Book review – Berlin Game

I’m familiar with Len Deighton’s work having seen the Harry Palmer series of movies, including The Ipcress File, starring Michael Caine. Berlin Game is however the first Deighton novel I’ve read. I don’t know why it took me so long to get round to it given I’m a fan of the genre but Berlin Game seemed like a good place to start given the positive reviews.

Berlin Game is the first in a trilogy of novels centred on the character of Bernard Sampson, a relatively senior member of MI6. While Sampson appears to be happy sitting behind a desk, he leads a jaded existence fuelled by drink and his disdain of his peers, who, unlike Sampson, have risen up the ranks without ever having spent any time in the field. Sampson’s past comes back to haunt him as London’s prized asset in Berlin, ‘Brahms Four’, wants out and trusts only Sampson to help him escape. To make matters worse there may be a spy in the upper echelons of Britain’s secret intelligence service.

As you’d expect, Berlin Game is chock full of twists and turns, and like any spy book worth its salt, you don’t know who to trust. So far so typical, as is Sampson’s marriage which is crumbling around him. While it’s all a little familiar it would be unfair to knock Deighton for this. Berlin Game was published in 1983, over twenty years after The Ipcress File was published (1962). Not only is Deighton one of the genre’s originators but the Cold War was also in full swing in 1983. And I’m reviewing this 35 years after it was originally published! What is refreshing is the fact that Sampson himself is a rather unremarkable character which lends the book a certain charm: the spy as an everyman rather than a Jason Bourne or an Ethan Hunt type.

Readers of this blog know that I enjoy Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb books. While Deighton’s book is more sober and gritty than those of Herron’s they’re not as serious as Le Carre’s. So if you’ve found the latter to be a little dry then perhaps Deighton is your man. I enjoyed the book and blasted through its 317 pages. However, from what I’ve read it’s not his best. The Ipcress File would appear to be the place to start though the film is one of my favourites. Still, I recently read Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (knowing the film pretty well) and enjoyed that massively, so perhaps Ipcress is the way to go.