"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

London insists: The Tango Briefing by Adam Hall (1973)

....that renowned student of spy fiction, Randall Masteller, regards the Quiller books as 'one of the greatest spy series ever written'

--Mike Ripley, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed (2017).

The Tango Briefing by Adam Hall (1973)

....The situation, Quiller, is simply this. Even if you have only a one per cent chance of surviving the end-phase, London would appreciate your making the attempt.

One always has to paraphrase just a little, with Loman.

Then I'd called to Chirac to start up and I was here because I was an old ferret sharp of tooth and I knew my warrens and I'd run them before and I'd run them again because the chance I believe in is the one-per-center and that is the way of things, as I see them. Pure logic, of course: the high risks of my trade drew me to it and that is why I ply it, and the greater the risk the more I am drawn and when the risk is expressed as a one per cent chance of survival then I'm hooked and damned and hell-bound and don't get in my way.

An impossible situation: get rid of something permanently before it undercuts the prestige of UK imperialism in the international arena. Loman is put in charge, and Loman demands Quiller for his executive. It's easy to see why. Quiller is a frustrating pain in the neck, but Loman knows that is tolerable fallout considering he acts without fail.

The Tango Briefing starts out like one of those interminable 900 page Clive Cussler novels. But by page 200 the mission is accomplished.

Adam Hall's skill as a writer is on ample display in The Tango Briefing. The Algerian desert is beautifully evoked, with its head-aching heat and eye-burning sand. But the real pleasure is sitting back and observing Quiller gaming both sides of the chess board in the nanosecond before he has to take action.

The ellipses Hall employs to keep the first-person narration captivating are fine coups of craftsmanship.

….So at 19.15 I checked out of the Hotel Africa and went across to where the Chrysler was parked and they said later at the hospital that the glass had been the worst trouble because some very small fragments had got stuck in my face and they'd been difficult to find.

There weren't any bones broken but they were worried by various signs of physiological shock that were still hanging about, and the bruises where I'd been flung across the pavement. I didn't remember much, but there'd been no actual retrogressive amnesia: I checked on that right away. I was just walking towards the Chrysler and then the senses went partially dead through overloading: very bright flash, a lot of noise, smell of burnt aromatic nitro compounds and the feel of the pavement sliding around under me.

They'd made a silly mistake, that was all. They wouldn't have risked installing an ignition detonator linkage right outside in the street: they'd had to put something quick on board and it was probably a rocking activator and a bus had passed close and the slipstream had rocked the Chrysler enough to trigger the thing at the wrong time, three or four seconds too early.

Loman came as soon as I rang him and found me in the casualty room with bowls and bandages and blood everywhere.

'Listen, get me out of here and fix another plane.'

Speech sounded a bit sloppy because the mouth had got cut up by the glass and it had begun puffing.

'Do they want to keep you under observation?'

'Yes, there's the odd bit of glass left in but it'll work itself out, they know that….


10 January 2018

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Monday, January 8, 2018

Turning the tables: High Citadel by Desmond Bagley (1965).

High Citadel - Desmond Bagley

....South America proved a happy hunting ground for several thriller writers, just as Africa had for Rider Haggard and Edgar Wallace, and previous generations of adventure-seekers. With its jungles, high mountains, lost cities, and, indeed, lost civilisations, as well as extremely exotic (and dangerous) local inhabitants – piranhas, anacondas, native Indians with blowpipes and curare-tipped darts, not to mention ex-Nazis – it is rather surprising that it was not the setting for more tales of high adventure.

In the same year that Snake Water was published, however, Desmond Bagley produced another top-notch one in High Citadel, a rip-roaring thriller set in the High Andes where the survivors of a plane crash not only have to contend with the inhospitable terrain, but are pursued by an army of rebel soldiers. Fortunately, among the ranks of the survivors are a couple of medieval historians who are able to construct medieval weapons to fight off their attackers.7

....Desmond Bagley was really good at disasters and how his characters reacted to the dangers which surrounded them, often natural or physical (hurricanes, avalanches) or man-made and occasionally his characters showed extraordinary (though not fantastical) resourcefulness.

The 'unique selling point' of High Citadel was how the survivors of a plane hi-jack (and crash) in the Andes fight off well-armed insurgents by resorting to building weapons from antiquity. When a condensed version of the book appeared (with illustrations) in the American magazine Argosy in August 1965, it was under the rather bellicose headline: 'Are medieval weapons a match against the military might of a modern Communist force?'2

--Mike Ripley, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed (2017).


High Citadel by Desmond Bagley (1965) takes place high in the Andes mountains.

Mines, mining camps, a tortuous mountain road, glaciers, and a bridgehead are the locations of action. Our protagonists, in less than a week, survive (mostly) plane crash, altitude sickness, scrapes, cuts, frostbite, and bullet holes.

One among the survivors of the crash is a political opponent of the country's current leadership. Cuban-backed guerrillas want him dead before they launch their coup.

I'm a Marxist and a defender of the Cuban revolution and its revolutionary leadership. I still enjoyed this outdoor adventure thriller. Bagley might smear the Cuban revolution, but I chose to take that as testament to the revolution's political weight and moral authority in mid-60s South America.

The plane crash survivors are a cross section of genric swells. There's the Anglo-Irish pilot, O'Hara, who pulls himself out of a personal and professional tailspin by becoming a real leader. Dr. Aguillar, the bourgeois liberal politician, a frail and excessively noble old man, is accompanied by his lovely niece Benedetta and younger cothinker of utmost skill, Rohde. Peabody, an ugly American if ever there was one, comes to a sticky end. Willis and Armstrong are respectively engineer and Medieval military scholar. Miss Ponsky is what used to be called an old maid school marm, but she is also the archery champion of South Bridge, Connecticut.

The survivors harry guerillas to stop them repairing and crossing a river bridge. They do this by converting abandoned materials in the derelict mining camp to crossbows and a trebuchet. All work together, and with an author like Bagley spelling things out I now think I could at least build a crossbow.

The fittest survivors agree to scale a looming peak in order to reach help in a valley on the other side. It is a harrowing trip, filled with sharp depictions of cold, hunger, and exhaustion.

….Rohde cut steps in the fifteen-foot ice wall as high as he could reach while standing on reasonably firm ground, then climbed up and roped himself to pitons and stood in the steps he had already cut, chopping vigorously. He cut the steps very deep, having Forester in mind, and it took him nearly an hour before he was satisfied that Forester could climb the wall safely.

The packs were hauled up on a rope and then Forester began the climb, roped to Rohde. It was the most difficult task he had faced in his life. Normally he could have almost run up the broad and deep steps that Rohde had cut but now the bare ice burned his hands, even through the gloves, his chest ached and stabbing pains pierced him as he lifted his arms above his head, and he felt weak and tired as though the very breath of life had been drained from him. But he made it and collapsed at Rohde's feet.

Here the wind was a howling devil driving down the pass and bearing with it great clouds of powdery snow and ice particles which stung the face and hands. The din was indescribable, a freezing pandemonium from an icy hell, deafening in its loudness. Rohde bent over Forester, shielding him from the worst of the blast, and made him sit up. "You can't stay here," he shouted. "We must keep moving. There is no more hard climbing — just the slope to the top and down the other side."

Forester flinched as the ice particles drove like splinters into his face and he looked up into Rohde's hard and indomitable eyes. "Okay, buster," he croaked harshly. ".Where you go, so can I."

Rohde thrust some coca quids into his hand. "You will need these." He checked the rope round Forester's waist and then picked up both packs, tentatively feeling their weight. He ripped them open and consolidated the contents into one pack, which he slung on his back despite Forester's protests. The empty pack was snatched by the wind and disappeared into the grey reaches of the blizzard behind them.

Forester stumbled to his feet and followed in the tracks that Rohde broke. He hunched his shoulders and held his head down, staring at his feet in order to keep the painful wind from his face. He wrapped the blanket hood about the lower part of his face but could do nothing to protect his eyes, which became red and sore. Once he looked up and the wind caught him right in the mouth, knocking the breath out of him as effectively as if he had been punched in the solar plexus. Quickly he bent his head again and trudged on.

The slope was not very steep, much less so than below the cliffs, but it meant that to gain altitude they had that much farther to go. He tried to work it out; they had to gain a thousand feet of height and the slope was, say, thirty degrees — but then his bemused mind bogged down in the intricacies of trigonometry and he gave up the calculation.

Readers who enjoy military strategy, extreme weather survival, and heroes scrambling around in rough terrain and turning the tables on enemies by using guerilla tactics and pre-gunpowder weapons will find everything they want in High Citadel.

8 January

Saturday, January 6, 2018

A Cornish thriller: Wreckers Must Breathe by Hammond Innes (1940)

....Hammond Innes, who was to enjoy huge success in the Fifties, had published four novels before the war, but it was his three war stories – Wreckers Must Breathe , The Trojan Horse (both 1940), and Attack Alarm (1941) – which were to lay the foundations of his post-war bestselling career. Three excellent thrillers in less than two years is an impressive enough feat for anyone, let alone someone serving as an anti-aircraft gunner during an actual war. The imaginative and, no doubt at the time, sensational, if not terrifying Wreckers Must Breathe , about a secret U-boat base in the coastal caves and tin mine workings of Cornwall, was supposedly written as a result of a holiday in Cornwall by Innes and his wife in the late summer of 1939. 

-- Mike Ripley, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed (2017).

Slowly going broke

Mike Ripley's 2017 history Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed is a reader's daydream of a book: belles lettres synopses and celebrations of a pivotal quarter century in popular literature. The book is also the royal road to bankruptcy for thriller readers.

(What made the period 1950-1979 so rich in thrillers of surpassing quality? Ripley suggests it was because so many of the writers were journalists who had seen something of the real world. I would add: a world of wars, revolutions, and fermenting liberation movements.)

I decided over Christmas, after finishing KKBB in about 17 hours, to read some of the writers Ripley warmly praised. I was aware of most of them, but had never been motivated before.

My first plunge was The Ninth Directive, followed quickly by Horse Under Water. The momentum was great enough to give me confidence to finally finish Deighton's opus Winter.

Now I'm back to my KKBB list.

A war thriller

This is the author dedication of Wreckers Must Breathe:

To The village of Cadgwith in Cornwall. Where I spent my last holiday before the war and where I hope to spend my first holiday when it is all over.

Wreckers Must Breathe is an outlandish thriller, but that is not necessarily a negative.

It begins calmly enough, with splendid evocations of the Cornish coast. But this is not Doc Martin: there is nothing quaint about the lawlessness on display. It is deadly.

Vacationing London drama critic Walter Craig befriends local charter boat captain and man-mountain Big Logan. Together they determine something more than fishing is happening at night on their slice of coast.

After Craig and Logan disappear, the novel takes a very hard turn. Craig's employer dispatches novelist and former Fleet Street reporter Maureen Weston to find Craig. Her search takes her into the bowels of an abandoned coastal tin mine.

....I don't know why the discovery that the level just ended in a sheer drop should have upset me so much. I think there must always be something very unpleasant about finding a sheer drop underground. Probably it is the immediate and involuntary feeling that if one had no torch and stumbled on it in the dark one would now be lying at the bottom where the water was splashing. I felt rather foolish really, because quite automatically I had clutched at Alf's arm—and as a one-time Fleet Street woman I pride myself on being tougher than most females. I mean, damn it, one knows quite well that mine shafts are put down and levels cut at various depths.

We retraced our steps and went down the winze into the next level. At the bottom we turned left until we came to what Alf described as a cross-cut. We took this and at the end turned right. By this time I was feeling an uncomfortable desire to cling on to his arm. With all these bewildering turns and the memory of that drop into the old shaft, I was terrified of being separated from him. I remembered all sorts of ghoulish stories about the catacombs of Rome, and pictured myself wandering alone in the place till I either died of starvation or killed myself by falling down a shaft in the dark. It was from this point, I think, that I began to get really frightened of the dark. It seemed to press in on us from every side as though endeavouring to muffle our torches. The air was warm and stale and damp, and the echo of our footsteps had an unpleasant habit of coming back at us down the disused galleries long after we had moved.

Quite often now Alf would pause and listen, with his head cocked on one side. I asked him once whether he was listening for ghosts, thinking of the miners who had been trapped. But he didn't smile. His round craggy face was set and taciturn. Every time we paused we could hear that faint roar, as of an underground waterfall, and the echo of footsteps came whispering back at us. It was then I began to feel that we were being followed. I no longer felt sure it was the echo of our own footsteps. Again I remembered the men who had lost their lives in that disaster ten years ago. We were nearing that section of the mine and I began to see in every shadow the ghost of a dead miner. Once I cried out at my own shadow cast against a wall of rock ahead of me. I tell you, I was really frightened.

By this time we had descended another winze and Alf announced in a whisper that we had reached the lowest level in this section of the mine. And a second later down the gallery behind came the whisper—'the lowest level in this section of the mine'—with the sibilants all magnified. It was uncanny. There was a good deal of timber in this section, not all of it sound. Much of it was green and beginning to rot. Once I stumbled on a piece of rock and clutched at a prop to save myself from falling. The outer surface of the wood crumbled in my hand, all wet and sloppy.

Then we came to the bricked up foot of the new shaft. We bore away to the left along a gallery in which the timber was still grey and sound. The gallery sloped downwards and curved away to the right. Sections of rail still lay along the floor and the roar of distant water was much louder. The sound was peculiar and distorted, more like a hum, as though a rushing cataract were pouring through a narrow gorge. Remembering the disaster, I felt that at any moment we might be overwhelmed by a wall of water, though Alf assured me we were still well above sea level. My nerves were completely gone.

At length the gallery flattened out and branched into three. Alf hesitated, and then took the right-hand branch. The sound of water became even louder. The gallery here was very well built. It was about seven feet wide and the same high, and in places it was cemented to keep out the water. Then suddenly we rounded a bend and came face to face with the most ghastly-looking fall. The whole of the roof had simply caved in and the gallery was blocked by great chunks of rock that looked as though they might have been part of Stonehenge. It suddenly made me realize that it is possible to get trapped in even the soundest-seeming galleries.

Alf played his torch over the debris and at length we turned back and retraced our steps to where the main gallery had branched. We took the next branch, and before we had gone more than forty feet we came up against another huge fall. I began to have a feeling that the whole place must be unsafe. All I wanted to do was to get out of it before it caved in on top of us.

Alf spent even longer examining this fall. But at length he led me back and down the next branch. It was the same thing. Thirty feet or so down the gallery we were stopped by a fall. I guessed then that there must be a serious fault in the whole rock formation at this point. I said as much to Alf, but he only grunted and continued to poke about amongst the debris. Then he began to examine the walls.

At last I could stand it no longer. 'I'm getting out of this,' I said.

He nodded. 'All right, miss,' he said. But he made no move. He simply stood there with his head on one side, listening. Involuntarily I began to listen too. I could hear the hum of the water somewhere beyond the falls and occasionally there was the creak of a pit prop.

I suddenly clutched his arm. 'I can't stand this,' I said. 'What are you listening for? What's the matter with the place?' He seemed a little put out by my questions. 'You're uneasy, aren't you?' I went on. 'I've felt it ever since we left the old workings. For God's sake tell me what it is. Have we lost our way, is somebody following us—what? I don't mind so long as you tell me what it is.'

Then he told me. 'Somebody has been in this mine since it was closed down,' he said. He told me not to be alarmed. Then he said, 'Remember that fall we had to scramble through in the old workings?' I nodded. 'That was what first made me uneasy,' he went on. Then he explained that he thought the fall unnatural. 'Do you suppose it would have been done to discourage people from entering the mine?' he asked. Then he pointed out that the watercourse had been diverted. Normally it would have run through these workings and out beyond into the cave. And what about these falls, he asked. He took my hand and showed me clean-cut flakes on the walls and marks as though the rock had been blackened. 'These falls are not natural,' he said. He spoke fast and excited in his musical Welsh voice. 'The rock has been blasted. Those marks are the marks of dynamite. Someone has blocked off the new workings.' He swung round on me. 'Why is that?' he asked. 'Indeed, and can you tell me why you wanted to come down this mine?'

I explained that I had reason to be suspicious of the last owner. He looked at me with his head on one side. 'Mr Wilson was not a good man,' he said. 'But I did not think him dishonest.'

He took my arm and led me back up the gallery. 'Tomorrow we will come down with two friends of mine. I believe we may be able to find a way through this fall.'

And that is how things stand at the moment. We got out of the mine shortly after one. I felt pretty near exhausted and very dirty. Since then I have had a wash, a meal and a rest. I don't know what to think. I had a hunch that the mine would be worth looking at. Now I've been down it and am informed that someone has tampered with it since it was closed—in fact, that someone has deliberately produced four falls of rock. But we were able to get through the first fall—the one in the old workings. Was that design or inefficiency? Was I mistaken when I had that unpleasant feeling that we were being followed? And the three big falls—what was on the other side? What is that faint roar of water? Alf says it doesn't sound like water. Is somebody drilling? The whole thing is so fantastic. Do you remember Conan Doyle's Tales of Horror and Mystery? Well, I feel as though I'm writing the diary in one of his tales of horror that will be found after I am dead and from which others will draw the wildest conjectures. Suppose there is an underground race and they are coming to the surface to conquer us? Stupid! But when you are deep in the bowels of the earth anything seems possible. Quite frankly I'm not looking forward to tomorrow....

Wreckers Must Breathe may be a proto-spyfy novel. What our heroes discover under the Cornish coast is certainly worthy of set design by Ken Adam.

6 January 2018

Unfinished review: The Sending by Geoffrey Household

The Sending by Geoffrey Household. 1980


The Sending is a beguiling and strange novel. It overlaps two of my reading passions: the thriller and supernatural fiction. And it is written by one of my favorite writers, Geoffrey Household.

Household's style is spare and perfectly modulated here, as it is in dozens of works. He knows his strengths, and avoids pitfalls which entice and wreck more arrogant craftsmen.

A different hunter/hunted

I first read Rogue Male at a particularly touch time in my life, November 1992. Its authorial sanity and confidence were a tonic, if not a remedy itself.

Since then, I have read every Household paperback I could find. Even when hunting through Half Price Books stores from Leon Trotsky and James P. Cannon, I always checked under H in the fiction and mystery sections. Some times I struck gold: Watcher in the Shadows, A Rough Shoot, Dance of the Dwarves.

Household deals with skilled and resourceful men under extremes of outside pressure in these novels. (Only when rereading Rogue Male did i realize the breadth of knowledge he also offered about interior pressure.)

The inheritor returns

The polecat Meg

All of them witches

The devil explains the role of the Robin


6 January 2018

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Winter by Len Deighton: Decline of a German family

I made several attempts to read Winter back in the 1990s.  To this day I vividly recall early chapters: Peter Winter's experience of a zeppelin raid on London, and Paul Winter's experience in a trench-raiding punishment battalion. I'm glad I was finally able to read it cover-to-cover this week.

Len Deighton's Winter [1987] is a thick wedge of history and a compelling melodrama.  Few novelists of real skill would have the guts to attempt a big canvas of the middle class German experience 1900-1945.

Most novels about the period written in the last few decades have a suffocatingly narrow horizon.  But Deighton, like Herman Wouk before him, revels in a large cast and frequent scenery changes. 

His third person point of view, often skipping among characters in a given scene, is maddening, then astonishing, and finally shattering.

Deighton pays close attention to the political vicissitudes of the Nazi party in 1923-1933, before it came to power. It is unfortunate that none of his characters is in a position to observe the Stalinist and Social Democrat failure to form a united front to defeat the fascists. [The best book on the subject is The Struggle Against Fascism in Germy by Leon Trotsky.]

Deighton has slight curiosity about the German proletariat, expressed in the evolution of secondary character Fritz Esser.  Esser starts out a partisan of Liebknecht, but Deighton leaves us in no doubt he was born to be hung.

Peter and Paul Winter, the two brothers at the heart of the novel, reside in passivity.  Granted their family wealth and position, they are still not men who put their stamp on events.  Events stamp them, pushing them along.  There are no Cain and Abel vendettas or betrayals, just everyday frustrations of deeply unsatisfied men.

The Holocaust is for the most part left off-stage, as it would have been in the experience of most Germans of the Winter brothers social layer.  But in the 1943 chapter two secondary characters confront it head one.  One is a German officer, the other an Austrian Jew.

[From Chapter: 1943].

....The train lurched to a stop. Colonel Rudolf Freiherr von Kleindorf, who'd been asleep while the train had roared through innumerable stations and rattled over countless crossings, now came awake in his narrow bunk. He turned over, but it was too narrow, and the sides of the bunk trapped his arms. When he put an arm out and hung it over the high wooden side of the bunk, his blood supply was constricted and his hand started to go dead, so he had to move again. He looked at his watch. There was only a very dim red bulb in the ceiling, but eventually he made out the time: two-twenty-five in the morning. Ugh!

He'd been dreaming about Moscow again, about his brief time as a division commander. Suppose he hadn't pulled back? Suppose he'd given the order to fight to the last man, the way the Fuhrer said every unit was to do? Well, in that case he wouldn't have been disciplined and demoted to the adjutant of a rifle regiment until getting this regimental command. No, he would be dead, together with every last man of the division. Perhaps seven months as adjutant of a rifle regiment was a cheap price to pay for the lives of so many fine young men. General Homer thought so -- he'd sent von Kleindorf a letter saying exactly that -- but it didn't entirely make up for commanding a division. He'd give almost anything for that pleasure and privilege. Colonel von Kleindorf, a prematurely aged man in his late thirties, tried to get back to sleep, but he was unable to do so, and the train still didn't move: it remained where it was except to judder and shake. Every time he dozed off, there was some mechanical noise of the sort trains made: the clanking of the coupling link chains or the sudden hiss of air in the brakes. After what seemed like hours but was really a little less than thirty minutes, he swung out of his uncomfortable sleeping space and put his feet on the floor. The floor was cold. This was an army train and its furnishing didn't extend to carpeting, not even for the little sleeping cabinet provided to the officer in charge. And if the floor was cold, the air outside would be freezing. He had on underwear with long sleeves and long legs. Some of the others slept fully dressed -- boots, too, in some cases -- but on a journey like this Rudi von Kleindorf slept in his underwear. It was a compromise. Quite a lot of things in Rudi's life were compromises. Even going into the army had been a compromise, back in 1920.

He put the clear light bulb on. It didn't provide much more illumination: these trains were designed to go right up into the army's railheads, some of them uncomfortably close to the front line. He slipped his elastic braces over his shoulders, buttoned up his flies, and got an arm into his jacket while he was stepping into his high boots. It was all second nature to him. He could dress, and even shave, before becoming fully awake. There was a folding sink in the corner. He splashed water on his face and ran a hand back through his closely cropped hair. He rubbed his face. He needed a shave, but his hair was light and he'd probably not meet anyone who mattered. He was the regimental commander and senior officer on the train.

He was reaching for the handle on the door when a knock came. It was the duty officer: Leutnant Uhl. The young officer was surprised to find von Kleindorf fully dressed. 'Herr Oberst!

How did you know?'

'Commanders know everything,' said von Kleindorf. It was what Horner used to say to him in the old days. He wondered how often he'd credited Horner with such prescience in similar circumstances.

Leutnant Uhl -- a spindly young man with eyeglasses -- said, 'There's some obstruction on the line. I have put out pickets, in case it's a guerrilla ambush. The train commander has gone back to find a signal box to telephone and find out what's wrong.'

'A signal box to telephone?' said von Kleindorf with a grim laugh. 'Does he think he's on the S-Bahn to Wannsee?'

'He thinks he'll find one,' said Uhl.

'Where are we, Uhl?'

'I don't know, Herr Oberst. Poland, I suppose, by now.'

'Not many signal boxes and telephones in Poland, Uhl. You might make a note of that for future reference.'

'I will, Herr Oberst.' Von Kleindorf liked the kid. He was not much more than twenty years old. He'd got into medical school at some absurdly young age and then, within a year of graduating, thrown it in to join the army. What a fool.

'And no partisans this close to home. But you did the right thing, Uhl. It's good practice, and I want to keep the men alert and ready. Let the guards stay there. Men on the roof?'

'Yes, Herr Oberst. A machine-gun team, too.'

'Let's go and see what the holdup is, Uhl.' Von Kleindorf put on his heavy winter overcoat and turned up the fur collar.

Cautiously the two officers climbed down from the train and moved forward in the darkness. No moon tonight: such a night would be entirely suited to an ambush. But surely it couldn't happen this far in the rear areas. On the other hand, there were such curious stories. In the rear areas SS-Einsatzgruppen did nothing except summarily execute partisans and irregulars who threatened the lines of supply, and according to what he'd heard they were slaughtering people by the thousand, so it must be dangerous. Men didn't execute suspects without good reason, did they?

There was a cold wind, especially biting up here on the railway embankment. On each side of them the land was flat as far as they could see, which was not far on this dark night. As they walked past the locomotive, they felt the warmth from its boilers and looked up at the footplate, where the driver and firemen were rimmed by the orange light of the fire. Lucky devils: they'd be the only ones warm this freezing-cold night. 'They've done nothing about finding out what's wrong,' complained Leutnant Uhl.

'Standing orders, Uhl. Drivers and firemen have to remain on the footplate while a train is stopped. There were too many cases of loco crews being lured away and killed. Then the whole train is at the mercy of attackers.'

'That's clear, Herr Oberst.'

'A foul smell in the air,' said von Kleindorf.

'The fields perhaps, Herr Oberst. Human fertilizer.'

'At this time of year? You must be a town boy, Leutnant Uhl.'

'I am, Herr Oberst.'

'What a stench! It's like a battlefield.'

They continued walking. The train track was roughly fashioned. By the light of his torch he could see the sleepers: rough balks of timber with patterns of holes to show that they'd been shifted and reused many times; crude wedges to hold the rails, and a total absence of the gravel fettling that ensured that wooden sleepers could be nicely adjusted for height. These were not like the railway tracks in Germany, so elaborate and well made. This was the East. Blocking the way ahead of them was another train. A long train, perhaps a hundred freight wagons. Painted dark green and marked with the eagle insignia of the Reichsbahn.

'What's wrong?' called von Kleindorf.

'The bloody axle, that's what's wrong!' It was the voice of an ill-tempered man dragged out of bed in the middle of the cold night.

As the two officers got closer to the men, the speaker said, 'Oh, I'm sorry, Herr Oberst.' He was a hoarse-voiced man with a Silesian accent.

'You'll have to get it moving,' said von Kleindorf. 'There are other trains close behind us.' The stench from the boxcar was almost overwhelming. He wondered if the whole train was like this. A bearded man who seemed to be in charge consulted his clipboard, flashing a light upon it to see the typed sheet. 'You're the HZ 1489? Advance party, Regimental HQ of the Panzer Division, Herr Oberst?' His voice was softer and authoritative.

'Yes: seventy-two trains close behind us,' said von Kleindorf, although he had no doubt that the railway workers knew how many trains it needed to move an armoured division.

'Can you tell me where the armour is loaded, Herr Oberst?' said the man, who then cupped his hands together and blew into them to warm them.

Von Kleindorf hesitated. The disposition of the tanks and tracked artillery on their flatbed cars was not something to be revealed to the first person who asked. These men were undoubtedly Germans, despite their thick Silesian accents, but why would they want to know?

As if reading his mind, the man explained in more detail: 'I can work ordinary freight cars, or passenger coaches, past this broken box-wagon. But your tanks will overhang their flatbeds. In the old days the smaller tanks permitted two-line working, but I can't work your large modern armour through without both up and down lines clear.'

'There is armour right behind us,' said von Kleindorf. There was a sound from inside the car --

animals, he guessed, horses or cattle.

'And we've got more armour on the train in the siding, so I can't shunt it over there,' said the bearded man and sucked his teeth reflectively. 'Then we'll have to get rid of this broken wagon,'

he said. He turned to his loud-voiced companion. 'Any ideas, Andi?'

'The nearest crane is in the yards, but if you don't mind about salvaging it, we might bring up a winch and topple it off the track and down the slope there.'

'I've got two hospital trains due,' said the bearded man. He'd taken his gloves off to write. Now he put them on again. That's the first one coming now, if I'm not mistaken. Battle casualties. That one should get priority.' The sound of a train could be heard very faintly. The man's hearing was tuned to such sounds.

'We can't wait for cranes or winches,' said von Kleindorf. 'I'll bring up one of my combat pioneer officers and we'll put a couple of sticks of dynamite under it.'

'Without damaging the track, Herr Oberst?'

'My Pioniere can crack an egg without breaking the yolk,' said von Kleindorf. 'But you'll have to empty it first. Your boxcar will be no more than matchwood. What are its contents?


The two railway workers exchanged glances. What an odd question. Did these army officers really not know? Couldn't they smell the whole train? Didn't they know that Reichsbahn trains like this were a major part of the rail traffic eastwards nowadays, and that they returned empty?

'Jews, Herr Oberst.'


'For resettlement in the East.' He shone his torch at the Reichsbahn docket clipped to the wooden side of the boxcar. Upon it was printed 'To Auschwitz-Birkenau' in large black letters. Von Kleindorf could hear them now. What he'd thought was animals was the restless movement of people, humans who must be packed together so tight that some of them could not breathe.

'Get your saw and take the locks off,' said the bearded man.

'What will we do with them?'

'Can you provide us with an army sentry, Herr Oberst?'

'I can't leave him behind, if that's what you mean,' said von Kleindorf. 'Better you get a local man.'

'We don't need a sentry,' said the man called Andi. They'll give us no trouble. They can go into the empty boxcar on the sidings.'

It was only a two-minute job to saw through the locking bolt. But it needed the strength of both railway workers to heave the door open. And then the people spewed out, to crash onto the hard, cold ground with sickening thumps.

The sudden stench of urine, excrement and death came like a blow. 'Good God!' said Leutnant Uhl, and jumped back in alarm. Even the battle-hardened von Kleindorf gasped at the sight. Women, children, old men, young women clutching babies, all tumbled out stiff, like dressmakers' dummies, with the cold. One tall fellow in a black suit hit the ground with such force that he folded up and rolled down the embankment into the ditch. And yet these wretched creatures nearest the door were the strongest ones. They were the men and women who'd fought and elbowed their way, or pushed their children, to where there was sometimes a crack of daylight and a thin draught of air.

'Raus! Raus!' shouted the bearded man. He shone his flashlight into the dark confines of the boxcar, and there was the glint of frightened eyes. More people were there, dozens of them. 'Out!

Out! Out!' But some of them couldn't get out. Some of the old people were dead. Children, too, of course. Men and women had slipped down in the crush of bodies and suffocated there. Others had fainted and gone all the way to the floor of the car, trampled underfoot until they were unrecognizable as anything but sticky, bloody bundles of old rags. Von Kleindorf felt physically sick. He turned on his heel and marched away. The young subaltern followed him. So that was the sort of resettlement the regime was offering the Jews. He pulled his cigarettes from his pocket. Anything to get rid of the sight and the smell. But the memory was a thing he'd never escape.

Boris Somlo was just losing consciousness as they began to saw through the locking bolt from the door. He was pinned in the corner of the car. He'd always hated crowds; even when his mother had taken him to the big Vienna department stores, he'd hated being crushed close to other people. But this was hell. For a long time he'd tried to hold a small boy up, too, but that was many days ago. It was before the day they gave them water and bits of bread. That was before the first time he'd lost consciousness. Where was the child now? He could have been no more than five or six years old, a solemn little fellow who had never replied to anything. Boris rubbed his face and tried to judge from his beard how many days they'd spent locked up in the cold, dark boxcar. But his beard had never been very heavy and he couldn't guess. Boris heard the railway workers' voices, too, but he couldn't make out what they were saying, and he didn't much care. He was so weak that even his hunger had abated. Nothing mattered any more. Nothing. So -- like the rest of them -- he was totally unprepared for the opening of the door.

As the door crashed open, everyone in the wagon moved, and Boris suddenly found himself swept to the doorway, watching people on each side fall into the darkness. He breathed the air, so cold it hurt his lungs, and then someone pushed from behind and he, too, was falling into the bottomless black space.

He hit the ground with a thump that took all the breath from him, but the force of landing sent him rolling down the dark embankment. At the bottom of the slope was a shallow ditch of stagnant water, its top frozen into a thin layer of ice that broke like sugar icing as he rolled over in the cold water.

Suddenly he was fully conscious, but he had very little strength left, and no determination except to scramble out of the water into the field beyond it. The warmth of the packed bodies had been keeping them all alive, and now the effect of the cold wind upon his wet clothes chilled him enough to make him gasp. He stifled a cough with his hand and crawled on. He looked back up the railway embankment to where the men with torches were shouting into the half-empty boxcar. He got to his feet and walked very slowly away into the darkness. Boris dragged one foot after the other until he'd walked the whole length of the 'resettlement transport', his body aching with cold. Beyond it there was another train. It would be sensible to get away from the railway, and into the open country. The lines of communication were always heavily guarded -- you didn't have to be a soldier to know that. But Boris could not face the open countryside in his wet clothing. He was hungry, thirsty, tired and very weak. He knew that he couldn't survive more than another half-hour or so in this weather. He stumbled along, without thinking of what he was doing or where he was going. He got to the second train without knowing why he was heading towards it, except that he could see its twinkling lights and it looked warm and inviting. It was an army train, and on the side of it there were big Red Cross signs. He approached it carefully. He'd learned now the danger that sentries represented, but there were no sentries except for two armed men on the roofs of the carriages. He supposed that hospital trains did not have manpower enough to supply sentries every time the train came to a stop.

Some of the windows had open blinds and he could see soldiers inside. The train was jammed full of men; grey-clad men were strewn everywhere, like broken soldiers thrown into a toybox. Many of them were bandaged; most of them were sleeping. There was no movement anywhere. He walked along, staying away from the locomotive. The locomotive would have men who were on duty and awake. The next carriage was fitted with bunk beds for casualties who couldn't walk. This was as crowded as the previous one, with soldiers packed together as close as possible. All the men were wrapped in grey blankets and crammed into the bunks together, looking curiously like tinned sardines.

The door of the third carriage was open, and the light spilled out. Two medical orderlies were seated on the steps, both smoking with the dedication that comes after lengthy denial. In the doorway behind the orderlies, Boris could see an open cupboard, its shelves filled with army blankets. He coveted one of those thick, warm blankets more than anything he could think of in the world.

He waited for a long time, the icy wind cutting through him like a thousand knives. Eventually the orderlies finished their cigarettes and went back into the train. He could see them through the windows, moving along the train. This was his chance, and he got up on the steps and tried the door. It was unlocked. He opened it carefully and stepped inside and up the steps. To his right was a toilet, and behind him the communicating doors to the next carriage. From here he could see right down into the train. He felt the warmth of the heating and heard the snoring, soft moans and restless movements of the injured men. No one was looking this way. He stepped into the soft yellow light and opened the cupboard. He pulled a blanket out slowly, holding the others back with his free hand. It fell out and opened. He dragged it back into the space provided by the doorway. But as he did so the train gave a jolt. From the floor nearby he heard the couplings clatter and there was a hiss of steam from the locomotive as the train jolted twice and started to move.

'Orderly! Orderly! This man needs help! He's bleeding again.' It was a shrill voice, the frightened voice of a young man.

'I'm coming, I'm coming!' An orderly had opened the communicating door from the next carriage. He stood there for a moment, and Boris could recognize him as one of the men who'd been smoking outside. The train groaned and rolled forward, clattering over the steel rails of a junction. Boris stepped back into the shadow and pulled the blanket round him to completely cover his black suit, stinking now and soiled with vomit and excrement, his and other people's. The orderly passed Boris with scarcely a glance at him. Even his disgusting smell attracted no attention here, amongst the sick and injured.

'Bleeding?' said the orderly when he got to the frightened young man. 'Where is he bleeding?'

The train was picking up speed now. It would soon be going too fast for him to jump without the possibility of a damaged leg or foot. He looked out the window. They were passing another train: a troop train filled with soldiers. They stared at him, as they stared at all the wounded, wondering if this was the way they would come back.

Blood had come from the bunk above and made a spotty pattern on the young soldier's face and the blanket. 'That's nothing,' the medical orderly said. 'I'll change his dressing in the morning.'

'I want to move,' said the frightened boy.

'If you can find a place, move,' said the orderly. He smoothed the blankets in the fussy little movements that come automatically to trained nurses.

'You've shit yourself again, haven't you?' said the orderly.

'I couldn't help it,' said the frightened boy.

'You'd better get yourself fresh pyjamas. But this is the last change you get, understand?'

'Yes,' said the boy.

The orderly came back past Boris, but before he opened the communicating door he paused to look at him. Boris met the orderly's eyes and his stomach churned in fear. 'I know your damned tricks,' the orderly said angrily. 'You're not allowed to smoke there. Get back to your bed or your compartment or wherever you're from. You know the regulations.'

Boris nodded.

The orderly slammed the heavy connecting door and disappeared into the next carriage. Boris watched the boy getting out of the bunk to get fresh pyjamas. If Boris could get army pyjamas, and hide his black suit, perhaps they'd feed him along with the rest of them. If he could get something to eat, he'd be able to think more clearly.

He looked out the window. There was another army train waiting on a siding. This one consisted of tanks chained down upon flatbed wagons. His train rumbled past them slowly, hundreds of them. It was as if the whole world were nothing but tanks....

Deighton's obsession in Winter is not with spies or bureaucratic infighting, though the novel features plenty of both.  His fascination is with Germany's social fabric, and the way repeated historical catastrophes shaped and warped it.  In the end, Deighton suggests starkly that middle class Germans on both sides of the Nazi divide could not out-run its nemesis.

4 January 2018