The Reading Room

Location, Location, Location

Len Deighton’s MAMista……

Stopping off at a motorway service station during a business trip this week I saw a copy of Len Deighton’s MAMista on the shelf for the bargain price of £2.99. I looked at it, reminded myself why I never bothered buying a first edition, put it down and went for a coffee.

Coffee drank, I went back and bought it! Len Deighton enjoyed a remarkable run as an author. He enjoyed huge success with his ‘Harry Palmer’ novels in the early sixties with no small help from Michael Caine as the lead role in The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain. His comic strip style cookery books and newspaper articles won him acclaim and whilst his output in the 70s doesn’t compare to the two decades either side he still produced some notable novels, I made a mental note of it as I paid.

His next flush of success came with the staggeringly good Game, Set and Match trilogy, so good in fact he added six more to the series. His theatre of choice, the Cold War and, more often than not, Berlin. That theatre was Deighton’s speciality, an authority on military history he got under the skin of Cold War Europe and brought us along with him. In MAMista he swapped Europe for the jungles of South America and, as with Le Carré, my own personal alarm bells rang when I read the blurb on the back.

In true 21st century tradition I shall quickly add, for fear of offending anyone, that I am a huge fan of both authors. In their heyday they were a set apart and in a world of James Bond and related spoofs they gave true espionage fiction fans the stories they craved. Clearly, Deighton, like Le Carré sought another route from the path well trodden, I don’t blame them, we all want new projects to keep us going but does it always work out?

Well, MAMista is one of those books that I cannot quite figure out. I liked it enough but I didn’t love it. Easy to read, mostly believable, it’s tale of ‘moral ambiguity’ seen as the new standard formerly governed by Graham Greene. Show me a spy fiction author who doesn’t get Le Carré/Greene references on every cover. But was it any good? Well, the characters never really touched me, I  struggled to buy into them and their cause. The book cannot readily identify itself as a thriller and in that regard I can begin to understand the Greene comparisons. His nuanced descriptions of life, the landscape and its people’s is really very good indeed, Deighton got his facts right.

So was it the location that ultimately did it for me? Perhaps. I suppose in the past I couldn’t reconcile myself to a Deighton book set anywhere other than East and West Germany with the occasional trip further afield but South America in almost its entirety? Perhaps Deighton spoilt us in the past, and like our favourite band he had to go ‘experimental’ on us. Is it as reread able as the Bernie Samson novels? Not for this business tripper. Will I avoid City of Gold on the merits of MAMista? Most probably yes. Maybe it’s me, I have a natural affiliation with all things Germany and the Cold War and I suppose I expect my espionage writers to stick to the script I have come to  love. I wonder what other Deighton fans think?

But, on a final note, kudos to  Deighton for managing to include a word I have only ever previously come across in a Motorhead song lyric, Parallelogram!

MAMista by Len Deighton

First published in 1991.

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