#1015: Epitaph for a Spy (1938) by Eric Ambler

Epitaph for a Spy

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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.

7 thoughts on “#1015: Epitaph for a Spy (1938) by Eric Ambler

  1. I tried The Death of Achilles by Akunin. It wasn’t bad. Funnily enough, its depiction of Moscow was the main interest. The character was fun and the book was never boring, but like you, I want something else from my mystery.

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  2. Sorry Ambler didn’t impress you – MASK OF DIMITRIOS is the one I really like from his pre-war books. Do you really prefer Ludlum to Ambler and le Carré though? I’m a huge fan of the latter. Which of his “everyman” books have you read? Also, ever tried Len Deighton? His BERLIN GAME is a really superb spy novel (honest).

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    • Ludlum has written, in my estimation, three or four of the best thrillers ever put on paper, and his books sparkle with craft and devastating reversals. I’m not sure I’m going to read anything by him for another 15 years now, but when I was getting into crime and thrillers I always knew you could turn to Ludlum and be thrilled.

      Of Le Carre I’ve read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, A Murder of Quality, Tinker Tailor, Our Kind of Traitor, and…something else which escapes me just now. I’ve also started a few and given up (Single & Single, maybe…?). He’s…fine, but I find him dull. Millions of people disagree with me, however, and more power to them.

      Deighton I’m, perhaps shockingly, yet to try. I have a copy of Ipcress somewhere, but have never actually read anything beyond his cookery books. One of these days, perhaps, when I’m not churning through books at a rate of knots for this blog 🙂

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      • My Nan was a huge Ludlum fan (go figure) and I did read a bunch of them in my early teens – GEMINI CONTENDER was the one I really liked but it’s been 40 years so pinch is salt here. I tried again a few years later and just found them a bit impenetrable stylistically 😁 … I would recommend CALL FOR THE DEAD by le Carré, a great debut that is very solidly plotted, and THE RUSSIA HOUSE of his later, non Smiley espionage fiction. Sorry COLD didn’t do it for you though, I do really rate that book. Deighton has a lot more action and the first person narration of the first few books is very lively though not sure IPCRESS is ideal actually – re-read it not so long ago and felt it only partly held up compared with later books.

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  3. Goodness me, Jim, you’re a hard man to please! I love Ambler’s writing, especially his pre-war books, although the more disillusioned later stuff works pretty well too and I’m very fond of his writing for the movies. I reckon The October Man is a terrific film.
    Espionage fiction just may not be your thing of course, and I suspect that may well be so if this book didn’t appeal to you. I’d go along with Sergio’s recommendation for The Mask of Dimitrios as Ambler’s best book, and the movie is, in my opinion anyway, excellent too, with Lorre and Greenstreet about as good as they ever were. I’m very fond of Deighton’s writing as well.

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  4. We could hardly have had more different reactions to this book – I read it a couple of months ago and absolutely loved it. I do like spy fiction: neutral on le Carre, very much like Len Deighton.
    Now I’m going to think about why we had such different reactions to this one! My big thought was that it would make a great TV drama, which I do see isn’t a very pure response to a book.

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    • I’ll look into Deighton, though heaven knows when.

      And, yes, as a TV adaptation this would tick a lot of boxes — hell, I’d probably quite enjoy it!

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