Epitaph for a Spy, by Eric Ambler
An excellent spy thriller set in a Europe on the brink of war.
Political strife has left Josef Vadassy a man without country. With nowhere else to go and gaining a new nationality the only means of securing his future, Vadassy has settled in Paris where he receives a poor income as a moderately good teacher at a language school. Through several years of prudent financial management, Vadassy is able to afford a holiday and so he intends to spend a few relaxing days at the Hotel de la Reserve in St Gatien indulging his passion for photography.
Unfortunately for Vadassy, his desire to produce a perfectly lighted photograph of a lizard has vastly unforeseen consequences when an innocent switcheroo leads to his becoming mixed up with Michel Beghin, a Naval Intelligence Officer from Toulon. Beghin is convinced that there is a spy staying at the Hotel de la Reserve and, when a convenient opportunity presents itself, he blackmails Vadassy into being his man on the ground. If Vadassy is ever to be allowed back to his dead-end career in Paris and his ultimate dream of French citizenship, then he must work as an agent for Beghin and uncover the identity of the spy.
Josef Vadassy is a frustratingly hapless hero. While circumstance may have forced him into the espionage game, Vadassy really doesn’t help himself with his bumbling attempts at detection and does, in fact, often manage through his attempts to outwit Beghin to land himself in even greater trouble. Saying that, Vadassy’s such a hopeless case most of the time that it’s hard not to feel sorry for him and to feel his pain when he becomes trapped in procedural nightmare after procedural nightmare. As Vadassy grows more desperate by the hour to identify the spy and so free himself to return back to real life in Paris, the tension in Epitaph for a Spy mounts as Vadassy makes even more dangerous attempts to uncover the truth about his fellow guests.
Despite his exciting sounding back-story, Vadassy is very much an average guy with average aspirations and expectations, characteristics in stark contrast with highly unusual personalities and circumstances of the other guests at the hotel. As Stella Rimmington notes in her introduction to this edition, the suspects are “concealed beneath national paradigms – a beach-loving American brother and sister, two stiff Britishers, a sinister German, a French patron, a Parisian hard boy with his tart, and two pantomime Swiss.” Ambler shows great skill in allowing Vadassy to ingratiate himself with most of his fellow guests so that information about their backgrounds and motivation for being in St Gatien is slowly, tantalisingly revealed. Although the disparate bunch of guests had the potential to become one dimensional caricatures, Ambler fleshes them out into believable, largely sympathetic characters.
Although of course best known as a thriller writer, Eric Ambler was also a skilled political analyst with an in-depth understanding of human frailties. With Epitaph for a Spy (published in 1938 after all) he also demonstrates considerable analytical foresight when one of the guests at the hotel describes to Vadassy the conditions inside a German concentration camp. Ambler’s descriptions of the gritty, troubling side of life at the time of writing are spot on and truly moving while his recreations of the more prosaic activities and scenes to be found on the holiday coast are also excellent and lull the reader into a sort of calm that makes Vadassy’s spying escapades all the more impactful. Ambler does a great job of capturing the atmosphere of a Europe on the brink of war and the effect that this situation had on the average person.
This particular edition of Epitaph for a Spy has been beautifully produced by the Folio Society. It is a collectible, luxurious hardback edition with a truly striking cover design that is presented in a sturdy slipcase. Ambler’s excellent text is accompanied by a series of arresting, fitting colour illustrations by Paul Blow. All in all, this edition of Epitaph for a Spy is truly a book to be enjoyed and treasured.