Len Deighton Deighton, Len (Vol. 4) - Essay

Deighton, Len (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Deighton, Len 1929–

An English novelist, Deighton is best known for his spy thriller The Ipcress File. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Deighton's] sure handling of technicalities is reminiscent of Kipling, who could absorb unfamiliar detail and then write about it so convincingly that, for instance, men who had spent a lifetime at sea were convinced that he, too, must have been a sailor. Deighton's picture of men going through well-learned movements while their senses were being assaulted by great fear on the one hand and stimulated by the primitive exhilaration of killing and destroying on the other, reminded me of Stephen Crane who, though without experience of battle himself, wrote more truthfully about it than many who had actually fought.

In the 13 stories which make up Declarations of War the research, as meticulous as ever, no longer obtrudes [as it did, one critic charged, in Bomber] and we are at least as interested in the characters as in their machines and their technique. Some of the characters—an ex-colonel, now a car enthusiast, a battered First World War ace, a young GI in Vietnam, a regular Army sergeant in India—have been touched with the rare magic which makes them live on in the memory long after their story is forgotten. Two or three of the stories are only a little short of masterpieces.

The exciting thing about Len Deighton is that he develops with each new book. He could have gone on repeating the formula of The Ipcress File with undoubted success, but instead he tried for more subtlety, for more convincing, more substantial characters…. I do not think it is too farfetched to suggest that one day Len Deighton will write a novel which will warrant the most careful critical attention and will rank him among the best.

Peter Elstob, in Books and Bookmen, December, 1971, p. 60.

[In] The Ipcress File (1963) and his subsequent books, Len Deighton … gave a new twist to the [spy story]. His anonymous central character (called Harry Palmer in the films) is a working-class boy from Burnley, opposed to all authority, who dislikes or distrusts anybody outside his own class. He is set down in a world of terrifying complexity, in which nobody is ever what he seems. The Deighton stories are elliptically—sometimes too elliptically—told, but their sudden shifts of tone and scene are extremely effective, and the technological expertise is impressive because it is not just there for show. Deighton's fascination with what in another writer would be gimmicks comes through …, and there is something almost lyrical about his re-creation of the dangerous and transitory lives of agents, as well as something sharp and knowing. From his most brilliant performance, Billion-Dollar Brain (1966), one carries away admiration for a plot as intricate as the lock of a good safe and for the characterization of the clownish double agent Harvey Newbigin, but even more for the evocation of General Midwinter's dotty neo-Fascist organization in Texas and the wonderfully vivid picture of the shooting of Harvey in the snow outside the Russian train. Writing of this quality, combined or contrasted with the constant crackle of the dialogue, makes Deighton a kind of poet of the spy novel.

Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 245-46.

Len Deighton's plots are made like certain kinds of cheese: the holes they have in them are intended. His art of the spy story, deftly exemplified once again by Spy Story, contrives to strand you guessing even after everything's blown over. The snags in the web, the sundered connectors, the absences of information that leave you puzzling and straining to join up the middles whose ends are flamboyantly tied, evince an authorial omniscience more tauntingly grudging than Milton's God on a bad day with Satan.

Valentine Cunningham, in The Listener, May 9, 1974, p. 606.

[In Spy Story,] Mr. Deighton returns to international espionage by leading us into the computerized insanity of the Joint Anglo-American Strategic (Naval) War Game Studies Centre, in London, and showing us what the staff is really up to. The action, hobbled by much technical information, tends to move by fits and starts, and our mystification by what we seem to be seeing is almost total, but the information is grimly instructive and the mystification is irresistibly beguiling. It might be added that Mr. Deighton has never written more cleanly, and that he has also pretty much curbed his tendency to long-windedness.

The New Yorker, September 23, 1974, p. 147.