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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

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 London 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 Ipcress File (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, a pawn 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 London.

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 the UK 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 Sam 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)

Selected works:

  • The Ipcress File, 1962 - film 1965, dir. by Sidney J. Furie, screenplay by Bill Canaway & James Doran, starring Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Guy Doleman, Sue Lloyd - Aivopesu (suom. Jaakko Kaurinkoski, 1963)
  • Horse Under Water, 1963 - Osteri (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1964)
  • television play: Long Past Glory, 1963 - dir. by Charles Jarrott, starring John Le Mesurier, Maurice Denham, prod. by Leonard White for ABC
  • Funeral in Berlin, 1964 - film 1966, dir. by Guy Hamilton, starring Michael Caine, Eva Renzi, Paul Hubschmid, Oscar Homolka - Hautajaiset Berliinissä (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1965)
  • ed.: Drinks-man-ship: Town's Album of Fine Wines and High Spirits, 1964
  • Action Cook Book: Len Deighton's Guide to Eating, 1965 (U.S. title: Cookstrip Cook Book)
  • Où Est Le Garlic; or, Len Deighton's French Cook Book, 1965 (rev. ed. Basic French Cooking, 1979 / Basic French Cookery Course, 1990)
  • The Billion Dollar Brain, 1966 - film 1967, dir. by Ken Russell, scripted by John McGrath, starring Michael Caine, Karl Malden, Ed Begley, Oscar Homolka, Francoise Dorleac. Also cable TV sequels: Bullet to Beijing (1995); Midnight in St. Petersberg (1995), dir. by Douglas Jackson - Miljardin dollarin aivot (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1966)
  • An Expensive Place to Die, 1967 - Kallista kuolla Pariisissa (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1967)
  • ed.: London Dossier, 1967
  • ed.: The Assassination of President Kennedy, 1967 (with Michael Rund and Howard Loxton)
  • Len Deighton's Continental Dossier: A Collection of Cultural, Culinary, Historical, Spooky, Grim and Preposterous Fact, 1968 (compiled by Victor and Margaret Pettitt)
  • Only When I Larf, 1968 (U.S. title: Only When I Laugh) - film 1968, dir. by Basil Dearden, starring Richard Attenborough, David Hemmings, Alexandra Stewart, Nicholas Pennell - Vain kuin naurattaa (suom. Juhani Jaskari, 1968)
  • screenplay: Oh! What a Lovely War, 1969 - film dir. by Richard Attenborough, starring Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, John Mills, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York, Maggie Smith, Jack Hawkins, Kenneth More
  • Bomber, 1970
  • Declarations of War, 1971 (U.S. title: Eleven Declarations of War)
  • Close-Up, 1972
  • Spy Story, 1974 - film 1976, dir. by Lindsay Shonteff - Sotapeli (suom. Kai Kaila, 1976)
  • Yesterday's Spy, 1975
  • Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy, 1976 (U.S. title: Catch a Falling Spy) - Välky, välky vakooja (suom. Arto Häilä, 1980)
  • television play: It Must Have Been Two Other Fellows, 1977
  • Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain, 1977
  • Airshipwreck, 1978 (with Arnold Schwartzman)
  • SS-GB: Nazi-Occupied Britain 1941, 1978 - TV mini-series (2017-), dir. by Philippp Kadelbach, starring Sam Riley, Kate Bosworth, James Cosmo - SS Lontoo (suom. Mikko Kilpi, 1979)
  • ed.: Tactical Genius in Battle by Simon Goodenough, 1979
  • Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk, 1979
  • Battle of Britain, 1980 (rev. ed. with Max Hastings, 1990)
  • The Orient Flight L.Z. 127-Graf Zeppelin, 1980 (as Cyril Deighton, with Fred F. Blau)
  • The Egypt Flight L.Z. 127-Graf Zeppelin, 1981 (as Cyril Deighton, with Fred F. Blau)
  • XPD, 1981 - XPS (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1981)
  • Goodbye Mickey Mouse, 1982
  • Berlin Game, 1983 - Berliinin peli (suom. Erkki Hakala, 1985)
  • Mexico Set, 1984 - Meksikon erä (suom. Erkki Hakala, 1986)
  • London Match, 1985 - Lontoon ottelu (suom. Erkki Hakala, 1987)
  • Game, Set and Match, 1985 - 13 part TV series, dir. by Ken Grieve, Patrick Lau, starring Ian Holm, Mel Martin, Amanda Donahoe, Michael Culver, 1988 (Granada Television)
  • Winter: A Berlin Family 1899-1945, 1987 - Rautaristi (suom. Juhani Koskinen, 1989)
  • Spy Hook, 1988 - Vakooja: koukku (suom. Heikki Salojärvi, 1990)
  • ABC of French Food, 1989
  • Spy Line, 1989 - Vakooja: siima (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 1991)
  • Spy Sinker, 1990 - Vakooja: paino (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 1992)
  • MAMista, 1991
  • City of Gold, 1992
  • Violent Ward, 1993
  • Blood, Tears and Folly: In the Darkest Hour of the Second World War, 1993 (U.S. title: Blood, Tears, and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II, 1993)
  • Anton Edelmann Creative Cuisine: Chef's Secrets from the Savoy, 1994
  • Pests: a Play in Three Acts, 1994
  • Faith, 1994 - Usko (suom. Heikki Sarkkila, 1995)
  • Hope, 1995 - Toivo (suom. Jorma-Veikko Sappinen, 1996)
  • Charity, 1996 - Luotamus (suom. Jorma-Veikko Sappinen, 1997)
  • James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for His Father by Len Deighton (2012)

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