Spy Story, UK first edition, 1974

Spy Story - 1974

Plot summary

Patrick Armstrong is a specialist in Soviet nuclear submarine tactics, employed at the Studies Centre in London. Is this the narrator from the first five unnamed spy novels?

There are clues that suggest he might be the same man: he meets Dawlish with whom he worked previously. Dawlish says: "New name, new job, the past gone forever...But you can't wipe the slate clean. You can't forget half your life." The character is described as in his late thirties. This uncertainty may be down as much to the publisher’s marketing as anything planned by Deighton, given the obvious temptation to encourage readers to think they were reading a sequel to The Ipcress File and other books.

However, in the introduction to the Jubilee edition, Deighton confirms that: "Patrick Armstrong is not the man from The Ipcress File, although he's obviously a close relative." A deliberately ambigous answer, perhaps (see below).

In any case, our hero has left W.O.O.C.(P). and is employed in the centre analysing possible scenarios of Soviet agression involving their Arctic submarine fleet. He has put his sometimes nefarious past behind him and he has a new woman, Marjorie, living with him and a new friend in Ferdy Foxwell, as well as the adversary Colonel Stok from the earlier novels and a new boss, US Colonel Schlegel. None of them is as straightforward as they appear to be.

After discovering his flat has been turned over by Colonel Stok, Armstrong discovers that a Conservative MP and Foxwell have been conspiring to arrange the defection of Soviet Admiral Remoziva but are secretly planning to discredit him in order to put pressure on his sister who is in charge of talks to unify Germany.

The final scene plays out on the Arctic ice, when the planned mission does not turn out as everyone on the US and UK sides was hoping.

Why it's enjoyable

It’s interesting now to read a novel ostensibly about the power of computers and to read about old languages like FORTRAN and spooled discs etc, with the hindsight that comes from living in the Internet age.

The book involves all the classic Cold War elements: submarines, imminent nuclear threat, military intelligence, double agents. It is not the regarded as one of the best of Deighton's even, even though it was deemed popular enough to be made into a film. It is the first novel with US-UK characters joining forces on intelligence, perhaps reflecting the steady decline of the UK at the time as an independent power.

Sample dialogue

'"I don't want to become part of a big organization again. Especially not a government department. I don't want to be just another pawn."

"Being a pawn," said Dawlish, "is just a state of mind."'

Related facts

The story was adapted into a film in 1976, with the Pat Armstrong character played by Michael Petrovich. Even without the knowledge that Armstrong isn't the same character as the unnamed spy from the first five novels (and three films) it is easy to see why, without Michael Caine's characterisation from the earlier films, the movie didn't work on many levels - though it is quite diverting.

In the silver jubilee edition of Spy Story, Deighton gives final confirmation that Patrick Armstrong is not Harry Palmer: "One thing is clear. Patrick Armstrong is not the man from The Ipcress File, although he's obviously a close relative."

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