The Schirmer Inheritance (Knopf; 1953) is the second novel Eric Ambler wrote after he returned to fiction writing following his service in World War II. His previous novel, Judgment on Deltchev mirrored—brilliantly, I thought--the collapse of Ambler’s Marxist idealism and passion for politics after the scouring betrayal by Soviet collaboration with the Nazis and the subsequent Communist tyranny. Deltchev was an angry novel written by a bitten and burnt soul.
The Schirmer Inheritance continues that pattern, though I think the mirror is a little smudged here, and Ambler’s enthusiasm, his fierce clarity and discipline, seem a touch ragged this time around.
In this novel, set mostly in the early 1950s, Ambler shifts his focus from an Englishman abroad to a new breed of innocent that was just starting its strut across the globe: an American (no doubt a commentary on the rise of the American Century).
The story opens with a tense, colorful prologue set in 1806, during the Napoleonic Wars: A Prussian officer named Schirmer deserts his troops during a bloody rout by Napoleon’s forces and takes refuge with a poor peasant widow with whom he starts a new fugitive life and family.
Then, very cleverly I thought, the novel leaps a hundred and forty years ahead, landing in a scenario that seems to have been inspired by Dickens’ Bleak House—an inheritance case that never ends.
This particular estate issues from American descendants of Officer Schirmer. As this part of the story opens, the last apparent Schirmer descendant, named Schneider, has died, leaving their large inheritance intestate, to be claimed by the State of Pennsylvania, unless an authentic, verifiable heir is found.
Most law firms treat cases like this as “the sort of slapstick affair that a corporation lawyer with a thought for his reputation would pay to steer clear of.” The Schirmer/Schneider affair has already nearly devoured one law firm. The new pinstripe firm tasked with administering the case, Lavatar, Powell and Sistrom of Philadelphia, decide to dump the bleak task of pawing through the cobwebs on their new young lawyer, George Carey. George is a young man whose eye gleams with ambition and legal cleverness, but whose lack of awareness of How Things Actually Work make him another member of Ambler’s club of naïfs.
After a somewhat slow opening, George’s labors bear sudden fruit: Somewhere in the distant European past, an obscure vine of Schirmers crept away into a far corner of Europe to bud a possible heir to the fortune.
From there, the firm sends George across the Atlantic on a trail of mystery and intrigue. He’s guided in his search by beautiful Maria Kolin, a super-competent, but enigmatic and tough, interpreter, a woman with a hollow leg so capacious you can hear the brandy sloshing all the way from Paris. Altogether, “Miss Kolin” is a very atypical female character for a genre novel from this era. For once, it doesn’t look like the hearts are going to turn up in this deck of cards.
Together, George and Miss Kolin meet a colorful assortment of characters good, bad, and venal as their search takes them from Paris through the ruins of postwar Germany and, most excitingly, into the wilds of northern Greece, where civil war rages.
It’s here that the novel really quickens with its vivid portrayal of postwar Greece. Whether he’s accurate or not, I can’t say, but Ambler provides a surprising and often-absorbing portrait of the tangled conflicts then blazing in that part of the world.
Eventually George and Miss Kolin track their quarry to the rugged mountains of Yugoslavia (now, I believe, Macedonia). The story of Franz Schirmer is an unanticipated pleasure, dabbed with the color, texture, and weaving of motivations and mystery you find in the best novels. Schirmer is a blend of boyish soldierly nobility and Teutonic thuggishness; one moment, he’s as bright-eyed as a child, the next, he’s an angry, war-scarred brute. That Ambler makes him so recognizably human is a tribute to the author’s talent. The decision that Schirmer makes about his legacy is touching, surprising, and wholly believable.
Still, the cynicism that made Judgment on Deltchev so bracing seems to weigh a little heavily on The Schirmer Inheritance. George Carey seems more lawyer than character. The writing occasionally stumbles and flags, with, at one point a long lecture on Greek civil war politics that might have been better handled as a dialogue. Near the end, Miss Kolin flips in a manner that I found, baffling, unconvincing, and a little uncomfortable.
Even with these flaws, The Schirmer Inheritance remains a worthwhile experience for admirers of Eric Ambler and aficionados of the best genre fiction. All the best genre writers working now are, at least in part, inheritors of his legacy.
Late last year, I took deep pleasure in editing a book titled Windham Rembrandt: Memoir of an Art Teacher in Texas Prisons by James Humphries. Mr. Humphries passed away in 2001, leaving his story of beauty, grace, and hope in a world of desperate men behind, but his family, led by his son Jonathan, has picked up the torch and will independently publish Windham Rembrandt later this year.
As I—and some of you—can personally testify, independent publishing costs money and to help raise the funds, Jonathan Humphries has set up this Kickstarter account. I urge you to visit the site and help however you can. Thanks!
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by author.
Painting by James Humphries.
Painting by James Humphries.
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.