Epitaph for a Spy (1938) places me at the centre of a Venn diagram of two things I heartily dislike — the everyman espionage fiction of John le Carre, and novels whose protagonists cluelessly accidentally their way along — and so I shouldn’t exactly be surprised that these two wrongs have failed to combine to produce something I would enjoy. This story of languages teacher Josef Vadassy strong-armed into helping identify a spy while on holiday at an exclusive French pension is, in fact, riddled with just about every trope and facet of genre fiction that I dislike, and it’s difficult to imagine Eric Ambler’s intent in writing such a book. But, I get ahead of myself…
When an accidental exchange of cameras finds Vadassy in possession of what appear to be photos that show he is a spy — and let’s ignore how ridiculous it is that these photos come to light as they do, as if any spy would be so dense even as a sort of double-bluff — the clueless teacher is made into a cat’s paw by espionage man Michel Beghin and sent back to his hotel to identify whom among the other guests is responsible for the photographs. In this regard, the plot takes on the framing of a classic country mystery, with Vadassy as investigator and the remaining guests his suspects — drawn from across Europe and so all conveniently, as Hercule Poirot would point out three years later, able to account for themselves merely as sight-seers. In true classic mystery style, the servants can be dismissed out of hand, and so Vadassy must investigate his fellow-lodgers in order to be allowed to leave the pension and return to his job in Paris.
Except…that’s not strictly true. Vadassy is given clear instructions by Beghin, instructions which do not involve any sort of investigation of the other guests, and ignores them so that, I suppose, we can have lots of tedious scenes of Vadassy reflecting on how ill-suited he is to this sort of thing interrupted by occasional flashes of intrigue. And they really are flashes: someone closes and locks a door, someone hits Vadassy over the head, he discovers his room has been searched…these are mere trifles amidst scene after scene of Vadassy having endless conversations about Proust and personal history, and taking ages to realise basic truths like ‘anyone can be a spy’ only to then throw these over at the slightest indication that someone might not be a spy, as if spies don’t come with cover stories and carefully-rehearsed backgrounds to confound the surface level examinations Vadassy resorts to.
Hints that more might be going on behind the scenes tantalise you throughout — the young American siblings Mary and Warren Skelton are reluctant to have their photograph taken, Swiss couple the Vogels receive a letter apparently containing terrible news which they seem to have forgotten only about moments later, elderly Frenchman M. Duclos can’t seem to keep any stories he tells straight — but the essential structure boils down to Vadassy suspecting someone, becoming convinced that they’re the spy, only for them to tell him a long story which proves nothing but immediately banishes his suspicions. And the one person who doesn’t tell such a story…well, I’d hate to spoil it for you. But when the revelation is finally made, Vadassy’s reflection of “Now, I knew, and it did not seem to matter that I knew” could hardly be more fitting. Oh, it’s that one. Huh, how about that? Can we go back to the games of “ping-tennis”, please? They were, amazingly, more interesting than this.
This is hardly helped by the earlier reveal that the pressing into service of Vadassy is an entirely empty act since — and, look, small spoilers, but goddamn this book annoyed the hell out of me — Beghin already knew who the spy was before sending Vadassy in to flounder around, with the tasks the teacher is given to complete absolutely in no way the best or even easiest way to provoke the response that Beghin claims to have been after. So Vadassy’s errands have been pointless, he has no idea what he’s doing most of the time anyway, the reveal of the malefactor isn’t informed in any way by any of the information we have received previously in the book, and we don’t even get any travelogue…so, like, what was the point of what we just went through? Hell, it’s not even as if Vadassy is an especially moral protagonist and doing what he’s doing purely out of a sense of rightness, since it’s made abundantly clear on several occasions that he’s doing it only out of fear, and he reflects at least twice that he could just as readily kill himself as continue with his directions.
[The sea] was infinitely peaceful. In its cool depths a man would have no more fears, no doubts, no uncertainties. I could go down to the beach and into the water and swim out beyond the bay into the sea. I could go on swimming until my arms were too tired to bring me back to the land. My strokes would get slower, more laboured. Then I would stop and sink. The water would rush into my lungs. I would struggle, the desire for life would surge up—life at any price!—but I should have made my preparations so that there would be no returning. There would be a moment or two of torment, then I should slide gently into oblivion.
Really, the only interest in the book comes from its depiction of Europe as a fracturing edifice — it would be undeservedly accommodating to suggest that the tensions between the guests represent the difficulties between their various home nations — with the world “getting ready to go to war” and Europe a “very old man” who is “dying by inches” while everything around him crumbles. But, some insight into German concentration camps aside, it’s not as if Ambler is saying something here which wasn’t well-appreciated at the time he was writing — the Second World War didn’t exactly take everyone by surprise, international tensions had been building for years, and it feels too simple to suggest that Ambler’s meandering plot can be justified on the basis of this obvious observation alone. So, as I said above, it’s difficult to imagine what Ambler’s intent or motivations were in writing this — there’s no clever misdirect, no point made about the nature of international spies or fanatics, no moment where our protagonist risks his life and learns an important lesson…it’s just trudge, trudge, trudge to an answer that holds no impact.
In a way, I can’t say that I regret reading Epitaph for a Spy since it has finally convinced me that espionage fiction really isn’t my sort of thing, this genre which comes so cloaked in subtlety and misdirection often failing to deliver on either front. Robert Ludlum at least had the common decency to liven his (far, far longer) narratives up with intriguing spycraft and treacherous international cabals, but the genre as a whole seems happy to simply sprinkle in some mild interest and then pretend that it adds up to something come the end. And, look, if you go in for that sort of thing then good luck to you, but I’m getting old and don’t have the time or patience to put into these endeavours any more.