Nick Harkaway is Harry Palmer in Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain

Nick Harkaway is the son of John Le Carré and was born in Cornwall in 1972. He loves obscure cover versions of 1980s hits, with Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s version of ‘Life on Mars’ being an especial favourite. He abandoned screenwriting for the life of a novelist, and his second book, the gloriously inventive Angelmaker (William Heinemann) is Apocalyptically crammed with clockwork bees, doomsday machines, East End gangsters and sinister government agencies. His Alter Ego is Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer in Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain (1967). EITHNE FARRY

Ken Russell’s movies are amazing, but mostly as places to visit. You wouldn’t want to live in those taut explorations of emotional inaccessibility, repression and sexual incompleteness – or the phantasmal horrors and erotic nightmares of Russell’s more Gothic efforts.

But in the midst of The Lair of the White Worm (titled woman in erotic relationship with snake god) and The Music Lovers (closet homosexual composer marries nymphomaniac) and the rest, Russell made Billion Dollar Brain, with Michael Caine as the slightly down-at-heel secret agent Harry Palmer.

The world Palmer lives in is brightly coloured, Byzantine and dangerous. He is assailed by thugs and beautiful assassins, hangs out in Frank Lloyd Wright ski chalets, drinks drugged champagne and sticks doggedly to his job. The enviable thing about Palmer is that somehow, in the face of the clear impossibility of his victory, he never seriously considers the possibility of failure – and neither do we. He’s not a genius, not a martial arts expert. He’s a bloke with a job to do. He’s perpetually on the make, but somehow he never goes bad.

Russell may have been working for hire on Billion Dollar Brain, but he was still Russell. It’s not a nice world or a safe one. And it’s 1967, with all that it entails: you can’t watch Caine slap Françoise Dorléac around without feeling a bit queasy. (Mind you, she has just tried to kill him. During sex, no less.) I’m tempted to say that I’d be a bit-part – a person inhabiting the world that Palmer protects, enjoying the ambience and avoiding the beatings, the losses, and the fear. But that’s a cop-out. I’d be Harry, and accept the risk in exchange for the dream secret agent lifestyle. Because, you know: how often do you get to say ‘I’d be Michael Caine’?

Angelmaker is published by William Heinemann.

Nick Harkaway