Friday, 21 May 2004

Len Deighton: Spy Story (1974)

Edition: Triad, 1975
Review number: 1238

After a sequence of novels which are each in some way different from everything else he had written, Spy Story is Len Deighton's return to basics. It could almost be another sequel to The Ipcress File - it even shares several characters. (It is actually listed on Fantastic Fiction as one of the Harry Palmer novels, but the narrator is named, and isn't Palmer.)

Pat Armstrong, the narrator, works in wargaming, using the latest intelligence about Soviet military deployment with the help of what are now extremely primitive computers. When his car breaks down at night and he is unable to find a phone, he uses a key he still has to let himself into his old flat to make the call from there - only to find he has apparently continued to live there: and his family photos around the flat now show him with a slightly altered appearance. He is clearly at the centre of an elaborate plot of some kind, but the question is what, exactly?

This is by now familiar territory to readers of spy fiction - hence the throwaway title - but few writers have ever covered this ground as expertly as Deighton. The tone is bleaker than the earlier Harry Palmer novels, but then the optimistic sixties have long passed. There is still humour here, though; less of it and less obvious, but still present. For a thriller, there isn't a great deal of action and a lot of what there is happens off stage. Spy Story is more subtle than most spy thrillers; Deighton's interest isn't in staging stunts but in the relationships between agents of various types and the politics of the interactions between different agencies, British and American, which is perhaps a slight shift from his earlier writing in the genre. This is a chance to lie back and relish vintage Len Deighton, at a slightly slower pace.

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