Summer arrived two days ago, and it made me think about one of the pleasures of summer: reading a book that has nothing to do with my work.
Having authored A Coffin for Dimitrios, and The Light of Day, Eric Ambler is known as one of the father’s of the thriller. Since I have read A Coffin for Dimitrios, and seen Topkapi, the film version of The Light and Day, I decided to read one of Ambler’s less well-known books, Epitaph for a Spy.
Epitaph for a Spy is an excellent thriller, set on a small stage but similar in atmosphere to Alan Furst’s wonderful novels of Europe in the 1930s, which I also recommend. The story takes place on the eve of war. One reason these books are interesting is because of the suspense created by the reader’s knowledge that World War II will soon come, while the naïve characters in the book maintain a degree of innocence. Some characters remain happy-go-lucky, while others feel the doom nearing. Still others are foreign spies.
Our narrator, Joseph Vadassy, has the credentials to be the thriller’s hero. A Hungarian native holding an invalid Yugoslav passport, he is a man without a country. He is an alien, who speaks five languages, and earns a modest living as a teacher of foreign languages in Paris. Will he prove to be an innocent man or a spy?
An interesting background issue, the difference between nations and states arises. Whereas Americans typically think of the nation and the state as being the same thing, there is actually a distinction. The nation is the people of a country—what we think of as nationality—and the state refers to a government with sovereignty to the borders. Not uncommon in South Eastern Europe, then as now, the borders of the states are not congruent with the borders of the nations. Vadassy is born in Szabadka, Hungary, a town that later becomes Subotica, Yugoslavia. Vadassy’s passport has expired, and he fears returning to Yugoslavia where his father and brother have been killed. Terrible social conditions in Hungary make that an unlikely place to return and he desires French citizenship.
Now located in Serbia, Subotica and its region, Vojvodina, are still comprised of Hungarians, Serbians, Croatians and other smaller populations. Locations like this, with a mix of peoples and changing borders, prove to be ideal for thrillers. Graham Greene placed Stamboul Train, one of his “entertainments,” as he called his thrillers, in Subotica.
Alfred Hitchcock once famously claimed that his films often revolved around a MacGuffin, the thing that gets the story rolling, but that ultimately proves unnecessary to the story, like the eponymous Maltese Falcon. The MacGuffin here is a 36 exposure roll of film. While the last twenty six frames are various poses of a lizard, the first ten are photographs of secret French military sites. Vadassy claims to have photographed the lizard, but swears he did not take the first ten photographs.
The local French Commissaire de Police and Beghin, a sweaty fat man (think, Sydney Greenstreet ) from the Sûreté Générale, feel they have an airtight case. Vadassy will be imprisoned for espionage, or thrown out of the country, unless…, unless, he can establish the true photographer of the French military sites. To this end, Vadassy is permitted to return to La Reserve, a small hotel on the French Riviera where the bulk of story unfolds. Beghin advises him to simply interview the other guests – do you own a camera like mine?—seemingly foolish advice which Vadassy rejects in favor of more complex approaches more likely to get him in trouble. Who could be the photographer of the first ten frames? How could the spy have possibly shot the first ten frames on Vadassy’s roll of film? And what ill might befall Vadassy, should the treasonous culprit turn up in search of the first ten photos?
The story proceeds with a number of twists which I won’t give away, as Vaddassy mingles with the other guests, a varied cast of characters stereotyped by nationality—the American wise guy, and the French lover—suspecting and rejecting them in turn.
The story proved to be sufficiently visual that it was turned into a 1944 movie, Hotel Reserve, starring James Mason –transformed from a Hungarian linguist into an Austrian medical student. In all, the book was a wonderful entertainment and left me with the desire to dig deeper into Ambler corpus.
Let us know what your summer pleasure reading is.