Thursday 15 December 2011

Book Review: The Ipcress File by Len Deighton (Secret File No. 1, Hodder & Stoughton First Edition, 1962); plus Kingsley Amis on Deighton

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.

I'm not the only reader to have professed bewilderment, either: in an addendum to his essay "A New James Bond" in 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.


  1. copies of the second impression may be advertised at up to £300, but i doubt that any sell at that price

    the price you paid was about right

  2. Hmm, not sure about that. True, copies on AbeBooks priced high will probably just sit there, but I've seen second impressions go for fair old sums on eBay. All depends who's paying attention and what they're prepared to pay.

  3. Of course. And condition plays a part too. As I recall, the cover of the second impression wasn't laminated, and so has often suffered a bit more over the years.

    Look forward to your post on Horse Under Water

  4. Just finished reading Deighton's Game, Set, and Match trilogy, which is actually the first of three trilogies about one character. Good, but it does have some of the problems Amis discusses in What Became of Jane Austen?.

    Speaking of What Became, I'd read a fair deal of a library copy before I ever came upon the volume for sale, but when I saw the dust jacket I just knew I had to have it. Austen, Dickens, Ian Fleming, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee all on the cover? Clearly worth owning!

    In the US Sterling has begun rereleasing Deighton, but I'm afraid the US cover designs, while consistent, aren't quite so good as the UK cover designs. I believe some covers are the same in both regions, but the "Harry Palmer" books are different, with stock photos in lieu of the new photographic covers in the UK. In fact the UK editions even feature a brief note by the cover designer, detailing his thought process and the origin of the materials he used. (Amazon UK's listing for the Ipcress File doesn't show the version I own, but the covers for Horse Under Water and Billion Dollar Brain show the ones I'm thinking of)

  5. It's laminated, Anonymous, but it's still degraded: there's chipping and some loss at the spine and browning at the jacket edges, although all that may have more to do with how/where it was kept. I don't believe the jacket comes from a different copy either; there are a few signs which suggest the book and jacket "belong" to each other. Thanks for the comments – always interesting to hear from a proper collector, as I'm (probably self-evidently) merely an enthusiastic amateur.

    Matt, I have copies of Game, Set and Match to read/blog about at some point. And yep, quite agree about What Became of Jane Austen? I was dead chuffed when I found my copy in the fabulous Much Ado Books in Alfriston. But then I'd happily read anything by Amis – essays, criticism, novels...

    Which are the editions which have Raymond Hawkey's notes on them? Be interested to read what he said about creating the covers.

  6. Nick - excellent posting. Still believe the stark white and black cover of The Ipcress File is so effective in putting across what themes are driving the story.

  7. Thanks, Rob! Good point about the jacket, too: sums up the themes nicely. And I'll be sure to include further links to Deighton Dossier in the next post.

  8. You might be interested in my review of The IPCRESS File, in which I touch on some of the issues you address here. I found both the office work rigmarole and the continuing confusion as to what the mission was about to be positives for the book:

    I am going to seek out a copy of that Amis book to read the essay. I have both of his treatises on Bond, and his Lucky Jim (as I'm a Ph.D. student) is one of my favorites. He could be a jackass sometimes though....

  9. Very thorough review, Armstrong. (And I see the ubiquitous Jeremy Duns thought so too!) And you're right: it could easily be argued the confusion in the novel is an asset. I did like the book, and I suspect that confusion is partly why. As Amis said, if you stop worrying about what's going on, it's all rather good.

    The Amis essay is largely about why he decided to write Colonel Sun, and the reactions to his decision; the Deighton/le Carre bits are minor addenda. But there are plenty of other good pieces in What Became, so it's worth seeking out.

    I like Lucky Jim, but I'm more of an enthusiast for mid-period Kingsley, especially The Anti-Death League and Ending Up. Anthony Price tells a great story about Amis towards the end of the second part of my Price interview.

  10. I'd read somewhere that one of the reasons Len Deighton left Hodder was because they failed to foresee the immediate success of Ipcress and had to rush out a second impression, with an unlaminated cover. But he may well have been referring to later impressions.

    I'm only an enthusiastic amateur like yourself, but grateful that I did most of my buying 25 years ago

  11. I think there is some truth in the idea that Deighton left Hodder because he was dissatisfied with their treatment of The IPCRESS File, and in fact I think it relates to the problems Nick had with the novel. Michael Howard discussed this in his 1971 book Jonathan Cape, Publisher (p283 of the 1977 Penguin paperback edition):

    'The success of [John Fowles'] The Collector also helped to demonstrate the new effectiveness of Cape, a point again proved when Tom [Maschler] regained the confidence of Len Deighton, whose first spy story, The Ipcress File, we had lost when he first offered it to Cape in 1961. Having studied the James Bond phenomenon, Deighton had devised his own formula on which to base efficiently successful thrillers, and was determined to write five of them to prove it. He gave the first to Fleming's publisher [ie Cape], but found himself at loggerheads with Daniel George who, while he liked the laconic style, tried to persuade Len to simplify its convoluted plot. Deighton walked out, and gave The Ipcress File to Hodder & Stoughton; but they under-estimated its potential and ran out of stock soon after publication, leaving the author far from satisfied with their performance. For once we had a second chance, and were able to convince him that Cape could do better, a promise we made good in the autumn of 1963 when we published his Horse Under Water, which was followed by three more of the kind, each more successful.'

    I mentioned this, incidentally, in an article for The Guardian a couple of years ago ( but had totally forgotten it until just now.

  12. I'd heard something similar, except without the lamination thing – just that Deighton was dissatisfied with Hodder's conservative print run. I think the third print followed on pretty swiftly from the second (which had followed the first equally swiftly), so maybe it was the third one. Or maybe I do have a book with a mismatched jacket. The mystery deepens...

    So you must have been buying pre-internet? That's how I did my comic collecting. What were your areas of interest?

  13. And there indeed I am opining about this very point (ubiquitously) on Armstrong's blog two years ago! I feel old now. :)

  14. Crikey, Jeremy and I appeared to be commenting simultaneously there! Ubiquitous is about right! Obviously my question about areas of collecting interest was directed at Anonymous, not Mr. Duns.

    And thank you, Jeremy: Jonathan Cape, Publisher is of course where I read about Deighton not being happy with Hodder. Knew I'd seen it somewhere!

  15. Nick - The new editions have designer's introductions by the new designer, who does speak about the difficulty of following Hawkey. My edition of The Ipcress File is the 2009 Harper UK reprint with cover art and cover introduction Arnold Schwartzman, OBE RDI.


  16. re my earlier post, I've found my copy of Firsts magazine (Nov 93) which has a long piece on the Ray Hawkey covers. In it, speaking of IPCRESS, Len Deighton says:-

    "within 24 hours of publication the book was out of print. It took weeks to get the second printing completed and by that time the newspaper serialisation was finished. The publisher was in such a hurry that the jackets of the second printing were not laminated at all and looked awful"

  17. Matt, thanks for the further info. I've just noticed that Rob Mallows wrote about the redesign on his indispensable Deighton Dossier blog back in 2009, quoting Schwartzman in the process. That post is well worth a read (as, of course, is the rest of Rob's blog).

    Anonymous: interesting... If Mr. Deighton's recalling correctly, that would suggest my copy has a mismatched jacket. What's curious is that the case does, as I say, indicate jacket and book have been together for quite some time. There are dark marks at the top and base of the case spine which precisely match the chipping, small tears and soiling at the head and base of the jacket spine. So if the jacket on my copy is from a later impression, it's been wrapped round the second impression for a good long while...

  18. Don't know if this is of interest for you guys but here goes: the still-life cover of THE IPCRESS FILE shown here features the very gun Geoffrey Boothroyd recommended to Fleming for use in DOCTOR NO, a Smith&Wesson .38 Centennial Airweight (later the model 42 by S&W's own code designation) with a grip safety. It's an unusual gun for the time (hammerless) and I wonder how it found its way onto the cover of this book.

  19. Good question, Harry. I don't have a definitive answer for you, but Fleming knew Raymond Hawkey, the designer of The Ipcress File's cover (Hawkey also designed Bond paperback covers), so it's not a great stretch to imagine that Hawkey may well also have known Boothroyd, and consequently gained access to Boothroyd's gun prop.

    Can anyone else shed some light here...?

  20. Hi all,

    The pistol is that which was given to our hero when he was sent to get Raven.


  21. Nick, Thank YOU for such a fascinating blog.

    It just happened that I was re-reading The IPCRESS File and was on the exact page where the pistol is described when I read this blog entry.

    Happy New Year

  22. Happy new year to you too, Stephen! Glad you're enjoying my rambling nonsense.

  23. Deighton is one of the many authors I've had on my to-read list for a long time. I've seen the Caine film, but it was a long time ago and I'll be damned if I can remember anything about it. The only novel of Deighton's that I've managed to obtain is Spy Line, which I haven't read yet and know nothing about. It's been hard for me to find spy fiction that really satisfies, because so little of it seems to actually involve spying, espionage, manipulation, and trickery. Action and drama seem to be higher on the priority list for most authors. I'd like something less Bond and more Mission: Impossible, or at least Metal Gear Solid. Where's the stealth and sneaking around in spy fiction? I've also obtained a copy of Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but after the film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy put me to fucking sleep (apologies for criticizing a movie you enjoyed), I've been leery of anything related to the guy. I've resorted to buying cheap used paperback copies of Mission: Impossible novels from the 1960s and recent Splinter Cell novelizations (written by Bond author Raymond Benson under a pseudonym) to satisfy my craving, and although they've done that to an extent, I'm hoping there's something better out there. Any recommendations? They would be hugely appreciated.

  24. Well there is plenty of espionage and manipulation in le Carre, Craig; and if you can get past the film of Tinker Tailor, the novel is incredibly rewarding – as are the two sequels, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People. I'd also recommend Anthony Price, who I've written about repeatedly; his books are kind of mysteries disguised as espionage, but they'll keep you guessing, and I find them fascinating. You could try Adam Hall's Quiller novels; they're a bit more action orientated, but The Berlin Memorandum (aka Quiller Memorandum) does have lots of actual spying in it, and it's enjoyably idiosyncratic.

    Have you ever read any Ross Thomas? Quite a few of his books verge on spy fiction, so well worth investigating – and worth investigating anyway, cos Thomas was a fine, fine writer (click on his tag in the right hand column for more). And I'd give Michael Gilbert a go as well, especially his Calder and Behrens short stories, of which there are two collections (the first of which, Game Without Rules, I reviewed a while back).

    That should keep you busy for a while!

  25. Thanks for the recommendations. I may have just been in the wrong mood when I watched Tinker Tailor, but it felt to me like the movie went too far when trying to be a "realistic" spy story, the problem being that it's usually an incredibly boring job in the real world: sitting behind a desk and talking, talking, talking. I feel like Goldilocks trying to find the spy fiction that's "just right," somewhere in between the all-action and little-spying of Bond and the sleep-inducing (for me, anyway) realism of Le Carre. I'll give the latter another chance with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, since I've already got it sitting on my bookshelf, and then maybe I'll give the book version of Tinker Tailor a try. I'll also check into Hall, Thomas, and Gilbert. Thanks again for those.