J.'s Reviews > Horse Under Water

Horse Under Water by Len Deighton
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's review
Jul 23, 2010

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bookshelves: united-kingdom, europe, suspense-espionage, coldwar, deighton

A little over-achieving in the early chapters, where Deighton launches every disconcerting jump-cut, jarring montage or snap-zoom that he can; a symptom of the times, probably, and certainly influenced by the Pop Media of the day.

Once the flashy business is over and we're into the actual storyline, the novel improves considerably. Here we're back on familiar ground and the better-known Deighton environs that were notable in The Ipcress File and Funeral In Berlin. The great strengths of this kind of espionage novel are the practicalities and detailing. How to tap a phone, spot a dead drop, all the tradecraft basics, of course, but also the clanky day-to-day grit of postwar Europe in the late fifties-- the small airports, the tube, trains, cabs in cluttered cities not designed around the automobile.

The truth is that there isn't much here beyond the usual scenario to get excited about; the reason for this genre of spy novel certainly is no longer the pacing, hush-hush gadgetry or casual sex that were once the main draw; they have long been surpassed in ever-more-senseless & accelerated form.

For myself the attraction here is that very grounded, gritty, and cuppa-tea-love? mode of coldwar mise en scène, a style that really originated in the John Buchan novels of the early part of the century.

There's a wealth of mid-century analog here, presented as high-tech:

Deep down in the lower basement of the Central Register building the air is warmed and filtered. Two armed police-men in their wooden office photgraphed me with a Polaroid camera and filed the photo. The big gray metal cabinets hum with the vibration of the air-conditioning fans, and on the far side of the wooden swing doors is yet another security check waiting. Perhaps this is the most secret place in the world. I asked for Mr. Cassel and it took a little time to find him. He greeted me, signed for me, and took me into the inner sanctum. On both sides of us the cabinets rose ten feet high, and every few paces we dodged around stepladders on wheels, or around the serious-faced W.R.A.C. officers who service the records... We came to a low room that looked like a typing pool. In front of each clerk was an electric typewriter, a phone with a large number painted where the dial should be, and a machine like a typewriter carriage. Each document received from cmmmercial espionage or governmental departments is retyped by the men in this room...
Kevin Cassel's office was a glass-walled eyrie reached by a step wooden staircase. From it we could see perhaps two acres of files. Here and there were brick columns on which hung red buckets and soda-lime fire extinguishers.

A lost underground world of secrecy. Fortunately this story also takes place on distant location, the coast of Portugal, where the narrative stalks the kind of territory Ian Fleming loved so much. And there is no scarcity of improbable developments here, though as with either Buchan or Fleming, it doesn't really matter much.

We don't purchase the ticket for this ride to complain about plausibility. It's the carnival of primitive postwar paranoia, with diabolical patterns hidden in plain sight; the bigger picture is painted in the tone and in the mood, with their reflections in the gray & minimalist art direction.

As with the previous masters, Fleming, Buchan, Eric Ambler & Graham Greene as well-- there is always a place in the proceedings for perplexing uncertainty:

I dozed until-- plonk, plonk --the undercarriage came down and cabin lighting was turned fully bright to open sleep-moted eyes. As the plane rumbled to a halt, anxious holiday-makers clasped last year's straw hats and groped toward the exit door.
"Goodnightsirandthankyou .. goodnightsirandthankyou ... goodnightsirandthankyou..." The stewardess bestowed a low communion upon departing passengers.
The plump man edged his way along the plane toward me. "Number twenty-four," he said.
"What?" I said nervously.
"You are number twenty-four," he said loudly. "I never forget a face."
"Who are you?" I asked.
His face bent into a rueful smile. "You know who I am," he shouted. "You are the man in apartment number twenty-four and I am Charlie the milkman."
"Oh yes," I said weakly.
It was the milkman with the deaf horse. "Have a good holiday, Charlie. I'll settle up when you get back..."


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