Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

"Arabesques of the Final Pattern": Len Deighton's Hard-Boiled Espionage Fiction

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

"Arabesques of the Final Pattern": Len Deighton's Hard-Boiled Espionage Fiction

Article excerpt

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story [...] is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor--by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. [...] He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. [...] He talks as the man of his age talks--that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. 

These excerpts from the end of Raymond Chandler's essay titled "The Simple Art of Murder," originally published in the December 1944 issue of Atlantic Monthly, profile the archetypal protagonist of hard-boiled crime fiction, Philip Marlowe, who, decades after his debut in The Big Sleep (1939), inspired a revival in the cultural imaginary. (1) Despite such particularities of American history as the Great Depression, the wave of racketeering inspired by Prohibition, and the rise of corporate bureaucratization, all of which nurtured this maverick figure's popularity, both he and the literary genre with which he is associated have been adapted by writers in other national contexts. One such author is the critically neglected British "spy novelist" Len Deighton. (2)

Following the lead, apparently, of Deighton's acknowledgment in 1974 of his debt to Chandler (Milward-Oliver 84), a few commentators have recognized in passing the imprint of Marlowe as a signature character on Deighton's The Ipcress File (1962), Horse under Water (1963), Funeral in Berlin (1964), The Billion Dollar Brain (1966), and An Expensive Place to Die (1967). LeRoy L. Panek thus noted in 1981 that these narratives present a hero who is "genuinely English and defiantly hard-boiled" (221). Panek also proposed that Deighton drew on Chandler to project his vision of spying as "a metaphor for personal integrity, persistence, mental toughness" (225). Three years later Lars Ole Sauerberg observed that "Like [Dashiell] Hammett's and Chandler's big-city heroes Deighton's hero is the knight-errant who fights evil" after post-imperial Great Britain's decline into the "modern welfare state" (218). Finally, Jake Kerridge reported in 2009 that the novelist "doesn't see the character as an anti-hero, and stresses that he is a romantic, incorruptible figure in the mould of Philip Marlowe" (Deighton, Interview). (3) Such evidence indicates that in his early espionage fiction Deighton cultivated the anti-establishment stance and laconic style of an American precursor who, like himself, was concerned with recounting, per Chandler's words in "The Simple Art of Murder," a streetwise man's "adventure in search of a hidden truth" (18).

The main issue at stake, then, is twofold. First, why did Chandler's celebrated private detective of the 1940s appeal to Deighton as a prototype for his unnamed spy during the Cold War's most volatile period of ideological conflict? Second, how did Chandler's oblique plots influence Deighton's predilection for weaving intricate narratives that can be described, borrowing from The Ipcress File, as "arabesques of the final pattern" (93)? The latter issue is the more interesting of the two concerns, as Deighton himself signaled when, in admitting his indebtedness to Chandler, he remarked, "[O]ne of the things that Raymond Chandler did with his Philip Marlowe stories was to remove that last chapter where everything was explained. He began unravelling the mystery in Chapter Two, so that what you had was a mystery being unravelled and ravelled at the same time" (qtd. in Milward-Oliver 84). My tack in the following pages will be to address the preceding pair of questions in reverse order. Rather than Deighton's arbitrarily appropriatng Chandler's mythography as a template for his fiction, certain parallels between American and British culture predisposed such literary modeling in the aftermath of World War II. …

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