Thursday, 11 June 2009

The IPCRESS File - Len Deighton

Every so often I feel compelled to pull this book off the shelf and read it. I've lost count of how many times I have done this, but it must be at least twenty. The book itself is showing distinct signs of wear. I am reluctant to replace it as it is the edition with the classic Raymond Hawkey cover.

As with every other time I have read this book (and subsequently gone on to read the other anonymous protagonist Deighton books) I found it intriguing, fresh, and a great read. True, there are annoying typos (which may have been corrected in later editions for all I know), but I am past the stage with this book where I care about those. Because this is a true original.

The story involves mind control techniques and how they are being used to set up a network of scientists who feed information to an individual who then sells it to the highest bidder. The operation is protected in the UK by a traitor within the Intelligence Services. The anonymous narrator is dropped blind into the middle of this situation and allowed to blunder about until he knocks down the secret house of cards.

Published at the height of the country's love affair with the James Bond books and in the same year as the first Bond film, Deighton's book quietly and efficiently dismantled the whole of Fleming's glamorous image of espionage to convey a seemingly more realistic world. Deighton did this in a number of ways. To begin with, it was a book very much in tune with its time (rather than past glories of war and empire), although the book has not dated. Its central character has the same concerns as everyone else (including junk mail, gas bills, and pay), nor is he any kind of superman. And it is so much better written than anything of its type at that time (le Carré's first proper spy novel would not appear until the following year).

Whilst it may, at first, seem disjointed, the story reflects the nature of intelligence work and the difficulties one side has when the other is determined to keep things secret and protect their secret at all costs. The style is cool and witty without an ounce of false sentimentality, and Deighton of surprises with a delicious turn of phrase or original description. And we have the joys of an unreliable narrator. Although Deighton was not to exploit this to its full until his Samson series, we know we are being told a story by someone whose profession is to dissemble.

I will probably now feel compelled to revisit the other books, not least because they are great stories and well told, but also because we can see how Deighton's writing improves with time from this very high starting point.