Len Deighton


Len Deighton was born in Marylebone in London on 18 February 1929 in a workhouse. His father was a chauffeur and his mother a chef for a well-to-do London family. Anthony Master, in his book Literary Agents, writes that Deighton's interest in spy fiction may have been partially inspired by the arrest of Anna Wolkoff, which he witnessed as an 11-year-old boy; his family lived close by and his mother did cleaning jobs for Ms Wolkoff. Wolkoff was a British citizen of Russian descent who was in fact a Nazi spy. (Click here to read Len Deighton's recollection of this event).

At the age of 17, Deighton was attached to the RAF Special Investigations Branch as it offered a chance to train as a photographer and an entrée to the world of secrets and investigations. In 1949 Deighton attended St Martin's Schools of Art in London, having completed his National Service. Three years later he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, graduating in 1955.

While he was at the RCA he became a lifelong friend of fellow designer Raymond Hawkey, who later designed the covers for many of his books. These include his famous original black and white covers for the ‘spy with no name novels’. Indeed Hawkey, who died in August 2010, played a pivotal role in pushing Deighton on to the road to literary fame and fortune.

Len Deighton worked as an airline steward with BOAC (later incorporated into British Airways) after leaving colleage, wrote for magazines and illustrated over two hundred book covers. He also worked as an illustrator in New York and, in 1960, as an art director in a London advertising agency. An avid gastronome, he wrote and illustrated in 1961 a number of popular diagrammatic cookery strips for the Daily Express, which developed into a series in The Observer newspaper in 1962 thanks, again, to the initiative of Ray Hawkey.

It’s about this time that Deighton makes the shift from the picture to the written word as his chosen medium, with his first novel being written when he moved to France.

The writing takes off

His first four novels, including the best sellers The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin, feature an anonymous anti-hero. This character came to be known as 'Harry Palmer' in the films and was famously portrayed by Michael Caine. These books proved instant hits and set a new tone for the spy novel, with a working class hero who was womaniser and cook, subordinate and team member. He contrasted vividly with Ian Fleming’s Navy-officer Bond and the more traditional literary perspective of the English ‘gentleman spy’.

In the rest of the decade, Deighton wrote the screenplay of and was an uncredited producer for the 1969 film of the play Oh! What a Lovely War. This was also the period when he made continued to write on cookery and, with his London Dossier, travel. He subsequently - and fortuitously - secured the glamorous job as travel editor of Playboy for a while. The sixties is a fascinating period in Deighton’s life and career, and the cast list of famous names who passed through his kitchen - Bertrand Russell, Paul McCartney, David Frost - testifies to a novelist who was already a ‘name’ in London literary circles. 1969 was also the year Deighton left England permanently to live overseas in southern California and thereafter a number of other locations.

The Cold War years

In the '70s Deighton’s word processor (he was an early adopter of writing technology) pumped out best sellers, though he increasingly departed from the spy arena to develop new works looking at World War Two (which he had of course lived through), his interest in historical writing having been supported by renowned left-wing historian A.J.P. Taylor. Deighton's 1970 World War II historical novel Bomber, about an RAF Bomber Command raid over Germany, is considered by many critics to be his masterpiece. It was turned into a BBC Radio 4 play.

In the 1980s when the Cold War grew colder then subsequently thawed with the arrival of Gorbachev in the Kremlin, Deighton embarked on what is arguably his most ambitious and fulfilling series of novels. Conceived and presented as a trilogy, his novels about careworn working class British spy Bernard Samson - Berlin Game, Mexico Set & London Match - shook up the spy thriller genre by adding a twist: the first believable, multi-faceted female spy character Fiona Samson. These novels tied together the global stresses of the Cold War with the domestic strife of a middle class relationship stuck between competing demands.

These novels were made into a 12-part television series by Granada TV in 1988. It was shown only once and withdrawn on instruction from Deighton. These stories led to a further trilogy - Hook, Line and Sinker - which was then completed by another: Faith, Hope and Charity, written with the knowledge of what had happened after the fall of the Berlin Wall. These tied together all the loose ends which readers had followed intensely since 1983. All nine books (plus the tenth volume Winter, which filled in the backstory of many of the characters) were bestsellers in hardback and paperback and cemented Deighton's position as one of the UK's leading spy and thriller writers.

Up to the present day

The Samson series is, arguably, Deighton’s zenith, but his output was still significant. Violent Ward, set in a sleazy Los Angeles and Mamista were new departures for him and sold well. As he had little time - or, in fact, need - for the media, Len Deighton slipped from the public's consciousness when compared with the heyday of the sixties and the global success of the Game, Set & Match series. In contrast to the public awareness of Ian Fleming's Bond books and films - especially so since the relaunch of the franchise with Daniel Craig - Deighton's star (certainly in the media and online) has waned.

His last published fiction work is a 2006 novella about The Titanic, published in a collection of detective short stories called The Verdict of Us All; his last non-fiction work 2012's e-book about the origins of James Bond. He has also written a number of forewords in the last couple of years. A retrospective of the Michael Caine 'Harry Palmer' films was played at the National Film Theatre. BBC 4 broadcast in 2009 the first full career retrospective, called The Truth About Len Deighton.

Deighton has never garnered any official honour for his contribution to literature. This is not surprising; In his most recent Telegraph interview, he said: "To allow someone to give you a knighthood is to admit that there is someone who is allowed to appraise you on a scale which you are going to agree with. The audacity of it!” He doesn't seem bothered by the lack of a knighthood.

The author is still active and, at the age of 87, is effectively in retirement, splitting his time between California, Portugal and Guernsey with his Dutch second wife Ysabele and family. But he's still writing and has written two non-fiction books - on the history of the ink pen and the aero-engine - which await publication.

All content (c) Rob Mallows 2010-2016 (unless otherwise stated)