Len Deighton Deighton, Len (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Len Deighton 1929–

English novelist, nonfiction writer, and scriptwriter.

Deighton is known for his best-selling spy thrillers, especially The Ipcress File. Integrating careful, extensive research with his own experiences as an RAF frogman, Deighton writes fiction and nonfiction accounts of events in World War II. His work, although consistently popular, has elicited mixed critical response.

(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[So far] the only newcomer to emerge with an original approach has been Mr. Len Deighton with his first novel, The Ipcress File. Described in the publishers' advertisement as presenting "spyworks with the lid off", this story … carries certainly an air of inside knowledge: to add even more verisimilitude, Mr. Deighton includes appendixes on handling unfamiliar pistols, "top secret" atomic explosions, the composition of neutron bombs, the prices currently fetched by Indian hemp, and the recipe for a cocktail called the Tokwe Twist. The villain, a free-lance dealer in information, code-named Jay ("All people under long-term surveillance had bird-names"), is said, moreover, to have "masterminded" the escape from England of Burgess and Maclean, and to be now engaged in the mass-abduction of British biochemists.

The subject-matter and the general set-up are traditional….

The originality resides mainly in the style and personality of the anonymous narrator, a professional spy and proud of it. Built to be as unlike [James] Bond as possible, he carries garlic sausage and Normandy butter in his pockets while attempting to rescue a kidnapped S.I.l. from a Soho striptease club; his back-pay is three months outstanding and … it is none of his doing. Brash and insolent, yet human and fallible in his youthful would-be omniscience, he is addicted to occasional overwriting but he is also a master of the smart back-crack,...

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Anthony Boucher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frankly, I'm not quite sure what to make of … Len Deighton, an experienced frogman who has worked for the Special Investigation Branch of the R.A.F. I'll agree with Symons that he "has a sharp realism about motives that is very much to my own taste." He also has a wry, dry and highly individual manner—as well as a highly individual approach to punctuation and grammar. But I find his storytelling episodic, even desultory. It takes him almost half of this long book ["The Ipcress File"] to get his anonymous agent—working for something known as W.O.O.C.(P)—involved in a forward-moving plot. Still, this spasmodic pointlessness is (I think) part of Deighton's picture of what espionage is really like; it carries conviction, and the narrator's detached and sardonic attitude is refreshing.

Anthony Boucher, "Criminals at Large: 'The Ipcress File'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 10, 1963, p. 44.

John B. Cullen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Len Deighton], with no war experience, but with knowledge of investigation tactics as well as military history,… uses this background [in The Ipcress File] to good advantage in a tale of espionage. Unlike the straight intelligence work of Ian Fleming or our own Van Wyck Mason, Deighton writes with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. The action, brutality, deaths and the slight bit of romance which is allowed to seep into such stories, are all present; but so are the weaknesses of our C.I.A., Scotland Yard and various other agencies. No one is spared the needle of subtle ridicule, but the author still tells a plausible story which holds your attention throughout. (p. 302)

John B. Cullen, "Fiction: 'The Ipcress File'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1963, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 23, No. 16, November 15, 1963, pp. 301-02.

Robert Donald Spectar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Ipcress File] Len Deighton has combined picaresque satire, parody, and suspense and produced a hybrid more humorous than thrilling. Inevitably, his comedic attack on modern espionage agencies and his burlesque of the fictional techniques of Ambler, Fleming, and Greene reduce the intensity and intrigue of his narrative. But even in itself his tale of espionage lacks distinction, and, despite some revelatory material on "brainwashing," its familiarity breeds boredom. Fortunately, the story seems less important than the comedy.

Deighton's plot, while using the customary obfuscation of the genre, is relatively simple…. If [the] conventional narrative details are in part Deighton's burlesque of espionage fiction, they seem too often to be working both sides of the street. Moreover, his disclosure of the "inside man" is clearly intended as a part of the suspense, and yet it is as stereotyped as the material being parodied.

Where Deighton allows his humor to dominate, he is bitingly and savagely funny. He recognizes that the spy—whose survival depends on his guile, cunning, and adaptability—is today's picaro. Like some modern Le Sage, Deighton uses the picaresque to satirize the hypocrisies, deceits, and trickery in the community of secret agents. He exposes the lust for authority and money that subverts men's loyalties. Combined with his parody of the literary cliches of the genre, this satiric power raises the work above the mediocrity of its narrative.

Robert Donald Spectar, "Dragging the Cloak," in Book Week—New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), November 17, 1963, p. 32.

Stephen Hugh-Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Funeral in Berlin] certainly belies Mr Deighton's reputation. He has carried the legitimate devices of throw-away allusive conversation, and of action whose significance has to be puzzled out by the reader, to the point where I spent most of the book wondering what the devil was going on. The development of the story is haphazard, the dénouement thrilling but still more haphazard, as if Mr Deighton had decided he must burst out of his fog in a blaze of fireworks but was not sure how.

Stephen Hugh-Jones, "Bradburies," in New Statesman (© 1964 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXVIII, No. 1749, September 18, 1964, p. 406.∗

Anthony Boucher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Deighton's first novel, "The Ipcress File," caused quite a stir among both critics and customers in England, if rather less here. It was a sharply written, ironic and realistic tale of modern spy activities, but somewhat scant in plot and unity. "Funeral in Berlin" has the virtues of its predecessor plus a plot very nearly as complex and nicely calculated as that of "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold." The double and triple crosses involved in smuggling a scientist out of East Berlin are beautifully worked out, and the British agent who serves as narrator is as nameless as his Continental Op and just about as convincingly professional. (But if Mr. Deighton is to go on writing about Russians, he should take a brief refresher course in the use of patronymics).

Anthony Boucher, "Criminals at Large: 'Funeral in Berlin'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 17, 1965, p. 48.

Jane Oppenheim

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Suspense abounds in "Horse Under Water". It is not of the rat-tat-tat, double-barrelled-action variety, but rather a subtly disturbing quieter kind of tension. The impatient reader wants Len Deighton to get-on-with-it and resolve an expounded situation … while, paradoxically, this same reader insists that Deighton not omit a single detail en route. In his earlier, highly popular, "Funeral in Berlin", and "The Ipcress File", Deighton employed the same formula. In fact, in classic suspensestory style, it is not until very near the end of "Horse Under Water" that the by-now-befuddled reader has any inkling what the whole thing is all about … nor is it until virtually the final page that the mystery IS unravelled.

We seem to be living in a decade that is fortuitous for the spy story afficionado. Deighton's operations compare to those depicted by Le Carré and Ian Fleming. His writing is without the extra gimmicks of James Bond. True, there are girls … and there are cars, and food, and weapons, and international settings. None of these, however, intrude upon the main action. Character development is, happily, an integral part of the Deighton technique. At all times, the discerning reader is directly involved in a game of matching wits with Len Deighton and his nameless hero … even to a clever puzzle linking Chapter headings with Table of Contents. (p. 388)

Jane Oppenheim, "Fiction: 'Horse under Water'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1968, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 27, No. 19, January 1, 1968, pp. 388-89.

Richard Boeth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] existential spy is now an adolescent with neither the novel charm of his first years nor yet the old-homey familiarity of the detective hero. He is at the uncomfortable point where he seems repetitive without quite being traditional, and one finds oneself annoyed rather than reassured that the several parts of Horse Under Water could have been placed in or taken out of Deighton's other novels without changing anything important.

It is also true, without mattering much, that Horse Under Water was written and published in England in 1963 before either of his more celebrated books, and that no one thought it worth while then to publish it here. It has the same nameless, middle-class hero-spy who shall drudge for a living and be paid, and the same sort of tangled plot—intricate without being at all well-made—and the usual clutter of trivial detail that everyone finds remarkable whether the writer is Ian Fleming, John O'Hara or J. D. Salinger. Why shouldn't Deighton find it useful to throw in a chapter each about the techniques of deep-sea diving and the varieties of narcotics? He has to write about something, after all, and he is too honorable to pretend to be interested either in his cartoon characters or in the elaborate charades that they yawn their way through.

Richard Boeth, "Spy Biz," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1968 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), February 4, 1968, p. 16.

Paul West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

All that is missing from this heavyweight account of a Lancaster bomber's part in a 1943 RAF raid which hit the wrong target with ten million pounds of bombs is Dean Jagger, as the former wing adjutant, riding his bicycle up to the perimeter fence and climbing through to pace along the overgrown runway. For, essentially, [Bomber] is an RAF Twelve O'Clock High intended to be complete in every particular; it's almost as if it had been computed rather than written, and certainly it reads throughout as the product of a completely supplemented mind. (p. 4)

[He] keeps loading his book with data, not to create plausibility, but because he seems to like data for data's sake. For instance, at...

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Edward Weeks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What distinguishes Bomber, Len Deighton's novel about the RAF, from the many other stories I have read about the airmen in World War II, is its involvement with both sides: opposed are seven hundred British bombers directed at the heavy industry in the Ruhr, and the German night fighters and antiaircraft crews who plot to intercept them. Involved also, and punishingly, are the German civilians in the medieval town of Altgarten, which, through the force of the wind and the fault of the crews sent to place the incandescent markers, became the innocent victims. There is no protection for anyone in this compelling, skillful story, not for the fliers who are being shot at, not for the Burgomaster and his guests who are celebrating his birthday, and not for the reader. What holds one fast is Mr. Deighton's surpassing knowledge of machines, his breathless "sweating out" of the raid, and his vital, compassionate characterization of the men who fly, and of the women, children, and elders who are hurt. (pp. 123-24)

The novelist is not sparing in his detail; the suspense and the suffering in this book would be unbearable were it not for his ability to light up the lives of those he writes about…. At each station there is a protagonist through whose reaction and remonstrance we are made sensitive to the others who must brave death….

Through these three men, strangers, of course, to each other, through the men who serve them and the women who love them, one feels the common link of courage, loyalty, and desperation with which they are sustained. They are the pygmy heroes. And the machines they command—which eventually command them—are the villains.

August's son is fighting on the Eastern front, and when asked by his dearest friend whether the boy hates it, August replies, "Max, my friend, I have to tell you he likes it. We have given our world to our children. Can we be surprised that these children are destructive … and wreak havoc upon the world that it's taken us old men so long to put together?" There is the theme: the devastation of machines and the decency powerless to bring them to a halt. (p. 124)

Edward Weeks, "Peripatetic Reviewer: 'Bomber'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1970, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 226, No. 6, December, 1970, pp. 123-24.

Jeremy Treglown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[SS-GB] asks a familiar question—what would it have been like if the Germans had won the war?—and gives it a characteristically exciting and straightforward answer…. It's amazing that someone who writes as badly as Deighton can keep a story so steadily on the boil. There are two things he knows a lot about and keeps reminding you he knows a lot about: the German army and the geography of London. All the rest seems to have been put together from colour supplements and the backs of cornflakes packets—the art-historical conversations, for example ('You've got a wonderful little Turner watercolour there, Superintendent … Not many people realise that Turner could work to that degree of realism'), the Bernimenu descriptions of food and drink ('Kellerman took his time in preparing coffee topped with a large dollop of cream and dusted with a little powdered chocolate'), the journalistic short cuts ('The bomb exploded … scattering bits of the dismembered film crew into nearby Waterlow Park'). But it genuinely rattles along, with a bit of sex here and a bit of violence there and a new mystery every few pages right up to the end.

Jeremy Treglown, "Blunt Instruments," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 96, No. 2475, August 25, 1978, p. 249.

Paul Ableman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I read the first hundred pages of [SS-GB] with mounting enthusiasm. The action was plausible, the characterisation firm and the surveying intelligence adult and well-informed….

Deighton is good on insignia, badges of rank, uniforms, military protocol. He is especially good on German inter-service rivalries and has clearly researched them exhaustively. If the Germans had come to London, then doubtless the Gestapo, the regular Wehrmacht, the SD, the Abwehr, the SS, the Geheime Feldpolizei and all the rest would have jostled and quarrelled in something like this way.

But, of course, they didn't come to London. And from about Page 100, the subversive thought kept...

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Michael Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Len Deighton is the Flaubert of contemporary thriller writers. He takes enormous, almost obsessional care to get the background to his books exactly right, and he chooses increasingly complicated backgrounds; with the result that, as with Flaubert, our attention is constantly distracted from the story and the principal participants by our admiration for, or perhaps our doubts about, the incidental details. When the background is a Britain which has been under Nazi occupation for a year, a very strong story line, or exceptional characterization, would be required to prevent the reader from focusing on that background rather than on the story that Mr Deighton has to tell. That is why, although SS GB is quite the...

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Geoffrey Stokes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In SS-GB: Nazi-Occupied Britain 1941], Len Deighton attempts to make a case that in the face of such absurdity, action itself is heroic. And he has set himself quite a task; as the book's subtitle makes clear, Deighton is concerned with the opportunities for legitimately human action within the context of the most horrifically evil force the century has thus far known. (p. 81)

The working out of [the] plot strikes one as by now a bit on the formulaic side—here a bit of violence, there some well-bred sex, here and there a double cross—but it is a formula on which Deighton virtually owns the copyright, and which he executes with elegantly precise descriptions and considerable humor. Though...

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William Kucewicz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Capitalizing on [the continuing interest of the fortieth anniversary of Hitler's invasion of France], Len Deighton—author of "The Ipcress File," "Fighter," and "SS-GB"—has produced ["Blitzkrieg,"] a concise, interesting account of the blitzkrieg. Much, of course, has already been written about the events of the spring of 1940. Little, if any, new documentary evidence is now bound to come to light. But Mr. Deighton, like a musical composer, has chosen to write a variation on a somewhat tired theme by concentrating on technology and personalities and showing how these combine, with some luck, to produce the chapters of history.

This technique will be familiar to those who have read Mr. Deighton's...

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D. G. Chandler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Len Deighton, best known as the writer of celebrated spy-thrillers but now with a mounting reputation as a highly competent military historian, has applied much of the information he accumulated for his earlier book, Fighter …, in this new, fully illustrated version of much the same subject [Battle of Britain]. A wealth of diagrams and photographs, many of them in colour and from German sources, are used to illustrate the personalities, aircraft, equipment and tactics of both sides. For the battle itself he has adopted a basically day-by-day treatment. The incorporation of interesting extracts from airmen's reports, letters and diaries drawn from both sides is a particularly useful feature, recapturing...

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Martin Hillman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[XPD deals with the] hardly original notion of modern spies and Nazi leftovers—in this case, some incriminating documents, part of a Nazi treasure-hoard some of which was spirited away by American GIs. Today they could seriously embarrass the Western alliance, so British, Russian and CIA agents vie to recover them (with a good deal of "expedient demise"—the title). A rambling, slowish narrative lacking a central focus, but enough of the Deighton flair for fascinating background detail to please his loyal fans.

Martin Hillman, "Nazi Leftovers," in Tribune (reprinted by permission of Tribune, London), Vol. 44, No. 13, March 21, 1981, p. 8.∗


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John Sutherland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The XPD of Deighton's enigmatic title [XPD] should be glossed as 'expedient demise'. His latest blockbuster is based on the factoid that there are three unaccounted-for days in Churchill's and Hitler's movements in June 1940. What happened, we are to believe, is that the supremos met in France where Churchill offered craven surrender terms, involving the carve-up of the Empire, sovereignty of the seas, and vast reparations. The record of the exchange—the so-called 'Hitler Minutes'—is dynamite. It must be suppressed at all costs and for ever. A decently off-stage Mrs Thatcher goes puce with rage at the thought of its being released: 'It would mean the end of the Tory party.' Any uncleared person who does...

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William F. Buckley, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Somebody once told me that to write a book for the movies you must do it in episodes—Act 1, Scenes 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on…. If you write spy novels intended for the movies (and I can only conclude that such was the intention of the author of "XPD"), you must have regular violent episodes, the violence preferably mayhem, but an occasional accident will do if it is screechy enough.

I wish Len Deighton had let the movie people do his plot and had only then decocted a novel from the script, because what he has brought forth is most painfully unreadable, the violent episodes like telephone poles meandering over the landscape, stringing along a plot line that keeps sagging to the ground. When you reach a...

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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Len Deighton's "XPD" is a complicated mess without a single character who is interesting enough to make us want to unravel it. The book has to do with an alleged clandestine meeting between Winston Churchill and Hitler in June 1940, for the purpose of discussing England's surrender. Mr. Deighton expresses the grudging belief that, if this story were to get out, it would demoralize, even undo, England and West Germany.

He is one of those authors who assumes that an undistinguished style and a byzantine superfluousness of plot will sell any suspense novel. He may be right. "XPD" stands for "Expedient Demise." In this case, it is the expedient demise of the craft of fiction.


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John L. Stubing

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Hitler Minutes were a transcription of [the clandestine meeting between Churchill and Hitler], and Deighton's latest espionage thriller [XPD] focuses on the worldwide hunt conducted by a variety of modern-day intelligence agencies as they try to locate them before they are made public. Deighton's attention to detail and his appreciation of the delicacies of international politics give his book a plausibility too often lacking in spy novels. This is not to say XPD doesn't have its flat spots, but … [it] will not disappoint Deighton's regular followers.

John L. Stubing, "Fiction: 'XPD'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1981, by the University of Scranton),...

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