Deighton, Len. The Ipcress File.

London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1962.

Len Deighton has been writing thrillers for an awful long time. In the early ‘60s, he was a commercial artist and illustrator with an art degree, working in his native London, having spent some time in the army and then several years as a flight steward with BOAC, which gave him a certain international perspective. And then, largely, he says, from boredom and just for the heck of it, he decided to try writing a spy novel, which was this one. Helped by the concurrent release of Dr. No, the first James Bond film, he was an immediate success. (Deighton is also the absolute antithesis of Ian Fleming.)

Now, fifty years and more than two dozen best-selling novels (and several well-received volumes of World War II history) later, he’s still turning them out. His style has evolved somewhat over time, naturally, but you can still identify a Deighton novel by reading any three random pages.

Michael Caine made a memorable and highly entertaining film based on this book, but there are major differences between the two. For one thing, “Harry Palmer” doesn’t exist here; the working-class narrator doesn’t even have a name. And while he’s not, in writer’s jargon, an “unreliable narrator,” he’s not going to be up-front with you all the time, either. (I mean, he’s a spy.) The story is cast in the form of his end-of-mission report to a cabinet minister, and at the beginning, as he talks about finally being released by the military and taking up a job with W.O.O.C.(P.), a small but powerful operation within the British intelligence community, you assume he’s rather small potatoes. Just another bureaucrat, mostly working at a desk in a dingy office. Definitely not the George Smiley type. His boss, Dalby, is personable and vastly experienced in the field, also not at all like the mandarins over at the Circus. The narrator deals mostly in analyzing and interpreting data as it’s collected and submitted, oversees an aging major who specializes in identifying patterns in social statistics, and tries to collect the back pay and allowances owed to him. He and Dalby both know there’s been a series of disappearances among British biologists with high security clearances, but they can’t figure out what’s happening to them or where, exactly, they’re going, even after a bomb-laden field trip to Lebanon.

Then Dalby reveals that he’s been selected for another project, and the narrator suddenly finds himself in charge. And as we watch his daily routine over his shoulder, and note the way he handles violent emergencies on his department’s turf, it becomes clear that he’s much more experienced and adept, and much cannier, than he allows most people to realize. There’s a lot more to him, and to his earlier wartime experiences, than the reader originally was aware of.

Then Dalby’s back and the narrator suddenly finds himself being hustled off to an atoll in the South Pacific where the U.S. is about to detonate an innovative H-bomb. The island is crawling with secret agents from several countries, wearing uniforms and claiming ranks not their own, and Deighton takes the opportunity to do a devastating number on the American government’s tendency to spend vast amounts of the taxpayers’ money on temporary home comforts. But then people are killed and the narrator is arrested. And the next thing he knows, he’s behind the Iron Curtain and being subjected to some extremely harsh and brain-bending interrogation methods. (That’s after the U.S. Army has finished working him over.) But it will all come together in the end. And no, I really haven’t given anything away here.

Deighton, as I say, has a style all his own, much of it cynical and sardonic (well, again, these are professional spies), all of it enjoyable, and none of it straightforward. “It’s a confusing story,” the narrator says. “I’m in a confusing business.” His descriptions are filled with engaging detail. His characters are much more important to Deighton than delineating a neat plot. And he’s great with throwaway lines like, “He traversed his cigarette then changed the range and elevation until it had me in its sights.” And as the narrator says, regarding operational monikers, “I’d always favoured foreign names on the grounds that there is nothing more authentically English than a foreign name.” The supporting caste are also nicely developed, even though he won’t tell you all there is to know about them, either. Such as Jean, nominally just his office assistant but also, of course, a well-trained and extremely intelligent agent. His interest in her gradually evolves into “a feeling of sharpened desire in me that no man should feel for his secretary if he wants to stay in a position to fire her.” And then there’s this: “Diplomats and surgeons never fail,” said Dalby. “They have too strong a union ever to have to admit it.” That kind of sums up the book. And you do have to pay attention. I don’t use the term “classic” lightly, but trust me: This is one of them.

Published in: on 15 October 2013 at 6:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: