MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

Why spy-fiction writers love those chilling Nazi villains

April 1 1969
MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

Why spy-fiction writers love those chilling Nazi villains

April 1 1969

BOOKS

Why spy-fiction writers love those chilling Nazi villains

THERE ARE GREAT, reassuring constants in popular fiction. One of them is Germany. It remains the surest synonym for evil, the surest source of chilling and fanatical villains. They have outlived the Cold War and will outlive the space race; inevitably there will be geriatric gauleiters heel-clicking and jawohl-ing in the fiction of the far planets.

And popular fiction measures success in sales, not literary fashion. Throughout recent months, two novels with Nazi villains — The Salzburg Connection and A Small Town In Germany — have topped the bestseller lists.

Perhaps the pop writers went back to Germany because the Cold War game was played out. It had produced the sadistic escapism of the James Bond cult and perhaps the finest psychological spy story of all time — John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. But then a real spy named Philby told a story more compelling than any fiction, and the Cold War view of the world lost some of its. currency.

So Helen Maclnnes went back to the legendary Nazi secrets sunk in Alpine lakes and produced The Salzburg

Connection, an ingenious but conventional story rather effusively told. The hero, a less-than-convincing New York attorney, is pitted against a beautiful Russian spy, a Zurich gang of “Chicom sympathizers” and the Nazis in the Alps. He smashes them all without ever ruffling his impeccable Americanism or his sexual delicacy: “He looked into her eyes. Their lips met, slowly, truly. He kissed her with all 'his heart.” Perhaps, once, Ronald Colman could have breathed life into such fusty romanticism; nothing can now.

And, in Britain, a young writer named Adam Diment became unaccountably trendy. His central character in The Dolly Dolly Spy, Me Alpine, has the morals of James Bond but none of the panache. McAlpine says of the girl he loves: “Hash always slugs her like a 10-ton lorry, she’s blasted blind in a few seconds.” Ultimately, it’s difficult to care whether so repellent an anti-hero survives his death struggle with the murderous Nazi Detmann. Perhaps regrettably, he does. Let’s hope he’s the last of the mini-Bonds.

It is with John le Carré that Germany becomes a magnificent obsession. You may remember his seedy Alec Leamas as the most believable spy in all Cold War fiction. Alan Turner, the foreign service agent of A Small Town In Germany, is equally believable — a shabby, life-bruised Yorkshireman who is also a terrier for the truth. The small town is Bonn and the action is centred in its casteridden British Embassy, where le Carré once worked as a diplomat. Conflict between an ambassador who is anxious to appease the wobbly Bonn coalition and a junior diplomat with an unprofessional inability to forget about war crimes leads to a “defection” incident. The embarrassing Turner arrives in Bonn just as Britain is petitioning (again!) for entry into the Common Market and a new German fascist movement is rioting against a British consulate. Over the speculative gossip of tightsweatered clerks at their embassy teabreaks, there is an ambience of enclosing terror.

In le Carré’s Germany, an extra character emerges—the grey, ominous political mob, stroked to growling fury by its subtle new fuehrer, Karfeld: “The tone was new and hard: a light blow on their backs, brisker, a purposeful caress, promising the sting to come, tracing like a whip’s end the little vertebrae of their political resentment. So England had re-educated the Germans. And who better quali-

fied? After all, Churchill had let the savages into Berlin ...”

The agent Turner knows that a stolen “green file” on Karfeld reports his establishment of a wartime gas factory, to which human guinea pigs were carried in sealed grey buses. Now, Karfeld is at the brink of power. At the demagogue’s climactic rally in the Bonn market square, Turner, trapped in the crowd, sees sealed grey buses parked in a side street. The symbolism is grisly, the symmetry complete.

With his precise feeling for character and place, his telling sense of politics and his virtuoso talent for orchestrating tension, le Carré has moved far beyond the routine spy story. In his hands, the German obsession may remain a great constant of our popular fiction. But it will never reassure. PHILIP SYKES

A Small Town In Germany by John le Carré (William Heinemann, $5.95). The Salzburg Connection by Helen Maclnnes (Harcourt, Brace & World, $6.95).

The Dolly Dolly Spy by Adam Diment (Michael Joseph, $5).