Thursday, June 12, 2014

Horse Under Water: Len Deighton

I have admitted in the past that I did not enjoy The Ipcress File when I read it. It was the first book by Len Deighton that I read, and I was disappointed. I also felt like I was alone in this, since I had read so many favorable reviews. It is on the list of top 100 mysteries for both the CWA in the UK and the MWA in the US.

When I read The Ipcress File, I got lost and had no idea what was going on in the first half. Now that I have experienced more of Deighton's work, I think I should return to that book someday. Shortly after that, I read Berlin Game, the first Bernard Samson novel, and I loved it. I became an immediate Len Deighton fan.

Horse Under Water is the second in the Nameless Spy series, which began with The Ipcress File. I am happy to say that I enjoyed reading it. If you have heard this series referred to as the Harry Palmer novels, that name was given to Deighton’s hero (played by Michael Caine) in the film adaptations; in the books the hero is not named.

In 2009, Jeremy Duns, author of another series of spy novels, wrote a very complimentary article in The Guardian on Deighton's spy novels. At one point, he notes that the complexity in the novels may be what keeps Deighton's books from being widely read today.
Deighton's novels usually contain enough elements for several books. Horse Under Water, for instance, featured a wrecked submarine, forged currency, heroin, ice-melting technology and British Nazis. 
The story is set primarily in Portugal, with some scenes in London. The wrecked submarine is off the coast of a small fishing village in Portugal, and our hero and his crew are diving in search of forged British and American currency. As in most spy novels, things (and people) are not always what they seem.

The nameless spy is more of a common, everyday person than the James Bond type of spy; sure, he visits exotic locales, and he deals with dangerous situations and dangerous people, but he is just a working-class guy, doing a job, and has a girlfriend from the office. (To be honest, I have not read the James Bond novels recently and I am using the image of James Bond that we have from the movies in this comparison.)

In Deighton's introduction to this book, he talks about how he gathered research from the War Museum in Lambeth, using books, films and documents stored there:
In the final year of the war, there had been tremendous scientific advances in undersea warfare and I pursued these reports — British, American and German — with particular zeal. The War Museum’s librarian asked me to help by categorizing the material I examined, so that I became an unofficial member of the Museum staff. At the time, I had no idea that the notes I made would be used for anything other than my interest in history. It was during my stay in Portugal, when I was asking local people about German activity there during the war, that I recalled all that underwater warfare material. The book’s plot fell into place and I started writing.
I also found his comments on the movies starring Michael Caine very interesting:
The indomitable Harry Saltzman, who had co-produced the James Bond films and was making The Ipcress File, solved everything with the sort of unhesitating practical move for which he was renowned. Michael Caine was cast to play the hero of that film and Michael was a Londoner, as I was. He was named Harry Palmer. It was the right decision. Michael and the man of whom I’d written fused perfectly. I am indebted to Michael for the dimensions his skill and talent provided to my character.
For me, the introductions to the reissues of Deighton's book make them worth the price.

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Publisher:  Reissued 2011 by Sterling (first published 1963)
Length:   242 pages
Format:   trade paperback
Series:    Nameless Spy
Setting:   Portugal and the UK
Genre:    espionage fiction

12 comments:

  1. Tracy - In my opinion, it's hard to go wrong with a good Deighton. He really is talented, and one of his skills is definitely evoking place and time.

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    1. You are so right, Margot. I enjoy Deighton's writing so much.

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  2. I read, and enjoyed, many of his books at the time of publication but have not reread any of them. I may well do that over the coming winter when I won't be spending my days gardening. Flighty.

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    1. Flighty, thanks so much for commenting. I really don't remember reading Deighton when I was younger, perhaps just less availability of books at the time. You have a lovely blog about your gardening.

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  3. Really interesting Tracy: I will have to read this one when I have finished the Samson books. Like you, I really enjoy Len Deighton's introductions to his books.

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    1. Moira, In addition to reading this one for Past Offenses challenge to read books set in 1963, I also wanted to get to Funeral in Berlin, because I want to watch the movie (after I read the book).

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  4. Tracy, I'm delighted to see the re-emergence of popular authors of the 60s, 70s & 80s, such as Deighton, among present-day readers and bloggers. I read Deighton many years ago and hope (re)read some of his newer books.

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    1. Prashant, I don't remember reading Deighton's books until recently. Don't know how I missed him when his books were first published. But I am definitely enjoying his books now. And I really appreciate all the research he has done on history for some of his books.

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  5. I'm intrigued by this post and by Deighton's books. However, I'm not one for global warfare or espionage books. It seems like we readers have enough to deal with in one city or country, even if abroad. And to me the Cold War was bad enough (us having to hide under desks in school) and see endless news broadcasts, even at the movies, etc., that I do not want to read about it.

    However, that said, if you could suggest one of his books to me, what would it be?

    And thanks for this fascinating blog, always something new to me. Even if I can't do the reading, the blog is a treat every day.

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    1. Thanks very much for those kind words, Kathy. As far as books by Len Deighton, my favorite is Berlin Game, the first in the Bernard Samson series. Set in London and Germany in the early eighties. Most of his books do have something to do with World War II even if they are not set in that time.

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  6. Very good review, Tracy! I've never been one for spy novels but one of these days I will have to give it a go. Our tastes change and I might like it now.

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    1. Our tastes do change, Peggy. I have found that often in my reading in the last few years. There is a lot of variety in spy fiction. Some are more slowly paced, some are more thrillerish.

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