Judgment on Deltchev

The southeastern Europe country controlled by the “People’s Party” is never named in the late Eric Ambler’s international political thriller Judgment on Deltchev, but there are more than a few teasing details that make Bulgaria the plausible center of events. The novel focuses on a Stalinist-style show trial. I don’t know if Ambler ever visited Bulgaria, though I think it’s unlikely, but his titular character’s name—Yordan Deltchev—is certainly a Bulgarian one.

Трайчо Костов
Traicho Kostov

The fictional Yordan Deltchev is portrayed as a decent man, one who has a sincere sense of public duty and an admirable moral center. The unfortunately factual Traicho Kostov served as President of the Council of Ministers and General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party. He was ruthless in destroying the opposition and perceived enemies, until on November 30, 1949 he was himself targeted by his Communist compatriots for destruction. His December show trial predictably found him guilty and sentenced to death. Purges of “Kostovites” quickly followed. The Press Department of the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry published The Trial of Traicho Kostov and His Group essentially concurrent with the proceedings. I saw a copy on a shelf full of books left by our landlady in a Sofia apartment we rented a few years ago, but you can find your own on Amazon should you take an interest. Perhaps Eric Ambler read it. Perhaps he saw the show trial covered in The New York Times, which published articles on the trial throughout, or in the British press.

Judgment on DeltchevAmbler’s awareness of the Kostov trial seems likely, though it was sadly far from the many show trials conducted in the post-war years. His first post-war novel is in fact Judgment on Deltchev published in 1951. The breadcrumbs large and small hinting at Bulgaria are found throughout the book. Page numbers shown are taken from the 2002 First Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Edition of Judgment on Deltchev.

  1. The Officer Corps Brotherhood secret and murderous network that Deltchev is accused of leading has an impact on society that the very real Вътрешна Македонска Революционна Организация (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization or IMRO) had in Bulgaria. Like the Officer Corps Brotherhood, the IMRO used terrorism as a tactic and the government’s repeated crackdowns eventually reduced the network to operating on the margins.
  2. The Agrarian Socialist Party of the book might be any of the agrarian parties found throughout Europe and in a handful of countries outside the continent (in the United States, the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party is an active and important force in state politics). In parallel with the Agrarian Socialist Party and the People’s Party in the book, however, the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union was a leading political party vying with—and then ultimately losing to—the Bulgarian Communist Party.
  3. “South Eastern Europe,” “Balkan,” “river valleys east of the Yugoslav frontier (page 11): In 1951 when Judgment on Deltchev was published, “South Eastern Europe” might have included Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Yugoslavia. Greece features in the book and so may be excluded. A country east of Yugoslavia can only be either Romania or Bulgaria.
  4. “try going down to Greece” (page 18): It’s clear from the action of the book that a train “down to Greece” is a short journey, therefore ruling out Romania.
  5. “Until the spring of 1940 when his country had joined two of its Balkan neighbours in coming to terms with the Axis” (page 24) and “pro-German government” (page 25): Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia joined the Axis between November 1940 and March 1941.
  6. “Aleko’s hand?” (page 35): “Aleko” is a Bulgarian name. As noted earlier, so is that of the titular character Yordan Deltchev.
  7. “Hotel Boris” (page 46): Boris III of Bulgaria was Tzar of Bulgaria from 1918 until his death in 1943.Борис III
  8. “plum brandy”: Whether called slivovitz in Yugoslavia (and the countries that formed from Yugoslavia’s break-up) or rakiya in Bulgaria, fruit brandy is the most common spirit.ракия
  9. “Dimitrov at the Reichstag” (page 70): This is a passing mention, but Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov became internationally famous when on trial in Leipzig he successfully defended himself against Nazi charges of burning the Reichstag to the ground. He was then free to become a despicable dictator of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria in 1946.Георги Димитров
  10. “blue enamel plates” (page 73): I can’t speak to address identification marks in mid-20th century Yugoslavia or Romania, but to this day blue enamel plates with the address number mark buildings in Sofia.номер адрес
  11. “a man named Kroum” (page 145): “Kroum” is the name of a medieval Bulgarian monarch whose name appears in every Bulgarian elementary school child’s history book. Shoutout to J.K. Rowling who gave her star Bulgarian Quidditch player the name Victor Krum in her wildly popular Harry Potter book series.Хан Крум
  12. “Rila” (page 146): This is the name given to a criminal in the book, but is in fact a mountain range in southwestern Bulgaria. It is also the name of arguably the most famous monastery in Bulgaria and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.Рила
  13. “Maria Luisa quarter” and “Pazar” (page 148): The heroin addict and Officer Corps Brotherhood member Pazar lives in the Maria Luisa quarter. “Pazar” means market in Bulgarian and the largest and most well-known open-air market in Sofia then and now is the Женския Пазар (Zhenski Pazar), two blocks from main street Maria Luisa Boulevard.Женския пазар
  14. “beneath the tiles of the stove” (page 154): In the corner of some old homes in Bulgaria, there is a ceramic stove that radiates constant heat for long periods without adding additional fuel. The ceramic tiles are not merely utilitarian, but often beautifully colored.
  15. “Serdika Prospek” (page 204): Serdika is the ancient name for Bulgaria’s modern capital Sofia and thanks to archeological work remains of the ancient city can still be seen.Сердика

So how good is Judgment on Deltchev as a novel of political intrigue if you care nothing of references to Bulgaria, intentional or otherwise? Ambler is, as his New York Times obituary said, generally credited with having raised the thriller to the level of literature.” John Le Carré considered him “The source on which we all draw.”

Judgment on Deltchev is not considered one of Ambler’s best, but as I have not read any of his other books I cannot judge on that basis. My criticism is not of the plot, the scene setting, the intrigue, or—for the most part—the realism. There is no preposterous deus ex machina that swoops in to save Deltchev from being hanged. But the characters distinguish themselves from each other solely by name, physical description, profession, and political standing. The copious dialogue, however, makes all of them—whether they are speaking Bulgarian, English, or German, no matter their social status or educational level, whatever their profession—sound precisely the same. That dulls the book to a monotone voice. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a bad introduction to this well-reputed author and I was glad to read a novel set in “South Eastern Europe,” even if Ambler didn’t intend the action to be set in Bulgaria. But there are an awful lot of coincidences.

2 thoughts on “Judgment on Deltchev

  1. He did and he was. Don’t assume that he did not do live research. All his novels show fidelity to people and place. Believe me there is no way you could know what was happening in central Europe in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s without being there. Of all his novels this one is very interesting because he appears to want to tell the truth of an event rather than a story of an event to further his literary career (see below0.

    PROFILE – Eric Ambler (1909-1998)

    The re-publication in Penquin Classics of the first five Eric Ambler novels, published between 1936 and 1939, is an interesting event. Their appearance on the 100th anniversary of the English writer’s birth in 2009 contrasted sharply with the new Pan editions, ten years earlier, of four of Ambler’s early novels, (Pan also re-published two later Ambler novels, in 2000). Ambler had passed away on October 22, 1998 with all of his books out of print and hard to collect, a ‘misfortune’ novelist Robert Harris lamented in his introduction of three of the Pan editions. ‘Eric Ambler,’ Harris wrote, ‘is a writer who really shouldn’t need any introduction. His early novels were so good, his fame so great and his influence so far-reaching, that none of his contemporaries would have dreamed that within his lifetime his work would disappear from the bookshops. But it did, and a whole generation – my generation, as it happens – has grown up knowing nothing about him.’
    This is only partly true. Harris was born in 1957 and, by the time he had reached his teens, Ambler was still producing thrillers with modern themes in realistic surroundings, in Switzerland, Syria, Antilles and Italy. The Intercom Conspiracy dealt with the dying embers of the Cold War; the New York Daily News described The Levanter as ‘a parallel to the Olympics tragedy which saw Arab terrorists murder Jewish hostages’; Doctor Frigo plunged head-deep into the politics of the Caribbean; and Send No More Roses (The Siege at the Villa Lipp in the US) was an ironic study of corruption in the new Europe.
    But Harris’ point is well made; you could come across any of Ambler’s 1970s novels and not know that he had made his reputation as a thriller writer four decades earlier, so much that by the time of his passing he was indeed hardly known to Harris’ generation and to anyone who wasn’t aware of his genius for the genre he arguably made his own; this is another point that is being constantly made by Ambler’s sycophants and admirers; the London born writer re-made and re-modelled the political thriller along with Graham Greene, allowing Ian Fleming, Len Deighton and John le Carré (David John Moore Cornwell) in particular to bring the world of espionage to a wider audience.
    Recalling his motivation in his autobiography Here Lies, Ambler wrote that the early 20th century thriller ‘had nowhere to go but up’. In these novels, Ambler could only see villains that were unbelievable and heroes that were implausible. Villains, he wrote, were ‘power-crazed or coldly sane; the hero did not seem to matter much. He was often only a fugitive, a hare to the villain’s hounds’. But it wasn’t just the characters and the plot that Ambler detested, he also found the background and the setting unreal without a sense of atmosphere, a rational context and an authoritive overview.
    Unlike Greene, who matured into a writer obsessed with moralistic issues, or Deighton, who flirted with spy thrillers, or Le Carré, who used his career knowledge of spycraft to launch a second career as a novelist, Ambler wasn’t in a strict sense a writer of novels about the hidden world of secret agents and their ilk; he wrote suspenseful political thrillers that invariably featured a protagonist unwittingly thrust into a drama so credible and plausible it could happen to anyone.
    That was Ambler’s strength as a literary artist. His stories were narrated by characters who most of the time didn’t know what was happening, thus heightening the suspense for the reader who often knew more than the protagonist.
    If you wanted secret agents you had to turn to Greene, Fleming, Deighton and Le Carré and while their spy heroes were credible characters the worlds they inhabited were sometimes fantastically overblown, as if they had been written with the big screen in mind; Fleming made his James Bond into a high-living egotist; Deighton glorified Sixties Culture with his eponymous hero; and Le Carré contrived to make the boring life of the spy absurdly fascinating with ingenuous plotlines. Only Greene, who shared Ambler’s penchance for the mundanity of daily life, came close, especially with his 1952 novel The Quiet American, and this is perhaps why the man who wrote believable political thrillers about pre-war Europe in the late 1930s is now starting to be appreciated for his talents, albeit by a generation that cannot comprehend the world that Ambler wrote about, except through fiction; Ambler imagined his stories and characters from the world that was real to his contemporary readers and in doing so transformed the political thriller into an artform that wasn’t pastiche.
    Ambler served his literary apprenticeship with this first three novels, The Dark Frontier in 1936, Uncommon Danger in 1937 and Epitaph for a Spy in 1938, developing a style that, much like Greene with Stamboul Train and Ministry of Fear, came to define his early writing. For Ambler this was his fourth novel Cause for Alarm, which, much more than The Mask of Dimitrios, contained all the elements that Harris, among others, so admired. Cause for Alarm, The Mask of Dimitrios and Journey into Fear encapsulated Ambler’s ability as a storyteller and it is interesting to speculate what his literary progression would have been like had he not been interrupted first by the war he had anticipated in these novels, second by his foray into the visual world of film, which changed the way he wrote his books when he returned to them in 1950, and third by the dramatic changes in post-war societies.
    The latter meant that Ambler could no longer conjure reluctant protagonists from a Europe being plunged into conflict and develop storylines that drew on his extensive knowledge of pre-war politics, society and history. The reader always felt, reading Ambler, that here was an author who knew and understood the world around him and the people in it. Although The Mask of Dimitrios was heralded as ‘one of the milestones of espionage fiction’ it was the clever plot, the historical and political background and the narrative pace that made it a success rather than the characterisation, particularly of the primary protagonist. Of all Ambler’s main men (Professor Henry Barstow aka pulp fiction hero Conway Carruthers in The Dark Frontier, journalist Kenton in Uncommon Danger, linguist Josef Vadassy in Epitaph for a Spy, engineer Nicholas Marlow in Cause for Alarm, author Charles Latimer in The Mask of Dimitrios and engineer Mr Graham in Journey into Fear) only Latimer is out of place; he is an academic who becomes a crime writer – ‘the fact that a man like Latimer should so much as learn of the existence of a man like Dimitrios is alone grotesque,’ writes Ambler on the opening page, setting the tone for the suspense that follows, when Latimer goes to Turkey for his health and learns about Dimitrios from Colonel Haki. This is why readers interested in Ambler should leave The Mask of Dimitrios until they have read Uncommon Danger and Cause for Alarm. Ambler uses Latimer as a device rather than as a character to drive the narrative, to allow the reader to accept the multitude of characters gradually introduced into the complex plot and to that extent The Mask of Dimitrios was the most adventurous of Ambler’s novels until The Schirmer Inheritance was published in 1953. Published as A Coffin for Dimitrios in the US, Ambler’s fifth novel appealed to Americans who appeared to identify with its themes of drug smuggling, cold assassination and political subterfuge.

    The Pan editions were quickly cast out into the bucket-price stores, leaving the way clear for Penquin to put Ambler in his rightful place among the classic writers, as he himself hoped. In 1981 he told Herbert Mitgang of The New York Times that political thrillers ‘really say more about the way people think and governments behave than many of the conventional novels’. Then he added: ‘A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer some clues to what was going on in our world.’ Ambler’s novels deserve to last. He may have started as a writer with a mission to reinvent a genre but, like his contemporary Graham Greene, Eric Ambler never set out to write pulp fiction that would go out of print, he merely believed he could write thrilling stories about interesting times with an entertaining prose style, and although it is a tired cliché it is unlikely that literature will again have such a politically astute and worldly-wise author among its elites, especially in the English language.

    That was his second novel, after The Dark Frontier, which is very good for a first novel. By comparison, while the storyline, plotting and narrative is good, Uncommon Danger is the poorest of his early novels because, as you noticed, it is not that well-written. The next four, Cause For Alarm, Epitaph For A Spy, The Mask of Dimitrios and Journey Into Fear – all published by Penquin, completed his pre-war novels but it is my argument that Amber didn’t become an accomplished author until the early 1950s when he produced novels much much better than the pre-war series. These include Judgement on Deltchev and The Schirmer Inheritance, which in my opinion are his best novels, with The Levanter, The Light of Day, Dirty Story and Dr Frigo squeezed in there between Dimitrios and Cause For Alarm as the best of the rest. The pre-war novels work because of their setting, not because of the writing although I have a soft spot for Cause For Alarm and Epitaph For A Spy because they are well plotted with good storylines. Amber was more of a journeyman writer. He didn’t even try to be a literary writer, and while his characterisation is moderately good it is not exceptional say in the way that Nobel winner Orhan Pamuk’s is, because he is the closest to Ambler across the decades. Ambler write political novels, which British and American publisher shy away from, unless they are in translation, Marquez, Kundera, not Pamuk, yet Ambler started all this, kept the plots simple, didn’t fuss over the characterisation and managed to drive the narrative to the end. It’s a shame that he is remembered more for his pre-war novels but this is because they are unique; after the war everyone was writing thrillers and it wasn’t until the late 1970s, ironically when Ambler eased up, that the genre collapsed, more because publishers were reluctant to allow such novels into the market place.

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  2. What you doing is fantastic but do not expect your home country or the people who live in it to appreciate your efforts. So some advice, don’t direct your knowledge towards English language countries, especially the Americans and the Brits.
    European culture is not well known outside Europe.
    Mostly it is a cliche, a sterotype.
    As you have discovered you have to live in it to know, and do not believe there is no solidarity among “Europeans” and I don’t mean on a political level, I mean a cultural level.
    It is good that you discovered Ambler. He was able to do what journalists and reporters were not able to do, and that still applies today. He is not relevant, though.
    Personally I would like you to continue to explore Bulgaria’s culture, to use your enthusiasm for it, but bear in mind that you must do this through the prism of Bulgarian life, not your former life as an American.
    As you have seen Bulgaria, like many countries in Europe, is emerging, even after all this time, from a bad period.
    You live there, show what it is like today, what the people are like.
    Good people exist everywhere but they are not always portrayed, if you know what I mean.
    Help to give these people a voice in the English language. That is not patronising. You simply have a language that is becoming more global as each day passes.
    It is kinda ironic, a language with European roots that is now seen as American!

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