The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969)

The human body is one of the dirtiest things in the known universe (p.116)

Michael Crichton

I’ve no idea what Crichton was like as a man but I admire his phenomenal success as a writer of popular techno-thrillers. If you’re going to entertain, then you might as well do it as effectively as possible. Ever since I learned about it years ago, I’ve been impressed by what will probably be a unique feat that no-one will ever match, namely that in 1994 Crichton was, simultaneously, the writer of America’s number one movie, Jurassic Park, was the creator and producer of America’s number one TV show, ER, and had a book at number one in the bestseller list, Disclosure.

What an amazing achievement and indicator of the practical skills of a man who was not only an author and scriptwriter, but who produced and directed movies himself, as well as creating and exec producing hit TV series.

The Andromeda Strain

Right back at the start of his career, young Michael (born 1942), was 26 when he published this, the first novel to appear under his own name (a few had appeared under pseudonyms). It announces a major talent, not so much in the plot – space probe returns to earth carrying a deadly virus is the same as, say, The Quatermass Experiment – but in the thoroughness and the verisimilitude of the scientific and administrative framework he presents the story in.

The story begins by describing the arrival of a two-man recovery team (Lieutenant Shawn and Private Lewis Crane) to retrieve a space probe which has crash landed on the small town of Piedmont in Arizona (population 48). They’re in the middle of doing so when their radio message back to base is dramatically cut short. Alerts are transmitted up the chain of command until five scientists who have been kept on standby for just such an emergency are each visited at home in the middle of the night by dark-suited security officials, asked to accompany them immediately in unmarked cars to military airports and flown to the top secret biohazard unit in the Nevada desert which has been painstakingly constructed for just such an emergency, under the codename Project Wildfire.

The scientists are:

  • Dr. Jeremy Stone: Professor and chair of the bacteriology department at Stanford University, fictitiously the winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
  • Dr. Charles Burton, 54 (p.61) Professor of Pathology at the Baylor College of Medicine, ‘nervous, jumpy, petulant’, nicknamed the Stumbler (p.54)
  • Dr. Peter Leavitt ‘superb clinical bacteriologist’ (p.59) who suffers from epilepsy, ‘an irritating, grumbling, heavyset man’ (p.54)
  • Dr. Mark Hall, surgeon
  • Professor Christian Kirke, who never makes an appearance because he’s in hospital for appendicitis

The plot then follows the scientists’ race against time to identify the weird extra-terrestrial virus and try to find a cure. The breakneck plot builds up to a climax when there’s a breach in biosecurity at the Wildfire centre with the result so that the virus gets loose among our heroes, and there’s a race against time to prevent its spread… with a novel twist at the very end.

So much for the thrilling plot, but what really distinguishes the text, and makes Crichton’s debut stand out, is the enormous amount of scientific, technical and administrative content.

Organisations

For example, the book is packed with dense and authoritative-sounding explanations of the umpteen different branches of the US military, space agency and security services which were involved in the research, commissioning, financing and building of the biohazard centre, including:

  • Vandenberg Scoop Mission Control
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • the Wildfire facility is built by the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics
  • the Army Medical Corps, Chemical and Biological Warfare Division
  • the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee
  • the Goddard Spaceflight Centre
  • the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee

Official documentation

Lots of pages of the text consist of ‘copies’ or apparent photostats of official documents, procedures, maps, computer projections and so on, for example a photocopy of the original letter written by concerned scientists to the President of the United States suggesting the creation of a quarantined biohazard centre. It was here, right back at the start of the project, that the scientists included the controversial suggestion of having a small thermonuclear device onsite, which could be detonated if the infection gets out of control (under Directive 7-12, codename Cautery).

In fact soon after Stone and Burton have investigated the town (wearing tip-top latest biohazard suits) and discover an old man still alive and a screaming baby and retrieve them into a helicopter and take them back to the Wildfire centre, Piedmont is itself destroyed by a small nuclear weapon (p.114).

Scientific references

Then, complementing the detailed descriptions of security organisations there is the science itself. It includes references to:

  • a fictional study by J.J. Merrick an English biophysicist on the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life and the probability of it being single-cell life
  • a study by the Hudson Institute on the likely outcome of various scenarios around an alien infection outbreak and the impact of detonating a nuclear weapon to obliterate it (p.87)
  • a two-page study complete with statistical analysis, of the Odd Man Out Hypothesis
  • a study by Rudolph Karp who established there are life forms on meteors and asteroids (p.130)
  • the Vector Three report which identified three possible sources for extra-terrestrial bacteria
  • the Messenger Theory of John R. Samuels i.e. that an intelligent civilisation on another planet might choose to communicate not by sending radio or TV signals but sending out tough microforms of life which can recombine if they ever arrive somewhere inhabitable (p.228)
  • a 274-page report on Project Wildfire, highlights of which Dr Hall has to read;  through to detailed descriptions of American military research into chemical and biological weaponry, with lists of the major research universities involved and some of the papers produced on the subject:

Few Americans, Stone knew, were aware of the magnitude of the US research into chemical and biological warfare.

History of the science into the 1960s

Crichton spends time giving us some background on the development of science up till the 1960s: in particular how before, during and after the war, most expensive research focused on physics, in particular nuclear physics. But how, with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, biology had exploded as a field of interest.

He gives us digressions on the nature of biology itself – ‘the only science which cannot define its subject matter’ because there is no agreed definition of LIFE. On the types of animals used in bio experiments – rats, monkeys, pigs – (p.146) or the large range of growth media used in laboratories (p.163). And an explanation for laymen of the symbiotic relationship between humans and the billions of bacteria we host, which leads on to a detailed explanation of the drawbacks which would occur if a wonderdrug were discovered which killed off all bacteria and viruses. In fact Crichton goes to the trouble of inventing a wonderdrug, Kalocin, for the purpose of the book which does just that – kills off all bacteria, viruses, fungi etc which inhabit the human body with the result that… all the human patients died (p.266). We need the bacteria which infest our bodies.

Man lives in a sea of bacteria (p.167)

Hard technology

And then there is the technology, which includes (obviously) the rocket technology used to launch the ill-fated space probe; NASA’s network of monitoring stations around the earth; and the technology used within the Wildfire biohazard installation, including state of the art sterilisation processes, spectrometers, amino-acid analysers, the microtome, the X-ray crystallographer, the electron microscope (a BVJ model JJ-42), Fourier electron-density scans and so on. He gives an explanation of why an electron microscope is better than a light one, as explained by one of its inventors (p.255).

Computers

Then there are computer diagnostics and computers in general. Crichton patiently explains to the 1969 reader that computers are capable of doing many tasks much faster than people! I’m always struck to be reminded just how long computers have been around and enthusiasts have been promising that they will change the world.

Commission of enquiry

All of this heavily factual material is organised as if in a report written up after the crisis was over and as the result of an inquiry into how it was handled. Thus the narrative itself contains mention of where the team made crucial mistakes.

  • It is a peculiarity of the Wildfire team that, despite the individual brilliance of the team members, the group grossly misjudged their information at several points. (p.243)
  • This was a most unfortunate decision, for had they examined the [growth] media, they would have seen that their thinking had already gone astray, and that they were on the wrong track. (p.250)

Scientific results

And the text includes numerous scientific illustrations, for example computer readouts of autopsies, chemical analyses of blood, a scanner printout from a ‘photoelectric eye’ that examined the growth media, an early sketch of the hexagonal structure of the Andromeda Strain, electron-density mapping of a sample of the strain – all carefully credited to Project Wildfire, as in a scientific paper.

The text is followed by four pages of finely printed references, mixing up genuine studies of extra-terrestrial life and biology with papers by the fictional characters in the novel.

Bureaucratic tone set in the preface

This approach, the pose that the entire text is an after-the-fact report, starts in the author’s preface, usually a place where the author is candid with the reader, but in this case Crichton presents himself as an investigator into the events surrounding the breakout, and gives copious thanks to numerous military officials who are entirely fictitious and are clearly part of the fictional cast, as if they were real figures.

The effect is partly to give the text verisimilitude but also allows him to do the standard thriller strategy of anticipating mistakes and accidents and disasters to come without going into detail and so making you impatient to read the full story itself.

Same happens when he describes the experiments the scientists carry out in the Wildfire lab and highlights their mistakes with phrases like ‘Only later would it become clear that…’ or ‘That was his first mistake…’, ‘It would be forty eight hours until he realised his error…’ (p.173)

Taken together, it’s all these tactics which give the novel its authoritative air and which, in turn makes the biological crisis all the more scary, and then the security breach at the centre all the more nailbiting.

Plot summary

By the end you realise that without all the images and diagrams and facts and figures in report format, and without the digressions about biology and computers, the book would have been significantly shorter, and the simpleness of the story much more apparent. Here is a barebones plot summary:

  • a space probe infected with alien life form crash lands near small town in Arizona, Piedmont
  • almost everyone in town dies almost immediately with weird symptoms, namely their blood congeals to powder
  • except two survivors, an old man and a screaming baby
  • they’re brought to a brand new hi-tech biohazard facility named after the project Wildfire where – after a thorough history of the thinking behind the centre, how it was researched, signed off, designed and built – the four scientists central to the story run a series of tests whose results are discussed at length, and engage in high-level speculations about the origin and form of the entity
  • there are several apparently unrelated incidents, mainly the crash of an air force jet which was flying high through airspace over Piedmont; crash investigators confirm the pilot’s last message which claimed that all the plane’s rubber hosing and casing was turning to powder
  • meanwhile the scientists have established that the Andromeda Strain, as it’s been named, consists of perfectly hexagonal crystals which replicate with amazing speed, and feed off pure energy, leaving no waste products
  • one of the scientists, the doctor, finally puts all the pieces of the jigsaw together and realises that the baby and the old man didn’t die because their blood PHs were abnormal, the old man because he was a diabetic, the baby because its continual crying acidated its blood – the Andromeda Strain only replicates within a narrow PH band
  • at just this moment the alarm goes off inside the bio centre indicating a seal has been broken sealing off the containment area, triggering the alarm and the countdown
  • countdown? yes, because throughout the novel we’ve been told that the Wildfire station has at its heart a thermonuclear device which will automatically detonate if there is a security leak – now the alarm bells go off, the red lights start flashing, all the big metal security doors slam shut and a nice lady’s voice starts counting down; they have three minutes before the bomb detonates!!
  • the thing is, it’s only been in the last hour or so that the scientists have realised that the strain feeds off pure light or energy – in other words, a nuclear explosion, far from wiping the virus out, will cause it to replicate a trillion-fold and spread all over America!!!
  • now, there is a failsafe, the nuclear countdown can be halted: the biohazard centre is dotted with light switch-sized sockets into which a metal key must be inserted to countermand the nuclear countdown, BUT the security doors clanging shut have sealed Dr Stone and Dr Hall off from any of these units – oops
  • which leads to the most famous passage in the book, and the movie based on it, when Dr Hall has to make his way through air ducts into the central circular core of the installation and climb up it to the next level, despite the fact that, given the security breach a) the central core is flooding with poison gas and b) remote control darts fire poisoned arrows at anything moving i.e. him
  • these last few pages are grippingly described as Hall tries to climb the ladder up inside the central shaft, despite becoming woozier and woozier, poisoned by the gas and hit by the poisoned darts, till he crashes through the door into the level above and staggers, almost unconscious to the nearest security point, inserts the key and turns it, then blacks out!!

Payoff

The virus mutates into a harmless form. Wind carries air from the now-leaking bio-hazard lab over Los Angeles but nothing at all happens. Lead scientist Stone speculates that a) it has mutated to a non-fatal form, as indicated by the way it had started eating rubber and plastic instead of human blood, and b) disliking oxygen rich environments (which earlier tests had established), it is likely to migrate upwards out of the atmosphere.

And that is the explanation for the brief two-page epilogue in which we learn that a recent manned space flight (Andros V) crash-lands killing all the crew. In an interview with journalists, the head of the program reveals the crash had something do with the failure of plastic safety shields. The journalists don’t know it, but we the readers know that this is proof that the Andromeda Strain has indeed gravitated away from the unfriendly oxygen-rich atmosphere of earth up to the troposphere – and the book ends with the threat that it might, possibly, remain there for ever, preventing the passage through it of any machines which contain rubber or plastic…

The IPCRESS connection

It’s fascinating to learn from Wikipedia that Crichton was heavily indebted to Len Deighton’s debut novel The IPCRESS File which was published in 1962 and which Crichton read on a visit to Britain.

The Deighton novel is also written in the style of an official report and recreates the often dull bureaucratic paperwork surrounding spying; the title itself indicates that the entire thing should be read as an official report.

Same with Andromeda which, on the pre-text pages, carries instructions as for an official file, which state: ‘THIS FILE IS CLASSIFIED TOP SECRET and that the ‘receiver’ of the file must first show his identity card to the courier.

All great boyish fun. I wonder if Crichton ever told Deighton about his indebtedness to him. I wonder what Deighton made of it.

Crystals

It’s interesting that the Andromeda Strain of virus turns out to be a perfect crystal and that one of the scientists is known for printing papers speculating that life on earth began as crystals (p.226). Because this is a genuine theory and is well expressed in the 1985 book, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985), which I read and reviewed not too long ago.

The movie

In 1971 The Andromeda Strain was made into a movie directed by Robert Wise and starring Arthur Hill as Stone, James Olson as Hall, Kate Reid as Leavitt (changed to a female character, Ruth Leavitt), and David Wayne as Dutton (Burton in the novel). A lot of its appeal is due to the fact it was low budget and not dominated by well-known Hollywood names, lending it an extra soupcon of credibility. I saw it as a kid and loved it.


Credit

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton was published Knopf in American in 1969. All references are to the 1993 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

The Ipcress File by Len Deighton (1962)

‘It’s a confusing story,’ I told him. ‘I’m in a very confusing business.’ (p.2)
‘You’re a cool young man,’ he said. (p.293)

This is Deighton’s début, his first and still most famous novel (partly because of the great success of the iconic movie version made just a few years later – in 1965 – starring Michael Caine in one of his earliest roles). The book made Deighton a household name overnight. Having never read it before, I was very surprised to find how arty, elliptical and detached it is; funny, stylish, poised tiptoe on the verge of ‘Swinging London’ and hugely enjoyable.

The Narrator

The story is told in the first person by an unnamed Narrator (the name Harry Palmer appears to have been invented for the film – the Narrator specifically says his name is not Harry in chapter 5). He is 5 foot 11 inches tall, dark-haired, round-faced with a jutting cleft chin. He has deep-sunk blue eyes with bags under them and wears horn-rimmed glasses. He’s from Burnley, where he attended grammar school. He is a male employee of British Security and old enough to have had experience of World War Two – there is an implication he was born in 1922 or 1923, thus turning 40 when the series begins.

The immediate and enduring impression is that our man is intelligent and cultivated, knowledgeable about food and clothes and music – he references Kierkegaard and Brecht and Xenophon, he likes the jazz of Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz but also recognises Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.

And he knows his food and drink. He describes the coffee made in various Soho coffee bars in loving detail, is precise about his sandwich fillings, notes exactly how their Lebanese contact prepares his kebabs:

The smell of Dgaj Muhshy (chicken stuffed with nutmeg, thyme, pine nuts, lamb and rice, and cooked with celery)… First sambousiks (small pastries containing curried meat served freshly baked)… (Ch 7)

And he is cocky, stroppy, facetious and sarcastic in a post-Angry Young Men way. His Burnley origin (in Funeral in Berlin he is described as ‘an upstart from Burnley’) contrasts with the various public school-educated intelligence officers he has to deal with. Humour is his weapon; insubordination is what the Army calls it. He is sardonic about the Army and its tangled bureaucracies, keen to avoid paperwork, grumpy about his back pay and delayed expenses. He rarely misses an opportunity to answer back, or to be smarter, dryer, wittier than his ‘superiors’.

Detached and elliptical

And distanced from the action, even when it involves his own beatings and imprisonment – an Asperger’s syndrome level of alienation from himself and events around him. Everything is described in a wry, elliptical style. For example, I only realised that he had slept with his attractive secretary, Jean, when he casually says, ‘While standing still, her smooth body would move – slowly and imperceptibly – under the thin summer uniform fabric, and I would think of the small circular gold ear-ring of hers that I had found in my bed-clothes on Wednesday morning’ (Ch 21). At least, I think that means he slept with her. Almost no other reference is made to it, certainly there is no description of the lead-up to the event or the event itself. That is what I mean by ‘elliptical’. There is a lot of up-front detail, but the ‘important’ facts are frequently deliberately buried.

This is his description of a band playing at a party.

Three army musicians moved coolly and mathematically within the modal range of ‘There’s a small Hotel’ and linking modulated inversions walked around the middle eight with creditable synchronisation. Here and there a laugh walked up the foothills of noise. (Ch 21)

This is how clever, stylish and self-conscious the narrative is throughout. One of the many gimmicks is his habit of recounting snippets of overheard conversation, fragments of speech. Touch of James Joyce.

I left the Horseguards Avenue entrance, and walked down Whitehall to Keightly at Scotland Yard. Inside the entrance an elderly policeman was speaking into a phone. ‘Room 284?’ he said. ‘Hello Room 284? I’m trying to locate the tea trolley.’… (Ch 15)

These ‘overheard fragments’ occur frequently and their inconsequentiality does… what? Reinforces that he’s a spy who notices everything? Are examples of dry humour? Or that his world is made up of fragments which have a hole at the centre, where the Narrator’s character should be.

In a similar spirit of decentring the narrative, he opens a newspaper and spends a page summarising all the main stories – or lists the offers in the junk mail which has come through his letterbox this morning:

Tuesday was a big echoing summer’s day. I could hear the neighbour’s black Airedale dog, and they could hear my FM. I sorted the letters from the mat; Times magazine subscription dept said I was missing the chance of a lifetime. My mother’s eldest sister wished I was in Geneva; so did I, except that my aunt was there. A War Office letter confirmed my discharge from the Army and told me that I was not subject to reserve training commitments, but was subject to the Official Secrets Act in respect of information and documents. The dairy said to order cream early for the holiday and had I tried Chokko, the new chocolate drink that everyone was raving about. (Ch 14)

Mordant commentary on our times? Satire? Plain laughs? There’s lots of this dead-eyed observation and it is deliberately deployed to almost completely conceal any sense of the Narrator’s feelings or emotions, and also to obscure numerous crucial moments in the plot.

(This wilful obscurity is the opposite of the breathless physical involvement created by Alistair MacLean’s intensely physical thrillers – the breathless The Golden Rendezvous and The Satan Bug were published this same year, 1962 – or the minute descriptions of Bond’s tribulations – 1962 saw publication of the ninth Bond novel, The Spy Who Loved Me.)

Plot

The plot is long and convoluted. The story opens with the Narrator (N) being transferred from his one-time boss, Colonel Ross’s part of military intelligence, to the newer, smarter so-called WOOC(P), run by younger man, Dalby. Whereas le Carré’s Circus is a rather vague organisation, populated by ageing men who meet in their various London clubs, Dalby’s small defined team have their offices in Charlotte Street. The Narrator spends a lot of time going to a small screening room to familiarise himself with the appearance of one Jay, a man with a long history of espionage, working for Polish government in exile, then returning to work for the Polish communists. He was with the exposed spies Burgess and MacLean when they made their flight abroad. He doesn’t really know why and we, like the Narrator, are in a fog of confusion. He makes the point he has some 600 files open on his desk, any of which require further action.

Dalby tells him Jay is involved in the abduction of top-ranking scientists, one (Raven) has just gone missing. The Narrator is ordered to find Jay and offer him £18,000 for Raven’s return. N meets Jay in a Soho bar, and then pursues him upstairs where he sees, through a window, the unconscious body of the scientist laid out on a roulette table. As he’s pondering his next move Raven is picked up and carried out by Jay’s bodyguard, nicknamed Housemartin. The Narrator breaks through the window to give chase but Housemartin gets away and the Narrator blunders out of one of the exits of the club to find the police closing in, for some reason; maybe they’d been tipped off, too.

Lebanon Dalby orders the Narrator to accompany him to the Lebanon where they ambush a car carrying Raven into the interior, a violent scene where they use a sticky bomb which burns and melts the baddies, who they shoot just to be sure. They then hole up in the safe house of a Lebanese drug smuggler who HMG now use as an agent, before flying him by helicopter to a nearby ship, then N and Dalby fly home.

The empty house Back in London, Housemartin is reported as having been arrested by enterprising police after he crashes a car. But by the time the Narrator arrives at the police station, Housemartin has been visited by other ‘officials’ and killed. (I never really understand why – simply to stop him talking? Surely he was tough enough to withstand a British interrogation.) Housemartin had been seen leaving a darkened house in a suburban street, so the Narrator orders a large-scale assault on the house and leads it, breaking in with a colleague, before the other police advance. But they find it completely, stripped and abandoned – empty except for a large glass tank which turns out to contain a tape machine and some old tape.

Soho Back to the office and the daily routine: managing the wise old lady who knows everything, Alice; wangling a pretty young secretary, Jean; dealing with the toffee-nosed twit Chico; listening to Carswell’s complex statisticical analyses of where the missing scientists worked, correlated with other aspects of their lives; worrying about various other ‘cases’.

Tokwe atoll When, out of the blue, Dalby, the Narrator and Jean are ordered to an atoll in the Pacific as guests of the Americans to watch the explosion of a new nuclear device. The setting is vividly described in its surrealness, thousands of American soldiers in a home from home on a barren rock. However, things turn odd: The Narrator receives warnings from old friends in the CIA that he is being set up. Jean, also, tells him that Dalby has told the Yanks the Narrator is a double agent. (It seems a long way to go to set him up.)

In a difficult-to-follow sequence Dalby invites the Narrator to drive with him to a part of the island where his old friend Barney is reported as having had an accident, but at a crucial place, a massive flare goes up blinding him, it is near a watch-tower to which a high-powered cable has been attached frying the American soldier inside, and the Narrator discovers in his car high powered insulation gloves and cutter. He is being framed for murdering the guard, and somehow sending high-speed TV images of the test site to a Soviet submarine which had surfaced and fired the flare. I think that’s what happens, it is written very obscurely and doesn’t quite make sense.

American interrogation He is thrown in a cell and beaten up the Americans, before being interrogated at length for weeks, given physical tests, forced to tell his life story etc. Nothing he says can clear him: all the evidence implicates him. Then he is told he is being exchanged with American spies the Hungarians are holding (?). He is injected with anaesthetic and has woozy memories of being loaded aboard an ambulance and a plane and an ambulance, again, and then –

Hungarian prison He awakes in a Hungarian prison cell. For the next 35 days or so he is fed little or nothing, and routinely beaten and roughed up, with very little purpose, just to reduce him to a state of complete incapacity. He is visited by a junior official from the British embassy but doesn’t really believe in him. Finally, he manages to escape by knocking the kind old man who sometimes visits him unconscious, making his way to an empty office, tripping the fuses for the entire building, thus opening the window without setting off the alarms, making it across the garden and over the wall.

On the run He blunders into the allotment of a grumpy old geezer who tells him he is in Wood Green, north London. The whole thing has been a deception. He has no idea who put him there or why. He makes a coded call to the dad of a colleague from the War who gives him a place to stay in London and some old clothes, while he collects money, passports, a gun, from safe locations he had set up earlier. He returns from one outing to find the dad murdered and his house turned upside down, and goes on the run again, switching taxis and buses to shake any tail. Then hires a private detective and a car and drives down to Dalby’s house. He has no idea what is going on but Dalby is his immediate superior and must be able to help.

Dalby Dalby welcomes him into his Surrey home without batting an eyelid. He tells him he had been kidnapped by Jay who was demanding a ransom of £20,000. Glad you’ve escaped, old chap, now we’ve work to do back in Charlotte Street. Reassured, the Narrator returns to his car and is about to return to London when the private detective who’s accompanied him says, what about the other men surrounding the house? What? The Narrator goes back and through the window sees Dalby talking to Murray, one of his colleagues – and to Jay!! Is Dalby a double agent after all? As he’s pondering all this, he feels a gun in his back – it is his colleague Murray, the one who was in Dalby’s living room a few moments earlier – happening to be in the kitchen he heard Dalby’s alarms being set off and came out to warn the Narrator – and to tell him that he (Murray) is himself an under-cover intelligence agent pretending to be on Dalby’s side. He has just started doing this when, unfortunately, the private detective the Narrator brought with him from London clobbers him, knocking him out.

Jay Really confused, the Narrator and detective hide until Jay gets into his car, then tail him back to London and the Cromwell Road, turning off near the Brompton Oratory. They walk up to the door Jay entered, pondering their next move, when two of his goons corner them from the rear – they have themselves been tailed and are now forced up to Jay’s hyper-modern flat at gunpoint. There is a surreal scene with Jay, the master-crook, who chats to the Narrator while he spits and prepares a lobster – with typical Deighton élan the Narrator minutely observes the culinary details. Jay explains the brainwashing technique he’s been perfecting. He says some 300 people have passed through the technique to date. Someone called Henry phones him and tips him off that the police are closing in. Jay remains calm and unflustered and tells his goons not to shoot.

Resolution The Narrator’s first boss, Ross, reveals all – well, nearly all, and the Narrator fills in the remaining gaps in a long exposition at the end. Jay had been kidnapping scientists and other top chaps and selling them on to whoever bid for them, with the help of traitor Dalby. But in the past year he’d been developing a new line in brainwashing – wearing down people using a number of different techniques – they were subjecting the Narrator to it in the fake Hungarian prison; another approach was to submerge victims in a big tank of water with earphones clamped to their head to aid disorientation and ‘softening up’: it was this tank and bits of the tape which were found in the abandoned house which the Narrator arranged to be raided. Some 300 eminent persons had passed through the technique and rounding up all Jay’s accomplices, and identifying the victims of the scheme, takes some time.

The odd scene in the nightclub where the Narrator sees Raven’s body on a roulette table is explained as an early attempt to frame the Narrator – they were going to plant a hypodermic needle on him, and the police were closing in on the club on Dalby’s orders with a view to finding the Narrator red-handed. But he was impatient, followed Housemartin and broke out of the building just before the police broke in.

Ross takes the Narrator to meet an Eminent Person who congratulates N on doing such a splendid job – at the same time, by implication, demonstrating that Ross can be trusted – but the Narrator ruins the moment by demanding to know who the ‘Henry’ is who rang Jay to tip him off. It must have been someone very high up indeed. The atmosphere turns frosty. The Eminent Person says they are trying to track him down. The Narrator wonders… is there a cover-up?

And Jay, is he thrown into prison for his crimes? No, he is paid £160,000 to co-operate with British Intelligence.

The American brigadier who had supervised the Narrator’s interrogation on the atoll appears and confirms that, with a lot of help from  Jean, the Americans eventually figured out how Dalby framed him. He’s in the clear.

In a sly last two pages, the Narrator gives false passports and money to the old man who had acted as his gaoler in the fake gaol, and tickets to Prague, and tells him that he is in fact working from Russian intelligence. ‘This, too, was a spy’s insurance policy.’ (p.326)

Humour

The book is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and almost always maintains a dry ironic humour – a tone established on the first page.

      They came through on the hot line at about half past two in the afternoon. The Minister didn’t quite understand a couple of points in the summary. Perhaps I could see the Minister.
Perhaps. (p.1)

‘Perhaps’ is a one-word paragraph. It a) satirises the absurdly periphrastic circumlocutions of the Civil Service b) captures at a stroke the narrator’s amused and satirical attitude. It is playing with language and with the layout and formatting of texts. This playfulness continues throughout the novel.

A lot of the humour is in the dry dialogue, mostly too long to quote properly. I like this exchange at the big party the Americans throw on the atoll. Dalby is talking about the American brigadier they’ve just met.

‘Wanted to borrow you for a year,’ Dalby said. We both continued to look at the dance floor.
‘Did he get me?’
‘Not unless you particularly want to go. I said you’d prefer to stay with Charlotte.’
‘Let me know if I change my mind,’ I said, and Dalby gave me the slanted focus. (p.217)

A writer like le Carré gives you very long passages of dialogue in which you can observe the characters subtly and astutely positioning themselves. Deighton feels the opposite. From whole conversations just a sentence is selected as the sassiest, most oblique or telling. When Ross raids Jay’s house and brings the Narrator’s wayward flight to an end, Deighton selects only two sentences of dialogue. (Bear in mind that the Narrator has just spent half an hour chatting to Jay while the latter very elaborately prepared lobster in champagne – all the time wondering whether he was going, eventually, to be bumped off. Finally Ross and his men arrive.)

Ross made a joke then. He said, ‘Do you come here often?’
‘I do,’ I said. ‘I know the chef.’ (p.299)

He is smart and sardonic about the people he works with. But he has a flashy way of describing nature, too, of backgrounds and settings and environment.

The rain dabbed spasmodically at the glass pane, and another plane ground its way across the sky. (p.113)

‘It’s OK,’ I told him, ‘and thanks.’ Outside the clouds had put dark glasses on the moon. (p.221)

Uneven style

The prose is, then, a funny mix of tones and voices, the most consistent of which is a very dry wry sense of humour and a tremendous understatement. But there are unexpected patches of poetic prose, and sections of technical specification. No wonder contemporary reviews called the novel ‘zany’ or referred to Deighton as an ‘oddball’.

Though some of the text is zippy and smart, others parts have an oddly formal voice: given a choice he will always say ‘upon’, ‘within’, whilst’ instead of on, in, while. He cordially dislikes the chinless public schoolboys he works with but sometimes the prose adopts their patrician tone.

As Adem finished speaking a radio somewhere within the house pierced the grey velvet twilight with a needle of sound. The polished opening notes of the second movement of the Jupiter. It seemed that every living thing across the vast desert space heard the disturbing chilling sound. For those few minutes of time as the wire edge modulated to a minor key and as the rhythm and syncopation caught, slipped and re-engaged like a trio on a trapeze, there was only me and Adem and Mozart alive in that cruel, dead, lonely place. (Ch 7)

From inside the house the crick-crack of freshly ignited fruit-tree wood proclaimed the approach of dinner-time.

The window swung open and Murray dived head first through. I saw the soles of his hand-made shoes (eighteen guineas) with a small sticky rectangular price tab still affixed under the instep. (Ch 12)

No-one answered, and here and there an unkind grin clearly stated the social alienation that his success had wrought. (Ch 20)

There was a smell of freshly ground coffee, a spitting of grilling bacon, and a big coal fire that had reached that state of perfection that the manufacturers of plastic fronts for electric ones seek to emulate. (Ch 27)

‘Seek to emulate.’ He’s a late-1950s Soho coffee bar author using a late-Victorian idiom to… to do what precisely? To mock the modern world? To mock himself? On every page it feels like the text is very knowing about being ‘a spy novel’, in fact about being a fiction at all. The ostentatious correctness of passages like these are part of the performance.

Grumpy

Although the Narrator enjoys undermining the public school world of clubs, school ties and official culture, yet he is not in full-throated rebellion against it. In fact, as noted above, in some places he seeks to outdo it in punctiliousness, as he frequently outdoes his superiors – Ross and Dalby – in general, technical and cultural knowledge.

In fact, he has an ambivalent attitude towards ‘pop’ culture – liking it as rebellion, but despising so much of it as kitsch rubbish. By the time I read them in the 1970s the once Angry Young Men of the 1950s had become grumpy old men, complaining how standards had slipped, everyone was scruffy, no-one had any manners. In among the self-consciously cool attitude, there are signs of incipient Kingsley Amis grumpiness here:

Behind Jay’s voice I could hear the radio playing very quietly. An English jazz singer was even now Gee Whizzing, Waa Waa and Boop boop booping in an unparalleled plethora of idiocy. (Ch 30)

Steady on, grandad. He’s in the Soho coffee house and Notting Hill bedsit-land world enough to write about it, and vividly, but he hasn’t embraced it to the exclusion of all else, as the pop artists and pop culture would just a few years later; in his mind he is rising above it. He writes scornfully of Chico, the upper-class twit in his office who parades an endless list of relatives in high places with spiffing country estates, or his boss the public-school-educated Dalby with his bourgeois tastes; but is himself scornful of plebeian culture, of pop music and strip clubs and the daily papers. He is a grammar school boy, caught between public school toffs and the roughs from the secondary modern. But in the world he moves in, it’s mainly toffs that he meets and so are the most prominent subjects of his satire.

The iced Israeli melon was sweet, tender and cold, like the blonde waitress. Corrugated iron manufacturers and chinless advertising men shared the joys of our expense-account society with zombie-like debs with Eton-tied uncles. (Ch 8)

(The Establishment, the nightclub hosting jazz and satirical comedy acts, had opened in Greek Street, Soho, three months before the novel was published. Satire – sending up the MacMillan government and chaps in bowlers and umbrellas – but satire which itself wears a tie and is fussy about the cut of its suit.)

Similes

The smart savviness of tone is exemplified in numerous exuberant, sometimes rather far-fetched, similes and metaphors:

His profusion of long lank yellow hair hung heavily across his head like a Shrove Tuesday mishap (Ch 1)

The Colosseum – Rome’s rotten tooth – sank behind us, white, ghostly and sensational. (Ch 5)

He was about in his mid-sixties; gentle and humorous with a face like an apple that’s been stored through the winter. (Ch 7)

Like a clumsy Billy Bunter the machine heaved itself hand over hand into the sky. A touch of rudder had the tail rotor slip it sideways, and, silhouetted against the five-o’clock-shadowed chin of twilight, they hedge-hopped in 100 mph gallops across the sea. (Ch 7)

Outside, the driver of a wet fish van was arguing violently with a sad traffic warden. The traffic had welded itself into a river of metal… (Ch 16)

She came into Led’s old broken doorway and into my life and like the Royal Scot, but without all the steam and noise… Her face was taut like a cast of an Aztec god. (Ch 16)

Tokwe Atoll was a handful of breakfast crumbs on a blue coverlet. (Ch 18)

The enormous juke-box glowed like a monkey’s bottom, and the opening bars of a cha cha cha rent the smoke. (Ch 18)

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. (Ch 19)

The sun was a two-dimensional magenta disc, and the sunset lay in horizontal stripes like finger-nails and torn gold lacerations across the ashen face of the evening. (Ch 20)

Outside the clouds had put dark glasses on the moon. (Ch 21)

It is confident and brash. Look at me, watch me write!

Jean stopped and turned back to me; across her gold face a strand of black hair hung like a crack in a Sung vase. (Ch 20)

Paratextuality

Complementing the elliptical and often puzzling approach is the paraphernalia surrounding the text. The novel is presented as an official report to give us readers the sense of being given privileged access to this top secret world – and yet with strange contradictions which confused me:

  • the fly leaf says The Ipcress File / Secret File No. 1 as if we are about to read a sequence of secret files and this is the first – but there is no other file (readers had to await the next book in the series, Horse Under Water, to realise that that was File No.2)
  • the text purports to be an official intelligence agency report and includes a graphic of the header of an official War Office document
  • there are numerous footnotes explaining espionage-related references, initialisms etc throughout the text, and
  • the novel proper is followed by 20 pages of appendices, very thoroughly following up on references in the text, with detailed explanations of events in history, the neutron bomb, Indian hemp, secret operations, an excerpt from a manual on handling guns etc etc

So the novel is presented masquerading as an official report – BUT

  • Nothing could be less report-like than its self-consciously writerly style. I thought there was a tremendous clash between the would-be bureaucratic format in which it’s laid out and the jokey, angled style it is actually written in.
  • This report scenario – The Ipcress File / Secret File No. 1 – is contradicted on the very next page by the brief prologue which describes the Narrator going for a meeting with a Minister who says ‘Just tell me the whole story in your own words, old chap.’

So the text simultaneously claims to be a spoken verbatim account and an official report with appendices, notes etc. Which is it?

Horoscopes

Furthermore, how do we square its presentation as official report with the fact that almost all of the 32 chapters have, as epigraph, the horoscope for that week (they’re all for Aquarius so presumably that’s the star sign of the Narrator):

Aquarius Jan 20-Feb 19: If you are a stick-in-the-mud you’ll get nowhere. Widen your social horizons. Go somewhere gay and relaxing.

(This particular one jokily/ironically prefaces the short chapter where the Narrator has escaped from prison and makes a rendezvous with an old friend who gets him clean clothes and puts him up at his place.)

I suppose the horoscope thing is meant to be a joke, a witty commentary on the text, a dig at the trashiness of contemporary culture (joining the slighting references to beatniks, loud music, junk mail etc) or just stylish and witty – though I confess I was struggling enough just to figure out what was going on in the main story and so quite quickly stopped reading them.

Reveal

In the end, the puzzling pieces of jigsaw are more or less pulled together to explain what happened and it is part of the book’s cool appeal that not all the loose ends are tied up or even explained. In terms of plot I was astounded that the trigger for the dénouement seemed so simple: Dalby is exposed as a double agent because he has invited the kidnapper-baddy to his house for cocktails, and the Narrator sneaks up and sees them through the window. After all the divagations and confusions, the plot isn’t solved by elaborate cerebration or cunning calculation, but by sneaking up and looking through a window: Famous Five!

But the plot is only one element in this remarkably fresh, original, elliptical, funny and hugely enjoyable spy novel.

The movie

is a 1960s icon starring a young and gorgeous Michale Caine as the hero (here named Harry Palmer) with a classic score by John Barry and supporting appearances by umpteen London buses. Wisely, the screenwriters drop the atom bomb atoll sequence and other distractions to make the plot more straightforwardly about the brainwashing technology and the slow revealing of Dalby the double agent.

Related links

Papaerback cover of The Ipcress File

Paperback cover of The Ipcress File

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

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