Len Deighton

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Len Deighton
BornLeonard Cyril Deighton
(1929-02-18) 18 February 1929 (age 91)
Marylebone, London, England
OccupationWriter, illustrator
Alma materRoyal College of Art
GenreSpy fiction, military fiction, alternate history, non-fiction
Notable worksThe IPCRESS File
The Bernard Samson novels
Goodbye, Mickey Mouse
Oh! What a Lovely War
SpouseYsabele Deighton
ChildrenAlexander, Antoni

Leonard Cyril Deighton (/ˈdtən/; born 18 February 1929) is a British author. Deighton is considered one of the top three spy novelists of his time (along with Ian Fleming and John le Carré).[1][2] In addition he is a highly acclaimed military historian, cookery writer, and graphic artist. The IPCRESS File (1962), his first novel, was an instant bestseller and broke the mould of thriller writing. The Sunday Times called him "the poet of the spy story".[3] Deighton’s first protagonist – a nameless spy christened Harry Palmer in the films – was made famous worldwide in 1960s films starring Michael Caine.


Early life and early career: 1929–1961[edit]

Deighton was born in Marylebone, London, on 18 February 1929.[4] His father was the chauffeur and mechanic for Campbell Dodgson, the Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum; Deighton's mother was a part-time cook. At the time the family lived in Gloucester Place Mews near Baker Street.[5][6] At the age of eleven, Deighton witnessed the arrest of Anna Wolkoff, for whom his mother cooked; Wolkoff, a British subject of Russian descent, was a Nazi spy. In 1940 she was detained and charged with stealing correspondence between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.[7] Deighton said that observing her arrest was "a major factor in my decision to write a spy story at my first attempt at fiction".[8]

Deighton was educated at St Marylebone Grammar School, but was moved to an emergency school for part of the Second World War.[9] After leaving school Deighton worked as a railway clerk,[10] before being conscripted, aged 17, to do his national service, which he did with the Royal Air Force. While in the RAF he was trained as a photographer, often recording crime scenes as part of his duties.[9][10]

He finished national service after two and a half years. A demobilisation grant enabled him to study at the Saint Martin's School of Art, from which he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art; he graduated from the college in 1955.[11][12] He worked as a flight attendant for British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) between 1956 and 1957 before becoming a professional illustrator. Much of his work was in advertising—he worked for agencies in New York and London—but he also illustrated magazines and over 200 book covers, including for the first UK edition of Jack Kerouac's 1957 work On the Road.[6][9][13]

Publishing career: 1961–[edit]

Cookstrip for Boeuf Bourguignon

Following the publication of a cartoon cookery illustration in The Daily Express in 1961, Deighton was commissioned by The Observer for to provide a "Cookstrip" for the paper's magazine, which he did between March 1962 and August 1966.[14] Deighton had come up with the concept while he was at art school and worked as a porter in the restaurant of the Royal Festival Hall and occasionally assisted the chefs in preparing dishes. He made sketches to remember some of the steps he undertook.[15] He later explained:

I was buying expensive cookbooks. I'm very messy, and didn't want to take them into the kitchen. So I wrote out the recipes on paper, and it was easier for me to draw three eggs than write 'three eggs'. So I drew three eggs, then put in an arrow. For me it was a natural way to work.[16]

In 1962 Deighton's first novel, The IPCRESS File, was published; it had been written in 1960 while he was staying in the Dordogne;[10] the book was soon a commercial success.[17][18] The story introduced an working class protagonist, cynical and tough, who remained unnamed through the novel and its sequels, although he was given the name Harry Palmer in the 1962 film adaptation.[4][a]

Deighton considers the character is not an anti-hero, but "a romantic, incorruptible figure in the mould of Philip Marlowe".[17] Deighton described the inspiration of using a working-class spy among the Oxbridge-educated members of the Establishment came from his time at the advertising agency, when he was the only member of the company's board not to have been educated at Eton. He said "The IPCRESS File is about spies on the surface, but it's also really about a grammar school boy among public school boys and the difficulties he faces."[19]

After two further novels with his unnamed protagonist—Horse Under Water (1963) and Funeral in Berlin (1964)—Deighton published two cookbooks in 1965, Len Deighton's Action Cook Book (a collection of his cookstrips from The Observer) and Où est le garlic, a collection of French recipes.[13][20] After two more novels—Billion-Dollar Brain (1966) and An Expensive Place to Die (1967)—he published his first historical non-fiction work, The Assassination of President Kennedy (1967), co-written with M. Rand and H. Lockston.[20] In September that year he wrote an article in The Sunday Times Magazine about Operation Snowdrop, an SAS attack on Benghazi during the Second World War. The following year David Stirling, the leader of the raid, was awarded substantial damages in libel from the article.[21] During the mid-1960s Deighton wrote for Playboy as a travel correspondent, and he provided a piece on the boom in spy fiction; An Expensive Place to Die was serialised in the magazine in 1967.[22]

In 1968 Deighton was the producer of the film Only When I Larf, which was based on his novel of the same name.[23] He was the writer and co-producer of Oh! What a Lovely War in 1969, but did not enjoy the process of making films, and had his name removed from the film's credits.[6][24]

In 1970 Deighton wrote Bomber, a fictional account of an RAF Bomber Command raid that goes wrong.[13] To produce the novel he used an IBM MT/ST, and it is likely that this is the first novel to be written using a word processor.[25][26] Deighton's next non-fictional work, Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain, was published in 1977. The book was well-received by readers and critics, although it was "censured by some for including interviews with German participants", according to the journalist Jake Kerridge.[17]

The idea for Deighton's 1978 novel SS-GB came from Ray Hawkey, Deighton's friend from art school and the designer of the covers of several of his books. While the two were discussing what would have happened if the Germans had won the Second World War, Hawkey asked Deighton if he thought there could be an alternative history novel.[14][27]

From 1983 Deighton wrote a trio of trilogies, Berlin Game (1983); Mexico Set (1984) and London Match (1985); Spy Hook (1988); Spy Line (1989) and Spy Sinker (1990); and Faith (1994); Hope (1995) and Charity (1996). Winter, a companion novel, dealing with the lives of a German family from 1899 to 1945, which also provides an historical background to several of the characters from the trilogies, was published in 1987. The trilogies are all centred on Bernard Samson, a tough, cynical and disrespectful MI6 intelligence officer.[4][28]

Personal life[edit]

Deighton married the illustrator Shirley Thompson in 1960;[4] the couple were divorced in 1976, having not lived together for over five years.[29] He left Britain in 1969, and has lived abroad since, including in Ireland, Austria, France, the US and Portugal.[12][30] He lived for a while in Blackrock, County Louth;[31] where he married Ysabele, the daughter of a Dutch diplomat. [30]

Deighton does not like giving interviews, and these have been rare throughout his life; he also avoids appearing at literary festivals.[32][33] He says that he does not enjoy being a writer: "The best thing about writing books is being at a party and telling some pretty girl you write books, the worst thing is sitting at a typewriter and actually writing the book."[19] After completing the Faith, Hope and Charity he decided to take a year off writing; at the end of the period, he thought writing was "a mug's game" that he did not miss and did not have to do.[34]


Novels and film adaptations[edit]

Several of Deighton's novels have been adapted as films including The IPCRESS File, Funeral in Berlin, Billion Dollar Brain and Spy Story. All featured the Deighton character "Harry Palmer". Two television movies also featured Palmer but the author had no involvement with Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996); they were not based on his writings.[35]

Deighton's first five novels featured the anonymous and cynical anti-hero Harry Palmer. In the films produced by Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman he was portrayed by Michael Caine. The atmosphere was considered quite realistic, not the least because many of the characters were openly venal, cowardly or stupid; equally because the bureaucratic complications and inter-departmental rivalries of the British civil service, even the secret civil service, made for frequent black-comic relief; and the portrayal of the technical aspects of espionage and related criminal enterprises was quite detailed. The novels were dotted with footnotes explaining various slang terms and abbreviations in the dialogue; there were even appendices.

The first trilogy of his Bernard Samson novel series was made into a twelve-part television series by Granada Television in 1988; in the US, the series aired in 1989 as part of the PBS show Mystery!.[36][37]

Although Quentin Tarantino expressed interest in filming the trilogy,[38] the nine Samson novels were in pre-production with Clerkenwell Films,[39] who hired Tom Edge (The Crown, Lovesick) to adapt the novels for television. No specifics about this plan had been released as of August 2019. Most recently, the BBC adapted Deighton’s alternate history novel SS-GB for a five-part TV miniseries which was broadcast in 2017 as one hour episodes.[40]

Deighton's 1970 Second World War historical novel Bomber was about an RAF Bomber Command raid over Germany. Anthony Burgess cited it as one of the 99 best novels in English since 1939 and Motörhead frontman, Lemmy, dedicated the band's third album Bomber to Len Deighton. Other major fiction works include Winter and Goodbye, Mickey Mouse. He began writing a Vietnam War novel but did not complete this work. "It was going to be about the air war in Vietnam, about the fighter pilots and how they compared with those of the First and Second World Wars", he told the New York Times in 1981.[41] Some of his research about the war appeared as the story First Base in his short story collection Declarations of War published in 1971.[42]

Cookery books[edit]

Deighton also wrote a series of cookery books, and wrote and drew a weekly strip cartoon-style illustrated cooking guide in The Observer newspaper – Len Deighton's Action Cook Book.[43] At least one of the strips is pinned up in Deighton's spy hero's kitchen in the 1965 film of his novel The IPCRESS File.[44]

In 2014 The Observer announced that Deighton would create 12 new cookstrips to be printed every month in the Observer Food Magazine, starting in January 2015.

To exploit the success of Deighton's first four "Unnamed Hero" novels, he wrote Len Deighton's London Dossier (1967), a guide book to Swinging Sixties London with a "secret agent" theme – contributions from other writers are described as "surveillance reports".

History books[edit]

Deighton's 1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain was said by Albert Speer (once Hitler's Minister of Armaments) to be "an excellent, most thorough examination. I read page after page with fascination." The piece was furnished with a foreword by A. J. P. Taylor labelling the work as a "brilliant analysis"

Blitzkrieg, Deighton's history of the rise of the Nazis and the fall of France, has a foreword written by General Walter Nehring (Chief of Staff to General Heinz Guderian). Deighton's most recent history book is Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II. It corrected many myths and was warmly received, being described as "an absolute landmark" by Jack Higgins.

Legacy and influence[edit]

In Letters from Burma, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi mentions reading Len Deighton's books, while under house arrest. Suu Kyi wrote that she was passionate about Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes and the spy novels of John le Carre and Len Deighton.[45]

When asked by Christie's about his love for Indian art and how he started his collection, Nobel Prize-winning author V. S. Naipaul credited Len Deighton. "I met Len Deighton, the thriller writer, at dinner many years ago. He demonstrated to me that Indian art could really be approachable. I bought from Maggs because of Len Deighton pushing me onto [them] as being a very fair dealer, saying that they do not charge you much more than they should. That’s a marvelous thing to be told."[46]

In the late 1960s, Deighton was making films through his production company Deighton/Duffy. Bertrand Russell knew that Deighton was in pre-production of "Oh What a Lovely War", an anti-war movie about the First World War. Russell, who was staunchly anti-war, had been in contact with The Beatles, who supported his views. Russell suggested that The Beatles contact Deighton to see if there was an opportunity to work together.[47]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ The unnamed protagonist appears in several of Deighton's works:


  1. ^ Morrell, David; Wagner, Hank (2012). Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads. Oceanview Publishing. ISBN 978-1608090402.
  2. ^ Burchby, Casey (7 December 2011). "Len Deighton's Spy Novels Still Outsmart Fleming and le Carre After 50 Years in Print". SF Weekly. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  3. ^ Deighton, Len. The Ipcress File. HarperColins. ISBN 9780007343027.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Len Deighton". Contemporary Authors.
  5. ^ "The Deighton File". 26 May 2009, Event occurs at 4:20–4:50.
  6. ^ a b c Dawson Scott 2006a, p. 43.
  7. ^ Masters 1987, p. 257.
  8. ^ Campbell 1992, p. 101.
  9. ^ a b c Buckton 2012, p. 55.
  10. ^ a b c Masters 1987, p. 258.
  11. ^ Milward-Oliver 1987, p. 11.
  12. ^ a b Dawson Scott 2006b.
  13. ^ a b c Brown 1987, p. 12.
  14. ^ a b Milward-Oliver 1987, p. 98.
  15. ^ Walsh 2009.
  16. ^ Stummer 2014.
  17. ^ a b c Kerridge 2017, p. 55.
  18. ^ Krueger 2014, p. 102.
  19. ^ a b Kerridge 2019, p. 44.
  20. ^ a b Jackson & Gwilliam 1999, pp. 16–17.
  21. ^ "Libel Damages For 'Operation Snowdrop' Leader". The Times.
  22. ^ Hines 2018, pp. 160–161.
  23. ^ "Only When I Larf (1968)". British Film Institute.
  24. ^ Kerridge 2009, p. 10.
  25. ^ The Daily News of Los Angeles. 17 January 2020.
  26. ^ Kirschenbaum 2013, p. 1.
  27. ^ Deighton 2017.
  28. ^ Woods 2008, p. 118.
  29. ^ Bird 1976, p. 39.
  30. ^ a b Bateman 1997.
  31. ^ Egan 2018.
  32. ^ Didcock 2009, p. 17.
  33. ^ "The Deighton File". 26 May 2009, Event occurs at 1:15–2:05.
  34. ^ "The Deighton File". 26 May 2009, Event occurs at 3:45–4:05.
  35. ^ Harry Palmer – The Perfect Antithesis To The Jet-Setting Suave James Bond
  36. ^ Nancy Mills (16 April 1989). "Deighton Spy Lead Fits Ian Holm Like Black Glove". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 30 August 2019.
  37. ^ Review/Television; 13 Hours' Worth of British Spying on the 'Mystery' Series
  38. ^ Child, Ben (14 August 2009). "Tarantino mulls Deighton spy film to rival Bond". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 August 2015.
  39. ^ Kemp, Stuart (11 April 2013). "Simon Beaufoy to Adapt Len Deighton's Spy Novels for TV". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 7 August 2015.
  40. ^ SS-GB review
  41. ^ Behind The Best Sellers; LEN DEIGHTON
  42. ^ Declarations of War
  43. ^ Stummer, Robin (14 December 2014). "Len Deighton's Observer cookstrips, Michael Caine and the 1960s". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 August 2015.
  44. ^ "The Ipcress File trivia". IMDB.
  45. ^ "Back to prayer for Suu Kyi". Capital News. 12 August 2009. Retrieved 10 December 2017.
  46. ^ "Collectors & their collections: V.S. Naipaul". Christie's. 1 June 2015. Retrieved 10 December 2017.
  47. ^ 1943-, Miles, Barry (1998) [1997]. Paul McCartney : Many Years From Now (1st Owl Books ed.). New York: H. Holt. ISBN 9780805052497. OCLC 40284619.


Broadcast media[edit]


  • Brown, Geoffrey (February 1987). "The Thrillers and Spy Novels of Len Deighton". The Book and Magazine Collector. Diamond Publishing Group (35).
  • Jackson, Crispin; Gwilliam, Graham (March 1999). "Len Deighton: The Master Thriller Writer Turns Seventy". The Book and Magazine Collector. Diamond Publishing Group (180).

News media[edit]


External links[edit]