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For the 1965 film, see The Ipcress File (film).
First edition (publ. Hodder & Stoughton)

The IPCRESS File is Len Deighton's first spy novel, published in 1962. It was made into a film in 1965 produced by Harry Saltzman, directed by Sidney J. Furie and starring Michael Caine. The novel, which involves Cold War brainwashing, includes scenes in Lebanon and on an atoll for a United States atomic weapon test, as well as information about Joe One, the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb, although these elements did not appear in the film version.


In 1992 Deighton said that the inspiration to write the novel came from his real-life neighbour Anna Wolkoff, a White Russian émigré who collaborated with a cipher clerk from the American embassy to spy for Germany in World War II. Deighton's mother cooked for Wolkoff's dinner parties and he said that he "vividly" remembered when British MI5 agents came to arrest her: "The experience was a major factor in my decision to write a spy story at my first attempt at fiction."[1] The plot involves mind control, the acronym IPCRESS of the title standing for "Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under Stress". The brainwashing is similar to a shock technique called psychic driving pioneered by Donald Ewen Cameron in the 1950s, originally on unwitting mental hospital patients, and utilised and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency's secret MKULTRA program in Canada.


Deighton's protagonist is nameless; this is maintained through all the sequels (although later in the series called "Charles").[2] Early in the novel we learn that he worked for Military Intelligence for three years before joining his present agency – WOOC(P) – as a civilian employee. WOOC(P) is described as "one of the smallest and most important of the Intelligence Units". (It is never stated exactly what the initials stand for, although his previous boss refers to it as Provisional.) We also learn in passing that he is from Burnley, Lancashire, and that he was born in 1922 or 1923.[3]

WOOC(P) is a small department and the nameless hero has a great deal of autonomy. He is also quite paranoid, keeping an "escape package" containing money, a false passport and other documents circulating in the mail. Once a week he picks up the package from an accommodation address, a seedy London shop, and re-mails it to that address in a fresh envelope. He is also a gourmet who enjoys good food. Cooking features frequently in both the film and the novel; Deighton himself was an accomplished cook.

In common with several of his other early novels, the chapter headings have a "feature". In The IPCRESS File these take the form of each chapter being headed with a quote from a horoscope, which relates to the action in the chapter, though vaguely, as in most horoscopes.

The front cover, by Deighton's friend Raymond Hawkey, has been described as "the template for the covers of all subsequent airport novels".[4]


A film adaptation starring Michael Caine was released in 1965 and produced by the James Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman, assisted by several prominent members of the Bond production family. The film medium made it difficult to maintain the anonymity of Deighton's hero, who acquired the name Harry Palmer.

The character's name was chosen by Caine, who was having lunch with Harry Saltzman. Saltzman invited Caine over to his table for coffee. They were trying to think of a name for the protagonist, and agreed that a boring name would best suit the protagonist's persona. Caine suggested the name Harry and then immediately apologised to Saltzman. Luckily Saltzman saw the funny side and pointed out that his real first name was actually Herschel, not Harry, so Saltzman was satisfied with it. The inspiration for the surname came from a boy called Palmer whom Caine knew at school. Caine described Palmer as: "the most boring boy I'd ever met".[5]

The given name "Harry" actually occurs in a short sequence in the book where the nameless hero is greeted by someone saying "Hello, Harry." This causes him to think, "Now my name isn't Harry, but in this business it's hard to remember whether it ever had been."[6]


  1. ^ Campbell, Christy (21 June 1992). "Spies With Class: Two of our best-loved, but vastly different, fictional spies, James Bond and Harry Palmer, have reached pensionable age". The Sunday Telegraph (London). p. 101. 
  2. ^ Deighton, Len. Yesterdays Spy. Harcourt Brace Janovich, 1975. p. 45, 47.
  3. ^ Deighton, Len (1982). The IPCRESS File. Ballantine. p. 25. ISBN 0-345-30453-5. For example; take the time my picture appeared in The Burnley Daily Gazette in July 1939, when I won the fifth form mathematics prize. 
  4. ^ Dyckhoff, Tom (2001-09-15). "They've got it covered". Guardian web edition (London). Retrieved 2007-12-06. 
  5. ^ David Schwartz (May 28, 2010). "Citizen Caine". Moving Image Source. Museum of the Moving Image. Retrieved November 24, 2010. 
  6. ^ Deighton, Len (1982). The IPCRESS File. Ballantine. p. 31. ISBN 0-345-30453-5. 

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