Monday, 23 July 2012

Ipcress at 50: Harry Palmer – the NCO turned reluctant spy:

Why the ‘unnamed’ spy cracked the spy thriller mould.

In the first of what I hope will be a series of short thought pieces to mark the 50th anniversary of The Ipcress File publication, I take a look at some of the reasons why the book made such a splash, and has never been out of print since.

Casino Royale opens with James Bond observing one of SMERSH’s paymasters, Le Chiffre in a glamorous European casino with the Cold War heating up. Straightaway, Ian Fleming has established the mode of operation of his spy lead and the world in which he operates.

In The Ipcress File, by contrast, the narrator – Len Deighton’s unnamed spy who will, in perpetuity, be known as ‘Harry Palmer’ – we meet first not in a discussion with his boss about his next mission abroad chasing down agents working for the Russians, but in a dialogue about his expenses.

What this signifies I think is that The Ipcress File is a marker post for what was in 1962 the next wave in spy/thriller fiction. If the pre-war years were the work of the trusty amateur spy (in real life and in fiction), by the War and postwar years agencies had had to become more professional, and so did the fictional spies. If Bond was the model, nerveless suave professional in the ‘fifties, what was ‘Harry Palmer’?

Sunday, 15 July 2012

A real cover up .....

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

I imagine that will be the defence of this apparent example of flattery presented as a 'tribute' to the work of the late Ray Hawkey, who created one of the most iconic front covers of the 20th Century with his work on the first edition of The Ipcress File.

Birlin, a Scottish publishers, has used a pastiche of Hawkey's cover for a new paperback by Barry Fantoni, Private Eye writer who turned to detective fiction.

They would one imagines have known what they were doing and this appears like a - admittedly, quite clever - bid for press coverage by this Scottish publisher, working to the maxim 'all publicity is good publicity'. After all, I'm writing about it; designers are up in arms; it's in the news.

Deighton's friend and biographer Edward Milward-Oliver has alerted me to this article in The Observer, which reports on the flagrant appropriation of Ray Hawkey's Ipcress File jacket design for this new novel. Edward has written to the publishers:
"It took many years of determined study, practical application and a large helping of God-given creative genius for Hawkey to arrive at his design. It continues to be recognised as a key milestone in Hawkey's significant influence on the visual culture of Britain in the second half of the 20th century."
Berlinn claims that it is an homage to Ray Hawkey's original jacket for The Ipcress File, that their design is a public show of respect. Yet they don't credit Hawkey's original work and did not seek the prior approval of his widow.

The Observer report's Berlinn's publishing director Neville Moir as saying he "regretted" that there had been no printed acknowledgement of the original jacket and Hawkey. With hindsight, he said, he would have given one. He added: "We weren't trying to pass off anything." The fuss he describes in the article as "unfortunate" - although, of course, it's likely to drive up sales no end, which will be "fortunate" for Berlin and Fantoni.

Is plausible deniability a defence?

Up on the main Deighton Dossier website is a copy of the article Edward wrote for 007 magazine on the work of Ray Hawkey, which of course included pivotal covers for the James Bond stories as well as innovations in newspaper magazine illustration and design during his career as a designer.

The two covers are published on this blog post. You take a look and decide: loving tribute, or rip-off. Readers are encouraged to get in touch with the publishers Birlinn to voice their disapproval, if they so wish.

See this post by Mike Dempsey to get the design world's perspective on the story.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Win a long-lost thriller by Bond script writer Berkely Mather! ....

Lost for something to read over the summer? How about a fantastic but neglected spy thriller by English writer Berkely Mather, set in the Himalayas?

Last year I ran a successful competition to win a copy of the long-forgotten - but excellent - Undertow by Desmond Cory, one of the long-lost classic British thrillers which are being resurrected by author Mike Ripley through his Top Notch Thrillers imprint.

This year, Mike's been very kind and given the Deighton Dossier another newly issued book to give away in a competition. I'm really happy to raise awareness of what Mike's doing: he's undertaking a one-man mission if you will to bring to light - Indiana Jones-style - some of the lost treasures of the crime and thriller world which, through neglect or simply going out of fashion, have been lost to modern readers.

Through the Top Notch series of reissues by Ostara Publishing, works by writers such as Adam Hall, Andrew York and David Brierley are now available again to enjoy both in print and in e-book format, which Mike informs me is by far the most popular way in which readers are accessing these hidden treasures.

The book available to win is The Pass Beyond Kashmir, by Berkely Mather.

“You only get one or two thrillers a year – if you are lucky – as good as Berkely Mather’s 'The Pass Beyond Kashmir….'.” was the verdict of Anthony Price in the Oxford Mail on the publication in 1960 of a thriller firmly in the British tradition of ‘ripping yarns’.

The plot? A delirious survivor from an ill-fated wartime surveying expedition to the foothills of Tibet raves… ‘Oil – all the oil in the world – on top of the bloody Himalayas!’ Years later, finding the papers of that expedition becomes a high priority for spies, mercenaries, oil companies and governments. Former army intelligence officer, unorthodox insurance assessor and freelance investigator Idwal Rees, an experienced Far Eastern hand operating out of Bombay gets involved in a dangerous game of hide and seek across India and Pakistan attempting to stay one step ahead of the opposition all the way to the pass beyond Kashmir…. where the invading Chinese army is lying in wait.

Among the many famous fans of Kashmir was Ian Fleming who wrote: "Takes the author triumphantly into the small category of those adventure writers who I, for one, will in future buy ‘sight unseen’". When the James Bond thriller Dr No was being filmed, it was Ian Fleming who insisted on using Mather as a scriptwriter and Mather’s subsequent film credits included the historical blockbusters 'Genghis Khan' and 'The Long Ships'.

To win, answer this question: to the nearest 10 metres, what is the height of K2, the second-highest mountain in the Himalayas?

This competition is now closed. The winner was Peter Greenhill. Thanks to readers who entered.


  • Closing date: 31 July 2012
  • There is one book available for the winner, who will picked at random from the emails received
  • The winner will be notified by email and the book posted off to them (overseas by surface mail)
  • The blog editor's decision is final
  • No correspondence will be entered into about this competition.

Catch this vibe ....

Jason Whiton, author of the excellent SpyVibe blog, has kindly included the Deighton Dossier website in his series 'For Your Shelf Only'.

In this blog series, Jason is in conversation with writers and collectors around the Internet who are contributing to the growing shared knowledge and enjoyment of all things 'espionage' in culture. In our interview, we chatted online about how my collection of Deighton books started, how the site developed, and what Len's works give me as a reader.

I'm pleased we could contribute to this excellent website, which is one of the members of the C.O.B.R.A.S. online grouping of bloggers and definitely a site to bookmark. Watch out for other interviews covering all aspects of spy fiction and culture.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Michael Caine: a Spy-ography ....

Caine as Harry Palmer

This article, by Wesley Britton, is reproduced from his SpyWise site which will shortly close down. Wesley's invited members of the C.O.B.R.A.S. network to look through the website and, rather like an online rummage sale, pick out the items they like to re-post them, so that they remain up online for people to read about them.

I've picked this article about Michael Caine's film career. Wesley sets out the key role that spy characters have played in its development, not least his ground-breaking role as Harry Palmer. Enjoy.

A Spy-ography of Michael Caine

From Harry Palmer to Austin Powers: A Spy-ography of Michael Caine

By Wesley Britton

"Who's the Number One Film Spy of all time? Without question, Bond, James Bond. But who's the Number One Spy ACTOR of All Time? Ah, that's a different question.

Hmm. Sean Connery immediately springs to mind. Seven Bond films alone. He also had significant roles in Tom Clancey's Hunt for Red October and John Le Carre's Russia House (both 1990). He didn’t fare as well in outings like The Avengers (1998) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). All this places him in the first rank of moviehouse spies, far ahead of Roger Moore who also starred in seven 007 films along with a few "Saint" outings, only one of which can be considered espionage-oriented (being The Fiction Makers in 1966). Anyone else?

For my ticket price, one name stands out as being the man unquestionably involved in more quality spy projects than anyone else. Michael Caine. He turned out to be the spy for all seasons based on determination, talent, and a bit of luck. And perfect timing.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Bret Rensselaer has vacated his desk ....

Anthony Bate as Bret Rensselaer
While I was away on holiday, there was sad news that British actor Anthony Bate passed away. I remember him of course from his portrayal of Samson's boss - and antagonist on the battlefield of office politics in London Central in all nine books of the series - Bret Rensselaer, in ITV's 1988 TV series. Check out the Guardian's full obituary.

He is also perhaps more familiar to most fans of spy fiction from his portrayal of civil servant Oliver Lacon in the BBC adaptation of Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and then the sequel, Smiley's People. However, as an established actor he has a tremendous CV of threatre and film appearances, including in Treasure Island, Crime and Punishment and Les Miserables.

Sadly, it looks like we're not able still to see Anthony's portrayal of Bret due to Len's continued decision not to permit further re-runs of the show or a DVD release. Len had reasonable doubts about some of the casting in the show, which explains his decision, but I do think Anthony Bate got Bret's mid-Atlantic drawl and position as the eminence grise of London Central just right.