He had a great and devastating sense of humor that illuminated dark corners and prevented him getting a senior position.”
Published and set in 1962, Len Deighton’s debut novel follows an unnamed British intelligence officer as he tries to thwart the efforts of his meddlesome Soviet counterpart. Within the genre Deighton’s works are purportedly thinking-men's, more realistic, alternatives to Bond novels. I indirectly wondered a few paragraphs ago if that distinction wasn’t more earned by John le Carré. But as I mentally work through this contest, the realist aspects of spy fiction might actually, or at least seemingly, be championed by Deighton. Le Carré’s writing is melancholy and overtly deep-thought provoking, literary. Literary is a vague description but most avid readers will understand what I’m trying to say – Le Carré’s novels, even when narrated in first person, are narrated in artful prose. Because of this, Le Carré’s storytelling may come across as markedly more adorned than what one might expect of hard-boiled spies. I say may come across because Le Carré himself was a spy in MI5 and MI6, which incontrovertibly means that at least one real spy thinks the way Le Carré writes.
Deighton’s less flowery exposition perhaps just gives off a convincing illusion of realism. The IPCRESS File contains several matter-of-fact descriptions of spy craft including:
Jean was doing a thing that men agents have to learn, but most women do naturally. She stood back and let the conversation move between the others, listening or guiding as needed.”
‘ 'When the end is lawful the means are also lawful,' I answered."
‘A spy has no friends’ people say; but it’s more complex than that. A spy has to have friends, in fact many sets of friends. Friends he’s made by doing things and by not doing other things. Every agent has his own ‘old boy network’ and like every other ‘old boy network’ it cuts across frontiers, jobs and every other loyalty – it’s a sort of spy’s insurance policy. One has no specific arrangement with anyone, no code other than a mutual sensitivity to euphemisms.”
‘You may as well go in,’ said a tall, bespectacled city gent behind us, opening the door with a key. We went in, partly because it was convenient for us, partly because there were two more city gents behind us, and partly because they were all holding small 9mm Italian Mod 34 Beretta automatic pistols.”
I’m really nit-picking the differences between Deighton and Le Carré. One could find similar types of spy-writing in Le Carré’s many novels too. They’re contemporaries. The last of the four quotes above does highlight a certain humor unique to Deighton though. Yes, there is levity in Le Carré’s work at times, but it often takes more searching for. Deighton’s unnamed protagonist and other characters are quick to irony and sarcasm.
My mother’s eldest sister wished I was in Geneva; so did I, except that my aunt was there.”
Ross was a regular officer; that is to say he didn’t drink gin after 7.30 P.M. or hit ladies without first removing his hat”
He wore a handful of Gold Rings, a gold watch strap and a smile full of jacket crowns. It was an indigestible smile – he was never able to swallow it.”
Do you know, in Afghanistan a camel costs more than a wife? This old guy was sitting riding on his camel…. ‘Why aren’t you giving your wife a lift, Chas?’ I said. (We all called him Chas.) ‘No, there are minefields here near the aerodrome,’ he said. ‘You let her walk then?’ So he said, ‘Yes, it’s a very valuable camel.’”
The unnamed lead also provides spurts of comic relief with classic British self-awareness.
Ross and I had come to an arrangement of some years’ standing – we had decided to hate each other. Being English, this vitriolic relationship manifested itself in oriental politeness.”
I was sufficiently English to find it difficult to say nice things to people I really liked, and I really liked Barney.”
The IPCRESS File and its sequels are lauded by many fans as a truer-to-life-than-Bond series. From what I could find, it looks likely that this sentiment was ascribed to the books after the adapted films were overtly contrasted against Bond movies in preproduction and marketing. Ian Fleming’s Bond novels and their cinema outings are certainly more adventurous than Deighton’s tales. But again, as was John le Carré, Fleming himself was a spy, so an awful lot of credit for realism has been given to the non-former-spy author Deighton perhaps simply for the novel’s slow pacing, which may only increase the seeming realism. I’m not sure.
“Slow” isn’t a pejorative here. Good spy novels can require diligent reading (see Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.) My judgment of a slow-paced narrative is only relative anyway. The IPCRESS File moves along at exactly the speed it should. And that’s not to say that “IPCRESS” shakes all the Bond tropes, thank goodness. There’s no prototypical gadgets or dare-devilish stunts, but there are bombs, hostage situations, gourmet meals, exotic international locations, high stakes, and bedded female supporting characters.
The iced Israeli melon was sweet, tender and cold like the blonde waitress.”
Its smooth light-brown top had the sensual color of the beach at Nice, when it is covered with girls, you understand.”
Dark-skinned young men with long black hair parade along the water’s edge in bikinis almost big enough to conceal a comb.”
Jean had pancakes and a thimbleful of black coffee without mentioning calories, and went through the whole meal without lighting a cigarette. This showed virtue enough, she must have some vices.”
Americans are much too brutal while they are trying to make money, and much too sloppily sentimental and even gullible after they make it. Before: they think the world is crooked. After: they think it quaint.”
*Note: Some editions are titled with an all-capital “IPCRESS” and some are titled “Ipcress.” It is an acronym in the book, so the earlier seems more apt.