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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Len Deighton's Spy Novels Still Outsmart Fleming and le Carre After 50 Years in Print

Posted By on Wed, Dec 7, 2011 at 11:00 AM

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Len Deighton's Secret File series of spy novels continue to exert a palpable influence over spy and thriller fiction, even as we near the 50th anniversary of the first volume, The IPCRESS File, one of a group recently reprinted. As with the best spy writing -- including that of Grahame Greene, John le Carre, and Alan Furst -- Deighton's books exist somewhere slightly outside genre conventions, in a realm that overlaps with what we might snobbily prefer as "literary fiction." Any author of genre fiction must combat assumptions inherent in that chosen genre, but Deighton seems uninterested in genre parameters at all. And this may have freed him creatively, accounting for the special cool flair of the Secret File series, which is intelligent, witty, and steeped in history and English social mores.

For many of us, Len Deighton may be a shadowy name at best. His best-sellerdom, though it lasted decades, is now a memory. (His most recent novel was published in 1996.) Yet Deighton is one of the best writers of the second half of the 20th century, being a master of spy fiction as well as a major contributor to the literature of World War II in fictional and nonfictional forms. A professional graphic designer prior to launching his career as a writer, Deighton is also well known as a gourmand, and he penned a group of best-selling cookbooks -- unusual for someone who is a novelist and an Englishman.

Deighton shows Michael Caine how to crack an egg on the set of The IPCRESS File - THE RONALD GRANT ARCHIVE
  • The Ronald Grant Archive
  • Deighton shows Michael Caine how to crack an egg on the set of The IPCRESS File

Deighton's influence can largely be measured by his unique voice and his quietly complicated plotting. A Deighton novel hinges almost entirely upon elegant English inference and suggestion, and not at all on the sloppy exposition found in the cheaper potboilers of Ian Fleming or Robert Ludlum. Whereas those novels often implode from the weight of that expository dark matter, Deighton's remain fresh and attractive, challenging readers, reeling them into the book patiently like fish on a line, as opposed to trying to collect them with a grenade in the river.

Fortunately, Sterling Publishing has recently reprinted a group of Deighton's best-known titles, among them the four Secret File novels. The IPCRESS File is first in the series, and it was Deighton's debut as an author.* It was a massive hit upon publication, and it was compared favorably to Fleming's James Bond novels among others. Unlike Fleming or le Carre, Deighton's books are not informed by direct experience in intelligence work. I'd argue that Deighton is the best writer of the three, outperforming the quality of Fleming's prose and plotting, and lacking le Carre's high-handedness.

The hero of IPCRESS -- as well as the other three novels in the series -- is an unnamed, working-class spy in the employ of WOOC(P), a very small intelligence unit headquartered in an unassuming building in London's Soho district. We never learn what WOOC(P) stands for; there's a strong sense that Deighton is playing this nonsensical acronym for laughs. Our unnamed hero is clever, smart-assed (or -arsed), a little lazy, and (paradoxically) somewhat slow on the uptake. He finds himself pitted against a plot to kidnap, sell, and brainwash scientists working on the British nuclear program. Our hero pieces together the details slowly, patiently, being sure to take time out to savor a cup of coffee or a well-prepared meal. (A key villain is captured in the midst of preparing a lobster dinner.)

There is an escapist quality here, to be sure -- something of a nostalgia trip. Deighton's London was just beginning to swing when IPCRESS was published, something that is perhaps more evident in the film adaptations of the Secret File books that star Michael Caine.

One quality that makes the novels endure is their view that intelligence is remarkably similar to other lines of work. Our unnamed hero's world is not glamorous. He endures the drudgery, the personality clashes, and the pettiness that infests most other jobs in the world -- the difference in this case is that the work is purportedly done in the name of protecting Britain from her enemies. Still, hierarchy trumps common sense at every turn, despite the hero's ability to antagonize his superiors as he pleases, seemingly without repercussion.

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Although the central tension of IPCRESS (secrets of nuclear warfare) has waned to a large extent in our time, the book feels current because our own fears are just as powerful: Replace nuclear secrets with stolen nuclear material, for example, or with terrorism in some form. What really propels the book is the ridiculously blasé attitude of government-sanctioned "protectors" toward their duties. Anyone who has passed through airport security in the past decade can identify with that.

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*The other titles in the series are Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin, and Billion-Dollar Brain.

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