The Ipcress File by Len Deighton
The story starts when the unnamed protagonist (called Harry Palmer and played by Michael Caine in the 1965 movie adaptation) is transferred from his old post in Military Intelligence – probably part of what is now called MI5 – into a counter-espionage unit led by the enigmatic character Dalby. Here he learns that British scientists have been disappearing over the past few months and it’s their job to find out what is happening and stop it. Of course things are simply not that easy. The chief suspect is thought to be a double agent – although there’s no proof that he is – and the one scientist they get back has large chunks of his memory missing and is now useless to HM Government. If that wasn’t bad enough the American’s suspect that MI5 has been penetrated by the Russians and ‘Harry’ is their main suspect.
When it was published in 1962 this novel was hailed as a breakthrough in the espionage genre. For the first time spying was shown as just another job with meetings, file keeping, arguments over expenses and heavy layers of bureaucracy. It showed, or at least appeared to show, the more down-to-earth side of things. So much so that it drips with the details and minutia that embedded it firmly in its time and place thereby dating it very badly. Probably a good thing at the time but over 40 years later maybe not – except maybe for the social historians amongst its readership. That may have been part of what helped confused me for ¾ of the book. Although it was eminently readable I really didn’t have much of a clue what was going on. Memories of the film didn’t help much as (IIRC) the plot was significantly different – with enough similarities to make it even more confusing! I’ve read several Deighton books in the past – most recently XPD – and have pretty much enjoyed all of them (in particular SS-GB). But I can’t honestly say the same about this offering. One for dedicated Deighton fans only I think.