Len Deighton and John Le Carre

Len Deighton turned 80 last week, I just discovered from the Guardian. He was born on February 18, 1929, according to Wikipedia.(Telegraph photo.)

Honestly I didn’t even know he was still around, for I haven’t seen any new book by him for a long time. His last thriller was Charity, published in 1996.

That’s sad because he is one of the two greatest British spy fiction writers. Second only to John Le Carre. Ian Fleming doesn’t even come close. I wouldn’t describe Graham Greene, whom I love, as a spy fiction writer.

Deighton is, in fact, more versatile than Le Carre. He has written books like Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain, World War II air-war stories like Bomber and Goodbye Mickey Mouse, and Only When I Larf, a comic thriller about conmen.

He is more snappy and less literary than Le Carre and doesn’t meander like Le Carre does sometimes, though his plots can be equally complex. What a fiendish maze he wove around his spy, Bernard Samson. Starting with The Berlin Game in the early 1980s, he wrote three Samson trilogies, ending with Charity. Midway through the series, Samson’s wife, Fiona, goes over to the Soviets but then he discovers she is working as a British double agent.

Both Deighton and Le Carre started publishing in the early 60s.

But Samson is closer in spirit to Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus than to Le Carre’s spy, George Smiley, in some ways. He is first and foremost a rebellious field agent and not a mandarin who is also good in the field like Smiley.

Deighton’s prank

Deighton also has a sense of fun. The Guardian says:

Deighton managed to achieve a false entry in Who’s Who. It read, “Eldest son of a Governor-General of the Windward Islands. After an uneventful education at Eton and Worcester College, Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics and was President of the Union, he signed on as a deckhand on a Japanese whaler.

In reality, he was a Londoner who finished school and worked as a railway clerk, airline steward, photographer, waiter, illustrator and art director before making his name as a writer.

Early success

Both Deighton and Le Carre had their first books published in 1961. Deighton’s The Ipcress File proved a bigger success than Le Carre’s Call for the Dead featuring George Smiley. The Ipcress File was made into a film starring Michael Caine.

Le Carre hit the big time with his third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was immediately hailed as a classic when it appeared in 1963. And he is still writing. While Deighton has not published a thriller for more than 10 years, Le Carre, three years his junior, came out with A Most Wanted Man last year.

The voice and the scenes

There is another difference between them. Deighton’s writing is tight; it’s hard to put down his books. He is thoroughly professional. But somehow I can’t recall his plots or scenes from his books.

Some of Le Carre’s scenes, on the other hand, are indelible. Like Smiley looking up to the lighted windows of the home of his former wife, Anne. Or the execution of an English lawyer on a Turkish hillside in Single and Single. Or some of the African scenes in The Constant Gardener. Or the descriptions of Smiley in Smiley’s People.

But both are great in their own ways. Deighton has his own distinctive voice. Take this quote, for example, from Wikipedia — Bernard Samson describing himself in The Berlin Game:

My photo stared back at me from its silver frame. Bernard Samson, a serious young man with a baby face, wavy hair and horn-rimmed glasses, looked nothing like the wrinkled old fool I shaved every morning.

George Smiley would never talk like that. There is something elegiac about Smiley while Samson is more of a tough guy.

Deighton is “quietly pleased” that HarperCollins will, from June, be reissuing several of his novels, culminating in a golden jubilee edition of The Ipcress File in 2012, reports the Telegraph. It adds:

He hopes new readers will “get a laugh” out of his books. Does he think other spy writers are too solemn? “It’s difficult to be sure sometimes what is intended humour and what is unintended, isn’t it?

You can’t expect a straight answer from a spy writer like Deighton.

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