Book Corner – April 2020 (2)

Epitaph for a Spy – Eric Ambler

This is the fifth of the quintet of the pre-Second World War Ambler’s issued by Penguin Modern Classics I have read. Published in 1938, I found it less enjoyable than the others but there was enough in it to keep me interested and wanting to find out how it was all going to end. Perhaps, what troubled me most was that it seemed to be a melange of styles and genres, starting off as a sort of Kafkaesque novel with a man trapped in a nightmare before moving on to a man who is not a spy spying on spies theme and moving on to a classic country house crime story where the baddie was one (or more) of those residing in the premises. It didn’t quite seem to know what it was, and the ending was a little abrupt and disappointing.

The story centres around, and is narrated by, Josef Vadassy, an amateur photographer (the root of his problems) and language teacher, who was on holiday in the French Mediterranean resort of St Gatien in the comfortable Hotel de la Rêserve. Having taken some arty photos of some lizards sunning themselves, he was anxious to get his roll of film developed. When Vadassay picked up his photos, he had his collar felt by the police because the snaps contained details of sensitive military installations. Someone had switched his camera but who and when?

Accused of espionage, Vadassay pleads his innocence and seemingly persuades the lead detective of his innocence. There is a catch, though. He must help the police identify the real spy who must be one of the guests at the hotel. And a motley collection of guests they are too; an English colonel and his Italian wife, an American brother and sister, a mysterious “Swiss” with an assumed name, a French man and his lover, a German couple, a Frenchman who purports to be a wealthy industrialist and a hotelier who doesn’t seem to be all he cracks to be.

In fact, Vadassay doesn’t unmask the spy directly. The police already know their identity, it is just a question of catching them before they can effect their escape. Vadassay is just a pawn in a bigger game.

The plot, thinnish as it is, is not really the point of the book. Ambler is much more interested in examining the stories of the residents of the hotel. Each has a back story which could, at least to the innocent and rather naive Vadassay, point to their guilt. Along the way, we learn a lot about love and lies and the perils that threaten socialists in now-Nazi Germany.

The other major theme of the book is Vadassay’s own plight. He is a Hungarian on a Yugoslav passport and is imminent danger of being deported from France. This is the lever the police pull to make him co-operate with their schemes. The interest for the reader is whether Vadassay can survive the nightmare in which he is enmeshed and whether he can do so without losing his sanity and his underlying sense of morality.

The world of espionage for Ambler is populated with cynics and those with a dubious of morality and propriety rather than beefcakes who can take on Johnny Foreigner single-handedly. Vadassay is totally unsuited to be either sort of spy which is why he makes such a hash of things. If you have any inkling to be a spy, read this book and measure yourself against Vadassay. An office job might just be safer and less injurious to your mental well-being.

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