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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.)
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[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, and fully equipped with bang-up-to-date neutron know-how.
The swinging-style narrator (lacking a classical education but worldly omniscient all the same) has read his Dashiell Hammett carefully…. [He] has chosen to tell his extremely complicated story [in] a rapid succession of vivid short episodes, fraught with action, suspense, and often comedy, which—though interesting in themselves—appear almost disconnected until revealed in the closing chapters to be part of a jigsaw whose completed pattern may well surprise. It is in fact an adaptation of Hammett's technique applied to a different kind of mystery, and readers tempted to take the book at its face value as an amateur product would be well advised to persevere until the highly professional solution is reached and the meaning of the title made clear….
Commercially successful from the start …, The Ipcress File shows the shape of the future; nevertheless one feels a lack: the detective story has its Simenon, the gangster novel its W. R. Burnett, the "serious" psychological crime novel and even the "serious" Western have their being; but the really realistic spy novel … does not as yet exist.
"Cloak without Dagger," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1963; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3180, February 8, 1963, p. 92.
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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...
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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.
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[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.
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[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.
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[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.∗
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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.
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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.
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[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.
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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 one point we're told:
In cash, at 1943 prices with profits pared to a minimum, each Lancaster cost £42,000. Crew-training averaged out at £10,000 each, at that time more than enough to send the entire crew to Oxford or Cambridge for three years. Add another £13,000 for bombs, fuel, servicing and ground-crew training at bargain prices and each bomber was a public investment of £120,000.
As a part-indictment of war's criminal expensiveness, that's worth knowing; but, set as it is in a quasi-novel not expressly written to tout the benefits of an Oxbridge education, it only reminds me of Hemingway's dictum that a good writer knows his material so well that what he omits leaves its impress on what remains and thus, somehow, reaches the reader anyway.
On the one hand, I see the point of accumulating data and devoting an entire book to them in order to prove the appalling there-ness, the variety and nonhuman quality of available particulars—a deathly, Frankensteinian inventory. On the other, I see the point of a taut, lean, near-fable in which—as in, say, Jakov Lind's Landscape in Concrete or Andre Malraux's The Walnut-Trees of Altenburg—the inhumanity in men can be seen reciprocating the inhumanity, the thingness, of war material. Deighton, it seems to me, has tried to fuse the two, with results that are sometimes infuriating (as when the characters seem much less present than their gear), sometimes stultifying (as when the English airmen go on for pages in jejune conversations that could have been implied in a five-line sample), and sometimes, it's a pleasure to say, stomach-churning (as when we're told in justifiably intolerable detail what happens when flak hits an aircrew or when phosphorus bombs land on a hospital).
Half of the book is first-rate imaginative reporting, while the other half is homework done with obsessive care and worked into the text redundantly. It's as if Deighton, maybe with an eye on the movies, made himself a worse writer than at his best he is. (pp. 4-5)
There are, however, sections of the book which convey as well as anything written by an Englishman what it feels like to fly, to crash, to bomb, to be bombed, to be conscious that you are experiencing the first of your last sixty seconds of life as you fall without parachute. These sections make the mind reach and give it much to grasp. And sometimes Deighton's prose achieves a dignity of witness that subtly orchestrates the life-respect schematized in his plot, fitted out as it is with such didactic parallels as the bomber station at Warley ("Warley meant a place where draught animals could graze") and the annihilated town called Altgarten ("Old Garden")….
Perhaps the most haunting image of all is this glimpse into the cockpit of a Junkers 88 night fighter: "The cloud gave a curious unnatural constant light to the cabin, and the two men sat very still, brightly lit and shadowless, like specimens on a microscope slide." It works upon us with an exact suggestiveness all the more exact because Deighton doesn't tack on the spectrum, the type of cloud, or the way the glass slide is manufactured, and his art comes into its own with an almost inexhaustible image. (p. 5)
Paul West, "Saturation Writing," in Book World—Washington Post (© 1970 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), September 27, 1970, pp. 4-5.
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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.
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[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.
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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 surfacing: what is the point of this kind of historical 'might have been'? It has, of course, been used in the past to make some significant historical or metaphysical statement. But if there was any such intention here I failed to spot it….
Much of the action concerns, as already suggested, jockeying amongst the Germans for seniority. And here, I suppose, one of the troubles of this 'let's suppose' technique makes itself felt. While the broad strokes are fine and constitute an exciting backdrop for a tale of intrigue and adventure, the detailed sociopolitical analysis of a situation that never existed gets a bit wearisome. Its only real value is to establish a spurious authenticity, which admittedly it does effectively, but it clogs the action….
But my deepest reservations stem from another source. They are analogous to those aroused by watching synthetic television drama, run-of-the-mill movies, processed West End farces and so on, the feeling that the work is using you rather than collaborating with you. The purpose behind SS-GB, which becomes increasingly clear, is not to explore reality, expand consciousness, generate beauty or reveal truth but to keep the paying customers happy…. One senses behind Len Deighton's book research and engineering but not true creative impulse. It is well-written, in places strikingly well-written, but never profound or lyrical because, of course, any literary qualities would flaw its glossy surface.
Paul Ableman, "Programmed," in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 241, No. 7835, September 2, 1978, p. 22.
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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 most interesting book he has written, it cannot be judged his best.
The work exists on two levels of fantasy. One is the counterfactual situation of London in 1941….
[This] is presented convincingly. There can be little doubt that this is much the way things would have turned out if the Germans had won the war in 1940. The narrative is full of nice touches: the German army bands playing "Greensleeves" and "D'ye ken John Peel"; the Dorechester in ruins but able to open a few rooms for American visitors; London full of Wehrmacht personnel on leave, buying up antiques at knock-down prices….
On this level of imaginative creation Mr Deighton is so good that the second level, the plot itself, seems by comparison unnecessarily silly and confused. It revolves round a plan by the Resistance not only to steal the details of an atomic bomb and smuggle them to America, but to do the same with the person of the King. The result is as complicated as it is improbable. There is little point in building up so credible a background if we are then to be told quite so far-fetched a story….
After the first few chapters one has to choose either to ignore the story line altogether and concentrate on learning more about Britain as it might have been under German occupation, or simply to take the book as a moderately enjoyable thriller to be discarded at the end of the journey. This is a pity. If Mr Deighton had not tried to do quite so much, he might have achieved a great deal more.
Michael Howard, "In Occupied Britain," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3989, September 15, 1978, p. 1011.
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[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 one is not so much moved by Archer's adventures as caught up in them, the narrative's grip is real.
But it isn't as a novel of character that SS-GB pushes at the boundaries of the spy genre, but as a novel of ideas, and the writer with whom Deighton can most reasonably be compared isn't le Carre, but Camus. This is, of course, another way of saying that the book is pretty hot stuff indeed, but it also requires one to say that it fails precisely at the level of its highest aspiration: Deighton, the superb thriller writer, has painted Deighton, the intellectual, into a corner from which he escapes only by the subterfuge of an exceedingly convenient murder that is logically congruent with, but not necessarily logical to, the plot. Thus, for all its ambition, SS-GB is a compellingly readable thriller in which the confused and misled protagonist turns out to be considerably braver than his creator. (p. 82)
Geoffrey Stokes, "Short Circuits" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1979), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIV, No. 8, February 19, 1979, pp. 81-2.∗
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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 other nonfiction book, "Fighter," in which he injected new life into an account of the Battle of Britain. By comparison, however, "Blitzkrieg" is something of a disappointment, though it makes fine reading for buffs of World War II history.
The word blitzkrieg came into common use after the German armies quickly encircled western Poland in September 1939. But Mr. Deighton argues that the attack on Poland was "very conventional," relying on the old-fashioned foot soldier and horse transport. German propaganda played up the use of tanks and Stuka dive bombers, but they actually contributed little to the success of the invasion. Moreover, the strategy employed in Poland was basically the old concept of encircling the enemy….
Mr. Deighton traces in some detail the development of the German war machine that technically made the blitzkrieg possible. The book outlines the evolution of the modern tank, armored units, communications improvements and air power. This method of warfare, he says, was also facilitated by German military training which emphasized individual initiative in case of a breakdown in communications. By contrast, General Gamelin, commander of the French forces, had no radio at his headquarters, located near Paris, and he admitted that his orders took about two days to get to the front….
"Blitzkreig" also includes an easy-to-follow account of the actual invasion by German troops and their movements towards the Channel coast. The narrative is complemented by a series of illustrations of battle plans and depictions of weaponry.
The book's main drawback is its rather shallow handling of the personalities who were instrumental in the success of the German strategy. This deficiency is most apparent in the first fifth of the book, in which Mr. Deighton races through the history of Hitler's rise to power and the development of his army at a pace not unreminiscent of the blitzkrieg itself. Mr. Deighton drops names ceaselessly without giving much explanation as to why they were important.
In the end, however, Mr. Deighton does pinpoint the "fatal flaw" of the blitzkrieg; the reason why it ultimately was not successful in establishing a permanent German empire across Western Europe. This, he says, was the failure of the German army to follow Hitler's orders and annihilate the remaining British troops at Dunkirk. Ending on that note, one suspects the subject of Mr. Deighton's next book.
William Kucewicz, "40 Years Ago in Europe: Hitler's Blitzkrieg," in The Wall Street Journal (reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, © Dow Jones & Company, Inc. 1980; all rights reserved), May 21, 1980, p. 22.
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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 much of the flavour of this particularly critical period. The treatment is not so full …, but it forms a worthy tribute to the 520 aircrew from fourteen nations who gave their lives from the 3,080-strong ranks of 'the Few' in the defence of the British Isles. (pp. 764-65)
D. G. Chandler, "Europe: 'Battle of Britain'," in British Book News (© The British Council, 1980), December, 1980, pp. 764-65.
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[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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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 find out the secret has his dossier stamped XPD….
XPD belongs firmly in the 'secret history of the war' genre. (Genetically it seems a mixture of The Mittenwald Syndicate, The Goering Testament and The Eagle has landed.) As with others of its kind, its main contention is the folkloristic one that the real truth of history has been covered up, that secret fortunes have been made, and that it only needs the removal of one card to bring the whole thing tumbling down. [Since The Ipcress File,] Deighton has shown himself to be the most protean of British best-sellers…. XPD borrows many of Forsyth's tricks: the rapidly changed international setting, the deadpan reportage style, the cut-out characters, the stress on insider's knowledge and terminology, familiar to the author, alien to the average reader. This Forsythian XPD I take to be something of a come-down from the earlier sequence, which had a genuinely engaging anti-hero. It is an even bigger come-down from Bomber, probably the best and certainly the most accurate popular novel about the Second World War in the air. Compared with these, XPD is a routine and nerveless performance, though such is the potency of Deighton's name that the novel is bound to sell well….
For all its diversity, there are certain core elements in Deighton's fiction. His novels all betray the other ranks' hatred of the commanding-officer class. It is the front-line men, agents, pilots, detectives, who are admirable. Another core element is Deighton's urge to demythologise. This is at its most aggressive in his recent work of history, Fighter, which presumes to dismantle the Churchillian myths about the heroism of the Few. His last novel, SS-GB, goes a step further: an alternative universe novel, it fantasises a Nazi victory and occupation in 1940 (Churchill—against whom Deighton seems to have something personal—is shot). Both the bolshy and the debunking aspects of Deighton are on display in XPD, which features a very slimy Director General of MI6 and seeks to convert Churchill's image from bulldog to whipped cur. There's clearly a lot of writing energy and creative disgruntlement left in Deighton. I hope it produces better things than XPD. (p. 22)
John Sutherland, "Making Strange" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, March 19 to April 1, 1981, pp. 21-2.∗
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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 murder, an assassination or other butchery, your attention is temporarily hyped, but the business in between is so drained of literary or emotional interest that you are left feeling as benumbed as you would after looking at 100 pictures of murdered corpses to identify a person with whom you are concerned—though you are unlikely to be concerned with anyone by the time you have flogged your way through Mr. Deighton's tedious scrapbook. (p. 12)
The author is unwilling to leave to the imagination of his readers the importance of the [Hitler] Minutes, and his intuition may well be justified since with the encumbrance of an imagination how could a reader plow through such passages as abound in "XPD"?
"'Oh, my God,' said the M.I.5 man [on hearing about the Minutes from M.I.6]. 'Every last bloody friend Britain has in the world would be enraged overnight if this sort of stuff was ever made public.'" That's in case the reader is unwilling to imagine the gravity of the Hitler Minutes. It is, unhappily, characteristic of Mr. Deighton's verbal imprecision that he should at once urge that such Minutes are unique, and refer to them as "this sort of stuff," i.e., like just another embezzlement.
But Mr. Deighton has not hit his stride. Further on in the conversation the head of M.I.6 says to the head of M.I.5, "Do you realize what this would do to our delicately balanced economy? Foreign investors would flee from sterling and the stock market would crash … the social consequences of that would be terrible to contemplate." The reader at such a point would welcome the collapse of sterling in place of any prolongation of such conversation between the wooden Indians who by agonies of affirmative action have been elevated to chiefs of British Intelligence.
Perhaps there are readers who expect that admirals of the ocean fleet speak to each other in such fashion, but, in Mr. Deighton's book, so also speak the mates…. One has the sensation of being in a movie theater reading subtitles written by a translator unfamiliar with the idiom. The author's anxiety to stress the importance of the Minutes does not let up: "But we are playing for big stakes, my friend. Who knows what money can accrue from a careful and skillful utilization of this fine asset? But make no mistake about the price of failure. How long do you think it will be before they make … an attempt upon your life too?" It eludes understanding how such tone-deafness can make its way into print, even if what was intended was merely a few Xeroxed copies of a screen script for Hollywood.
Such tusheries beget a similar treatment of violence. Example: "Billy Stein had no way of knowing who they were, because their killers had hindered identification by cutting off and taking away the hands and heads of both men." Good for a quick jolt, until the reader wonders why the killers' anxiety to hinder identification didn't prompt them to remove the victims' bodies from their home. (pp. 12, 31)
Historical invention is justified in spy novels. But (I think) the invention should not be pressed so hard as to suggest that the author is begging the reader to believe that It Was Actually So. In the concluding chapter—which gives us the only ingenious surprise in this endless volume—Mr. Deighton over-documents his thesis, so to speak, as if whispering to the reader: "Just between you and me, such an encounter between Churchill and Hitler did once take place."
If so, it was the lesser of the two villainies that confront the reader on closing the covers of "XPD." (p. 31)
William F. Buckley, Jr., "Churchill Did Business with Hitler?" in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 3, 1981, pp. 12, 31.
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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.
Anatole Broyard, "Books of the Times," in The New York Times (© 1981 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1981, p. 17.∗
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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), Vol. 41, No. 3, June, 1981, p. 84.