Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Billion-Dollar Brain: Len Deighton

Brief summary at Goodreads:
The fourth of Deighton's novels to be narrated by the unnamed employee of WOOC(P) is the thrilling story of an anti-communist espionage network owned by a Texan billionaire, General Midwinter, run from a vast computer complex known as the Brain. After having been recruited by Harvey Newbegin, the narrator travels from the bone-freezing winter of Helsinki, Riga and Leningrad, to the stifling heat of Texas, and soon finds himself tangling with enemies on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
I have read four books in the nameless spy series by Len Deighton. Ipcress File was the first Len Deighton book I read and I was totally confused the whole time I was reading it. I liked Horse Under Water much better; I was more used to the style of writing and the character, and the plot seemed much more straightforward to me. Funeral in Berlin was very good; I liked the setting especially, and the plot and new characters were entertaining.


Billion-Dollar Brain seemed quite different from the others. More James Bondish, more fantastical and fun. I was still in a state of confusion for a good bit of the time, plot-wise, but enjoyed the book regardless.

Both le Carré and Deighton write about the bureaucracy in espionage; the difference is that le Carré's writing is much bleaker and Deighton's books are more fun to read. Or that is my experience so far. Admittedly, I get less confused about the plotlines with le Carre's books.

This book has memorable characters, in addition to the unnamed agent and his boss, Dawlish, and his secretary, Jean. Harvey Newbegin and the KGB colonel, Stok, were both in Funeral in Berlin. General Midwinter is larger than life and very scary. There is a young Finnish girl, Signe Laine, who is an agent for some group, maybe the Americans, maybe the Russians.

And on a side note, the depiction of a supercomputer in this novel (and the film) was interesting to me. Although I work in computer technology, I don't know much about the history of computing and what was available when. I worked in computers in the 1980s, although at a level of data entry and computer operations at that point. I remember using punch cards and reel-to-reel tapes. Very nostalgic.

Deighton's introduction to the book adds more value and insight. He talks about his travels to all of the places included in the story, and the importance of going at the same time of year as the setting of the book. Since the protagonist visits Helsinki, Latvia, Leningrad, New York, and Texas, that is a lot of traveling.

Deighton also talks about the writing process:
Editors and publishers said my books were too cryptic; too fragmented and demanded too much of the reader. They all pressed me to conform to the orthodox methods of 'popular fiction'. For instance, they were united in expecting a full description of each character at the first entrance. I resisted all this fiercely; I hadn't followed any such rules in my previous books and I refused to be tied to them now. I reasoned that, just as one never gets to the end of discovering new aspects of old friends and relatives, so I wanted all my characters -- even minor ones -- to be more completely revealed as the story continued.

The film adaptation, Billion Dollar Brain, with Michael Caine, Karl Malden, and Ed Begley, was also fun. I have pointed out that the book is more the James Bond type of story than any of the previous books in the series. Same for the movie.

There are many differences between the book and the film, including the way the plot is resolved. The film adaptations for The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin were closer to the books, and watching them illuminated my understanding of the books. In this case, the two were very different, and hard to compare.

Just a few notes:

  • There  were cameos by Donald Sutherland and Susan George but they were so brief I did not notice them.
  • A lot of the names are changed but most of the characters are there. 
  • The novel features a rich billionaire running a conspiracy plot with a huge computer, but the computer is not the most important aspect of the story. The movie gives more time to the computer and General Midwinter's invasion.
  • The computers in the film were provided by Honeywell.

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Publisher:  Reissued 2011 by Sterling (first published 1966)
Length:      282 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Series:       Nameless Spy
Setting:      Helsinki, Latvia, Leningrad, New York, and Texas
Genre:       Espionage fiction

18 comments:

  1. Didn't know about the edition with the intro, thanks Tracy. I think HORSE UNDER WATER was the one I liked the most too - I think FUNERAL must be the most faithful adaptation overall, though there is something rather special about the IPCRESS film even if it does simplify the plot!

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    1. I like watching all of them, Sergio. I paid a lots for a copy of IPCRESS, because it never shows up here on TV that I am aware of. The plot still confuses me. As far as I can remember, I haven't seen any of these movies until recently.

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    2. I've only seen the movie for IPCRESS, but FUNERAL was my favorite of the books. I thought it had the best plot, and didn't tip over into absurdity like I thought BRAIN sometimes did.

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    3. Graham, I find it hard to decide on a favorite of this series, although Ipcress File would definitely not be it. Billion-Dollar Brain is so different it almost doesn't feel like it is part of the series.

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  2. I'm glad you enjoyed this one, Tracy. I think that Deighton's books have a very effective combination of character and wit, even entries like this, that are more purely thrillers and ask for more suspension of disbelief. I'm glad you got to read that introduction, too; I think knowing an author's perspective can add to the book.

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    1. You are right, Margot, tons of wit. They are a pleasure to read because of his humor and cynicism.

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  3. Wow, I had no idea they were still using punch cards in the 80s.

    I learned to program in Fortran in 1966 and punch cards were the only available I/O (what a pain), but I was kinda sure they must have been gone by the 80s. Up til now, that is; wrong again.

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    1. Yes, they were definitely still around in the early 1980's, Howard. I had the computer operator job from 1981-1983, and we were sending some our jobs to an out-of-house data center. We must of phased out of using the punch cards before 1985. Both our company and the data center were small operations comparatively, so slow to move to newer technology I guess.

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  4. I'm afraid le Carre's books have never really grabbed me, apart from THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. I had no idea what was going on in his other books so oddly enough I find Deighton much less cryptic than le Carre.

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    1. That is interesting. Between the two, Deighton would come out on top anyway. He is absolutely my favorite writer of spy fiction, and is very close to the top of my author list, period. The Bernard Samson books are my favorites of all that I have read so far.

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  5. Tracy, I did not know about the film version of "Billion Dollar Brain." I'm going to try and track down the film which has such fine actors.

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    1. It is a fun movie, I hope you can find it, Prashant.

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  6. I was a huge Deighton fan--read each book as it came out, and caught each flick in the theater. Even bought a book of his cooking cartoon strips, and tried some of the recipes. My favorite of them all was, and remains, The Ipcress File, Tracy. What I like most about it is the sense of reality of intelligence people groping in the dark without a clue what the hell is happening. The irreverence worked, too. Michael Caine was perfect as Harry Palmer. Perfect.

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    1. I do plan to reread Ipcress File, Mathew. I don't really think I read any of Deighton's books when I was younger and I don't know how I missed them. But I get to read them now, which is fine. The Bernard Samson books are my favorites. XPD is the only non-series book I have read so far. Well, Winter, but it is sort of part of the Samson series.

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  7. I love, love, love a good espionage novel. Bought a few Len Deighton books after Rich reviewed them a year ago. I think. Looking forward to reading him. I really want to read The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins. I have a list and of course le Carre is at the top of it. Enjoying The Night Manager and getting back to it soon.

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    1. I want to read Jack Higgins too, Keishon. I have a few of his books, I think The Eagle has Landed is one of them.

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  8. Good reminder to me that I need to read more Deighton after the wonderful experience of the Samson novels last year.

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    1. Me, too, Moira. I have stuck with the nameless spy series lately because I had bought all the movies and wanted to read the books first, but I still have a lot of his standalone books to read. I thought I had read more of them, but I think I have only read XPD. Glen read SS-GB and liked it. Soon, on to more James Bond.

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