Funeral in Berlin, UK first edition 1964

Funeral in Berlin - 1964

Plot summary

‘Harry Palmer’ - who is unnamed in the novel, but familiar to us from his film moniker - is asked to go Berlin to arrange the defection of a Soviet scientist called Semitsa. This is brokered by Johnny Vulkan, a shady character who takes treats with all sides of Berlin’s intelligence community. This is a constant theme of Deighton's - the uncertainty of loyalty.

Russian Colonel Stok seems anxious that the deal goes through and the plan is to use a mock funeral to cross the wall from East to West. But 'Harry' starts thinking: why does the fake documentation for Paul Louis Broum need to be so specific and why is Hallam at the Home Office pushing for the deal to be done? Furthermore, what is Israeli intelligence agent Samantha Steel’s game? It is from these questions that a story, which could only be described as labyrinthine, develops and draws in the reader.

What follows is a mix of plots and sub-plots, dead ends and multiple agencies from the UK, Russia, Germany, the USA and Israel all competing for the same prize - secret information. The reader is forced in every chapter to ask: who is playing off who against whom?

Why it's enjoyable

The book introduces the memorable Soviet Colonel Stok character, who’s equally great in the film version where he's played by legendary Austrian actor Oskar Homolka. Reflecting the metaphorical biting cold of the Cold War in the 'sixties and the proxy Cold-War represented by international chess matches, each chapter starts with a chess game reference. In the novel, Colonel Stok boasts to the unnamed spy that he is one of the best chess players in Berlin. It is clearly also an ongoing metaphor for the complicated nature of the plot and espionage, where there is a need for each side to think many moves ahead.

Overall, the plot has twists and turns and surprises that keep you guessing how it all fits together. It is, in truth, pretty complex and only on the second or third reading - as with all of this series - does everything start to fit together. The dialogue, however, is sparkling, and contrasts the weary cynicism of the leading character with the uncertainty and intrigue of a divided Berlin.

Sample dialogue

'"It's official then?" I asked. "An official exchange". Vulkan chuckled and glanced at the major.

"It's more what you might call extra-curricular. Official but extra-curricular," he said again, loud enough for the American to hear. The American laughed and went back to his shoelace.

"The way we hear it, there is a lot of extra-curricular activity here in Berlin."'

Related facts

The marketing wrap-around (rarely found now - see photo) on the first editions has a photo of Len Deighton and Michael Caine from The Ipcress File movie shoot, and on the back a press shot of Deighton and Bond Author Ian Fleming having lunch together in 1963.

When the Penguin paperback edition of the novel was launched in 1966, it was preceded by a new aggressive style of marketing introduced by chief editor Tony Godwin featuring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer more prominently on the cover. He chartered an aircraft, decorated it with the book's motif and flew a planeload of journalists to Berlin, where they were given a tour of the Berlin Wall by Michael Caine, the star of the film.

All content (c) Rob Mallows 2010-2016 (unless otherwise stated)