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Judgment on Deltchev (1951) by Eric Ambler

By Erica
Judgment on Deltchev (1951)  by Eric Ambler

Book Review by Sylvia D: Judgment on Deltchev is a political thriller set in a fictitious Balkan state at the time of the East European show trials in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The story is told through the eyes of a London playwright known only as Mr Foster who has been sent by an American magazine to cover the trial for treason of Yordan Deltchev, de facto leader of the opposition party. Foster fits the Ambler mould; a civilian, not a government agent. He comes across as strangely naïve and poorly briefed and is only warned of the danger of becoming involved in local politics by the press agent detailed to look after him who himself seems to have a mysterious background,

You are a stranger here, Mr Foster. You are a writer of fiction and you make the world in your own image. But be careful. Do not walk upon the stage yourself. You may find that the actors are not what they have seemed.

There are two stories running – the trial itself and the consequences of Foster’s determination to discover the truth about the defendant’s story, a quest which sees him gradually entangled in a sinister maze of characters and events and takes him into personal danger.

The trial is dissimilar to the Soviet instigated show trials of the time in that it is not a Communist purge but the outcome of a struggle for power between Deltchev, seen as the leader of the Agrarian Socialists who had Anglo-American leanings and the leader of the ruling People’s Party, Vukashin, who is answerable to Moscow. There is no indication either that Deltchev has been subjected to beatings and torture as most victims of the East European purges were. It does emerge though that in the days before the trial he has been deprived of the insulin he needs for his diabetes which leaves him with trembling hands and thus open to easy accusations by the Prosecution that he must be guilty – a more subtle form of torture perhaps.

The trial does have all the hallmarks of those political trials and of political trials in authoritarian regimes across the world – weasel words, unreliable witnesses, evidence twisted to suit the prosecution’s case, attempts to put doubts in the mind of the defendant’s supporters (and of the reader) as to whether Deltchev may actually be guilty after all.

As the trial unfolds, Foster, often as a consequence of his own choices, gets drawn into what seems to be a plot to assassinate Vukashin and he has to contend with shady characters, shootings, double crossings, a secret society, conflicting stories and struggles to know whom to trust. The story has a neat twist at the end.

I’ve never been a great fan of Ambler and was finding the narrative very masculine until about a third of the way through when he introduces two strong female characters – Deltchev’s elegant wife who is not what she seems and his attractive daughter whom Foster believes is implicated in the assassination plot.

There is a considerable amount of political contextualisation which became rather tedious and one very annoying feature was the chapters with endings from Foster such as ‘That was the point at which I should have packed my bags and gone home’ or ‘I did not know that I had just performed one of the most foolish actions of my life’. I suppose they designed to help build the tension, but they just struck me as unnecessary. And when Foster states that, ‘I think I should make it clear that I am not one of those persons who enjoy danger. I take pains to avoid it’, one wonders why, despite all the warnings from his press agent, he continues to dig ever deeper. A further contradiction is that Foster also knows exactly what avoiding action to take when he is ambushed and shot at.

The novel’s strongest point is Ambler’s excellent evocation of the sense of fear and distrust that prevailed in Eastern Europe during the Soviet ascendency. Who is watching me? Who can you trust? Who is telling the truth? It reminded me of my husband’s experiences when he had to visit countries like East Germany and Bulgaria in the 1970s and 80s – the constant feeling of being watched, the police checks, the local colleagues reluctant to be seen talking to you.

I could just about keep track of the intricate plot and the several characters who all seemed to have Russian names beginning with ‘P’, but Judgment on Deltchev did not inspire me to read any more Ambler.

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