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Eric Ambler (1909-1998) is one of my favorite authors of light fiction and certainly one of the pre-eminent writers of spy fiction. I admire equally his plots and his prose. Recently I reread his Judgment on Deltchev (1951). This was the first novel he wrote after the Second World War and indicated a break he had made from his pre-war communist sympathies. It is also, in a sense, his most “philosophical” tale. Ambler even uses a quote from Nietzsche before the text proper begins: “Many things in your good people cause me disgust, and, verily, not their evil. I would that they had a madness by which they succumbed, like this pale criminal”

Deltchev is the leader of a fictional Balkan state and a popular hero. He bungles badly which leads to a communist takeover of the country and he and his Agrarian Socialist party are the only effective opposition. The government decides to put him on trial, accusing him of cooperating with a shadowy, violent organization. Foster, an Engloish playwright is hired by an American newspaper publisher to cover the trial.

While Ambler portrays the communists mercilessly, he does not seem to try to persuade the reader to embrace democratic ideology. Indeed what he seems more concerned with is character. What drives people to embrace an ideology In the first place? Is Deltchev truly a hero or is he in fact in league with an evil force, or is he a man so ridden by self-doubt as to be an ineffective political leader?

I hope I am not putting words into Ambler’s mouth, but It seems to me that, in this book, Ambler is skeptical of all ideology per se. (Even in his pro-communist period before the war, Ambler’s protagonists often were trying to escape from dangers brought on by ideological conflicts and to return to a non-political life in England). He seems to think the best one can do politically is to rely on leaders of good character.  But can one expect to to find good character and sound judgment in capable leaders? If Deltechev failed, can anyone be expected to succeed?

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