The Ipcress file (Len Deighton) – a review

the-ipcress-file

This is as cool as you can get in spy novels. Before black rimmed glasses became fashionable vintage items, there was Michael Caine and this story about the Cold War, brain-washing and Gauloises cigarrettes.

The appeal of Deighton’s novel lies in a blend of wisecracks, a mysterious plot and its protagonist, the cheeky cockney Harry Palmer (although that is his name in the film, the narrator of the book remains unnamed). Palmer is as distant as you can get to George Smiley and smokes far too much to overshadow Bond, but he is always several paces ahead of the bad guys and gets to travel to really cool places.

The plot is Cold War stuff from beginning to end, but Deighton sets himself apart from Fleming and le Carré. There is nothing of the dark, brooding style of le Carré’s novels, far from it Deighton’s characters are real in a way that makes the action in the novel the sort of stuff you would expect from day-to-day spies. And although Palmer is very arrogant in his own humble way, he is not on a par with James Bond, let alone the gadgets and the almost supernatural powers.

Deighton’s style shows that he was a publicist, or more precisely an illustrator by trade. Some of his descriptions of particular moments in the story (the safe house in Lebanon, the American restaurant in the atoll) are colourful, powerful snapshots, ready to be used as advertisements for some trendy drink.

Palmer is both unassuming and clever, cheeky and almost an erudite, sophisticated when it comes to food but never flamboyant. The spy who came in from the cool.

 

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