Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (1938)

Looking back now, I marvel at my stupidity; I was pathetically ineffectual. (p.152)

Maybe the distinguishing feature of the six thriller novels Eric Ambler published in the late 1930s is that they are all set in Europe under the shadow of war: the fictional Balkan country Ixania in The Dark Frontier, Austria and Czechoslovakia in Uncommon Danger, and the south of France here in Epitaph. This non-English setting gives them a particularly brooding, stifling, paranoid atmosphere; everyone is scheming against everyone else, the police are menacing, strangers whisper in foreign languages, and over everything a vast catastrophe is looming.

Epitaph for a Spy was serialised in the Daily Express in March 1938, just as Hitler annexed Austria. According to his autobiography, Ambler was paid £135 for it. (Here Lies, p.131)

Innocent abroad

The precarious foreign-ness of the story is emphasised by making the protagonist not only another ‘innocent’ man plunged into intrigue – like the physicist Barstow in Dark Frontier, like the journalist Kenton in Danger – but a foreigner, Josef Vadassy, a language teacher, and not only that, but a stateless foreigner, a refugee from Hungary who doesn’t have the correct papers and is – quite literally – at home nowhere in the world. The story is told by Vadassy in the first person which gives greater access to his engulfing sensations of amazement, fear and panic as the situation unfolds, and also to his serio-comic attempts to play-act the tough guy and fathom his fellow guests.

Plot

The narrative is kicked off quite simply: Vadassy is on a three-week holiday in the south of France from his language school in Paris. Stopping at a pretty resort on the Riviera he drops off some photos to be developed at a chemist’s and is amazed, when he returns, to be arrested and taken by the police for questioning! Turns out the roll of film on his camera contains incriminating photos of the naval defences at Toulon!! Somehow, at the hotel, his camera has been swapped for that of a spy. Or so he says!!! Grudgingly, the police release him on orders from a Naval Intelligence man, on condition that Vadassy return to the hotel and find out who the real spy is…

Agatha Christie

Almost all the novel is set in this sleepy French hotel in which there are ten or so guests, from different nationalities, different ages etc, all with different quirks and oddities, and any one of them could be the suspect!! This one-of-you-is-the-murderer set-up has a strong Agatha Christie feeling (Christie’s first detective novel was published in 1920), pretty much the traditional English country-house murder mystery, except in France. It’s strikingly unlike the previous two novels which involved lots of travelling, by train or plane, car chases, abandoned factories and so on. This is more like a chamber piece.

Fear…

Ambler was consciously revolting against the hard-eyed he-men which featured in the now-forgotten spy fiction of the 1930s, the epigones of John Buchan and Bulldog Drummond and E. Oppenheimer. His protagonists are very ordinary men and they react with very ordinary fear to the situations they find themselves in. Kenton isn’t really beaten up very much in Uncommon Danger, but is held prisoner for a day so that when he is released Ambler gives a very realistic description of how exhausted he is after even a small time of fleeing through the woods. There’s similar verisimilitude in the description of his escape in the snow across the barbed wire border between Austria and Czechoslovakia.

This novel starts slowly and painfully conveys the sense of injustice and craziness Vadassy feels as his world is turned upside-down and he realises he may, though he’s done absolutely nothing wrong, be facing life imprisonment in a French gaol, or even execution for spying.

I think that if anyone had suggested to me at that moment that I should not be able to leave on the Sunday, I should have laughed disbelievingly. But there would have been hysteria in that laugh for, as I sat on the floor beside my open suitcase, fear was clutching at the mechanism inside my chest, making my heart thud and my breathing short and sharp as though I had been running. I kept swallowing saliva, feeling for some curious reason that by doing so I would stop my heart beating so. It made me terribly thirsty and after a while I got up, went to the wash-basin and drank some water out of the tooth glass. (2009 Penguin Classics edition, page 31)

This novel could by sub-titled ‘The Wrong Man’ and, as such, resembles all those Hitchcock movies where an innocent man finds himself thrown into jeopardy.

… and comedy

All this said, however, the novel doesn’t have the intensity or genuine grip of the first two, for several reasons:

  • It’s very slow. The cops give Vadassy three days to find the real spy and although, in his mind, he is full of worry, in the external world not much actually happens: he gets to know the other guests, hears their stories, plays some billiards, has breakfast, lunch and dinner, swims in the sea. At one stage  his room is burgled; on the second night someone hits him over the head and rifles his pockets. That’s it. No corpses. No real violence. No car chases. No change of scene at all.
  • It’s funny. Vadassy, though given a foreign name, nationality and facility with languages, is in fact a very English nitwit. The French Naval Intelligence man says they’re only setting him free to try & catch the real spy because in his interview he came over as such an imbecile. And the first-person narrative is as much concerned with Vadassey’s ridiculous posturing, his belated retorts when he makes a fool of himself, his hysterical fears and melodramatic over-reactions. He is particularly humiliated when he bungles pretending to have had his room burgled so badly that the hotel owner, Herr Köche, calls him an amateur confidence trickster to his face, and boots him out.

In this scene Vadassy has broken into one of the guest’s rooms and is rifling his things.

I was so engrossed with these significant discoveries that I did not hear the footsteps until they were practically outside the door. Even if I had have heard them I doubt whether I should have been able to do anything more. As it was, I just had time to cram the passports back into the pocket and bundle the suit into the cupboard behind me before the handle of the door turned. In the few split seconds that followed, my brain and body seemed to go numb. I stood and gazed stupidly at the handle. I wanted to shout, hide in the cupboard, jump out of the window, scramble under the bed. But I did none of those things. I just gaped. (p.133)

More Johnny English than John Buchan.

I went downstairs feeling several kinds of fool. Instead of doing the pumping I had been pumped. Far from extracting valuable information I had been forced into a defensive position and answered questions as meekly as if I had been in the witness box… As usual, I began to think of the crushing things I ought to have said. The trouble was that my brain moved far too slowly. I was a dullard, a half-wit. (p.167)

Worldview

Ambler repeats his war-of-all-against-all worldview, the epidemic of spying and industrial espionage in the feverish atmosphere of the late 1930s.

All over Europe, all over the world, men were spying. While in government offices other men were tabulating the results of the spies’ labours; thicknesses of armour plating, elevation angles of guns, muzzle velocities, details of fire control mechanisms and range-finders, fuse efficiencies, details of fortifications, positions of ammunition stores, disposition of key factories, landmarks for bombers. The world was getting ready to go to war. For the cannon-makers and for the spies, business was good. (p.49)

There are a few other similar outbreaks of earnestness: for example,

  • each of the guests, in turn, are questioned and reveal more or less intriguing or bizarre back stories, but one of the guests, Herr Schimler, has quite a harrowing tale to tell: he once edited a Social Democrat newspaper in Germany until the Nazis came to power and threw him in a concentration camp for two years, before he managed to escape, being handed from safe house to safe house until he arrived to be protected by a fellow communist at this hotel; but his wife and child are still in Germany and he lives in constant fear of being discovered by Gestapo agents, his true identity revealed and his family suffering…
  • the final chase of the spy, once his identity is revealed, is intense and serious and leads up to a violent rooftop pursuit which ends tragically.

Yes, the text is laced with genuinely tense and tragic themes, but… overall the country house murder ambience of the main set-up, and the light-hearted feel of Vadassy’s numerous humiliating cock-ups and his red-faced mortification at them, tend to be the enduring memory.

Epitaph for a Spy is a strong title, but this book doesn’t really live up to it. Miss Marple Mislays A Camera might be closer in tone.

Centenary

In 2009, the centenary of Ambler’s birth, Penguin reissued half a dozen of his thrillers in large paperback format with stylish black and white covers, and introductions from contemporary writers. Epitaph is introduced by the poet James Fenton who had the privilege of interviewing Ambler in old age, and he repeats some of the author’s anecdotes here.

Movie

The novel was made into a 1944 movie titled Hotel Reserve, starring James Mason. Ambler was paid $3,000 for the rights (Here Lies, p.137). It was in production at Denham Studios at the same time as the wartime morale-booster which Ambler scripted, The Way Ahead. Ambler has some harsh words for it.

Though I later became a friend and neighbour of James Mason, he could never speak of Hotel Reserve without a shudder. In his autobiography and in a book about all his films he tried, almost successfully, not to speak about it at all. I shared his aversion to it. The film had a rubbishy script, bad sets and an unsuitable director. (Here Lies, p.189)

Related links

Pulp cover of Epitaph for A Spy

Pulp cover of Epitaph for A Spy

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.
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