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||Len Deighton (b. 1929)|
British writer, best known for his labyrinthine and ironic
espionage thrillers. Along with John le Carré,
who also started his career in the early 1960s, Len Deighton has
expanded the boundaries of the genre by examining ethical and moral
problems of the Cold War. As well as his novels, Deighton has written
on food and wine and nonfiction books mostly about World War II. Unlike
le Carré, Deighton was not a former member of the Secret Intelligence
Service when he became a writer.
"Writers are frequently asked why they wrote their first book. A more interesting answer might come from asking them why they wrote their second one. Anyone can write one book: even politicians do it. Starting a second book reveals an intention to be a professional writer." (Len Deighton in 'Preface' to Horse Under Water, Silver Jubilee Edition 1987)
Leonard Cyril Deighton was born in the Marleybone district of
to Anglo-Irish parents. His father worked as a chauffeur to the family
of Campbell Dodgson, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British
Musem. During the Second World War, the Deightons moved into the
Dodgsons household. His interest in food Deighton shared with his
mother, who worked as a cook in a hotel. At school Deighton was not a
star pupil, but he tarted to visit regularly the Marylebone Reference
library when his father promised that "I won’t punish you for the
terrible reports you bring home from school if I see you reading."
The war interrupted Deighton's formal education at the Marylebone Grammar School. He was a messenger at his father's first-aid post and after leaving the school he worked as a railway clerk for some time. At the age of 17, he joined the Royal Air Force, serving as a photographer in the special investigation branch. Deighton was discharged in 1949. An Ex-Serviceman's grant for art training allowed him to enroll at St. Martin's School of Art. Later he studied at the Royal College of Art. These years also were crucial for his development as a writer. In an interview Deighton said: "I think the reason working-class people don't write books is because they are encouraged to believe that only certain people are permitted to write books."
During the 1950s, Deighton worked in a wide variety of jobs -
he was a waiter in Piccadilly, assistant pastry chef at the Royal
Festival Hall, factory manager, teacher in Brittany, illustrator in New
York, news photographer, and director of an advertising agency in
London. As a steward for the British Overseas Airway Corporation in
1956-57, he traveled to exotic locations. In 1960 Deighton married
Shirley Thompson, an illustrator. Later he lived with his family on a
farm near the Mountains of Mourne in Ireland, and in Portugal. Famously
publicity-shy, Deighton has given interviews only sporadically. "Nobody
could have had a happier life than I’ve had," Deighton said when he
celebrated his 80th birthday. With his second wife Ysabele he has
divided their time between homes in Portugal and Guernsey.
In the 1960s Deighton wrote a weekly series of illustrated
French recipes for the London Observer. His first cookbook, Action
Cook Book: Len Deighton's Guide to Eating, was published in 1965. The
(1962), was finished in France, on the remote Isle de Porquerolles. It
was published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, and became an immediate
success. "Better than Fleming," said critics. The book was translated
into several languages, among others into Finnish, and serialized in
the London Evening Standard. Ian Fleming chose it as one of his
'Books of the Year' for the Sunday
Times 1962 Christmas Selection.
Dissatisfied with his breakthrough work, Deighton started to write Horse Under Water (1963) soon after he had signed the contract for his debut novel. His publisher was not interested in reading the draft - his first book had not yet appeared - and Deighton took his manuscript to Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape. Cape remained his publisher until the 1980s.
Deighton's protagonist in the early novels is a nameless spy,
on the chessboard of worldwide intrigues. In films he is named Harry
Palmer. After a discussion with Deighton, it was decided to make Palmer
a spy who seduces women by cooking for them. His paycheck is late and
he buys his own groceries. He is more aggressive than le Carré's George
Smiley, a shadowlike member of the British foreign service, but no less
cynical or paranoid. Like Philip Marlowe, Deighton's hero has a taste
for wisecracks, which effectively cover his personal integrity. "I have
a clear mind and pure heart. I get eight hours' sleep every night. I am
loyal, diligent employee and will attempt every day to be worthy of the
trust my paternal employer puts in me." (from The Ipcress File)
With his resentment against the cultivated, Deighton's
class-conscious spy is not far from Alan Sillitoe's (Saturday Night
and Sunday Morning), John Osborne's (Look Back In Anger),
and Kingsley Amis's (Lucky Jim)
anti-heroes, who in their own way fight the establishment. When he is
asked to handle a "tricky little special assignment," he answers: "If
it doesn't demand a classical education I might be able to grope around
it." His weakness - and strength -
is that he is not corrupted in the middle of deceptions and betrayals.
In this he exhibits a trait that he shares with Philip Marlowe.
In an interview Deighton confessed, that he became a writer of
espionage after realizing that he did not know enough about police
procedure. "So I wrote my first books the way people would write
science fiction, because they gave me much more latitude to invent
situations." (New York Times, June 21. 1981) The
laconic dialogue and intricate puzzles of his novels were something new
in the 1960s. "Deighton's prose is elliptical," one critic. "It needs
to be sipped slowly to be appreciated, rather like Yellow Chartreuse."
To give his stories a convincing air of authenticity, Deighton
included in them memos, technical data, and other documents and
appendices. Deighton's gadgetry and hardware of the modern warfare and
espionage, especially computers, is not so avantgardist as in James
Bond novels, although in Billion Dollar Brain (1966) an
American millionaire has financed to build "the Brain", a computer
which controls each and every act of every agent in Latvia.
For Horse Under Water the Admiralty gave Deighton an
access to HMS Vernon, the frogman training establishment. The
publicity stunt of An Expensive Place to Die
(1967), with its set of faked "top secret documents", started to live
its own life. Eventually a Slav tried to sell the facsimiles to a
Russian working at the United Nations. Once, while doing research for
his books, Deighton
was arrested in Czechoslovakia when he neglected to renew his visa. In
the 1960s, he made the acquaintance of the Soviet military attaché in
Deighton's nameless agent continued to star in Funeral in
Berlin (1964), Billion Dollar Brain, An Expensive
Place to Die, and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (1974). All
the stories are fast-moving, the hero travels constantly from one place
to another in a labyrinth of paranoia and intrigue. And as in mystery
novels, crucial information is often withheld from the reader.
The Ipcress File was filmed in 1965, starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer; his Cockney accent was also perfect for the role. In the close shot, in which Palmer impressively cracks two eggs with one hand, Caine was replaced by Deighton, who could do the trick. Newsweek called the film as "a thinking man's 'Goldfinger'". A number of collaborators from the James Bond movies were involved in its production, including coproducer Harry Saltzman, editor Peter Hunt, production designer Ken Adam, and composer John Barry. The screenplay of the revisionist spy thriller was written by Bill Canaway and James Doran. According to an anecdote, the director Sidney J. Furie set it alight in front of the astonished actors, saying, "That's what I think of it." After this Furie wanted to borrow the script from Caine, to see what was in the first scene.
Caine played again Harry Palmer in two other films based on Deighton's novels, Funeral in Berlin, adapted into screen in 1966, and The Billion Dollar Brain, shot partly in Finland in 1967. However, in the books the hero uses only pseudonyms, we never know his real name. Deighton himself has revealed, that by the time he got to the end of his first novel, he still hadn't named his protagonist, and the publisher also left him anonymous. At one point, Deighton's narrator says in The Ipcress File that "Now my name isn't Harry, but in this business it's hard to remember whether it ever had been." The name Palmer was suggested by Caine (or according to some sources Harry Saltzman) during story conferences on Ipcress. Unlike James Bond, he is physically more vulnerable, a working-class fellow (from Burnley in the books) living in a modest apartment, undisciplined, but he gets his work done. Palmer, a "grammar school boy", doesn't respect his superiors, public-school boys, who are in fact less competent in their work than he is.
Deighton wrote the screenplay for the film Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), which was based on the satirical anti-war stage musical developed by Joan Littlewood. The title was derived from the music hall song. When Paul McCartney told Bertrand Russell that the Beatles planned to make an anti-war film, the philosopher suggested Paul to speak Deighton who was at that time developing the musical as a picture. This joint project did not work out, as Deighton recalls: "I couldn't use Beatle music as the whole point of Oh What a Lovely War was that the dialogue, words and music, were taken from those actually sung or spoken at the time of the war 1914-18. Paul explained that they wanted to be in a film with a more direct reference to modern war." (Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney by Howard Sounes, 2010) Deighton asked for his name to be removed from the film's credits, stating that what was filmed was not as he conceived it. Later he regretted the decision as "stupid and infantile".
SS-GB (1978) was an alternate worlds fantasy, in which
suffers German occupation from 1941 and a British cop tries to solve a
murder. The distace between the British and Germans is blurred. Most of
the scenes in the book were places that Deighton remembered from his
chilhood. The book was adapted for a TV mini-series (2017-), starring
Riley, Kate Bosworth, James Cosmo. "Part of me wonders if, in adapting
this 1978 novel now, the BBC is unwittingly supplying Brexit
propaganda. SS-GB may seem to be counterfactual history but it serves,
too, as allegory of the all-too-real German domination Theresa May will
trigger article 50 to escape." (Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian, 20 February 2017)
His own experiences at the Royal Air Force Deighton utilized in thrillers about World War II air combat. Bomber (1970) describes a night right over Germany, Goodbye Mickey Mouse (1982) is about an American Mustang squadron in 1944 UK. Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain (1977), Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk (1979), and Blood, Tears and Folly: In the Darkest Hour of the Second World War (1993) are works of nonfiction based on thorough research. Blood, Tears and Folly examined six major phases of the 1939-1941 period, from the Battle of the Atlantic to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. City of Gold (1992) was an espionage thriller set in wartime Cairo.
In the 1980s Deighton focused on series of thrillers, in which spies form an exclusive, international club, or family. The name of the central character, Bernard Samson, refers to the legendary hero of the Book of Judges. The first trilogy, Berlin Game (1983), Mexico Set (1984), and London Match (1985), was set between the spring of 1983 and spring of 1984. It was followed by Spy Hook (1988), Spy Line (1989), and Spy Sinker (1990). Margaret Cannon in Globe & Mail (Toronto) praised the second trilogy: "This 'hook, line and sinker' trio promises to be even better than its terrific predecessors and proves that Deighton, the old spymaster, is still in top form." (December 17, 1988) The saga was concluded by Faith (1994), Hope (1995), and Charity (1996) - not the obvious "love". Also Winter: A Berlin Family 1899-1945 (1987) belongs to the series. Some of its characters recur in Samson books.
Samson is betrayed by his wife, Fiona, a modern day Delilah, who is married to his work. She is a British intelligence agent, who defects to East Germany. Samson's superiors doubt his loyalty, he is ostracized, but eventually he rescues Fiona. Deighton began to write the novels when the wall still divided East and West Berlin, and finished it when the last remnants of it had been dismantled. This change reflected from the last trilogy, in which the disenchanted Samson feels estranged from Fiona. In Charity, set in 1988, Deighton tied up loose ends and revealed who was behind the murder of Tessa, Samson's sister-in-law. The novel received mixed reviews, but also offered much satisfaction for Deighton's faithful readers. "In a book that's long on character but short on plot, Mr. Deighton seems hard put to come up with a compelling reason for readers to stick with him until the end. The tipoff comes, perhaps, in the fact that the title refers to little else but the name of a dog, who figures not at all in the plot." (Charles Salzberg on Charity in The New York Times, January 12, 1997) At the end of the story, Samson plans to stay in Berlin and start his life again with Fiona. He is offered an opportunity to retire. The reader knows, that history will soon bring down some of his philistine and other adversaries.
For further reading: Who's Who in Spy Fiction by Donald McCormick (1977); The Special Branch: The British Spy Novel, 1890-1980 by LeRoy Panek (1981); Secret Agents in Fiction: Ian Fleming, John le Carré, and Len Deighton by L.O. Sauerberg (1984); Len Deighton: An Annotated Bibliography 1954-85 by Edward Milward-Oliver (1985); The Len Deighton Companion by Edward Milward-Oliver (1987); 'Len Deighton. Author of Spy Hook' in Bestseller 89, issue 2, ed. by Donna Olendorf (1989); 'Deighton, Len' by George Grella, in St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); Onscreen and Undercover: The Ultimate Book of Movie Espionage by Wesley Alan Britton (2006); Spy Fiction and Spy Fiction Writers by Students Academy (2011); The Art of Indirection in British Espionage Fiction: A Critical Study of Six Novelists by Robert Lance Snyder (2011)