The Deighton File


While Will's adventures are absolutely in the fantasy genre, his origins are not. I've written a few blogs about my influences, whether in role-playing games or TV shows, but it occurred to me the other day that Will, as a character and narrator, comes from a completely different genre, namely spy fiction. To be specific, the model for Will comes from the novels of Len Deighton.

One upon a time, Deighton was one of the biggest names in the spy novel, right up there with John le Carre.  His novels from the 1960s,  particularly The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin, are wonderfully cool, sharp, witty takes on the Cold War spy narrative. Deighton's main character, never named, is a brilliant first-person narrator, both a part of the world he inhabits but also an outsider, an observer awake to the absurdity of how his world affects others. He takes neither himself nor his superiors very seriously. At the same time, Deighton's nameless spy has a strong moral and ethical core to his character, one that drives him on and makes him a true hero, despite his low opinion of the shadow world of espionage. That and he is damned good at it. He is no James Bond, no slick superspy in a Saville Row suit and Aston Martin, but a real human being with money worries and bad relationships. 

Deighton was an influence in other ways. In the 1980s, as the Cold War was beginning to thaw, he wrote two spy trilogies centred around another first person narrator, this time the spy Bernard Samson. Samson is an older and more weary version of the un-named spy of the 1960s, one with family problems as well as work ones. The Samson novels showed me that you could write an ambitious trilogy, substantial and wide-ranging, but still have it grounded in a first-person narrative. From Berlin to Mexico City, Washington DC to Whitehall, Samson leads us through an ever-developing plot full of engaging characters and thrilling set pieces. Deighton's trick, though, is to forge a narrative voice that subtly reveals its own prejudices, letting us know that we are not getting the truth but only Samson's version of it. It proved that one character can be at the heart of a mystery that the writer can - hopefully- sustain over a long-form story.

This is where Will comes in. Sure, it's a very different genre, but many of the conventions correspond: the detached narrator trying to navigate his way through a world that is within his comprehension but often outside his control, one that sees good must be done but is frustrated by those around him who have their own agendas. And, hopefully, most of all, a narrator that we enjoy spending time with.  

But Deighton's last master stroke was the final book of his second trilogy, Spy Sinker. This novel looks back over the events of the preceding five books but does so from the perspective of various other characters, shows us the events of these novels from their viewpoint, in their voices. It adds a whole new level of enjoyment to what has gone before. It's an idea I could do a lot with.