Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler

I’ve always been vaguely aware of the name of Eric Ambler as an author of spy stories, but he’s not someone I’ve ever read. I think I tended to lump him into a group with people like Le Carre, Ludlum et al and think I wouldn’t find their books particularly interesting or well-written. However, Annabel has written about him in glowing terms, which piqued my interest a little. So when I spotted one of his books in a charity shop, I had a little look and discovered that this was might be called a classic rather than a modern thriller and so might be a bit more up my street. And when it transpired that it had been published in 1938, it was ideal for our current reading event!

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I confess to coming to this a little unready for it in many ways; I’ve been reading the 1938 books fairly intensely, sometimes one a day, and switching so rapidly between different types of writing and genre hasn’t always been easy. “Young Man With A Horn” had a particular setting and narrative style which was very absorbing and I did wonder how I would get on with the Ambler – however, I needn’t have worried.

The book is set in France pretty much in the era it was published, and our narrator is Josef Vadassy; a Hungarian refugee, he’s scraping a living as a language teacher, but is pretty much stateless. Hungary (as I found out with a little research for another book I’ve been reading) was subject to a dramatic number of border shifts after WW1 and much of it ended up as part of Czechoslovakia. Josef has a Czech passport but is on the run from that country; England will not have him, and the French will let him stay but won’t give him citizenship and if he leaves he won’t be allowed back in. So he’s vulnerable and impoverished, but manages to scrape enough together for a short holiday on the Riviera.

Josef’s hobby is photography; and things start to go wrong when he has some photos of lizards developed at a local chemist. Because bizarrely enough there are also photos of secret military installations also on the film, despite Josef’s protestations that he knows nothing about how they got there. The mysterious Beghin, an intelligence man, is inclined to believe him; but if Josef did not take the pictures, someone at his hotel with an identical camera must have done so.

Poor Josef is left in the unhappy position of having to go back to his hotel and try to work out who the real spy is so he can clear his own name. Unfortunately, he’s patently incapable of this kind of work and blunders around making things worse. The hotel is full of plenty of people who could come under suspicion, including the English couple, Major and Mrs. Clandon-Hartley; the Vogels, a Swiss couple; the insufferable M. Duclos, who seems to have a loose grip on the truth; a young American brother and sister, Warren and Mary Skelton; and the unpleasant Andre Roux. Throw in a mystery man who seems to be known under several names plus a deceptively laid-back hotel owner and you have all the ingredients for a real puzzler.

It would be good now, I thought, to be in Paris. The afternoon city heat would have gone. It would be good to sit under the trees in the Luxembourg, the trees near the marionette theatre. It would be quiet there now. There would be no one there but a student or two reading. There you could listen to the rustle of leaves unconscious of the pains of humanity in labour, of a civilization hastening to its own destruction. There, away from this brassy sea and blood-red earth, you could contemplate the twentieth-century tragedy unmoved; unmoved except by pity for mankind fighting to save itself from the primeval ooze that welled from its own subconscious being.

And this *was* a puzzler, and a wonderful one at that! For a start, Ambler’s writing is excellent; this is no badly written pot-boiler, but a real literary thriller, a novel that just happens to have a mystery. And then there’s the setting, which is beautifully conjured; the Riviera comes alive and is entirely convincing. Interestingly enough, the book in some ways reads like a Golden Age country house crime novel, with the confined setting and limited range of characters, all under suspicion; but the added tension caused by the knowledge that one is a dangerous spy and that Vadassy is in danger of losing liberty, a country that will allow him to live there,  or even his life, makes the book quite unputdownable!

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So my misgivings were completely unjustified, and I ended up finding myself staying up late at night to finish the book, unable to stand waiting until the next day to find out the solution. If I had any criticism, I would say that the end was maybe a little predictable – I could have done with another twist or two. But the reveal was very satisfying, and Ambler nicely tied up all the loose ends and solved all the little mysteries about the individual characters in a proper, Golden Age way.

As for what was to come – well, that’s hinted about throughout the book, and it’s sobering to wonder what would have happened to the various protagonists in the story during WW2. Josef Vadassy himself would have been quite vulnerable and the plight of non-indigenous people in France during the occupation was often not a happy one.

So my first experience of reading Eric Ambler was a joyous one and I intend to read more of his thrillers from the same era. The excellent introduction explains how Ambler intended to take the thriller genre, much looked down on at the time, and reinvent as a classier product. He certainly succeeded with “Epitaph for a Spy” and I can’t recommend it highly enough – it was the ideal way to end my week of reading books from 1938!

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