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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Len Deighton

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To purchase SS-GB

Title: SS-GB
Author: Len Deighton
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978
Length: 367 pages
Availability: SS-GB - US
SS-GB - Canada
SS-GB - France
SS-GB - Deutschland
SS-GB - Italia
  • SS-GB was made into a TV mini-series in 2017

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Our Assessment:

B : the alternate-history background nicely done; the thriller/mystery part middling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 24/8/1978 David Holloway
The NY Times . 15/2/1979 John Leonard
The NY Times Book Rev. A 25/2/1979 Julian Symons
Sunday Telegraph A 10/2/1980 Selina Hastings
Sunday Times . 27/8/1978 Edmund Crispin
The Times B+ 31/8/1978 H.R.F.Keating
TLS . 15/9/1978 Michael Howard

  From the Reviews:
  • "As always Mr Deighton is superb with the nuts and bolts of life (...) and by describing vivid incidents implies the whole scene. (...) Taken as a historical thriller, SS-GB is very exciting, but underneath is a serious and at times startling analysis of human motives." - David Holloway, Daily Telegraph

  • "When it descends into farce -- and it does so twice, digging up the bones of Karl Marx to celebrate German-Soviet Friendship Week and leaving a comatose King in a wheelchair on the sidewalk outside a men's club -- it is grim about it. The final surprise is something more than mere cleverness. What especially distinguishes SS-GB, however, is its gritty atmosphere, the shadows of defeat on every page. (...) Mr. Deighton treats us as if we were grownups, in spite of the fact that we're reading a thriller." - John Leonard, The New York Times

  • "SS-GB is a triumphant success. It is Mr Deighton's best book, one that blends his expertise in the spy field with his interest in military and political history to produce an absorbingly exciting spy story that is also a fascinating exercise in might-have-been speculation. (...) The turns of the plot are many, but rather than being put there for the fun of adding complications, as one sometimes felt in earlier books, they all have a purpose. (...) SS-GB sets out to be exciting, and it is, but in the subtlety of its telling, the dexterity with which personal relationships are revealed through dialogue, and the cunning with which understatement is used to show things that an inferior writer would be shouting at the top of his voice, it is also a work of art." - Julian Symons, The New York Times Book Review

  • "SS-GB is more than a first class thriller with a fashionably complicated plot. What makes it so memorable is its picture occupied Britain" - Selina Hastings, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Predictably, writing, characterisation, atmosphere, action and background are all excellent. (...) The plot ensnares you like an intricate cobweb: it has to do with ... Aber genug ! To say too much about the plot would be to spoil some of Mr Deighton's best surprises. (...) Mr Deighton's narrative would be just as convincing if the Contingency Fiction element had been left out altogether." - Edmund Crispin, Sunday Times

  • "Yet. Alas and alas, there is a yet. The book is not the triumph it ought to have been. The fault springs, I think, from Deighton's relationship with his hero (.....) But do not fail to read the book. It is still full of rich rewards." - H.R.F.Keating, The Times

  • "Len Deighton is the Flaubert of contemporary thriller writers. (...) (A)lthough SS-GB is quite the most interesting book he has written, it cannot be judged his best. (...) On this level of imaginative creation Mr Deighton is so good that the second level, the plot itself, seems by comparison unnecessarily silly and confused. (...) There is little point in building up so credible a background if we are then to be told quite so far-fetched a story (.....) After the first few chapters one has to choose either to ignore the story line altogether and concentrate on learning more about Britain as it might have been under German occupation, or simply to take the book to be a moderately enjoyable thriller to be discarded at the end of the journey." - Michael Howard, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       SS-GB is set in the winter of 1941 -- a 1941 in which, months earlier, in February, the United Kingdom had surrendered to Nazi Germany and was now an occupied country, King George VI a prisoner in the Tower of London and Winston Churchill executed by a firing squad (though that is not yet widely known). The main character is Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer of Scotland Yard, a member of the Murder Squad who has already solved some high-profile cases; work goes on much as always for him (he convinces himself ...), even under Nazi rule -- even if he now answers to SS Gruppenführer Fritz Kellerman, both the new police chief and the senior SS officer in Britain.
       The novel opens with the other half of Archer's murder team, the much older Sergeant Harry Woods, whom Archer has known since childhood, with his eyes already on the next murder-scene -- which he's already heard about, even if they haven't been called to it officially yet. Soon enough they are, to a flat in Shepherd Market -- containing some valuable pieces, but not looking very lived in. The victim was shot twice; he also has some strange burns on his skin, and is at first identified as Peter Thomas.
       The case and situation turns out to be one of considerably more than just of murder. Among other things, it introduces Archer to American journalist Barbara Barga, who happens by when the police are still on the scene; Archer's wife is missing and presumed dead in one of the London bombings, and he is immediately attracted to Barga. At the same time, SS-Standartenführer Oskar Huth is sent to London, and Archer assigned to work under him; Huth takes particular interest in the Thomas murder and assumes complete control over the case -- letting Archer do the investigative work, but demanding that no information about the case get out (particularly to Kellerman) without his say-so. The opposite of Kellerman in character -- Huth is a no-nonsense and to the point man, while Kellerman plays at being more friendly and delegating rather than being all too involved --, the two are also soon locked in a battle of wills and power -- as, indeed, Deighton presents a Nazi hierarchy that isn't uniform and monolithic, but rather split among different power-groups, with the Army, in particular, wanting to assert themselves at the cost of the SS.
       Huth is quite open with Archer -- though always reminding him of the near-absolute power he has over him, with any misstep leading quickly to a German camp, or worse -- and he explains the interest in the murder-case: it's: "part of an operation we have code-named 'Apocalypse'". So apparently the stakes are fairly high ..... And a lot of people are ... concerned about the outcome; as Archer wryly notes:

Half the population of London seem to be concerned lest I solve the murder.
       The victim -- and the man who apparently murdered him, his brother -- are fairly quickly identified, with Huth obviously knowing from the start what they were involved with. The unusual burns were certainly a giveaway: the victim was a scientist, and: "Before the war he was involved with all this splitting-the-atom rigmarole". With a lot of papers carefully burned at the murder-scene, the question is whether copies of the atomic secrets still exist -- and if so where, and what would they be worth to interested parties.
       With an active resistance also at work in the background, Archer must tread carefully. Huth is particularly well-informed -- taking care to keep close tabs on Archer -- but he is also playing for bigger stakes, wanting to take down Kellerman (and take his position); he's willing to overlook smaller missteps if it helps him in his larger mission. Kellerman, meanwhile, proves not to be a fool either, and continues to exert some control and not-so-subtle (yet still indirect) pressure on Archer as well. The inter-German power-struggles -- which extend beyond this two-person contest between Huth and Kellerman to the various (complicatedly organized) organs of the regime, are by the far the best part of the novel, even if they can get confusing at times.
       The Americans remain largely aloof, though not disinterested -- but one of the main goals of certain factions (including certain German factions -- it really is a bit complicated) is to get George VI abroad, and to convince the Americans to take him (reminiscent, incidentally, of Shah Reza Pahlavi's departure from Iran, not long after this book was published). Eventually, Archer even finds himself right in the middle of the effort to spirit the king out of the country -- even pushing him along London's foggy streets in a wheelchair for a stretch.
       The Soviets and Germans, meanwhile, are still on friendly terms here, with much of the action taking place during German-Soviet Friendship Week -- a highlight of which is to be the disinterment and handing over of Karl Marx's remains. The celebrations ... do not go well -- but do give an excuse for the Germans to establish martial law (as parts of that establishment have been itching to do), complicating everything, including the power struggles among the various German power-bases.
       It's a busy story that could easily have been drawn out in more detail; the thriller parts of it -- other than in the specifics -- fall rather short here, especially given the high stakes of several of them. But Deighton does the Nazi-occupied background very well, from the low-level everyday aspects, such as rationing and curfews, to then the more disturbing round-ups and treatment of undesirable elements -- all the while also noting the functioning, for better and worse, of the German bureaucracy. Huth and Kellerman, and their power-struggle, are particularly well-drawn. Meanwhile, the resistance is a bit of a messier affair -- though Deighton has some nice touches here, too, such as how Harry finds himself deeper in it than, upon closer reflection, he'd like. Archer tries to focus on his job -- investigating murder -- regardless, but of course finds it difficult to stay outside the many frays, from the struggle between Huth and Kellerman to the demands of the resistance (and the allure of journalist Barga). And even Archer realizes that the occupation, and working under it, has had a profound effect:
What have they done to us, thought Douglas ? What has it done to me ?
       Ultimately, Deighton's reach is too wide and shallow: he crams too much plot into his thriller, and doesn't take the time to sufficiently unfold many of its pieces. Even the overlap feels a bit forced -- almost comically so when an American parachutes in, when he is finally identified -- and doesn't really help make for a more convincing bigger picture. But certainly the set scenes are vivid and some are quite exciting; among the memorable ones are Huth leading Archer to his old neighborhood, where a young colleague has been left to send a message to the Scotland Yard man, and Archer trying to help Harry out when Harry gets caught up in one of the massive round-ups.
       There's a lot to SS-GB that impresses, especially in the background detail and the internecine German power-plays, as well some quite strong characters (a few of whom -- notably Barbara Barga -- are under-utilized), but by trying so much the punch it might pack is oddly dissipated.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 August 2019

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SS-GB: Reviews: SS-GB - the TV mini-series: Len Deighton: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Len Deighton was born in 1929.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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