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An honourable schoolteacher plays an imperfect spy
on 23 May 2005
Long before le Carre's George Smiley and Len Deighton's Harry Palmer there were Eric Ambler's accidental spies. In the late 1930's the loosely defined adventure/spy genre was not much advanced from the earlier works of Erskine Childers (Riddle of the Sands) and John Buchan (Thirty Nine Steps). Ambler set out to write a book that added a small bit of realism to the good guy v. bad guy model. The result was a series of highly entertaining and satisfying books that many believe set the stage for the likes of le Carre, Deighton, and, most recently, Alan Furst. Epitaph for a Spy is an excellent representative sample of Ambler's work.
In a footnote written in 1951 Ambler states that he "wrote Epitaph for a Spy in 1937 and it was a mild attempt at realism". 1937 was certainly a good year for realism in Europe and Ambler does an excellent job setting a realistic mood for a continent on the brink of another major war.
The story begins with an itinerant language teacher, Josef Vadassy, returning to Paris from his summer holidays. Vadassy stops off at a little town, St. Gatien, on his return journey. An amateur photographer, Vadassy drops off a roll of film at the local chemists for development. When he goes to pick up the photographs he finds himself under arrest by the French authorities. His film contains photos of a top secret French naval installation. Vadassy has no idea how the photos got there. One of the French agents, recognizing that he did not take the pictures advises Vadassy that he will be free to leave town if he goes back to the hotel and finds out which of the guests is the actual photo-taking spy. Vadassy, a stateless Hungarian traveling on a Yugoslav passport has no choice but to play along.
The rest of the book is devoted to Vadassy's efforts to uncover the spy. In rather traditional fashion, Vadassy hotel is peopled by a diverse but limited group of`suspects'. There is the couple that runs the hotel, an American brother and sister, an English major and his Italian-born wife, a couple enjoying a romantic getaway with someone other than their spouses, a German businessman and a Swiss couple. Vadassy is not a particularly good spy. He has been thrust into a situation for which he is woefully unprepared. In fact he is rather inept. I thought of Vadassy as Hercule Poirot as played by Inspector Clousseau of Pink Panther fame.
As the story progresses, Ambler does a very nice job of fleshing out the underlying personalities of his cast of characters. Not every is quite as it seems of course and Vadassy stumbles from one suspect to the next. By the time the book has reached its conclusion the reader has had an opportunity to assess each character enough to make a guess as to who the real spy is. It is to Ambler's credit that the spy is not readily apparent, at least not to this reader.
Epitaph for a Spy was an excellent read and I look forward to reading more of his work.