Thursday, October 6, 2016

Forgotten Book: Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler

The only kind of spy stories that I am fond of reading are where the world is not divided between those wearing white hats and black hats and where the emphasis is on the emotional estrangement and entanglements of the secret service agent(s), something like Somerset Maugham's Ashenden or Graham Greene's The Human Factor.




And thus towards the end in Eric Ambler's Epitaph for a Spy as the protagonist Josef Vadassy reflects on his ordeal, he finds that all he can hear is an agonizing scream:

Now I knew who had hit me on the head, who had searched my room, who had slammed and locked the writing room door. Now I knew, and it did not seem to matter that I knew. In my ears was still that last agonized shriek. (157)


It does not seem to matter because what made that person take to spying might have been greed or divided loyalties or it might very well have been a certain compulsion as which constrained Vadassy himself. But I am getting ahead of the story.

Josef Vadassy is a man without a nation. The redrawing of borders after the first world war has left him without a country to call his own. He lives in France working as a teacher of languages. Through hard work, he has been able to save some money and buy a Zeiss camera to indulge in the one hobby he has: photography. When the novel opens, he is enjoying a hard-earned holiday in the French Mediterranean town of St. Gatien. Trouble begins when he goes to collect the photographs that he had given the local chemist to develop. Over there he is arrested as the film contains photos of sensitive naval installations at Toulon and he is accused of espionage. For Vadassy, his biggest nightmare has begun as the French officials threaten him with imprisonment and deportation:

I could put up with a prison - even a French one - but deportation! I began to feel sick and desperately frightened. If France expelled me there was nowhere left me to go. Yugoslavia would arrest me. Hungary would not admit me. Neither would Germany or Italy. Even if a convicted spy could get into England without a passport he wouldn't be permitted to work. To America I would be merely another undesirable alien. The South American Republics would demand sums of money that I would not possess as surety of my good behaviour. Soviet Russia would have no more use of a convicted spy than would England. Even the Chinese wanted your passport. There would be nowhere I could go, nowhere. And after all, what did it matter? What happened to an insignificant teacher of languages without national status was of no interest to anyone. No consul would intervene on his behalf, no Parliament, no Congress, no Chamber of Deputies would inquire into his fate. Officially he did not exist; he was an abstraction, a ghost. All he could decently and logically do was destroy himself. (13)



There is only one route left for him. He persuades the investigating officer to give him a chance to apprehend the real spy, the one who did take the photos and who must be one of the guests staying in the same hotel as Vadassy. For this he returns to the hotel and interacts with the other handful of guests staying in the same hotel: English, French, Americans, Swiss, Germans, trying to solve the mystery. What he doesn't know however is that the officials have not told him the complete story.

With a handful of suspects under the same roof, this is not so much a story of espionage as a country-house mystery. Like the other Amblers I have read, this too was a good and moving read. I am thankful to Tracy K @ Bitter Tea and Mystery for pointing the book out to me. Other reviews of the book can be read @ Vintage Pop FictionsEla's Book Blog, & Books and Boots.

Submitted for Friday's Forgotten Books @ Pattinase. Please head over there for the other entries.





First Line: I ARRIVED in St. Gatien from Nice on Tuesday, the 14th of August.

Publishing Details: NY: Bantam, 1958
First Published: 1938
Pages: 166
Trivia: The novel was made into a movie Hotel Reserve in 1944.
Source: Open Library
Other Books read of the same author: A Coffin for Dimitrios, The Light of Day, Dirty Story, Journey into Fear, The Schirmer Inheritance,

12 comments:

  1. Great choice - I am a huge fan of Ambler, though ti has been much too long since I read him. Thanks for the prod!

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    1. Thanks Sergio and welcome back. Ambler is one of my fave authors too. Wish I had the time to read all his books available online.

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  2. I agree, Neeru - the best spy/espionage stories are the ones where we get to know the characters as complex human beings.

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    1. Glad we are of the same opinion Margot:)

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  3. Neer, I have read some fine reviews of Ambler's novels by our blog friends but haven't got round to reading any myself; more so, since I love reading spy fiction.

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    1. Oh you must read him Prashant. I have loved almost all his books that I have read.

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  4. Thanks for the mention, neer. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have no country, and I think that is one thing that made this story even more appealing for me.

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    1. Same here Tracy. It is really a very nightmarish situation in these times when passports have become more important than a living person.

      And it was a pleasure mentioning your post.

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  5. Sounds excellent, Neer. I love Eric Ambler. I've just ordered THE SCHIRMER INHERITANCE from Abe Books and am waiting eagerly for its arrival. :) I'm going now to order EPITAPH FOR A SPY. It was the 'country house' thing that got me, of course.

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    1. I loved SHIRMER INHERITANCE and I hope you too do so. This is also very good. Waiting for your views.

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    1. Thanks. I'll certainly have a look.

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