Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Review of Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler

Hold it! I think your going to like this picture

Reading what for me is the latest installment from Eric Ambler (originally published in 1938), I can’t help thinking of a Hitchcock movie. Not any particular one—perhaps The Many Who Knew Too Much with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day or North by Northwest with Cary Grant would be exemplars—where ordinary persons become entangled with espionage. In this case, a person loosed from the protections of citizenship by the shifting sands of European nationhood suffers a problem, a big problem, when someone accidentally mistakenly takes his camera. The police become involved, and Mr. Vadassy must try to sort things out. However, he’s not a spy or an especially clever fellow, at least in this type of affair. He’s an ESL teacher. He must try to figure out who took his camera and the photos that led the French counter-espionage authorities to him. He must identify the culprit, in much like an Agatha Christie novel, from a small group of guests at a quaint resort hotel on the French Riviera. Vadassy is no Bourne, no Bond, not even a Smiley. He’s just a guy forced into a devilishly difficult task. 

Although this novel didn’t prove my favorite Ambler, it still has the atmosphere of pre-war Europe, the innocent plunged into fearful terrain, and the clean, clear writing and plotting that make Ambler a pro. The little society of the resort and the machinations of the authorities that try to make Vadassy their agent, prove more complex and baffling than a mere mortal can hope to manage. Thus builds the tension to the end, and in the end . . . well, you’ll have to read it to learn about that.

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