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12 May 2021updated 13 Jan 2022 7:04am

Len Deighton and the mundanity of spies

By John Gray

I was sent to prevent the Bolshevik Revolution and to keep Russia in the war,” wrote Somerset Maugham in the preface to Ashenden, or the British Agent (1928). “The reader will know,” he continued drily, “that my efforts did not meet with success.”

In 1915-16, already a successful novelist and playwright, Maugham worked as a British spy in Geneva after being recruited by an intelligence officer he met at a dinner arranged by his future wife Syrie. Maugham found his work “as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk’s”, a drab routine punctuated by moments of danger. He recognised that his life could be at risk and carried a small revolver. This was certainly the case when, after being sent to the South Pacific to gather information about German activity in Samoa, he was despatched to Russia, arriving in Petrograd in September 1917.

Using his former lover Alexandra Kropotkin, the daughter of the venerable anarchist prince Peter Kropotkin, to gain access to Alexander Kerensky, the grand-iloquent and ineffectual leader of the Provisional Government, Maugham quickly realised that his mission was hopeless. On 22 October 1917, only days before the Bolshevik takeover, he left Petrograd for Norway, where a British destroyer had been sent to bring him home, with a memorised message from Kerensky for the prime minister, David Lloyd George. If Maugham had stayed in Russia he might well have been executed. His reward for this work, for which on patriotic grounds he initially refused a salary, was having to spend more than a year in a Scottish sanatorium, where he recovered from the tuberculosis from which he suffered in Switzerland and Russia. Maugham continued working with the Secret Service during the Second World War, joining the British effort to draw the US into the conflict.

Maugham described the Ashenden stories as “a very truthful account of my experiences during the war when I was in the Secret Service”. He is one of the writers cited with admiration by Len Deighton in a foreword to a late edition of his first book, The Ipcress File (1962). There is an underlying similarity between the two authors. Both portray spying as an unromantic and morally ambiguous business. Maugham writes of Ashenden using psychological blackmail and accepting the death of civilians as part of the job, while Leighton shows intelligence officers themselves being compromised or sacrificed by their colleagues.

[see also: The Secret Life: John le Carré]

Ashenden works mostly alone, whereas Leighton’s characters – the anonymous operative who narrates The Ipcress File, given the name Harry Palmer in the 1965 film adaptation starring Michael Caine, and Bernard Samson, featured in three trilogies Deighton published between 1983 and 1996 – spend much of their time in offices, frustrated by bureaucratic rivalries. While Ashenden remains aloof, detached and fundamentally unchanged by his experiences, Samson is deeply marked by the events he witnesses and participates in.

There is nothing in the Ashenden stories of the British agent’s personal relationships. The male companions with whom Maugham shared much of his life are not hinted at here, or anywhere in his fiction. Deighton’s Samson trilogies are as much about the elusiveness of human interactions as espionage. Spying is not a secret world sealed off from ordinary life but an extension of the world we all live in.

Espionage fiction emerged as a distinct genre around the start of the 20th century, a time of intensifying imperial rivalries. Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) is set in the “Great Game” in which Britain and Russian competed for control of central Asia. The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Erskine Childers, a House of Commons clerk who became an uncompromising supporter of Irish independence and was executed in 1922 by the Irish Free State for possessing a firearm and resisting the Anglo-Irish Treaty that left Ireland a British dominion, evokes the threat of Britain being invaded by imperial Germany. (Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) is more an exploration of the apocalyptic mindset of a particular kind of terrorist than a spy story.) Deservedly unremembered, the Anglo-French writer William Le Queux (1864-1927) and the prolific E Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) achieved vast sales by treating espionage as an adventure enacted by heroes. John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, the best of these fantastic tales, has not been out of print since it appeared in 1915.

It was Maugham who first depicted espionage in anything like humanly realistic terms. Eric Ambler produced a succession of novels indebted to Maugham’s stories, including one of the genre’s classics, The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), a dark tale exploring the links between big business and espionage in a Europe lurching towards fascism. Graham Greene, who, like Maugham, worked in the Secret Service, praised Ashenden as a “witty and realistic fiction”. In The Third Man (1949), The Quiet American (1955) and Our Man in Havana (1958), spying is represented by Greene as a vehicle for nihilistic crime, destructive idealism and absurdist comedy.

The Scottish-American writer Helen MacInness (1907-85) captured the risks and choices involved in operating behind enemy lines. Her second novel Assignment in Brittany (1942) was given to Allied agents working with the French Resistance. She went on to produce a series of compelling novels set in the Cold War. A vulgar version of the romantic tradition was continued by Ian Fleming in the James Bond books, where a thuggish and misogynistic operative with superhuman physical powers and an armoury of high-tech gadgets is pitted against cartoon figures of diabolical evil.

Deighton’s work has been compared with that of John le Carré, but in truth they could hardly be less alike. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), arguably Le Carré’s best novel, tells the story of a British field agent who is used by his masters as an unwitting pawn to protect a more valuable agent. Le Carré portrays Western intelligence agencies as ruthless, as does Deighton. Crucially, however, Deighton does not assert any moral parity between them and their Soviet counterparts.

Le Carré’s fiction gained its enormous audience because it gave its readers the flattering sensation that they understood the moral complexities of the Cold War. The sage Smiley respects his arch enemy Karla as the embodiment of a noble cause, however perverted in practice. Nothing is said of the central role of the Russian security services in enforcing mass terror from Lenin onwards. The absurdity of equating the KGB with the intelligence services of a democratic state passes unnoticed. Le Carré wrote for a bien pensant, middlebrow readership, which, without knowing anything of the human costs of communism, was happy to believe that Western democracy was just as bad.

In contrast, Deighton was a realist regarding the fatal flaws of the Soviet system. “My whole Bernard Samson series was based on the belief that the Berlin Wall would fall before the end of the century,” he said. A dedicated researcher, his books reflect first-hand observation. Berlin was “a second home” for him; he was acquainted with both the western and eastern zones. Even as scholarly experts were pronouncing on the East German regime’s monumental stability, he knew it to be “a living corpse”. The putrefying Soviet Union was the future only in Western eyes. Yet for as long as it existed it posed a serious threat. A dirty conflict in many ways, the Cold War was a necessity that could not have been avoided.


Deighton began writing The Ipcress File for his own amusement, using a fountain pen and a school exercise book, during a holiday in a remote part of the south of France. It occurred to him that he might become a writer only after a literary agent he bumped into at a party in Swiss Cottage in London told him the story could be turned into a sellable book. Nothing in his background prepared him for such a career. His interest in espionage came about by accident. In 1940, at the age of 11, he witnessed Anna Wolkoff, a pro-Nazi spy who had been passing on documents obtained by an accomplice in the US Embassy in London, being arrested and bundled into a police car.

Born in a London workhouse in 1929, Deighton came from a Cockney working-class family. His father was a chauffeur and his mother a cook. Playing truant from school, he educated himself in Marylebone public library. After a spell as a RAF photographer he attended the Royal College of Art, becoming an illustrator and graphic designer while working as a chef to supplement his income. Later he published several bestselling cookbooks. He has also written works of military history, and produced films and plays.

Deighton’s work is currently undergoing an overdue revival. The four “Harry Palmer” novels featuring an unnamed British spy – The Ipcress FileHorse Under WaterFuneral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain – have been republished as Penguin Modern Classics. Six further novels are out this month – SS-GBBomberWinterBerlin GameMexico Set and London Match, the last three comprising the first trilogy in the Samson series. In June a trio of non-fiction works on the Second World War, FighterBlitzkrieg and Blood, Tears and Folly, will appear.

The Ipcress File is like much of Deighton’s work in using real-world events. “Ipcress” is an acronym for “Induction of Psycho-Neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under Stress”. The narrator is subjected to a process of brainwashing (unsuccessful in his case) similar to “psychic driving”, a technique using electronic noise developed by a Scottish psychiatrist in the 1950s and reportedly practised by the CIA for a time. Much of the plot is conveyed through dialogue. As in life, the characters’ stories are revealed in asides.

Deighton’s outstanding achievement is the nine-volume series chronicling the life and times of Bernard Samson. The trilogies present the experiences that shaped the man we first meet as a jaded, middle-aged British spy. Several of the novels lead up to the defection to the Soviets of his wife Fiona, also an intelligence officer, which turns out to have been a deception operation mounted by Fiona and her colleagues. In Samson’s profession, trust is an operational not a moral concept. Those who work as spies cannot be sure of anyone’s loyalty – not even, in Samson’s case, that of their spouse. Yet he goes on, helping Fiona escape while finding a new partner, though she ends up leaving him.

A prequel Winter: A Berlin Family 1899-1945 deals with the milieu in which Samson grew up, and introduces us to his father, an anti-Nazi British agent. Winter gives meaning to Arendt’s overhyped idea of the banality of evil. There was nothing banal in the crimes of the Nazi regime, but its enablers and accomplices were often ordinary human beings moved by ambition or fear. What is better described as the mundanity of evil-doing is one of Deighton’s themes, along with the persistence of goodness.

In Spy Sinker, the final book in the second trilogy, the story is retold in a third-person narrative that allows the reader to know what Samson could not. Javier Marías’s plotless, Oxford-based espionage trilogy Your Face Tomorrow (2002-07), though featuring an actual historical figure, suggests that all our narratives are fictional. Deighton is closer to common experience. Repeatedly confronted with awkward facts, Samson struggles to fashion any coherent story of his life.

The Samson series has some parallels in the genre. Philip Kerr’s 14 magnificent Bernie Gunther novels come to mind, though the wise-cracking former Berlin homicide detective seems a more light hearted survivor. A series of ten novels featuring a CIA undercover agent, Paul Christopher, by Charles McCarry (1930-2019), a former CIA operative himself, includes The Tears of Autumn (1974), in which McCarry presents an intriguing account of the Kennedy assassination. The Christopher series resembles the Samson volumes in aiming to convey a whole human life. William Boyd made a similar attempt, with striking success, in a single volume, Any Human Heart (2002).

In a 1941 radio broadcast, the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels cited Ashenden as embodying the brutal cynicism of the British Secret Service. But Ashenden is no more a cynic than Harry Palmer or Bernard Samson. Like the authors who invented them, they are truth-seekers. In a time of electronic surveillance and cyber-warfare, espionage fiction may look like a branch of the historical novel. But the real subject of the genre does not change. As much as Maugham, Deighton is a fearless observer of the deceptive human world. 

[see also: How Yevgeny Zamyatin shaped dystopian fiction]

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This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die

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