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Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton, Reviewed

As Deighton admits in the preface to the Silver jubilee Edition that I read, ‘Like many inexperienced writers I expected far too much from my readers.’ And it’s this assumption that that the reader will ‘be aware of every tiny detail and allusion’ that makes this book, at least initially, a less than easy read. Of course, the film and the reputation of the book gives the reader motivation to stick with it. Without that motivation I can’t be absolutely sure I’d have got past the first few chapters. However, I’m glad I did.

This 1960s spy story has far more depth and character development than the Bond novels that were more or less contemporaneous. The use of the unreliable first person narrator was risky but actually worked well, adding an extra layer of uncertainty to the described events. I can recall being similarly fascinated by the literature about brain-washing at the time, as a teenager. And this central theme lifts the tale out of the usual spy story genre. It is, of course, a thriller. But it’s a thriller with heart and emotion. The reader cares about the characters. The action is driven by those characters rather than formula driven. 

There are places where aspects of the story are almost incomprehensible, dialogue sections where the identity of the speakers is all but impossible to ascribe, passages that appear meaningless until later in the book, when they fall into place. All this adds to the general air of confusion, uncertainty and mystery.

Deighton introduces female characters with personality, strength and intelligence and improves the story no end by so doing. His male characters are varied, detailed and credible. His depictions of the worlds of the high-ranking military, politics and the intelligence community come across with great authority, as though he was personally involved in each of these spheres of activity. I can only assume that his research was meticulous and involved many personal contacts. Unless, of course, he was so steeped in the burgeoning spy literature of the time that he absorbed the most striking and probable aspects of these worlds and was able to apply his own brand of fiction in such a way as to make them utterly believable.

The Ipcress File (film)
The Ipcress File (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I’m unsure how I missed this in my earlier days of reading. Certainly, I read most of the Bond novels through my teens and early twenties. I did, of course, catch the film. But I’d forgotten that until I began reading. I must try to see it again. For the book, I can say that I enjoyed it as a thriller with real character. I shall probably now read more of the author’s work as and when I come across it. If you haven’t read this one and you enjoy action combined with wit and emotionally complete characters in your fiction, then I recommend this book to you.

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