09 January 2013


David Edgerley Gates

Len Deighton made his bones with THE IPCRESS FILE---and the movie arguably made Michael Caine a star.  There were four more books in the Harry Palmer series (although in the books, the hero is never named), the three Bernard Sampson trilogies (GAME, SET, and MATCH; HOOK, LINE, and SINKER; and FAITH, HOPE, and CHARITY), and over a dozen stand-alone novels, for the most part spy stories.
Deighton and Caine on the set of Ipcress.

Deighton, as a spy writer, falls somewhere between the closely-observed tradecraft of LeCarre and the more fantastical Bonds: a little like Adam Hall and his Quiller books, with their cheeky narrator and sharp eye for class differences.  Deighton's stories are about false friends and inconstant masters, and a weary Englishness, fallen into desuetude, the mannerisms of empire the butt of the joke, like the weather and the food.  They're also engaging and enormously fun.

For my money, though, the spy stories aside, the best of Deighton's novels is BOMBER, about an RAF night raid over the Ruhr in 1943, closely observed in detail and utterly terrifying, both from the point of view of the British air crews and the Germans on the ground.  The unusual thing about it is that heroics, cowardice, opportunism, kindness, devotion to duty, and nervous collapse, are on display in all the characters, and sometimes in the same character, no matter which side they're on.

Deighton was born in London in 1929, and experienced the Blitz as a boy.  He's written well-received non-fiction about the war, as well as novels, and his attention to the nuts and bolts, not just technical accuracy but his care for the human cost, shows in everything he writes, and none of it's phoned in.  BOMBER may have its schematic side, both in plot and the description of hardware, but it's never less than unsparingly real.  The accumulation of exact and telling specifics, the clumsiness of the Lancasters in flight, the flak bursts, the release of the bomb loads, the broken water mains, the falling buildings, the heat of phosphorus, and the acrid smell of fear, loose bowels, and burnt metal and flesh, are never out of sight or mind.  The clammy sweat sticks to your skin.
The cover image is a detail from Turner.

There's a subtext of class priggishness in the book, too.  Deighton is always aware of class condescensions, with that particular radar the Brits have.  (One thinks again of Michael Caine, now with his knighthood, but back when, a Cockney upstart, below the salt.)  Interestingly, in BOMBER, the Germans are as class-conscious as the English, the vons supercilious with men who've made their way up through the ranks, promoted on merit.  In the case of the English airmen, a lot of the flying officers who skipper the planes are NCO's, not officers, and at one point in the book, one of the best pilots in the squadron is demoted, and taken off flying status (for refusing to bowl for the cricket team).  This isn't just a petty humiliation, although it is of course exactly that, but Deighton makes it all too clear that such dated public school muscular Christianity is not only damaging to morale, but in fact to the war effort itself.

The air war over Germany didn't play favorites, and in BOMBER, death is arbitrary.  Naughty or nice, brave men, rotters, foolish or wise, upper-class Sandhurst grads, the sons of East End fishmongers, civilians and combatants, they live or die by accident, bad luck, equipment failure, the thousand natural calamities that flesh is heir to.  The bomber crews and the German night-fighter pilots, the ground controllers who vector them to their targets, the anti-aircraft batteries, the civil defense emergency teams, and of course the unwitting and unready, when the bombers get through, are bound together by the laws of gravity, the falling sticks of incendiaries and high explosive, and by the laws of chance.  The guilty and the innocent alike are in the hands of Fate, and none are redeemed.  There is neither reward for virtue, nor punishment for the wicked, or any settling of accounts, in terms of moral balance, the just delivered from evil, the unjust cast into darkness.

To think, however, that BOMBER is nihilistic is to misread the book.  For all the suffering, and occasional cruelty, there are extraordinary moments of heroism, not all of them in vain.  The characters, too, are human, not chessmen or generic convenience or simple cannon fodder, and their sorrows and desires and sins are realized and familiar and lived-in---they make up a recognized fabric, the world we inhabit, as they do.  Not a world as we wish it to be, free of jealous national ambitions, racial hatreds, and the machinery of total war, but the present world, too much with us, dangerous and unforgiving, a legacy of grievances real and imagined, a glass of heartbreak, never emptied.  BOMBER is only a fiction and doesn't pretend to be history, but history itself is cold comfort.  


Janice Law said...

I always like Deighton but somehow missed Bomber.
Thanks for the good suggestion.

Eve Fisher said...

I missed Bomber, too. But I read all the no-name novels, and I read and loved SS-GB, the alternative world novel where the Nazis conquer Britain. For a while.

David Dean said...

I missed Bomber as well, but have just returned from war-torn 1940's London courtesy of Janice Law. For those of you who haven't read "Fires Of London", I urge you to do so. London during the Blitz is practically another character in this story (and it's a story full of memorable characters). Truly a tour de force. Well done, Janice!

David Dean said...

Actually, it's London in 1939--I got ahead of myself in my enthusiasm.

John Floyd said...

Great column, David. I've read and enjoyed a lot of Deighton's books, including two of the three trilogies, but--like Janice--I somehow have not read Bomber. It's now on my list.

David Edgerley Gates said...

I'm a big fan of SS-GB, as well. WINTER, MICKEY MOUSE, and CITY OF GOLD are also set during the war years, and XPD hearkens back to that time.

Eve Fisher said...

My private vice is reading first person accounts of WW2 Britain - I collect diaries, etc. "The People's War", "How We Lived then", "The Myth of the Blitz", "Bombers and Mash", and "Don't You Know There's a War On" are all great (mostly) first-person non-fiction accounts. (Janice, you did indeed do a great job of capturing the feel of that time.) I also love novels set in that time, so thanks for the list, David - I will be reading more. (So many books, so little time...)