Published in 1962 The Ipcress File is the first introduction to Len Deighton’s British Spy. In the book he remains nameless but he was later christened Harry Palmer for the films starring Michael Caine. Deighton took an interesting approach to his writing, the whole book is a report to the Minister of Defence and as such has references and notes supplementing the core story.
The novel begins with the reassignment of our protagonist from Military Intelligence to a small civilian unit headed up by a man called Dalby. His first case is a missing British scientist, the latest of eight top priority personnel to disappear in a space of six weeks. Their main suspect is a man codenamed Jay an intelligence broker believed to be working for the Soviets. The missing scientist is tracked and a successful rescue mission executed. As the investigation into Jay continues a safe house is raided, although abandoned a tape recording of distorted human voices is discovered. Taking him away from the Jay investigation Dalby requests our protagonist joins him on a trip to observe an American nuclear weapons test in the Pacific. Whilst there our protagonist learns there are suspicions that he is in fact a Soviet Spy, trusting in the wrong people he finds himself held and interrogated by the Americans before being handed over to the Hungarians.
Can he escape the Hungarian holding cell? Who was the real spy at the American test base? What was the significance of the voice recording? How deep into British government does the treachery go?
I could answer these questions but it would ruin the story so I’m going to leave my plot summary at that.
A huge commercial success when published The Ipcress File is often mentioned as one of the best spy novels of all time and whilst I do not disagree with that statement I must warn readers that this is a book that will require your full attention. Similar to when I read John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Solider Spy I found myself having to re-read sections to ensure I fully understood what was taking place. This is not a book to pick up if there are distractions or if you can’t commit a decent amount of time. There is a lot of mystery and subterfuge within the book and I have to admit to getting a little lost at times. But it is a credit to the characters and storyline that despite getting lost I wanted to continue and was happy to go back and clarify points to ensure I had a general idea of what was going on. That said, I can completely understand how what I found enticing and mysterious another reader might find obtuse and just give up.
Without giving away the ending I have to say it was a little disappointing. After such a complex plot I felt that things were tidied up far too quickly without a real fight. And no matter how good the bulk of the book was if you’re left feeling a little deflated it becomes difficult to rave about.
The 4th book in the Rebus series sees our leading character back in Edinburgh and in a new relationship with Dr Patience Atkin. Rebus is without a doubt more comfortable in his native Edinburgh and in this book I would say he is at his most stable so far. That said, it wouldn’t be Rebus if there weren’t dark clouds up ahead and doubts about his future, or more specifically his and Patience’s future. Forever tied to his job and unable to put his love life first I found it amusing that a decision about whether to move in with Patience is weighted by whether he continues to be based at the Greater London Road police station or moved to St Leonards. For those who’ve read subsequent or more recent Rebus books…well you know the outcome.
Of the Rebus books so far I would say Strip Jack is the more straight forward “who dun nit” with a little bit of Rebus intuition thrown in. The book starts with a raid on an Edinburgh brothel, where amongst the many punters the police find a popular young MP Gregor Jack. Despite the secrecy of the raid upon exiting the building the road is lined with press. Something about this doesn’t sit well with Rebus, it just seems too lucky for the press to be there. When Jack’s wife Elizabeth disappears Rebus can’t help but feel there is a bigger game at foot and starts to explore the social and personal lives of Gregor and Elizabeth Jack and their friends. A disappearance becomes a murder. There is pressure on the police to quickly solve it but Rebus isn’t convinced they’re following the right line of enquiry. True to himself and like a dog with a bone Rebus won’t give up. Was Gregor Jack set up? Who can be trusted? Where was Elizabeth murdered? Step by step Rebus unravels the story in a way only he can.
Without becoming uncontrollable in twists and turns there are enough red herrings and sub-plots in Strip Jack to keep us all guessing. The cast is larger than previous books, giving Rankin an opportunity to develop more colourful and varied characters and in doing so giving Rebus more reflections to compare and judge himself against. With this book we are seeing a world evolve around the Inspector. In subsequent correspondence Ian Rankin has spoken about his decision with this book to take Rebus out of a fictional Edinburgh and into a more real one. In the short series so far geography and in particular Edinburgh and its surrounding areas have proven to be a key building block of the books. These books more so than any other series I have read place a city at its heart. Edinburgh is as much a reoccurring character as Brian Holmes, Gill Templer, “Farmer Watson” and in the later books Siobhan Clarke and “Big Ger Cafferty”. Whether it is the return from London, or this decision to make Edinburgh more real, in Strip Jack Rebus feels more grounded and secure in his role at the station, his stage in life and quite possibly in his romantic life.
It goes without saying that I’m a huge fan of Ian Rankin’s work, I wouldn’t be re-reading the series from start if I wasn’t. I really enjoyed this book and felt like you could feel Rankin getting to grips with his plot structure, character development and starting to bring multiple dimensions to his main man. A review of the book I recently read seemed to lament on the absence of the gruff, self-loathing critical rebel we know from later books. If you’re not reading the books in order I can understand why someone would question Rebus’ approach in this book but I would say to them, start at the beginning, travel with him, because only then can you truly understand the infuriating loner who wins the sympathy of readers time and time again.