Eric Ambler's spy novels often feature hapless individuals who are trapped in a situation they have no control over. Normal men who get involved in situation through no fault of their own. I have only read a small sampling of Ambler's books so this information is gleaned from overviews of his works in reference books and on the web
Josef Vadassy, the protagonist of Epitaph for a Spy, is a Hungarian refugee living in Paris. While on a vacation in St. Gatiens, he stumbles upon adventure.
I possess only two objects of value in this world. One of them is a camera, the other a letter dated February 10, 1867, from Deak to von Beust. If someone were to offer me money for the letter I should accept it thankfully; but I am very fond of the camera, and nothing but starvation would induce me to part with it. I am not a particularly good photographer; but I get a lot of pleasure pretending that I am.
I had been taking photographs at the Reserve and had, the previous day, taken an exposed spool into the village chemist’s shop to be developed. Now, in the ordinary way, I should not dream of letting anyone else develop my films. Half the pleasure of amateur photography lies in doing your own darkroom work. But I had been experimenting, and if I did not see the results of the experiments before I left St. Gatien, I should have no opportunity of making use of them. So I had left the film with the chemist. The negative was to be developed and dry by eleven o’clock.
Vadassy is a shy man, and even the idea of attempting to pump strangers for information puts him in agony. Plus, even if he convinces the police he is innocent and can return to Paris, he has to get there on time or he will lose his job. So he is under double pressure to meet the deadline that the Secret Police have imposed upon him. There is a motley group of people staying at his hotel: an older British couple, two young Americans (brother and sister), a German, a Frenchman with his mistress, a Swiss couple.
This was only the third book by Ambler that I have read. The first one, A Coffin for Dimitrios (also published as The Mask of Dimitrios), is similar to Epitaph for a Spy. The Light of Day (later made into a film, Topkapi) is a lighter novel, about a petty thief and con-man, who gets mixed up in a complicated heist.
I liked this book and I am glad I read it. It did have long stretches of conversation where other guests tell their stories to Vadassy. That was also a characteristic of A Coffin for Dimitrios, and not my favorite storytelling style. I preferred this book, possibly because I empathized with the protagonist, with his shyness and his reluctance to get involved. He was really thrown into this situation whereas the hero of A Coffin for Dimitrios actively seeks to learn more of Dimitrios and his life.
Ambler provided a footnote to a 1952 edition of this book:
I wrote Epitaph for a Spy in 1937, and it was a mild attempt at realism. The central character is a stateless person, there are no professional devils, and the only Britisher in the story is anything but stalwart. I still like bits of it.In a review of another novel by Ambler (at The Rap Sheet), Journey into Fear, Charles Cumming says:
He uses lengthy passages of dialogue, for example, to explore political ideas. ...There was a film adaptation of this novel, Hotel Reserve, released in 1944. It starred James Mason, Lucie Mannheim, and Herbert Lom.
In exploring those ideas, Ambler elevates the spy novel to a different level, paving the way for the likes of Le Carré, Deighton, Alan Furst, and Dan Fesperman.
I will continue reading more espionage novels by Eric Ambler. I have a few more that he published in the 1930's and two published in the 1950's.
Publisher: Bantam, 1952 (orig. pub. 1938)
Length: 164 pages
Setting: small fishing village in France
Genre: espionage fiction
Source: Purchased my copy