How did the spy novel get invented?

Literature that thrills.
May 25 2006 3:56 PM

Pulp Valentine

Eric Ambler and the invention of the spy novel.

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'Epitaph for a Spy' by Eric Ambler

The opening lines of Eric Ambler's Epitaph for a Spy are deservedly famous. They pack all the clean and efficient punch of classic pulp; and in their studied tonelessness, they also prefigure the famous "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas" of L'Etranger. Here they are: "I arrived in St. Gatien from Nice on Tuesday, the 14th of August. I was arrested at 11:45 a.m. on Thursday, the 16th, by an agent de police and an inspector in plain clothes and taken to the Commissariat." Why did these simple declaratives change spy fiction forever? Well, because they're simple declaratives. "In most human beings," Ambler once wrote, "ideas of spying and being spied upon touch fantasy systems at deep and sensitive levels of the mind." Against any possible psychic disturbance, Edwardian spy stories had inoculated their readers with Edwardian cliché. "The black velveted seductress, the British secret service numbskull hero, the omnipotent spymaster," as Ambler put it, helped stave off the moral ambiguities we now associate with Graham Greene and John le Carré. In Epitaph for a Spy, Ambler did away, once and for all, with cloak-and-dagger melodrama in favor of the qualmish chill of realism.

Why did the spy novel take so long to mature? Spying is as old as civilization itself, after all; but while agents of Joshua may have gone deep cover in Jericho, spy stories, as a discrete and at least minimally self-respecting category of fiction, lagged far behind detective fiction, which had Poe and Wilkie Collins to lend it early pedigree. Good writers, among them Kipling and Conrad, had written spy novels, but until Ambler came along in the '30s, it wasn't a discrete genre. Why? Spy fiction, Ambler himself believed, is disreputable because spying itself is disreputable—it is warfare by underhanded means—not to mention mentally unsettling. In 1937, on the brink of global war, the reading public was ready to be unsettled.

The narrator of Epitaph for a Spy is a humble language teacher named Vadassy, who, though a harmless, shabby-genteel man, has nonetheless spent his life negotiating with the authorities. His offense? No country will naturalize him. Vadassy, as he explains patiently to the police in St. Gatien, was born in a territory of Hungary that was later absorbed into Yugoslavia; the Yugoslavs persecuted his family for political reasons, murdering his family members; and so Vadassy has lived from labor permit to temporary visa, teaching languages in England and now France. With his mastery of French, German, English, and Italian, he scrapes together an adequate living and has saved up enough money to take his first holiday in five years, at the Hotel de la Réserve, in St. Gatien, a modest French seaside town near Toulon. Vadassy is also an amateur photographer and has devoted a roll of film to capturing a single lizard (this bemuses les flics to no end) in an afternoon's shifting light. Or so he thought: During his interrogation, it becomes clear that another set of negatives has gotten mixed up with his own, containing pictures of the new fortifications surrounding a local naval harbor. The police pretend to believe that the guileless Vadassy is a spy and threaten to deport him to Yugoslavia, where, if they do, he will face the same fate as his father and brother. He will be shot.

The old unities, of time, place, and action—as Aristotle had it—are so routinely abused in genre fiction these days that we've forgotten the pleasures of the tightly delimited narrative. (The first great offender was James Bond, or at least the Bond movies, with their frenetic blitz of exotic locales. The Da Vinci Code may henceforth be the touchstone for all bad writing, but at least it sensibly insisted on unity of time—the action unfolds in a single 24 hours.) Ambler's genius in Epitaph for a Spy, which he wrote when he was all of 27, lay in establishing firm boundaries of time, place, and action, and yet using a small compass to suggest an entire world given over to nefariously entangled allegiances. How did Ambler pull this off? Holding the threat of a trumped-up charge over Vadassy's head, the police force him to return to the Hotel de la Réserve, to find among its guests the actual spy. Presto: A humble everyman vacationing above his station is now caught up in an international intrigue.

OK, having coughed up the basics, and gotten in the obligatory Dan Brown dig, now let me insist, in order to encourage you, dear reader, to invite this book, in its handsome new-ish Vintage Crime edition, to the beach with you this summer, on how fun this all is. Vadassy is a genial simpleton who is in way over his head. He can't help concluding, wrongly, that he must expand upon the simple mission the police have given him (to determine who among his fellow guests has a camera like his own) and play detective. In playing detective, he gets caught up in the petty gossip and intrigue of the resort. Here the book takes on a wonderful Clue-like quality. Who exchanged cameras in the writing room? Does Herr Vogel really speak no English? What is ever-so-slightly off about Roux? Is Koche a Red? Is Mrs. Clandon-Hartley … an Italian? And are those fresh-faced young Americans really brother and sister?

What are the virtues of this terrific little book? Above all, its relaxed urbanity and its tolerance for commonplace experience. Epitaph for a Spy was, in short, a popular book composed for a public that still derived primary enjoyment from reading. Ambler was himself worldly. He had a meaningful worldview—he was a staunch antifascist—and felt no need to batter the reader with wild improbabilities. The most thrilling sequence of the novel involves Vadassy entering another guest's unlocked room without permission. If this modest episode makes our spines tingle, it's because we believe in Vadassy's predicament, and it occurs to us how excruciating it would be to violate a social norm in order to save our skins. If this takes us a long way from Opus Dei and the temporal marriage of Jesus, well, then, bravo.

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

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