Saturday 25 August 2012

Mike Ripley's Book To Die For - SS-GB by Len Deighton

Len Deighton (Left) and Mike Ripley

MIKE RIPLEY used to be an award-winning crime writer.  From 1989-2008 he was the crime fiction critic for the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Telegraph and the Birmingham Post, reviewing over 950 crime novels.  He has also written on crime fiction for The Observer, The Times and The Guardian and has taught a course in Creative Crime Writing at Cambridge.  He currently writes the monthly ‘Getting Away With Murder’ column for Shots Magazine and is the editor for both the Ostara Crime and Top Notch Thrillers imprints.

With the publication of The Ipcress File fifty years ago in 1962, Len Deighton broke the mould of British spy fiction at a time when the mould needed breaking, introducing us to down-to-earth professional spies who were light years away from the high-living, licensed-to-kill ‘special agents’ then on the scene.  He quickly established himself as a major force in the genre and then went on to show himself to be an accomplished military historian as well.  In SS-GB, he showed his skill as a thriller writer and his attention to military detail and, just to make life more interesting, added an outrageous twist on history itself.  For any serious student of crime/thriller writing, this one is a must.

Himmler’s got the King locked up in the Tower of London”.

If the title and the iconic Raymond Hawkey dust jacket with its twopenny-halfpenny British stamp featuring Hitler’s head and its 14 November 1941 postmark have not already indicated that this is no ordinary thriller, then that first sentence should seal the deal.

In fact, Len Deighton’s SS-GB is a remarkable thriller, starting as a whodunit, morphing into a spy story and then a conspiracy thriller with global implications, but ultimately it is a novel about a decent man trying to do good job of upholding the law even as his world crumbles around him.  And what a world!  The Battle of Britain is lost, the Nazis have invaded and control most of the country, Churchill is dead (executed in Berlin by firing squad), King George VI is a prisoner in the Tower and Hitler has taken the salute at a Victory parade down Whitehall on his 52nd birthday on 20th April 1941 – there’s even a photograph on the back of the dust jacket to prove this.  But even in defeat and under occupation, life in London carries on and so, of course, does death.    

The murder of a scientist in his seedy rooms in Shepherd’s Market seems like a case for Scotland Yard’s finest detective Douglas Archer, whose pre-war record of solving high-profile crimes has already earned him the tag of ‘Archer of the Yard’.  His now German superiors seem keen for Archer to work the murder case – suspiciously keen, given that a clear power-struggle is taking place between the SS and the regular German army, the Wehrmacht, for control of occupied Britain.  The situation is further complicated (well, this is by Len Deighton after all) with the arrival in London of Dr Oskar Huth of the SD (the Nazi intelligence service) who has his own agenda at the top of which is replacing the jovial SS General Kellerman, Archer’s boss at the Yard.  When Archer discovers that the murdered scientist was working on atomic research in a secret facility in Devon, the stakes are immediately raised and the plot turns positively Byzantine as Americans, the German army’s intelligence service the Abwehr and the British Resistance (a motley mix of aristocrats, Old School Whitehall mandarins, shady black-marketers and frustrated, patriotic Londoners) become involved in a conspiracy the ultimate aim of which is to deny the Nazis the atomic bomb and to bring (neutral) America into the war. Tied up in the plot is the fate not only of honest cop Archer, who finds himself smack in the middle of the deadly rivalry between the SS and the Wehrmacht (and between the SS and the SD), but also of the imprisoned King George.

At the dark heart of SS-GB, Len Deighton does what Len Deighton does best.  His spy stories have always been boardroom dramas of squabbling intelligence agencies – office politics at their most lethal – rather than of the car-chase-shoot-’em-up school.  That is not to say the book lacks tension or action, for there are vivid and memorable scenes where Archer is attacked by a knife-wielding assassin on the escalator at Piccadilly Circus tube station, where the Highgate Cemetery grave of Karl Marx is blow up during a celebration of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, where the King is rescued from the Tower and smuggled across fog-bound London in a wheelchair, and in the tragic commando raid on the atomic research plant.  There is also a really chilling casual reference to a concentration camp for Jewish prisoners having been built ‘on Wenlock Edge’, a brilliantly sour choice for the cynical Nazis, given its pastoral English connotations  in the poetry of A.E. Houseman and the music of Vaughn Williams.

It should not be forgotten that Deighton is a Londoner, knows it like the back of his hand and has always had an eagle eye for its topography even when he imagines it under German occupation:         

And yet even a born and bred Londoner, such as Douglas Archer, could walk down Curzon Street and, with eyes half-closed, see little or no change from the previous year.  The Soldatenkino sign outside the Curzon cinema was small and discreet, and only if you tried to enter the Mirabelle restaurant did a top-hatted doorman whisper that it was now used exclusively by Staff Officers from Air Fleet 8 Headquarters, across the road in the old Ministry of Education offices.  And if your eyes remained half-closed, you missed the signs that said ‘Jewish Undertaking’ and effectively kept all but the boldest customers out.  And in September of that year 1941, Douglas Archer, in common with most of his compatriots, was keeping his eyes half-closed.

There, in a few sentences, Deighton shows how nothing much seems to have changed yet everything has; but even in defeat the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ is still evident.  During a frightening German army raid on a school, as innocent teachers and older pupils are loaded on to trucks to be taken away for questioning, they begin to sing “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” to keep their spirits up.  And when a subsequent mass arrest and round-up lasting three days follows the Highgate Cemetery explosion, Londoners label it “the night of the buses”.

Deighton’s research into matters military is, of course, spot-on and his imagination is in top gear when it comes to the minutiae of civilian life in a defeated country under occupation: the dusty tea leaves, the watered-down beer, the black market operated on the Vauxhall Bridge Road, the rationing of coal and wood for heating fuel, the small cubes of margarine which are labelled as ‘a token of friendship from German workers’, the former proprietor of Samuels’ West End restaurant reduced to selling fried turnip pieces from a roadside stall while wearing a yellow star.

There is so much military and social history in SS-GB that it seems unfair to label it a novel of “What If?” because the reader is convinced that it really did happen here.
But never forget this is a thriller and some of the iciest thrills can creep up and blindside the unwary.  There is one particular scene, without dialogue, where ‘Archer of the Yard’ finds himself on a stationary train in the fog-bound marshalling yards at Nine Elms and realises that the man in the next compartment is Heinrich Himmler.

If the hairs on the back of your neck do not stand up then, they never will.


Graeme Shimmin said...

Great review. I just reread SS-GB after many years and it was as good as I remembered it.

Windswept said...

What an absolute genius Deighton is.
I love his work and SS:GB is definitely one of his best and that makes it one of the best thrillers of the last sixty years. I feel lucky that he has been operating during my lifetime.