Monday 23 July 2012

Ipcress at 50: Harry Palmer – the NCO turned reluctant spy:

Why the ‘unnamed’ spy cracked the spy thriller mould.

In the first of what I hope will be a series of short thought pieces to mark the 50th anniversary of The Ipcress File publication, I take a look at some of the reasons why the book made such a splash, and has never been out of print since.

Casino Royale opens with James Bond observing one of SMERSH’s paymasters, Le Chiffre in a glamorous European casino with the Cold War heating up. Straightaway, Ian Fleming has established the mode of operation of his spy lead and the world in which he operates.

In The Ipcress File, by contrast, the narrator – Len Deighton’s unnamed spy who will, in perpetuity, be known as ‘Harry Palmer’ – we meet first not in a discussion with his boss about his next mission abroad chasing down agents working for the Russians, but in a dialogue about his expenses.

What this signifies I think is that The Ipcress File is a marker post for what was in 1962 the next wave in spy/thriller fiction. If the pre-war years were the work of the trusty amateur spy (in real life and in fiction), by the War and postwar years agencies had had to become more professional, and so did the fictional spies. If Bond was the model, nerveless suave professional in the ‘fifties, what was ‘Harry Palmer’?
Well, he was you and I. He was a professional, but more your everyman version.

Len Deighton introduced the reader to the world of espionage as viewed from the blunt end. His book was about the blue-collar end of spying: his main character is more working man’s club or country pub than Piccadilly gentlemen’s lounge. It is his superiors, his bosses, for whom the Garrick or the Guards club is reserved. All through the dialogue and the often witty descriptions Deighton deploys, the question is asked of the reader: is the Establishment really, completely on our side? Do they get it, in other words.

The Ipcress File is a book in which the setting of sixties swinging London is crucial in establishing the mise en scene. The city is changing. The austere ‘fifties – played out largely in black and white – are giving way to the colour of the ‘sixties. But it’s not a bright, summer palate – it’s a grimy hue, colour but inescapably ‘London’ colour coming out of the black and white print of the page. Soho is still fetid and yet the centre of London’s social life; Whitehall remains the preserve of the bowler-hatted civil servant.

London’s working classes and lower middle classes, which seems to be the social group to which the hero fits most cleanly (remember, in London you’re often never more than three questions away from someone raising class in any social situation) are getting a shot at things. They did all the heavy lifting during the way; they defended the Empire in the fifties. Now they’re entering the previously public school world of espionage. New career opportunities are opening up. Indeed, as one poster points out, as our hero has his suits tailor made, he must be doing well for himself: is he then still working class? Perhaps not; maybe he's what one might call "aspirational" working class grammar school boy. Whatever view one takes, there's a clear social distinction from those in charge!

Outside of London, in Europe the Cold War had become freezing. The Wall went up the year before, creating a wonderful canvas for writers to exploit. The nuclear missiles increased in number. The man on the street in London could see the threat. Spies were, evidently, everywhere.

It’s this backdrop which gives Deighton room to introduce characters who embody for the reader what the Cold War had become all about. Indeed, characters are what make this book special, rather than the plot as such. The whole kidnapped scientists story and the lone spy hunting down the truth is serviceable stuff and a great vehicle for introducing the cast of characters the reader grows accustomed to. Some reviews at the time suggested people indeed found the book confusing, at times too verbose when it came to descriptive passages, and without a clear plot arc.

But those criticisms aside, it’s the newness of the main character that points to the impact this book had at the time, and which reverberates through all thriller fiction. That I think is what customers bought the book for.

Harry Palmer has his antecedents in the hard-boiled US detective thriller. He’s unconventional, works alone, world-weary in many ways but also looking out for himself. Published in the same year as The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming – to whom Deighton would later be compared, as other authors were to him later on in his career – Harry Palmer was inevitably pitched as the ‘anti-Bond’. Not quite accurate, on closer examination. I think he’s more Bond for a post-Imperial Britain. A signifier for the metaphorical changing of the guard.

As someone lower down the ranks, Harry Palmer was recognisable for the average reader in the street who was perhaps toiling in an increasingly office-based world of work, subject to apparently idiotic managers with no apparent clue, and the daily frustrations of the average working stiff, whether that was in espionage or life insurance.

Academic Stephen Neuse coined the phrase ‘the bureaucratic malaise’ in the modern spy novel, signifying that writers like Deighton, Graham Green and John Le Carre had alighted upon a new stream in the thriller/spy novel, that of a world where hero’s actions are not boundless but are shaped by internal politics, form filling, computers and the impact of bureaucracy on driving out the scope for individual decision making and creativity.

With Harry Palmer, through his tart dialogues with colleagues and cheeky retorts with his managers, he represents the push back against this process and points to the fact that even within a modern world of ‘human resources’ committees and punch-card computer technology, what ultimately defines a successful spy remains wit, cunning and bravery. He (or she) just has to swim that bit harder against the stream.

As for plot, Deighton’s book broke the mould here too, in that the plot is scant and, frankly, complex! It is not full of twisting by-ways, surprises, double-backs; or where it has them, sometimes they don’t immediately feel connected. It lacks a degree of unity; some readers even found it incomprehensible:

Michael Howard in The Times once compared Deighton to the French writer Flaubert:
“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.”
Now sure, it is complicated – many is the time I’ve left my finger in a page to flick back three or four chapters to check how what I had read connected to what I was reading. And it’s clear that the main plot of the book doesn’t really get going, in a conventional sense, until the second half of the book.

But, lack of a clear, conventional plot arc is not really the essence of the book. Or rather, it is not reliant on a watertight, conventional plot; I think upon a recent re-read there is a plot, albeit complicated and non-linear. When picking up the book one does need to think hard about what’s gone before, certainly.

Deighton was, I think, easing the spy novel into a period when information (the currency of the spy) and detail became as important as character and plot; that is reflected in what the reader is given to work with. Things got tougher for the reader; but the reading journey became a whole lot more interesting as a result, I think.

Len introduced elements of moral ambiguity into the main character – the ‘Palmer’ character is frequently found asking himself who he can really trust; this was a process which would be carried on – in the same decade – and developed by John Le Carré, who’s main character George Smiley was equally as ‘unheroic’ and unsympathetic as Palmer, if not more so. If not post-modern, then to a degree ‘post-plot’.

This moral ambiguity – this peeling back of the curtain at the people who in the ‘sixties readers imagined were protecting them, fighting the good fight against the Soviets – implies to the reader that the people protecting us are sometimes as ruthless and single-minded as the enemy, and not always absolutely 100% loyal and honest.

They have foibles. They can fail, or screw up. Maybe here, we can see that Deighton starts with The Ipcress File to pick up the baton from someone like Eric Ambler, in that the enemy, while clearly the enemy, is not treated as unsympathetically as one might think.

The enemy is also a competitor (for information, people) and a challenge, but also playing the same game. We see in the book how, eventually – in the big twist that reinforces the moral ambiguity point – ‘Jay’ is in fact offered a lucrative position in British intelligence by the very same spy chiefs who sent out ‘Palmer’ to pursue him. So, one can understand ‘Palmer’s’ often cynical asides about the ‘seniors’ he works with. It is his superiors, the ones supposedly in charge, who are evidently the most fluid and opaque about loyalty and sacrifice.

This is where the book has real value, in generating the situations, dialogue and dilemmas that arise from a situation where someone does his job – does it well – but is deceived by much that’s around him. That is certainly something new the book gave the reader in the early ‘sixties.

Spying’s pre-existing ‘glamour’ and sense of honour and secrecy is not a feature of this book. Much of the spasmodic timing of the plot is because Deighton has to show that much of ‘Palmer’s’ work in keeping the UK’s scientist safe is mundane, humdrum – similar to the average workaday route which many of the readers in the ‘sixties would have been familiar with.

Deighton has averred on a number of occasions that in his first books he drew heavily on the police procedural genre, transferring that the espionage game. Police investigations rarely run smooth, or in a linear fashion. This gave Deighton more scope to add something to the traditional spy story framework.

He looked under the bonnet at the workings of the ‘spy game’, and shone a light on it, warts and all. He showed what or who was behind the working of the machine, Wizard of Oz style. And The Ipcress File showed that, while ultimately the goal and outcome of espionage remains the same, the way in which they are reached was far from smooth and far from likely.

‘Palmer’, then, is the spy they identify with (he has flaws and secrets). Bond is the spy to admire. And that is the clue to understanding why this book was so important.

Readers are encourage to debate the merits of The Ipcress File on this blog or on the dedicated forum, here.


  1. People are always saying that the hero of "The Ipcress File" is working class. Well, that may be the way he was portrayed in the film, but having read TIF, and its sequels quite a few times, I would challenge this.

    As has been made clear in the interviews with LD on this website, LD is not a class warrior; he even has respect for the public school system. And he makes clear that (unlike in the film), the hero was _not_ blackmailed into "The Service" - it doesn't work that way.

    He probably went to a good grammar school, and a redbrick university, and I think it's pretty clear that he had been an officer ... not a the army. And remember where he gets his two temporary assistants expense accounts, and gets them suits made at his own tailor's? How many members of the working class had their own tailor, either in 1961, or now?

    It is true that he is very different from his superiors, who are old-(public)-school military types, and gentleman-amateur spies probably, and also different from James Bond.

    He is, as the interviews suggest, a member of the new post-war meritocracy.

    One other thing though: I think the hero of the books is rather older than the character that Michael Caine portrays. He is old enough probably to have served at least for part of WW2, or if not, then to have taken part in the post-war occupation of Germany, and the early cold-war period.

  2. You may have some good points, there. I suspect he's what would have been termed lower middle class, perhaps - grammar school boy.

  3. It seems that the unnamed spy's background is a bit of a mystery and changes slightly from novel to novel. I agree that he is much older than Michael Caine's version in the films. I recall that he did serve in WW2, on the western front (Ipcress File) and in Lisbon (Horse Under Water), already in some sort of intelligence role. However, in my view he wasn't an officer or someone who attended university (at least not before the war). He always seemed to me be a person in transition between the social classes, kind of like the new and emerging middle-class found in developing nations.

    One thing I assumed when reading these books was that they were set possibly late 1950s rather than early 1960s. Sure it had that feeling of the sixties, as far as I'm aware (the book was published more than 30 years before I was born), but it seemed to me that a lot of the events that occur in the book are certainly inspired by events that took place in the 1950s: atomic weapon testing on Pacific atolls, MKULTRA, intervention in foreign countries (Suez Crisis, 1953 Iranian coup d'etat). I'm curious what opinion others have toward this idea.

  4. I am not sure that "cracking of spythriller mould" was long lasting. He is forgotten today, unlike Bond and Bourne, the former going strong even today. How many in the world recognise that this is 50 for the novel with the character who has "No Name"? This blog is an example- which has very few readers. I read it when it came out 50 years ago, but despite its success then , wondered how long it will last. I agree with @Gary above. Ipcress File as the film is not much repeated in the TV. Lecarre's novels were also set in the coldwar period, but they are read, the films and the TV versions are watched even today.

  5. Simon, thanks for your contribution to the discussion, though I'd take issue with a couple of them. You're correct that Bond is the globally recognised brand, but in pure literary terms, I would put Deighton's novels - in particular, the epic nine-volume Samson trilogy - way above Fleming's novels in terms of plotting, character development, dialogue and sheer scale; Deighton's more on a part with Le Carre here.

    Certainly, people will associate 'Harry Palmer' with the films. Ipcress File is reasonably regularly scheduled on terrestrial and satellite TV, as far as I can see; no less that, say, 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service', which I cannot recall seeing on TV for decades.

    As for this blog, while not on the scale of, say, the Commander Bond blog, it has more than 'a few readers' - it varies between four and five thousand visitors a month, which I think is pretty respectable.

    I guess the point about any literary form is that there will always be debate between readers and fans about which is better, more popular, etc. Not sure it gets anywhere, as I think we can recognise that all the big UK spy authors have made a telling contribution to the genre.

  6. Hi Rob

    You should watch the TV more often. On Her Majesty's Secret Service was on TV last year!
    I disagree with you about Ipcress File versus "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". You picked the wrong Bond film! The latter is more discussed, these days ,and as a result Lazenby's role as Bond is reevaluated along with the quality of direction of Peter Hunt. It is talking point in blogs like "James Bond007: MI6"

    I read Fleming's novels in late 1950s, and in 1958, I read Dr No. In 1962, when Ipcress File was published, I still remember reading about Fleming's appreciation of it, and hence read the book. As a book, it did not have the directness of Fleming, but it was different. I watched the film, because it was associatd with 2 of the Bond movie people- Saltzman and John Barry. Michael Caine made it watchable. But that was all. Deighton's books were for a time. Eventhough Le Carre's were also for a time, his Smiley character makes the difference.

    I agree that there is a small crowd of non-bond/non-Fleming readers out there.

    Interesting that the first name "Harry "was Salzman's gift and the second name "Palmer" was Caine's gift (reportedly)-they could have picked just any names. That to us-in our student group in 1962 in our university, we discussed it as a flaw. So it proved to be as the 50 years of Ipcress File is not making waves at all.

    About the readers. There is a VC of a particular university in Scotland who has for a thread of his,average 6 posters at the maximum, and but calls himself the leading educationist in Europe; when challenged by me, says: he gets many hits from England. Where are these invisible readers I ased him? Well... I leave it there!

  7. I stand correct on 'Her Majesty's Secret Service' then, Simon. I don't have cable TV, so maybe that's why I haven't seen it!

    I'm not sure what your comment about the VC in Scotland has relevance to, but there you are.

    Thanks for contributing your thoughts - everyone has a different perspective. I'm a fan of the Bond movies and stories too, so I don't disagree on your main point that this year - with the 50th anniversary of Dr No - everything in Bond focused, and quite rightly too!

  8. I agree with Gary Somerville that some of the Palmer stories may have been set earlier than stated.

    Horse under Water is, according to the wiki page, set in 1960. It's so long since I've read it that I can't recall how many 60s references there are, aside from, "it's all G-Plan furniture". It struck me on the first reading that the life of the 'weather buoy' couldn't possible be +15 years. No power system of the 1940s, or even now, could have kept it going so long.

    Knowing Len's technical knowledge I can't believe he would be so far out by mistake. I'd love to know what caused him to make that decision.