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Harry Palmer is the name of the fictional secret agent protagonist of a number of films based on the main character from the spy novels written by Len Deighton. Michael Caine played Harry Palmer in the films based on three of the first four of the published novels featuring this character, and also later in two original-story films not based on Len Deighton's novels.


Early novels

Len Deighton introduced the lead character of 'Harry Palmer' in The IPCRESS File, his first novel, published in November 1962. However, in that first-person novel, the secret agent is anonymous and is never named, although at one point in he is greeted by someone saying "Hello, Harry." which causes him to think, "Now my name isn't Harry, but in this business it's hard to remember whether it ever had been.".

Deighton's spy is described as working class, living in a back street flat and seedy hotels, and shopping in supermarkets. He wears glasses, is hindered by bureaucracy, and craves a pay rise.

Further novels featuring this character quickly followed in Horse Under Water (1963), Funeral in Berlin (1964), and Billion-Dollar Brain (1966). Again however the lead protagonist is never named at any point, although they are clearly the same character in all of the books.

Later novels and discrepancies

In 1974, the novel Spy Story was published, followed in 1976 by Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (also known as Catch A Falling Spy in North America). As the protagonist also remains anonymous in both of these novels, it is open to debate whether or not 'Harry Palmer' is the same narrator of these last two novels as in the earlier books. There is conflicting evidence for either view.

Despite this, and despite the lead protagonist being unnamed, all six books have been unofficially called the Harry Palmer novels, based on the protagonist's name given in the subsequent film adaptations of The IPCRESS File and its sequels.

Implying against

Evidence for this narrator being different from the earlier novels come from Deighton himself, who is quoted as saying that the narrator of Spy Story is not the same character as the narrator of The IPCRESS File ; in fact, for most of Spy Story, the narrator is named and addressed as 'Patrick Armstrong' - although, as another character says, "We have so many different names".

Additionally, he is reported to be in his late 30s, whereas the narrator of The IPCRESS File was born in 1922 or 1923 (making him in his 50s), and thus implying that this protagonist is different to that of the earlier novels.

Implying for

Encouraging the unitary concept - that the later novels feature 'Harry Palmer' - is the 1974 dust jacket to the Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich American edition of Spy Story, in which the cover blurb writes: "He is back, after five long-years' absence, the insubordinate, decent, bespectacled English spy who fought, fumbled, and survived his outrageous way through the best-selling Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin, and the rest of those marvellous, celebrated Len Deighton spy thrillers". Likewise, on the 1976 edition dust jacket to Catch a Falling Spy, the novel features "Deighton's familiar hero, our bespectacled Englishman".

A number of minor characters from the earlier novels also appear in Spy Story, further linking the books as connected.

Other novels

A related novel by Deighton, Yesterday's Spy (1975), also features some of the same characters that appeared in Spy Story, although 'Harry Palmer' is not apparently amongst them.

It has been theorised that the protagonist in another of Deighton's spy novels, An Expensive Place to Die (1967), also written in the first-person-anonymous narrative, is also 'Harry Palmer'; however, differences in characterisation and plotting indicate this is someone else other than Palmer.

Film adaptations


The IPCRESS File novel came out just after the release of the first James Bond film Dr. No (1962). When the novel sold well, EON producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli approached Deighton to write the script for the next 007 film after Dr. No, From Russia With Love (1963); however, despite Deighton's efforts, little of his screenplay was filmed. Saltzman instead decided to use The IPCRESS File, and its sequels, as the beginning of a new secret agent movie series. However, unlike the Bond films, The IPCRESS File was designed to have a different, more down-beat, style, although Saltzman employed many Bond movie staff, including production designer Ken Adam, editor Peter Hunt, and composer John Barry; eventually, Michael Caine was chosen to play the lead.

In the film version, Harry Palmer is a British army sergeant forcibly drafted into the security services to work away a prison sentence for black marketeering. He worked first for Army Intelligence then the Foreign Officemarker. He works for the brilliant but slightly duplicitous Colonel Ross. Harry Palmer has much in common with Deighton, including passions for military history (Harvey Newbegin complains about his bookshelf contents in Billion Dollar Brain), cooking, and classical music.

Origin of the name

Needing to name the previously-anonymous secret agent, the production team chose "Harry Palmer", because they wanted a dull, unglamorous name to distance him from Ian Fleming's James Bond, the stereotypical flamboyant, swashbuckling spy. In his memoirs, Michael Caine says producer Harry Saltzman thought up the surname "Palmer", and Caine innocently remarked that "Harry" was a dull name, realising his gaffe on seeing Saltzman's stare. Another story is that in a Len Feldman interview, Caine recalled "I made a rather bad social blunder, because, he said, 'What's the dullest name you can think of ?', and I said, 'Harry', and he said, 'Thanks very much.' And then he said, 'What's a dull surname ?', and the most boring boy in our school was called: 'Palmer', 'Tommy Palmer'. So, he said, 'All right, we'll call him Harry Palmer.'"

Later films

After the release of The IPCRESS File in 1965, Saltzman's production company made Funeral in Berlin (1966), and Billion Dollar Brain (1967), both starring Michael Caine. The second Harry Palmer novel, Horse Under Water, was not used, rumour having it that, had the series continued, it would have been the next novel adapted. In 1976, Deighton's novel Spy Story, was filmed, with Michael Petrovitch as 'Patrick Armstrong'; it is unrelated to Saltzman's Harry Palmer films.

In the mid-1990s, there appeared two Harry Palmer films with original screenplays and starring Michael Caine:

Despite sometimes being titled Len Deighton's Bullet to Beijing and Len Deighton's Midnight in St Petersburg, Len Deighton did not participate in these films.

Evidence of Michael Caine's popular identification as Harry Palmer is in the film Blue Ice (1992), wherein the hero is an ex-spy named 'Harry', and who has many similarities to Harry Palmer. In Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), Caine's portrayal of Nigel Powers, father of secret agent Austin Powers, spoof Harry Palmer.


  1. "... he turned for a better view of me,... late thirties, spectacles, clean shaven, dark hair, about six foot..."
  2. The IPCRESS File, p. 25. "For example; take the time my picture appeared in The Burnley Daily Gazette in July 1939, when I won the fifth form mathematics prize"

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