Len Deighton Essay - Critical Essays


Len Deighton achieved instant popular success with The Ipcress File, begun while he was on holiday in France, and followed it between 1963 and 1967 with four more crisp, tightly constructed novels that established him as one of the foremost writers in the espionage genre. Deighton uses footnotes and appendixes in these early novels to buttress his stories with information about espionage agencies, technical terminology and jargon, and historical events. These anchors to the reality beyond his fiction serve to heighten verisimilitude. References to then-current events, popular songs, living political figures, characters in popular fiction (such as James Bond), and brands of food and drink add to the sense of reality in the novels but also date them: The topicality that helped Deighton gain instant mass appeal in the 1960’s eventually became a liability, for many of his references are inaccessible to later readers.

Most remarkable is Deighton’s ability to create protagonists, in the cases of both the anonymous spy and Bernard Samson, who are hard-bitten but nevertheless engaging. They are drawn from lower-class or middle-class backgrounds to compete alongside and often against the aristocrats who control the ministries and departments of Great Britain’s government. Frequently they are called on to expose members of the Oxbridge set, who were schooled at the ancient universities at Oxford and Cambridge, as venal and self-serving betrayers of England or ideologically motivated counterintelligence penetrants of English security forces. In pitting the ordinary field agent or senior staff member risen from the ranks against those born of privilege, Deighton emphasizes the value of talent over inheritance, of dogged hard work over easily gained postings, and of resourcefulness, stamina, and deviousness over deviousness alone.

In many respects, Harry Palmer and Bernard Samson share a deeply felt conviction about the importance of their work. Each of the novels contains some speculation about the meaning of individual effort in the context of political action. These speculations are most frequently personal, bittersweet comments on the realities of working with diminished ideals. Deighton’s protagonists are quite clear about the motive for espionage: Spying is not the “Great Game” Rudyard Kipling described; it is a war fought against oppression yet making use of the tools and tactics of oppressive government. Thus, in London Match (1985), Samson responds to a colleague’s naïveté about the working of politics in Bonn by saying that espionage is about politics and that to remove politics would be to render espionage unnecessary. So, while holding a healthy disrespect for politicians, Samson can still realize the inevitable political motivation for his work.

Deighton’s usual narrative technique combines first-person observation, realistically reconstructed conversations, and intricately plotted sequences of events. He is at his best when his characters tell their own stories, although the interspersal of third-person narrative in Funeral in Berlin (1964), for example, is also effective. The reader is taken into the confidence of the narrator, who shares his own version of events, his assessment of others’ motivations, and his attitudes and observations concerning a variety of subjects. Both Samson and Palmer are keen observers who give a false impression of being incompetent or obtuse: This is their secret weapon.

Deighton’s use of dialogue serves to heighten the immediacy of his characters and to fix them in their social and cultural spheres. So, for example, in the “American” novels (Spy Story, 1974; Yesterday’s Spy, 1975; Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy, 1976), he captures the essence of the American military culture through diction and syntax. Similarly, his ear is finely tuned to the idioms peculiar to German speakers of English (sometimes phrases appear to be translated directly from the German) and to the varied classes of British speakers exemplified in characters ranging from Samson’s cockney brother-in-law, George, to the studied Oxbridge manner of Palmer’s master, Dawlish. Deighton thus updates George Bernard Shaw’s acute observations of the English-speaking world in Pygmalion (1913). There is also a pleasurable Dickensian predictability in the speech of recurring characters such as Lisl Hennig, Werner Zolkmann, and Zena Volkmann in the Samson trilogy. Deighton makes his characters individualized and memorable by giving the reader some entry into their psychological makeup through their speech.

Like many of his contemporaries, Deighton revels in a virtuosity of plot construction. Indeed, many of the developments in espionage fiction in the 1970’s and 1980’s owe much to Deighton’s pioneer work in developing highly complicated, intricate story lines. Many conventions of the spy novel have their origins in the works of Deighton and le Carré, who may be considered the forgers of a new genre of postmodern espionage fiction peculiar to the era of the Cold War.

The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin

In Deighton’s first novel, The Ipcress File, the twists and turns of plot, false starts, mistaken motives, and carefully concealed identities are interwoven with the ordinary concerns of the narrator. The...

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