The British Spy Novel, UK First Edition paperback, 1984

The British Spy Novel, by John Atkins - 1984


This is a critical analysis of the genesis and development of the British spy novel since the nineteenth century. The author is John Atkins, who was a literary historian and reviewer who had written about sex in literature and the writers Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and J.B. Priestley.

In this book he covers the works of John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps; Ian Fleming naturally; John Le Carré, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene among others. In his chapter on Len Deighton he is somewhat dismissive of the author's overall contribution to the genre, but recognises that with the Harry Palmer novels Deighton did take the genre in a new direction.

Describing Deighton as an 'enigma', Atkins writes, 'the main puzzle about Len Deighton is that, while being such a good writer he is not even better.'

Why it's interesting

Atkins' criticisms of Deighton's writing focus on the fact that he feels Deighton has let too much of his own character and outlook bleed into his 'unnamed spy' character, as Atkins detects a strong sense of dissatisfaction in the character which he ascribes to Deighton. He is also critical of Deighton's grasp and use of detail in explaining his characters' jobs and workplaces and the organisations to which they belong - which many others see as a distinctive writing plus - arguing that all the information in his books militates against the creation of human vitality he sees as vital to fiction.

It is a thorough analysis, but a mixed bag of opinions by a writer who is certainly not a fan of Deighton's.

Sample text

'The total effect of all this information gravitates against the human vitality that is so necessary to fiction. It is too mechanical, too efficient, too exact. It becomes impossible to care about the fact of his characters because they never show signs of breaking through the master's plan, as they usually do in Greene, Le Carré and Ambler and some Freemantle. So Deighton tries to compensate with some rather glib philosophy.'

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