“between 7pm Tuesday and 8:30am (breakfast-time) Wednesday, somebody had taken my camera from my room, put a new spool of film in it, gone to Toulon, penetrated a carefully guarded military zone, taken the photographs, returned to the Reserve, and restored my camera to my room.”
Thus narrates the Parisian language teacher, Joseph Vadassy as he stays at the Réserve in St Gatien, a sleepy holiday town up the coast from Nice in late 1930s France. It is an event that swiftly has him arrested by the police, ably represented by the “fat, complacent, slug” Beghin, and coerced into returning to the Réserve as a reluctant sleuth to assist in the unmasking of a spy. He has a list of suspects: the four Swiss – Herr Vogel and his wife, and the owners Köche and his wife; the young carefree Americans Mary and Warren Skelton; the three French: Monsieur Duclos, Mademoiselle Martin and her beau, Roux; the English Major Clandon-Hartley and his wife, Maria; and finally the German, Herr Schimler. A more diverse bunch of holiday-makers you couldn’t imagine.
Our hero and first person narrator tries hard to think and act on the enforced commands of the police, growing angrier and more desperate by the hour as he only has a few days to solve the case. What he fails to realise is that there is not just one spy he must discover, but everyone has a skeleton in their closet and, as Roux beautifully puts it: “All men are liars. Women sometimes speak the truth.” As such, the author has Vadassy uncovers many unpalatable truths about everyone in the hotel, realises that no one speaks the truth, wrestles with his own poor attempts at sleuthing, being assaulted, and understanding, finally, he is the pawn in a much larger game. The irony is that he is the most honest of all the guests, and doesn’t possess an ability to judge people’s characters. A less opportune spy doesn’t exist.
Come the dénouement, the unmasking of a spy, the exhilarating chase through the night to uncover a politically-motivated circle of treason, Ambler keeps his narrative tightly focused. The cast of characters is set early, the story told in the first person, the mind of Vadassy providing us with both action and emotion. The action is straightforward, episodic. Vadassy sets out his theories in his mind, acts on them with both fumbling “interrogations” of the guests and half-baked attempts to raid people’s rooms, then finds they implode. He learns much, but not the truth. It is a final lending hand from the police that make him realise he has been set up to witness, simply, the epitaph for a spy was all about “he needed the money.”
Ambler style is short, punchy. His sentences follow the short bursts of an anxious mind – something vital for us to believe in the agitation of Vadassy. The novel, time and time again, deals with conflict: intellectual, emotional, at times physical. His stages are restricted to the hotel, the beach, the police station; his actors project characters they wish to show the world; their palpable “artificiality” to the reader is the lure to keep the pages turning. Ambler shows his ability to delve into intellectualism, lengthier “soliloquies” limited to two or three discourses on philosophy, on the crumbling politics of pre-WWII Europe. As he has Schimler declare: “nothing stinks quite so much as dead philosophies” – an apparently direct view of the author, something this reader found in stark contrast to that other great spy novelist – Le Carré.
At the end this is a multi-layered novel. On its surface, we have a sleepy town, a hotel and guests with a mystery to solve. At its core we have a commentary on the nature of people’s secrets, their fears, the motivations for the ugliness each can manifest. “An Epitaph for a Spy” is acclaimed as a classic of its genre. Rightly so. This two hundred page novel is a fitting introduction to an author who understands that neatness of language, plot, and stage can easily grip us as much as the opulence of someone like Marcel Proust.
Categories: Eric Ambler