Len Deighton Deighton, Len (Vol. 7) - Essay

Deighton, Len (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Deighton, Len 1929–

Deighton, an Englishman, is the author of The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and other successful suspense novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Spy Story] is a vintage Len Deighton thriller; that being said it must also be admitted that Spy Story makes no real advance on his books of ten years ago. Mr. Deighton has, after all, written himself into the position of being judged by rather high standards….

[The] impeccable handling of the widely different locations is … perhaps where his real talent lies. The story, the characters, are empty (though not by the standards of the genre); yet there is an overall impression of richness. We have been to these, or similar, locations before on spying trips: an isolated castle in Scotland, a nuclear submarine under the northern ice-pack, a party of brittle richesse in Camden. The action and the high life are familiar enough, but the skill with which each is drawn and integrated is beguiling. Too laconic for an old-fashioned cliffhanger, Mr Deighton yet produces a sort of dispassionate cerebral excitement which, like the polar ice itself, is nine-tenths submerged and all the more menacing for that. (p. 465)

"Cold Warrior," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 3, 1974, p. 465.

Len Deighton is fun. He intends to be fun. John le Carre deploys the genius of the spy thriller to proclaim the amoral darkness of great power intelligence, great power politics and the spiritual rot that infects anyone who gets involved. Deighton recognizes the same despair. But it is relegated to the status of cushioning for good, exciting stories. Funeral in Berlin blossomed in the cold war permafrost that rendered the marooned German city into a surreal landscape. But that was just a framework from which Deighton reeled out a superb yarn about body smuggling and the cynical machinations of both sides.

Spy Story is almost as much fun. Deighton keeps track of the moving source of our bewilderments. The cold war is now passe. Global strategy worked out on computers in think tanks inaccessible to ordinary human reason and pleadings is the virus afflicting us with the nuclear hives. Spy Story revolves around one such think tank—a NATO factory of destructive reveries in north London. The current exercise involves Arctic war games. Deighton is enthralled with cold. Spy Story opens on the wind-raked barrens above a Scottish loch where monstrous nuclear submarines come home to roost. It ends with a trip under the polar ice cap in one such sub—one of the most hair-raising passages ever written about sea warfare….

One suspects, while enjoying [Spy Story], that its devices will shortly become too familiar. Armstrong, like all other Deighton heroes, is slightly tacky, more than a little cynical, vaguely an opportunist, a man who hates the mauve world of intelligence and triple-cross but can't seem to escape from it—either because circumstances keep bagging him or because of his own, Freudian will to self-created tragedy. He is, in other words, Michael Caine. He needs a bath and loses his mistress in the end because of the things he's done in the beginning and the middle. Despair tacked on as a postscript.

But the atmospherics ring forever true. Deighton seems to know the places he writes about—the bone-buckling cold and interminable rain of the Highlands will be familiar to anyone who has ever tramped across those wastes of appalling beauty. The hushed, lifeless world of ice, emptiness and stars that look as if they would break from the sky while submarines, with the power to incinerate the world, play tag miles below, is redolent of the desolation which, said Tacitus, the conquerors of his time called peace.

Deighton is better at plots and settings than he is at people. But the plots are marvelous and the settings alone are worth the price of admission. (p. 3)

Roderick MacLeish, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 29, 1974.

Len Deighton … has returned from writing straight fiction to his reluctant spy, and the result ["Spy Story"] is middling-OK, not as crisp and stylish as "The Ipcress File" or as fat and grotesque as "Billion-Dollar Brain." Deighton's specialty has always been a nearly incoherent plot—you could barely grasp it as you read it and forgot it immediately afterward—told with such smooth assurance that the reader felt quite comfortable. (p. 127)

I have a great fondness for Deighton's early work. In it there was a kind of tautness: part wit, part comic lunacy, part cynical disenchantment, part parody that was exactly appropriate to the early '60s. That tautness is gone now, and so is the energy and relevance. (p. 128)

Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 14, 1974.

Len Deighton's success as a writer of spy thrillers has always rested on his recognition of the humorous possibilities of the form. Like its near cousin the murder mystery, the novel of espionage rests on a set of conventions that bring it closer to comedy than to any other literary genre. The readers' fascination for it, Deighton knows, is a function of our nostalgia for action or, put another way, for the child's world of moral clarity and guiltless intrigue. Plot dominated, the thriller deals with stock characters and a degree of happenstance and coincidence that with a twist here and a turn there could easily degenerate into buffoonery. Even the most credulous of readers has a great deal of disbelief to suspend; most important of all is that one knows from the start that although the hero may emerge with blood on his hands rather than custard cream on his face, he will remain fundamentally unscathed, springing back from near disaster like a Joe Palooka punching bag.

"Spy Story," like the author's previous novels in the series, "Funeral in Berlin" and "The Ipcress File," is a superior entertainment. Since Deighton seeks a literate audience, it is essential that his narrator-protagonist be of relatively limited physical competence (as compared to James Bond, for example) and that he display a carefully measured amount of ironic reluctance about the proceedings he is involved in, together with a degree of fastidiousness with regard to murder. For all the deftness of his wit and his technological expertise, he must remain a British hobbyist at heart and display only the vestigial personal memory needed to flesh him out, so that he may neither learn significantly from previous adventures, nor (God forbid) intellectualize overmuch. One happily tolerates a stylistic assertiveness, particularly in the politics of the book, that one would find tendentious or bothersome if required to accept it as very much more than a given upon which to hang a plot. (p. 5)

Gene Lyons, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 13, 1975.

By 1969 Len Deighton had written his four best spy thrillers, beginning in 1963 with Ipcress File, and going on quickly to Horse Under Water and Funeral in Berlin…. By 1969 the Deighton touch was clear, both the plots and the style almost instantly recognizable…. In fine, Deighton had carved out his own niche by then.

What was this special niche? Roughly Deighton had decided to apply to the reader, and therefore to his style, the principle so honored in spy fiction (if not necessarily in real life), that of "need to know." His plots seem more complex than they are, as most mundane lives no doubt do, because very little is stated explicitly, sequences appear to begin in mid-passage, and only through observation of the action does one come to understand either the motives of the villains, or the thought processes of the heroes…. Deighton had patented a style in which every third paragraph appeared to have been left out.

It worked stunningly well, not only as pure thriller, but as a not too subtle way of sharing [his protagonist's] confusion with the reader. In a sense, Deighton's interest was increasingly in the question of what an agent might be led to believe was true rather than in any fictional truth to be revealed to the reader…. Appearances increasingly became everything…. Appearances are deceiving, but what is stated—and that is often very little—is true….

So now Len Deighton has thumbed his nose at us and written his best book since Funeral in Berlin, all in the same gesture, which is surely a kind of grace. For he has written a book [Yesterday's Spy] which reviewers may well hail as Deighton returning to the style and mannerisms of his earlier successes. Having tried to grow and experiment, without critical success,… Deighton has written a book that is self-parody so cunningly constructed as to please at almost any level….

Yesterday's Spy is, on the surface, about one Steve Champion, a hero of World War II who was a top operative for the British in occupied France….

But it is Deighton who is truly Yesterday's Spy, and he knows it. It is in this that he succeeds—taking us back to an earlier time in order to "return to form." This is a story written to the attitudes, the manners, the very style of the 1960s in which he won his audience. It will win that audience back, and will deserve to. And by doing so, by taking us back to the time when Muhammad Ali was Cassius Clay, Deighton has both written his best seller and grown in the way in which he wanted and yet could not otherwise have done. Yesterday's Spy is all of us. (p. 32)

Robin W. Winks, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 13, 1975.

Evasive indirection has been Deighton's trademark since his first spy novel, The Ipcress File, appeared in 1963. At the time, his obsessive reliance on the blurred and intangible, on loaded pauses and mysteriously disjointed dialogue, did convey the shadowy meanness of the spy's world, with its elusive loyalties, camouflaged identities and weary brutality.

But Deighton's later efforts have bloated these cryptic and inscrutable mannerisms into a dense fog of unknowing. In 1974 he published an impenetrable lemon called Spy Story, about Russians who were or perhaps were not defecting. The artful fuzziness so completely overwhelmed the plot that the book was unreadable, all murk and no menace. With no way to go but up, Deighton has at least managed to be comprehensible in Yesterday's Spy….

Perversely [however], Deighton kills off [the only] promising character early in the story, and loses his one chance to breathe some life into his plot. (p. 16)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 19, 1976.

Len Deighton gets so much mileage out of the tension between ill-assorted operatives working on the same job that it's almost a substitute for narrative. In the early novels it was smooth Old Harrovian roughing up bright self-made Harry Palmer. Lately, he's concentrated more on a BritYank pairing….

Pace, though, is what Deighton is the master of, and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy shows all the familiar control…. Just when Deighton seems to be coasting, and you don't feel such a bubblebrain after all, in he jumps with a piece of smartly faked violence, the chase begins, and you zip round the world realising that the placid intro was not only full of hints but of hints which still have you foxed. Thereafter, the trail of murder, suicide, and hi-jacking is fast, probable, and very cleverly worked: the best spy story since … well, the last Deighton. (p. 822)

Julian Barnes, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 18, 1976.