How have I managed to avoid reading this book for so long? It is just the sort of thing I was reading back in the 80s, but I missed it, somehow.
This is a novel on a par with those of John le Carré, but written from the point of view of a decidedly working-class spy: he has verbal sparring matches with his Eton/Oxford boss, making occasional remarks such as suggesting that he might be able to muddle through a certain assignment “despite my lack of a classical education.” All good stuff.
It is written in the first person by the (nameless) working-class spy. Deighton mentions in a later introduction that the reader should be aware that first person narrations are bound to paint the narrator in a favorable light, and small deceptions are to be expected. And we see this in a couple cases, where in one scene the spy is quite clueless about what is happening, but in a later retelling suggests that in fact he suspected just what actually turned out to be the case. One drawback to first person narrative is that the reader is normally quite sure that the narrator will survive whatever harrowing and dangerous situations he encounters: that element of suspense is completely removed from the picture.
The novel bristles with quick repartee; slangy and self-consciously working class on the part of the narrator, high-brow and supercilious on the part of his boss and most of the other high-ranking spies. There’s good stuff on nearly every page of the first half of the novel. But in the second half, when things are getting pretty serious, the sardonic humor falls to the wayside. But the action and suspense more than make up for that loss, as we see our narrator through a set of hairy situations.
As is to be expected, the Soviet Union (in 1962) is portrayed in this book as a dangerous and aggressive force for ill, and no irony is expended on the actually dangerous and aggressive policies of the British and US governments. If this were a book of history rather than a novel we might expect a sort of scorecard detailing the real and actual acts of aggression carried out by the West vs. those of the USSR (small hint: the USSR loses that competition by a mile). But the spy novel genre of necessity treats the spy biz as being, at the very least, justified by the perfidy of The Enemy.
Putting aside the cold war attitudes, this is an excellent read, and an astonishingly good first novel by Len Deighton.