‘The grey stones of the Cenotaph shone in the hard wintry sunlight as I surrendered my Home Office pass and stepped into Whitehall…The red-cloaked Horse Guards sat motionless clutching their sabres and thinking of metal polish and sex.’ Funeral in Berlin
One distant summer afternoon, I wandered into a library & noticed a hardback with a striking monochrome cover. A smeared War Office canteen cup & saucer, a Gauloise stub, paper clips, bullets, & a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson. Bureaucracy laced with violence & intrigue. The Ipcress File/A novel by Len Deighton. Secret File No. 1. I was hooked. Le Carré, the Hampstead spysmith, has always been the beeboids’ darling, but a BBC production of Deighton’s SS-GB is on the way, so a glance at his earlier novels may be of interest.
Deighton burst onto the literary scene in 1962, with The Ipcress File. The 60s were gearing up at a time when nuclear devastation seemed a possibility; it was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, & a monstrous wall was a recent addition to Berlin’s architecture. This is the world that Deighton’s sardonic, chippy, anti-hero inhabits, groping his way through the double-crossing, surreal labyrinth of the Cold War & high-level criminal scams. Little wonder he is paranoid & keeps his ‘escape package’ close. His life is, by necessity, lonely; much time spent waiting for contacts in seedy hotel rooms. Friends are few. People that know what he does avoid him; others think he’s a dull cog in the Civil Service.
He goes to sinister places, where deadly rivals, separated by an Iron Curtain, relentlessly probe for weakness. Places like Checkpoint Charlie, where the sound of water rinsing the pavements after another shooting is commonplace. The tragedy & repercussions of WW2 haunt these books, ghosts flitting through the barbed wire & tank traps, evading the searchlights to congregate in the malevolent shadows. Sudden, expedient death is the norm.
The author’s crisp, evocative, even poetic, descriptions of place & atmosphere adorn his novels throughout. London, Prague, Helsinki, New York, Russia, Lebanon, Portugal, &, of course, Berlin, which holds Deighton’s fascination above all others. His prose has the immediacy of a snapshot, be it looking down on the Elektrosila turbine plant in the suburbs of Leningrad, or Manhattan by night.
In the five novels written in a blistering phase of creativity between 1962-67, the laconic leading man is an anonymous narrator. The film of Ipcress – starring Michael Caine – named the insubordinate intelligence officer, Harry Palmer. Caine, hot box office, provided the iconic image: heavily-framed glasses, pale raincoat & the Sterling submachine gun. But Caine’s good looks were never allowed to sweeten the bloody-minded nature of Harry’s character.
The three books filmed were so complex, & at times, introspective, that
compression was essential. And changes were made. ‘Book’ Harry is from Burnley; on screen, he’s a Londoner, as are Caine & Deighton. Both men had humble but happy upbringings, & both revelled in the social mobility of the times. But Deighton, a confirmed meritocrat, still harboured strong feelings about the stifling aspects of the British class system.
Harry has similar problems. He recalls the colliery brass bands of his childhood & winning the maths prize at his grammar school, not the playing fields of Eton. The constant tension with his superiors, many of whom consider him uppity & insolent, boils over in Horse Under Water, when he savages a snotty, corrupt Cabinet minister, whose name appears in the Weiss List, a directory of potential Nazi collaborators recovered from a submersible WW2 German weather buoy in the
Atlantic. A masterclass in contempt, with Harry leaving the meeting before he pukes over the traitor’s expensive carpet in disgust.
Prior to Ipcress, Fleming had worn the espionage crown. But Deighton sought to replace that headpiece with something more akin to a cloth cap. Readers flocked to these stories of the endearing, ’not quite a gentleman’, downbeat spy, who was also a bit of a gourmet, liked Jazz & Schoenberg, military history &, perversely enough, could hold his own in the Latin quotations stakes. In contrast to the cold assassin that is Bond, Harry takes no satisfaction from killing; he feels genuine revulsion.
Mundanities that would never bother 007, litter Harry’s days. Cockney tea ladies, chatty milkmen, traffic wardens, lost cats, bills on the doormat, squabbles over expenses, hangovers, petty bureaucracy & rips in trousers – kitchen sink dramas that bring him back down to earth. There are no gadget-laden Astons, but there are beautiful women agents who inevitably distract Harry from his long-running
romance with Jean, his clever, sexy secretary. Samantha Steel from Israeli Intelligence, who Palmer outwits in Funeral in Berlin with a coffin containing a dead German playboy, not a sedated nerve gas scientist. And the seemingly scatty Finn, Signe, who couldn’t be anything other than a gorgeous innocent, until she tries to murder Harry in Billion Dollar Brain. Another woman who often seems to want to top him is frosty Alice, his boss’s formidable secretary & guardian of the office
Nescafé tin; hardly Miss Moneypenny.
Harry works for WOOC (P), an intelligence unit based in a rickety building in Charlotte Street. One floor purports to be Film Cutting Rooms, another, a Theatrical Tailor, whose real job is to provide any outfit agents may require on clandestine ops. The building seems to rest on foundations of inspired amateurism. The nearest thing to computer wizardry is a very pre-digital IBM 88 index card collating machine. More Callan than glossy Spooks.
The spying ‘game’ has many sacrificial pawns. In one telling scene in Horse under Water, after the violent death of a colleague, Harry berates Jean for wanting retribution. He explains that their job is a mass of loose ends, & only a few of these strands will ever tie up neatly. Live with it & don’t ever expect tit for tat. We’re more concerned with keeping out of the papers.
Deighton’s achievement was to create a cohesive secret world, to which you had been given the key. His novels buzz with acerbic dialogue & wisecracks (a nod to Chandler), multiple plots, twists & turns galore: a sunken U-boat, brain drains, thought control labs, deadly viruses, private armies, US rocket sites & a remarkable
cast of characters. Harry’s eccentric bosses, posh, languid, Dalby, who relishes occasional bouts of hooliganism, & then Dawlish, with his love of the Duke of Wellington. There is the KGB, represented by the volatile, Robert Burns quoting joker, Colonel Stok. The Stasi. The duplicitous, neurotic, Harvey Newbegin, ex US State Department, who has gone freelance, & probably mad. The Pike brothers, Latvian nationalists with impeccable English accents. General Midwinter ( a George Soros in reverse?), a Texan billionaire hell-bent on instigating an uprising in the Soviet-occupied Baltic. And so many more whose appearances make these stories so rich.
There is a delight in technology & how things work – the nuts & bolts of espionage, imparted to the reader with an assurance that never overwhelms. The books are full of historical & contemporary information, enlarged upon in the appendices. Not only are these novels a distinctive contribution to the spy genre, but also a gift to
literature itself. Thank you, Mr Deighton. Thank you for all those escapist hours.
The novels, chronologically: The Ipcress File, Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin, Billion Dollar Brain, An Expensive Place To Die. Currently published by HarperCollins, & all on Kindle. Original Penguin copies can still be found, & some of the hardbacks with the excellent cover photos. These are now very collectable. Happy spying.