YOU REVIEW ENOUGH MOVIES and you get asked lots of questions about them and I was always changing my mind about the answers. But one answer I never wavered on: the best opening sequence of a movie I've ever seen occurs in Henry King's Twelve O'Clock High, his masterpiece dealing with the B-17s' daylight bombing of Germany. Dean Jagger, in a postwar business suit, bicycles down an English country lane, leaves his bike against a fence, and walks out across a tarmac which has sprung grass and weeds through its cracks. As he walks his demeanor becomes more sternly aggressive and we hear a faint sound, wind turning into a distant roar turning into the thunder of airplane engines. He looks up at the gray sky . . . and when he looks back down he's in uniform and we're back in World War II.
I've never seen its equal and it may be that Len Deighton shares my enthusiasm for the scene because he uses something very like it to open his extraordinary new novel, Goodbye, Mickey Mouse. It's 1982 and a reunion of Americans has arrived at a deserted airfield near Steeple Thaxted from which they flew fighter escort for the Flying Fortresses. Mickey Mouse, a famous ace of the period, and his English wife Victoria are among them, and the ensuing novel -- which draws its title from Morse's nickname -- tells the story of their war, theirs and many others', most notable among them Jamie Farebrother, who was Mickey's flying buddy and Victoria's lover.
It is a novel of memory, satisfying on every imaginable level, but truly astonishing in its re-creation of a time and place through minute detail. Deighton has written well of the air war before, nonfictionally, and he informs us in an afterword that it took six years of research to do this novel. It shows. The only way you could know more about flying a P-51 Mustang, after reading this book, is to have flown one. Reading, you feel the stalls, the scary vibrations, you tap the fuel gauge, feel the cold and the pressure of the oxygen mask on your face, you hear the garbled hysteria on your headphones when all hell breaks loose and you blow a plane out of the sky and are suddenly enclosed in absolute darkness when its oil tanks empty across your cockpit . . . Scared hell out of me.
Deighton seldom makes a mistake. XPD, the novel immediately preceding this one, was far and away the worst he's ever written, almost inexplicably so. SS-GB just before that was his best. The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, Horse Under Water, and Catch a Falling Spy are remarkably fine novels of espionage, featuring the nameless central character who became Harry Palmer in the three Michael Caine films. If Goodbye, Mickey Mouse lacks the awesome suspense of SS-GB, its grasp of character and milieu and incident shows Deighton at the top of his very considerable form.
The plot grows organically from a superior arrangement of character, a summary of which might indicate the fecundity of Deighton's imagination.
Vince Madigan is the desk-bound base public-relations expert, a determined womanizer and lover of Mozart who is undone by a faked photograph in which he wears a flyer's uniform. Colonel Dan Badger runs the figher group and is brilliantly feisty and just about worn out, an old man at 36 who flew the air mail back in the '20s. General Alexander Bohnen, father of Farebrother, a financial wizard who finds himself one of the people running the show from London, a man so bound up in his own codes of conduct that he is a stranger to life itself. Vera, the young wife of a hero of the Burma campaign who is afraid she'll be 50 by the time he gets home and is determined not to see her sexuality wasted in the meantime. Scrimshaw, the remarkably acute old Australian journalist who believes he has found a hero on which to hang his own career . . . in Mickey Morse, who wants to parlay his ability to shoot down Germans into having a bar & grill or getting a good job with an airline after the war.
For these people the war pervades every corner of their lives. The English are reduced to living a smaller than rational life; the Americans fly off in the morning to bomb Germany and try to get back in time for dinner dates. The pressure is never off as the winter of 1943-44 meanders slowly into spring, toward the inevitable Allied invasion of the continent. Mickey shoots down Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfes and has an affair with Vera. Jamie and Victoria develop a deep love -- the depth of youthfulness and blind hope -- and she becomes pregnant. A West Point bastard somehow redeems himself and a man is murdered by a returned English hero ... the 2 wrong man. A woman has her throat cut and young men keep dying in aircraft whose engine-life is reckoned at 200 hours--far more than is necessary, given the rate at which planes and men are going down.
Look, it's all here. If you remember Twelve O'Clock High (the movie and the distinguished novel on which it was based) and Command Decision, you'll find yourself at home. They don't write novels about this era much anymore -- particularly an English novelist writing about American flyers -- which, I suppose, is inevitable, given the shallowness of generational memory and the remarkable silliness of our present age's ideas of entertainment. The men and women who fought this last great war, this last war which became an integral part of our everyday lives, are in their sixties now, approaching the time when they will one by one pass on into our history. But they will go in the knowledge that they were indeed part of momentous times, events which can legitimately be termed "great," and some of them are fittingly memorialized in Deighton's hugely assured novel.