Saturday 6 March 2010

A Spy Story mystery....solved?

The American edition of Spy Story which I've just purchased, says this on the dust jacket cover:
"He is back after five years' long absence, the insubordinate, decent, bespectacled English spy who fought, fumbled, outwitted and survived his outrageous way through the best-selling Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin and the rest of those marvelous, [sic] celebrated Len Deighton spy thrillers. One again, he finds himself a reluctant habitué of that nightmare world of espionage where a triple cross is as commonplace and regular as the daily paper at the breakfast table. Nothing's changed!"
On a first reading  - and this was the case with me first-off - it's easy to think that this is the same no-nonsense, anti-authority tough-guy spy who took on the Gehlen network and Colonel Stok in the 'sixties thrillers which initially brought Deighton to the public's attention.

There are textual clues that he's the same man: he works for W.O.O.C.(P)., the same department as 'Palmer'. He narrates the story. He's something of a ladies' man. Early on he meets Dawlish, the boss from the earlier stories; Dawlish tells him, "New name, new job, the past gone forever...But you can't wipe the slate clean. You can't forget half your life." The character is described as in his late thirties, which fits with what we know of the unnamed spy. So, all pretty clear cut.

However, despite what publishers Harcourt Brace Jovanovich chose to put on their dustcover, something had changed.  The character of Patrick Armstrong in the book was not the same unnamed spy who had appeared in Deighton's first spy novels. In the introduction to the Jubilee edition, Len Deighton confirms that, despite much speculation at the time, it is not the same unnamed spy:
"Patrick Armstrong is not the man from The Ipcress File, although he's obviously a close relative."
Edward Milward-Oliver, Deighton's sometime biographer, in his book The Len Deighton Companion, also writes:
Armstrong, Patrick. Work name of the narrator of Spy Story, who if not our overweight friend from The Ipcress File, is certainly a close relative.
So, why is the reader teased in the text to a different conclusion? And why do the US publishers present quite the opposite? Even in their efforts to address ambiguity, Deighton and Milward-Oliver leave open the hint that it might be the original hero. What does "close relative" mean? Is that literal or figurative, i.e. he's derived from the same character? What is a 'work name'? Deep cover, perhaps, for his role?

A number of answers suggest themselves.

First, ambiguity helped the characterisation. In having the hero as the narrator, we understand his character from what he says and does and how others interact. Without a third person narrator giving context, there is ambiguity; the reader is asked to question whether the character is all he seems to be, and if everything he reveals about himself is true.

This was true with Deighton's character Bernard Samson, who is revealed in Spy Sinker - narrated in the third person, not by Samson - to be not as clued-up and as expert a judge of character as he himself thought. So, in having the 'Patrick Armstrong' character draw some dotted lines back to the first hero, without explicitly demonstrating he is that character, Deighton is able to draw on the best dramatic aspects of the former character but adapt it for a new story and a new milieu.

Second, marketing purposes. The 'Harry Palmer' character was a huge hit, both in the book and film markets. He broke Deighton in the US market and would have been regarded as a banker. By playing on the character's ambiguity in the text, the publishers could be assured that - directed that way - readers would assume it was the same successful character, and give sales a boost. After all, would the market that lapped up the first five books be up for the introduction of a new character?

Third, simple screw-up. I've no information about the contract for the US rights for the book or the marketing plan, but certainly there's nothing in the UK marketing which plays up the 'is he, isn't he?' aspect of the main character as blatantly as the US version. The dust-jacked of the UK first edition says nothing other than presenting review quotes from earlier books. It might well be that on reading the book, the marketing people at HBJ thought, 'hey, let's give the public more of the same,' and ran with it.

Of course, thirty five years or more after the event nothing's absolutely certain; but, we should probably take the author at his word and conclude that it's not .... exactly the same character. But plenty of journalists, reviewers and bloggers have been taken in nonetheless.

So, mystery solved? I'd be interested what readers of this blog think.

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