The BBC recently adapted veteran spy novelist (and cookery writer) Len Deighton’s 1978 novel SS-GB. That is one reason why I’ve stared reading it. The other is that a man at a London Society event last month observed, very shrewdly, that some of the best writing about London is in books that are set in London but don’t mention London in their titles and aren’t directly about it. He gave the work of Deighton, who was born and raised in Marylebone, as an example.
I’ve only just begun reading SS-GB, but already I can see what the man meant. Deighton’s story is an “alternative history” which imagines that the Battle of Britain was lost and the German military took command of London in early 1941: Winston Churchill was executed and King George VI locked up in the Tower. The Metropolitan Police continued its work under the invaders’ supervision. In Chapter Three, the novel’s hero, a detective superintendent, makes his way to a crime scene:
Even a born and bred Londoner, such as Douglas Archer, could walk down Curzon Street, and with eyes half-closed, see little or no change from the previous year. The Soldatenkino sign outside the Curzon cinema was small and discreet, and only if you tried to enter the Mirabelle restaurant did a top-hatted doorman whisper that it was now used exclusively by staff officers from Air Fleet 8 Headquarters across the road in the old Ministry of Education offices. And if your eyes remained half closed you missed the signs that said “Jewish Undertaking” and effectively kept all but the boldest customers out. And in September of that year 1941, Douglas Archer, in common with most of his compatriots, was keeping his eyes half-closed.
The scene of the murder to which, as Detective Sergeant Harry Woods had predicted, they were called, was Shepherd Market. This little maze of narrow streets and alleys housed a mixture of working-class Londoners, Italian shopkeepers and wealthy visitors, who found in these tortuous ways and creaking old buildings, some measure of the London they’d read of in Dickens, while being conveniently close to the smart shops and restaurants.
The house was typical of the neighbourhood, There were uniformed police there already, arguing with two reporters. The ground floor was a poky antique shop not much wider than a man could stretch both arms. Above it were rooms of doll’s house dimensions, with a twisting staircase so narrow that it provided an ever-present risk of sweeping from its walls the framed coaching prints that decorated them…
The police doctor was there, seated on a chintz-covered couch, a British army overcoat buttoned up tight to the neck, and hands in his pockets. He was a young man, in his middle twenties, but already Douglas saw in his eyes that terrible resignation with which so many British seemed to have met final defeat.
Two chapters later, Archer goes to Croydon Airport – yes, young people, there really was one – to meet an SS officer called Oskar Huth, arriving from Berlin. Together, they drive into town:
“What are you working on at present?” Huth asked very casually as he looked out of the window. The car slowed for traffic at Norwood. A long line of people waited in the rain for the bread ration to arrive. Douglas half expected Huth to comment on them but he leaned forward with a balled fist and used his signet ring to rap against the glass of the driver’s compartment. “Use the siren, you fool,” he said. “Do you think I’ve got all day?”
“Double death in Kentish Town, Tuesday. They fell on the electrified rail of the Underground railway. I treated it as murder at first, but then decided it was a suicide pact; the man was an escapee from the camp for British POWS at Brighton.” Douglas scratched his cheek. “A shooting in a nightclub in Leicester Square on Saturday night. A machine-pistol was used, about 150 rounds; no shortage of bullets it seems. All the signs of a gang killing. The proprietor says the takings were about six thousand pounds – if you allow for what he’s probably falsifying on his tax returns.”
Finally, here’s a scene from Huth’s office in what was the location of New Scotland Yard between 1890 and 1967 – Victoria Embankment, looking across the Thames to County Hall. In real life a third building was added to this headquarters in 1940. The Met moved back into it last year.
Douglas stepped across to the window and looked down at the Embankment. The curfew ensured that few civilians were on the street – Members of Parliament and shift workers in essential industries and services were among the exceptions – and the street and bridge were empty except for parked lines of official vehicles and an armed patrol visiting the floodlit perimeters of all the government buildings.
A motorcycle and sidecar combination stopped at the checkpoint where the Embankment met Westminster Bridge. There was a brief inspection of papers before it roared away into the dark night of the far side of the river. From across the road came the load chime of Big Ben.
That’s from Chapter Seven. I’m going to keep reading. You can buy SS-GB here.