Berlin Game by Len Deighton (Shane's book 4, 2010)

Ian wrote favourably about this spy novel last year and James is a fan too so I thought I'd see what the fuss was about. The only other Len Deighton I've read is SSGB, his alternate-history novel imagining Britain after a Nazi victory in Word War II. That book is decent, though pales in comparison to Thomas Harris's Fatherland. Similarly, Berlin Game is good but not a patch on John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

[amtap book:isbn=0586058206]

Deighton's hero, Bernard Samson, is an ageing spy who has been deskbound for five years. He's come up the hard way, via a childhood spent in post-war Berlin where his father served in military intelligence. Despite having apparently benefited from nepotism, Samson resents the Oxbridge types whose contacts and breeding have allowed them to bypass him on the professional ladder. He is sharper than his bosses, who don't have his field experience, and is cynical about their motivation. Samson's wife, who is also an intelligence officer, is an Oxford graduate from a rich family - a reminder both of how well Samson has done for himself and of the world to which he will never truly belong.

When Brahms Four, a well-placed British intelligence source in East Berlin, starts to get nervous and wants to defect he demands to see Samson - the only agent he trusts. Brahms Four is so valuable that the British want to keep him in place for at least a couple more years. As they investigate the reasons for Brahms Four's nervousness they discover a Russian agent in their midst. As Samson digs further he begins to suspect that this agent is merely a decoy intended to divert attention from another, more senior, KGB spy.

During his investigations Samson takes a few trips to Berlin, gathering information old friends and colleagues and taking stock of a city torn in two and seemingly trapped forty years in the past.

There are so many thematic similarities with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, that an uncharitable critic might dismiss this as mere imitation. Indeed, at times Deighton reads like a pastiche of Raymond Chandler and John Le Carre. His greatest weakness is handling exposition. Almost every character speaks to Samson as if he is a child with amnesia, constantly asking him if he remembers events so significant that it's hard to imagine any ever forgetting them. People are constantly telling each other things they already know.

Still, Deighton keeps the plot moving along at a brisk speed and does a good job of keeping the reader guessing at how things are going to turn out. This is the first in, astonishingly, a series of nine - a trilogy of trilogies. I have the second, Mexico Set, on my shelf for a later date.