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.
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.
Ambler’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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “Aleko’s hand?” (page 35): “Aleko” is a Bulgarian name. As noted earlier, so is that of the titular character Yordan Deltchev.
- “Hotel Boris” (page 46): Boris III of Bulgaria was Tzar of Bulgaria from 1918 until his death in 1943.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
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.