This week I’m reading two British Spy novels that were published sixty years apart but which share the ability to take the pulse of the times they were written.
One is Bad Actors, the latest Slough House novel from Mick Herron published in May 2022. The other is The IPCRESS File, the first of Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer novels, published in 1962.
Both show an unglamorous, unromantic view of Britain’s security services and British politics. Both have very distinctive writing styles, not typically associated with spy fiction. Both deal with an unofficial war between Britain and its enemies and both feature main characters who are a long way away from the kind of Establishment spy of John le Carré’s novels.
‘Bad Actors’ by Mick Herron (2022)
I read the first Slough House book, Slow Horses in 2017, seven years after it was published. To me, it seemed to be a good thriller made exceptional by the plausibility of the people and the situations. It seems like an insider’s view and a prescient one at that. At one point, a right-wing journalist is talking to a Tory cabinet minister who presents himself as a bumbling fool but is actually a driving force for English nationalism (Boris Johnson in all but name) The journalist says:
‘Because we both know the tide’s turning. The decent people in this country are sick to death of being held hostage by mad liberals in Brussels, and the sooner we take control over our own future, our own borders …
This was six years before Brexit but Herron could already see it coming, knew who was behind it and what buttons would be pressed to push it through.
As I read through the back catalogue and finally started to read the books as they were published, the finger-on-the-pulse nature of the plots continued, one of them even involved Prince Andrew in a scandal involving a teen girl at a party well before that kind of story was in the press. By then though, I was reading the books for more than the plots. I was captivated by Herron’s prose style, particularly the unique way he uses the authorial voice at the start of his books as a kind of Greek Chorus, and I was invested in the cast of broken people who inhabit Slough House. It wasn’t a safe investment as there are often casualties along the way but that too made things seem more real. Then of course, there is Jackson Lamb, the unbeating stone heart of Slough House. He’s beautifully drawn and deeply unlikeable. A man whose principal passions are bloody-mindedness and schadenfreude.
So, I’m going into Bad Actors ready to immerse myself in Herron’s prose, get an insider’s view on the darker side of UK politics and discover what fresh hell awaits the Slough House walking wounded and what Lamb will let happen to them.
‘The IPRCRESS File‘ by Len Deighton (1962)
The main thing I remember about the first time I read The IPCRESS File was how repelled I was by the book’s grubbiness. It was 1975 and I was eighteen and my main point of reference for spy novels was the Bond movies where Roger Moore had just taken over from Sean Connery and the supercilious raised eyebrow was a superspy’s weapon of choice. The world Len Deighton dragged me into didn’t just lack glamour, it made me want to wash my hands. The copy I borrowed from the library had the first edition cover shown in the graphic above. It was designed by a friend of Deighton’s and it seemed to me that that dirty cup and the slightly outdated handgun captured the tone of the book.
I suspect a lot of the book went over my head. My memory of the plot has faded. What stuck with me was the ugliness of Len Deighton’s prose and the endless belligerence of the main character, a clever working-class lad working with a bunch of Old School Tie Office Class types, some cynical and competent and some chinless wonders blessed with more money than brains, and despising them every day.
So, now I’m ready for a re-read. This time, I hope to see beyond the grubbiness and the class struggle friction and immerse myself in 1960s Britain as Len Deighton saw it.