Tuesday, 10 February 2004

Len Deighton: Only When I Larf (1968)

Edition: Sphere, 1968 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1220

At this point in his career, Deighton seems to have been searching for a new direction. The three novels and the short story collection - An Expensive Place to Die, Only When I Larf, Bomber and Declarations of War - which include Deighton's effective abandonment of his Harry Palmer character are the most diverse of his career. Only When I Larf is the only one of his novels, for example, which could be classified as a comic thriller. (His other works may have comic elements, but here the comedy takes centre stage.) So Only When I Larf and the short stories of Declarations of War mark dead ends, as Deighton never wrote anything like either of them again.

Only When I Larf (joke answer to the question "When does it hurt?") is the story of three confidence tricksters: Silas, an upper class older man whose distinguished war record hid the beginnings of his criminal career; Bob, young and working class, and tired of always playing subordinate roles; and Liz, Silas' girlfriend, whose beauty is often an important part of building up a relationship with the mark. The novel is told from the point of view of each of these characters in turn, a device which enables Deighton to clearly show the reader the development of tensions between the trio, which gradually build throughout the story, especially after a big con goes badly wrong.

In most of Deighton's novels, the prevailing atmosphere is one of cynicism, leavened with satirical black humour. Here, the proportions are reversed, though the humour is not as amusing as the nuggets in, say, The Ipcress File. What drives the plot is the combination of different kinds of differences between Silas and Bob (temperament, generational and class); Liz is a peripheral observer of the friction between the two of them.

I can see why the comedy was something Deighton wanted to try, with humour playing an important part in the earlier novels; and I can see why he never made it quite so central again. There is a bitterness to Only When I Larf which makes it hard to like as a comedy, and much though I admire some of the ideas in it and the way it is written, it will never be one of my favourite Len Deighton novels.

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