Thursday, September 4, 2014

Epitaph for a Spy: Eric Ambler


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
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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.
And this is his downfall. He is arrested for possessing a suspicious roll of film.  Having no papers, he is at the mercy of the authorities, and is forced to help them in their inquiries. He must return to his hotel, mingle among the other guests, and determine who really took the pictures which got him in trouble.

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. ...
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.
There was a film adaptation of this novel, Hotel Reserve, released in 1944. It starred James Mason, Lucie Mannheim, and Herbert Lom.

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.

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Publisher:  Bantam, 1952 (orig. pub. 1938)
Length:   164 pages
Format:   paperback
Setting:   small fishing village in France
Genre:    espionage fiction
Source:   Purchased my copy

25 comments:

  1. Lovely post! I really enjoyed reading Epitaph for a Spy. I love the fact Ambler wrote many of his books whilst the Second World War was still ongoing. It means there is a lot of politicial intrigue and uncertainty, which you don't get in books written after the event.
    I didn't realise there was a film version, I shall have to look out for it :)

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    1. Thanks, I have many more Ambler books to read. And looking forward to them. I have at least one movie based on one of his books: Background to Danger. Hope to read that one soon and watch the movie.

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  2. I like Ambler a lot but it'sbeen ages since I read any of his - since you mention the film adaptations of some of them, this one was filmed with James Mason as HOTEL RESERVE which is actually a fun little British movie.

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    1. Sergio, I had looked around for that and appears to be fairly expensive here. But maybe someday it will be affordable. Or I will spring for it anyway.

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  3. Oh I want to read this. I love novels set in a hotel and a motley group interacting with one another. And Ambler is one of my favourite writers. Thanks Tracy.

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    1. neer, your recent post featuring Journey into Fear makes me want to read that one soon, and I do have a copy.

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    2. I did finally read it, Tracy and found it to be as good as Ambler's other books. Thanks for the review that made me want to read it.

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  4. Tracy - There's something about a disparate group of people gathered in the same place, isn't there? It makes for a solid source of tension. I'm glad you featured Ambler's work; I need to spotlight one of his books sometime.

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    1. It would be great if you spotlight an Eric Ambler book, Margot. I look forward to it.

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  5. I've never read this one, and haven't really read many Ambler books at all, but this sounds good.

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    1. Martin, I expect I will be reading more from this time period first, but I will be interested to see how his writing changes over the years.

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  6. I have Ambler on my tbr list. Looking forward to trying his work again. I had started one of his books but set it aside. Espionage is up there with police procedurals for me.

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  7. Me too, Keishon. My two favorite sub-genres are espionage and police procedurals. I read more police procedurals but I have a lot of espionage fiction I want to read.

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  8. Tracy, I have never read this author before. I'm intrigued that this particular novel, at least, doesn't have your conventional spy as a protagonist. Instead, you have Josef Vadassy who is forced to go undercover to save his skin. It's an unusual plot idea.

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    1. It is a very different take on the spy novel, Prashant. I believe the next one I plan to read, Background to Danger, is a similar story.

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  9. I read a few Amblers years ago, and remember very little except that I liked them and found them quite funny (which I hadn't been expecting). No idea if I've read this one, but it sounds just the kind of spy thriller I like so I might give it a go.

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    1. For all I know, I may be re-reading some of these books. If so, they have entirely left my memory so I can enjoy them again. I am getting more accustomed to Ambler's style now.

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  10. I'm looking forward to reading Ambler, as and when I get around to it. I'm not 100% sure if I have this one or not, but I'll add it to the list just in case. Glad you enjoyed it.

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    1. I did like it, Col, but it is taking me awhile to get used to Ambler's spy fiction. The Light of Day (a heist story) was an easier read for me.

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  11. I haven't read many spy novels at all, but you've piqued my interest with this review, Tracy. I'm having more fun reading older stuff lately too.

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    1. Ambler's books are a different kind of spy fiction, Rebecca, so you may enjoy them even if you don't go for spy novels. I do hope you try one of his books, just to see what you think.

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  12. What is the draw on spy novels? I've never been drawn to them, although my father, who influenced my youthful reading, loved the Le Carre's novels.

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    1. That is a good question, Kathy. A lot of readers don't care for spy fiction. Two characteristics that I know of is the moral ambiguity and the situations where the characters don't know who to trust. Why those would appeal to me especially I don't know. But I do find that there are writers of spy fiction that I get hooked on and would reread, given the time: Charles McCarry, Len Deighton, Olen Steinhauer.

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  13. I want to try The Cairo Affair, for one reason, the setting.

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    1. I liked the Cairo Affair a lot, Kathy. Had unexpected twists and turns.

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