Pop culture references in literature can be fun, and they can be wonderfully revealing about a writer’s own passions. When re-reading some of Len Deighton’s 1960s thrillers, featuring his unnamed spy, a few of which were filmed, memorably, with Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, it is striking how effectively the author uses cultural references as colour.
In the follow-up to The Ipcress File, the excellently oblique (Deighton did not make life easy for his readers in this series) Horse Under Water, about the unravelling of an international neo-Nazi conspiracy, there are references to the latest Miles Davis and, at a bohemian party in Chelsea, there is mention of Mingus softly playing.
As the book is set in and around Portugal there are appropriately frequent allusions to the sound of fado, that gloriously melodramatic and tragic style of music. One of the great fado singers, Maria Teresa de Noronha, gets a mention in passing, along with a description of brightly coloured record sleeves being the folk art of the new world.
Deighton is one of those people who comes across as quietly conservative but culturally curious, and it is easy to picture him sitting in the shade listening to Amália Rodrigues sing. Amália, uncredited, appears singing in the TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in a scene set in a Lisbon nightclub featuring Hywel Bennett as Ricki Tarr.
In the next book in the series, Funeral in Berlin, Deighton describes the London club Betty’s where the sound of a one-armed bandit “punctuated some gentle Sinatra”. In a scene where the Harry Palmer character goes to the flat of Israeli agent Samantha Steele they listen to Claire Austin sing ‘I’m Through With Love’ with her “silk and sandpaper voice”. It is a fascinating choice as a signifier for sophistication, and presumably reflects Deighton’s own passion. It would have been far easier to go for one of the more identifiable jazz singers such as Ella, Billie, or Peggy Lee.
The song comes from Claire’s 1956 LP When Your Lover Has Gone, which was recorded with Bob Scobey on trumpet, Barney Kessel on guitar, Stan Wrightsman playing piano, Morty Corb on bass, and Shelly Manne at the drums. It is a curious mix of ancient and modern, musically, with New Orleans revival meets West Coast cool. The atmosphere is intimate, and the material is on the blues side of the torch song art. A particular highlight is Claire’s rendition of the Gershwins’ ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ where she is starkly accompanied beautifully by Barney on the guitar. It is quite mesmerising.
The liner notes open by stating: “There is no hokum in the way Clare Austin sings. Living in Sacramento as a housewife and mother, she is uninvolved in the rivalries of hit-paraders, song pluggers, and show business in general. She sings without affectation, serenely ignoring the vocal tricks and fads of the moment.” Later the writer S.I. Hayakawa describes “a group of performances capable of touching both those who listen to music in order to argue about it and those who listen simply to enjoy its moodiness and eloquence.”
That 1956 LP is now available on an Original Jazz Classics CD, combined with the other LP she recorded in the 1950s: Claire Austin Sings The Blues with Kid Ory. That Blues LP was recorded in 1954, and the photo of Claire singing in the studio used for the cover shot is magnificently severe and anti-fashion. The liner notes start by saying: “Claire Austin is one of the great blues singers of our time, in the classic tradition of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. She is a natural, her singing is effortless, her pitch is true, her tone is full and thrilling. But these things alone do not make a great blues singer. For the blues you must also have deeply felt convictions and the emotional maturity which comes with experience of life and love. These are the things which Claire reveals in her singing, and which she evokes from the simplest melody and lyric.”
Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin also features several references to modern classical music, with mentions of Bartók, Ives, and Berg’s Violin Sonata. What is described as “Schonberg’s Variation for Wind Band” plays a vital part in the plot, and the narrator describes it as a “haunting, discordant work”. This fits in with the complex character of the central Harry Palmer figure, the insolent Burnley boy, the rough diamond in his woollen shirts, who is more cultured and clever than he lets on, but it is tempting to see these inclusions also as a projection of Deighton’s own passions.