For years, this book was on my Father’s bookshelf; for years I dared not read it. Len Deighton’s SS-GB was an imposing novel to even contemplate; the dust jacket had the notorious SS death’s head superimposed on the British flag. Nothing good could happen inside it, my younger self reasoned; better leave it and read something more cheerful. For years it remained unread, lurking on the shelf, until the BBC started to show an adaptation of the book. I put the misgivings of my younger self aside and dived in.
And I’m glad I did.
First off; this is a chilling book. The plot is driven by a film-noir style murder mystery; a body is discovered in a run down London antiques shop in November 1941 on the first page and the murderer is revealed in the last paragraph. The trailer at the link above gives a pretty good feel for the novel, it looks like it’ll be a good adaptation. The main character (who even knows he dresses like he’s out of film-noir!) is Douglas Archer, head of the Metropolitan Police Murder Squad, doing his job in trying to track down the killer with the aid of his ageing police sergeant. There’s just one slight problem getting in his way of solving the crime.
His boss is a Nazi. In fact, so is everyone else in a position of power in the UK.
Counter-factually, the Royal Air Force lost the Battle of Britain in 1940; invasion followed shortly thereafter. The British Army did its best but were overwhelmed; Churchill has been executed by the Nazi regime after a short show trial in Berlin, turning down the blindfold and flicking the V’s to the firing squad. (Note for non-Brits: “flicking the V’s” means giving an obscene hand gesture which is peculiarly English; like a reversed “peace” symbol, showing the front of the fingers rather than the back. It goes back to medieval times; a bit like giving someone the bird, but with more connotations of defiance). America has stayed out of the war; Pearl Harbour has yet to happen and the Nazis are still bezzers with the Russians, to the extent of giving them Scapa Flow and Rosyth naval bases and exhuming Karl Marx to lie with Lenin in his mausoleum in Red Square. Chillingly, the King is in the Tower of London, a simple plot device which sends a shiver down the spine when you first read it. (Note for readers unfamiliar with British history: the Tower of London is a castle where traitors to the crown were historically sent and often later executed; its history is soaked in blood. It is now a museum, but also still secure enough for the crown jewels to be kept there. Sending a modern monarch there has deeply unpleasant connotations). The Queen has escaped to New Zealand with Princesses Elizabeth and Margret. Against this background of turmoil, the Metropolitan Police are attempting to maintain law and order whilst remaining apolitical; Douglas Archer of Scotland Yard is reconciling upholding the law against the highly questionable ethics of his new superiors. His son doesn’t see the distinction:
Young Douggie took his father’s hand and they continued together along the High Street.
“Do you work for the Gestapo, Dad?” said his son without any preamble.
“No. I work at Scotland Yard. I’m a detective with the Metropolitan Police, just as I’ve always been–you know that, Douggie.”
“The Gestapo are at Scotland Yard,” said Douggie.
“They are in the next-door building”
The book’s setting in November 1941 means that unlike most over counter-historical novels (The Man in the High Tower, Fatherland etc) the war has only been over for a year and people are still literally and metaphorically sweeping up the bomb rubble. Archer’s wife is missing presumed killed a year ago when a Panzer division swept through their neighbourhood during the battle for London, leaving him with a young son to raise.
Except, the war isn’t quite over… Lots of suspicious murders are taking place involving ex soldiers; a fully fledged resistance movement is taking place in the North of England with rumours of hospital trains full of wounded German soldiers going south. The newly-rich party with the Germans whilst others have fallen on hard times; some familiar landmarks have been flattened whilst in other parts of the country life carries on as normal. Free British Forces fight on from Canada under Rear-Admiral Conolly (“A cool customer. To step off an aircraft carrier in Halifax and declare yourself leader of Free Britain takes breathtaking audacity.”), although they struggle to gain political recognition from the US. Meanwhile, the Germans are very interested in the body which has turned up in a resistance hideout above an antiques shop on page one, which has two bullet holes in his chest; curiously he has bloody gums, a bad case of sunburn in November, cataracts, a diseased liver and half his hair falling out (if you’ve guessed what his condition is, bravo; I didn’t figure it out until quite a bit later). A return ticket to the Dorset coast in his pocket suddenly sets high level wheels in motion… Against this background, Archer finds himself trying to solve a case with dangerous levels of political intrigue and infighting, whilst strange new weapons are being developed, a daring plot to rescue the king is underway and a resistance movement with a desire to murder collaborators is growing stronger by the day.
There’s a great deal of thought gone into this book. Most people are neither collaborators nor plucky resistance fighters; they’re simply trying to get life back to normal in turbulent times. There are some very chilling and upsetting scenes; at one point a murder suspect and potential resistance fighter is thought to be working at Archer’s son’s school. Archer wants to talk to him, but the German solution is simply to intern the entire staff and all the older boys as potential resistance fighters. Schoolboys and teachers are calmly loaded into trucks without a fuss and being taken god-knows-where whilst singing “if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” whilst Archer looks on helpless.
A trip to a prosthetic limb factory whilst on the trail of one of the suspects reveals a level of grim ironic punishment and a casual disregard for the Geneva conventions by the occupying forces; all of the wounded ex-servicemen in the UK who need prosthetics collect them from a small camp in Oxfordshire, where the workforce is entirely made up of old men in their fifties. These men turn out to be the British Generals responsible for the failed defence of the UK and then captured by the Germans. As Officers, they cannot be made to do work whilst held captive, so they have all therefore been stripped of their ranks and held as private citizens pending enquiries as to what they did whilst they were in the Army, whilst simultaneously being denied trial by courts martial. Now, they make and repair limbs for the shattered young men who they led in a futile defence of their homeland. It’s a sad and ironic end; one old General doing his best to teach a young man to walk again is a sobering scene.
The attention to detail in this book is astounding. There’s something very chilling about hearing familiar place names in a disturbing new context, such as the SS hospital on Hyde Park Corner. Deighton did his research (obviously, being a historian!); one quibble is that the Germans didn’t quite stick to the real-world invasion plans in his novel, but then there’s no evidence that they would have done so in real life either. The enemy does have a habit of getting in the way of your plans, no matter how well laid they are. The plot twists and turns; at times it’s difficult to follow but the ending comes with clarity and betrayal that I’ve not felt since Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold; betrayal which remains with you for days afterwards.
All in all, it’s a chillingly plausible tale of a history we narrowly avoided.
All right, from here on in, there are proper spoilers. The ending is so good I can’t not talk about it in detail. Be warned.
Talking about the enemy getting in the way of your plans: the endgame of the novel is disturbingly good. Archer has made his moral choice over upholding the law or fighting against oppression, he ends up wrapped deep in a plot to rescue the King, prevent the Nazis from developing nuclear weapons and to bring the Americans into the war. His new love interest has been murdered and he’s got out of several dicey situations by the skin of his teeth. The last few pages of the book find him with an invalided King (very ill, wheelchair bound and mute), carrying him to the spot on the Dorset coast where US Marines are raiding a Nazi atomic weapons research facility under a false Canadian flag, Albert Einstein in tow to pick out the key British Atomic scientists held captive there. As they’re preparing to escape and rally Free British forces around the king a diversionary attack provides cover for the retreating main force, when deep treachery suddenly reveals itself. Archer is lagging behind, supporting his ailing police sergeant when the rest of his small party, retreating towards the waiting boats, are caught in a German ambush:
They disappeared into a cloud of flying earth clods, as the machine-guns followed the beam of light. Douglas ran forward but he was downed by a flying tackle that knocked all the air out of his lungs. By the time he’d recovered it was all over. Bodies were strewn in every direction. The Germans had timed it to perfection; not more than a half-dozen men of this party of raiders had got down to the sea in safety. The mangled bodies of two dozen or more of their companions marked the pathway. Among the dead were Major Dodgson, Danny Barga and King George the Sixth, Emperor of India.
The whole book ends in tragedy. The whole plan has fallen apart; whilst the USA has successfully retreated with stolen Nazi atomic secrets, the King is dead. I just didn’t see that ending coming. I had to re-read it to be sure; a senior resistance leader, learning of the invalided condition of the King, had let slip the plan to the Nazis. Stalwart resistance fighters turn out to be German stooges, ardent Nazis turn out to be British spies; political decisions are made that a dead King is far more use than a live invalid:
(He) had deliberately sent the King by the cliff path, knowing that Huth’s men were in ambush there. (He) was playing God. (He) was writing the future history books. (He made) sure that the King died in battle alongside his American allies. Far better that, than an infirm and pathetic exile King in Washington, butt of the cartoonists’ cruelty, darling of the hostesses and constant reminder of the infirm and pathetic Britain occupied by the victorious Germans. Yes, now Douglas began to understand the way that a politician’s mind worked. No doubt the Queen and the Princesses were already on their way to Washington, D.C.
(With the main villains’s name disguised, of course!). Queen Elizabeth II comes to the throne at about the age of 14 or 15, and the US will now be willing to recognise Free British forces politically, allowing the war to continue and eventually be won. But it’s still a bitter ending. I guessed that a murder mystery novel set in Nazi occupied England would be grim. I guessed that not all would escape unharmed. I expected that. I didn’t expect this ending.
By god, it’s good.