Rating: 3 stars
The BBC is showing an adaptation of Len Deighton’s alternative history espionage novel SS-GB. We’re two episodes in, and I’m enjoying it. The storyline seems a bit opaque at times, though.
I decided to buy the book this weekend. I had a book token from Christmas and it was in a half price deal at Waterstone’s. My mum liked Len Deighton’s books, too.
By about a quarter of the way through it became obvious that, for dramatic tension as well as condensing 377 pages of story, the TV adaptation has moved the action around a bit and dropped some of the detail that would help make sense of the story. In the novel, the reasons behind certain things that weren’t yet fully clear, and confusingly so, two episodes into the TV adaptation are more apparent earlier on.
I was hooked into the book pretty quickly. It’s the first Deighton novel I’ve read and I like his writing. He’s very crisp, with an eye for detail that is subtle but pleasing. Exposition is dropped casually into conversation or included as background narrative. The premise is an intriguing one, and I enjoyed reading Deighton’s introduction to the book that explains how he came to choose it. Making a police officer the main protagonist means the story is cleverly framed as a traditional murder mystery, but gives Deighton the scope to also bring in speculation about an alternative outcome to the Second World War and to have an espionage subplot running through the book as well.
Inspector Archer is a clever sleuth. He’s a flawed man, dealing with bereavement, colluding with the occupying forces in order to keep his job and ensure the security of his son, and focusing on the day to day activity of his role to distract himself from the rights and wrongs of his circumstances. He’s trying to operate in a business as usual kind of way, and so the book is more focused on the business of solving crime than on analysing what life under Nazi rule might have been like. It’s a clever way of doing things. One of the things I liked most about it was the way Deighton writes the Nazi occupation as a done deal that the British are now getting on with. There are no histrionics, there are just people carrying on with life as they see fit under a new regime. In a way, it’s chilling how quickly people have assimilated and looked for ways to carry on that mean they experience the least personal discomfort possible. It reminded me of a couple of episodes in Goodbye to Berlin where Christopher Isherwood discusses the way in which, even before the start of the war, ordinary Germans assimilated each escalation of Nazi procedure and protocol because keeping your head down is easier than standing up for those who are being oppressed. There’s a passage early on in the book about how, if you keep your eyes half closed, things don’t seem that different on the surface.
Although I loved the book for what it was, I didn’t completely love it. It’s a ripping yarn, full of suspense and tension, and I really enjoyed it on the level of it being an espionage thriller rather than an work of speculative fiction. For that to have impressed me, it would have needed to be cleverer. It was a bit too pat at times. I also found the women too two dimensional. The secretary Archer is having an affair with at the start is little more than a cipher, sketched as a cartoon character driven by emotion. The American journalist isn’t hard bitten enough, considering what she’s supposed to have seen, and merely exists to move the story along and give Archer a foil for his detective theories. Mrs Sheenan, in whose house Archer is lodging with his son, is another cipher, there to provide Archer with an uncritical ear. Deighton doesn’t seem to care that the women who were involved in resistance work tended not to be the hysterical, emotional type, so to caricature his female characters in that way was shabby of him.
It’s worth a read, though. Especially if you enjoy spy thrillers, and if you’re watching the TV adaptation.