Monday 19 October 2009

Behind the books - blog series on the 25th anniversary editions (2)

This blog continues my efforts to mine some of the hidden nuggets of insight and intelligence provided by Len Deighton in his forewords to the rare Silver Jubilee editions of his first 19 major works of fiction from 1987. A key point here is the phrase in Grafton's publicity 'major works'. There is one key omission - the book Only When I Larf, which was not reproduced in this set even though it was a significant seller (perhaps this was because it didn't appear in the US until 1987?). It should by rights come after An Expensive Place to Die.

In any case, here are the next three books. For each, I've picked out some of the most interesting things we learn from these forewords.

4. Billion-Dollar Brain (1966)
His fourth novel, continuing the story of the unnamed narrator ('Harry Palmer' in the movie adaptations) who, having moved on from W.O.O.C.P. is now freelancing as an agent for the Midwinter organisation (before being 'required' to work for the organisation again) which was set up to bring about the downfall of communism through running agents into Latvia. This is a complex story of intrigue, double crosses and the nascent impact of computer technology on the espionage world and society more broadly. It's success in the sales charts grew upon the impact of the three earlier novels and also the first film, aided by an innovative marketing campaign by the publishers Jonathan Cape involving the sending from Helsinki of hundreds of letters to the press and booksellers, purporting to be from Deighton and containing a notebook outlining his research behind the book and ephemera associated with Helsinki, the main location for the story.

Deighton, on a book defined as much by its locations as its characters: " I have always believed that the setting of a book must control the action. Typically, television uses its locations as an afterthought: a story using American characters in a typically American plot is outlined, and then someone says how about setting this one somewhere really exotic. The result is inevitably banal. For this reason I have always drafted my stories after going to see the proposed location.

And the settings I chose for this story were dramatic. The history of the Baltic communities has always interested me. At the time not many tourists visited the Soviet Republic of Latvia, and the ones who went did not choose to travel in the depths of winter. But I found it all rather staggering; the sight of a frozen sea with cars driving upon it was a sight I shall never forget. And the city of Riga was a world apart.

Having lived in New York City [Deighton had worked there as an advertising executive, albeit for a short time] I was pleased for an excuse to go back and see it again, and Texas hospitality is always exemplary. The story was planned to squeeze maximum value from the claustrophobia of the big city, and exploit the wide feeling of the cattle country, as well as the obvious contrast of heat and cold."

On the organisation of his research and character notes in preparation for writing, in the days before word processors and the Internet made collating everything together a doddle: " I was always looking for some new system which would allow me to write more efficiently and more quickly. Perhaps it was as well that I didn't know that it would never get any easier or quicker. For this book I decided that a file index system would help me organise my plot and I equipped myself with many large filing cards of various colours, a big box into which they fitted and a lot of tabs that would help me find the one I wanted. Although this contraption seems comical to me now, it was a help to have a filing card with cross references for research, and a card or card for each character, especially now that some of the same characters (Harvey Newbegin, Colonel Stok and the hero) had appeared in other books."

On the ambiguity inherent in continuing to use his unnamed spy hero as narrator, and the benefits this gave him in plot and character development: "The reader was not supposed to believe everything this first person narrative said, the reader was expected to judge it to some extent, as we judge the veracity of our friends when talking to us. I had started writing The Ipcress File with this idea and all the similar books after it employ the same device, and demand the same interpretation from the reader.

Although a Dr Watson was not essential to this sort of story, I was working towards the idea that a figure close to the 'hero' provides a simple and effective measure of explaining the plot through dialogue. Also I was beginning to wonder if the hero figure in my books was too unusual and eccentric for readers to identify with.

In some of the earlier books Dawlish - the hero's boss - had been a figure of sanity, a normal intelligent character who says the things that have to be said. In Billion-Dollar Brain, Harvey Newbegin (a minor character from Funeral in Berlin) provides the second half of a double act for explanatory purposes. But Harvey is not a character with whom many readers will identify, and Dawlish is now a long way away. For the time being the problem remained: the reader had to put up with the hero. But, as it turned out, the problem was solving itself. Despite all those built-in faults, readers actually liked him."

5. An Expensive Place to Die (1967)
Deighton's fifth novel continues with the device of an unnamed narrator; the reader is drawn into thinking by textual clues that this is the same narrator from the first four novels, though this is always implied and never explicitly stated. Such ambiguity was a feature of these books and it extended to some of the later novels with unnamed narrators which readers assumed were the same character, such as Spy Story and Yesterday's Spy. They were not, but in the foreword for this book Deighton confirms that An Expensive Place to Die was the "fifth and last in a sequence that began with The Ipcress File."

On setting the novel in Paris, a city he'd first visited as a teenager just after the Second World War: "I'd been to Paris many times before, of course. My first visit was back in 1946 when the black market was running wild and everyone was telling me that you could get exactly half a pound of finely ground coffee into a Lee Enfield rifle. That was the first time I'd been out of Britain. I was very young and my memories are vivid. I was staying in a squalid hotel in Place Blanche, and wondering if everywhere 'abroad' was like this. In those days I got mixed up with a good-natured gang of crooks, and my first acquaintance with Paris was the underworld. Many years later I met a Paris cop from the vice squad who took me back to all the places I knew, and quite a few more. It was this second tour of the seamier parts of Paris that made me start to write An Expensive Place to Die."

On his first abortive attempt to use Paris as a setting for a new story: " My first idea for a book about Paris was that it should be about the 'collections'. I'd once been a photographer and I knew many photographers [Deighton's photographic career began in RAF intelligence, taking photos from a Mosquito plane]. So I went with my photographer friends to Paris, to get the inside story of the fashion business. It was fascinating stuff - beautiful women and exquisite dresses, and the most cosmopolitan workforce imaginable. Many other writers could have used that wonderful opportunity to write a story. But I could not get it worked out satisfactorily. I abandoned the small gilt chairs of the 'collections' and went back to find my old Paris."

6. Bomber (1970)
Many readers and critics regard this as Deighton's magnum opus; it was chosen by Anthony Burgess as one of his top 100 works of fiction of the twentieth century and was turned into a landmark radio play by the BBC which was broadcast in real time on Radio 4 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the war.

On the origins of writing Bomber as a work of fiction, Deighton's first thought being to write a non-fiction work about the wartime bombing raids over Germany and developing a narrative drawing on is long-standing passion for aeroplanes and the importance of the fast developments of technology in shaping the outcome of the Second World War, about which he'd written in a series of articles for the Sunday Times Magazine: "It was a chance remark by a fellow-writer, Julian Symons, that triggered the idea that took me back to writing again [after Deighton has spent a couple of years writing and producing the anti-war film Oh! What a Lovely War.] He told me that I was the only person he could think of who actually liked machines. I had been saying that machines are simply machines. When the bank tells you that their computer made a mistake, they are not telling the truth: machines cannot make mistakes (and to say they do imbues them with human qualities they patently don't possess) - the computer simply has a fault. Few such faults deduct a neat ten pounds fifty pence from your balance, more likely it spews a hundred zeros or prints gobbledygook. If there is an error it's been put into the computer by a careless operator. In that respect, I'll defend machines.

That conversation set me thinking again about the bombing raids. And about writing a book about them. The technology was complex but not so complex as to be incomprehensible. Suppose I wrote a story in which the machines of one nation fought the machines of another? The epitome of such a battle must be the radar war fought in pitch darkness. To what extent could I use my idea to depict the night bombing war? Would there be a danger that such a theme would eliminate the human content of the book?"

On the crucial importance of lengthy and in-depth research to getting the technical aspects of the planes and the raids right, as this was important for framing the development of the large cast of characters whose lives were interlinked by the technology: "One large room in my home was almost entirely devoted to the project. I collected everything I could find: photos, books, letters, reports and tape recordings of interviews. One wall was almost covered with an aeronautical chart of northern Europe upon which the whole raid was plotted. Also there were target maps, air photos, briefings, teleprinter order and very big sectional drawings of the three different aircraft types.

I spent a long time talking to German in the region where my fictional raid was set - Westphalia - and also met many German ex-servicemen: night fighter pilots, controllers, commanders and flak gunners. The Dutch let me visit a military airfield, still in use but virtually unchanged since 1943. I'd flown in Lancasters and Mosquitos during my time in the RAF and I knew many, many veterans of Bomber Command. The BBC let me listen to recordings of aircrew. (This was very useful for getting the dialogue right and checking the wartime slang and syntax). The Imperial War Museum gave me all sorts of help and ended up showing me a roomful of German instructional films which I could look at without charge, providing I catalogued them. (This provided me with wonderful instructional films about the Junkers 88, which proved vitally important in the writing of the book.)

The next three books in this Silver Jubilee edition series are Declarations of War, Close-Up and Spy Story.

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