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The IPCRESS File by Len Deighton

21 April 2009

I feel as if my recent book review posts have been tilting more towards fiction than non-fiction, which is well enough for posting but does not accurately represent the current state of my book review backlog. I’ll have more than a few non-fiction works coming up soon, to balance things out a little more.

The IPCRESS File by Len Deighton

It began as a fairly routine sort of day for our hero, an unnamed young man working for British military intelligence. An important scientist, codenamed ‘Raven’, had left his house that morning and had not arrived at his workplace, and evidence seemed to suggest that Raven was the latest in a series of what appeared to be either kidnappings or defections. The mission was straightforward: take a certain plane to Lebanon, rendezvous with certain people who have certain weapons, and use the appropriate means to prevent Raven from being transported over the border into Syria in the dead of night. And the mission is successful, in the sense that Raven is brought back alive and in one piece. But why did the senior officer involved in the Lebanon raid apologise to Raven before bringing him back to London? And why are the Americans suddenly very interested in the case, and in our hero’s part in Raven’s rescue? The capture and return of Raven, it seems, are only a small part of a much larger conspiracy that our hero must unravel before he becomes the next person to leave his house in the morning and never return — and as he tells it, this conspiracy is the story behind the IPCRESS file.

The IPCRESS File was Len Deighton’s breakthrough thriller novel, published in 1962, and when compared to other espionage novels of the time it bridges the literary and stylistic gap between the Ian Fleming and John le CarrĂ© approaches to espionage fiction. The unnamed protagonist lives in a small flat in an unfashionable area of south London — where it takes 40 minutes to get a taxi, because the drivers don’t like going south of the Thames — and he takes a grim sort of pride in the fact that by education and temperament he is quite unlike the smooth-talking public-school chaps he frequently meets in his line of work. However, he has an appreciation for good food and drink, especially expensive coffees, and more than once his internal monologue despairs over the poor quality of the coffee served in his office and compares it with the kind he drinks at home. The flashy settings and sinister international plots that thrilled readers of the James Bond stories are replaced with the dimly lit Whitehall corridors and squabbles over unpaid travel vouchers more familiar to fans of George Smiley, but Deighton provides more than a few frantic chases, sinister tortures, and clever escapes from danger to keep the plot rumbling along. On the subject of the plot itself, Deighton’s writing style is Dickensian at times, particularly in the sense that he seems to takes the most pleasure in crafting interesting character types or evocative turns of phrase (such as a woman whose hairstyle has been ‘intimidated’ into place) at the expense of the greater plot. The final chapter is a massive and rather clunky information dump that even a slapdash mystery novelist might find overwhelming — the true meaning of ‘IPCRESS’, for instance, does not appear until about 20 pages before the end. The plot is there, but somehow it becomes almost secondary to the action and the lovingly descriptive passages, which may disappoint some readers who are used to more tightly crafted espionage writing. Nonetheless, Deighton’s work was one of the early examples of a plot centred on the battle between the spy-as-action-hero and the spy-as-bureaucrat, which makes it worth examining as a piece at the forefront of this particular trope.

Fans of the spy thriller genre may be more familiar with The IPCRESS File through the 1965 film of the same name, which stars Michael Caine as ‘Harry Palmer’, the name chosen for Deighton’s nameless man of action. The film provides a bit more backstory for Caine’s Harry Palmer, but it was Caine’s brisk performance in the film that truly made the role his own and provided him with his first starring role. Those who have seen the film but have never read the book might be interested to see the source material (and judge it on its own merits), while those who have never seen the book or the film will find The IPCRESS File a tortuous but quick read, as well as a classic text of mid-Cold War espionage fiction.

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