It struck me whilst reading Deighton’s 1978 thriller how little British fiction I have read from the 1970’s. Even for the (very small) part of the decade when I had moved on to adult fiction it was thrillers from an earlier era and American blockbusters that were fuelling my reading habit. For some reason, contemporary British fiction did not appeal to me as a youngster and I haven’t really revisited the era to any great deal since.
I think this is largely due to the style of writing in vogue then. Deighton’s 12th of the 26 novels he has published to date (the last being “Charity” in 1996) is admittedly a brilliantly realised alternative history. Victory for the Nazis was an idea which cropped up from time to time in film and fiction since the end of the War. Philip K Dick’s “Man In The High Castle” appeared in 1962 but the very British feel of Deighton’s novel would certainly have caused a stir on publication. Small details have been thought out and worked through as if Deighton really inhabited this nightmarish world. In his introduction he states;
“Using (the) German data I drew a chain of command showing the connections between the civilians and the puppet government, black-marketeers and quislings, and the occupying power with its security forces and bitterly competitive army and Waffen SS elements.”
This level of detail, research and projection as to what might have been is very effective. I think, however, Deighton’s style of writing, typical for the time, has dated and led to me feeling somewhat let down by the reading experiences. It’s all strangely clipped, like a lot of the fiction of the day geared towards a male audience I feel it should be read out of the corner of the mouth with a cigarette on. I feel this way about, amongst others, Ian Fleming and Alastair Maclean so Deighton is in good company. This style, developed from American “hard-boiled” crime writers and film noir doesn’t allow for the characters to really connect emotionally and that for me is one of the real joys of reading. Main character Douglas Archer, a Scotland Yard Detective having to solve crimes in the new Nazi regime apparently has had a strong bond with colleague Harry Woods since Archer was a child when Woods was a father figure. Now his mentor’s senior this relationship just seemed like it should really sizzle, but I didn’t feel any real connection between them.
When Archer decides he has fallen in love it was one of the biggest surprises of the novel as from the scenes with his loved one there didn’t seem to be anywhere near enough of a spark for this to happen. What jars now is how understated it is all is. There’s a big action centrepiece which crept up on me and I found myself having to re-read to see what happened. In fact I did quite a lot of re-reading and what I missed what this real sense of feeling and emotions. It was no doubt a sign of the times (of the 70’s as well as the 40’s).
I think we’ve just got used to brasher, noisier, more emotional adventure novels. So I’m interested to see how this relates to the big-budget BBC five part adaptation which would have started by the time you are reading this. That was the reason I wanted to get this book read first. I’ll let you know what I think………………
SS-GB was published in 1978. It is currently available as a Harper Collins paperback