Len Deighton: ‘The Ipcress File’ Vs ‘Berlin Game’

Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File was published in 1962. It’s a product of its time, but it features a protagonist with timeless appeal. His resilience and plucky attitude make him easy to empathise with.

Deighton’s unnamed anti-hero appeared a year before John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Len Deighton’s protagonist is a first-person character, an updated noir detective turned into a quintessential 60s ‘man about town’. Leamas, in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, is a third person character. He’s from the old world, a bygone age. He’s adjusting to the new world, a washed-up figure who espouses the outdated values of self-sacrifice, and chivalric honour. The unnamed anti-hero of The Ipcress File is more interested in seducing women and the quality of his morning coffee. He’s not exactly frivolous, just part of the fashionable 1960s consumerist society. Unlike Leamas, he belongs in the modern world.

The Ipcress File is a young work in some respects, a bit rough around the edges, but it comes with its charms. Its hero is hardly a counterculture rebel. He is a talented ‘small man’ who is locked out of ‘the system’, a popular character type in British storytelling.

Twenty years later, Len Deighton’s Berlin Game (1982), introduced a new hero. This time the central character did have a name — Bernard Samson. Samson is middle-aged and jaded. He’s seen it all before, or at least he thinks he has.

Len Deighton is on top form in Berlin Game. It might not have the vivid newness of the earlier work but the sentences flow smoothly and the experience feels more polished. Bernard Samson is a more nuanced character in a more nuanced story. It’s the first novel in a six-part series that ends with a novel written in the third person (filling in the gaps by providing alternative character viewpoints to Bernard Samson).

Bernard isn’t a young, single lad about town. He’s a family man and the spy ‘game’ is deeply affecting his family, wife and children. Deighton’s eye for social politics is even more acute than before, but with less of The Ipcress File’s trademark movie dialogue sarcasm.

Who is the real enemy? Soviet intelligence, or is it likely to be a narcissistic department head who is determined to crush anyone who suspects him of incompetence?

Berlin Game is a refinement on The Ipcress File. But, like The Ipcress File, it’s limited by its first-person viewpoint. That viewpoint is part of its charm, and its inherent problem.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is really a first-person novel written in the third person. It’s almost completely written from the perspective of Leamas.

John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first novel in the ‘Karla Trilogy’. It uses the third person viewpoint to expand the scope of the storytelling experience. It goes beyond The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Berlin Game. The inherant danger of this approach lies in confusing the reader with too much information, different viewpoints, and generally slowing things down. The result is a different kind of story. In this case, it’s one that mirrors George Smiley’s investigation.

Everything is a balance. There’s a balance between having an immediate impact and in building up a sophisticated context around the main story. I wonder if some of these decisions are age-dependent? The story of the cheeky upstart in The Ipcress File was made for the first person viewpoint. The implications of George Smiley’s investigation, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, demand the third person.

The Ipcress File: Brilliant.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: Brilliant.
Berlin Game: Brilliant.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Brilliant.