Len 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.
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 he 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.