The Schirmer Inheritance by Eric Ambler (1953)

‘Funny things some of these old inheritance cases,’ observed Mr Sistrom absently. ‘They make perspectives. A German dragoon of Napoleon’s time deserts after a battle and has to change his name. Now, here we sit, over a hundred years later and four thousand miles away, wondering how to deal with a situation arising out of that old fact.’ (p.63)

These post-War novels of Ambler’s feel slower, more elaborate, more careful and therefore a lot more plausible than the smash-and-grab pre-War thrillers. I thought The Schirmer Inheritance was starting off slowly, as Judgment on Deltchev does – but in fact it carries on slowly. Slow and methodical turns out to be its style.

The story

It is 1807, during the Napoleonic wars. Retreating from defeat through a frozen wasteland a Prussian sergeant named Schirmer deserts his company, rides for days through barren snowbound wastes to a hut with smoke rising. Confronts the inhabitant, a starving woman, she with an axe, he with his carbine. Offers food in return for shelter. She says what food; he shoots his horse: this is the food. They unite and survive, in the winter sow crops, he is integrated into the family as a worker, marries the daughter who had threatened him with the axe, has a son, Karl. More war brings the Russians dangerously close so he and family move west into Germany, but here he risks being identified as a deserter so he changes his suname to Schneider. Wife dies, he marries again and has ten Schneider children, but doesn’t bother to change surname of his one son, Karl Schirmer.

100 years or so later, in 1938 an old lady, Amelia Schneider Johnson, dies in Pennsylvania with no relatives or heirs. When police examine the house they find a tin under her bed with bonds worth some $4 million which she inherited from her brother, Martin Schneider, a soft drinks tycoon, who has no children.

A local law firm is charged with finding if there are any blood relatives. The press get hold of it and some 8,000 (!) people apply for the money (it is still the great Depression in America). The lawyers quickly establish that Amelia was the daughter of German immigrants. The law firm dispatches an investigator to Germany whose work is interrupted by the outbreak of World War Two.

The novel proper gets under way when, soon after the end of the War, junior lawyer George Carey is lumbered with the job of clearing out the entire basement room, which is overflowing with the folders and correspondence from this old case. He stumbles across a box left by the investigator full of intriguing papers and photographs, so he goes to see the retired and ill investigator at his home.

Interviews

This sets the pattern of the novel: piecing together the story by interviewing people, each interview filling in a bit more of the Schirmer family tree and throwing up leads of more people to interview.

  • Moreton: retired investigator. Had established Franz Schirmer’s marriage to Maria Dutka, births of Karl and Hans, his name change, his remarriage, his subsequent ten further children. Establishes that none of them survived to outlive Amelia. Pursues Karl through provincial German records: he had six children: tracked down five who had left no heirs. Which left the sixth, Friedrich b. 1887. He did survive Amelia but had died before Moreton arrived in Bad Schwennheim. But had a son, Johann. Here the trail runs dry, WWII breaks out, Moreton returns to the US, the legal firm drops the case. A key witness had been Father Weichs who knew the Schneider family. So Carey is despatched by his law firm to Paris, where he is provided with a top knotch translator, the young and attractive and ice-cold Miss Kolin, before travelling to Bad Schwennheim to interview…
  • Father Weichs: was confessor to Friedrich Schirmer. He had a bad falling out with his son and daughter-in-law and was sent away. He never met the son, Johann. But he met his son, Johann’s only child, Franz Schirmer, who had become a parachutist during the War, was wounded and chose to convalesce near the last reported location of his beloved grandfather. Father Weichs concedes there were more photographs than Moreton took and stored in the legal file: but they were pornographic, and he burnt them.
  • In Cologne, from old Army records, they find the full biography of Franz Schirmer, reported missing presumed dead in Greece 1944. Next-of-kin Ilse Schirmer, Elsass Strasse. That address is a bombed-out ruin. They discover it actually belongs to the neighbour, Frau Gresser. She tells them that Friedrich, the father, was the real brain, a trained book-keeper. Johann the son was a drunk. However, the family bust up after a fateful evening when Friedrich tried to seduce his daughter-in-law. Johann threw him out, but was useless without him. Meanwhile, she has the letter from Franz the parachutist’s officer, Leubner, informing Ilse that her son was killed in an ambush by Greek partisans at the end of the War.
  • In Geneva, they interview M. Hagen of the Red Cross who was in Greece during the War who provides background to the civil war in Greece, communists versus nationalists. When told where Sergeant Franz was attacked, Hagen says it will have been by communist partisans (ELAS) under the command of one ‘Markos’.
  • They travel to Salonika with an introduction to Colonel Chrysantos of Greek Military Intelligence. His subordinates dig out records which record details of the attack, its location and the partisan leader, Phengaros, who led it. He is still alive, though in prison.
  • They interview Phengaros in Salonika prison. He confirms his leadership of partisans but claims everyone who took part in that particular attack is now dead. The lieutenant accompanying them points out this is simply because Phengaros is protecting any living colleagues and offers to torture him to get the names which Carey embarrassedly rejects.
  • They go to the mountain village of Vodena, to the scene of the actual ambush, and find the graves the German army dug for their comrades killed by the partisans. An old man in the village says the partisans came from a nearby village called Florina.
  • In Florina they meet captain Streftaris who says he can find the truth. he passes them onto the morbidly obese owner of a wine shop, Madame Vassiotis. She confirms that Schirmer was in the lead vehicle of the German convoy, it was blown up by a partisan land mine, his body was in the road, her contacts even secured the burnt strap of  his water-bottle with his name on it. Since Carey hadn’t told the captain the name of the German they were looking for, in his legal opinion this counts as definitive proof that the quest is over. The last possible inheritor of the Schirmer legacy is dead. Case closed. That night he is depressed. it had been colourful and exciting…

So why, when he goes up to his hotel room that night, does he find it has been comprehensively searched and a man is waiting for him in the dark with a gun?

Part two

The man – incongruously a Cockney-accented Brit – puts down his gun, accepts a cigarette from Carey and says he knows all about his investigations. Would he like to know more? Well, be at a certain cafe between 4 and 5pm. Carey is there and finds his bill returned with a scribbled note: be outside the cinema at 8pm. He is and is collected in a battered lorry which drives him and Miss Kolin high up into the mountains, from where they are met and have to stalk over landslides, across country, up paths to a ruined house which is now the HQ of bandits. And into the lighted room where they are sampling the local plum brandy walks – Sergeant Schirmer!

The text then recounts what happened after Schirmer’s convoy was attacked by the Greek partisans in ’44, in a prolonged section of historical flashback which parallels the opening narrative about Franz’s great-great-grandfather. This parallelism between a German on the run in Napoleon’s Europe and in post-Hitler Europe is neatly captured by the jacket illustration of the 1953 Heinemann hardback edition I read. All is explained to Schirmer who is delighted above all to find out the parallel with his ancestor – both sergeants, both deserters, both wounded in the arm, both survivors.

My true inheritance is the knowledge you have brought me of my blood and of myself. So much has changed and Eylau is long ago, but hand clasps hand across the years and we are one. (p.269)

The end

Schirmer refuses his inheritance. Turns out he and the cheeky cockney British Army deserter who accompanies him everywhere, fought together for the Greek communist bandits for four years. But when Tito closed the Yugoslav border to them, the band’s days were numbered and they and a handful of others evolved into genuine bandits and bank robbers. They rob banks and financial houses with the inside help of old communist sympathisers, then retreat a few miles across the border into Yugoslavia where such a small gang is tolerated. To go to America and claim the inheritance would inevitably result in publicity, his photo being everywhere, and risk being extradited back to Greece for his crimes. Instead, he writes George a farewell letter and leaves along with Miss Kolin for parts unknown.

In the most startling twist, Miss Kolin who has been upright and proper and frigid and distant (despite tucking away formidable quantities of brandy at every port of call), Miss Kolin – of slavic birth – who has vehemently denounced German soldiers as murdering rapists, Miss Kolin who – on their second visit to Schirmer’s hideout in the hills, leaves a trail of coloured markers behind them to lead the Greek military to the safe house, Miss Kolin who – when her treachery is revealed – attacks Schirmer and throws bottles at him only to have him punch her, slap her, and punch her again so hard she can’t get back up – against all probability, later that night George hears Schirmer visit Miss Kolin in the room they’ve locked her in – and have sex with her. Loud enough to be heard through walls. In the morning she voluntarily leaves with Schirmer. His note even hints that she wants to marry him and have his children. She has become devoted to him. Funny old world.

a) It is a further parallel with the situation of his great-great-grandfather, who had the stand-off with the starving young peasant woman with the axe. One minute they were going to kill each other. Then they killed and ate the horse. In the spring they married and had children. Same here. Deadly enemies right up to the moment when… they fall into bed together!

b) The Cockney, Arthur, says it takes all sorts. Maybe all she needed was ‘a damn good seeing-to’ all along, though one is wary of such an outrageously sexist interpretation.

c) Maybe it’s an early example in fiction of a woman masochist. Though in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) there is some wild sado-masochistic sex. It’s certainly a first and a new note in Ambler.

d) The same year Schirmer came out, 1953, saw the publication of the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. Fleming’s novels were to contain large amounts of sadism and masochism. Maybe it was in the spy-pulp-thriller air. Maybe it was socially permissible to write openly about people’s peculiar sexual proclivities. Maybe it was now permissible to describe such things in print as it hadn’t been even a decade earlier…

Anyway, George’s quest has failed. The Schirmer Inheritance will end up reverting to the Commonwealth of Philadelphia ie the government.

George put the letters in his pocket, got his briefcase from his room and walked up through the pine trees. It was a fine, fresh morning and the air was good. He began to think out what he would have to say to Colonel Chrysantos. The Colonel was not going to be pleased; neither was Mr Sistrom. The whole situation, in fact, was most unfortunate.
George wondered why it was, then, that he kept laughing to himself as he walked on towards the frontier. (Last page)

Related links

Cover of the 1953 William Heinemann hardback edition

Cover of the 1953 William Heinemann hardback edition

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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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this, the most concise and useful summary of the novels I’ve come across!

    Reply

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