Len Deighton: Mexico Set

Mexico SetMexico Set
Len Deighton
First published in the UK 1984 by Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd
This edition Grafton Books, 1988
ISBN: 9780586058214
381 pages
Source: Wymondham Abbey Duck Race

I read Berlin Game last week and moved straight on to the sequel.  And talk about plots thickening.

Mexico Set is the story of Bernard Samson, career spy, sent to Mexico City to initiate the ‘enrolment’ of a KGB agent named Erich Stinnes. Winning Stinnes’ trust and successfully bringing him to London are the least of Samson’s worries. His career prospects are basically in a departmental waste paper basket after the events of Berlin Game, and his personal life is in an even worse mess.

Samson actually met Stinnes towards the end of Berlin Game (he was introduced in such a way it was clear he’d come back later). The two have much in common: natural field agents more at home in Berlin than their respective countries, both passed over for promotion, both acutely aware of their value to the other side, both with massive chips on their shoulders.

‘Moskvin’s a desk man, is he?’
‘Yes,’ said Stinnes. ‘And I hate desk men.’
‘So do I,’ I said feelingly.

Allowed to get along with Stinnes in his own way, Samson could handle the enrolment with no difficulty. But he is constantly undermined by his colleagues in the field and in London, and he is beset by amateurs.

Amateurs keep their eyes on the target instead of looking over their shoulders.

Samson, of course, trusts nobody, but right now nobody trusts him, either. Is he being managed out of the service, tempted to defect, or lined up to be the scapegoat to end all scapegoats?

Meanwhile, we meet Samson’s extended family, starting with his obnoxious and domineering father-in-law. Then his spoilt sister-in-law, drinking only champagne for her health, comes to stay, making Samson’s relationship with her self-made millionaire husband extremely awkward. The family stuff isn’t just ‘soap’ but that’s all I’m saying about that.

His old schoolfriend Werner Volkmann, a born spy, is vital to the action, but Werner’s pretty young wife Zena, always with an eye on making a quick buck, gets herself in over her head.

And through it all the beleaguered Samson soldiers on, protected only by his talents, his hard-won experience, and his sardonic wit.

Either they didn’t plan to get rough, or they planned to get so rough that one extra victim would make no difference.

There are some excellent set pieces. The finale in Mexico City is absolutely outstanding, but before that we are treated to a kangaroo court in London Central which is even better.

If I have a criticism, it is that there were a few sections of the book which are essentially just exposition. Chapter 3 finds Samson conveniently placed to eavesdrop on a conversation between Stinnes and his sidekick Moskvin. In chapter 16 he gets a 2-page lecture from a border guard about the many dangerous barriers that lie between East and West Germany.

But overall, this series is shaping up to be one of my favourites. Funny and clever. On to Paris Match


See also:

Clothes in Books: ‘Bernard, mentions a character as having a PhD in office politics, and that’s a qualification you would have to give Deighton: who knows whether he ever actually was a spy, but you’d put good money on his having worked in offices while he cast a sharp eye about him. He is really excellent, and very very funny, on the way hierarchies work.’ It’s literally a good review.

Final destination: Awaiting my opinion of the rest of the trilogy.


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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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7 Responses to Len Deighton: Mexico Set

  1. Great review Rich, really glad you are enjoying these as much as I did – but, you know darn well that Deighton promised not to call the end of the first trilogy Paris Match – tut tut 🙂

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    • westwoodrich says:

      You know what? I’ve actually been wondering if he named the entire trilogy just to get to Paris Match as the punchline. Must look at book spines more carefully in future…

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  2. Thanks for the shoutout, and we’re going neck and neck with these books – which is brilliant, there’s nothing like reading a book and then being able to read someone else’s review! London Match (I obviously got the provincial, local version) coming up shortly, and I’m moving on to the second trilogy. You too?

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    • westwoodrich says:

      I pity your blurb writer though, it’s literally pretty difficult reviewing Mexico without spoiling Berlin, and I assume it’ll get even harder with Paris (or London or whatever he called it…).

      I probably won’t move directly to the next three, as I have some other priorities jostling for attention: a book from 1963, a book featuring a character called Richard Westwood, and the book which may or may not contain the first use of the word ‘whodunit’ (hopefully completing my quest to beat the OED).

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  3. TracyK says:

    Reading this review is making me want to get to HOPE, FAITH, and CHARITY, the final three books in the series. I did also read WINTER, before I moved on to SPY HOOK, which gives some background for many of the characters. Glad you are enjoying the three books, so far.

    I have also just finished HORSE UNDER WATER by Deighton, which will be my book for your 1963 challenge. Really enjoyed it.

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  4. Pingback: New to me authors, April-June 2014 | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  5. Pingback: Len Deighton: The Ipcress File | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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