Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (Shane's book 20, 2009)

Eric Ambler was born in 1909 and to mark the centenary of his birth Penguin has reissued five of his first six novels. Written between 1937 and 1940 these books brought a new realism to the spy novel genre and paved the way for the likes of John Le Carre and Len Deighton.

[amtap book:isbn=0141190310]

Ambler's novels typically centre on amateurs who are unexpectedly plunged into espionage. Epitaph for a Spy is no exception. The hero, Josef Vadassy, is arrested after trying to collect his holiday photos from a chemist in a small French town. He's unable to explain why his film contained shots of French naval fortifications. The authorities suspect that Vadassy's camera was switched at his hotel and blackmail him into returning to trap the real spy.

So begins a Hitchcockian plot in which Vadassy tries to follow the mysterious instructions from the agent in charge and clumsily snoops on his fellow guests.

The occupants of the hotel could have been borrowed from any crime novel of the period. There's an English major and his wife, a young and witty American couple, a Swiss industrialist and a few others. Of course, each of them has a secret that Vadassy will inadvertently uncover before the conclusion.

It all sounds very cosy but Ambler's characters are convincing, especially Vadassy whose ineptitude results from inexperience and fear rather than stupidity. Underlying the whole story is a genuine political concern and the darkness hanging over Europe in 1938 is inescapable. The book has a subplot - which I won't spoil here - that is quite affecting.

It's a very good novel. I've got another of the reissued Amblers on the shelf and I'm looking forward to getting to it soon.