In Eric Ambler’s left-leaning spy thrillers, his protagonists tend to be ordinary men thrust into terrifying situations. In Epitaph for a Spy, Josef Vadassy is a Hungarian refugee and language teacher living in Paris in the late 1930s, who at the start of the novel is on holiday on the Riviera. It’s a holiday he can barely afford, but he enjoys himself at the hotel, making tentative friendships with the other visitors, and taking photographs of the local scenery. He takes his films to the local chemist for developing, and abruptly finds himself taken in by the French police under suspicion of being an agent for the Gestapo: his film shows pictures of the defences at Marseille.
To prove his innocence, Vadassy must find out which of his fellow guests is the real agent, and this task is complicated by the French policeman, Beghin, whose instructions he tries to follow, and by the general suspicion which appears to fall on him back at the hotel. Ambler portrays Vadassy’s sheer terror very well: the terror of a stateless person whose home town is now in a completely different country to the one in which he was born, and who doesn’t feel he belongs anywhere. Vadassy doesn’t want to lose the sanctuary of his job and his apartment in Paris. Under threat of deportation, he tries to follow Beghin’s instructions, but his rather inept questions and his uneasy behaviour do not provoke the responses he needs or that Beghin wants. In fact, it is only towards the end of the novel that Beghin gives him some answers, and explains why Vadassy was asked to do certain things (but did not do so, not understanding why).
Ambler restricts his potential spies to those staying at the Reserve, the hotel, and this narrow circle of suspects gives the story a good deal of claustrophobic tension. Vadassy has his own suspicions (which prove to be wide of the mark), but his questioning brings out the personalities of the guests and staff at the hotel: Americans, British, French, Swiss, and so on.
Like in The Mask of Demetrios (reviewed earlier on this blog) Ambler uses a very matter-of-fact and unflamboyant prose which nevertheless conveys tension and fear: the first-person narration also contributes to the effect. Even if the subject matter is firmly rooted in its time, the novel is oddly timeless, in its portrayal of the powerlessness of the ordinary man against greater forces, and how, in the right circumstances, almost any words or actions can seem suspicious.
I’ve now read several of Ambler’s spy stories, including Uncommon Danger and Journey Into Fear, and it’s clear that he saw the villains as fascists, right-wing governments and corporations – in contrast to earlier writers such as Buchan, against whose right-wing and Establishment agenda he was trying consciously to rebel – and which is still relevant today. Epitaph for a Spy is very good: nightmarish and tense, and thoroughly recommended.