To Catch a Spy

Selected and Introduced by Eric Ambler
First published in 1964
Four Square edition 1966

Over the years there have been quite a few spy anthologies released. To Catch a Spy is one of the higher profile releases because it was compiled by Eric Ambler. Like all compilations of its kind it starts with an introduction stating that ‘Spying is the second oldest profession known to man (prostitution being the first)’, then listing milestones in espionage literature. As familiar as these words are to spy fiction fans, it is Ambler’s introduction that separates it from the rest of the pack. It is witty and informative, and unlike some others, you can believe that Ambler has read the books he is referring to, rather than just naming certain titles.

The stories themselves vary in length and style. Graham Greene’s story for instance is only three pages long and involves a twelve year old boys nocturnal incursion in his father’s cigarette shop. From A View To a Kill is one of Ian Fleming’s best short Bond adventures. As Amber states in his introduction to Somerset Maugham’s story, everyone has a favourite story from Ashenden, and although my choice would have been different, the one chosen is very entertaining.

The short stories contain in the book are:
The Loathly Opposite, by John Buchan (taken from The Runnagates Club) – Giulia Lazzari, by Somerset Maugham (from Ashenden) – The First Courier, by Compton Mackenzie (from The Three Couriers) – I Spy, by Graham Greene (from Twenty-One Stories) Belgrade 1926, by Eric Ambler (from The Mask of Dimetrios) – From a View To a Kill, by Ian Fleming (from For Your Eyes Only) – On Slay Down, by Michael Gilbert (published in Argossy).

Now I’d be lying if I said I read read all the original source material from this compilation. I don’t have a copy of John Buchan’s The Runnagates Club, Mackenzie’s The Three Couriers or Greene’s Twenty-One Stories. Ashenden however is one of my favourites and I feel my life is better when I have a copy nearby. For those trying to track down a copy (which can be difficult these days) may I suggest that you look at some of the myriad of Somerset Maugham collections that have been published. I have a selection from the ’60’s that is labelled Vol. 2 which contains all the short stories from Ashenden. The other day, I was in a second hand book shop and found a late ’80s collection of Maugham stories and Vol. 4 was essentially Ashenden. So it is out there – just not called Ashenden any more. Fleming, of course, needs no introduction. But whether you are familiar with the source material (or the authors) is of little consequence really. These stories pretty much stand on their own.

Ambler closes out his introduction with the following:

‘There are surprisingly few good short spy stories. If I could have my unfettered way, a spy anthology would include The Riddle of the Sands, The Thirty-Nine Steps, all of Ashenden, all of The Three Couriers, plus Graham Green’s The Ministry of Fear, plus Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, plus… but it is getting to be a rather heavy book.

Better not wait for it. Please begin now with the hors d’oeuvres.’

I think that Ambler has summed up his compilation perfectly. That’s eactly what it is – hors d’oeuvres. Bite size morsels of spy fiction. And in some instances, it is great introduction to authors that you may not know (I for one will be tracking down some Compton Mackenzie – after reading this).

While I do not consider this type of book to be an essential piece of a spy-lit library, it is a pleasant diversion to be consumed between heftier tomes.

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