‘I can’t think what you see in it. A filthy place bombed to nothing in the war. The few decent buildings that survived were in the Russian sector and they got bulldozed to fill the city with all those ghastly workers’ tenements,’
‘That’s about right,’ I admitted. ‘But it’s got something. And Berliners are the most wonderful people in the world.’
Through no fault of its own, Berlin Game is a bit of an annoyance to me. I’m reading my way through the CWA’s top 100 crime novels, you see, and actually there aren’t 100 crime novels in the list, there are 102. Because Len Deighton’s Game, Set and Match is a trilogy. THAT’S NOT ONE BOOK! Anyway, in a spirit of fair-mindedness, I am going to put aside my grievance whilst I write this review.
I swapped this book more than a year ago with real-life crime author Sarah from Crimepieces (well done, Sarah!). I was waiting to collect the remainder of the trilogy before I began, and thanks to the bookstall at last month’s Wymondham Abbey Duck Race, it became safe to proceed.
Berlin Game opens at Checkpoint Charlie (for younger readers, one of the heavily guarded gateways between the Communist East and NATO-controlled West before the Berlin Wall came down). It’s the 1980s. Our hero, Bernie Samson, is sitting in his friend Werner’s car waiting for an East German contact to try to break through. Escapes traditionally end badly…
‘Brahms Four’ is one of London’s best sources of economic information from the Eastern bloc (he is believed to be senior in East German banking, but his identity is, of course, a secret). But ‘Brahms Four’ is getting old, getting anxious, and wants to defect to the West. Which is unfortunate because the West rather likes him where he is. Bernie is one of the few people who knows Brahms Four personally so he’s the ideal man to persuade him to stay put.
Bernie grew up in Berlin (his dad was in the Service too), hence he has flawless German with a pronounced Berlin accent. He knows the Russian sector, and has lots of childhood friends to help him out. Of course they expect him to help them out in return, which creates problems of its own. Werner Volkman is one such contact, a businessman welcome on both sides of the Berlin Wall, but short of much-needed capital. But Werner isn’t short of ideas, not all of them good ones, and he ends up complicating matters enormously.
Meanwhile, Bernie uncovers a traitor in London who might well be leaking ‘Brahms Four’ information back to the KGB. Berlin Game covers similar ground to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: There’s something rotten at the heart of the London office. The difference is that Bernie is used to operating at the sharp end. He takes orders from the likes of Smiley, but he doesn’t have to like them. And he doesn’t.
Bernie is a blue-collar spy, a field agent who has been passed over for promotion in favour of Oxbridge men. Even his wife Fiona has more seniority (‘Even’ because this was the early 80s). It’s not entirely clear whether the chip on Bernie’s shoulder is inverted snobbery or just a recognition that he’s no good at office politics. Certainly, if it’s down to who you know, he should be doing better. His father was a spy, Fiona is the niece of a retired intelligence grandee, and he socialises with the senior Berlin staff.
Either way, he reports to a younger Oxford man whom he rightly regards as an idiot.
Dicky Cruyer had curly hair and liked to wear open-necked shirts and faded jeans, and be the Wunderkind amongst all the dark suits and Eton ties. but under all the trendy jargon and casual airs, he was the most pompous stuffed shirt in the whole Department.’
Paranoia is another important aspect to Bernie’s personality, even when he’s at home in London. Arriving home with Fiona he spots a parked car in their street and goes into full secret agent mode, doubling back with a gun.
‘Aren’t you taking a parked car with two people in it too seriously? It’s probably just a couple saying good night.’
‘I’ve been taking things too seriously for years,’ I said. ‘I’m afraid it makes me a difficult man to live with. But I’ve stayed alive, sweetheart. And that means a lot to me.’
His suspicious nature even makes him suspicious of people acting suspiciously. Is the traitor he spotted for real, or some kind of a KGB trick?
‘When I get all my questions answered fully, I know I’m asking the wrong questions.’
I like Bernie. On top of his realistic-seeming intelligence work, he’s a family man with kids off-stage, money worries, a regrettable sister-in-law, and a demanding nanny. He throws out the occasional Chandleresque underdog line amongst the spycraft.
[In an immaculate apartment:] ‘He didn’t offer me a drink. He didn’t invite me to sit down. Perhaps my sort of trench coat didn’t look good on white.’)
The result? Unlike my state of mind after finishing Tinker, Tailor, I’m looking forward to reading more. And so on to Mexico Set.
Clothes in Books: I love the way Deighton puts in the details of normal family life in the middle of the spying. For a scene where Samson is getting vital info from his wife (another spy) and her sister, there is a background of the Portuguese housekeeper making supper – she uses the shrimps which were meant for tomorrow’s lunch, and then ‘there was a cloud of smoke and a loud crash which we all pretended not to hear.’
Final destination: Awaiting my opinion of the rest of the trilogy.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.