Saturday, 27 June 2009

Billion-Dollar Brain - Len Deighton

In this fourth outing, attention is turned to private intelligence groups and private armies. In a book that is eerily prescient of the late and unlamented Bush administration in America, we learn of a Texan whose ambition, in crude terms, is for America to rule the world. To do this he sets up a super-computer which is used to analyse and control a network of agents in Soviet territory.

Not only does the book highlight the horrifying prospects of such militaristic ambition (there is nothing to choose between Stalinism and the self-righteous right-wing ideologies that ‘oppose’ it – in Darwinist terms these are two dinosaurs competing for the same niche); but it also highlights one of the great failures of intelligence gathering in recent decades. It cannot be done electronically. It cannot be done from a distance. If you are going to play the game, you have to play to win.

This is presented in Deighton’s laid back style. The eponymous hero is still working out run-down offices in Charlotte Street and wrestling with paper-work and coping with inter-departmental rivalry. Minor characters recur. And, as in this work, a minor character from a previous book moves centre stage where the bright lights pick out every flaw with unforgiving clarity. The central character is clearly becoming tired of his job. He does it well, but the futility and the heartbreak become increasingly clear.

Compared with the three previous books, this one is both more relaxed and more trusting of the reader. The tendency to explain (no matter how well handled before) has gone and it is left very much to the reader to work out what has happened. This makes for a compelling read and a book that stands re-reading. And in the end you are always left wondering whether what characters say has happened is in fact the case.

As ever, the writing is sharp, the dialogue superb, and descriptions are both original and accurate. The atmosphere of different parts of the world is well defined and the wintry setting suits the bleakness of the story. All in all, clear signs that Deighton’s writing is maturing and that his powers as a story-teller are undiminished.