I don’t read much fiction. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps it’s that reality is already stranger than fiction, as Leg-iron regularly complains.
Nevertheless, today I plucked out Len Deighton’s 1964 Funeral in Berlin from a row of secondhand books in (of all places) the local Homebase. Which was a bit like finding the local greengrocer also sells kippers. You have to buy one.
The first chapter looked promising, and so I started reading. These days, any passage with “cigarettes” or “tobacco” in it jumps out at me as if it had been printed in red ink. And the action started fairly early on.
Hallam put the Player’s No. 3 into his ebony cigarette holder. He lit it while watching himself in the mirror… He felt in many ways the type of cigarette that man smoked typified him. So did the man’s clothes, they were mass-produced, off-the-peg clothes.
And a few pages further on the Russian spymaster makes an appearance:
Stok was sitting behind his desk almost obscured by a dense cloud of cigar smoke… ‘Ha ha ha,’ said Stok, then he exhaled another great billow like a 4.6.2 pulling out of King’s Cross.
And then, of course, the girl.
‘Cigarette?’ she said and flicked the corner of a pack of Camels with a skill that I can never master. I took one and brought a loose Swan Vesta match from my pocket. I dug my thumbnail into the head and ignited it. She was impressed and stared into my eyes as I lit the cigarettes, just like I didn’t have a couple of milligrammes of flaming phosphorus under the nail and coming through the pain threshold like rusty scalpel.
‘Are you in advertising?’ she said.
And the German agent.
Vulkan tapped a Philip Morris on his thumbnail, and noticed how brown his skin was against the white cigarette. He put the cigarette in his mouth and snapped his fingers.
The hero reports back to his British secret service boss.
Dawlish gently packed tobacco into the bowl of his pipe with a match. He put the pipe into his mouth before looking up at me.
‘Yes,’ he finally said. He lit the pipe with great care.
There is another bruising encounter with Stok.
I took out my cigarettes. Hallam hadn’t left me with many, but I offered Stok one. The yellow match flame reflected in his eyes as he lit them. He began to speak quietly again.
‘They are making a fool of you, English,’ Stok said.
Things start hotting up between the hero and the girl:
‘I was just going to light your cigarette,’ I said.
‘I’ll manage,’ she said. She flicked the corner of the Camels pack, put the cigarette in her mouth and lit it. She inhaled the smoke with cheek-sunken concentration and blew a great warm happy cloud of smoke across the room.
Until the smoke ruins her make-up.
She nodded and unzipped the side of her dress. She removed the dress unhurriedly like a Girl Guide at a medical. Her eyes were waterlogged. ‘It’s the smoke,’ she said. ‘I should never smoke when I’m tired. It wrecks my eye make-up.’ She smiled and planted three inches of unsmoked Camel into the Cinzano ashtray. She walked across the room in her black underwear, oblivious of my eyes.
The hero surveys the scene.
The steps were worn to a glassy smoothness and the inside was was like something whittled three lessons before Pinocchio. The overhead beams were painted with red and green vine leaves and varnished with about five hundred years of tobacco smoke. A tiny radio balanced over the tiled stove was beating out ‘Walking my baby back home’….
Vulkan, it turns out, is addicted to air.
Vulkan smiled nervously and twisted a cigarette in his dry lips to prevent it from sticking. He produced a gold lighter and put his head down inside his trenchcoat like a canary going to sleep. He lit the cigarette and tossed his head well back and sucked air in like an addict. ‘I suppose you think that Gehlen’s people are expendable,’ he said…
I offered him a Gauloise and lit one myself and, when we had finished lighting them and having that first inhalation that makes you dive for a cigarette, I said, ‘When was that?’
… He drew on his cigarette and the garage was full of the pungent aroma of French tobacco, and he drew on his cigarette again like this was all some complex dream he was dreaming while really he was in prison just a few yard-years away.
But, in the end, both the hero and the girl come through unscathed.
She lit the cigarette. Her hands shook. It was natural, it was the after-effect of all the work and worry, but there was still the airport to deal with.
So there you are. That’s Funeral in Berlin in a nutshell. Or the principal red letter passages. I skipped over most of the shooting and car chase and funeral stuff. Main thing is: It’s got pipes, cigars, and a rich variety of brands of cigarettes. In short, it’s got more or less everything.
And the message of the book? If they smoke Camels or Gauloises, they’re okay. Pipes too. But if they smoke cigars, they’re not. And don’t trust anyone who smokes Player’s No. 3.