I think reading a classic Len Deighton must be like watching one of the old master painters in action. There’s the preparation, the background, the deft brushstrokes, building up layer on layer of colours and nuance in perfect harmony. And then you finally take a step back, reveals a masterpiece.
Or maybe it’s like watching a master magician? There’s slight of hand, deception, concealment and finally slapping of the forehead ‘oh, you got me!’
SS-GB is set in 1941 and the book opens with a ‘copy’ of an ‘official’ German document. OK so far. It’s just that it is in fact ‘the instrument of surrender…of all English armed forces in United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland including all islands.’ This happened in February 1941. It’s now November. Churchill has been executed. King George VI is in the Tower of London – and not as a visitor. The SS are now running the province of England. And to make matters worse…there’s suddenly a murder case for Superintendent Douglas Archer of Scotland Yard to solve. A routine one, a black-marketeer murdered in London, of the open and shut kind, it would seem. But if the case is so routine, why have the Germans, Himmler himself no less, sent an SS Standartenführer Huth over from Berlin to take control? Huth is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, confident to arrogance and especially irritating if you’re the nice General Kellerman, with a taste for all the trappings of the English aristocracy and are trying to run Scotland Yard as your own little fiefdom. But as the story progresses, one begins to wonder who is outmanoeuvring who here. It all boils down to a trial of strength between the German Army and the up-starts, as they see them, at the SS and SD. And Archer, a thoroughly able and professional Policeman, gets caught in the middle. His professionalism means he will solve the case, no matter who does or doesn’t want him to. And the ‘doesn’t’ doesn’t always come from where you might expect it to.
SS-GB builds up with matter of fact, nothing unusual about this, description of how things are in the wrong kind of post-war Britain. Deighton has created a thoroughly believable world here, with all the sights and sounds – and smells – brought vividly to alternate life. He describes a horrendously war-torn Britain, its population bombed and blitzed into submission and run (rings round) by the Germans. As it would have been, had it been that way. But, look under the surface, as Archer with the help of his rather more typical, flat-footed colleague Harry Woods is forced to do as the investigation progresses, and we find that perhaps not everyone has actually surrendered. What Len Deighton has created here is not just a look at how things might have been, a simple description of the situation – as he imagines it – would suffice there. He has created a rather more subtle, layered and nuanced look at both the German’s inner power struggles and the British attitude to ‘getting on with it’ no matter what. It is a world that I found myself so taken in by, that I sometimes had to almost tell myself it didn’t really happen this way.
If I had to try really hard and pick a nit (and it really feels like telling Leonardo Ms Lisa’s smile should be a little brighter), it would be that the main man Douglas Archer does seem to have got used to working for Germans and integrated into all things German, very quickly, given that this novel takes place only a matter of nine months after their victory. I could well have missed the bit that said he was (previous to being a Policeman) a German scholar or spent his formative years in Germany, but it was one little thing that bugged me (see the link with ‘nit’ there?)
Other than that, SS-GB is a classic partly because it is a great idea well executed and partly because (published first in 1980) I think you could probably argue, that this one kicked off the whole range of ‘what if…’ novels of the ‘what if the Germans HADN’T lost?’ variety. I stand to be corrected on that one of course, but even if SS-GB wasn’t the first, in my opinion it’s certainly the best.