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.
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