Wednesday, 17 December 2003

Len Deighton: Horse Under Water (1963)

Edition: Penguin, 1965
Review number: 1205

When The Ipcress File was such a huge success - it became an instant classic, and almost immediately a hit film - there must have been a great deal of interest in the follow-up. In fact, it plays safe, and is more of the same - a straight sequel. Indeed, throughout his career, despite occasional experimentation in novels such as Bomber and SS-GB, Deighton tended to return again and again to the disillusioned spy story of the type which made his name.

Harry Palmer is once again the narrator, of a story of treachery which has its roots in Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists and the activities of several of its members during the war as well as the international drug trade (the "horse" of the title being, of course, heroin). Many things are much the same (down to Palmer's continued ineptitude for crosswords). But Horse Under Water is no Ipcress File; it is slower and more obvious, giving the reader time to wonder about things they shouldn't think about when reading a thriller (such as why a senior figure like Palmer, an expert in international financial dealings, is the operative sent on a diving course so he can search a sunken U-boat off the coast of Portugal - surely a job for an experienced diver and a more junior officer). There is something of afeeling of a lost age, too - a time when the best known fact about Málaga was its bombardment during the Spanish Civil War. Even so, Horse Under Water is not as dated as many other spy novels of the sixties and seventies.

It is not really to be expected that Deighton's second novel would be equal to such an explosive début as The Ipcress File, and Horse Under Water is constantly good enough not to be a disappointment.

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