A high-ranking scientist has been kidnapped. A secret British intelligence agency must find out why. But as the quarry is pursued from grimy Soho to the other side of the world, what seemed a straightforward mission turns into something far more sinister. With its sardonic, cool, working-class hero, Len Deighton’s sensational debut The IPCRESS File rewrote the spy thriller and became the defining novel of 1960s London.
I decided to re-read ‘The IPCRESS File’ because it’s sixty years old this year. It’s been forty-seven years since I last read and enjoyed this book. At the time, my eighteen-year-old self was struck by how sordid and grubby Deighton’s world of espionage was but I took the rest of the Cold War context – the nuclear arms race, the permanence of the Iron Curtain, the inevitability of the British upper-class running everything and making a mess of it – for granted. I’d grown up in the Cold War and, in 1975, there were no signs that it would end anytime soon. More than a decade after ‘The IPCRESS File’, in my first year at university, I would still occasionally be asked by mostly well-meaning tutors who were trying to slot me into the right context ‘What does your father do?’ (what my mother did never evoked the same level of curiosity) and I knew that the answer would give them a moment’s pause as they processed that, despite the impression talking to me had made, I was a working-class lad from the North of England.
Re-reading the book in 2022, I wasn’t surprised that I’d missed the taken-for-granted, casual but all-pervasive sexism the first time around. It was a blindness common at the time. I was surprised that the first thing that caught my attention wasn’t the content of the book but the way in which it was written.
The narrative style was distinctive but hard for me to label. It was a kind of impersonal first-person. account. This narrative style isn’t just about carrying the plot forward, it’s a way of building the character of our nameless narrator as an emotionally distant, insightful but unempathetic, socially dislocated, secretive, untrusting, loner. The narrative also tells the story in an oddly abbreviated way, leaving things out or passing over them or not explaining them, making the narrative more of a gestalt built by the reader’s expectations rather than something assembled brick by brick by the writer. This narrator is not so much unreliable as mischievously unhelpful as he challenges the reader to piece the plot together from what seems like a series of cryptic crossword puzzle clues.
Even now, this narrative style feels modern to the point of being experimental. Back in 1962, it must have had all that ‘The Shock Of The New‘ energy of Modern Art.
Yet the narrative seems conventional compared to dialogue. There is one wonderfully chaotic scene where our spy is talking to someone on the phone while surrounded by multiple and overlapping sets of people talking to each other and him. It wasn’t easy to read but it lit up my imagination. It’s the dialogue equivalent of Warhol’s split screen in ‘Chelsea Girls’
I realised on this re-read, that the sordid grubbiness that shocked me on my first read was just the surface representation of the seediness at the heart of the plot. I thought the plot was one of the main strengths of the novel. It tells a story of betrayal, blurred lines of loyalty and ruthless selfishness against a backdrop of the threat of global nuclear war, mostly carried out by men who still carry the scars of the last World War. I enjoyed the up close and personal way the reveals were done, especially the exposure of what the IPCRESS file referred to and who was behind it.
I also enjoyed the way Deighton juxtaposed the excessive extravagance of the American Nuclear Test Site with the unthinkably large scale of destruction they were all focused on achieving. It felt like an indictment and a warning, even though there was no overt criticism.
The IPCRESS concept itself has aged about as badly as a comment made by one of the bad guys as he explains the Realpolitiks of the Cold War and says something like. ‘Do you expect communism simply to implode one day while capitalism continues on in its evil ways?’
This time around, I was much more aware of how clearly our nameless spy could see all the small ways that he didn’t fit in with the Establishment types who ran the Service. He knew he could never be one of them. He also knew that he had no desire to be a working-class warrior. He was just going to win with the cards he was dealt, even though he and everyone else was cheating.
The Nameless-Spy-Explains-It-All ending felt a little weak to me. The last few chapters felt like the CliffsNotes summary of the plot for any reader who either hadn’t been paying attention or was too dumb to keep up. I wondered whether Deighton added these chapters at the behest of an editor who felt a need to tidy everything up.