If you enjoy old school crime fiction and are looking for an entertaining fast paced read for the weekend, get a copy of Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy. Written and set in 1938, it casts an unlikely protagonist into the role of spy.
Josef Vadassy is a language teacher of Hungarian descent. He is stateless because of tragic and Kafkaesque circumstances. The Treaty of Trianon at the end of World War I transferred the town in which he was born from Hungary to Yugoslavia. Soon thereafter, his brother and father were shot for their political views, and Vadassy was forced to flee.
Carrying only an expired Yugoslavian passport, he can’t go back Yugoslavia for fear of his life and Hungary no longer recognizes him as a citizen. One country after another has kicked him out for not have his citizenship papers in order, and he has now found refuge in France.
Against this background he becomes unwilling involved in a case of mistaken identity. The local authorities in the costal village of St. Gatien suspect him of being a spy and he has to clear matters up or be deported.
Epitaph for a Spy is a slick variant on the closed room murder mystery. Take Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap, make the manor a family run hotel on the French Riviera, change murder to espionage and start the clock running. Someone at the Hotel de la Reserve is the culprit and Vadassy only has the weekend to clear his name. Is it Major Clandon-Hartley the stuffy English military man? Maybe the mysterious Herr Emil Schimler? And just what is the hotel manager Albert Köche up to?
Both Graham Greene and John le Carré, cited Ambler as one of their main inspirations and the same realist style found in both of their works are also clearly present in Ambler’s writing. He not only writes an excellent thriller, but his astute observations of the suspicions and prejudices between the European nations on the eve of World War II are a harrowing reminder for Europe in the 21st century.