Ipcress File, UK first edition, 1962
The mysterious narrator (later renamed ‘Harry Palmer’ by the producers of the subsequent hit move) works for British secret service department W.O.O.C.(P). and must get to the bottom of the mysterious disappearance of some of Britain’s top biochemists. They are being held captive by a mysterious freelance agent known only as ‘Blue-jay’. In the search for the missing scientists, the novel takes us from London to the Lebanon via a pacific atoll used for testing atomic weapons and - it appears - to Eastern Europe.
With each chapter we learn more about the hero. He is from Burnley, and has a chippy attitude towards his public-school educated colleagues. He's constantly worried about his expenses. He knows his way around a kitchen. And he has an eye for the women.
Captured and apparently imprisoned in Albania, our protagonist is forced to sit through the latest in psychological torture device based on the technique of 'Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under strESS' - IPCRESS! His resolve is tested to the limit.
Close to breaking point, he escapes from his imprisonment and determines to track down the mysterious figure behind the treachery, who it emerges is much closer to home than he originally thought. Who can he really trust?
Why it’s enjoyable
The novel that started it off for Deighton was a smash hit, and that’s mostly because it was so different from what had gone before. Also, the character of the narrator, and his spiky relationship with his superiors (and the sense he’s not whiter-than-white) give real depth to a cracking spy story which is at times quite complicated to follow.
The introduction of a spy who defies normal conventions about loyalty and obeying orders represents, arguably, the start of the modern spy genre and provided a counterpoint on the page (and in the cinema) to Ian Fleming's establishment figure of James Bond. There were certainly critics at the time who were happy to use Harry Palmer as a stick with which to beat Ian Fleming's Bond.
'"You are loving it here of course," Dalby asked.
"I have a clean mind and pure heart. I get eight hours' sleep every night. I am a loyal, dilligent 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.
"Go ahead," I said. "I can use a laugh - my eyes have been operating twenty-four frames per second for the last month."'
From an aesthetic point of view, the covers of the 'secret file' books are arguably some of the most famous - and beautiful - examples of the book illustrator's art. They were prepared for Deighton by his art school friend Raymond Hawkey and set the standard for the genre.
There was much consternation from the publishers about Hawkey's use of predominantly white for the cover, as this was generally frowned upon up to that point by publishers, because it got dirty easily. However, Deighton insisted, and made the right decision given the universally positive reaction to the cover.
The book was serialised in London's Evening Standard newspaper.