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’?
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.