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.