Epitaph for a Spy (YGtCTO Words #1)

Book written by Eric Ambler

I confess that I do not know how Eric Ambler does it. His books are blazingly intelligent, fair-minded, and massively entertaining. The characters run the gamut from truly heroic to vile gutter snipes. He juggles multiple plot threads and sticks the landing. The stories provoke thought, probing the dark sides of inflammatory political issues in ways that no doubt infuriate partisans. For me, he finds the humanity within the distress, without creating cardboard cutouts of the villain driven to his evil by others. He does not excuse the inexcusable. People make their choices. They may not suffer for it, but their behavior is held up for readers to see and judge. And Ambler did it for forty years, leaving a memorable back-list.

If there is a standard Ambler situation, then it doubtless includes a fish out of water- an important citizen who finds himself among people of unexpected ill will. Our hero is obviously imperfect, probably even a little rotten, but we sympathize with him because his choices are not unreasonable. In The Levantar, we find our hero in place because he has inherited the family business which he hopes to maintain as a going concern. In Doctor Frigo, he has built a life in the Carribean as an escape from family tragedy in his native Latin America, except the tragedy lends itself to exploitation by powerful men. Each of these men is thrust into espionage and betrayal. They have a moral compass, but it proves less and less applicable as their situation unfolds.

So, is Ambler a poet of the morally ambiguous? Isn’t anyone who writes a spy novel? James Bond always acted on the side of the angels, but he did the devil’s work- what else is a license to kill? He was a rogue in a black and white world where even he could tell the bad guys from the good. After all, the bad guys were the ones trying to kill him. Ambler’s heroes often face the threat of death, but they have invited it. In Passage of Arms, the naively infuriating couple at the center of the shenanigans have made a series of choices that reasonably lead to their inevitable incarceration in an Indonesian prison- given half a chance, most readers would reach into the page and slap them up the side of the head. And yet we root for them to come to their senses and live to be naive another day.

The exceptional aspect to Ambler’s work is what I raised above- his striking ability to portray volatile situations in a manner that his books appeal across the political spectrum. Short of being an evil despot yourself, he should be eminently readable whatever your stance on the issues at hand. I have not fully decided if that is because he is so even-handed or because he is an equal opportunity offender, but I think there might be something more special at work here. By granting humanity to all of his characters, the stories rise above mere politics- they even surpass the espionage genre. These books become works of art that illuminate life at its most extreme.

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