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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.
"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. 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.
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. 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. 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 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.
The nameless agent continued to star in Funeral in Berlin (1964), Billion Dollar Brain, An Expensive Place to Die, and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (1974). The Ipcress File was filmed in 1965, starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer. The name was suggested by Caine, whose Cockney accent was also perfect for the role. In Newsweek the film was called "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 book, he still hadn't named his hero, and the publisher also left him unnamed. Palmer is a working-class fellow (from Burnley in the books), 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.
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. 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); Secret Agents in Fiction: Ian Fleming, John le Carré, and Len Deighton by L.O. Savergerg (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)