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Why Len Deighton’s spy stories are set to thrill a new generation | Len Deighton

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Spies, treachery and dangerous secrets, all liberally seasoned with dry wit: these were the moreish ingredients that made international hits of Len Deighton’s stylish 1960s thrillers, set in the grey world of post-colonial, postwar British intelligence. His sardonic working-class hero, played on screen by Michael Caine in the The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain, set the template for a succession of deadpan, worldly-wise leading men.

Now a fresh generation have the chance to sample Deighton’s wares as Penguin republishes many of his books, starting this month with those three, early bestselling titles.

Meanwhile, in Liverpool, the filming of a new TV series based on The Ipcress File is already under way for ITV. Joe Cole has been cast as Harry Palmer, and, yes, he will be wearing the heavy-framed specs that Caine trademarked.

But, as regular readers of The Observer’s food magazine will know, Deighton, now 92, is not only a dab hand at concocting suspense. Since the 1960s, he has also been acclaimed for his cookery writing, producing a popular series of distinctive cartoon strips for use in the kitchen.

While working as a journalist on this newspaper in the 1960s, he developed a winning recipe: simple, funny visual instructions that showed how to make classic cuisine at home. Fifty years on, Deighton and his son Alex brought back the feature to the Observer’s pages, culminating in a 59th anniversary strip that laid out his idea of the perfect meal: beef wellington followed by traditional trifle.

The jacket for the reissue of The Ipcress File by Penguin this month.
The jacket for the reissue of The Ipcress File by Penguin this month. Photograph: Penguin Random House

Food, in one form or another, will always be fashionable, but Deighton’s fiction has also stood the test of time. His habitually acerbic narrative voice still has much to say to contemporary readers.

“Dad and I both feel his books and their characters are still relevant in this moment when so many people are realising those at the bottom of the ladder still aren’t getting a fair shake,” said Alex.

Deighton’s heroes are often forced to battle class prejudice as well as malignant foreign powers. And there is frequently little to indicate which is more sinister. “My dad has always written about the working class. He knew they are often the smartest and hardest-working people in the room. But the tone is never chippy. There is just a humorous acknowledgement of where the power lies.”

Deighton’s son, speaking this weekend from Los Angeles, where he is working on another plan to film some of his father’s books, also points to a particularly “poignant” example in the novel Yesterday’s Spy. “The hero isn’t treated well by his spy masters, who send him to judge and kill his mentor, the only person who treated him decently.”

In 2017, Caine was clear about the significance of the moment when, in the face of “terrible snobbery”, Cockney heroes were allowed on to the British stage or film set. “When it changed,” Caine said, “it was all down to the writers. They started writing for working-class people, and it made all the difference.”

Deighton had grown up in what his son now describes as a “Downton Abbey world”, and not at the Lord Grantham end. “His father was the chauffeur and his mother was the cook, and they all lived above a garage in the mews behind a big London house. My grandmother taught my dad how to cook, and then he taught us. It was all very formative.”

The famous kitchen scene in The Ipcress File, when Palmer cooks an omelette for a female colleague, was indeed a turning point, he believes. “It was important that Caine didn’t have to look as if he couldn’t do it properly just because he was a man.”

The films attempted to reproduce the mood of the books, translating the central character’s internal narrative into amusing dialogue. “They tried to keep the sardonic tone, but a screenplay is so different. A lot of the humour of the books is in the way Harry recounted things.”

Alex says he loves the thrillers “because it’s like having dad talk to me”, and he often wonders at the way his father could have written something more than half a century ago that can still make someone laugh. “It’s quite an extraordinary thing really for that to happen, and the hardest possible thing to do.”

One of Len and Alex Deighton’s recent cookstrips for Observer Food Monthly.
One of Len and Alex Deighton’s recent cookstrips for Observer Food Monthly. Illustration: Len Deighton/The Observer

Deighton’s writing regime was Stakhanovite. He was at his desk early in the morning: “He is the kind of person who believes that to be creative you need to be sitting there, working. I’ve seen him working at Christmas and certainly at weekends. I find it amazing now that he was able to do so much with my brother and I sliding down the banisters outside his office. Of course my mother was was a very good buffer between us and him.”

Working on the later cookery strips with his father has clearly been a labour of love, born out of what he recalls as a “food-oriented” childhood. “My brother is also a very keen and ambitious cook. So we are hardcore. Good food, in our view, is the way that you show love. I think it’s a lovely thing.”

The earlier strips were also successfully anthologised in the 1960s as Action Cookbook and Où Est Le Garlic?

An email sent to him by his father from his Guernsey home makes it clear that food is still a top priority for the novelist. “He is old and he gets tired, but he said he is very pleased with the republications. Then most of the rest of the email is taken up with telling me that he had walked into town that day and gone to the Austrian patisserie. He then had a dozen oysters and a draught Guinness, followed by some Sachertorte. So you can see he’s doing quite well on Guernsey.”

His father, Alex says, is a “fairly level-headed man”, rather like his literary alter ego, Harry. “But he is, of course, flattered that he is still found relevant and that people still enjoy his work.”

This article was amended on 2 May 2021 to correct a draught/draft homophone.

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