The Ipcress File
First published in the UK 1962 by Hodder and Stoughton
This edition Harper; New Impression edition (1 Oct. 2009)
Source: Norwich Millennium Library
I knew all about Jay except how to ask him to sell me a biochemist for £18,000.
Len Deighton is an author I would probably never have picked up if it hadn’t been for blogging (I’m not big on spies). My mission to read the CWA top 100 led me to Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match last year. They are excellent, so I was looking forward to The Ipcress File, Deighton’s first book and number 9 in the CWA’s list.
I liked it, I finished it, but I’m damned if I could tell you what exactly happened.
Our nameless hero works for WOOC(P), a civilian intelligence department. His boss Dalby, whom he doesn’t really trust, goes off and leaves him in charge of the investigation into missing scientists. They have found one of them in the clutches of a man code-named Jay and our hero is given budget to go off to make a deal with him.
The action takes him from London to a US base on a Pacific atoll, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Characters appear out of nowhere and then disappear as suddenly. The story about missing scientists seems to vanish entirely. A sexy PA falls for him immediately (love at first sight seems to be a Deighton trademark). People turn out to be traitors. If spying is genuinely this confusing, I don’t think I’d last five minutes. Not a book to read if you want to stand half a chance of solving the mystery, or that enjoyable feeling of believing that you could have got it… if only you’d been a bit more awake.
The narrator (he gained the name Harry Palmer in the 1965 Michael Caine film) is a prototype Bernie Samson from Berlin Game etc. – irreverent, sarcastic, paranoid, witty, resentful, chip on his shoulder. Here he is receiving his mission…
‘Find him?’ I said. ‘How would we start?’
‘How would you start?’ asked Dalby.
‘Go to laboratory, wife doesn’t know what’s got into him lately, discover dark almond-eyed woman. Bank manager wonders where he’s been getting all that money. Fist fight through darkened lab. Glass tubes that would blow the world to shreds. Mad scientist backs to freedom holding phial – flying tackle by me. Up grams Rule Britannia.’
[If anyone can explain ‘up grams’, please let me know.]
He is relentlessly and amusingly downbeat. There are funny bits about his missing back-pay, the hole in his trousers, his popping to the supermarket to pick up his groceries on the way to secret spy assignations.
Overall, I can’t beat Kingsley Amis’s opinion, quoted in this article in the Guardian:
‘actually quite good if you stop worrying about what’s going on’.
This edition has value added by the inclusion of introductory sections by Len Deighton (describing how his spy gained favour as an anti-Bond figure, and his own sudden shift from illustrator to best-selling author), and the cover designer.
Existential Ennui: As to the novel itself, it’s an entertaining read… but I must admit I did struggle with it. I think the story’s about defecting scientists… or possibly double agents… or perhaps nuclear weapons… and herein lies the problem (well, my problem): pretty much all the way through I literally had no idea what the hell was going on.
So not just me! Always a relief… The Existential Ennui review has, as always, some fascinating info for those of a book-collecting bent.
Final destination: Back to he library