My contribution to the 1962-themed reading week hosted by Simon and Karen is veteran thriller author Len Deighton’s debut novel which introduced us to the unnamed spy later immortalised on film by Michael Caine (right) as Harry Palmer. Although I have seen the 1965 movie many times, and also enjoyed the more recent ITV adaptation with Joe Cole in the lead, I’ve never read the novel. I’m pretty sure I have read some of Deighton’s mid-catalogue – I can remember a copy of SS-GB around, and I picked up a set of book club editions of his Bernard Samson trilogy Hook, Line and Sinker at a book sale some years ago which are waiting for me. Effectively I’m starting to read him afresh…
I discovered I owned two copies of the book too. I had an old paperback, a very tanned 1964 reprint, and the 2021 Penguin Modern Classics reprint, which has the advantage of an afterword by Deighton. The old paperback with the War Office coffee cup complete with fag-end in the saucer represents the novel better than the new cover – which adds a camera – which is NOT a ‘Minox’ as mentioned in the book (a staple piece of equipment for the 1960s spy). They’ve also added Harry Palmer style glasses – I sat my own on top of them – I’m Harriet Palmer don’t you know! In the novel, our narrator doesn’t wear glasses. Those cover quibbles aside, it was nice to read from crisp new white pages (and I see that Penguin have reprinted his entire list now – could be expensive!)
The novel begins with a brief framing prologue in which our narrator is being debriefed by a government minister and asked to tell his story, which begins when he is transferred from the War Office Military Intelligence to a small specialist unit led by Dalby. They are working on a brain drain of top scientists disappearing, and suspect an intelligence broker known as ‘Jay’ is behind it.
Dalby gave me a look calculated to have me feeling like an employee, he got to his feel and walked across to the big map of Europe that he had pinned across the wall for the last week. I walked across to him. ‘You think that Jay is master minding it,’ I said. Dalby looked at the map and still staring at it said, ‘Sure of it, absolutely sure of it.’ […]
Dalby suddenly became aware of me again and turned on a flash of boyish charm.
‘You see,’ said Dalby. ‘It’s not just a case of the defection of one biochemist . . . ‘
‘Defection? I thought that Jay’s speciality was a high-quality line in snatch jobs.’
‘Hijack! Snatch jobs! all that gangland talk. You read too many newspapers that’s your trouble.’
And so our protagonist finds himself en route to Beirut to rescue a British scientist before the broker can hand him over to the Soviets, and the mission is a success.
When intelligence comes in that Jay’s operations may interfere with the US neutron bomb test in the Pacific, Dalby and our protagonist go as British observers, along with Jean, an assistant who the narrator is beginning to have feelings for. The Americans, however, suspect the British contingent of harbouring a double-agent and it’s our guy who is set up and ends up being tortured and the beginnings of being brain-washed, before escaping. They got the wrong chap!
I’m not going to say more about the plot. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll recall the brain-washing scenes vividly using a technique known as IPCRESS: Induction of Psychoneurosis by Conditioned Reflex under Stress. These scenes don’t occur in the book, although IPCRESS as a technique is uncovered by one of the narrator’s colleagues. LIkewise, the film doesn’t go to the Pacific, Palmer is snatched in Europe.
What the novel does really well is describe the boredom, occasional hard work and inspiration, and rivalry between divisions in the War Office, and the types that do this job. Our narrator has daily battles with department admin Alice, maker of bad coffee, loyal to Dalby too, the arrival of Jean as an assistant livens things up a bit!
Even more so is Deighton’s portrayal of the multicultural world of Soho and Fitzrovia where Dalby’s unit is situated at Charlotte Street. Deighton, now 94, grew up in Marylebone and went to St Martin’s and the RCA after military service, becoming a commercial artist. As he tells us in the afterword, he knew the area intimately in the early 1960s, all those coffee shops and delicatessens, and he makes his protagonist a gourmet with cosmopolitan tastes. Indeed, Deighton’s ‘cook-strips’ for the Observer (see above), aimed at teaching bachelors how to cook, would be brought together into his ‘Action Cookbook’ just in time to feature in the film – you see a copy in Palmer’s kitchen!
Deighton’s nameless spy is certainly the antithesis to James Bond, who hit the silver screen the same year as The IPCRESS File was published. He realises that attention to detail and the application of tradecraft could be life savers on a mission, and proves his resourcefulness and usefulness without Bond’s bravado. We don’t really get much sense of the narrator’s past though, apart from being in the Army and well-travelled. In the film and even more so in the TV series, it is hinted that he has a criminal past and a strong tendency towards insubordination which comes in useful.
The novel’s lead is certainly droll and often sarcastic, particularly towards Alice who doesn’t have a sense of humour. There are a few occasions of banter, he trades racial insults with a black American GI for instance, but these are not typical. As Deighton writes him, his narration style is conversational, always engaging.
Most acronyms are explained in footnotes – although WOOC(P) – Dalby’s lot isn’t, Deighton leaving us to have fun creating our own … War Office something? Occasional references requiring more exposition such as ‘Joe One’, the Soviet nuclear bomb are given longer explanations in an Appendix at the end – but told in a style fitting the fiction and characters of the novel. Also in the Appendix are recipes for cocktails at a party on the US atoll and a comparative table of prices of Indian Hemp (Marijuana) in various locations!
Can you tell how much I enjoyed this novel? What a treat it was, and want to read more by Deighton now, including the three sequels following the further adventures of our nameless narrator. Highly recommended indeed.
Source: Own copies! Penguin paperback, 239 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.