Judgment on Deltchev – Eric Ambler
I am a bit of a late convert to Eric Ambler and all I have read of his were published before the outbreak of the Second World War. Judgment on Deltchev, published in 1951, is set following the ending of the Second World War, with Communist regimes having been established behind the Iron Curtain. What immediately struck me about the tone of this Book is just how much Ambler’s enthusiasm for socialism seems to have waned over the intervening decade.
The other thing that struck me is how often the basic premise from which Ambler works is the same, a self-confident but ultimately naïve Englishmen plunged into the shady machinations of a foreign country and finding himself, often unintentionally, in situations where nothing is quite what it seems, where friends are not really so friendly and people who seem initially hostile have his interests at heart. As much as anything Ambler’s books are about the process by which the scales fall from the protagonist’s eyes and he realises the gravity of his predicament. This leads to a gripping final third or so of the book where the pace, even in this rather pedestrian Story, livens up as he battles to escape from the country with his life.
That we know that the English playwright, Foster, does escape from this fictional Balkan country is clear from the fact that he narrates the story and from his knowing asides as the narrative progresses. That does not spoil the enjoyment of the story, the reader often pauses to consider how on earth Foster is going to get out of that scrape as escape he must, but the impact of the thriller element is toned down.
Foster has been sent, rather unexpectedly by an American newspaper, to the unnamed Communist state to cover the show trial of the former Prime Minister, Yordan Deltchev. Whilst we have some sympathy for Deltchev’s plight at the outset, it looks as though the trial is a straightforward kangaroo trial and that he is being set up for a fall, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Deltchev’s motivations are more convoluted than appeared at the outset. Those of his family, his wife, daughter and son are also complex and appear to be designed to frustrate the objectives of the politician.
There are two femme fatales in the plotline. Mrs Deltchev remains confined in her house and barely moves from her chair when she appears in the book. But she is an eminence grise, pulling the strings of power. Her daughter is more active in the sense that she sets in train a series of events which imperil Foster further when he discovers a murder victim and she does escape her house arrest, but in reality she is cipher-like, simply a plotting device to move the story along in a different direction.
Foster, too, is a rather odd character. He seems rather too oblivious to the dangers that he is getting into and the conflicting political forces encircling him. It is this which gets him into difficulties as he doggedly pursues the clues that have come his way rather than realising that it would be more prudent to get the hell out of there.
The book was enjoyable but not a patch on Ambler’s pre-war novels. There was a good atmospheric feel to the book and I could see why the likes of Graham Greene and John Le Carrê had enormous respect for him and that he was a forerunner of the modern thriller. The plot’s twists and turns were not too unbelievable as to cause me to throw it down in disgust, but it was just a tad pedestrian for my taste.
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