Epitaph for a Spy (1952)
The emergence of the detective story in the nineteenth century has been accounted for satisfactorily enough by Mr. Howard Haycraft. "Clearly," he says, "there could be no detective stories until there were detectives. This did not occur until the nineteenth century.As Eric Ambler suggested in that Footnote, the spy thriller was more or less a 20th century concoction. He goes on to credit a handful of books and authors for birthing the genre -- The Riddle of the Sands [1903 (Erskine Childers); The Secret Agent  (Joseph Conrad); The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan); and Ashenden (W. Somerset Maugham) -- but, of course, he did as much as anyone to establish its conventions. Read anything by Robert Ludlum or watch an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, in which an innocent man is plunked down in the middle of a conspiracy, and you'll see his influence.
Epitaph for a Spy is one of his classics. Josef Vadassy is a guileless language teacher indulging his photography hobby on the French Riviera when he gets picked up by the police and questioned about a series of pictures he seems to have taken of coastal fortifications. The Commissaire de Police recognizes there's been a mix-up, but takes advantage of Vadassy's uncertain citizenship status -- he's a Hungarian refugee -- to make the young man investigate his fellow guests at the Hotel de la Reserve. In effect, the pictures become little more than a mcguffin, affording Ambler a chance to put his cast of colorful characters through their paces. As one of them puts it:
"Well," said Skelton, "I don't know what it was all about, but we certainly see life at the Reserve."And life at the Reserve is very entertaining in the author's hands.
Oh, and, by the way, if you're curious:
"He needed the money."
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd