Saturday, 31 January 2004

Len Deighton: An Expensive Place to Die (1967)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1967
Review number: 1218

The fifth Len Deighton novel narrated by Harry Palmer is in some ways more like The Ipcress File than Billion-Dollar Brain (its predecessor) is. The cynical dark humour returns, and this gives the novel a similar atmosphere. It is, though, a more sordid novel, its subject being a high class Parisian brothel which has a sideline in blackmail, but it also shares the impression that the narrator has very little idea of what is actually going on - something which enables Deighton to spring surprises on the reader.

There is actually very little more to the plot than the existence of the brothel; all that really concerns the reader is to work out which of the characters in the novel is involved in investigating, protecting or running it. This is not very satisfactory from the point of view of the action in the story, something important in the thriller genre; it remains too unmotivated.

Harry Palmer continues to be anonymous, identified only as "the Englishman" by the other characters. In a new departure, his is not the only narrative voice. This is presumably so that the scenes can be rather more varied, with descriptions of events outside the Englishman's viewpoint. However, the scenes narrated from the point of view of other characters do not work so well; Deighton seems to have problems imagining how they will respond to the events they witness.

The novel, whose title comes from an Oscar Wilde quip about Paris, is something of a mixed bag. As a thriller, it isn't really exciting enough, but makes up for this in atmosphere. The plot is too diffuse, but it can be interesting guessing exactly who is on which side. While its predecessor Billion-Dollar Brain is really only for those who want to read everything Deighton wrote, An Expensive Place to Die would probably interest any fan of spy thrillers who picked it up.

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