Only When I Laugh by Len Deighton

There is something unique about Only When I Laugh, or Only When I Larf, in the original English printing, the first non-spy novel written by Len Deighton. It reads much more like a short story or even a short play than a novel but that’s also what makes it fun to read.

On the back of the dust cover there is critical praise for Deighton; “Deighton is tops!” says the Boston Globe, “No novelist, past or present, has done so much for international intrigue.” says Richard Condon, “A talented, droll, and original spy novelist.” says New York Times Book Review, “Deighton’s characters have depth, his settings breadth, his writing is smoothly competent and no one is better at pacing,” said Cosmopolitan, and lastly of note USA Today said, “Len Deighton is one of a handful of bestselling thriller writers who is also thought to be a good craftsman. His novels have earned him his reputation.”

Original Cover for Only When I Larf by Len Deighton

Original Cover for Only When I Larf by Len Deighton

And all of the praise is well earned. This is in fact a mystery and thriller, containing everything that Deighton packed into his previous four spy novels. The settings speak for themselves and he writes and builds real characters, not some overblown, pompous, trying too hard types, but real honest characters, despite the characters in this book being con artists who aren’t quite that honest to begin with.

Split into 18 chapters with each chapter taking on the point of view of one of the three main characters Bob with seven chapters, Liz with six and Silas with five. Each of these chapters not only move the story along, but also reveal a little more about each character until you fully understand who they are.

And through those characters Deighton gets to make certain observations that he wouldn’t normally have been able to make through just one narrator or point of view…


  • Things I didn’t have, Silas had. Things I’ll never have, Silas had, and let’s face it, things I’ll never want Silas had.
  • He was sort of in love with Liz, but he was a cold fish, and there would come one day when the computer would reject Liz’s punch card, and I’m telling you he could turn away mid sentence and never come back.
  • Some men are like that, without doing anything, cats and women just adore them.
  • “A con trick?” said Silas. “What do you mean?”
    “It’s obvious isn’t it? The fellers with the high ranks, high wages, chauffeurs and chateaus live miles from the fighting, and tell the marks who get five bob a day where to go and get shot at; it’s the classic con trick the army is.”
  • “Things change,” I said. “Men reflect the age. Each generation has to come to terms with the world as it finds it.”


  • It’s like reading about people dying in traffic accidents; if it isn’t someone you know, it’s almost impossible to care, isn’t it?
  • And my mother says wouldn’t I like to have children. What I’d like is one adult man. I can’t even go and make a jug of coffee without finding mentally retarded delinquents rolling around in the fireplace, playing airplanes.
  • He raised his hand and crossed his hear, but he needn’t have done. I know a harmless boob when I see one.
  • “Why does there have to be a winning side?” I asked. “Why can’t one argue without being competitive?”
  • My mother said that a man’s life went in periods of eight years. The first eight, she said, they got German measles and whooping cough and diptheria, the second eight years they discovered girls and fell off bicycles. Then, pimples, sports cars and stiff collars until at the age of 24, according to my mother’s theory, they “settled down.”
  • Well, Bob needed me, really needed me, and that is really all any woman wants of a man.
  • “There has to be something beyond love, something that lasts, something stronger and yet more comforting too.”


  • Still, I’d survived the war. I’d done a bloody sight more than survived it; I’d thrived on it. That’s why I’d never stop fighting. This was my war, and Liz and Bob were my army.Not much of an army, but then a commander has to adapt to his resources.That was the secret of command in battle; flexibility and full utilization of resources. Terrain, men, weapons, skills and surprise.
  • I’ve seen regiments of Bobs under fire, without enough imagination to be scared. I’ve got too much imagination, that’s my trouble, if I have any trouble, which I don’t for one moment admit.
  • “She’s been wrong before, more than once, but if you have a signal system, then the other members of the expedition must stick to the procedure.”
  • “A man who isn’t greedy can never fall prey to a con trick. So greed must be built into the proposition…”
  • “Well, we are the medicine men,” said Silas. “We are the observes, the witch doctors, the sociological sports of our age. We are part of the process of natural selection; for we deprive the stupid and the inefficient of wealth and prestige. Without us the balance of nature would be upset. If the stupid prosper, then our society must lose its dynamism and finally falter. We are part of the life cycle of the capitalist system.”
  • “Perhaps that’s what bravery is, keeping a sense of proportion.”
  • I’d once ordered breakfast there, and then made love to the waitress, while every guest in the place was screaming for breakfast.
  • The simulator had prepared you for the game, until it was hard to mark the moment when the simulation ended and combat began. Perhaps it never did, was life just a simulator, the targets popping up and, if your calculations were correct, disappearing in a puff of smoke. The simulator did not cheat, the simulator had no bias, the simulator would exist long after I was gone.
  • She was the “don’t knows” in a land where don’t knows were in the cast majority.

Even other characters, such as Mr. Awawa get into the mix of Deighton’s observations of the state of the 1960s world;

  • “The voice of womanhood, and reason raised accusingly against the senseless violence of the male,” said Awawa. “Well, we’ve heard that one before Miss Smallwood, but women are less able to cooperate with each other than men are. Women are less tolerant than men, and women in business more ruthless than men.”
  • “Shooting people will make things better?” [Liz]
    “I doubt it, but then I don’t want to shoot anyone. The guns are merely a token, a weight upon one side of a scales that are already unfairly laden the other way.” [Mr. Awawa]

I won’t give away anything else, but the main characters and the relationships between them are expertly crafted by Deighton the master storyteller.

As a fan of his prior four books it’s hard not to enjoy this as a change-of-pace in genre but with the same attention to detail, dialogue, and commitment to story that you’ve come to expect from the Deighton. Only When I Laugh is just as good as the other books he’s written, perhaps better in it’s own unique way. So pick it up and decide for yourself.

Read the Secret File of technical information and quotes from Only When I Laugh by Len Deighton.