Len Deighton's writing appeals because he creates compelling stories and lively narratives. There are a number of themes which occur repeatedly across all his fiction and non-fiction work:
Apparent insight into official organisations
Deighton has identified what he refers to as the ‘police procedural’ style as an influence on his choice of writing spy fiction. This is essentially a style that focuses on details and the workings of a team or professional and gives the reader a sense that, having read the book, he or she understands how that organisation operates. Some critics suggest this obsession with detail often becomes too cloying in the text meaning Deighton's writing lacks some of the mystery of, say, Le Carré.
In the case of the British security services you sometimes get the sense that the level of detail Deighton offers must be covered by the Official Secrets Act. He says of his style: “It has an authenticity, and you believe the author knows exactly how, for instance, the New York police operate, right down to the paperwork. It’s probably true to say I had an instinctual desire to write a ‘Spy Procedural’, and I think that’s probably what I still write.” Something like the ‘secret dossier’ accompanying An Expensive Place to Die gives the reader a wonderful sense of being in on something illicit.
There's an authenticity to the discussion of the bureaucratic workings of intelligence - on boths sides - which stands in contrast to the more extravagant story-lines in the Bond novels. What you read of the operation of the security service sounds not too far from the truth, with the mundane details of day-to-day procedure which all bureaucracies have frequently leaving clues that trip up an agent. Take this exchange from London Match:
'This is a photocopy of the Cabinet secretary's copy. You knew that, didn't you?'
'It's an investigation, Mrs Hogarth'
'I suppose it's all right, but I can't give you the details. I can only tell you that when sensitive material like this is circulated, the word processor is used so that the actual wording of its text is changed. Just the syntax, you understand; the meaning is not affected. It's a precaution.'
Sparkling dialogue and duplicitous meaning
Whilst there’s plenty of vivid character and location descriptions in Deighton’s books that put the reader ‘in the zone’, what stands out more is the use of dialogue in place of description. That is what really drives the story along because dialogue is how we live our daily lives and learn about things and interact with people. It gives the books a magic touch of reality and vitality.
As Deighton has himself said:
"I was always interested in dialogue, even before I started writing. This today remains one of the things I work hardest at, seeing how much I can delete from descriptive passages and convey by means of dialogue."
Another theme cropping up across his books is miscommunication, particularly involving the English. It is often said that they are poor communicators, especially within a marriage. For instance, the marriage of Bernard and Fiona Samson - who kept from her husband for 12 years her secret identity - is a case in point. One gets the sense through the first two trilogies - and discovers the truth in Spy Sinker - that there is so much that is left unsaid between the two of them. Samson may be capable of unearthing the truth about Stasi plots but he is clearly unable to identify the treachery under his nose.
In an interview with Edward Milward-Oliver, author of the Len Deighton Companion, Deighton said:
"I feel it's one of the comedies and tragedies of our social life that very few people are able to communicate clearly, and very few people worry about it. Consequently, there is a lot of misinformation being exchanged. I think in England we are probably masters of telling people not quite what we want them to know."
Deighton's is a fiction where face value is often a debased currency. His character exist in world of secrets, lies and the threat of treachery is ever-present. Can you really trust what the narrator or a character is saying? His character of Bernard Samson is the first-person narrator of eight of the nine books in the Samson triple-trilogy. In book six, Spy Sinker, which shifts to a third person narrator, it becomes clear that many of Samson's assumptions and prejudices are misguided at best.
Outside the spy world, this theme is played out in books like Only When I Larf, where the gang of con artists is clearly only able to get away with their increasingly outrageous scams because they are able to convince a range of foreign marks that their collective English word is their bond.
Most recently, Deighton returned to this theme of miscommunication and double speak in a newspaper interview on his 80th birthday:
"You read the obituaries of Harold Pinter, for instance, if you want an insight into how people can say nasty things in what appears to be a eulogy. People communicate by miscommunicating. The English are supreme at this.”