Somehow I'd got hold of the idea that Len Deighton was past his prime when he wrote SS GB. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is at the height of his powers here.
I'm so glad that the excellent TV adaptation spurred me into finally reading this book. I'd say that SS GB is one of Deighton's finest... I only hesitate because it's such a bleak and harrowing narrative...
The novel depicts a Britain which was defeated and subjugated by the Nazis and is set not long after the invasion. It follows the exploits of Douglas Archer, a Scotland Yard detective who is increasingly out of his depth in a murder investigation which leads him into some very dark waters indeed.
This is of course an alternate history novel — and, effectively science fiction, though Deighton's publishers would never use that term,
since it would be commercial suicide for a bestselling thriller writer to be categorised in that genre ghetto.
There's a thriving
subgenre of alternate history stories, detailing for instance what would
the South had won the Civil War (Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore) or if
the Spanish Armada had successfully invaded (Pavane by Keith Roberts).
Indeed, SS GB isn't the first work of fiction to depict a Nazi victory (The Sound of His Horn by Sarban). Nor would it be the last (Fatherland by Robert Harris). But it's probably the best.
Deighton's tale is intriguingly reminiscent of The War of the Worlds in its portrait of devastation in recognisable London locations such as Putney Hill and Wimbledon. "Halfway up Wimbledon High Street — at the corner that makes such a perfect spot for an ambush — there was the blackened shell of a Panzer IV."
And Deighton uses the brilliant, offhand device of describing the headlines on a newspaper used to wrap fish and chips (what could be more cheerfully English?): Canterbury declared open city as German tanks enter.
There are also chilling throwaway lines such as the mention of "the notorious concentration camp at Wenlock Edge."
Deighton describes this parallel reality so distinctly and with such telling detail it's as if he's actually seeing it.
The book is immaculately researched, as you'd expect from the author of the brilliant novel Bomber and a series of masterly nonfiction works about World War 2.
But more than that, it's beautifully written: "the colourless sun only just visible through grey clouds, like an empty plate on a dirty table cloth."
The story is intensely imagined visually: "the wind was plucking at their coats, and lashing the trees into a demented dance... dark clouds were racing."
A German officer on a motorcycle "craned forward over the handlebars like a witch riding a broomstick" racing through "the evil-smelling London fog that swayed in front of the headlight... sometimes moving aside to reveal long ghostly corridors that ended in miserable grey streets."
And there are superb descriptions which make the reader physically present in the moment: "the shockwave of the explosion punched him in the face like a padded glove."
And splendid observations, like the parachutist who split his footwear on landing and now "massaged his broken shoe as if it were a small animal that needed comforting."
This is wonderful
writing with a real edge of poetry, as with this observation of interned prisoners waiting for interrogation: "But mostly they did no more
than stare into space, eyes unfocused as they tried to see tomorrow."
Like I said, Deighton is at the peak of his powers here.
This outstanding novel has only, I think, two flaws. For one chapter in the entire book (Chapter 37) he abandons his hero, Douglas Archer, and moves to the viewpoint of someone entirely different.
I can see why he did it, but this is an artistic flaw and I'm surprised it didn't offend his sense of craftsmanship; it's certainly jarring to the reader.
And I winced at the cruel, ruthless and casual way he killed off some of his characters. But that was a valid artistic decision — just one I wouldn't have shared. And it's certainly true to the facts of wartime. And it's nothing new in Deighton's work. He did the same in Bomber.
(Image credits: The main illustration is my scan of my own copy of the original Jonathan Cape hardcover, which I greatly enjoyed reading; the Panther paperback with the skull badge is also my own scan of my own copy. All the various other covers are from the excellent Good Reads.)