Title:                      Winter

Author:                 Len Deighton

Deighton, Len (1987). Winter: A Berlin Family, 1899-1945. London: Hutchinson

LCCN:    88213902

PR6054.E37 W56 1987


Date Posted:      November 13, 2015

A review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt[1]

It is common knowledge that the leadership of the German National Socialist Workers Party, or Nazis, was little more than a gang of crooks, murderers, political opportunists and racists. But Len Deighton sees it a little differently. In his 19th work of fiction, Winter: A Novel of a Berlin Family, he traces the lives of two German brothers, Peter and Paul Winter, from 1899 up to 1945. Peter, the elder, serves as an airship pilot in World War I, goes into his father’s business, marries a Jew and ends up fighting on the Allied side in World War II.

Pauli, as the younger brother is affectionately called, goes to military school, fights in the trenches during World War I, joins the Freikorps, discovers his knack for the law and rises to become the Nazis’ foremost legal adviser. It is Dr. Pauli Winter who figures out how Hitler can consolidate his leadership in 1934. (“Leave the presidency vacant—what a great idea.”) It is Pauli who justifies the practice of “preventive arrest” in 1937. And: “It was Pauli’s long analysis of the concentration-camp accounts that had ended with a suggestion that all the camps eventually become self-financing.”

Yet Pauli is not a thug or a brute. He is not even mean-spirited or anti-Semitic. He is merely a disappointed second son who can’t seem to please his demanding father, and therefore never takes himself very seriously.

This is really the most remarkable thing about Winter—that one can read it all the way through, lay it down and realize one has read the history of a top Nazi figure with engagement and sympathy, or at the very least without being nauseated and repelled. Pauli is ultimately evil because he doesn’t weigh the consequences of his behavior. But viewed up close he seems loyal, courageous, loving, trustworthy and likable – a convincing portrait of a good man gone wrong.

In certain other respects, Mr. Deighton’s novel is not so remarkable. It zips right along, beginning in 1945, circling back to 1899, and working its way forward year by significant year to 1945 again. It encompasses the major events and characters of the eras it covers—Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the war in the trenches, Karl Liebknecht, the beer-hall putsch, Reinhard Heydrich, the fighting on the Russian front, Count von Stauffenberg and the Nuremberg Trials.

But to cover so much ground, Mr. Deighton must devote many pages to exposition. This is achieved through the obvious device of the two-way conversation, which, for all the novel’s potential spectacle, ends up being the main action of the story. As a result, everything happens at a remove from narrative’s immediate focus.

“Your brother won’t come in his uniform, will he?” says Lottie Winter to her husband, Peter.

“Uniform, Pauli? He’s put on too much weight to fit into that these days.”

“You said he’d become a brownshirt.”

“No, darling. I said he’d joined the Nazi Party.” “Isn’t it the same thing?” “No, the S.A., with their brownshirt uniforms, are quite separate. They’re a rabble that that dreadful Captain Rohm recruited from Freikorps riffraff and chronic unemployed. They are closely allied to Hitler’s Nazi Party, but there’s a lot of friction between them.”

Although the cumulative effect of such conversations is a little wooden, it’s also apparent that Mr. Deighton’s overdependence on them is the key to the novel’s success. By avoiding direct descriptions of such obvious spectacles as, say, the Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg, or the landing of Allied forces on Omaha Beach or the discovery of the mass graves at Auschwitz, the author has scaled down their impact sufficiently to fit with the fictional characters who refer to them indirectly in their conversations. Had he reported such earthshaking events directly, it might have been intolerable to switch from them to scenes in which fictional characters carry on their relatively mundane affairs.

After all, if one tries to imagine ex nihilo a historical novel describing Germany in the 20th century, the prospect seems almost absurd. Yet Mr. Deighton’s Winter is anything but absurd. That it works at all—that one reads it with any degree of credulity and then stops to reflect that, yes, there could have been a character like Pauli—is something of a miracle.

So one mustn’t mind the occasionally wooden talk and the sense one gets that history is slipping by beyond one’s reach. It’s a treacherously windy chasm across which Mr. Deighton has strung his narrative tightrope. One is amazed that, for all his stumbling, he never falls off.

[1] Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, “Books of the Times,” New York Times (published December 21, 1987). Downloaded November 13, 2015.

London Match

Title:                      London Match

Author:                 Len Deighton

Deighton, Len (1985, 2012). London Match. New York: Sterling

LCCN:    2012454485

PR6054.E37 L6 2012


Date Posted:      November 12, 2015


Last chapter in Deighton’s masterfully entertaining British spy trilogy begun with Berlin Game (1983)[2] and Mexico Set (1984)[3], though—unlike tennis’ game/set/match—neither side really wins. Or does some lone player actually make match point? All three books in the group turn on the same plot points: who is the mole, or who is a true defector (rather than KGB plant—or solitary)? In Berlin Game, Bernard Sampson and his independently wealthy wife Fiona (mother of two) both work for MI6 in Operations, with Berlin as their gameboard. The climax reveals Fiona as the treasonous mole. In Mexico Set, Fiona’s in East Berlin and rising through the KGB ranks while Bernie sinks ever deeper into muck, under suspicion of disloyalty as ex-husband to an active Russian spy. Fiona has her eye on their two kids, who are still in England and—like a good KGB-nik—is trying to boil Bernie’s goose as well. Now, in London Match, Fiona’s making a supreme effort to smash Bernie and get her kids. The entire senior staff of London’s Foreign Office finds itself on slippery ice against the phantom plays of Moscow Centre. Bernie smells something fishy with their KGB defector Erich Stinnes, who was senior assistant to Fiona in Berlin. Is he a plant? Three of his bits of info have blown the cover on Russian networks and led to low-level captures. But it is a very unexciting spy-song that Mrs. Miller, for example, sings before attempting suicide with aspirin (an attempt remedied by stomach pump) and then being assassinated by the KGB in a car driven into a waterway (when the car’s finally hoisted out, it’s empty). Who to blame? Well, everything points toward Bret Rensselaer, who’s been put in charge of debriefing Stinnes. And slimy Dicky Cruyer, adulterer and German Stations Controller, is all for pushing Bret down the tube. But as the reader will suspect, the hand behind the mole is ferocious Fiona’s, and she’s just had a secret meet in Holland with her London-based adulterous sister Tessa, with an eye to recapturing her kids. . .There’s more here than previously, though Bernie’s delicious confrontation with Fiona is reserved for the climax. . .which keeps her offstage until then while the reader longs for some Strindbergian marital storm scenes. The climax is okay but not superterrific—not after a more than 1200-page trilogy. Still, superior fare of its kind.

[1] Kirkus review, downloaded November 12, 2015

[2] Deighton, Len (1983, 2012). Berlin Game. New York: Sterling

[3] Mexico Set (1984, 2012). Mexico Set. New York : Sterling

Mexico Set

Title:                      Mexico Set

Author:                 Len Deighton

Deighton, Len (1984, 2012). Mexico Set. New York: Sterling

LCCN:    2012450703

PR6054.E37 M4 2012


Date Updated:  January 7, 2017


Don’t read this sequel (or even this review) if you’re planning to read Deighton’s Berlin Game[2]—in which British spy Bernard Samson, a very likable narrator, prowled through an espionage maze. . . only to learn that the treasonous mole was his very own wife Fiona, who fled to East Berlin at novel’s end. (The big Fiona secret is out in the open from the very first chapter here.) Now, together with slimily ambitious Dicky Cruyer, Samson has come to Mexico City, where old chum Werner—full-time banker, part-time spy—has spotted a Berlin-based KGB agent named Erich Stinnes. The apparent mission? To persuade Stinnes to defect. So Samson, after some roundabout preliminaries, makes an initial contact with the KGB man—who seems open to UK offers. Back in England, however, this seemingly clear-cut plot begins to thicken around poor Samson. It turns out that Stinnes is senior assistant to ex-wife Fiona, now a Berlin spy-chief; and Fiona makes an incognito London visit (a terrific scene) to warn Samson off, with threats relating to their small children (still in England). Moreover, it then appears that British Intelligence is using the Stinnes operation to test Samson’s loyalty—he’s been under suspicion since Fiona’s defection—while Fiona may be scheming to incriminate her ex-husband! Soon, then, Samson is scrambling around Europe to figure out who his principal enemies are, and whether Stinnes’ interest in defection is really just a trap. He’s framed for murder in Paris, tricked into committing pro-KGB actions, grilled by an assortment of obnoxious colleagues. And the finale returns to Mexico for the tense defection-attempt—with some nasty interference from Werner’s greedy wife Zena. . .and from Fiona’s most ruthless KGB ally. (The story will continue in a third, final installment, a Match[3]—in Paris, perhaps?—to go along with the Game and Set.) Again, as in Berlin Game, Deighton doesn’t fully develop the potent personal aspects of Samson’s dilemma: there are only the briefest glimpses of his mother-abandoned children. And the plotting is rather thin, with lots of repetition and loose threads. Still, if only sporadically gripping, this lesser sequel is still several cuts above the spy-thriller norm—thanks to Deighton’s engaging hero, his fine-tuned bits of sardonic characterization, and his uncommonly readable, elegantly spiky narration. (“‘I’m not an idiot,’ said Werner, using the unemotional tone but exaggerated clarity with which a man might specify decaffeinated coffee to an inattentive waiter.”)

[1] Kirkus review, downloaded November 11, 2015

[2] Deighton, Len (1983, 2012). Berlin Game. New York: Sterling

[3] Not. Will be London Match.

Berlin Game

Title:                      Berlin Game

Author:                 Len Deighton

Deighton, Len (1983, 2012). Berlin Game. New York: Sterling

LCCN:    2012454992

PR6054.E37 B4 2012


Date Posted:      November 11, 2015


Bernard Sampson, the narrator of this new Deighton spy-novel, is 40-ish, a soldier’s son, Berlin-raised, non-Oxbridge—a sardonic veteran who has recently moved from the field to a desk, while his independently wealthy wife Fiona (mother of two) also works at Intelligence, fairly high up in Operations. Now, however, a series of odd, perhaps-connected developments is sending Bernie back into action. For one thing, Britain’s longtime spy within East Germany’s banking community—code-named “Brahms Four”—is ready to defect, even though London wants him to stay put; and Bernie, whose life was once saved by Brahms Four, is the only agent who can handle face-to-face negotiations with this aging, restless spy. Furthermore, there’s uneasiness within the “Brahms Network” of East Berlin spies—who are afraid of being exposed by some unnamed traitor . . . and afraid of giving up their shady financial (non-espionage) dealings. And most disturbing of all is the apparent treason of Intelligence desk-man Giles Trent—who certainly has been passing data to a KGB agent (his spinster sister’s lover). But isn’t it strange how easily Trent’s betrayal is unearthed, how obvious his Russian contacts have been? Could it be that the KGB is using the superficial Trent traitor-dom to cover up some more important, better-concealed traitor—someone closer to the top? So wonders Bernie, especially after Trent attempts suicide. And, teaming up with the one other top desk-man he trusts (but doesn’t like), he tries to use Trent in a scheme to smoke out this high-level traitor. (The plan backfires, leading to Trent’s murder by one of those fearful Brahms Network agents.) Finally, then, Bernie winds up sneaking into East Berlin for a meeting with Brahms Four as the plot-strands converge: Brahms Four knows the identity of the upper-echelon mole. . . and will trade that information for help in defecting. Only in these last chapters, with taut defection-action (featuring Brahms Four’s plucky wife) and Bernie’s growing fears about the mole’s identity, does this thriller move into firm gear; earlier, the fragmented puzzles often read like le Carré piece—without the tug or the texture. And Deighton’s powerful central idea here—the husband/wife spy duo—isn’t developed nearly as well as it could have been. Still, the neat character-sketches and London/Berlin atmosphere make it easy to keep reading right past the murky tangles; and once that Berlin-finale begins, Deighton’s most serious spy tale in quite some time becomes compelling enough to make you forget most of those flaws, holes, and missed opportunities.

[1] Kirkus reviews, downloaded November 10, 2015

Goodbye, Mickey Mouse

Title:                      Goodbye, Mickey Mouse

Author:                 Len Deighton

Deighton, Len (1982, 2012). Goodbye, Mickey Mouse. New York: Sterling

LCCN:    2012289224

PR6054.E37 G6 2012


Date Posted:      November 6, 2015

Reviewed by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt[1]

Len Deighton’s 14th novel, Goodbye, Mickey Mouse, tells, among other things, about what it was like to fly fighter planes over Germany during the last stages of World War II. In this respect the book is wonderfully harrowing, partly because Mr. Deighton seems to know about P-51 Mustangs the way the rest of us know about our bathroom scales and kitchen ranges, and partly because he has an almost uncanny ability to make war action in the air come visually alive.

Goodbye, Mickey Mouse is also about human relations in wartime—about intraservice rivalries, about conflicts between soldiers of different backgrounds and training, about friendships struggling to survive in the shadow of sudden death, and about the ambivalent feelings of the English people toward Americans who came to help fight the war and drink in their pubs and love their women. There is even a Jewish flier and, in the same outfit, a pilot of German extraction. Predictably, a certain amount of tension exists between them.

All of this Mr. Deighton handles credibly enough by the old fashioned method of inventing a richly complicated plot that illustrates all these points without degenerating into a slide lecture. And if the plotting is a shade too neat and contrived to lend support to the realism of the battle scenes, then you will simply have to excuse it on the grounds that it is fun and keeps the pot simmering, if not quite boiling over.

But what is most intriguing about Goodbye, Mickey Mouse is that it explores a profound but little noticed aspect of war—namely, the necessity it creates for parents to send their children off to death. That is what the novel’s title refers to, I believe. Literally, Goodbye, Mickey Mouse is what a dying pilot says at the end to one of his sidekicks, Lieut. Z.M. Morse, whose nickname happens to be Mickey Mouse. But it’s also an expression of farewell to childhood and its trivialities, as well as what a father or mother might say to a departing son. And this, at least for me, is what lifted Mr. Deighton’s novel above the merely entertaining.

Unfortunately, in order to show how Mr. Deighton elaborates this theme of generational conflict, I must make him sound a trifle heavy handed. The novel’s protagonist is a young American of good Eastern breeding named James A. Farebrother whose influential father feels compelled to tamper with his son’s career in order to avoid showing favoritism. Jamie falls in love with an Englishwoman named Victoria Cooper whose parents are mourning the wartime death of her younger brother, Nick, a rebel who joined the English merchant navy precisely because his parents disapproved of his going off to war.

Victoria’s father, Bernard Cooper, is a professor of psychology, and it is left to him to be the novel’s Greek chorus. While playing a round of golf with Jamie Farebrother’s father, Gen. Alexander Bohnen (Jamie’s mother divorced General Bohnen and married William Farebrother), Cooper observes: “All parents are tempted to destroy their own children, Bohnen. It’s a fact of life.” “After fifteen years or more of caring for a child, parents find it difficult to relinquish their role. There is temptation to cripple the child and thus keep the child dependent.”

Earlier, Cooper has reflected about General Bohnen: “Was there within him some deep-felt desire to sacrifice what he loved most—his son—upon the altar of war? And did the son, in some dreadful fashion, perceive it, as all sons instinctively share the mental state of their fathers? Bohnen loved his son, as every father must love his child, and the son could not respond with equal love, for that is the fundamental and tragic truth of human biology. For if children did love their parents with that same consuming passion, they would never leave home, and the world would end.”

If all this sounds a shade pedantic—and it does—then rest assured that elsewhere in the novel these themes are more subtly and effectively dramatized, and that they lend a special electricity to the story. There is even the pilot named Earl Koenige, who must recall to the reader’s mind Goethe’s poem “Der Erl Konig,” about a child whose father tries but fails to save him from death. This is the exactly opposite of the relationship between General Bohnen and Jamie.

Earl Koenige himself is killed on the way back from a bombing mission he had asked relief from because its objective was the German city from which his parents had emigrated to America. The irony here is far removed from Goethe’s poem, at least so far as I can recall it. As a whole, Mr. Deighton’s compelling story is equally far removed from the somewhat pedantic psychological musings that I have extracted and underlined.

[1] Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher in “Books of the Times,” (December 7, 1982). Downloaded November 6, 2015


Title:                      XPD

Author:                 Len Deighton

Deighton, Len (1981, 2012). XPD. New York: Sterling

LCCN:    2012462578

PR6054.E37 X18 2012



  • “First published in Great Britain by Hutchinson & Co. Ltd. in 1981”–T.p. verso.

Date Updated:  November 3, 2015


After the spooky full-scale fantasy of SS-GB[2], Deighton’s new fiction-history premise—that Churchill met secretly with Hitler in 1940 and almost arranged a highly dishonorable peace—seems very small potatoes; and the plotting this time is pretty thinly conventional all around. But the playful Deighton approach to criss-crossing espionage, never less than diverting, is at its most edgily frivolous here. . . as the announcement of a new Hollywood movie project—about the US Army’s 1945 discovery of Hitler’s treasures and papers, which then all disappeared—sends assorted forces into action. British Intelligence fears that the filmmakers possess those vanished Hitler papers (evidence of Churchill’s secret treason), so sleek, cynical Boyd Stuart is dispatched to L.A. A German pro-democracy group called “the Trust” also wants the papers kept mum (they’d foment neo-Nazism), so they kill the movie-maker and replace him with one of their own—Max Breslow. The KGB wants the papers exposed (unrest in W. Germany is desirable), so KGB agent Willie Kleiber is working with unsuspecting Max. And most flustered of all is wealthy Californian Charlie Stein—the ex-G.I. who masterminded that theft of the Hitler stash (loot and documents): Charlie and his old buddies, who started a private Swiss bank with the loot and still have those Hitler papers hidden away, fear that their 1945 crime will be revealed; furthermore, their bank has been sabotaged (by “the Trust”), so they have to consider selling the Hitler papers to get millions in bail-out cash. A complicated set-up? You bet. And eventually the CIA will also get into the act. But most of the focus falls on Britisher Stuart—who, dodging dead bodies (the Trust kills anyone who knows about the Hitler papers), tries to figure out who’s who among the agents and tries to get the papers from Charlie: the Brits even kidnap Charlie’s spoiled-rich-kid son. And the busy finale has the CIA kidnapping the KGB agent. . . while Charlie tries to escape with the papers, is held prisoner by the KGB, and ends up in fatal revenge-attack on Max Breslow at the movie studio where actors are auditioning for the role of Hitler (cf. Mel Brooks’ The Producers). Fairly silly stuff, a tad too multi-angled for its own good—and the pace slows down a bit whenever flashbacks or explanations of the international motives take over. Still, notwithstanding Deighton’s tin ear for US speech, the characters and dialogue and atmosphere are all dandily offbeat; and the interplay of fanciful history with deadly-real detail (“XPD” means “expedient demise”) will keep Deighton fans just how he likes them—amused, intrigued, but just a little uncomfortable.

[1] KIRKUS Reviews, downloaded November 3, 2015

[2] Deighton, Len (1978, 2012). SS-GB. New York: Sterling Publishing