Thursday, 4 December 2003

Len Deighton: The Ipcress File (1962)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965
Review number: 1201

In today's thrillers, we have come to expect that the heroes are likely to be flawed, disillusioned characters. Go back a few decades, and all that was different. I'm talking straight thrillers, here, not detective stories; a significant source for the change to the the thriller genre was the hardboiled detective school of fiction. Graham Greene was probably the writer who introduced this style to the spy story, but Len Deighton was not far behind. followed in his turn by John le Carré.

Spies also tended to be upper class (think James Bond), and it was really Deighton who popularised the alternative. Harry Palmer (the narrator, not actually named in this novel) is a bright man with a good war record, who has had a successful postwar career in intelligence (at the beginning of the novel, he is about to become second in command of a powerful department). Yet he has an obvious chip on his shoulder; he says things like "Ross was a regular officer [i.e. a gentleman]; that is to say he didn't ... hit ladies without first removing his hat." The whole of the novel - and its sequels - makes the narrator's constant sneering at the upper classes a major feature, something which must have seemed quite revolutionary in the Britain of 1962. (It was, after all, the year in which the prosecuting lawyer in the Chatterley trial could say, "Is this a book you would want your servants to read?")

The plot seems at the start to be standard sixties spy thriller fare, as Palmer starts investigating some mysterious defections and strange behaviour among senior British scientists. It turns into an attempt to frame Palmer as a traitor, a charge which in those post-Burgess and MacLean days he can only refute by uncovering the colleague who is really in the pay of the other side. The Ipcress File is one of the earlier spy novels with a betrayal scheme, even if it is an extremely familiar plot to readers of Deighton and Le Carré's later novels.

While many of the positive features of The Ipcress File became staples of the spy thriller genre, making them now seem less innovative, it still has nice touches all of its own. The ironic chapter headings, supposedly Harry Palmer's newspaper horoscope for the day, form one which I particularly liked. The Ipcress File is a paramount classic of the genre, establishing the mould for hundreds of imitators ever since, both as novels and in film.

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