A working-class british spy. Now an ITV Series.
What is the Harry Palmer series about?
Harry Palmer is one of the most British famous spies, next to James Bond and George Smiley, though he is not always named Harry Palmer. To be exact, the character is unnamed in Len Deighton’s books but the production team for the 1965 film The Ipcress File, based on the novel of the same name, needed a name for the secret agent. Actor Michael Caine and producer Harry Saltzman chose ‘Harry Palmer’, and since then, Len Deighton’s spy novels with a lead protagonist being unnamed became unofficially called the Harry Palmer novels, based on his name in the adaptation.
Caine played the character in three films based on novels by Len Deighton, and two other films not directly based on Deighton’s novels. Michael Petrovitch played the character, renamed Patrick Armstrong in the adaptation of Spy Story and now, Joe Cole stars in the television series adaptation of The IPCRESS File for ITV.
In any case, the man named ‘Harry Palmer’ comes from a working-class background, famously wears glasses, lives in a back street flat and seedy hotels, and shops in supermarkets. Like a lot of us, he is hindered by bureaucracy and wants a pay rise. He happens to be an agent with British Intelligence.
How to read the Harry Palmer Books in Order?
- The IPCRESS File (1962) – For the working class narrator, an apparently straightforward mission to find a missing biochemist becomes a journey to the heart of a dark and deadly conspiracy.
- Horse Under Water (1963) – A sunken U-Boat has lain undisturbed on the Atlantic ocean floor since the Second World War – until now. Inside its rusting hull, among the corpses of top-ranks, lie secrets people will kill to obtain. Now, our laconic narrator is sent from fogbound London to the Algarve, where he must dive through layers of deceit in a place rotten with betrayals.
- Funeral in Berlin (1964) – 1963 Berlin is dark and dangerous. The anonymous hero of The IPCRESS File has been sent to help arrange the defection – in an elaborate mock coffin – of a leading Soviet scientist. But, as he soon discovers, this deception hides an even deadlier truth.
- Billion-Dollar Brain (1966) – Texan billionaire General Midwinter will stop at nothing to bring down the USSR – even if it puts the whole world at risk. Our cynical, insolent narrator of The IPCRESS File is sent from his shabby Soho office to bone-freezing Helsinki in order to penetrate Midwinter’s vast anti-Communist network – and stop a deadly virus from wiping out the planet.
From this point on, Deighton’s spies novels are still narrated by an unnamed British agent but it is not explicitly the one we know, thanks to Michael Caine, as Harry Palmer. Some discrepancies in characterization suggest that it is a different spy, though, An Expensive Place to Die is still often considered as an Harry Palmer novel.
The others are unofficially called the Harry Palmer novels, event if it is still often to debate whether or not ‘Harry Palmer’ is in here or the narrator. And ‘Harry Palmer’ is not apparently present in Yesterday’s Spy (1975), also the book features some of the same characters that appeared in Spy Story.
- An Expensive Place to Die (1967) – An unnamed spy – perhaps the same reluctant hero of The Ipcress File – is sent to Paris to deliver a file of nuclear secrets to a French doctor, but soon finds himself sucked into a twilight world of sex, blackmail and hidden motive, where friend and enemy become indistinguishable.
- Spy Story (1972) – After six weeks in a nuclear submarine gathering computer data on Soviet activity, the mysterious, bespectacled spy known as Patrick Armstrong is desperate to return home. But when he arrives at his London flat, it appears to be occupied by someone who looks just like him – and he finds himself propelled into the heart of a conspiracy stretching from the remote Scottish highlands to the Arctic ice.
- Yesterday’s Spy (1975) – Steve Champion – flamboyant businessman, former leader of an anti-Nazi network in the Second World War – is a man surrounded by mysteries. There are rumours he is still in the spying business. And suspicions that his fortune may be built on something nefarious; something he’d rather stayed secret. The Department are nervous, so Champion’s oldest wartime ally is sent to the South of France to investigate. It’s time to re-open the file on yesterday’s spy, whatever the consequences.
- Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (1976) – Also called Catch A Falling Spy. A Russian scientist is defecting to the West, in order to realize his dreams of contacting extra-terrestrial life among the stars. But when an insubordinate British agent and a top CIA operative are sent to the Sahara desert to bring him in, things don’t go to plan. The result is a violent chase stretching across three continents, where loyalties – between spies, partners, nations and lovers – become fatally divided.
If you like Harry Palmer, you may also want to see our Mick Herron reading order, or our guide to John Le Carré’s George Smiley series. Don’t hesitate to follow us on Twitter or Facebook to discover more book series. Don’t hesitate to follow us on Twitter or Facebook to discover more book series.