Reviews: Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker by Len Deighton

Spy-hookLen Deighton occupies an uneasy position between classic and contemporary crime fiction writers. Still living, he hasn’t published a new novel since 1996 and many of the books that he is famous for – The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin – we’re written in the 1960s. However I’ve always enjoyed Deighton’s spy stories; written with a light touch they are as entertaining if not as complex as John Le Carre’s novels. Last year I read the first three books in the series featuring British spy Bernard Samson – Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match. They were an enjoyable jaunt through the mid-career escapades of Samson, an intelligence officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service whose wife defects to East Germany. This trilogy, written in the mid-1980s, was followed by a second Bernard Samson trilogy Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker.

Spy Hook opens with Samson asked by the Service to discover the whereabouts of a cache of millions of dollars that have gone missing from a secret fund. However, following his wife’s defection, Bernard is considered to be a suspect agent possibly in the pay of Soviet masters. However he has picked up the pieces of his private life and although warned off the assignment, is determined to find out what has happened to the money.Spy-line

In Spy Line, Samson is on the run from the Service who are convinced he is a Soviet Spy. However, he is now convinced that his wife Fiona didn’t simply defect, she has all the time been working for the British in the role of a double (or is it triple?) agent.

Finally, in Spy Sinker, the weakest book in the series, we are given an alternative view of events that were narrated on the first five books through a succession of third person narratives. It shows how Bernard’s first person descriptions in the preceding novels were skewed by his convictions of his wife’s perfidy and then her innocence.

In the paperback editions that I read, there is a note from Deighton of the first page assuring the readers that these three books can be read as standalones. I’m not convinced and I really think you needed to have read books one to three in order to enjoy the second trilogy of the series. Spy Sinker, in particular, is simply a rehash of the plots of previous books narrated from different perspectives.

Nevertheless it is still an enjoyable series. It does feel dated, but then so do Le Carre’s Smiley books and I enjoyed reading about espionage in the eighties at the tail end of the Cold War. Samson is always an outsider in society, raised by British parents in Germany Spy-sinkerhe feels at home in neither country but has allied himself to the intelligence service of Britain like his father before him. Like George Smiley, his Achilles heel is his wife. However Fiona one of the most interesting characters in the books, a highly intelligent agent capable of operating without her husband’s knowledge of her activities.

The plots are slightly over the top and based on coincidences and mishaps that strain credulity at times. But for fans of the first three books, the second trilogy is an enjoyable return to the characters, politics and world of British espionage.

An analysis of each of the books in the Bernard Samson series can be found at Spare Cycles. The blogger likes Spy Sinker far more than I did.

15 thoughts on “Reviews: Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker by Len Deighton

  1. You remind me why I like Deighton’s books, Sarah. I am rather susceptible to old-school low-tech – so much more of a narrative challenge when the hero(ine) can’t be rescued by iphone! I really should re-read Game/Set/Match, as I remember being impressed by how murky they made everything seem!

    • Yes I agree! And I do like the fact that there is a dated feel to the book – it’s a completely different era. I’m looking forward to reading the final 3 books: Faith, Hope and Charity.

  2. Sarah – An excellent overview of this trilogy, for which thanks. I absolutely must re-read some Deighton; The Ipcress File and some of his other earlier books really are terrific. As for the Sansom trilogy, well, what’s a little coincidence and ‘over the top’ among friends? ;-)

  3. I read Spy Line and Spy Sinker sometime this summer, and wanted to finish Faith, Hope, and Charity by the end of the year. Not going to happen. So it will be in the first quarter of 2013 that I will get to Faith.

    I loved all of the Samson books so far, although I am in agreement with you on Spy Sinker being the weakest. And I think they should be read in order. Deighton has been a great discovery for me this year and I don’t know how I missed him before.

    And you do a great job reviewing these.

    • Thanks Tracy. We seem to be at the same point in the series. I’ve found the last 3 books slightly harder to get hold of second hand in the UK but I’m sure I will find them at some point. I agree that the series is an enjoyable find and a great comfort read.

  4. I always enjoy his writing, although his subject matter isn’t usually my choice. I love the idea of a book that goes over the previous events with a new perspective (Alexandria Quarter!), it’s one of my favourite things, but you imply that it didn’t work THAT well, so my initial response – ‘must get and read these’ – is now muted! What do you think?

    • I think they’re worth a read Moira and I did enjoy Spy Sinker but I felt it was a bit of a cop out. But some people like the book. The Alexandria quartet is on my shelf waiting to be read.

  5. Deighton is certainly still around thankfully but if he did round out his career with this cycle of 10 novels featuring the life and times of Sampson and his family, i think it was a pretty impressive way to go. I was quietly impressed with SPY SINKER when I read it as I thought it a very bold move conceptually and it also was srprisingly tough on Sampson, making us re-think about Sampson’s place in the narrative but also his character – he certainly gets taken down a peg or two. The opening trilogy is probably the best of the series, admittedly (especially BERLIN GAME)

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree that Spy Sinker makes us reassess Samson’s narration in the former books and I think Fiona comes across much better. She clearly had done a lot of soul searching to reach her decision. I’m looking forward to the next 3!

  6. I have these and Deighton’s earlier series from the 60’s on pile TBR – there’s a surprise! Another new year’s resolution for 2013 – start reading them!
    Did his creative juices dry up, or was he passed over by his publisher for newer fresher blood?
    Another rated author Anthony Price had a series of 17 or 18 books in the spy-genre, he’s still around but hasn’t been published since the late 80’s.
    Maybe these books became old hat with the end of the Cold War?

  7. Pingback: Review: Edward Wilson – The Whitehall Mandarin | crimepieces

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