Len Deighton the writer - and particularly, the writer of spy fiction - is often lauded by critics and reviews as one of the big beasts of 20th century popular (as opposed to literary) fiction, alongside the likes of Ian Fleming and John Le Carré, among others.
A writer reaches that level of global market awareness and popularity through writing books that, frankly, sell in spades. And they sell as a result of a number of factors: compelling characters, great marketing, timeliness. Above all, they sell - and remain popular - because they are well-told stories, written in a way that captures and retains the reader's imagination.
Over his forty-plus year career as an active writer, Len Deighton's books have succeeded in the goal of giving readers compelling, readable, believable and suspenseful stories and characters which deserve reading and re-reading. Deighton's overall style and approach delivered that. His writing is recognised as exemplary in the genre and he is sufficiently regarded to add his own descriptive to the language of literary criticism: 'Deighton-esque'.
What makes a Len Deighton book 'Deighton-esque'? What does he do in his choice of words, phrasing, plot structure and narrative that brings a book out of the ordinary and turns a story into a compelling narrative that demands to be read?
Below are some themes and writing techniques which, across his fiction and sometimes also his non-fiction work, mark out Len Deighton's writing approach.
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.”
In each of Len Deighton's fiction works you will find examples of conversation which sounds natural and propels the narrative along.
His frequent use of the first person narrator in his novels has meant that effective dialogue plays a vital part in delivering exposition and characterisation to the story.
Language and idiom are essential in ensuring conversation feels appropriate to the character and to the themes and locations of the novel. In Bomber, Deighton - a former air craftsman himself - uses snappy dialogue between the crew members to develop the readers' understanding of their characters and to portray the kinds of relationships that exist at a time of war, particularly between senior officers and their staff:
'Now then,' said the Groupie. 'You know my views about those bloody Squadrons where they taboo shop-talk in the Mess.'
'Well, on this business of killing Huns, sir. There's a pilot - a damn good chap, experienced, decorated, and all that, a good N.C.O. - but he told me that he thinks our bombing attacks are "just old-fashioned murder of working-class families".'
'Confounded fifth columnist!'
'Yes, sir, I knew you'd be annoyed, but that's not all. This war, he says, is just the continuation of capitalism by other means.'
'That's Karl Marx he's quoting.'
'Yes. It's a misquote of Clausewitz actually, sir.'
'It's a bloody disgrace. A chap on my station, you say?'
'Flight Sergeant Lambert, sir. It might just be a touch of the jitters, mind you.'
In Only When I Larf, Deighton uses the conversations of his three protagonists to illustrate how they cajole, dissemble and flatter their 'marks', such as General Ibo Awawa of Magazawia, when considering the question of why men must have guns and fight wars:
'My dear girl,' said Awawa. 'We live in a competitive society. It's the very crux of our system. Capitalism produces the best cars and refrigerators ….'
'… and typewriters.'
'Yes, and typewriters, and guns too. Each man competes with his fellow man. You say to a man "buy this motor car because it goes faster, and will therefore make you more powerful, more important, more virile, more desirable, than the man next door." And then you also say to him, "But don't go fast in your car, and if you see the man next door, don't overtake him to prove that you are more neurotic than he is." Well, of course the world becomes neurotic. Two different commands, random punishments for each. That's how they give monkeys ulcers.
'What has that got to do with guns?' I asked him.
'The logical end-result of competition is physical competition.' He smiled. 'For the individual the two purest forms of enterprise are prostitution (passive form) and robbery with violence (active form).'
He turned to Geegee. 'What do you say to that, Gray?' he asked.
'What, me sir? Prostitution every time, sir, if you ask me. Sin every time.' Geegee wasn't the idiot that he liked to be thought.
As a trained artist and illustrator, Len Deighton has long had a strong visual keenness and this can be detected in many of his works, fiction and non-fiction - a strong descriptive turn of phrase, an attention to detail that some reviewers identify as crucial in demonstrating authenticity of character and plot.
Deighton frequently carried a notebook with him, particularly when researching a book, in which he frequently notes details (of a car, building, piece of clothing for example) which may rest there for many years until, when writing a new novel, he can go back to his collective store of research and ensure that he is describing something accurately. A habit of frequently sketching illustrations also served to ensure that as a writer he developed the capacity to use words to create visual pictures in the mind of the reader.
Some critics have said, in return, that this fixation on detailed description has made some of his works a little ponderous by focusing on unnecessary details and processes.
Deighton also brings an artist's eye to the descriptions of location and scenery in all of his novels.
A lot of his descriptions of cities, such as Berlin, are so successful because Deighton as an author spent a lot of time in these cities walking the streets, getting an eye on how the city and its people lived, how it functioned as an organism, which is why in books such as Berlin Game, the city is described in such a way that it becomes a character in itself.
In Berlin Game, Deighton's knowledge of the city and the idiosyncrasies created by the existence of the Berlin Wall, ensures that when Bernard Samson and Werner Volkmann are discussing their activities in the city, it sounds like the authentic discussions of two locals with a thorough knowledge of the layout of the city:
'We'll go and get something to eat and drink, Werner,' I said. 'Do you know some quiet restaurant where they have sausage and potatoes and good Berlin beer?'
'I know just the place, Bernie. Straight up Friedrichstrasse, under the railway bridge at the S-Bahn and it's on the left. On the bank of the Press: Weinrestaurant Ganymed.'
'Very funny,' I said. Between us and the Ganymed there was a wall, machine guns, barbed wire and two battalions of gun-toting bureaucrats. 'Turn this jalopy around and let's get out of here.'
Len Deighton as a writer is a voracious researcher. His success with his early books gave him the time, and resources, to devote plenty of time to background research for each new books. This frequently meant spending time in the locations he put in his novels and talking to the people who could provide him with the authentic, accurate detail he needed to ensure his plots and characters felt authentic to the reader.
The notes he made for Billion-Dollar Brain on trips to Estonia and Finland, which were used in marketing the book to booksellers, showed how he increases his books readability, and believability, by paying attention to the small details. Knowing which particular machine guns Finnish police used, or the latest uniforms worn by the Soviet forces based in Lithuania was, for Deighton, essential to creating a believable story. This approach has been reflected in most of his novels.
Sure, a writer also has to have the characters and the plots, but the detail - about spy craft, weaponry, the menu in a restaurant, the choice of wine made by a character - is about the finish, and a reader will know that in most of Deighton's books, the amount of research will stretch way beyond the 100,000 or so of words of text in the book itself.
When writing Bomber, his most intensively researched novel, Len Deighton had a huge map of Western Europe on his wall and planned his fictional raids over Germany with the same meticulous approach as the RAF did during the war.
He was able to spend time talking to bomber veterans and German officials charged with protecting the Reich, ensuring that his descriptions of the bombing raids were impactful. Famously, he went as far as to research the weather records over Germany for the month in which the story is set, to ensure that was accurate too.
Anachronisms can jar to a reader. It was important to him that the readers - many of whom will have remembered the wartime period and the fear and shock of bombing raids over the UK and Germany - were presented with as real a description as possible of what a bombing raid was like, in order to make the trials of the main characters that much more realistic:
The moonlight that revealed the bombers to the night fighters was also reassuring to an alert bomber crew. Löwenherz was still dancing through the puffy cumulus far behind them over Rotterdam and no one in Creaking Door was aware of his existence.
Leutnant Beer had been assigned to a southern part of the Ermine sector. In short, there was not an enemy in sight. over the ocean one would not expect an 8.8cm flak gun, but even if by some magic one was there, Creaking Door was nearly three thousand feet higher than the effective range of an 8.8cm flak gun.
Lambert was relating these facts to himself when a 10.5cm shell - with its superior range - burst near Creaking Door's tailplane. It came from the tail; a strangled thump. A giant's belch that rumbled along the metal throat of stringers and formers. Then came the bad breath of cordite and burning, speeding on the wave of displaced air that pushed Lambert forward agains the controls, shook the extinguishers loose and sent Kosher's charts to fit the cockpit with fluttering paper. There was a flash of light too. That came from inside the fuselage. It made the screen turn white and blinded Lambert, whose eyes were adjusted to the dark night.
Len Deighton is primarily known as a spy thriller writer, so his writing often reflects many of the tropes found in the genre: spy-craft (the mechanics and techniques of spying); betrayal (personal, political, country); danger (the ever present threat of violence, both explicit and implied) and the loneliness of the spy.
Also found in his books are other frequently occurring themes which reflect how Deighton, as most other authors do, has drawn on his own life experiences to populate his books and flesh out his main characters. For instance, his early life as a child and then students in London is reflected in the use of this city as a foundation for many of his most popular works, his vivid descriptions of London - its glamorous and seedier sides in equal measure - match his writing about Berlin. His status as a food writer is reflected in his use of food as a signifier to explain his characters.
Though he was too young to serve in World War Two, Len Deighton did his British 'National Service' shortly thereafter, working as an intelligence officer in the Royal Air Force. As well as his own experiences in the forces, he knew many former soldiers in his time as an art and design student in the 'fifties. As his writing career developed, he was afforded access to military men from both the British and German armed forces, and developed a broad understand of, and sympathy with, their experiences on the front line.
The relationship between the 'top brass' - the generals and commanding officers in any army - and the other ranks - the chaps on the front line in both wartime (which is also paralleled to some extent in its peacetime equivalent, the security and espionage services - crops up in many of his novels and histories. It is ultimately about power relationships and organisational structures; Deighton's books explore in many ways how characters operate within highly structured and hierarchical organisations, where the asymmetry of power and information shapes - and distorts - relationships and at times almost builds in suspicion and distrust, both of colleagues and potential enemies.
His writing communicates a clear desire that those in positions of power should be under greater scrutiny for their actions than those they send to be killed during wartime or placed in danger of betrayal and discovery behind enemy lines in the Society bloc, and questions their competence, frequently from the perspective of the 'hero', the man on the front line.
His agent hero Bernard Samson’s moans frequently about the 'idiots' in London Central reflects this annoyance at the apparent indifference of those in command to the men and women doing the hard graft. Deighton's unnamed spy - aka Harry Palmer - also communicate this healthy disdain for his superiors which is reflected in the give-and-take, sometimes insolent dialogue with Dalby and Grant
Len Deighton's writing also hints at the limits of loyalty facing agents sent into the field at risk of their lives to clear up the mess made by politicians. Who, ultimately, is the soldier or secret agent fighting for? His or her country? Their unit? Their family. Who, ultimately, has the right to tell a soldier or an agent ultimately what to think or how to act and be trusted to have the right solution to challenging plot twists and discoveries? A healthy disdain for leaders comes through many of Deighton's characters as a result of this uncertainty.
His only full collection of short stories - Declarations of War - is full of stories which explore the personal and organisational relationships between soldiers and their leaders. It consists of twelve vignettes of army life throughout history in which the reader gets the sense that Deighton really understands how war - modern, mechanised warfare - dehumanises a soldier and force him to make decisions which, ordinarily, he would not want or have to make.
Bomber and other stories also explored the important relationship between man and machine, which created the potential of the ordinary man as war 'hero'.
Similarly, in Fighter, Deighton's research and his choice of accompanying photos shows his high regard for the ordinary airmen - on both sides - who struggled everyday against terrific danger to fulfil orders.
Perhaps this question of the relationship between the fighting man and those leading him is best explored by Deighton in his very personal production of Oh! What a Lovely War, the songs of which and the narrative is based on communicating the experiences of the men at the front during World War One, as distinct from those of the top brass back at HQ. While not strictly pacifist in approach, this film particularly expresses the huge gulf in understanding and experiences between those responsible for the war and those who ended up at the sharp end, fighting on the basis of their decisions.
Deighton's writing and approach frequently expresses sympathy and admiration for the foot soldier and the agent and their underdog status contributes to the empathy the reader has with them as protagonist.
The British are, it has been frequently commented, a nation obsessed with class and this has often been reflected in its literary output.
Len Deighton is, by origins, working class, having been born to a family working in 'service' for the well-to-do in London. He is now, as a global best-selling author, far from those roots. He is certainly not class-obsessed and it would be wrong to assume that class is a primary colour on his writing palette. But, it is a hue that appears in his writing from time to time, because class - which is essentially an issue with the asymmetry of power and wealth and its impact on personal and professional relationships - creates conflict, bitterness, envy and anger, which contribute to strong characters and piquant dialogue.
The relationships of Britain’s working classes with their ‘betters’ - especially the middle classes - comes through subtly in many his stories. In the 1960’s, when he began his career as a writer, class consciousness was strongly breaking through the self-imposed strictures of old-style deference. Elements of this can be seen in Deighton's books at that time.
The cultural scene in London, certainly, was becoming more ‘popular’ (i.e. less class-based) and Deighton’s novels were some of the first to creatively portray the working class perspective in fields previously dominated by the middle and upper classes: warfare and espionage. (Deighton himself grew up in a relatively poor part of London as a working class boy.)
Harry Palmer and Bernard Samson, Deighton's two main spy characters, are both 'bolshie' to a degree - at least on the surface and in the presence of their superiors - and have chips on their shoulders about their middle and upper class colleagues.
Palmer's sharp-tongued lack of respect for authority and old-fashioned bureaucracy certainly caught the mood of the time when the binds of the UK's class system were beginning to loosen. Harry Palmer was also one of the first genuinely cockney voices in British cinema.
Many book and subsequently film reviewers played up (and maybe over-stated) the obvious contrast between the establish spy on the block - Ian Fleming's James Bond, privately educated gentlemen spy and rogue - with Deighton's grammar-school 'oik'. Both faced similar dangers and opponents, and both were part of the UK's security forces, but their attitudes, mannerisms and speech colloquialisms provide such delicious contrasts. To apply modern literary critical thinking, Palmer could be much more easily related to by a broader, working class audience. He was a counterpoint, a rival, a foil, and for people like film producer Harry Saltzman, that means publicity, marketing angles, discussion and a sure-fire hit!
In his book The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader, author Christoph Lindner writes:
'Bond functioned as either an implied or an explicit point of reference for rival spy-thrillers which flooded the bookstalls, the cinemas and the television screens, in both Britain and America - the novels of Len Deighton and the films derived from them, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers and so on. Each of these either directly negotiated its own specific cultural space and sphere of ideological action within the region of the spy-thriller, or had such a space for it negotiated by the critics, through the construction of relationships of similarity to/difference from Bond. Deighton's hero (anonymous in the novels, portrayed as Harry Palmer in the films) was thus both likened to and distinguished from Bond - like him (a British secret agent), yet also significantly unlike him (a working-class anti-hero).'
The sparky dialogue and to-and-fro between the unnamed spy (later Harry Palmer) and Dalby and Grant - his superiors - in Deighton's first three books illustrates through speech and language the duality and inherent tension of this class-based working relationship which, overall, still worked pretty effectively: the bitterness and the respect; the love and the hate; the lack of common background but the shared common goals produces some wonderful repartee.
Take this example from The Ipcress File where Palmer, forced by Colonel Ross to work for Major Dalby or face court martial, meets his new boss:
'You are loving it here, of course?' Dalby asked.
'I have a clear mind and a pure heart. I get eight hours' sleep a night. I am a loyal, diligent employee, and will attempt every day to be worthy of the trust my paternal employer puts in me.'
'I'll make the jokes' said Dalby
In Berlin Game, Bernard Samson's frequent barbs at his more senior - and more privately educated - colleagues in London Central are laced with references to the English class system and its embodiment in the prevalence of graduates from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge ... graduates like his boss, Dicky Cruyer.
Take this scene from Samson's interrogation by Stinnes at the end of the novel:
"I've been West a few times, just as you've come here. But who gets the promotions and the big wages - desk-bound Party bastards. How lucky you are not to have the Party system working against you", said Stinnes.
"We have got it," I said. "It's called Eton and Oxbridge."
Food and drink often serve as both counterpoint and metaphor in many scenes within Deighton's fictional canon.
As a gourmand and chef Len Deighton often used food to signify important roles in his writing and to embellish relationships between his characters. Take, for example, The Ipcress File. What is culturally significant about Harry Palmer, compared with all previously literary spies, is that his interest in food stood in stark contrast to the prevailing dreadfulness of British food appreciation and preparation, characterised by Brown Windsor Soup and the Lyons Tea House.
A passion for food and male self-reliance (up to this point, it was still expected that 'the wife' did all the cooking) also, of course, reflected Deighton's position in the sixties as restaurant reviewer and publisher of the Action Cook Book, which was marketed as opening up the kitchen to a generation of men. Deighton was also in 'sixties London a renowned party giver, so there are definite autobiographical elements to be discerned in the way he ensured that the characters he developed interacted with and used food as a lubricant to social connectivity, information gathering and sizing up other people.
Even in the nineteen-eighties, and the Samson series, upper middle-class characters like Fiona Samson and Dicky Cruyer are schooled in the food of la cuisine nouvelle and London's newer restaurants such as Paul Bocuse. Fiona's background of time spent at a french finishing school and her delight for fine wines and cooking (compared to husband Bernard's more prosaic approach to this subject) are signifiers of he both r status as Bernard's cultural superior in their marriage, but also (as we find out) his superior in regards to the business of espionage.
In the film of The Ipcress File, Palmer is shopping in a supermarket when he is interrupted by his spymaster as he puts a tin of Champignons de Paris into his trolley:
"You're paying 10d more for a fancy French label," his public-school boy-accented boss Colonel Ross sneers.
"If you want button mushrooms, they're better value on the next shelf," Palmer replies.
"It's not just the label. These have a better flavour."
"You're quite the gourmet, aren't you Palmer?"
His boss' retort hints at the fact that ‘gourmet’ was on a par with homosexual in the ‘sixties society, as evidenced by the sneering manner of this remark! This film dialogue fitted with the characterisation of Palmer as something of a 'new man', certainly for the period at least.
As identified above drinks, particularly coffee (and also elsewhere in the books, wine and spirits) serve as a simple but effective way to illustrate characters.
The morning coffee becomes a ritual battleground over which Cruyer and the prickly Bernard Samson spare. Their frequent dialogues and interplay when coffee is served by Cruyer in his office as a precursor to a discussion about the work Samson is doing are full of tension, bickering and just-under-the-covers resentment and frustration which illustrates their reluctant, co-dependent relationship.
The ritual nature of the coffee process and the fact that it is a 'pure', expensive coffee blend that's Cruyer's serving Samson in the finest china are clearly meant to impress Bernard and emphasise who is 'mother', or rather, 'boss; they also serve, of course, to highlight Cruyer's pomposity. This example from Berlin Game illustrates the point well:
He [Cruyer] sipped his coffee and then tasted it carefully, moving his lips while staring at me as if I might have come to sell his the year's crop. 'It's just a shade bitter, don't you think, Bernard?'
'Nescafé all tastes the same to me,' I said.
'This is pure chagga, ground just before it was brewed.' He said it calmly but nodded to acknowledge my little attempt to annoy him.
The spy world portrayed in Deighton’s books - and in films - is often unglamorous and humdrum and its population, at times, incompetent. Departments such as W.O.O.C.(P). from the first five novels or the later London Central organisation - both ciphers for MI:6 - both appear at times more like firms of accountants than the nerve centres of the Cold War, with as much time being spent on expenses, basic computer systems and deciding what to do for lunch as on determining how to half the actions of the individuals and agencies out to undermine the UK's security.
The men in charge are often not as perfect or as trustworthy, or competent, as they might initially seem: characters such as Colonel Ross or Silas Gaunt seem shifty and sly, archetypes of the official mandarin or the more suspicious eminences grises who play such an important role in doing the backroom deals and making the life or death decisions that are at the heart of every spy thriller. But these powerful individuals are also part of a wider network of teams, agents and office staff, all bound up by rules, procedures, forms and safeguards designed to apply resources most efficiently to the game at hand, protecting the UK.
These organisations don't always succeed and, indeed, Deighton's descriptions of them suggest that when they do have successes they happen despite the best efforts of those in charge. This idea of 'bureaucratic malaise' in the modern spy novel was even the subject of a detailed study in the annals of Public Administration, the journal of government, as an illustration of how bureaucratic incompetence undermined national security.
Grumblings of staff against the incompetencies of senior management implies a frequent degree of powerlessness among the lower echelons of the spying fraternity, the guys who actually get their hands dirty protecting the state. This creates tremendous opportunities for rich dialogue and tension between characters as frustrations and failures build up.
In some of Deighton's dialogue one feels he is drawing on his own experiences of the workplace (he spent time working in London and New York advertising agencies), but it is evident he never quite mastered the art of office politics. Protecting one's own career and status is as important as getting the task in hand done.
The secret, as ever, in office life is to know when to say something, and when to keep quiet. Take this description by Bernard Samson of his boss Dicky Cruyer, in Berlin Game:
"Dicky Cruyer was hovering over the boss, but moving around enough to see his face and be ready with an appropriate answer.
He was there whenever Rensselaer wanted a witness, hatchet man, vociferous supporter or silent audience. But Cruyer was not a mere acolyte; he was a man who knew that 'to everything there is a season...a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing'.
In other words, Cruyer knew exactly when to argue with the boss. And that was something I never did right. I didn't even know when to argue with my wife."
The theme of the agent/soldier on the front line bemoaning the incompetence of his commanders behind enemy lines is superbly demonstrated in Deighton's script for Oh! What a Lovely War, which is shot through with bitterness about the senselessness of millions or ordinary soldiers dying for what was, essentially, a squabble between the ruling houses of Europe which got out of hand.
Some reviewers have identified Len Deighton, along with John Le Carré, as one of the writers who brought the spy thriller genre out of the world of the upper class gentleman spy in central London and relocated much of the action to the middle class world of suburbia, perhaps better reflect the origins of the agents entering the secret service after the second world war. Academic Janice Morphet of University College London identifies Deighton's The Ipcress File as one of the books which portrayed a narrator to which a wider audience could relate.
While the unnamed spy [Harry Palmer] is characterised and portrayed in book and film as working class, he has middle class pretensions. He is working for Her Majesty's Government in an important, secret capacity; he is dressed in a tailored suit and hip to 'sixties fashions; he drinks coffee - a sure sign of the aspirational working class man of the time - and cooks for himself and his girlfriends.
In the later novels of the Game, Set and Match series, Bernard Samson moves out of his home in central London to the south west suburbs of London to set up life for himself with his new lover Gloria Kent. Their cosy domesticity - dinners with the kids, dry cleaning runs, going shopping, watching the TV - is a vivid metaphorical commentary on Samson's life as a domesticated, neutered spy, who only infrequently is called upon to act as a heroic agent in between morning and evening trips to work on the train.
He becomes, in a sense, a commuter spy, for whom much of the work can seem dull and routine. He has been captured, if you will, by London Central, his carefree days on the streets of Berlin, where he grew up, now a long lost memory aside from the times when he must visit the city under extremely dangerous circumstances.
The cosy domesticity of British middle-class suburbia in which Bernard Samson finds himself with his girlfriend Gloria Kent - after his wife's betrayal and defection to the DDR - is best illustrated in this passage from Spy Hook.
While Samson is clearly in love with Gloria and happy to move out to leafy Surrey to enjoy a new kind of family life with his wife now long gone, there is a strong undercurrent in the text that he is resigned to this, rather than regarding suburbia as an aspiration fulfilled. Suburbia is comfortable, but also - for men of action - soul destroying.
Here is a trained killer and spy spending his weekends worrying about nothing of importance: Deighton is telling the reader something about Samson's status after his wife's defection and the imagery of the wallpaper and home decorations says everything about a man who has been defeated, and settled for a simpler life thanks to Fiona's best efforts.
It was Saturday: despite the early hour housewives were staggering home under the weight of frantic shopping, and husbands were demonstrating the manic energy that only the British devote to their hobbies.
The neighbour who shared our semi-detached house - an insurance salesman and passionate gardener - was planting his Christmas tree in the hard frozen soil of his front garden. He could have saved himself the trouble, they never grow: people say the dealers scald the roots. He waved with the garden trowel as we swept past him and into the narrow side entrance. It was a squeeze to get out.
Gloria opened the newly painted front door with a flourish. The hall had been repapered - large mustard-yellow flowers on curlicue stalks - and had new hall carpet. I admired the result. In the kitchen were some primroses on the table which was set with our best chinaware. Cut-glass tumblers stood ready for orange juice and rashers of smoked bacon were arranged by the stove alongside four brown eggs and a new Teflon frying pan.
I walked around the house with her and played my appointed role.
As a world-renowned novelist, Len Deighton's contribution to the development of the spy fiction genre has attracted some detailed analysis from both literary critics and academics alike, who have sought to analysis his contribution to defining the genre and his wider contribution to popular culture.
For instance, the reference book Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers is one of the foremost printed guides to the great and the good, the well known and the lesser lights of the thriller world. A hefty tome, it provides biographies and bibliographies for pretty much every writer who has ever published a novel or short story that fits within this broad genre.
In the second edition, published in 1985, George Grella provides an excellent analysis of Deighton's writing and approach to story telling which made him, in Grella's eyes, "a writer to be cherished."
In due course, further extracts from academic and literary papers on Deighton's writing will be added.
"In a succession of stylish, witty, well-crafted novels beginning with The Ipcress File in 1962, Len Deighton has proved himself a master of modern spy fiction and one of the most innovative writers in the short but eventful history of the form. He brings to the novel of espionage some highly relevant interests and concerns, most of which had never troubled the minds of previous practitioners; along with his brilliant contemporary John Le Carré, he sketches a convincingly detailed picture of the world of espionage while carefully examining the ethics and morality of that world.
The darker aspects of his noels, however seriously intended, are frequently illuminated by understated irony and humour. His prose is bright and breezy, clearly influenced by Raymond Chandler, with a somewhat Chandler-esque taste for metaphors and wisecracks. In some ways, in fact, he seems rather a mid-Atlantic writer - he is just about the only English writer who can create credible Americans who speak credible American.
Another of his strengths lies in his ability to provide his best works with powerfully elliptical structures; his architecture never seems fully clear until the books end, revealing themselves as intricate and solid creations. Together with their structures, the plots of his novels usually entangle his protagonist in difficult knots of double- and triple-crosses to satisfy even the most finicky connoisseur of spy fiction.
He has contributed substantially to the genre and, in the process, to the education of a large reading public in the realities of espionage. An air of authenticity permeates his books. Whether he is describing a sunset in Lebanon, cocktails in a Berlin nightclub, the food in a Helsinki restaurant, an automobile chase through the Sahara, or a journey under the North Atlantic in a nuclear submarine, Deighton convincingly captures the atmosphere of a real place - he has been there and he takes his reader with him.
The authenticity extends to the actual business of espionage; his novels display a thorough and intimate knowledge of spies and spying, demonstrated in their action and in their detailed attention to the particulars of a specialised profession - documents, memos, technical data, learned appendices. The attention to the minutiae of spying not only lends considerable realism to his books but also suggests some of the further truths of the practice of espionage.
Spies, we see, are real people, a special kind of bureaucrat or civil servant; their activities represent a kind of institutional deceit, the normal practice of modern government in the modern world.
The intimate puzzles of Deighton's novels, full of deceptions and betrayals, are made entirely believable by Deighton's careful and interesting documentation, and at the same time made aptly symbolic of our time by their apparent universality. Espionage, a battle in the shadows, appropriately symbolises the crepuscular morality of today's vague and complicated struggles.
His protagonist [in the first five novels] is a man without a name, or rather, a man of many names; although he is the same person throughout the books, he uses a variety of pseudonyms and aliases, as if identity itself were a shifting, unknowable, or meaningless concept in the world of espionage. The anonymous narrator frequently discovers that his enemy is as difficult to identify as his friend or himself; the enemy is as likely to be German as Russian, since the fear and hatred of Nazi still haunts Europe.
More disturbing, the most serious enemy may turn out to be English, often a traitor from within his own department, sometimes a respective and privileged citizen; Deighton's agent is frequently endangered by the incompetence or the malevolence of impassioned ideologues. He usually expresses a wry recognition of the state of his nation and profession, debilitated by the futility of rank and class, the Old Boy network, the collection of ninnies, dolts and eccentrics who appear to control his life: "What chance did I stand between the Communists on the one side and the Establishment on the other." (The Ipcress File)
In fact, Deighton is the Angry Young Man of the espionage novel, with precisely the same mixture of humour and outrage as his literary predecessors over his society and its problems. The constant class battle he wages provides a considerable amount of the wit, tension, danger, complexity and charm of the novels.
Thematically and architecturally supporting the ambiguity and intricacies of the novels, the labyrinthine plots and unusual structures suggest genuine literary sophistication. The Ipcress File, shows the hero constantly a jump behind several elaborate schemes while counterpointing his adventures with his daily horoscope; Horse Under Water underlines its confusing puzzles with chapter headings that, put together, make up one of those punning crosswords that one must be British to solve.
Deighton's finest novel, Funeral in Berlin, explores the Cold War, neo-Nazism, German guilt, complicated treacheries, unifying all themes with epigraphs from a chess book; the agent is clearly a pawn moving month the conflicting space of a vast board, his job determined by the schemes of traitors, the guilt and greed of his antagonists. He succeeds in this and other novels mostly through his dedication to professionalism and through maintaining his personal integrity in the midst of betrayal and deception.
Deighton's wry and ironic recognition of the realities of espionage and the cracking energy that motivates his fiction place him in the first rank of spy novelists. He writes thrillers that are witty, thoughtful, authentic, and entertaining, a rare combination of merits. Together with his "straight" novels, his thrillers deserve careful reading; his work rewards study and inspires affection.
He is a writer to be cherished and enjoyed, one of the most interesting novelists in England today."
This analysis by Fred Erisman is from 1977 and considers how Deighton as an author uses romantic imagery and ideas to propel the narrative.
The article is not strictly speaking about how Deighton writes supporting female characters, to propel his narratives. There is amorous romance in his books and, largely speaking, they are managed well. Deighton, like many spy thriller writers of his era, wrote mostly about male characters and his leads were, inevitably men. This reflected of course the reality of the espionage world at the time so is perfectly understandable. Much like in the Bond movies, female characters could sometimes be ephemeral and after-thoughts, though often integral to the plot. However, unlike John Le Carré - whom critics believe does not write female characters at all well - Deighton's treatment of the female perspective in his novels is reasonably effective (and certainly became more so in his Game, Set and Match triple trilogy in which the co-lead character, Fiona Samson, proves the equal of her spy husband Bernard).
No, rather Erisman is considering romantic allusion in its broadest sense, arguing that in spy fiction, the protagonist will often assume the idea of the child from Romantic fiction - personal, intellectual and emotional individualism - which are often key characteristics of many spy characters. He rather well brings out broad psychological and fictional themes in Deighton's first five novels which are archetypical of the spy genre: the idea of the hero on a quest, for example; or the corruption of friendship, an inevitable consequence of the lack of trust the spy will encounter at every turn.
He brilliantly describes the world of Deighton's spy as "evanescent," a world in which nothing is permanent and little is trustworthy. It is a world of chaos, in which the protagonist never really knows who he or anybody else is (witness the denouement to The Ipcress File).
Overall, this is a very prescient and considered analysis of the spy archetype as reflected by Deighton's 'spy with no name' (aka Harry Palmer).
As highlighted above, Deighton was one of the pioneers of bringing the spy fiction genre into the suburbs.
This text is an academic summary by Professor Janice Morphet of University College London looking at the shift of the focus of the Cold War in fiction from the city centre to the outer suburbs.
Interestingly, Morphet is a planning specialist, not a literature or fiction writer. Her aim in this short paper is to understand the role the suburbs have increasingly played in the psyche of British citizens over the last half century or more - most people in the UK still live in suburbs or small conurbations around a few big cities - and then, more specifically, how this shift in the landscape is reflected in the fictional narratives around the Cold War, as evidenced in the works of John Le Carré and Len Deighton.
She makes the point that, in contrast to earlier spy thrillers and Fleming's Bond - who was very much a cosmopolitan, worldly spy - the characters portrayed by Le Carré and Deighton are products of the suburbs, which are - she writes - places in which one can escape or hide, the perfect hiding place, perhaps, for spies and spymasters. She makes the point that both novels reinforced the growing idea that spies could be 'anywhere', they could be on the train seat next to you in the morning or in your local shop. In this way, the tension and paranoia inherent in the spy thriller genre is increased.
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