Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The Cold War between the UK, US and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies, left an indelible mark on crime fiction, particularly on espionage fiction. And one of the best-known authors of Cold War fiction has been Len Deighton. It’s more than about time this blog featured one of Deighton’s novels, so let’s fill in that gap today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Berlin Game, the first of Deighton’s Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sansom novels. To be specific, this is the first novel in the first of three trilogies that Deighton wrote about Sansom.
It’s 1983, and the Cold War rages on. Sansom is a middle-aged former field agent for MI6 who now has a desk job in the agency’s London Central offices, usually called the Department. He’s rather settled in, with a wife, Fiona, and two children.
Then disturbing news gets back to London. One of their most valuable agents, code-named Brahms Four, wants to come to the West. This agent has been working in East Berlin for some time, and the agency relies heavily on information that Brahms Four provides. The fact that such a valuable resource wants to leave poses a real problem. It’s soon decided that someone needs to go to Berlin and persuade this agent to stay ‘in the trenches’ for a few more years.
Sansom grew up in post-World War II Berlin (he’s the son of a British agent who worked in Germany during the war), and is thoroughly familiar with the city and its culture. So he’s the natural choice for the job. Fiona is reluctant for him to go, but he takes on the assignment.
In the meantime, the Department has another, more serious problem. Information has gotten back to London that the KGB has an agent in a very highly-placed position within MI6. Whoever the mole is, that person has access to top-secret information, so finding out the traitor’s identity is an urgent matter. There are a few possibilities, too. There’s Sansom’s boss Dicky Cruyer, who certainly has the right credentials. There’s also Bret Renssalaer, who’s worked very closely with Brahms Four and could be a connection to the KGB. And then there’s Frank Herrington, who heads up the Berlin field unit. There are other possibilities, too, all of them a cause for real concern.
Sansom is now faced with two challenges: finding the mole, and solving the Brahms Four problem. It doesn’t help matters that there are some dangerous people, possibly even on his own team, who don’t want him to succeed. In the end, and after a murder, Sansom finds out who’s betrayed the agency’s operations. He also finds a solution to the dilemma about Brahms Four.
The action in this novel takes place in London and Berlin, and Deighton places the reader in both locations. In particular, readers get a look at a Berlin divided by the wall and a crucible for Cold War animosity. There are some lovely places in the city, but Deighton doesn’t gloss over its rough edges. Because of the political situation, getting back and forth from West to East Berlin can be a challenge, although it certainly happens. And, without spoiling the story, I can say that there are some scenes where some unconventional means are used to do that.
This is espionage fiction, so there are plenty of secret papers, walks to avoid bugged rooms, and code words. Information is doled out on a ‘need to know’ basis, and it’s never clear exactly who can be trusted and who can’t.
In the midst of this is the character of Sansom. He’s become somewhat jaded, and he’s seen first-hand the difference between what the people at the top think and decide, and what’s really going on in the field. He’s also seen that there’s a lot more blurriness than ‘black and white’ in the espionage business. Readers who enjoy moral ambiguity will appreciate the fact that Sansom makes some choices that we might question. He’s essentially a ‘good guy,’ and he’s portrayed as being ‘on the side of the angels.’ But that doesn’t mean he agrees blindly with everything that the Department does.
Sansom’s background is also interesting in that it highlights the class issues that we see in this novel. He never went to university, and wasn’t raised among ‘the right people,’ many of whom are now in top positions in the Department. He’s been passed over more than once for plum assignments and promotions; and one reason for that is that he doesn’t have an upper-class education, background or bearing. Another reason is that many of his British colleagues consider him more German than British. His German colleagues consider him more British than German. So he doesn’t fit neatly into a particular social or cultural group.
As a sort of outsider, Sansom can look perhaps more objectively at what’s going on in MI6, both in the field and in London Central. He knows that getting ahead in the agency (and for the matter of that, in the KGB) doesn’t always depend on how well people do their jobs. Very often it’s a matter of having the right connections, or being ingratiating to the right people. And that means that sometimes, incompetent people rise to the top. That said though, readers who dislike ‘maverick’ sleuths who constantly defy orders and blaze their way out of situations will be relieved to know that Sansom’s not like that. He finds ways to get things done without getting himself in so much trouble that he loses his job.
This isn’t really a happy-ending sort of novel, where the ‘bad guy’ gets caught and led away in handcuffs. Things don’t work out all right for everyone. It is, though, a pragmatic sort of story where the outcome, as troubled as it is, could have been far, far worse. And there is a thread of wit throughout the novel. In one scene, for instance, Sansom is talking to an acquaintance who runs a chess club. He’s trying to get some information about a Russian chess player who occasionally stops in:
‘‘Insolent bastard,’ said Jan Kar. ‘You’d think they wouldn’t go where they’re not welcome.’
‘That would seriously limit their movements.’’ [Sansom]
Throughout the novel, Sansom makes witty, sometimes sardonic observations about people and situations.
Deighton writes with an eye for detail. Readers who prefer a story that keeps the focus only on the main plot will notice that Deighton discusses clothes, furniture, and other such details. Readers who like a novel’s background portraits to be filled in will appreciate those touches.
Berlin Game is a character-based espionage story that takes place against a distinctive Berlin and London background. It features a very human player in the chess game that was the Cold War, and offers a look at the lives of those who worked for both sides. But what’s your view? Have you read Berlin Game? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 14 September/Tuesday 15 September – Drop Dead – Swati Kaushal
Monday 21 September/Tuesday 22 September – Friday the Rabbi Slept Late – Harry Kemelman
Monday 28 September/Tuesday 29 September – Death’s Golden Whisper – R.J. Harlick