Berlin Game - 1983

The Samson series

Plot summary

A Berlin spy network is under threat from one its members - codename: Brahms Four. He wants out and is getting jittery, threatening the whole, painstakingly constructed network.

The only man he trusts - one-time British agent Bernard Samson, now retired and stuck behind a desk in the German section of London Central after the failure of a mission to extract another member of the Brahms network from behind the Iron Curtain - is sent from his semi-retirement back into the field in Berlin, the city in which he grew up and feels at home.

The only person he can seemingly trust is his boyhood friend Werner, who is anxious to get back into favour with London Central as an agent. Samson has to stay one step ahead of the mole. Can he uncover the treachery at the heart of the secret service and protect his family and the woman he loves - Fiona, his wife, who is rising fast up the promotional ladder in the service and now outranks him?

The disruption of the network soon reveals a bigger betrayal, as Samson uncovers the clues which lead to the awful discovery that it may be his wife who is the Soviet mole. Has she made the ultimate betrayal?

Why it's enjoyable

Deighton creates a new twist on the theme of betrayal in the spy genre: it is a female spy who is cast as betrayer and the husband is betrayed doubly - cuckolded, even - by his wife and colleagues. Bernard Samson is - in the opinion of this website - Deighton’s greatest character and this book starts to build up the picture of a sardonic, working class field agent who rails against the Oxbridge boys running the department while still needing their help, but also has to run a family as well as increasingly fragile spy networks. His constant desire to go back to Berlin, his birthplace, has to be matched by the need to stay in London and protect his position from ambitious colleagues in the office.

Samson is arguably the first ‘gritty’ spy character to have a domestic hinterland filled out in a novel: Deighton also gives an equally strong role to Samson's wife Fiona, who is the more ambitious and talented of the partnership but doesn't have Samson's canny nack of sniffing out trouble nor his fieldcraft skills. But, there are clues in this book which point to the pivotal and formidable character she will become over the eight books to come.

Sample dialogue

'Dicky became absorbed in the problem of rolling The Economist up so tightly that no light could be seen through it. After a long silence he said, "I didn't tell the stupid bastard to sell out his country. You think because he's a Balliol man I want to go easy on him." He got out his cigarettes and put one in his mouth unlit.

"I never went to college," I said. "I don't know what you're talking about."'

Related fact

In the introduction to a later edition, Len Deighton stated that Bernard's testimony in the books was unreliable. This is because Samson is biased, especially towards his superiors, and is prone to regarding himself too highly.

It is only when you get to the sixth novel, Spy Sinker, which recounts the events of the previous books from a third-person perspective, doubt is cast upon Bernard's reliability as a narrator, especially in his assessment of his colleagues' capabilities and motives which, in many cases, in hindsight he completely misjudges - the motives of his best friend Werner Volkmann, for example.

BerlinGame

Berlin Game, UK first edition, 1983

An operatic opening

Deighton on designing this grand story:

“I didn’t want simplicity. I didn’t want a spot-lit singer on a bare stage. I wanted an opera”