGB used to enjoy the Harry Palmer films! Wonder what tips they picked up? It would be fun to think of trainee spies in the Lubyanka learning how to make a two-egg omelette!

Secondly, a song featuring Harry Palmer and the Berlin Wall has been voted 2 in the top 10 list of Canadian Synth Pop tracks. My favourite was outside the top ten, sadly.

Finally, there's a new book out showing many of the once-though-lost pictures of Brian Duffy, London photographer and co-producer with Deighton of Oh! What a Lovely War. Duffy was an art school contemporary of Deighton's.

Update: a longer article on Caine, drawn from the same newswire source, can be found on the website of the Toronto Sun.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

All in the detail - Gordon Crabb's covers for Len Deighton

I recently received from Len Deighton a short email containing nine pictures of artwork. More precisely, original cover artworks by artist Gordon Crabb from the 1980s reissues of his works by the Arrow publishing house. And it raised an interesting question: does having an image of the key figures and locations before you start a book shape the way you approach a book and its characters. In other words: who creates the more impactful character - the artist, or the reader? Or does it matter?

First, the artwork. Gordon Crabb's work is of what one might call the 'realist' school: his covers pick out the two or three key characters, in poses and uniforms that suggest instantly their roles, and place them in front of a montage of locations and vehicles which let the reader do an instant join the dots and create a rough and dirty idea of what they're dealing with.

Len tells me of his decision to commission Crabb: "I did nothing other than go through every paperback in Harrods book dept and find that Gordon Crabb's covers were my favorite. After that it was entirely his work. His research was wonderful: he is even more fanatical that I am. He told me that he spent weeks, maybe months, and had to advertise, to get one garment (a riding mac) that was correct for the period. He did about nine covers." Len was supremely confident that Crabb would create covers that spoke to the reader and had a dramatic edge. Interestingly, Len confides: "I never met him." Crabb is nowadays exhibiting as a fine artist.

The covers below (a mixture of original art and the art in situ) are finely detailed and, having read the story, the characters and illustrations are instantly recognisable: with the assassins on the cover of Yesterday's Spy, for example, you can feel your face blasted with the dust blown up by the spinning rear tyre. But here's my question: having seen the front cover, does the image create a character, or rather augment the written word of the author and fix in the reader's mind an image of that character. Does it, in other words, dull the imagination, or inspire it?

I ask because when I first read Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match in their original covers, the apple jacket designs by the legendary Ray Hawking were abstract - they hinted at something, riddles you knew would unfold once you opened the covers. Intrigue. Betrayal. Corruption. All in one simple, apple-y metaphor.

There were no characters on display. No gruff Bernard Samson; no sexy, coquettish Tessa Kozinski; no roguish Silas Gaunt. The image I had of these characters was built up page by page, each adjective and adverb adding a layer to the understanding of who that character was. Every reader has his or her own image of the character. So when in 1988, for example, ITV bought to life Bernard, Tess, Silas and others in the TV adaptation, it challenged readers' perceptions of their favourite character. Was Ian Holm really the tall, well-built, bespectacled hero spelt out on the pages of the novel?

Friday, 3 June 2011

Michael Caine and Len Deighton talk Harry Palmer

"At the time I wrote The Ipcress File, the English were even less interested in food than they are now. Any man who was able to cook was regarded as weird." Len Deighton
The 'Harry Palmer' character Len Deighton created - and Michael Caine embodied - was something new when he appeared: the anti-Bond, the tough, uncompromising working class spy who inhabited the shadier streets, someone with whom the cinema-goer could in some way connect. He was also ahead of his time, representative of the changing social behaviour of men in the 'sixties. He could not only cook but - as the scene in which he bumps into Colonel Ross in a new-fangled supermarket, and argued over the tinned champignons, demonstrates - talk knowledgeably about food without appearing to sound 'queer'.

The instant success of this new spy archetype is due in large part to Michael Caine's uncanny understanding of how the modern spy would live and work in swinging London, and portraying that on film. Seducing office colleague Jean with a glass of wine and a home-cooked omelette was something new in the courtship playbook for the average chap. Here was the sixties' 'new man', seducing top notch 'crumpet' and tracking down the spies kidnapping UK scientists.

I recently unearthed a rare copy of Eat Soup magazine from 1996 containing an extensive interview with Michael Caine in which he talks about the overlapping themes of film and food. Eat Soup was the short-lived food supplement for lads' mag Loaded, when it was still a magazine and not the boob-obsessed parody which it's become. As well as the feature interview with Caine, Len Deighton was commissioned to write an article explaining how he used gourmet food and changing cultural fads to help fashion this iconic character. This appears as the post-script to what proves a fascinating Caine interview.

A copy of the full article is now up on the Deighton Dossier main website.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Reissues go States-side

News today of a deal between Harper Collins and Sterling Partners to reissue most of Len Deighton's books in new editions in the US market.

In August 2011, twelve books by Deighton, including The Ipcress File, Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin, Billion-Dollar Brain, Bomber, and Declarations of War, will come out in new editions with new covers (expected to be the Schwartzman covers). These will include the new introductions which Len has written about (and, indeed, as he said in the recent interview with this blog, is still writing).

More information's available on the Booktrade website.