Thursday, November 3, 2016

Len Deighton’s An Expensive Place To Die

An Expensive Place To Die was the fifth and final installment of Len Deighton’s unnamed spy series (sometimes referred to as the Harry Palmer novels since that was the name he was given in the film adaptations). There are a few subtle differences between this 1967 novel and the other unnamed spy books.

The protagonist/narrator is a British spy living in Paris. His latest mission is to deliver U.S. atomic secrets to a certain M. Datt. It might be an odd assignment but he has discovered that it’s best not to try to understand the minds of his superiors.

M. Datt runs a psychiatric clinic in Paris. It’s also a brothel and possibly a gambling club. It might also be a front for espionage. Or it might be an operation by the French security services. It might even be a private project run by M. Datt for his own inscrutable purposes (possibly including blackmail). What is certain is that M. Datt has compiled dossiers on some very powerful and important men. With film footage to accompany the dossiers. 

Another man is very interested in this case - Chief Inspector Loiseau of the Sûreté Nationale. Our unnamed protagonist is not exactly working with Loiseau and not exactly working against him.

Also involved is Loiseau’s ex-wife Maria. She takes a shine to our unnamed protagonist but she also has some mysterious link with Datt. There’s an American nuclear scientist mixed up in this as well, and a Red Chinese nuclear scientist to boot. 

As one expects from Deighton the plotting is complex and devious, and the characters are ambiguous and very devious indeed. There’s a good deal of double-crossing and even triple-crossing going on. 

The four earlier unnamed spy novels used first person narration but this time for some reason Deighton occasionally switches to third person narration.

There has been some mild controversy as to whether An Expensive Place To Die really is part of the unnamed spy cycle. There’s nothing in the book to answer the question one way or another. The character is certainly very similar but with perhaps a few minor differences - he seems slightly less fussy although he’s still somewhat insubordinate. Len Deighton has stated that this is the fifth unnamed spy novel so that’s good enough for me, although it appears that at the time of publication he wanted to leave the matter just a little ambiguous.

I would not rate this book quite as highly as its predecessors. It doesn’t seem to have quite the same wit and sparkle. Perhaps Deighton was simply moving towards a different style. It does still have the cynicism we expect, and the delightfully intricate plotting.

An Expensive Place To Die is still a fine example of the Cold War spy novel. Highly recommended, although I’d read the earlier the earlier books in the cycle first.


  1. I enjoyed your review. I have read the first four books in the series, but haven't gotten to this one yet.

    1. I've now read all five of the unnamed spy books and I've liked them all. BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN is my favourite.

      I guess now I should try some of his later stuff.

  2. I'm pretty sure that Deighton has since said that in at least one of his 70s spy novels, the unnamed narrator is also the 'Harry Palmer' character. Unfortunately, I can't remember which one!