Time to reopen the Deighton file

As The Ipcress File makes its TV debut, Conrad Landin opines that now is a good moment to reassess the work of Len Deighton

Thursday, 24th February — By Conrad Landin

Joe Cole as Harry Palmer_credit ITV

Joe Cole as Harry Palmer in the upcoming TV version of The Ipcress File. Photo: ITV

WHAT chance did I stand between the Communists on one side and the Establishment on the other,” wonders the protagonist of The Ipcress File. “They were both out-thinking me at every move.”

It’s a sentiment that’s most explicit in this first novel from Len Deighton, who received his grammar school education at the long-closed St Marylebone’s Boys and the North London Emergency School – as Highgate’s William Ellis was known during the Second World War. But a distinct distrust of the British secret service’s public school-educated top brass is a running theme throughout his early work.

Most often, it is expressed through a tic of sardonic observation. When the same protagonist meets an old acquaintance in a private members’ club in the opening scenes of Yesterday’s Spy, he notices a “famous poet” and a “peer of the realm… arguing quietly and eruditely about the lyrics of an obscene Eighth Army song about the extra-marital activities of King Farouk”.

The continued success of two contrasting takes on the spy story, Ian Fleming’s James Bond franchise and John le Carré’s multiple novels and their assorted adaptations, is telling of the genre’s endurance.

Yet Deighton’s work – cast in between Fleming’s racy masculinity and Le Carré’s cold psychology – has fallen somewhat by the wayside. The Penguin Classics republication of his oeuvre, along with a new ITV adaptation of The Ipcress File beginning in March, provides an ideal moment to consider the unique perspective Deighton brings to the very notion of intelligence. For this is a word so wholly co-opted by state security forces that in the context of a spy novel, it’s easy to forget its actual meaning.

Deighton’s plots are spectacularly convoluted. It’s no surprise that the 1965 film of The Ipcress File features a much-truncated storyboard, along with a name – Harry Palmer – and unambiguous hero status for Michael Caine’s protagonist. In print, however, allegiances and identities are in constant flux. The notion of state security as a beacon of intelligence is exploded not only through the constant second-guessing required of reader and character alike, but also through Deighton’s constant lampooning of the establishment and its capabilities.

One significant preoccupation in Deighton’s canon is the growing influence of the US as Britain comes to terms with its diminished role in global geopolitics. Deighton is equally savage to the US military officers to whom his protagonist is increasingly in no doubt of his subordination – but perhaps a little more sympathetic too. In Yesterday’s Spy, Colonel Schlegel wears “the kind of outfit they sell in those Los Angeles shops that have bow windows and plastic Tudor beams”. But as with Major Mann in Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy, his unabashed vulgarity is a refreshing contrast to the clubbable chicanery of British agents. One can detect an admiration for the quick-wittedness of Americans – rather than a condescension to their supposed simplicity.

Close-Up, one of Deighton’s greatest novels, considers this turning point in Anglo-American power and identity through the contrasting lens of the filmmaking business. Ageing star Marshall Stone lives as much a lie as the unnamed spy who has forgotten his real name. When a biographer who happens to be married to his first wife appears on the scene, Stone’s fear of exposure snowballs. As in Deighton’s espionage thrillers, our understanding of events becomes as overshadowed by self-doubt as that of the characters – as we once again see popular perceptions of an industry shot to pieces.

Yet across Deighton’s work, such existential questions are always tempered by the author’s fascination with the twin gods of food and personal finance. The Ipcress File’s protagonist is constantly forced to ask his bosses to process his back pay and expenses, and the novel’s denouement takes place as its villain cooks a lobster in real time.

In literary culture as well as in class standing, Deighton was always an uneasy fit – writing military history and cookery guidance alongside fiction. Unlike Le Carré, who carried on faithfully producing spy novels until his death in 2019, Deighton has been long retired – allowing his back catalogue to pass to the status of period piece. But perhaps James Bond and George Smiley have proved more enduring personalities than Harry Palmer for a more straightforward reason: neither ever had to worry about an electricity bill.

Len Deighton’s novels are re-published in Penguin Modern Classics

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