Friday, 23 January 2004

Len Deighton: Billion-Dollar Brain (1966)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1966
Review number: 1214

The fourth Harry Palmer novel (in which he is still an unnamed narrator; the name was given him for the films) is the most dated of all of them. It relies on a plot device straight from James Bond or even The Man From UNCLE - the network of agents run by a computer. The novel begins with a Finnish journalist making waves when he starts investigating what he thinks is a massive British Secret Service operation in Finland - but there isn't one, so Palmer and his superiors want to find out just what he has stumbled across. The trail leads to a private army, assembled by a rabidly anti-Communist American billionaire, whose technicians have built the computer (in typical sixties style, one which fills several floors of a large building) to run the group's operations.

In the end, the computer is relatively unimportant, but it certainly does mark out Billion-Dollar Brain as a product of its time. As a spy thriller, though, the novel is something of a let-down for other reasons, which may well be why Deighton abandoned his Palmer character at this point. Indeed, it seems as though he has already, because almost all the quirkiness which marks the earlier novels is by now missing. By comparison with the earlier writing, it fails to be more than a run of the mill spy thriller. While still of the opinion that this is Deighton's poorest novel, it doesn't seem as bad this time around as I remember it (the computer plays a smaller part than I recalled, which may be part of the reason that this is the case). Nevertheless, it is still at least as good as its forgotten contemporaries - of which it would probably have been one without Deighton's name attached.

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