Len Deighton’s third novel is a tour de force. Arguably the quintessential cold war spy story (just ahead of le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold), it contains everything that makes a good novel. A great story, excellent characterisation, flawless plotting, wonderful atmosphere, and just enough irreverence and experimentation with form to give it an edge over its rival(s).
The chapter headings use rules and descriptions of chess in a striking way to add an extra dimension to the story, especially as the protagonist says early in the novel that he prefers games with a better chance of cheating. But he has no choice. He is just a piece on the board and his moves are dictated as much by others as by his own free will.
Revolving around a plot to smuggle a defecting Soviet scientist to the west, we soon see this is one of a number of unfolding strategies. Move and counter move reveal more and more of each player’s motives, revealing the ambiguity that lies at the heart of the world of espionage. Opponents work with each other, friends work against one another. The enemy… No one is really sure. And the deeper into the story we delve, back to the Second World War where the Cold War was started, the more uncertain the world becomes.
Personal greed and corruption are also at play, meeting with political conflict in a surreal borderland called Berlin. It was, perhaps, inevitable that Deighton would set a book in this city and that he would return there much later with his Samson books. The city is presented to us in all its strange glory and we gain a real sense of the bizarre world that existed there in a divided Europe.
Yet the book never gets above itself. Whilst the ideologies of west and east face off across the Wall, this is about the individuals whose job was as much to keep the Cold War cold as it was to spy on the other side. And we see it from both perspectives. The well-rounded anonymous protagonist finds a wonderful foil in the KGB’s Colonel Stok. And these characters inhabit the real world – a place of bills and milkmen, of petty jealousies and small betrayals.
As a portrait of the time it is far better than many literary novels as it sets out to tell a particular story. In recounting that tale, we are treated to a wonderfully detailed picture that is drawn with great skill, coloured with subtlety, and displayed without pretension.