Last year, I went to an event in London to celebrate the work of classic crime fiction novelists Eric Ambler and Margery Allingham and I’ve finally got round to reading two of Ambler’s best known novels ‘Epitaph for a Spy’ and ‘Journey into Fear’, reissued as Penguin Modern Classics for his centenary in 2009. ‘Epitaph for a Spy’ tells the story of Joseph Vadassy, a Hungarian refugee and languages teacher who is on holiday in the south of France. When his camera is swapped with one whose film contains sensitive photos of secret naval installations in Toulon, Vadassy comes under suspicion of being a Gestapo agent. To convince the police that he isn’t guilty of espionage, he must find out which of the guests staying at the Hôtel de la Réserve is the real spy.
Ambler’s sixth novel ‘Journey into Fear’ is one of his best known works partly thanks to the 1943 film adaptation starring Orson Welles. At the beginning of the Second World War, British engineer Howard Graham has been involved in high-level talks with the Turkish government regarding arms manufacturing, an alliance which displeases German spies. After surviving an assassination attempt in his hotel room in Istanbul, Graham changes his route home to England and boards a passenger steamer across the Mediterranean to Genoa. However, although Graham initially believes he is safe, it quickly transpires that the other passengers on board are not all as they seem.
‘Epitaph for a Spy’ and ‘Journey into Fear’ were written and set in 1938 and 1940 respectively during a period of great uncertainty for Europe, an atmosphere which Ambler renders very effectively in his writing. The realism of Ambler’s plotting which typically involves an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation was something of a novelty in spy fiction at the time and accounts for the enduring popularity of his work which influenced many other authors. Neither Vadassy or Graham are professional spies and nor do they readily embrace their new positions as amateur sleuths. However, their enemies vastly underestimate Vadassy and Graham’s capabilities even when they are unwittingly caught up in events beyond their control.
Certain elements of the structure and plots of the two books are very similar such as when both Vadassy and Graham have to sneak into a guest’s room without permission to find a suspected piece of evidence. However, Ambler’s formula is one which works very well. Although the protagonists must work as detectives to uncover who the real villain is among the guests, Ambler’s novels are first and foremost tautly written thrillers rather than whodunnits. The narrow, claustrophobic settings of a passenger steamer and a small hotel in the French Riviera heighten the psychological suspense with the knowledge that the soon-to-be identified adversary is always close by, building towards a tense showdown in the final pages.
‘Epitaph for a Spy’ and ‘Journey into Fear’ are enjoyable and satisfying classics of the thriller genre and I look forward to reading ‘A Mask for Dimitrios’ which is said to be Ambler’s best novel. Many thanks to Peters Fraser + Dunlop for the review copies.