Billion Dollar Brain was the fourth of Len Deighton’s spy novels featuring an unnamed agent of a British intelligence service. When the novels were filmed in the 1960s the character was given the name Harry Palmer.
Deighton’s novels are in many ways the antithesis of the James Bond novels. Deighton’s spy is working class, wears glasses and lives in a slightly seedy flat. Unlike Bond he is less than enthusiastic about being a spy, and even less enthusiastic about obeying orders. He is on the other hand an excellent cook and quite the gourmet and despite his slightly down-at-heel appearances he is by no means a mere thug, nor is he a bungler or a fool. He is something of a closet intellectual and can quote Virgil if the occasion demands it (as it does in his novel). It’s probably fair to say that he is quite a bit like Deighton himself.
Deighton’s hero may not be enthusiastic about his work but he is a thorough professional and has no patience whatsoever with amateurs. When things go wrong, as they frequently do, it is usually because he has not been given all the information he needs or because he has been set up by his superiors by mysterious purposes of their own.
Deighton and John le Carré were seen in the 1960s as ushering in a new era in spy fiction, cynical and realistic and in stark contrast to the glamour of James Bond. Which makes Billion Dollar Brain rather surprising. The plot for this novel is at times outlandish and completely over-the-top - in fact it could quite easily have formed the basis for a Bond film. Convoluted and deceptive plotting was one of the hallmarks of Deighton’s spy fiction right from the start but in this novel the plotting becomes quite spectacularly baroque. As is often the the case with Deighton though, just as you think you know where the plot is going it goes somewhere else entirely.
It all starts out as a very routine case involving a troublesome left-wing Finnish journalist. In Helsinki Deighton’s anonymous spy stumbles upon what proves to be a vast private anti-communist intelligence operation run by a fabulously wealthy American billionaire, General Midwinter. Midwinter’s ambitions go well beyond mere intelligence-gathering and propaganda. He seems to be intending to overthrow the Soviet Union single-handedly. To carry out his ambitious plans he has had a computer built from him. Not just a computer, but a super-computer, a computer capable of running intelligence operations on its own.
The central character in the novel is not really the unnamed narrator but his old friend Harvey Newbegin. Newbegin is an American and to say that his loyalties are uncertain would be putting it mildly. Harvey used to be a professional American spy but now he works for General Midwinter’s organisation. Harvey is however a man to whom duplicity and betrayal are second nature. He thinks he is clever enough to play off his new employer against the Russians while betraying both parties. It’s a dangerous game and while he is a skillful manipulator it’s obvious that sooner or later he’s going to land himself in very deep trouble, and then he expects that his old friend in British intelligence will come to his rescue.
His old friend in British intelligence has his own problems and while he has a certain affection for Newbegin there are limits to his patience.
Complicating matters further is Newbegin’s girlfriend Signe, who is playing her own game and who proves to be just as skillful at manipulation.
Deighton’s approach might be deliberately unheroic but he certainly has style and his prose is sardonic and drily humorous, and a good deal more entertaining than le Carré’s. Deighton also has the ability to construct plots of byzantine complexity without becoming tedious, and without becoming impossibly obscure. His plots twist and turn in spectacular fashion but while his protagonists are often hopelessly unaware of what is really going on he is careful to ensure that the reader is not left in similar confusion. Deighton’s plots might be convoluted but they do make sense.
Billion Dollar Brain is a complex, intelligent, stylish and thoroughly entertaining spy novel. Highly recommended.