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on 9 January 2001
Harris's introduction paints Ambler as an icon, the thriller writer's thriller writer, and it's not hard to see why. The coolly detached challenge of the opening sentence ensures you won't give up early, the descriptions of the Riviera are beautifully done (you can feel the languid heat radiating off the cheap paper), and the hero (although anti-hero might be more appropriate) is engagingly self-effacing and wilfully pig-headed throughout. He is also very much afraid, not in a craven way, just in a normal fear of screwing-up-his-life-and-possibly-dying kind of way, and it's this broad portrait of a thouroughly average man caught way out of his depth that propels the reader through the occasionally tedious goings-on at the beachfront pension. It's Vadassy's terrible normalcy that also makes the revelations of the other character's true selves that much more compelling, and in one case genuinely moving. In one courageous and defeated man's description of life in a concentration camp, Ambler thrusts what appears to be a by-the-numbers holiday crime caper into the realm of vital political humanist writing. It came as a genuine surprise when I remembered afterwards that he wrote this in 1938. The man was clearly ahead of his time. Add a cracking finale reminiscent of A Touch of Evil, and you pretty much have a must-read on your hands. Perfect for anyone with a sense of nostalgia coupled with an acute awareness of the essential uncosiness of life.
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on 2 May 2017
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VINE VOICEon 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.
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on 16 March 2015
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on 27 April 2011
Epitaph for a Spy is an unusual spy thriller that plays around with the conventions of the action novel in a most interesting way. The setting is rather an exotic one: the south of France a few years before world war two. The novel was written in 1937 and yet it contains no crude stereotyping of foreigners and the choice of 'hero' is a strange one: a stateless 'Hungarian' travelling on a Yugoslavian passport. Mr Vadrassy has passed through several European countries including England and he now resides in France though his residency is in jeopardy. The novel opens with Vadrassy taking a pleasant holiday in the south of France and he is indulging in his hobby of photography, taking photographs with his Zeiss camera, the only possession of his of any real value.

The twist comes when Vadrassy is not only accused of spying (taking pictures of a naval base) but also the suspect is then called upon to help solve the crime that he has been accused of. Vadrassy is in a very tenuous position being a stateless person and he has no choice other than to play along with police requests to uncover the real spy. Mr Vadrassy emerges as something of a bungler rather than a resourceful Richard Hannay type. To say that Mr Vadrassy is not cut out for spying might be something of an understatement as his investigations degenerate into comedy, largely stemming from his inability to do anything properly.

The novel is a good read and genuinely innovative. Choosing a clumsy Hungarian refugee who fears deportation as the principal hero of a spy novel was a risky move but it works very well. I also enjoyed the depictions of Mr Vadrassy's fellow guests; one of whom is the mystery spy: a shell-shocked English major; a German newspaper editor on the run from the Nazis (the novel must contain one of the first depictions of a concentration camp in fiction)and an American senator's daughter also on the run. Nearly everyone in the hotel seems to be in some sort of exile from their homeland and despite the pleasant riviera setting and many comic moments behind it all is a feeling of impending dread and looming war. Definitely a whodunnit with a difference.
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VINE VOICEon 17 April 2012
"Epitaph for a Spy" is, in some ways, more like an old-fashioned whodunnit than spy novel in the modern sense. Ambler can certainly construct and tell a good story, but in places this one reminded me a little of Agatha Christie and something from the golden age of crime stories, than a spy novel based on the suspicions and fears that swilled around Europe in the late 1930s.

Set in a hotel with a curious mix of characters - all of them potentially the spy at the heart of the story - Ambler's prose is fast-paced in places, a little lacklustre elsewhere, but it's all held together well by a central character very much out of his depth in the world of espionage, and certainly someone the reader can identify with.

There are shades of Dashiel Hammett in places, and the finale develops in a sudden and violent way that is rather like Ambler's most classic of novels The Mask Of Dimitrios. He's great at developing characters with a real sense of backstory and motive, but inevitably it all feels a bit dated at times.
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To read or not to read the great spy novels of Eric Ambler? That is the question most people ignore because they are not familiar with Mr. Ambler and his particularly talent.
Mr. Ambler has always had this problem. As Alfred Hitchcock noted in his introduction to Intrigue (an omnibus volume containing Journey into Fear, A Coffin for Dimitrios, Cause for Alarm and Background to Danger), "Perhaps this was the volume that brought Mr. Ambler to the attention of the public that make best-sellers. They had been singularly inattentive until its appearance -- I suppose only God knows why." He goes on to say, "They had not even heeded the critics, who had said, from the very first, that Mr. Ambler had given new life and fresh viewpoint to the art of the spy novel -- an art supposedly threadbare and certainly cliché-infested."
So what's new and different about Eric Ambler writing? His heroes are ordinary people with whom almost any reader can identify, which puts you in the middle of a turmoil of emotions. His bad guys are characteristic of those who did the type of dirty deeds described in the book. His angels on the sidelines are equally realistic to the historical context. The backgrounds, histories and plot lines are finely nuanced into the actual evolution of the areas and events described during that time. In a way, these books are like historical fiction, except they describe deceit and betrayal rather than love and affection. From a distance of over 60 years, we read these books today as a way to step back into the darkest days of the past and relive them vividly. You can almost see and feel a dark hand raised to strike you in the back as you read one of his book's later pages. In a way, these stories are like a more realistic version of what Dashiell Hammett wrote as applied to European espionage.
Since Mr. Ambler wrote, the thrillers have gotten much bigger in scope . . . and moved beyond reality. Usually, the future of the human race is at stake. The heroes make Superman look like a wimp in terms of their prowess and knowledge. There's usually a love interest who exceeds your vision of the ideal woman. Fast-paced violence and killing dominate most pages. There are lots of toys to describe and use in imaginative ways. The villains combine the worst faults of the 45 most undesirable people in world history and have gained enormous wealth and power while being totally crazy. The plot twists and turns like cruise missile every few seconds in unexpected directions. If you want a book like that, please do not read Mr. Ambler's work. You won't like it.
If you want to taste, touch, smell, see and hear evil from close range and move through fear to defeat it, Mr. Ambler's your man.
On to Epitaph for a Spy. During the pre-World War II era, it was common for ordinary citizens to be pressed into espionage activities, whether knowingly or not. These were often wealthy yachtsmen, newspaper reporters and industrialists with connections. Mr. Ambler deliberately makes a joke of that practice in this book by making his "spy" be one of the biggest bunglers you can imagine . . . a predecessor to Inspector Clouseau. In fact, this book is one of the few humorous spy stories you will ever read. Yet the humor is like that of Shakespeare's clowns . . . to relief the tension from the horrible events happening elsewhere in the story.
To me, Epitaph for a Spy is one of Ambler's greatest accomplishments. He convincingly and appealingly combines elements that I have never seen put together in another espionage story.
It's just before the start of World War II in the south of France, not far from Toulon where the French Mediterranean fleet was docked. Josef Vadassy, a stateless "Hungarian" who works as a language teacher in Paris, is taking for him a luxurious vacation at the shore for two weeks. His only valuable possession is a wonderful camera that he is using to make artistic photographs of lizards. Usually he does his own developing, but being on vacation he wants to see how the effects of his experiments work out so he takes the film to a local chemist. When he returns to pick up the film, he's unexpectedly arrested!
The police commissaire shows him the films and asks, "Was it the lighting, Vadassy, or was it the massing of shadows that so interested you in the new fortifications outside the naval harbor of Toulon?" Shocked by the question, Vadassy looks at the prints. "Lizards, lizards, lizards. Then came a photo from what looked like one end of a concrete gallery . . . I was looking at the long, sleek barrels of siege guns." From there, the fun begins.
After you finish the book, think about parallels to today's world and how we may sometimes compromise our human compassion and spiritual dimensions by first serving "strategic" national interests. I found the issue timely.
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on 28 December 2012
I liked it as it was "rattling good yarn" that kept the pace up to the end in the manner of the old-fashioned John Buchan story. However, the author takes the emergent form of the spy story that little bit further with the introduction of the psycological. Unlike other books of that period it feels extremely modern with the tensions between nations seeming realistic and familiar to the reader. In addition, it is well written in excellent English.

It would appeal to someone who wants a gripping read and a change from the usual spy authors of today.

Just start reading it and you will be hooked.
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on 4 April 2013
If you haven't read Eric Ambler before, I urge you to give him a try. You'll discover quality writing, description and plot. A master.
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on 14 January 2016
EA knocked out five superb thrillers just before the war and this is one of my favourites. Its trademark hapless hero, Joseph Vadassy, is traduced by the French police and intelligence services into 'investigating' incriminating photos of sea defences that have mysteriously appeared on a roll of film on what he thinks is his camera. The fun resides in JV's ham-fisted unpicking of the dodgy characters staying with him at a sleepy hotel on a quiet stretch of the Riviera, trying to find the real spy before he's for the high jump. EA's descriptions of this Mediterranean idyll shimmer and dazzle like the coastal landscape, and he conjures the spiced air and summer heat perfectly, a satisfying backdrop to a cast straight out of an Agatha Christie yarn. The ending is breathless and exciting, the epitaph for this particular spy a damning one that roots at least some of the story in tawdry reality. There's also a scene of a couple taking a selfie - the first in English fiction? Ambler's five 1930s' thrillers are all winners; buy right here, right now.
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