In many respects, Eric Ambler was to the modern British suspense novel what Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were to the American detective novel. Ambler transformed the suspence novel from a simplistic black and white world of perfect good guys versus nefarious bad guys into a far more realistic world where sometimes the difference between good and evil is not all that great. Typically, Ambler takes an unassuming, unsuspecting civilian and immerses him in a world of mystery and intrigue in pre and post-World War II Europe. The result was a series of highly entertaining and satisfying books. "The Schirmer Inheritance", although perhaps not Ambler's best, nor best-known, novel, is nevertheless a fine example of good storytelling.
The story opens in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. A young soldier from Bavaria, Sergeant Franz Schirmer, finds himself and his fellow soldiers in something of a bad way. It is a brutal winter, there is little food to be found in the countryside, and they are cut off from the rest of their army. Although Schirmer had fought both well and honorably, he comes to the conclusion that his role in the war is over. He deserts. Near death from hunger, cold, and a saber-wound, Schirmer finds his way to a desolate farmhouse. It is in that farmhouse that Schirmer finds the person who will become his wife. He lives under an assumed name, raises a family, and makes a decent living.
The next scene begins about 145 years later, in the offices of a high-toned Philadelphia law-firm. George Carey, a WWII bomber-pilot and first year attorney, is handed his first assignment: find any surviving relatives of a widowed Pennsylvania woman, Amelia Schneider Johnson. She died with a fortune but without a will. The publicity over this case had led to thousands of false claims from people claiming to be relatives. Carey's assignment, one which he thinks will keep him far from the fast-track of advancement is to put the matter to bed, determine that there are no lawful heirs, and let the State of Pennsylvania take possession of the estate. But, as in every Ambler book, things do not turn out to be quite so simple. In short order Carey finds himself wandering through a devastated post-war Germany looking to follow up on some clues he obtained from an aging, retired partner at his law-firm. Accompanied by a pretty but seemingly repressed young translator Carey soon finds himself in post-war Greece and the Balkans. It is there that he tries to trace down a German soldier, one who fought both well and honorably in a losing cause. This soldier may be dead or he may have ended up working with a Greek-communist partisan group. Along the way Carey must deal with a varied assortment of people who may not be who they seem and whose propensity for the truth is a question for the ages.
Ambler's writing always places more emphasis on character development and a well-told story than on the type dramatic interludes found in James Bond stories, but this story is a bit more subdued than much of the rest of his work. Nevertheless, Ambler writes well and has a keen eye for details, both as to location and to personality. His description of post war Germany, Greece, and the Balkans has a very authentic ring to it.
Ambler knows how to tell a story. He does not waste words but those words move his stories along extremely well. The key question for me in reading any kind of suspense novel is: how well can I visualize what I'm reading. In the case of Ambler, I almost feel as if I am reading the screenplay of a film and that (for me) makes for a very satisfying read. So, even if this may not be the best of Ambler, it makes for a far more satisfying read than the best of many other books of this genre.