An Expensive Place To Die by Len Deighton (1967)

‘You are a regular secret agent,’ I said admiringly. ‘What did you do – shoot him in the ankle with the toe-cap gun, send out a signal to HQ on your tooth and play the whole thing back on your wristwatch?’ (p.93)

Deighton’s fifth novel, and a number of significant changes from the first four:

The jacket doesn’t bear the impress ‘Secret File 5’ – the first four novels were numbered Secret Files one to four.

Paraphernalia There are no factual appendices and the fancy epigraphs before each chapter or section which graced the earlier novels have vanished. However, the original hardback edition of the book did contain a dossier of fake NATO files relating to a nuclear attack on China and the likely fallout which, according to legend, was offered to Russian Intelligence and concerned US security services. This, sadly, is not available or referred to in subsequent paperback editions.

Harry Palmer? Although the story is (mostly) told in the first person by an intelligence agent, gone are all references to the WOOC(P) office in Charlotte Street and the related characters – his girlfriend Jean, canny old Alice, aloof boss Dawlish, dim Chico et al. According to the Deighton Dossier website, in the introduction to the Jubilee edition of the novel, Deighton does state that it is ‘the fifth and last in a sequence of novels that began with The Ipcress File’, but that doesn’t quite clear up the mystery of whether it’s the same unnamed narrator. In my opinion use of an unnamed spy narrator and the theme of espionage certainly do link it to the first four – and after this, there is a distinct break in Deighton’s subject matter – but it is not the same character.

Prose

And significantly toned down is the jazzy prose. Similes and special effects there still are, but much fewer and further between. Instead the prose is much tamer, much more normal average paperback prose. There is a lot more psychology in the text – in the Palmer novels the psychology is mostly implied, to be teased out from laconic snatches of conversation. The elliptical style presented just flashes – you had to piece the rest together. Here the thoughts and feelings of characters – especially of Maria, the co-star of the novel – are spelt out in full and they are, alas, run-of-the-mill. What is truth? What is love? Yawn. Chapter 30 is a dinner party at which the three French characters make long speeches about love and women.

‘When I was eighteen – ten years ago – I wanted to give the women I loved the things I wanted for myself: respect, admiration, good food, conversation, wit and even knowledge. But women despise those things. Passion is what they want, intensity of emotion. The same trite words of admiration repeated over and over again. They don’t want good food – women have poor palates – and witty conversation worries them. What’s worse it diverts attention away from them. Women want men who are masterful enough to give them confidence, but not cunning enough to outwit them. They want men with plenty of faults so that they can forgive them. They want men who have trouble with the little things in life; women excel at little things. They remember little things too; there is no occasion in their lives, from confirmation to eightieth birthday, when they can’t recall every stitch they wore.’ (p.176)

You will be pleased to learn the originator of these sentiments, the playboy Jean-Paul, is shot dead soon afterwards. There is a lot of this sort of thing. The earlier novels had snappy dialogue; this one has lots of speechifying.

Paris

Horse, Berlin and Billion flitted between London and Portugal, Berlin and Helsinki/Leningrad, respectively. This novel is set entirely in Paris and lets you know it with lots of knowing references to the Boul. Mich., inside tips about French cuisine, a sprinkling of footnotes clarifying the structure of the various French police agencies, and larky descriptions of Paris landmarks.

The great Arc de Triomphe loomed above them as they roared round the Étoile like soapsuds round the kitchen sink. (p.112)

Setting and characters

The novel is (mainly) told in the first person by a middle-aged man who lives in the Rue St Ferdinand in the seventeenth arrondissement of Paris and appears to be a special agent working for London under cover of being a journalist. He lives above a restaurant, Le Petit Légionnaire, with its little cast of patron, wife, and regular customers. One of these is a Monsieur Datt who runs a rather mysterious ‘clinic’. He is to be found in the cafe almost every day playing Paris Monopoly with the owners. The Narrator is friends with Byrd, a retired English Navy officer, now living the dream as a painter in Paris; he is making a painting using a nude model named Annie; he is friends with a handsome young French painter named Jean-Paul. One evening they go to a gallery party where the Narrator meets the Chief Inspector of Police, Claude Loiseau, and a pretty thirty-two-year-old woman named Maria Chauvet.

As mentioned, most of the text is narrated in the first person by the English agent, but some chapters are narrated in the third person and are about this Maria (her history, thoughts and feelings) or about police chief Loiseau or playboy Jean-Paul. For me, these don’t work so well: Maria is divorced and has a lover, and reflects on life and love and love and life and it’s all a bit Sunday supplement-level psychology. Here she is putting on her make-up in order to go for lunch with her ex-husband Loiseau, and mulling over how she translated for the Englishman during his interrogation (see below).

She smudged her eye-shadow, cursed softly, removed it and began again. Will the Englishman appreciate the risk you are taking? Why not tell M. Datt the truth of what the Englishman said? The Englishman is interested only in his work, as Loiseau was interested only in his work. Loiseau’s love-making was efficient, just as his working day was. How can a woman compete with a man’s work? Work is abstract and intangible, hypnotic and lustful; a woman is no match for it. She remembered the nights she had tried to fight Loiseau’s work, to win him away from the police and its interminable paperwork and its relentless demands upon their time together. She remembered the last bitter argument about it. Loiseau had kissed her passionately in a way he had never done before and they had made love and she had clung to him, crying silently in the sudden release of tension, for at that moment she knew that they would separate and divorce, and she had been right. (p.72)

It’s boring. It lacks interest or surprise. Quite possibly this is what the ex-wife of a Paris police chief would think as she puts her make-up on, but it’s dull.

The plot

The plot gets going when a courier from London tells the narrator he must make available to M. Datt a hefty file full of information about the nuclear weapon fallout. No explanation why. After the art gallery party Maria takes the Narrator to visit M. Datt’s clinic on the Avenue Foch in her swish E-type jag. Without any warning there is an extraordinary scene where the Narrator is beaten up, tied down and injected with LSD and Amytal and interrogated by Datt in the presence of Maria whose job it is to translate his answers. In his delirium he tells everything about his work and employer, but Maria doesn’t translate it all (as she mentions in her soliloquy, quoted above). The Narrator awakens in a Disney-style dungeon with Maria who simply walks him to the car and they drive back to her place. He cleans up and returns to his flat only to find it has, in the traditional style, been ransacked, and (part of) the atomic file is missing. A few days later he goes downstairs to the restaurant and joins in the Monopoly game with Datt as if nothing, or not much, had happened.

This snapped my credulity and from this point onwards I regarded the novel as escapist fantasy, an airport novel, something from a shiny plastic TV series like The Man From UNCLE.

The plot rotates in a rather cartoonish way around Datt’s ‘clinic’: he claims he does research into the psychology of sex; others say it is simply a high-class brothel with a bondage dungeon (where the Narrator regained consciousness) and where the parties feature hard drugs and kinky sex. The Narrator’s contact says this is all true but all the rooms are bugged and the call girls are paid to get the high-level diplomat clientele to talk about their work. The tapes of the conversations are then sent to the police/security services and Datt has persuaded many people he’s actually working for the SDECE (French Security).

Adding to the oddly plastic feel of the story is the way all the main characters turn out to be related.

  • Jean-Paul turns out not really to be a painter; he does goon work for Datt sometimes; it is he who burgles the Narrator’s apartment looking for the atomic file; since the Narrator has booby-trapped the file with a chemical, this results in Jean-Paul having indelibly purple hands for several days. He has also been Maria’s lover, and they were caught on video having sex, a fact which periodically worries Maria.
  • Maria turns out to be the ex-wife of Loiseau the police inspector, and there’s a lot of reminiscing about their marriage and why it failed etc (as in the quote, above). Datt has told Jean-Paul that Maria is in fact his long-lost daughter, though Maria insists her father was killed early in the War in 1940 – but then confesses to the Narrator that she is Datt’s illegitimate daughter.
  • Annie Couzens, Byrd’s model, turns out also to work at Datt’s clinic as a call girl; but the Narrator’s contact says she also is an British agent, reporting back on what she hears to a Paris control; Loiseau tells Maria that Annie was also working for the French police; and her friend tells the Narrator she made her own independent tapes of her clients, for purposes unknown.
  • Byrd is arrested by Loiseau for the Couzens murder, even though all concerned know he isn’t guilty, but he may or may not be another British agent. In the end, we find out is he is more than an agent, he is the Narrator’s ‘case officer’.

Farce

The way everyone is related to everyone else, and is spying on each other and misleading each other about everything, and the way it rotates around a brothel with a tape recorder in each room and a toy dungeon in the basement, begins to give it the feeling of a farce: a small cast of characters getting caught up in more and more complex predicaments, generally with their trousers round their ankles. I’m thinking the movie What’s New Pussycat? released in 1965 and set in Paris, or the Pink Panther movies.

Which is why, when the Narrator sees Annie Couzens, naked, running out of the ‘clinic’, bleeding from numerous stab wounds and drop dead in the street, it is described more as an inconvenience for all concerned than an outrageous murder. The murderer was a high-ranking Chinese embassy official, Kuang-t’en, and so both Datt and the Paris police and the Narrator want it hushed up, and so it is.

There is a ludicrous scene where, in order to break into Datt’s mansion/clinic Loiseau closes the Avenue Foch and has massive roadworks put in place to dig up the road and excavate down into the drains leading to the cellar which they break into and thence into the house. Instead of going in through the front door, or a window. In any event, the house is completely empty, Datt has fled. Baffling.

Atomic secrets

Sense of a kind is restored when an American contacts the Narrator, claiming to be an atomic bomb expert. He, too, has been ordered to pass secrets to Datt. The assumption seems to be that Datt is a conduit of information to Red China: now, when the US carried out its atomic tests, they hid from the world the truly destructive levels of fallout they produced, in a series of highly-doctored reports. The US knows a medium-size nuclear attack on China would kill some of its population with the blast but most would then die from long-lasting radioactive fallout. But Chinese hard-liners are using the official American reports, which give a misleadingly low estimate of fallout, to advise their government that it could survive a nuclear war, which makes the possibility that China might initiate a nuclear war more likely. And hence the need for the Narrator to somehow pass the genuine, and much more destructive, US test fallout reports to the Chinese man in Paris.

Thus the Narrator secures false papers and drives out to Datt’s country house. Here he finds Datt, Jean-Paul, the housekeeper etc and the Chinese official who, by this stage, it has emerged is in fact an eminent nuclear scientist. After wordy exchanges with Datt, who goes to great lengths to explain why his brothel was actually carrying out ‘therapy’ on his high-ranking clientele, the Narrator establishes that the Chinese, Kuang-t’ien, is there.

He phones Maria and tells her to drive out Hudson, the American nuclear expert. While the two scientists go into conclave, there is a dinner party at which everyone talks at great length about human nature and love and women, which just reads very oddly and out of date now. Luckily Jean-Paul becomes a bit hysterical and insults his host and employer, Datt, so severely, that Datt has him dragged out of the room and shot dead.

At which point the Narrator persuades the Chinese and American they must come with him and escape across the border to Belgium using the fake papers he’s providing. This they do safely, and are collected by Belgians working for British Intelligence in the eerie setting of an empty road in the middle of the First World battlefield of Ypres.

Time and TV, frozen food and transistor radios had healed the wounds and filled the places that once seemed unfillable. (p.193)

Éclaircissement

In Ostend the Narrator awaits his ‘case officer’, who turns out to be none other than posh, retired Navy painter, Byrd. The Narrator is disgusted at having been tricked. Byrd’s arrest by Loiseau was a ploy to allow him to ‘disappear’ to plan what to do with Kuang. And it turns out he did organise the death of Annie Couzens. Turns out she was spilling the beans about being a British agent: the plan was to ‘eliminate’ her and frame Kuang for being an ‘oriental Jack the Ripper’ – but that didn’t come off, old boy.

As the plot nears its climax it gets pretty complicated: Datt has tasked Maria with driving an old ambulance full of the files and porn films which constitute his ‘research’ to the dock at Ostend. There she meets the Narrator and Kuang and announces she is Kuang’s case officer. This is obviously nonsense which they ignore, and a rowboat of Chinese arrives to take them out to a ship three miles offshore outside territorial waters. Here they meet Datt who had made his own way to safety. (In the hotel Kuang had told a vivid story of how he met Datt in Vietnam and how the latter was converted to the communist cause.)

The Narrator had cannily persuaded Kuang and the girl that they must get into the rowboat immediately and abandon all Datt’s files, because the cops were hot on their tail. This is a ruse; he knows that once out on the boat he will be able to persuade Datt to go back ashore; Kuang won’t stop them – he has the nuclear secrets he wants – and Datt won’t abandon the 800 dossiers which constitute his life work. So they take a boat back ashore to find Loiseau waiting to arrest him, backed up by a squad of Belgian paratroops assigned to him.

Is this anything to do with justice? Non. Simply that the Narrator wants the return of the tape of the confession he made under the influence of the drugs right back at the start of the story, and he had promised he would deliver Datt to Loiseau in exchange.


It has been quite a challenge keeping up with the scale of the double crosses and backstabbing which everyone has engaged in in this novel. By the end, it was quite hard to care.

Related links

Paperback cover of An Expensive Place To Die

Paperback cover of An Expensive Place To Die

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: