7. Bernie Samson (Len Deighton)
Len Deighton published The Ipcress File in 1964 just as John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was hitting bestseller lists. Deighton’s books starring nameless and jaded agent (dubbed Harry Palmer for a trio of movies and memorably played by Michael Caine) was immediately lumped in and celebrated along with LeCarre as the “new school” of espionage fiction.
But while Deighton took an often less than complimentary look at the bureaucratic command structure of British Intelligence agencies, he did not engage in the kind of moral equivalence that LeCarre did. Nor did Deighton ever glamorize traitors as idealists.
Besides his Cold War espionage thrillers, Deighton wrote a memorable book on The Battle of Britain, and Blood, Tears and Folly, which showed the blunders that led up to WWII and early bad decisions that cost many lives and led to war. His best non-Cold War novel was SS-GB, about an occupation of Britain by the Nazis, that bears comparison to Gorky Park or Fatherland. He was also a noted cooking writer.
But while movie fans remember Deighton for “Harry Palmer” and The Iprcress File, as icons of the genre in the 60s, he saved his best for last.
In 1984’s Berlin Game, Deighton introduced Bernie Samson, a workaday spy who has been fighting the bad guys in Germany since he was a young agent in WWII. Now, Bernie’s best asset in East Germany wants out; but first Bernie and Fiona, his younger wife who is an up and coming star at MI-6, must uncover a traitor in their ranks.
Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall formed the setting for many classic spy novels and films, but none more effectively or evocatively than Berlin Game. The book ends with a stunning twist that sets up the rest of the trilogy, Mexico Set and London Match. Deighton then wrote Winter, a prequel that set the historical background in Germany up to and through WWII.
The Game, Set and Match trilogy was so popular that Deighton started another, with Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker, and though the Cold War was ending, kept his books set in the days of the Iron Curtain. Deighton tried his hand at a few post-cold war novels, but none was very successful—or all that good.
He returned to the Bernie and Fiona story with yet another trilogy of East/West spy vs. spy with Faith, Hope and Charity. Since Charity’s publication in 1996, Deighton has been retired, contributing only a Sherlock Holmes story for an anthology in 1996.
The nine Bernard Samson novels were a fitting end to a great career, and arguably the best series of its kind; a truly memorable saga of the end of the Cold War.