When I was a teenager back in the 1960s I was a huge fan of American crime thrillers and British spy thrillers. I was weaned on Ian Fleming and I later read Graham Greene and John le Carre.
I also read another British spy thriller writer named Len Deighton. Today is his birthday. He is 89.
Unlike the other British spy writers, Deighton’s unnamed spy hero in his first series of thrillers was an overweight, working-class smart aleck. When Michal Caine starred as the spy in the film versions of The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain, the producers called him Harry Palmer.
Over the years I’ve read nearly all of Deighton’s novels, including his WWII military novels and his clever alternative history novel, SS-GB, which takes place in a post-WWI Briton that the Nazis have defeated and now occupy.
Last February, when the BBC offered a TV series based on SS-GB, the Telegraph republished Jake Kerridge's interview with Len Deighton from 2009.
Deighton is famously publicity-shy, and I did wonder whether getting to interview him would be what the acronym-loving secret service bureaucrats of his early spy novels would call a high D of C (Difficulty of Completion) mission. But here he is, relaxed, jolly, indecently sprightly for a man who will celebrate his 80th birthday this week, and quietly pleased that HarperCollins will, from June, be reissuing several of his novels (with new cover designs by his old friend, the Oscar-winning documentary-maker Arnold Schwartzman), culminating in a golden jubilee edition of The Ipcress File in 2012.
“I was on holiday, I was restless, I started this story, then I put it to one side and got on with my life. And then I met a guy at a party and he said ‘I’m a literary agent.’ He was a literary agent like I was a writer, to tell you the truth.” Jonathan Clowes, his agent to this day, sold what became The Ipcress File to Hodder & Stoughton.
“It might have sunk without a ripple but Harry Saltzman had just made the first Bond film [Dr No, 1962] and it did very well, but that was really because the critics used me as a blunt instrument to beat Ian Fleming over the head.” Saltzman bought the film rights to Ipcress, and Deighton found himself a professional author.
His first four novels are a wonderful mixture of the exciting and the amusingly humdrum, narrated by an unnamed working-class intelligence officer from Burnley who spends as much time trying to reclaim his expenses as he does searching for kidnapped scientists.
His Eton- and Oxbridge-educated superiors are usually incompetent – “what chance did I stand between the communists on the one side and the establishment on the other” – or treacherous. Much is made of the fact that he is overweight: in Billion Dollar Brain (1966) he is told he has been chosen to go on a mission to Helsinki because he is “the one best protected against cold”. Well, James Bond may be thinner, but so is his dialogue.
Deighton doesn’t see the character as an anti-hero, and stresses that he is a romantic, incorruptible figure in the mould of Philip Marlowe. “This is not the way it is now. Modern fiction is not so keen to guard the integrity of our heroes… When I started writing I had rules. One was that violence must not solve the problem, and I cannot have the hero overcome violence with a counterweight of violence.”
He hopes new readers will “get a laugh” out of his books. Does he think other spy writers are too solemn? “It’s difficult to be sure sometimes what is intended humour and what is unintended, isn’t it?”
… Deighton admits he felt bad that he did not predict how brilliant his friend Michael Caine would be as the hero (newly christened Harry Palmer) in the 1965 film of The Ipcress File; Harry H Corbett was his choice for the role. By this time Deighton was famous. He was seduced by the celebrity lifestyle for a period (becoming the travel editor of Playboy), but soon swore off interviews and parties: “Two things destroy writers: praise and alcohol.”
… “I’m seriously thinking if I can persuade my wife to live in Japan.” Any other ambitions? “I’ve always wanted to land a jet on a carrier. But I’m content. Nobody could have had a happier life than I’ve had.”
You can read the rest of the piece via the below link:
You can also read Len Deighton’s piece on his meeting with fellow thriller writer Ian Fleming (Deighton is on the left in the above photo and Fleming is in the center) via the below link: