I watched a very interesting documentary about Len Deighton a few weeks ago. Len was a student in Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and became a commercial artist before writing The Ipcress File and finding overnight fame as a writer of intelligent spy thrillers. One thing he learned in college was to walk round his subject before drawing it. He was told to look at it from all angles.
You can see him doing this in his writing. He writes in short, simple sentences but the juxtapositions are often surprising. They are visual but not merely visual. Together they have breadth and depth and detail. It is 3-D fiction of astonishing clarity.
Here are some extracts. His spy is on an island to witness some tests of a nuclear bomb.
The heat rocketed back from the burning sand underfoot. The red painted framework of girders that made the shot tower blistered the careless hand. Wriggling away from the legs of the tower, black smooth cables and corrugated pipelines rested along each other like a Chinese apothecary’s box of snakes. Fifty yards away a twenty-foot-high electric fence, circumscribing the tower, was manned by a white-helmeted police with panting Alsation dogs on short leashes. A white amphibious jeep was parked near the only gate, its awning modified to permit the traverse of a half-inch-calibre machine-gun. The driver sat with hands clasped high on the steering-column, his chin resting on the back of his thumb. His helmet liner was painted in lateral black and yellow two-inch stripes to show he had a ‘Q’ permit. He looked like Danny Kaye.
Half a mile away across the flat sand I could see small shimmering black figures adjusting the automatic cameras which at this range could only be preserved by a freak of failure. With a well-oiled sound a three-man lift dropped down the tower with the accuracy of a guillotine blade and bobbed gently on its spring cushion. My guide was a small lizard-like civilian with hard, horny hands and face, and the lightest blue eyes I ever saw. His white shirt had small darns such as only a loving wife can do, and only a tight salary bracket make necessary. Across the back of one hand was a faded tattoo, an anchor design from which a name had been erased. The plain gold signet-ring caught the sun through his copious white hair…
The spy gets into the lift, telling the guide to look after his brief-case.
He nodded his white head slowly and deliberately, as one would to a sub-intelligent child or foreigner, and the lift surged upward. The red girders cut the white hot sand into Mondrian-like shapes moving before me more quickly as the lift gained speed. The wire roof divided the dark-blue sky into a hundred rectangles as the oily steel lift cable passed me on its journey downward. No sooner did the platforms permit me to peek over them than they fell away beneath my feet. For 200 feet I rocketed into the air, the circle of fencing falling around my feet like a spent hula hoop. Through the crack in the floorboard I watched the white police jeep lazily trot round the tower, on the sand that the explosion would transform into glass.
What happens high up in the tower is of immense significance to the plot. Most writers would concentrate on the meeting that takes place there, the tense conversation between the two men, the revelation that puts both their lives in danger. Len gives us the those things but he doesn’t neglect the location. He walks all around the subject.
Afterwards, the spy returns to the Officers’ Mess where he becomes earthed again and Len shows off more of his early training – as a chef.
Then all was cool and calm. The long white crispy tables, the jugs of ice-water making noises like the treble end of a xylophone. The stainless steel, the low murmur of serious masculine conversation, the purr of air-conditioning units. This was reality, this was the world – not the scene through the window; that was a fable.
The vichyssoise was rich with fresh cream, through which the fugitive flavour of leek came mellow and earthy; it was cold and not too thick. The steak was tender and sanguine, dark with the charred carbon of crusted juices, and served with asparagus tips and pommes allumettes. The coffee came along with strawberry short-cake. I ate it all, drank the weak coffee, then settled back with a Gauloise Blue. Poisoning seemed an unlikely method of dealing with my defection.
I have left out the wry dialogue and the dry wit. Even without them you can see why this novel was snapped up by Harry Saltzman and made into a movie. It’s not rocket science.