Friday 23 November 2012

Eight and out .....

This blog is sad to report the fictional "demise" of C.O.B.R.A.S. blogger, artist and spy fiction writer Armstrong Sabian, who reported last week that his excellent website - Mister 8 - will soon be no more, as the demands of family and work life take precedence over reporting on and writing spy fiction.

This is a loss, but we wish the pseudonymous Armstrong well. His site carried many fascinating blogposts on the arcana and lost heroes of the espionage fiction world, including many articles on Len Deighton and his arguably most famous creation, Harry Palmer.

Indeed, in 2009, Armstrong started a series of posts called "The Harry Palmer Files" in which he looked at all aspects of the Harry Palmer mythology - the films, the books, the design, the music - with a fine toothed comb.

With Armstrong's permission, I have reproduced below his review of Deighton's first book, The Ipcress File. Thanks for the blogs, Armstrong, and for contributing to the C.O.B.R.A.S.!

The Ipcress File (1962) - review by Armstrong Sabian, July 14 2009

"I’m horrible at writing reviews, and I generally dislike reading them. Perhaps it is the English major in me that resents summing up works of literature and film into six paragraphs, or the ability of the reviewer to discredit and dismiss the work of a creator in a few sentences. Of critics working today, I prefer the writings of Roger Ebert, who uses the art he’s discussing as a touchstone to make art of his own. I am no Roger Ebert, however, and so instead of a by-the-books review, I want to make a series of points that I hope will start conversation amongst those of you who have read The IPCRESS File (and perhaps even those who haven’t).

For those who haven’t, please note that you should assume a general spoiler warning for the next week’s worth of posts. And, really, the book has been out for 37 years. Why haven’t you read it yet?

A brief summary: Our narrator, an anonymous agent of British intelligence organization W.O.O.C. (P) is called in to explain details of a recent affair to the Minister of Defense, and in doing so, shares the story with the reader as well. He’s leaving the intelligence wing of the war office, where he workedunder a stifling bureaucrat named Ross, for the civilian W.O.O.C. (P) where he finds himself under the command of a no-nonsense boss, Dalby. Dalby holds weekly screening sessions in which the agents under him (including the priveleged Chico and the austere Alice) view film of their quarry.

One of these quarry is codenamed Jay, an opportunist, who it turns out is trafficking scientists to the Soviet Union. The narrator is sent to buy back one such scientist, and when his efforts fail, he accompanies Dalby to Lebanon to take himi back by force. Shortly after, Dalby takes leave and puts our narrator in charge of operations. As new head of the department, he authorizes himself an attractive young assistant, Jean, and works on the missing scientists until Dalby returns with news of an American nuclear test. The narrator, Jean and Dalby head out to the Tokwe Atoll for the test, it turns out that Dalby is a traitor who frames the narrator as one, and our hero winds up in Hungary…or really London, and finds himself at the heart of a massive brainwashing conspiracy.

That’s pretty much the long and short of it.

It may come as a surprise, because, after all, I run this website, I’m often underwhelmed by the thriller novels I attempt to read, because they all read as knock-offs, formulas in which the main character can be substituted for “x.” Reading The IPCRESS File was a refreshing change from that feeling, as Deighton has constructed a highly effective novel. I believe the strength of the book lies in its narrator, who, as many have said, is the opposite of the James Bond character. He has the patina of realism, an often helpless agent choked by the bureaucracy that inevitably comes in government work. He also does not possess, as noted in the post on the Angry Young Men movement, the privilege by birth of Bond. Though we hear little of his parents (we only see mention of a letter from his aunt), we might easily assume that they were not the types to die in mountain climbing accidents in the alps. The narrator’s response to these issues is not to lash out angrily, like Jimmy Porter, but to stay cool and sardonic, working within the system to benefit himself.

The view on bureaucracy is seen best in the pairing of Ross (“…a quiet Intellect happy to work within the strict departmental limitations imposed upon him. Ross didn’t mind; hitting platform five at Waterloo with rosebud in the buttonhole and umbrella at the high port was Ross’s beginning to a day of rubber stamp and carbon paper action…”) and Dalby (I find him best described, not physically, but by this bit: “Dalby made his wishes known by peremptory unequivocal orders; all his staff preferred them to the complex polite chat of most Departments as especially did I as a refugee from the War Office.”). Though Ross wins out in the end, as it turns out that his polite, quiet rubber stampings were masking extensive machinations and schemes, the direct style of Dalby is still somewhat seen as preferred. Even after he’s revealed as a traitor, a comparison to Dalby is, “as near Alice ever came to admiration.”

Still, even in this department there’s carbon copying to be done, and what is amazing is that Deighton utilizes these scenes of the narrator in his office surrounded by paperwork to increase our understanding and appreciation of the character. While other heroes of espionage thrillers, or really, thrillers in general, set forth from the first chapter of the book, calvinistically clinging to the path that will take them to the last chapter, leads and progress come for our narrator only occasionally; the rest of his time is spent reading weekly intel round-ups, attending dreaded conferences and filing expense reports. In addition, this case is only one of many. While this book necessarily focuses on the IPCRESSfile, the narrator points out in a conversation with Ross that, “We’ve got 600 open files in my office, that’s no secret, and my only interest at the moment is making it five hundred and ninety-nine even if I don’t get the Minister’s certificate of Good Housekeeping doing it.” In the end of the novel, closing the file on Jay and the IPCRESS operation only means opening another on his superiors.

Which is not to say that the novel doesn’t contain action and adventure. It does, and the action comes in short, surprising outbursts — the raid to recapture Raven in Lebanon, the chase across the Atoll and the interrogation after, and the extended torture in the London house — where the narrator demonstrates his unease at dealing with such situations (“Dalby had gone to look at the Nash while I vomited as inconspicuously as possible”). While ostensibly the protagonist, our nameless agent narrator is most often a reactor, and not an instigator. This leads to one of the novel’s (some might say necessary) weak points, the final chapter, in which large gaps in the story are filled in via expository dialogue. It is in this final chapter, we find out that Jay’s punishment for his traitorous crimes is to head his own intelligence section, and Dalby’s recompense for playing outside of the system is death in a “car accident.”

The novel is populated by other interesting characters, each of them defined by a few rich details — Adem and his tiger-hunting uncle, Carswell and his rebellious choice to go into the statistics division, Cavendish and his book collection — some of whom we only see briefly, or in some cases (Grenade!) not at all. I was struck most by the two female characters in the novel: Jean, who was hired, essentially, to be a sexual object but proves herself to be shrewd and more than capable of working for intelligence, and Alice, the bedrock foundation of the W.O.O.C.(P) who in many ways remains the only mystery at the novel’s conclusion. Though Jean does wind up in the narrator’s bed, these female characters are more often refreshingly portrayed as indispensable equals (in everything but pay) to the hero.

All in all, this was a grand start to a series of novels, and I’m already looking forward to reading the next in Deighton’s series. The novel definitely has its rough spots, but I, for one, prefer a tasty chunky cookie to one carved by a factory cutter."

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