Epitaph For A Spy by Eric Ambler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I began my foray into the thriller genre back in the mid to late 1990’s. This trip began, like most people that began reading thrillers in the 90’s, with the venerable Tom Clancy and his seminal work Red Storm Rising. Oddly, one of his two books not set within the Jack Ryan universe. I was reluctant even to begin reading this as Tom Clancy and the Jack Ryan books were ones that my Father was reading. Being the rebellious youth that I was, I tried to distance myself from him even in the reading I would do. To be fair, however, my Dad also liked to read Louis L’Amour cowboy novels and those are actually not my type of story at all. From Red Storm Rising I did graduate into the Jack Ryan stories, and since, have read all of the ones written by Tom Clancy himself.
I remember when I started reading the Tom Clancy novels that I read or heard a review of them, and the other books in the genre and of a similar tone, referred to as airport books. The reviewer meant these were books executives read while traveling the country or around the world. They would pick these novels up at the airport terminal and read them on their business trip. The insinuation being that the traveler could see himself in Jack Ryan. The regular person, minding their own business, pulled into a world they barely understood. Guided by their moral compass and relying on their wits, they are able to defeat the challenges placed in their way and travel back home to the loving family waiting to pick them up at the gate.
As much as I can see the appeal of this fantasy of being Jack Ryan, despite of or perhaps including his many flaws and virtues, there is a couple of fundamental flaws in this approach. In order to see yourself as Jack Ryan you need to suspend the disbelief that you are not a London School of Economics PhD with a brilliant surgeon for a wife and at least two if not three genius children. Not to mention being independently wealthy from the time you spent dabbling in the stock market in your father-in-laws firm before deciding to become a history professor at the United States Naval Academy. An every-man Jack Ryan is by no means. He is exceptional in almost every way. From his moral stance to his intellectual capacity. Even his physical flaw, the broken back earned in training, shows him to be exceptional physically. As much as I enjoy the work of Tom Clancy, or at least till just before The Bear and the Dragon, the universe he creates keeps most of us on the outside.
I have broadened my thriller reading over the years. Universes by authors such as John le Carré, and even back to Ian Fleming. Each of those has created a rich universe overflowing with fascinating and occasionally complex characters. None of them though really fulfill the promise and the fantasy of the every-man suddenly being thrust into a world where their moral standing and wits are tested and stretched. You have to go back to the Grandfather of the genre in order to find that. You need to go back to Eric Ambler.
This is the sixth book of Eric Ambler that I have read. None of the others are connected or create a single shared universe like those of James Bond, George Smiley, or the previously mentioned Jack Ryan. In some ways that makes these stories better. There is no mythos you have to learn or remember. You are simply in a small portion of our own world. A portion, most of the time, you hope you never actually find yourself. Therein lies the richness and the fun of the Eric Ambler novel. If you suddenly find yourself part of a middle age couple conducting an arms deal, as in Passage of Arms, there is nothing outside the book you need to know.
With Epitaph for a Spy, it isn’t far fetched to imagine yourself on an inexpensive vacation and suddenly being embroiled in international intrigue. Granted the plot points of the story immediately place you in a different time. Just the main point that brings you into the story, having an actual camera with film you have to develop, is problematic in the age where everyone seems to have a small studio in their pocket. It is easy enough, however, to get around this issue and even the need to travel to the local post office to call the police station, once you let yourself get involved in trying to figure out how you have been setup and by whom. An old style whodunit in the very real sense.
So as much as I enjoy techno-thriller and cold and post cold war world of Tom Clancy, the true master of the airport book is and will remain the Grandfather of them all. Eric Ambler.
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