SS-GB by Len Deighton

I think I have read most of Deighton’s books over the years but hadn’t read this one. My eye was caught when last in Waterstones as it has been released as part of their Modern Classics Crime and Espionage series.

If you are a fan of crime novels then there will be much that is familiar to you in here. A body is discovered and it is eventually identified as the Scientist Dr Spode who is not only dead but has strange burns on his forearms. Douglas Archer, Archer of the Yard, is given the case to solve and he ends up on a twisty, convoluted journey to find the killer. What makes the book different is the ‘What if . . .’ setting and time because Deighton has anchored this book in a Britain that surrendered after two years of war and is now ruled by Germans with the King in London Tower.

The conquerors have installed irritating and useless rules for people to live by and if there is any threat to their rule, the locals are rounded up, sent to Germany to ‘work’ or are killed by firing squad. The journey to find the murderer takes Archer into the world of resistance which desires the King to released from the tower and America to enter the war.

What I think the book does do well is to show the motivations of people to save those they love, fathers and sons, those who don’t agree with their own regime and the activists and how they can be manipulated to work for the system. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the seemingly most English loving German, dressed in his tweeds as if he is off for a day’s shooting, turns out the be the most machievellan of the lot. They all end up owing him something and having to work for him. It’s all about power.

During WWII there was a race for atomic bombs and this is reflected in the story: who will get them first? Americans or Germans and of course, we know so much more about this than the people in the book. For Archer the bomb documents are another bargaining chip rather than something he has fully understood, the same going for Huth, the German sent to oversee the case, who links it to the occult. This tension between characters’ understanding and the reader’s is an interesting one and a great device for the plot.

Written in 1978, it was probably quite radical at the time and of course so much nearer to the war that could be read by those who fought in it. Now, there are far more alternative histories based on this era and whilst it is a good read, it isn’t outstanding. There is Dominion by C.J. Sansom, Widowland by C. J. Carey, The Man in the Castle by Philip K. Dick, Fatherland by Robert Harris and 1945 by Robert Conroy if you enjoy this sort of historical fiction.

It was an enjoyable read but not knock out.

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