Rear-view review: The Ipcress File

Len Deighton
The Ipcress File
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1962)ipcress 01

Len Deighton has had some fantastic PR over the decades. No mention in print or on air of his spy novels is complete without a reference to how he revolutionised the espionage thriller, administering a kick in the backside to the public-school secret agent of which James Bond was the most egregious example and introducing us to a new and exciting replacement.

Working class, insolent, cool and laconic, Deighton’s unnamed protagonist (‘Harry Palmer’ in the film versions) was witty and sophisticated. In a sort of very Sixties reverse hierarchy, he had better taste in clothes, food and music than his stuck-up bosses, not despite his non-posh background but because of it.

Re-reading The Ipcress File makes clear how this account is, at best, only half-true. In what was Deighton’s first novel of any kind, involving the kidnap and brainwashing of British VIPs, his secret agent is certainly amusing and cynical, he comes from the North Country and ribs his bosses about their expensive educations. But his interest in music is limited, in cooking it is practically non-existent (although he enjoys good food) and his strongest views in the field of consumables are reserved for coffee.

Yes, he is forever having to chase back-pay and allowances, but the oft-repeated idea that here was a spy one could imagine on a picket line is nonsense. Far from being a complete outsider, the agent is effectively second in charge of a powerful intelligence unit that reports directly to the Cabinet.

Indeed, he becomes acting chief for a while and seems to be top dog by the end of the book.

For the image of a flip, sharp-dressing agent, permanently insubordinate with a murky semi-criminal past and a way with the ladies, we rely not so much on the novel as on Michael Caine’s depiction of the protagonist as Harry Palmer in the 1965 film version, a role he made his own.

In addition, it is from the film that we get the impression of a realistic, downbeat, spy thriller set almost entirely in London (for a few seconds, Caine/Palmer is on a continental sleeper train). Usually, cinema cannot resist grotesque embellishment of espionage fiction. Think of Ian Fleming’s 1955 Bond yarn Moonraker, about which I write here – the book is set entirely in the UK; the 1979 film version is set variously in California, Venice, Rio de Janeiro, the Amazon and up in space.

These roles are reversed with The Ipcress File. It is the novel that has the agent hanging out in Beirut and being sent to a US nuclear weapons test in the Pacific.

So, the agent is not as depicted by Michael Caine. Does it matter?

I don’t think it does. The hero has a character of his own, including an interest in military history and an apparently more monogamous view of relationships than one suspects is held by Harry Palmer.

The narrative at times seems a complete mess full of inexplicable happenings and turns of events, but I prefer to think this is deliberate, letting the reader experience the mind-bending confusion of living in the secret world where nothing is what it seems and even the side-agendas have side-agendas.ipcress 02

But if you mourn the absence of Palmer-like attributes and find the narrative incomprehensible, you should still read this novel for the way it brings to life the world of the early Sixties, the pre-Beatles era of steam trains, soot and the death penalty. Some of the atmosphere lingered on into the mid-1980s – I recall London offices full of typewriters, pipe smoke and jars of Maxwell House – but it was to go down before the onslaught of computers, no-smoking signs and ‘artisan coffee’.

The tale begins with the agent transferred from military intelligence to the aforementioned special unit, working for a Mr Dalby.

Dalby’s place is in one of those sleazy long streets in the district that would be Soho, if Soho had the strength to cross Oxford Street … I said ‘Hello, Alice,’ and she nodded and busied herself with a Nescafe tin and a ruinous cup of warm water.

He has just bid farewell to his former chief, Ross.

Ross and I had come to an arrangement of some years’ standing – we had decided to hate each other. Being English, this vitriolic relationship manifested itself in oriental politeness … Ross was a regular officer; that is to say he didn’t drink gin after 7.30 pm or hit ladies without first removing his hat.

A sly allusion to police corruption suggests Deighton was better informed than 99 per cent of the population at that time.

The manager gave me a close scrutiny but decided I wasn’t from West End Central [police station]. I suppose I didn’t look wealthy enough.

There is some class-related friction in these pages.

‘You are a bit stupid, and you haven’t had the advantage of a classical education.’
Dalby was having a little genteel fun with me. ‘But I am sure you will be able to overcome your disadvantages.’
‘Why think so? You never overcame your advantages.’


‘[A]nd anyway, we didn’t want to risk them “bumping you off”, did we?’ Dalby used expressions like ‘bumping off’ when he spoke to me. He thought it helped me to understand him.

We learn that the last word in new technology, an IBM computer, is the foundation of Dalby’s Whitehall power base.

[I]t enabled us to have files of information around which no-one could correlate except with the machine set the correct way.

Spoiler alert, but Dalby turns out to be a wrong ‘un, in league with the people behind the brainwashing racket which, in turn, is designed to ‘sell’ the reconditioned VIPs to the Soviet Union.

Deighton is far too keen to show us he has done his homework, with not only lengthy expositions in the narrative on the science of nuclear weapons and the induction of psycho-neuroses that is key to the brainwashing but an appendix containing yet more extraneous information.

But any faults aside, this remains a terrific book that fully justifies its enduring reputation, even if the unnamed narrator isn’t Harry Palmer.

Or is he? The agent changes planes at Fiumicino Airport in Rome.

I was killing a minute with the paperbacks when I heard a soft voice say, ‘Hello Harry.’
Now my name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it ever had been.


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