Len Deighton: SS-GB

Len Deighton
First published in the UK 1978 by Jonathan Cape
350 pages
This edition BCA
Source: The Dormouse Bookshop, Norwich

SS-GB opens in a counter-factual version of November 1941. The German Army has occupied Great Britain, the King is imprisoned in the Tower of London, and Scotland Yard now reports in to the Gestapo.

And yet even  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.

Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer is a rising star at the Yard, a photogenic and charismatic detective who plays well with the Germans.

Archer has found himself reporting to the Gestapo’s General Kellerman as a representative of the new regime. The detective is enough of a political animal to seek a status quo with his German masters, and anyway Kellerman seems a decent sort (for a Nazi). But Kellerman is under pressure from Berlin to bring in political officers, led by one Standartenführer Huth.

Archer and his turbulent DS, Harry Woods, are transferred to Huth’s department. It immediately becomes clear that Huth – who is emphatically not a decent sort for a Nazi – is overly concerned with one of the routine murders on Archer’s books. Soon Archer is up to his neck in German ‘political matters’ which threaten to destroy him. His only way out is to go deeper into both the German command and the British resistance and try to make things right.

The story shares the paranoia and grinding sense of inevitability of Deighton’s Bernie Samson books – you may win a few battles but you’ll never beat the conspiracy, assuming that you can even work out what the conspiracy is. However, I have the feeling that Deighton threw everything at this one: resistance plots, departmental politics, Nazi mysticism, German bureaucracy, nouveau-riches collaborators, East End gangsters, a love story, the royal family… and that’s without mentioning the macguffin. He could happily have spread all this over a few books.

See also:

Existential EnnuiSS-GB wasn’t the first novel to conjecture an alternate history where the Nazis won the war; Sarban’s The Sound of His Horn and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle preceded it in, respectively, 1952 and 1962. However, Sarban’s tale is a futuristic “what if” set 102 years after World War II, while Dick’s novel is set in the year it was published. The closest novel to SS-GB, then, is probably Robert Harris’s excellent Fatherland, published fourteen years after Deighton’s book in 1992. But although SS-GB shares with Fatherland superficial suspense-cum-crime-thriller trappings, Harris’s novel depicts Germany in 1964, whereas Deighton’s deals with a scenario both closer to home – at least for me, as a former Londoner – and closer to the conflict itself.

Mike Ripley in ShotsmagA 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.

Graeme ShimminSS-GB is largely a translation of one of Deighton’s cold war spy novels to a different setting and shows all the strengths and weaknesses of his other spy novels. The quality of the writing is generally high… Deighton shows a frighteningly plausible alternate Britain, rapidly caving in to Nazi tyranny.

Final destination: A keeper

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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.
This entry was posted in Classic mystery book review, Crime fiction of the year challenge, Crimes of the Century, Suspense, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Len Deighton: SS-GB

  1. Nordie says:

    There’s also “Fatherland” by Robert Harris, published 1993, set in Germany in 1964. Germany has won the war, Hitler is 75 and failing, a week Joe Kennedy is the US President, a disenfranchised SS policeman has to investigate a dead body beside a lake. My goodreads review is here : https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/230972502


  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I loved “The Man in the High Castle” but I’ve kind of avoided other counter-factual WW2 books in case they’re not so good….


  3. mikeripley says:

    Nazis-win-the-war scenarios also feature in Canadian fantasy writer Jo Walton’s “Farthing” series (2006) and in the 2003 novel “Collaborator” by Murray Davies. There are others but “SS-GB” is still the one to beat in my opinion. Len Deighton himself tells me that probably the first “alternative outcome” novel was the improbably titled “I, James Blunt” by H. V. Morton (the journalist and travel-writer) published in 1942 and I am in the process of tracking down a copy.


  4. Great to see this reviewed, a real favourite which I really want to revisit soon in fact – ta! 🙂


  5. tracybham says:

    This is one of Len Deighton’s books that I have not read, and I think I put it off because it is alternative history. I do that with all the alternative history books I have wanted to read… I think I won’t like them and then I end up loving them. My husband has read it and liked it a lot. I did read Jo Walton’s Farthing books and also want to read Fatherland.

    Glad you liked it and this is a very useful (and motivating) review.


  6. James Long says:

    I really enjoyed your post, Rich. I think these counter-factual stories are a fascinating sub-genre. I wrote up a piece on the topic at the link below, if you’re interested. Hope you are well!



    • pastoffences says:

      Hi James, thanks for the link – that sounds quite a bizarre read. I’m surprised it got published when it did! I imagine that it got fairly closely scrutinised by the authorities… Nice review.


  7. I’ve been enjoying a lot of Deighton lately (Samson 3×3) and will be looking for more – but my compartment for counter-factual gets filled up pretty quickly, I find them unrewarding on the whole. Get to this one day, but probably try other Deighton first.


    • David Craggs says:

      Don’t make that mistake.
      Outside of Winter, this is probably his best stand alone novel.
      It makes full use of his skills both as a historian and a thriller writer – a great read.
      Miss it at your peril.


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