This was the book that launched Len Deighton's writing career and formed the basis for the famous Michael Caine film. The storyline is quite complex and twists its way through 300-plus pages of political intrigue and deceit. At heart it is a spy thriller, but because of the way it's written it becomes so much more.
Our narrator is a gentleman - I use the term loosely - called Harry Palmer, who in the prologue is about to explain the strange case of the Ipcress file to a Minister. The book proper then starts with the tale being retold as it happened, right from the meeting with the boss he hated and starting a new position within the Service to the conclusion
that is impossible to predict from the outset. What seems to be a fairly routine job turns into an international time bomb.
The plot starts out straightforwardly and suddenly becomes a maze of interconnecting subplot without any apparent warning. The plot would of itself be pretty compelling stuff, with some (apparent) insights into the way the
Secret Service operates - they sound convincing, anyway. It's also (and I wasn't expecting this) painfully funny - wry humor drips
from every line of this book. The narrator isnít exactly a character we can sympathize with much early on - he has a sharp wit and a sharper tongue, seems to be permanently one step away from being in front of a
judge, and doesnít seem to have much remorse when a mission goes wrong, resulting in the deaths of some American agents. However, as the story goes on, we begin to see the softer side of Harry Palmer, and certainly the more humane side of him
Without particularly noticing it happening, I found that the story had gone from a seemingly simple case of scientists hopping over to the other side to a complex case of international espionage - with Palmer finding himself the prime suspect. The fairly simple objective of tracking and tracing the middleman in the ring handling the defecting scientists soon becomes a critical case of finding a criminal mastermind and proving his innocence - all while doing the hardest thing of all: staying alive. Before and after this, he is also occupied by flirting with his new
secretary, baiting his old secretary, and generally being cynical to everyone he meets. The defections, of course, are not as simple as they at first appear - in fact, theyíre not what they at first appear at allÖ
The story is told in first person with plenty of little remarks and turns of phrase that will have you chuckling. The plot would be fairly involving without the humor, but the biting cynicism and relentless wit draw you in completely. Itís not an easy read in that you have to keep your eyes peeled in case you miss something, but itís very rewarding. Some knowledge of the Cold War and a little understanding of psychology are needed to get the full impact of this book, especially as the explanation near the end of everything thatís been going on is a little involved.
Anyone who likes spy/espionage thrillers will love this book, and readers who appreciate the fine crafting of a turn of phrase mixed in with a generous helping of hardened cynicism will love it even more.