Key themes and tropes

Food and good living

As a gourmand and chef Len Deighton has often used food to signify important roles in his writing. 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 stands in stark contrast to the prevailing dreadfulness of British food appreciation and preparation, characterised by Brown Windsor Soup.

In the film of the book, 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 sneers. "If you want button mushrooms, they're better value on the next shelf," he replies. "It's not just the label. These have a better flavour." "You're quite the gourmet, aren't you Palmer?" his boss retorts, hinting at the fact that ‘gourmet’ was on a par with homosexual in the ‘sixties society, as evidenced by the sneering manner of this remark!

Before the 'sixties it was very much the woman's job to be in the kitchen. So when Deighton's spy returns home to cook his girlfriend a meal, that was a real statement of social change. It 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 this first key character he developed.

Even in the '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. Food is both counterpoint and metaphor in many scenes of Deighton's fiction.

The class system and its impact on organisational management

The relationships of Britain’s working classes with their ‘betters’ - especially the middle classes - comes across in many his stories. In the 1960’s class consciousness broke through the self-imposed strictures of old-style deference. The cultural scene 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.

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.

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 prevelance of graduates from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge ... graduates like 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."

The ‘poor bloody infantry’

The relationship between those on the front line and the ‘top brass’ - in both wartime and its peacetime equivalent in the security services - crops up in most of his novels and histories. His writing communicates his desire that those in positions of power need greater scrutiny than those they send to be killed. In peacetime too, Bernard Samson’s moans 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. His 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.

These themes are best explored in his book Declarations of War, 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, as distinct from those of the top brass back at HQ.

Bureaucracy and office politics

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). appear more like firms of accountants than the nerve centres of the Cold War. The men in charge are often not as perfect or as trustworthy as they might initially seem: characters such as Colonel Ross or Silas Gaunt seem shifty and sly. 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.

Grumblings of the 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. In some of Deighton's dialogue one feels he is drawing on his own experiences of the workplace, and it is evident he never quite mastered the art of office politics. 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 guy 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.

The spy thriller as suburban drama

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. Janice Morphet of UCL identifies Deighton's Ipcress File as one of the books which protrayed a narrator to which a wider audience could relate.

Certainly in the unnamed spy novels there was no sense that the narrator was anything but lower middle class, living alone in a small flat and cooking for himself. 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. He becomes, in a sense, a commuter spy, for whom much of the work can seem dull and routine, as a result of being 'desk bound' for four years.

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