Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Horse Under Water - Len Deighton

When you debut with a novel like The IPCRESS File, expectations on the second book are high. Very high. And Len Deighton did not disappoint. His central character returns, still working for the same department, still viewing the world with a cynical and unsentimental eye.

This story begins as an operation to provide covert funding for an opposition group in Portugal at a time when it was still controlled by the right-wing government of Salazar. The money is to be forged US dollars recovered from a sunken German submarine. However this soon develops with a sub-plot concerning heroin (hence the title) and a much more alarming legacy of the Second World War.

Deighton provides an immense amount of detailed background, both historical and technical, without once making the book feel like a lecture. Exposition is kept to a minimum and even then it is worked into scenes quite naturally. And we are also treated to further background on the life of an Intelligence operative – the office routines, committee work, and tedium.

The plot and the writing are tighter than the first book, and it examines a subject (Nazi sympathies amongst the British) that many authors would have treated with far greater bias and a great deal less subtlety. The trademark humour and descriptions are still present, as are the intriguing chapter headings and appendices.

This was the only one of the first quartet of Deighton’s works that was not filmed. It is a shame, as it would have provided excellent material. On the other hand it does allow the book to be read without the shadow of Michael Caine falling across the page. Whilst it is true he made an excellent job of the films, it always clashes in my head with the knowledge of the character’s background as given in the books.

If you want a lesson in subtlety and in constructing a complex plot that mystifies without confusing, this is an excellent book to study. And you’ll get great entertainment from it as well.