We're into the final furlong now as regards my series of posts on spy fiction series – at least, for this year; I'll be continuing the series in 2012 – before we reach whatever navel-gazing end-of-year posts I can be arsed to sling together to see 2011 off (plus one last Violent World of Parker cross-post, a sequel to this one on Donald E. Westlake's farewell to science fiction). And we're finishing (for now) with a flourish, with two novels by one of the biggest names in the spy fiction field: Len Deighton. I've blogged about Deighton a few times before, but it's to his best-known series that I'm returning this time, a series featuring an anonymous secret agent who is more widely known, thanks to his Michael Caine-starring film adaptations, as Harry Palmer. And we'll begin... at the beginning...
The Ipcress File was first published in hardback in Great Britain by Hodder & Stoughton in 1962, and is Deighton's debut novel as well as the first to star his nameless spy. The copy seen here, however, isn't the true first, i.e. a first impression. First impressions of the book – which had a relatively small initial print run of, I believe, 2,500 – go for anything from £600 to over £1,000. Mine is the second impression, published in the same year as the true first (which was published in November of 1962), but identifiable as a second printing by the copyright line and the fact that it carries a couple of reviews on the dustjacket front flap, which are absent on the first impression:
Even so, second impressions can still fetch over £300 – and even third or later impressions (the edition went through at least eight printings that I know of) can go for anywhere from £30 to £200 – so, considering I won my copy on eBay for a fiver, I'm not complaining. (My copy also included an aged newspaper clipping advertising, rather incongruously, college courses, which had left a brown stain on the pages it had been inserted between.) The iconic dustjacket was designed by Deighton's friend Raymond Hawkey – who I've also blogged about repeatedly – here establishing an instantly recognisable artfully-arranged-and-photographed-props approach which would serve him well over the coming decades.
As to the novel itself, it's an entertaining read... but I must admit I did struggle with it. I think the story's about defecting scientists... or possibly double agents... or perhaps nuclear weapons... and herein lies the problem (well, my problem): pretty much all the way through I literally had no idea what the hell was going on.
The story is narrated by our nameless spy in a seductively laidback, down-to-earth fashion, far removed from the more serious stylings of Deighton's contemporary, John le Carré, or Ian Fleming's more glamorous Bond novels. There's a playfulness to the text, signified by astrological predictions for Aquarius at the start of many chapters and an appendix at the back of the book. Deighton is good on atmosphere and location, especially London's Soho district (an area I know well myself), its gambling joints and coffee shops. There are some riveting action sequences and moments of high tension: the novel reaches fever pitch following a nuclear test, when our narrator is deported to the East and subjected to weeks of interrogation, brainwashing and torture, coming close to questioning his sanity.
But as enjoyable as all this is (even the torture), it doesn't counter the fact that The Ipcress File is terribly confusing. Part of my problem with the book, I'm sure, was my own innate denseness – even at the story's close I was still none the bloody wiser – but that doesn't, I don't think, account for all of it. Authors withholding information in spy or suspense novels is a given, but Deighton withholds virtually everything, so that even the shape of the mystery is difficult to discern.
What Became of Jane Austen?, Kingsley Amis – whose opinion I greatly respect – admits that he had "tough sledding with The Ipcress File... The endless twists and turns of the plot, the systematic withholding of clues and even of settings in time and place..."
Amis's overall assessment of The Ipcress File is fairly scathing, and I certainly don't agree with his entire judgment – I did, as I say, enjoy the novel, in spite of my bemusement. (And indeed even Amis did eventually come round to Deighton's charms, telling Philip Larkin in a letter dated June 18, 1985, "Actually Deighton's quite good if you stop worrying about what's going on"; thanks to Jeremy Duns for that additional insight.) But his sign-off to the addendum is amusingly caustic, and worth repeating. Amis writes: "The whole thing is supposedly told to the Minister of Defence, who at an early stage makes what I thought was a reasonable request for enlightenment over some detail. The hero answers with his usual humility [here Amis quotes the following passage]:
'It's going to be very difficult for me if I have to answer questions as I go along,' I said. 'If it's all the same to you, Minister, I'd prefer you to make a note of the questions, and ask me afterwards.'
'My dear chap, not another word, I promise.'
And throughout the entire explanation he never again interrupted.
"I know why," reports Amis: "He was asleep."
One final note before we move on: while the narrator of The Ipcress File is never named, his eventual christening as Harry Palmer is presaged in the novel. Early on, for some reason someone hails him as "Harry", to which our narrator responds, "Now my name isn't Harry, but in this business it's hard to remember whether it ever had been". Maybe it had, maybe it hadn't; but one thing's for sure: for many people, it soon would be...
And with that, it's on to the second Deighton novel... which, surprisingly enough, is also Deighton's – and his nameless spy's – second outing: Horse Under Water.