An Expensive Place to Die - 1967

Unnamed spy novels

Plot summary

The story's narrator must deliver NATO nuclear files to a Chinese general who is a regular client at Mounsier Datt’s house of ill repute in Paris, where Datt films guests' sexual proclivities in the hope of securing ransom money.

Datt, it turns out, is actually just a patsy of the Cold War powers, which are using him to bring their scientists together to avoid a nuclear war. Our hero is at one point drugged and given a truth serum but is helped by the beautiful Maria, Datt's illegitimate daughter, who is married to Loiseau, the French police inspector.

The denouement involves the disposal of the pornographic tapes and a shoot-out on a ship off Belgium leading to the death of Datt. Again, this is a labyrinthine plot where nothing said by any of the characters should ever be taken at face value.

The narrator is unnamed. There are clues which suggest he’s the same unnamed narrator from the earlier novels, but it's - again, perhaps deliberately - unclear. However, in the introduction to the Jubilee edition, Len Deighton does state that it is "the fifth and last in a sequence of novels that began with The Ipcress File."

Why it's enjoyable

It does offer something different from the first four stories, by introducing new characters and widening the scope of espionage beyond the Soviets. The original copy of the book contained a dossier of secret NATO files on a nuclear attack on China, and the likely fallout, which according to legend even spooked the security services for a while when it was offered for sale to the USA secret service by a con artist.

The plot is less spy novel and more mystery, but a good story nonetheless. One of the main characters that comes across well is 'sixties Paris itself, which is beautifully depicted. It’s also a complex story to piece together, and needs a couple of readings before it all makes sense.

The other cool element is the ultra-realistic file of the 'secret documents' which came with every first edition; you get the feeling you're in on something big, containing as it does convincing looking correspondence from the White House and US military data on the effect of a nuclear attack on China. This is very characteristic of Deighton's focus on getting the details right, and using them to boost readers' involvement in the plot.

Sample dialogue

'It was a large black case and contained reams of reports. One of them he passed across to me.

"Read it while I'm here. I can't leave it."

"It's secret?"

"No, our document copies has gone wrong and it's the only one I have."

Related fact

The novel's title is adapted from an Oscar Wilde aphorism: 'Dying in Paris is a terribly expensive business for a foreigner'.

The laid-in file of top secret documents bears the Deighton hallmark of absolute authenticity and attention to detail. In 1967, it was reported in the New York Times that these papers had been offered to the Russians by a New Yorker, having been found in a bin. The papers were so convincing they were held up by the FBI and customs.

Despite Deighton admitting that this was the fifth of the 'unnamed spy' novels, it is curiously not written or marketed as 'secret file No. 5', following the first four books. The cover, although also by Raymond Hawkey, is of a markedly different design.

ExpensivePlace

An Expensive Place to Die UK first edition, 1967

Did you know?

Len Deighton has confirmed that he deliberately used bird imagery throughout the book - naming characters like Byrd and Loiseau (French for 'bird'). He wasn't particularly satisfied with its effect.