Billion Dollar Brain (Secret File no. 4) - 1966

Unnamed spy novels

Plot summary

A billionaire Texan, stolen virus-filled eggs, saunas and an army driving across a frozen sea: all the imponderable elements of a race against time for ‘Harry Palmer', the unnamed spy who remains our narrator for this story.

Employed on a freelance basis for the department W.O.O.C.(P)., he is working again for Dawlish, his boss from the earlier books, which guarantees some wonderful caustic exchanges. In this story, he is asked to infiltrate a far-right organisation called Facts for Freedom, led by a Texan general called Midwinter.

The latter is set on bringing down the USSR by creating civil war in one of the Baltic states forced into the Soviet Union, through using the world’s most sophisticated computer to control a Latvian spy network.

Making contact with an old friend, Harvey Newbegin, who now works for Midwinter, Harry uncovers the gap between the General's plans and the reality on the ground, a gap exploited by his old adversary Colonel Stok.

Why it's enjoyable

In the 'sixties, the sort of computations that Midwinter's computer (the 'Brain' of the book's title) was doing were revolutionary; now, of course, a mobile phone could do it! But in the 'sixties, this was the future of spying and a sign of the increasingly technological path which the Cold War would take.

With the introduction of the significant character Harvey Newbiggin, the narrator's old friend from the field, you start to get a fuller picture of the latter's character through seeing the sort of friends and colleagues he’s kept over the years. The reader also gets further hints at his dubious past.

Sample dialogue

'He munched into one of Wally's salt-beef sandwiches and said, "You know what they'll do next?" No sir," I said, and really meant it.

"They will send you to school." He nodded to reinforce his theory. "When they do, accept. It's got seeds in," he said. Dawlish was staring at me in a horrified, faintly maniacal way. I nodded. Dawlish said, "If I've told him a thousand times."

"Yes sir," I said.

Dawlish flipped the switch on his intercom. "If I've told him once I've told him a thousand times. I don't like that bread with seeds in."

Alice's voice cam through the box with all the dignity of a recording. "One round on white, one round on rye with seeds. You have eaten the wrong ones."

I said, "I don't like caraway seeds either." Dawlish nodded at me so I said it again at the squawk-box, louder and more defiantly this time.'

Related fact

Raymond Hawkey's silver front cover gives the title of the book as Billion Dollar Brain, but the title in the facing paper of the book itself is Billion-Dollar Brain, with a hyphen. The movie version of the film also lacks this hyphen. It's not clear where this difference arises from, but it looks like a simple error.

For the pre-launch publicity, publishers Jonathan Cape sent out to booksellers an envelope - from Finland - which contained a facsimile letter from Deighton. This accompanied a notebook containing sketches and notes he'd made when writing the novel, together with an Aeroflot baggage ticket, a ferry ticket and a ticket for Othello at the Helsinki Opera. This is incredibly rare, as it was never on commercial sale and only a limited number were produced.

BillionDollarBrain

Billion Dollar Brain, UK first edition, 1966

Did you know?

The image on the soldier is of the photographer who worked with designer Ray Hawkey to develop the front cover. The photograph was taken at the offices of Honeywell, the computer company; their latest model is in the background