Happy 80th Birthday, Len Deighton
And in honor of the occasion, as well as HarperCollins UK’s plans to reissue several books starting this summer, the “famously publicity-shy” spy novelist sat down with the Telegraph’s Jake Kerridge for a wide-ranging interview on his career, which began with the 1962 publication of THE IPCRESS FILE right around the time a little film named DR. NO put spy fiction on the map in a big, big way. Kerridge writes:
amusingly humdrum, narrated by an unnamed working-class intelligence officer
from Burnley who spends as much time trying to reclaim his expenses as he
does searching for kidnapped scientists. His Eton- and Oxbridge-educated
superiors are usually incompetent – “what chance did I stand between the
communists on the one side and the establishment on the other” – or
treacherous. Much is made of the fact that he is overweight: in Billion
Dollar Brain (1966) he is told he has been chosen to go on a mission to
Helsinki because he is “the one best protected against cold”. Well, James
Bond may be thinner, but so is his dialogue.
Deighton doesn’t see the character as an anti-hero, and stresses that he is a
romantic, incorruptible figure in the mould of Philip Marlowe. "This is not
the way it is now. Modern fiction is not so keen to guard the integrity of
our heroes … When I started writing I had rules. One was that violence must
not solve the problem, and I cannot have the hero overcome violence with a
counterweight of violence."
Indeed, Deighton hopes his readers will “get a laugh” out of his work (an antidote to the often gloomy and taciturn tone of much spy fiction, necessary as it might be) but is also somewhat disdainful about prizes: “To allow someone to give you a knighthood is to admit that
there is someone who is allowed to appraise you on a scale which you are
going to agree with. The audacity of it!”
I’m glad to see renewed interest in Deighton because it always seemed something of a shame his work became neglected over the years. And if Deighton can be revived, why not, say, Helen MacInnes?
UPDATE: Jeremy Duns, whose first novel FREE AGENT comes out this July over here, writes a Deighton appreciation for the Guardian Books Blog:
Now is the perfect moment for a Deighton revival. In the current
political climate, his novels – particularly his cold war spy stories –
act as a refresher course in what happened last time round. Unlike John
le Carré's work, they don't make for bleak or melancholic reading, and
are often rather jaunty in tone. But running through them is a deep
mistrust and cynicism of the powers that be. His protagonists are
anti-authoritarian, laconic, past their best, bitter and seething at
the absurdity of their business.
The books have one foot in the
realist camp of the espionage genre, in the tradition of Eric Ambler
and Graham Greene, depicting the spy game as a bureaucratic muddle. But
Deighton was often very funny, and he had a way of nailing the
atmosphere concisely. In An Expensive Place to Die (1967), a courier
from the British embassy passes the narrator a dossier and asks him to
read it and hand it back while he waits. "It's secret?" asks our hero.
No, the courier tells him – the photocopier's bust and this is his only