Two Recent Reads – Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler and The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Something a little different from me today – a few thoughts on a couple of recent reads, both of which could be loosely classified as crime fiction.

Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (1938)

I really enjoyed this old-school spy mystery by the respected British writer Eric Ambler. (You can find my review of another of his books, the hugely entertaining crime caper Topkapi/The Light of Day, here).

Like some of Ambler’s other novels, Epitaph for a Spy features a relatively ordinary if somewhat naïve man who, through no real fault of his own, finds himself caught up in a mysterious network of intrigue and illegal activities. The man in question here is Josef Vadassy, a languages teacher and Hungarian refugee of uncertain status, who gets into trouble while taking pictures during his holiday in the South of France.

As it turns out, the reel of film that Vadassy has been using to test various photographic techniques also happens to contain images of covert naval defences in a nearby town – something our protagonist is completely unaware of as he submits the reel for development. When the chemist who develops the film sees nature of these pictures, he alerts the police and Vadassy is promptly picked up for questioning. (Importantly, the novel was published in 1938 when Europe was poised on the brink of war, hence the seriousness of the situation.)

Luckily (or maybe unluckily) for our protagonist, the police soon come to the conclusion that Vadassy almost certainly didn’t take the incriminating photographs himself – he’s far too gauche for that. Instead, it seems likely that someone else has been spying on the naval defences, someone with an identical camera to Vadassy’s as the two pieces of equipment must have been switched at some point (probably by accident) – the most obvious cause of the issue being some kind of mix-up between cameras at Vadassy’s place of residence, the local hotel. So, Vadassy is sent back to the Réserve with strict instructions to follow the authorities’ orders in the hope of uncovering the real spy. Should he fail to do so, the outcome almost certainly means deportation for our protagonist, effectively destroying his whole world.

Vadassy is supplied with a list of the hotel’s occupants to ‘investigate’ with a particular view to establishing details of any cameras in their possession – but the fun really starts when Vadassy decides to use his own somewhat misguided initiative to root out the culprit without arousing their suspicions.

Among the guests at the hotel we have a typically British major and his mysterious wife, an idiosyncratic Frenchman who proves to be very indiscreet, and a young brother and sister combo from America who seem to have something to hide – I found this couple’s backstory rather hard to believe, but that’s a fairly minor quibble in the scheme of things. There are more potential suspects too, of varying European nationalities – twelve in total including the Swiss hotel manager and his wife.

For the most part, the characters are interesting and well-drawn – I particularly liked Herr Schimler, a man who turns out to have had a very eventful past. There are a few red herrings along the way as Vadassy’s suspicions flit from one character to the next, all of which help to maintain engagement.

The moon had risen and I could see the outlines of the clumps of bamboo canes below. A little to the right of them there was a patch of beach. As I watched, the shadows moved and I heard a woman’s laugh. It was a soft, agreeable sound, half-amused, half-tender. A couple came up into the patch of light. I saw the man stop and pull the woman towards him. Then he took her head in his hands and kissed her eyes and mouth. It was the unshaven Frenchman and his blonde. (p. 47)

All in all, this is a very enjoyable mystery with a clear resolution at the finish. In a sense, it becomes a race against time for Vadassy as he strives to flush out the spy before he is due back at work – both his job and his right to remain in France are at risk.

In his review of this novel, Max describes the story as being akin to a classic country house crime novel, which seems like a very apt description to me.

I read this novel over the sunny Bank Holiday weekend at the beginning of May, and it proved to be a fine choice. A nice match for the gorgeous weather.

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes (1963)

This is the third novel I’ve read by Hughes, a somewhat underrated American crime writer from the mid-20th century. My reviews of the other two are here – In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse – both of which I would strongly recommend, the former in particular.

My comments on The Expendable Man are going to be fairly concise. Not because of any concerns about the quality of the novel – far from it, it’s actually extremely good! Rather, the less you know about it the better, especially if you think you might read it.

In brief, the initial set-up is as follows. Hugh Densmore, a young doctor, has borrowed his mother’s Cadillac to drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix for a family wedding. En route, he spots a rather dishevelled teenage girl waiting alone on a deserted section of the highway. Densmore wouldn’t usually stop for hitchhikers – but in his concern for the girl’s safety, he offers her a ride which she accepts.

From the word go, it’s clear that these two individuals come from very different social spheres; he is well-bred, educated and polite, while she is rough, brazen and resentful.

After a tense and uncomfortable journey, Densmore drops the girl at a bus station and assumes he will never hear from or see her again. But then things go drastically wrong for our protagonist, and his previously ordered world comes crashing down around him.

This is a brilliant story, one that may well cause you to question your own assumptions – and maybe expose some of your subconscious prejudices too. It’s also very gripping and beautifully written. Hughes has such a wonderful style; it’s a joy to read. Here’s how it opens.

Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the colour of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading bronze of the sun. (p. 3)

The Expendable Man was my choice for our May book group, and I’m happy to say that it went down very well. (We take turns to pick the book which makes for a fairly diverse selection across the year.) It’s very difficult to go into any details here without revealing spoilers, but suffice it to say that we had plenty to discuss — particularly about the social context at that time. (Some of the issues raised by the novel remain painfully relevant today.)

All in all, this is highly recommended – not just for lovers of crime fiction but for other readers too.

Epitaph for a Spy is published by Penguin, The Expendable Man is published by NYRB Classics – personal copies.

31 thoughts on “Two Recent Reads – Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler and The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

  1. gertloveday

    Tempting reviews. I haven’t read Ambler for years but now I probably will. I do like revisiting writing of seventy years ago, especially if it’s good as I remember his being.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you like the sound of this. It’s an enjoyable little mystery, and the political backdrop gives it that extra dimension. I like the way Ambler writes so it’ll be interesting to see what you think of his style from a point of distance.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post as always, Jacqui! I read and loved the Ambler a little while back – it’s the only one I’ve read so far, and I take on board Max’s analogy, although I do think there was a little more tension and suspense than you’d usually find in a Golden Age country house murder! :) But I thought Ambler’s writing was excellent and I can imagine how enjoyable it was to read over a Bank Holiday!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Did you review the Ambler? If so, please feel free to add a link to your piece – it’s always nice to see another perspective. Yes, good point about the tension. The race-against-time element certainly gives it a strong sense of urgency. Vadassy gets quite desperate in his quest to uncover the culprit, doesn’t he? Understandably so given how much is at stake for him…

      If you’re ever looking to try any more of Ambler’s work, then I would definitely recommend Topkapi/The Light of Day (now available as part of that snazzy British Library Crime Thrillers series). It’s a lot of fun — a good duvet-day read, so to speak.

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Lovely. I’ve just been back for another look. (I really should have remembered fact that you had covered it as part of your 1938 Club!) Interesting point about the ending. It did feel a little rushed towards the finish, almost as though Ambler had started to run out of ideas by that point. Mind you, that probably a relatively minor niggle in the scheme of things. Overall, a most enjoyable book.

  3. heavenali

    I haven’t read Eric Ambler, but Epitaph for a Spy sounds excellent. The Expendable man was the first Dorothy B Hughes I read and I loved it. You’re right about the less the reader knows the better. I fell right into Hughes’ trap and my reading experience was better for it.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you would really enjoy this Ambler. It’s got that vintage element, like a country-house mystery where everyone present seems to have something to hide – Max’s analogy turned out to be very apt.

      Interestingly, one member of my book group had actually guessed what Hughes might be doing in the set-up for Expendable Man before he reached the crucial point in the story. The rest of us however ended up in the same boat as you – we all fell into the same trap. I think that’s what makes it such a thought-provoking read.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, The Executioner Weeps. That’s a really interesting question, Dorian. I hadn’t even thought about any possible connections between the two novels before you raised it. Now you mention it, there are some similarities in the set up – an innocent man tries to help a young woman and unwittingly gets drawn into a nightmare scenario etc. etc. Ultimately though, the Hughes goes down a somewhat different route. So, once the ground work has been established, it becomes a fight for justice as Densmore is accused of a crime he clearly didn’t commit.

      It’s a really interesting take on the ‘wrong man’ narrative, mostly because of the questions it raises about society and the social justice system – lots of things really, many of which are still relevant today. I probably can’t say any more for fear of giving the game away, so you’ll just have to read it for yourself! :)

  4. Max Cairnduff

    I’m glad you enjoyed the Ambler – it’s just a lot of fun that one. There is more tension and suspense than a golden age country house mystery as Kaggsy says (though there aren’t fresh bodies every few chapters) but the way almost everyone seems to have some kind of backstory or secret did remind me of that. Probably the most fun of the Ambler’s I’ve read.

    The Hughes just sounds excellent.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yeah, the Ambler was great. I was just in the mood for some fun at the time, and reading it in the sun made all the difference. It’s the sort of book that would fit into Emma’s ‘beach and public transport’ category – easy on the mind but still enough bite to maintain your interest. If you’re ever looking for another Ambler in a similar vein, take a look at The Light of Day – it’s well worth considering.

      Dorothy B. Hughes is just excellent full stop. I think she had a way of reaching beyond the genre if that makes any kind of sense. Even the members of my book group who don’t read a lot of crime fiction found a lot to latch onto with The Expendable Man. It’s such a good book.

  5. 1streading

    I’ve mentioned before my only ambler (The Mask of Dimitrios) was a little disappointing but I do intend to give him another shot, and thanks for the reminder to try Hughes!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      If it’s any comfort to you, I don’t think The Mask of Dimitrios is Ambler’s best. In fact I’m a little baffled as to why it’s the one that seems to get the most attention! Oh well…

      Hughes is definitely worth reading – I can’t recommend her highly enough!

      1. Max Cairnduff

        I’ve read three Amblers now and it was easily the weakest. It mystifies me too that it’s the most recommended. If I’d started with it I doubt I’d have read more.

        I mean, Mask isn’t bad as such, but it is kind of dull and has pacing issues.

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, agreed. I’m glad you warned us about the open ending pages of Dimitrios, otherwise I might have abandoned it after the first chapter…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d enjoy the Hughes too. It feels a little different to In a Lonely Place — less moody/atmospheric — but the story itself will have you completely gripped. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It would be great to see more of her work back in print in book format. I do have a kindle, but it’s not my preferred format for reading – I much prefer the experience of a physical book!

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