The dead hand of a long-defeated Nazi Third Reich reaches out to Portugal, London and Marrakech in Deighton's second novel, featuring the same anonymous narrator and milieu of The Ipcress File, but finds Dawlish now head of the secret British Intelligence unit, WOOC(P).
The Ipcress File was a debut sensation. Here in the second Secret File, Horse under Water, skin-diving, drug trafficking and blackmail all feature in a curious story in which the dead hand of a long-defeated Hitler-Germany reaches out to Portugal, London and Marrakech, and to all the neo-Nazis of today's Europe.
The detail is frightening but unfaultable; the story as up to date as ever it was. The un-named hero of The Ipcress File the same: Insolent, fallible, capricious - in other words, human. But he must draw on all his abilities, good and bad, when plunged into a story of murder, betrayal and greed every bit as murky as the waters off the coast of Portugal, where the answers lie buried.
"Lively, exciting, ingenious" (Observer)"Quite marvellous… funny too" (Punch)"A master of fictional espionage." (Daily Mail)"The poet of the spy story." (Sunday Times)"Deighton is so far in the front of other writers in the field that they are not even in sight" (Sunday Times)"Nobody now seriously doubts that Deighton is the most credible of all the spysmiths" (The Scotsman)"I want to raise a cheer to Mr Len Deighton whose unnamed hero in his second brilliant thriller is all too like the rest of us except that he works for MI5" (Financial Times)"Mr Deighton is really something special" (Sunday Times)
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Second of the Harry Palmer Novels
There is probably a practical reason for “Horse Under Water” not being filmed, but it may be that the convoluted plot and lack of a clear-cut Cold War stand-off are explanations. The novel also ends with a number of appendices, suggesting that the novel doesn’t accommodate the historical context, dating back to the 1940s, and the aftermath of the plot’s resolution particularly well.
One reason why Len Deighton’s 1960s’ spy-novels read so much better than his 1980s’ “Berlin Game” and its sequels, featuring Bernard Samson and his family and colleagues, is the character of the first-person narrator-hero. Whereas Deighton’s later novels rely on the motifs, plots and standard characters of the genre, “Horse Under Water”, “The Ipcress File”, “Funeral in Berlin” and “Billion Dollar Brain” have Harry Palmer, as the first-person narrator is retrospectively called after the film versions came along. John Le Carré found a different and equally successful narrative solution to Deighton. He, too, encompasses the varied angles and multiple deceptions that make up a spy novel, without making any character and certainly not the reader all-knowing. His characters and, especially, their patterns of speech have become rather wearing, though, even as the moral and ethical issues have remained vital, while reading “Horse Under Water” (the second of the Palmer novels) years after reading the others, I was taken, again, by the narrator’s voice and his style.
Deighton’s use of popular culture – consumer products and long-gone shops – also distinguishes his fiction from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, in which products define the hero but have little substance or historical resonance in themselves. Harry is very smart, in his story-telling style as well as his investigations, and, accordingly, “Horse Under Water” can be funny as well as being a thriller, making the quips of James Bond seem quite predictable. Some of the humour derives from Deighton’s ability to juxtapose the often fantastic plot with the absurdity of civil-service bureaucracy.
It helped that the reader of the audio version uses the accent made so well-known by Michael Cane in the Harry Palmer films.
I look forward to listening to the new versions of the other Harry Palmer novels, but hope that a less well-known Len Deighton novel, "Spy Story", is produced as an audiobook.
- Andy Hunter