Len Deighton - ripe for rehabilitation?

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Accent Monkey was saying how no one likes Len Deighton anymore, that his books sit unwanted on the shelves of her shop.

But I read one of his books once - "SSGB" - and thought it was a corker. Admittedly it did push my buttons (NAZIS, alternate history), but it is a really well-written, taut thriller by someone who knows what they are writing about. In fact, it compares very favourably to Robert Harris's "Fatherland".

So I think that Len Deighton is a GOOD writer. So maybe one day we will love him as much as other thriller writers.

DV (dirtyvicar), Wednesday, 11 August 2004 16:13 (nineteen years ago) link

I like his name.

'Len' is a nice name.

the bellefox, Wednesday, 11 August 2004 16:22 (nineteen years ago) link

He is great. We discussed how people don't like his books so much because the covers are unfashionable and feature his name in red letters above a photo of a snake on top of a playing card and a bullet, or something like that.

But I like his books enormously. They are short, pacy and, frankly, thrilling.

accentmonkey (accentmonkey), Wednesday, 11 August 2004 19:41 (nineteen years ago) link

I've always preferred Helen MacInnes, myself.

derrick (derrick), Thursday, 12 August 2004 02:25 (nineteen years ago) link

There will always be a following for authors who write punchy, narrative-driven, fast-paced yarns - even though the characters are paper-thin, the dialogue is ludicrous and the plot is mainly designed as a series of Pavlovian stimuli.

Hollywood milks this formula every summer for several billion at the box office. Arguably, authors like Deighton deliver the same formula in a longer, more complex and more nuanced form - but without the crucial eye candy Hollywood adds to the mix.

As for 'rehabilitating' Len Deighton, it's not likely, in that he always existed in a world where critical reputation was moot. His continuing acceptance as an author depends solely on the preferred fanatsy life of his prospective readers. As the Cold War context of Deighton's fanatsy plots becomes older and more tired, he can only lose readers to more up-to-date fanatsy authors. Readers like that can make you a small fortune, but they are very fickle.

Aimless The Unlogged, Thursday, 12 August 2004 17:26 (nineteen years ago) link

I thought the Game-Set-Match trio were great. I don't know why I never read anything else by him. I've been meaning to read the one that made Burgess' "99 Novels" list.

Rock Hardy (Rock Hardy), Saturday, 14 August 2004 22:28 (nineteen years ago) link

That's funny. I was wondering the same thing a couple of weeks ago. I read Horse Under Water, Billion Dollar Brain, and An Expensive Place to Die a LONG time ago and City of Gold somewhat more recently. I enjoyed them all.

Mr. Jaggers, Friday, 27 August 2004 15:47 (nineteen years ago) link

twelve years pass...

i am currently in the middle of "yesterday's spy" having enjoyed "funeral in berlin" immensely

next will be "only when i larf" i expect (these are my dad's old paperbacks he used to read on the train down to london)

mark s, Monday, 22 May 2017 17:00 (six years ago) link

i have misplaced my copy of the ipcress file, ilb help me find it

mark s, Friday, 26 May 2017 08:47 (six years ago) link

not sure if I've got Ipcress, his Harry Palmer books are v good tho imo

The Remoans of the May (Noodle Vague), Friday, 26 May 2017 08:49 (six years ago) link

yesterday's spy is semi-bondish (ie the books) except with a harry palmer-esque hero -- very sardonic and disenchanted towards his own side, somewhat left-wing in an old labour kind of way -- and the villain an war-time pal of the hero's who is genuinely charming and you sort of feel bad for him when he's defeated, even tho he's being a dick

i like how the action scenes in an LD are like a little burst of quick-thinking and luck -- with both sides piling up the blunders -- and then afterwards HP and everyone else fee like shit and realise they hadn't accurately assessed the situation after all

this isn't helping find the ipcress file: i had read like two chapters abt 18 months ago then set it aside momentrarily and got distracted -- i wd expect it to be on the titanic pile by or near my bed but it doesn't seem to be

mark s, Friday, 26 May 2017 09:24 (six years ago) link

Watched a lot of Callan recently and it occurs to me that those stories are very much of a piece with Deighton's writing, in the realm of kitchen sink cold war thrillers, although David Callan is an out-and-out thug compared to Harry Palmer. I gather Callan creator James Mitchell was also a prolific author in that field, although as I've not read any I'm not sure how they compare with Deighton on a literary level.

Pheeel, Friday, 26 May 2017 10:25 (six years ago) link

a lot of the early Callan episodes have been lost haven't they? It was a favourite of my dad's, he was a big Edward Woodward fan, and the hazy memories I have make me think I'd definitely like to watch it now

The Remoans of the May (Noodle Vague), Friday, 26 May 2017 10:29 (six years ago) link

i loved callan as a kid, i too watched it with my dad, i can still remember scenes from it -- his snitch with BO (lonely , played by russell hunter), the swinging naked lightlbulb in the opening (or closing?) credits-- poo and indeed bah if they've been lost

it was *very* post-colonial melancholy compared to bond -- that bit of the late 60s ands 70s when we were beginning to face up to being a small, under-resourced, semi-industrialised grimy island in a world that quite disliked us (a bit like lonely in fact, esp.with BO part), and just before all the deluded dodges we hit on to fast-forward us thru that stuff, except it turns out they didn't

mark s, Friday, 26 May 2017 10:33 (six years ago) link

The Armchair Theatre play exists as a film recording of the original black-and-white television broadcast. The first two series (or seasons) were recorded in black-and-white video, with filmed inserts, and several episodes from these have been lost or wiped. The surviving episodes from Series 1 appear to have been re-shot onto 625-line videotape by pointing a camera at a monitor displaying the original 405-line version. The surviving Series 2 episodes exist on 625-line videotapes.[7] In the case of "The Worst Soldier I Ever Saw", the Network DVD cover blurb states that the episode only survived as an unedited studio block, which had to be edited into its proper format for DVD release.

All of the colour episodes exist, and the 1970 series was released on DVD in the UK in 2001. The episodes were edited to remove captions which would have led into the commercial breaks in the original transmission. This resulted in some awkward visual and audio jump cuts. The subsequent British DVD releases all retain the commercial break captions. The 1974 film was released on DVD separately.


I get Network TV emails regularly and I think they do a DVD set of what survives, will have to get around to it

The Remoans of the May (Noodle Vague), Friday, 26 May 2017 10:38 (six years ago) link

Yeah was about to say, two episodes of the first series survive plus the pilot, nine from the second(out of fifteen), plus all the colour episodes(series 3 and 4). There are scripts floating around for the lost episodes which do at least give you a flavour of them.

Pheeel, Friday, 26 May 2017 10:56 (six years ago) link


^^^music by jan stockaert, also wrote the (chart-topping) theme for VAN DER VALK (="Eye Level", which i have always associated with eye-level grills but is apparently a proto-nordic-noir reference to the fact that the dutch horizon is entirely flat)

mark s, Friday, 26 May 2017 11:02 (six years ago) link

also: patrick mower klaxon

mark s, Friday, 26 May 2017 11:03 (six years ago) link

Getting way off track here, but talking of memorable openings to grimy British TV dramas...


Punnet of the Grapes (Tom D.), Friday, 26 May 2017 11:12 (six years ago) link

omg didn't budgie's boss (ie iain cuthbertson) work in a soho sex shop?

the relentless drumbeat from UK TV at this time was "tfw yr fucked and you know you are" -- i miss it so much :|

mark s, Friday, 26 May 2017 11:16 (six years ago) link

As you may know, Anthony Burgess rated him enough to include one of his books in 99 Novels.

The Pickety 33⅓ Policeman (James Redd and the Blecchs), Friday, 26 May 2017 11:17 (six years ago) link

Charlie Endell, great character, a very accurate portrayal of Glaswegian gangster/hardman with an exaggeratedly proper way of speaking which somehow makes him even more menacing. (xp)

Punnet of the Grapes (Tom D.), Friday, 26 May 2017 11:21 (six years ago) link

xp Yeah, Mower replaced Anthony Valentine in that one series as Callan's colleague/antagonist, but I much preferred Valentine's sarcastic public school foppishness to Mower's more bullish approach. The resentment/respect dynamic between Callan and Mears have feels like the core of the series in a lot of ways.

Pheeel, Friday, 26 May 2017 11:24 (six years ago) link

Iain Cuthbertson, another great character actor. That Dr Who story he's in playing a cockney space conman, he steals the whole thing(no pun intended). Probably one of the most memorable guest performances in the whole show.

Pheeel, Friday, 26 May 2017 11:32 (six years ago) link

my dad -- a very gentle, scientific, nature-loving man -- just *loved* all this stuff (including dr who post-reboot, tho that's a rather difft animal)

mark s, Friday, 26 May 2017 11:34 (six years ago) link

now reading ONLY WHEN I LARF, which was turned into a swinging 60s caper movie dir.basil dearden feat.david hemmings, richard attenborough and alexandra stewart (who other than has almost always been in french-lang rather than eng-lang films)

mark s, Saturday, 27 May 2017 17:44 (six years ago) link

aimless the exact opposite of otm upthread btw

mark s, Saturday, 27 May 2017 17:53 (six years ago) link

len deighton is a really good writer. ss-gb obv great but i remember loving the game, set and match trilogy, and Bomber as well. melancholia definitely a strong feeling throughout.

Fizzles, Saturday, 27 May 2017 18:01 (six years ago) link

I really like the 'cookstrips' he drew for The Observer in the 60s, too:


Bernie Lugg (Ward Fowler), Saturday, 27 May 2017 18:21 (six years ago) link

Explains Harry Palmer's interest in cooking.

Punnet of the Grapes (Tom D.), Saturday, 27 May 2017 18:26 (six years ago) link

i almost bought his cookbook last year, can't remember why i didn't. irritating. he's got a booze book as well iirc.

Fizzles, Saturday, 27 May 2017 18:39 (six years ago) link

hmm maybe not.

Fizzles, Saturday, 27 May 2017 18:40 (six years ago) link

googling brings up the London Dossier tho, which sounds grebt:


Fizzles, Saturday, 27 May 2017 18:42 (six years ago) link

a lot of the early Callan episodes have been lost haven't they? It was a favourite of my dad's, he was a big Edward Woodward fan, and the hazy memories I have make me think I'd definitely like to watch it now

― The Remoans of the May (Noodle Vague), Friday, May 26, 2017 3:29 AM (yesterday)

I want to watch this too -- I'm sure my mother would as well, being a huge Edward Woodward fan. I remember there was a time when I would tease her every time she would bring up some old series or movie she wanted to see by asking, "Does it have Edward Woodward in it?"

sarahell, Saturday, 27 May 2017 20:03 (six years ago) link

i have the cookstrips book, it's terrific -- not least as a masterclass in readable compression of information

mark s, Saturday, 27 May 2017 22:59 (six years ago) link


rehabilitation complete imo

mark s, Sunday, 28 May 2017 19:25 (six years ago) link


Can you explain why the SINKER is represented by a budgie?

the pinefox, Sunday, 28 May 2017 20:07 (six years ago) link

Wow, that is amazing, especially amazing that you hadn't heard of it.

Punnet of the Grapes (Tom D.), Sunday, 28 May 2017 20:10 (six years ago) link

i i have not read this book yet so no

mark s, Sunday, 28 May 2017 20:11 (six years ago) link

tracer mentioned that his uncle had a whole huge shelf of LDs and i thought "i didn't think he'd written *that* many books" so i looked up his bibiography and there it was

(that many = 29 novels, plus quite a lot of non-fiction, so it could be a whole huge shelf)

but yes i'm a bit surprised since i spend like half my shopping time in second-hand bookshops so how have i never seen a copy before :0

(it's not like it wd have not impinged on my consciousness, unlike maybe every other book by him before i started being obsessed with him a few weeks ago)

mark s, Sunday, 28 May 2017 20:17 (six years ago) link

pinefox I hope we never go on an ornithology trip together lol

imago, Sunday, 28 May 2017 20:33 (six years ago) link

my contribution to this thread is that my dad had loads of this and loads of dick francis and i mixed them up all the time

imago, Sunday, 28 May 2017 20:34 (six years ago) link

dick francis has not written any books abt cookery so he is not for me at this time

mark s, Sunday, 28 May 2017 20:39 (six years ago) link

When I was peaking in middle school, big on Bond, but starting over (9th Grade) in high school, was very reassured to hear about and identify with relatively grubby, four-eyed Harry Palmer--as we see above, bespectacled Michael Caine wasn't really grubby enough, duh, except compared to smirky old upperclassman Bond. I don't remember reading any of the books, seeing any of the movies, but he made a difference to me.

dow, Sunday, 28 May 2017 21:05 (six years ago) link

being grubby only partially as undercover, occasionally rising to the occasion, but *not* whipping off the Clark Kent threads every night to go cruising as Superman---was def. part of the appeal.

dow, Sunday, 28 May 2017 21:08 (six years ago) link

Dick Francis was the horse mystery guy

sarahell, Sunday, 28 May 2017 21:54 (six years ago) link

Fine Dick Francis thread here...

Main Character

Punnet of the Grapes (Tom D.), Sunday, 28 May 2017 22:01 (six years ago) link


mark s, Sunday, 28 May 2017 22:03 (six years ago) link

Dick Francis's writing falls considerably short of Deighton's

The Remoans of the May (Noodle Vague), Sunday, 28 May 2017 22:58 (six years ago) link

I'm part way through the 2nd Bernard trilogy, and it seems like it's not acknowledged enough that Deighton is very funny

sarahell, Sunday, 28 May 2017 23:03 (six years ago) link


D Cairns, one of my fave movie bloggers, writing about Deighton and his adaptations again

Daniel_Rf, Sunday, 11 June 2017 13:02 (six years ago) link

Mark S's posts here and elsewhere spurred to pick up old copies of FiB and Spy Game (it's a quid on Kindle right now too). There's something smart-alecky and glib about his sentence-writing style that irritates me; is that a thing about him that other people love? Will persevere though.

Chuck_Tatum, Sunday, 11 June 2017 20:14 (six years ago) link

There's something smart-alecky and glib about his sentence-writing style that irritates me; is that a thing about him that other people love?

I do, yes.

sarahell, Sunday, 11 June 2017 20:15 (six years ago) link

though I understand being irritated by smart-alecky and glib -- a large part of my loathing for LCD Soundsystem

sarahell, Sunday, 11 June 2017 20:17 (six years ago) link

Interesting - ok will try harder. Are either of those good ones to start with? I meant Berlin Game obvs (Spy Game is crap Robert Redford movie iirc).

Chuck_Tatum, Sunday, 11 June 2017 20:18 (six years ago) link

i haven't read a book of his not in the first person: so smart-alecky and glib register to me as characteristics of his primary character: harry palmer is totally a glib smart-aleck

in ONLY WHEN I LARF, which switches between three first-person narrators narrators, i don't think he does itwith all three, only with the one who's harry palmer-ish (which is not to say you mightn't get bored with it: i haven't yet)

mark s, Sunday, 11 June 2017 20:21 (six years ago) link

Palmer is smart-alecky and glib about things that his elders and superiors think are Very Serious Indeed which is part of the appeal i think, as mark pointed out earlier he is really being disrespectful of the glorious British Empire

There's got to be a Corbyn after (Noodle Vague), Sunday, 11 June 2017 20:23 (six years ago) link

two weeks pass...

I was inspired to read Ipcress and Berlin Game back to back. It's really notable how downbeat and constrained the film version of Ipcress is in comparison to the book - which has more of a line in derring-do and big set pieces a la Fleming (sticky bombs! Pacific atolls!). Part of that would certainly have been down to budget but it definitely felt like they were trying to put more water between Palmer and Bond.

I enjoyed Berlin Game too - much more of a kindred spirit to Le Carre by that stage. Resentful, embittered spies and Sainsbury's prosecco.

Wag1 Shree Rajneesh (ShariVari), Tuesday, 27 June 2017 20:37 (six years ago) link

i'm still only a way into ipcress file: and yes, it does get around a bit, though the action sequences i've encountered so far already have the same lucky-inches-from-a-colossal-fuck-up sense noted above (funeral in berlin is much more dour, even tho set in several countries, and this fuck-up aspect is greatly amplified)

mark s, Tuesday, 27 June 2017 20:48 (six years ago) link

Yes, that's true. I am halfway through Horse Under Water now and absolutely everything has gone wrong.

Wag1 Shree Rajneesh (ShariVari), Tuesday, 27 June 2017 20:50 (six years ago) link

Looking at Winter in the library shop: two brothers, last name Winter, with a German father and American mother (American-born anyway). One goes good, or not as bad as the other, who becomes a Nazi. They both go through both World Wars, I think, and the jacket flap promises lots of immersive detail about life in Germany. Random reading so far is just one of them being ripped a new one by typical drill sgt., will check again on next visit, if it's still there. Anybody read it?

dow, Tuesday, 27 June 2017 21:45 (six years ago) link

Ha - also reading Deighton right now - started Funeral in Berlin a few days ago, enjoying it, quickly got over my problems with Deighton's writing (see "glib" upthread). He seems like perfect midpoint between Fleming and Le Carre - the action and globe-trotting larkiness of Bond, the grimness and bureaucracy of Smiley, etc.

(I don't like Le Carre, but I always enjoy his bits about how miserable and awful England is - they're the closest he gets to jokes)

Chuck_Tatum, Wednesday, 28 June 2017 08:55 (six years ago) link


^^^the day they all met for lunch

(my next rehabilitation in this vein will probably be eric ambler)

mark s, Thursday, 29 June 2017 14:27 (six years ago) link

i think i may have read at least one Elleston Trevor as a teen but i remember nothing

more polls about food and reactionary art (Noodle Vague), Thursday, 29 June 2017 14:29 (six years ago) link

Ambler's an interesting one in that Cause For Alarm, The Mask of Dmitrios and Journey Into Fear all seem to be very well regarded but the rest hardly get the time of day. That might be the doing of Penguin Modern Classics though.

Wag1 Shree Rajneesh (ShariVari), Thursday, 29 June 2017 14:52 (six years ago) link

I've got a couple of Amblers at home courtesy of my other half's father. Not started either yet but will report back (I'm reading one of those British Library crime thrillers which is at least fast-paced)

André Ryu (Neil S), Thursday, 29 June 2017 15:09 (six years ago) link

Epitaph for a Spy and Background to Danger are also good; all the pre-'45 stuff is variations on a theme, really.

Chuck_Tatum, Thursday, 29 June 2017 15:26 (six years ago) link

i love ambler and he can kind of do no wrong, though i'd need to go over titles again to pick out ones that aren't in print but good. he's faster than anyone else i've ever read at setting things up with economy of dialogue, character strokes and scenery that i think should be obligatory study for any writer.

Fizzles, Thursday, 29 June 2017 16:16 (six years ago) link

i sometimes go back and read the beginning of his books and think "you get *here* in *two pages*! how?!"

Fizzles, Thursday, 29 June 2017 16:18 (six years ago) link

Here's the full Amis review mentioned in the Ambler story. Some good catty lines.


Chuck_Tatum, Thursday, 29 June 2017 17:45 (six years ago) link

Ambler is wonderful: 1940s/50s stuff probably the best, but he doesn't ever lose the magic.

Mince Pramthwart (James Morrison), Friday, 30 June 2017 03:51 (six years ago) link

Finished Funeral in Berlin - sad to say I found it a bit of a slog, but I'm guessing the things I disliked are the exact things that Deighton's fans love about him: the stop/start plotting, the endless banter, the sense of never really knowing what's happening - it's like the spy version of Turn of the Screw.

Perhaps if all that had been tied to a more enjoyable sentence-writing style, I would've liked it more - but generally I found the prose a bit purple, and the jokey dialogue - although fun at first - sort of relentlessly hits the same larky note throughout. (As everyone else is as much of a wiseass as Harry, he stops standing out.)

THAT SAID I will try another one - first couple of chapters of Berlin Game are promising.

Chuck_Tatum, Monday, 3 July 2017 12:39 (six years ago) link

Good writeup here: https://astrofella.wordpress.com/2014/09/14/funeral-in-berlin-len-deighton/

What gives the novel its peculiarly Deightonesque quality, is that the narrator – who holds all the cards ie has his suspicions and is calculating the angles on all the scenarios mentioned above – does not share this knowledge with the reader. In this novel, as in Ipcress, it is only at the very, very end that any kind of order or pattern emerges from the events described, and then only in laconic conversations with his secretary or boss – and even this ‘final roundup’ still leaves holes in the narrative and motivation.

It's those "Deightonesque" qualities that lost me - but I can see why they'd be appealing to another reader.

Chuck_Tatum, Monday, 3 July 2017 12:50 (six years ago) link

four years pass...

God help me I kinda want to watch ITV get The Ipcress File wrong

Reader, I buried him (Noodle Vague), Monday, 7 February 2022 21:02 (two years ago) link

They should have remade it with Dennis Pennis as Palmer.

Being cheap is expensive (snoball), Monday, 7 February 2022 21:25 (two years ago) link

Who's the little twerp playing Harry Palmer?

Bastards of Fish (Tom D.), Monday, 7 February 2022 21:47 (two years ago) link

The Michael Caine cosplay is a groaner

Chuck_Tatum, Monday, 7 February 2022 22:09 (two years ago) link

four months pass...

Didn't realise until now that Deighton drew and designed the cover for the first UK edition of On the Road


Ward Fowler, Monday, 20 June 2022 14:18 (one year ago) link


Ward Fowler, Monday, 20 June 2022 14:27 (one year ago) link


Tracer Hand, Monday, 20 June 2022 14:42 (one year ago) link


Tracer Hand, Monday, 20 June 2022 14:42 (one year ago) link


Tracer Hand, Monday, 20 June 2022 14:42 (one year ago) link


Ward Fowler, Monday, 20 June 2022 15:22 (one year ago) link

... signed too!

Doodles Diamond (Tom D.), Monday, 20 June 2022 15:26 (one year ago) link

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