Category Archives: Ambler Eric

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.

Topkapi – The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

In need of a change from all the translated fiction I’ve been reading lately, I turned to Eric Ambler’s 1962 crime caper, The Light of Day (also published as Topkapi). A good decision as it proved to be hugely enjoyable, just what I was looking for at the time.

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The novel is narrated by Arthur Abdel Simpson, a small-time thief who makes a living by hustling tourists on their arrival at Athens airport. As the story opens, Simpson is recounting the tale of how he got mixed up with Harper, a man who turned out to be more dangerous than he appeared at first sight. As Simpson looks back on past events, here’s how his story begins:

It came down to this: if I had not been arrested by the Turkish police, I would have been arrested by the Greek police. I had no choice but to do as this man Harper told me. He was entirely responsible for what happened to me.

I thought he was an American. He looked like an American – tall with the loose, light suit, the narrow tie and button-down collar, the smooth, old-young, young-old face and the crew cut. He spoke like an American, too; or at least like a German who had lived in America for a long time. Of course, I now know that he is not an American, but he certainly gave that impression. His luggage, for instance, was definitely American: plastic leather and imitation gold locks. I know American luggage when I see it. (pg. 1)

It’s a good opening, one that pulled me into narrative – you know from the start that something bad has happened to the narrator, and he holds Harper responsible for it.

When Simpson spots Harper at the airport, he marks him out as someone seemingly unfamiliar with Athens, reasonably well off and thus a suitable target for one of his petty scams. He offers to act as the visitor’s driver and guide to the city, and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, Harper agrees. But unfortunately for Simpson, Harper has him all worked out from the get-go, and when Simpson tries to steal a few travellers cheques from his wallet, Harper catches him red-handed.

He turned and stared at me. All at once his face was neither old-young nor young-old. It was white and pinched and his mouth worked in an odd way. I have seen faces go like that before and I braced myself. There was a metal lamp on the writing table beside me. I wondered if I could possibly hit him with it before he got to me.

But he did not move. His eyes flickered towards the bedroom and then back to me. (pg. 21)

Having discovered Simpson’s scam, Harper blackmails him into playing a part in his own shady plan. Simpson must drive a high-class American car from Athens to Istanbul, no questions asked – it’s either that or Harper will turn him over to the police. Harper, on his part, claims he is doing a favour for the daughter of a business associate, Fräulein Elizabeth Lipp, the car’s registered owner. Even though Simpson suspects the car may be carrying illicit goods (drugs, jewellery, money or suchlike), he knows he has to go through with it. Harper has already strong-armed him into signing a confession for the purposes of ‘insurance’.

Once he is clear of Athens, Simpson stops, takes a good look inside the car and finds nothing. But on his arrival at the border with Turkey, he gets stopped by the Turkish police. A more thorough search of the car is conducted, arms and explosives are discovered, and Simpson is placed under arrest. His position is further complicated by the fact that his passport is out of date. The Egyptian government has refused to renew it, revoking his citizenship in the process; in effect, Simpson is stateless. Having discovered the arms, The Turkish Secret Service is convinced that they must be destined for some kind of political attack. As a result, they force Simpson to act as their agent, coercing him into reporting on Harper’s every move along with those of his associates.

As he continues his story, we learn more about Simpson as a character, particularly his mistrust of authority figures which stems from his days at an English public school. Here he is on the people who run counter-espionage groups, men like Major Tufan, his contact from the Turkish ‘Second Section’. He considers these men to be ‘suspicious, unbelieving, […], petty’ and ‘inhuman’.

With them, it is no use having just one story; and especially not a true story; they automatically disbelieve that. What you must have is a series of stories, so that when you they knock the first one down you can bring out the second, and then, when they scrub that out, come up with a third. That way they think they are making progress and keep their hands off you, while you gradually find out the story they really want you to tell. (pg. 49)

Once he re-establishes contact with Harper, Simpson must take one risk after another in order to satisfy Major Tufan’s demands for information. He has to get as close to Harper’s gang as possible without blowing his cover in the process. In this scene, Simpson realises he’s being sounded out by Miss Lipp, Harper’s glamorous companion, in all likelihood the true brains of the operation.

I couldn’t help glancing at her. She was watching me in her amused, considering way, but there was nothing sleepy about her eyes now. They were steadily intent.

And then I got the message. I was being sounded, either to discover what I had made of the setup and if they had left any shirt-tails showing, or to find out if I could be trusted in some particular way. I knew that how I answered would be very important indeed to me; but I didn’t know what to say. It was no use pretending to be stupid any more, or trying to avoid the issue. A test was being applied. If it failed it, I was out – out with Harper, out with Tufan and his Director, out with the Turkish customs, and, in all probability, out with the Greek police as well. (pg. 113)

Before long, Simpson finds himself embroiled in Harper’s plot, which isn’t quite the political attack the Turkish authorities are anticipating. Caught between a rock and a hard place, our narrator has little option but to play the game. That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the story, but this is a hugely entertaining, well-paced escapade with plenty of action, especially in the closing stages.

This is my first experience of Eric Ambler’s work, and I hope it won’t be the last. As far as I can tell, several of his novels feature fairly unsuspecting civilians, often short of money, who find themselves caught up in some conspiracy or other. Despite his failings and previous brushes with the law, Simpson is the underdog in this scenario – he’s an eminently likeable character, and I found myself rooting for him all the way. As he recounts his narrative, Simpson goes over his actions, highlighting his thinking and the options open to him at the time.

My thanks to Scott (of seraillon) and John (of Noirish) for recommending Eric Ambler and this classic novel in particular. In 1964, the story was filmed as Topkapi, directed by Jules Dassin, starring Peter Ustinov in the role of Simpson, Maximilian Schell as Harper and Melina Mercouri as Elizabeth Lipp. It’s been a while since I watched it, so it’s time for another look.

Topkapi – The Light of Day is published by House of Stratus. Source: personal copy. Book 10/20, #TBR20 round 2.