Ipcress File, UK first edition, 1962

Horse Under Water - 1963

Plot summary

Our anonymous secret agent from The Ipcress File is now working with his boss, Dawlish, of W.O.O.C.P., whom we first encountered in the first book.

The plot centres around the retrieval of items from a German Type XXI U-boat sunk off the Portuguese coast. At first glance, this is just forged British and American currency used for financing a revolution in Portugal; our unnamed hero is first required to undertake an extensive navy diving course to help with his investigation.

Later, he discovers heroin (which explains the title, 'Horse' being a euphemism for the drug). In subsequent chapters, the narrator reveals that the true treasure is a secret list of Britons who were prepared to help the Third Reich set up a puppet government in Britain, should Germany have prevailed.

Developing a theme which would feature in many of Deighton's books, our hero is concerned with safeguarding the secrets behind new military technologies; in this case, secret 'ice melting' technology, which could be vital to the missile submarines which in the 'sixties were beginning to hide under the Arctic sea ice (a theme Deighton returned to in Spy Story).

Why its enjoyable

Multiple plots twists in the same manner of The Ipcress File mean that for some readers things only become really clear on the second or third reading. The unusual setting for a cold-war spy novel of Salazar's Portugal is an interesting touch, as it was really off the beaten path for the Cold War.

The gritty dialogue of the main character is now familiar to readers and remains one of the attractive aspects of the novel: Deighton does dialogue very, very well. The crossword motif (early copies had a competition crossword slipped in - see the picture) reflects the protagonist’s habit of constantly doing the crossword and is repeated at the start of each chapter, the questions each giving a clue to what happens next.

Sample dialogue

'"I hear you have a sexy little secretary tucked away in London, darling."

"I wouldn't say sexy," I said, "she has two kids, three chins and five per cent of the gross. She drinks like a fish and cooks the sort of food advertised on television." Charly gave a high-pitched giggle. "You nasty old liar, you left a photo of her in your shirt last week. I know what she's like."

"Do you wash our shirts, too?" I said:

"Well, of course I do, who do you think does your laundry? But don't change the subject. I've got the photo of your secretarial sex-bomb and what's more I can see the glint of matrimony at fifty paces."

"Fifty paces from you is close enough," I said.'

Related facts

This is the only one of the 'unnamed spy' novels of Deighton not made into a film. A movie was planned by producer Harry Saltzman for 1968, but the poor reception of Billion Dollar Brain, and the contoversial subject matter meant the idea was shelved permanently.

However, a soundtrack to an imagined film version of Horse Under Water has been made. Check out why two British musicans chose to use music to tell the story in the novel.

As part of the marketing push for the book, each first edition of the novel carried a laid-in blank crossword competition, the clues for which were in the crosswords in the endpapers of the book.

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