Judgment on Deltchev by Eric Ambler (1952)

The truth about my part in the Deltchev affair is untidy. I did not even blunder into the danger; I strayed into it as if it were an interesting-looking tangle of streets in an old town. Certainly I had been warned that they were dangerous; but only to those who warned, I thought, not to me. When I found out that I was mistaken and tried to get out, I found also that I was lost. (p.162)

After writing six thrillers in the late 1930s which gave a new depth and seriousness to the genre, Ambler’s output came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of World War Two. A spell in the artillery followed before the Army realised the place for his talents was in a photographic unit. From here he graduated to the film unit, recording military activities on various fronts. Even before peace came, this had led to his involvement with feature films. He became a scriptwriter and spent much of the 1940s and 50s writing the scripts of a number of British films (see list below).

But by the end of the 1940s he had also found time to return to novels and to begin what is effectively, part two of his novel-writing career. In the 1950s he published four novels:

Judgment on Deltchev (1952)
The Schirmer Inheritance (1953)
The Night-Comers (1956)
Passage of Arms (1959)

Political background

In my reviews of Ambler’s six pre-War thrillers I’ve noted the strong anti-business speeches given to numerous characters as well as the striking fact that the most sympathetic character in two of the thrillers is the KGB agent Andreas Zaleshoff. However, like many fellow travellers, Ambler was shocked by the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. Left wingers like him had supported the USSR because it seemed the only bulwark against the udeniable evil of Fascism spreading across continental Europe. But when Soviet Russia cynically abandoned this opposition by allying with Hitler’s Germany in order to carve up Poland, disillusioned believers were reluctantly forced to concede the flaws and evils of the communist system.

The situation changed again when Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941 and the USSR and ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin became, by default, our new ally. For the rest of the War, and well into the post-War period, the Allies cooperated with the USSR, but with increasing friction. Historians give various dates for the start of the Cold War but its seeds were evident even before the end of the War in August 1945.

By the time this novel was published in 1952, a great deal more had happened to further disillusion western supporters of communism, namely Russia’s harsh clampdown in its East European colonies and the formalisation of the so-called Iron Curtain.

This is the geo-political background to Ambler’s first novel in 12 years.

Judgment on Deltchev

The narrator, Foster, is a playwright hired by an American newspaper to cover a political show trial in an unnamed East European country. As soon as he arrives in the capital, the paper’s local fixer, Pashik, gives him a file of background notes which the novel summarises for us: Yordan Deltchev rose from local administrator to become the leader of the Agrarian Party which organised resistance to the Germans and is the only opposition to the Soviet-supported People’s Party. Following the War his shadow government continued as the interim administration and his supporters even expected it to become the formal government – when he surprised everyone by calling elections. Hours before the results came out the People’s Party staged a coup, seized power and, in due course, put Deltchev on trial.

The novel covers the 5 days of the Deltchev trial, giving Foster’s detailed eye-witness account of proceedings. It is a representative example of such stage-managed political trials: the prosecution presenting a farrago of political accusations, the judges acquiescing, the defence lawyer well aware he mustn’t try too hard and Deltchev’s interventions, when they happen at key moments, being excluded from the official record.

Around this daily process the narrator, Foster, meets various shady characters and becomes embroiled in murky goings-on.

  • He is visited by Deltchev’s old deputy, Petlarov, who gives Foster (and the reader) a handy guide to the tricks which will be used in the trial, and the way Foster himself will be used by the regime for its propaganda purposes.
  • He visits Madame Deltchev under house arrest and her delectable daughter gives him a letter to deliver, supposedly to a boyfriend to an address in the outskirts.
  • That night, when Foster goes to the dark, spooky apartment to deliver the letter he finds a corpse on the floor. At that moment the craven fixer, Pashik, appears with a flashlight and gun and takes Foster away.
  • Pashik drives him to a secret location in the suburbs before introducing him to a man he calls ‘Valmo’ – the very man Foster was meant to deliver the letter to. Pashik and Valmo lock Foster in a room while they concoct a cock-and-bull story about the killing, then come in and run it past him, and make him swear to secrecy, but Foster can’t figure out why. Right at the end of the interview a young man pops his head round the door who ‘Valmo’ refers to as Jika.

The next day the trial, for the first time, presents credible evidence from a police official, one Brigadier Kroum, that Deltchev is somehow involved in the shadowy tight-wing organisation, the Brotherhood of Officers, which assassinated left-wing politicians between the wars and collaborated with the Nazis during the Occupation.

Various documents found on captured Brotherhood members include references to ‘D’ involved in a conspiracy to assassinate the current premier and leader of the People’s Party, Vukashin. The ring-leader of the gang was an older man, a drug addict named Pazar. Foster begins to suspect the body he found in the slum flat was Pazar’s.

Things have been progressing very slowly but steadily, building up the creepy atmosphere of a country under totalitarian control and letting us follow Foster’s slow uncovering of the conspiracy. This is shattered by the abrupt start of chapter 14: ‘That was the Friday, the fourteenth of June. The assassination took place on the Saturday.’ (p.161) First we’ve heard that the novel will rotate around a political assassination.

It is an opportunity for Foster to stop and summarise what he knows so far; to reflect that he is a harmless man who avoids violence (a typical Ambler ‘everyman’ figure) ; and to anticipate the way he will be calumniated in the local press as a spy and agent involved in the murder… Then he resumes the chronological account of events, which now become rather feverish.

He makes a second visit to the Deltchev house to see Mrs D, once again running the gauntlet of the surly guards keeping her under house arrest. She deftly denies any knowledge of an assassination conspiracy, of why her husband called the snap election which prompted the coup, etc.

Having learned next to nothing, Foster sets off to walk back to the hotel. He becomes uneasily aware of someone following him and then, suddenly, is ambushed by two assassins who trap him in a dark stretch of boulevard but manages to survive and – as bystanders and the police come running and the assassins scarper – he evades everyone and makes it back to the hotel.

There to his astonishment he finds Deltchev’s daughter, Katerina, on his bed. (Though they have no romantic connection at all this does allow the illustrators of book covers to feature the image of a scantily-clad young lady.) She clears up a lot of mystery when she tells him the D mentioned in all the conspiracy documents is her brother, Philip, nickname Jika. Aha. Her father knows this but can’t very well turn in his own son; anyway, he wouldn’t be believed. Philip was recruited to the Brotherhood at university by the middle-aged drug addict Pazar. He gave her two safe house addresses, one the flat where Foster found the body, and another one. Foster is sure the second one is the suburban hous Pashik drove him to.

He resolves to confront Pashik about all this, says goodbye to Katerina and walks to Pashik’s flat. But there he doesn’t find the nervous newspaper fixer but the sleek and sinister western journalist, Sibley. (Pashik’s flat is a curiosity, all the walls completely plastered with magazine and newspaper photos of western starlets and ads for western goods.) This chapter – 17 – is the one you often get in a thriller which Explains Everything.

  1. Sibley explains that Pashik was himself a member of the Brotherhood; but assignment to Americans during the War made him see the error of his proto-Fascist ways. When he was brought in to translate for Deltchev during the latter’s talks with the Allies, Pashik  made himself useful and gave D the information which led to the wholesale arrest and imprisonment of most of the Brotherhood. This explains why he is so nervous.
  2. Sibley goes on to explain that Deltchev himself is merely a front man: the power behind the throne has always been his wife, the woman Foster’s interviewed twice, who stage-managed the whole thing.
  3. Foster adds what he’s learned about the rogue brother, Philip, the body of Pazar, the safe house and interrogation by ‘Valmo’.
  4. At which Sibley jumps up, having realised the true conspiracy. The People’s Party have taken over the conspiracy. The Brotherhood and Philip et al are the patsies. Valmo aka Aleko will assassinate Vukashin, but at the orders of the Party itself!!

Both men are now terrified at the scale of the conspiracy they’ve uncovered. Sibley can barely be persuaded to drive Foster back to his hotel and stops well short of it. Wisely, because as soon as Foster arrives at his hotel, he is arrested and taken by armed guard to a cell. Here there is the best scene in any of the seven Ambler novels I’ve read so far, a tense, cat-and-mouse interview with Brankovitch, the Propaganda Minister. Foster realises that if Brankovitch learns that Foster knows the full extent of the conspiracy, they will have to kill him. Therefore, he has to feign ignorance. But he knows that Brankovitch knows that Foster knows about the dead man in the apartment and the version of events ‘Valmo’ spun him in the safe house.

Therefore, Foster has to desperately consider every answer he gives to Brankovitch’s subtly leading questions extremely carefully. He has to pretend to be innocent, but then reluctantly confess to more than he initially pretended, in order to give a persuasive show of being an inquisitive snoop – but without giving the impression that he knows the real conspiracy beneath the conspiracy. He has to implicate himself so far – but no further. He has to account for the several visits to Madame Deltchev and why he thinks he was shot at in the street, but all the time concealing any hint that he knows the true secret beneath everything. It’s a battle of wits and these are tense and gripping pages.

THERE IS MORE: When he is released Foster is met, legitimately enough, by Pashik in his guise of newspaper fixer. But in the car Pashik proceeds to tell him about a counter-conspiracy against the main conspiracy. It seems that the two People’s Party leaders, Vukashin and Brankovitch, have prepared mirror-image plots to assassinate each other; in either case, the blame will be pinned on young Philip Deltchev and his father and, consequently, mass reprisals will be carried out against the Agrarian Party. This means that every conversation any of the main players has with anyone else could be held in a state of a) innocence b) knowledge of the Brotherhood conspiracy c) deeper knowledge of Brankovitch’s conspiracy against Vukashin d) deepest knowledge of Vukashin’s counterplot against Brankovitch.

Which conspiracy will win? Who, if anyone, will be assassinated? Who will be blamed? Is Foster somehow being implicated without realising it? Just how much danger is he in? Can he do anything to prevent the assassination and the political bloodbath which will follow?

Conclusion

Judgment on Deltchev starts slowly, taking time to paint in the complex history of the fictional Balkan country where it is set. But then it develops into the most complex and cleverly worked-out, the most involving and exciting of the seven Ambler thrillers I’ve read.

Dramatis personae

  • Foster: narrator, English playwright hired to report the trial of East European politician.
  • Geoghi Pashik: local fixer for western newpapers, including the one Foster is working for. Smells bad. Afraid. Part of the conspiracy.
  • Yordan Deltchev: hero of the resistance to the Nazis; leader of the Agrarian Party at the end of the war which supervised the transition to peace, earning the nickname ‘Papa’ Deltchev; overthrown in a coup by the Societ-backed People’s Party and put on trial.
  • Dr Prochaska: Public Prosecuter prosecuting Deltchev.
  • Petra Vukashin: head of the People’s Party government.
  • Petlarov: his clerk when Deltchev was a lawyer; rose with him; now under suspicion, he offers his help and guidance to Foster, in exchange for a ration card – he and his wife are starving.
  • Sibley: journalist from another paper; slippery, but knows his way around.
  • Brankovitch: Minister of Propaganda, leader of the conspiracy to assassinate his own party leader, Vukashin.

Related links

American pulp cover for The Judgment of Deltchev

American pulp cover for The Judgment of Deltchev

Eric Ambler’s screenplays

The Way Ahead (1944)
The October Man (1947)
The Passionate Friends (1949)
Highly Dangerous (1950)
The Clouded Yellow (1951)
The Magic Box (1951)
Encore (1951)
The Promoter, also known as The Card (1952)
The Cruel Sea (1953)
Shoot First (1953)
The Purple Plain (1954)
Lease of Life (1954)
Yangtse Incident: The Story of HMS Amethyst (1957)
A Night to Remember (1958)
The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) based on the Hammond Innes novel of the same name

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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