As dust settles on the canon of 20th-century thrillers, it’s a good bet that the understated elusiveness of Eric Ambler’s best books will remain intriguing long after more heroic or forthright narratives have vanished.
Following my commentary on Ambler’s eighteen novels are guest contributions by Vince Keenan, Len Deighton, and Mike Ripley.
The Dark Frontier (1936) Ambler begins in a very odd place with a satire of what he rightly regarded as a pompous genre: “Heroic Englishman Thrillers.” Authors like E. Phillips Oppenheim and William Le Queux have now been forgotten, but they were popular at the time. Ambler wanted to take them down a peg. The Dark Frontier was seldom reissued; an edition published late in Ambler’s life includes his own somewhat abashed preface. For the most part he disowns the book (“The aging thriller writer who makes prefatorial apologies for the shortcomings of his early work also makes a fool of himself…”), but remains proud to have thought of the conceit of an atomic bomb years before the device existed in reality. Today The Dark Frontier is for Ambler completists only.
Uncommon Danger (or Background to Danger) (1937) Having gotten a parody out of his system, Ambler settled down to write a thriller the way he thought it should really be done. His biggest influence was Ashenden, Somerset Maugham’s interlinked set of seemingly realistic espionage stories. All of Ambler’s pre-WW II novels draw from Maugham’s continental characters and downbeat resolutions. However, Ambler goes deeper into the details. While the stories in Ashenden seldom explicitly spell out what the intelligence was or why it was valuable, plausibility was to become an Ambler hallmark.
At the end of the day, Ashenden is an establishment book, subtitled The British Agent. If Ashenden had moral qualms about some of the tasks he was assigned, that didn’t stop him from trying to get the job done anyway.
Ambler rejected that path. Wary of making his leads beholden to a government, Ambler crafted amateur heroes possessed of varying degrees of political innocence.
In Background to Danger, Kenton is a relatively savvy journalist who ends up holding a Macguffin wanted by opposing sides. While a few stray sentences are a bit unmusical and the last half of the book is padded with chase and escape scenes, Danger remains enjoyable today. At the time, it must have sounded like a starting gun to interested parties like Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock.
The most compelling chapter in Danger is the overture, where the board of directors of Pan-Eurasian Petroleum agree to hire a professional troublemaker to get oil concessions in Romania by any means necessary. In a modern novel, our hero Kenton would make his way to London and somehow bring Pan-Eurasian Petroleum to heel, but Ambler never brings the board of directors back after the first chapter. At the end of the book, Kenton is simply lucky to be alive, and the greater justice won’t be served.
Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Our next “hero” is the socially awkward language teacher Vadassy. In an important twist, Vadassy is also nearly stateless: several future Ambler characters will end up falling through the cracks between competing government bureaucracies, making them all the more vulnerable to pressure.
Because the genre was in an embryonic stage in 1938, by today’s standards the title Epitaph for a Spy might feel misleading. Vadassy becomes an inept Hercule Poirot at a French resort, pressured by a local military intelligence officer into investigating an inadvertent camera switch.
In some ways Epitaph for a Spy foreshadows Ambler’s later masterpiece The Light of Day. Epitaph begins,
I arrived in St. Gatien from Nice on Tuesday, the 14th of August. I was arrested at 11:45 a.m. on Thursday, the 16th, by an agent de police and an inspector in plain clothes and taken to the Commissariat.
The Light of Day begins,
It came down to this: if I had not been arrested by the Turkish police, I would have been arrested by the Greek police.
Cause for Alarm (1938) Ambler comes the closest to endorsing Communist ideology in Cause for Alarm. But even here, the heroic Russian agents are always kept at ironic arm’s length. The hapless narrator likes them almost in spite of himself, but for the whole of the story he can’t wait to get back to his safe British way of life.
Our incompetent hero Marlow is in munitions, a profession shared with Graham, the lead from Journey Into Fear two books down the road. Neither Marlow nor Graham ever acknowledge responsibility for the weapons they build. The reader wants to scream at them to wake up, take a stand, fight against big business raking in vast profit for guns! But in Ambler’s universe, narrators escape with their lives but seldom seem to appreciate the political lessons of their stories. They just want to get through the adventure at hand. They’re certainly not going to start marching against their employers.
The first part of Cause for Alarm has one of Ambler’s best espionage plots. Germany is trying to spy on its ally Italy, while Russia wants to feed both countries false information. This is not merely believable plotting; it almost certainly really happened. However, just as in Background for Danger, the modern reader may get impatient during the concluding chase and escape scenes. They may have felt exciting in the 1930s, but after nearly a century of greater and greater thrills the minute descriptions of relatively smooth events feel excessive.
On the other hand, those minute descriptions are believable, especially when when compared to action sequences in modern espionage novels.
The Mask of Dimitrios (or A Coffin for Dimitrios) (1939) Ambler’s most famous book is still fresh and entertaining, absolutely worthy of the various “best of” lists it regularly appears on.
Here Ambler returns to the interlinked stories of Ashenden. Perhaps he realized that he was struggling too hard to create enough plot to fill a full-sized novel. In Dimitrios, the devastation of Smyrna in 1922 forms one complete tale on its own. A murderer who frames a loser for the crime forms another. A wonderful spy short story is told in epistolary fashion. And Madame’s tale of love and loss at a brothel could be placed in Ashenden with no change of tone.
Ambler always explains complicated Balkan politics in a lively fashion, in this case through the eyes of the Greek Marukakis:
In a dying civilization, political prestige is the reward not of the shrewdest diagnostician but of the man with the best bedside manner. It is the decoration conferred on mediocrity by ignorance. Yet there remains one sort of political prestige that may still be worn with a certain pathetic dignity; it is that given to the liberal-minded leader of a party of conflicting doctrinaire extremists. His dignity is that of all doomed men: for whether the two extremes proceed to mutual destruction or whether one of them prevails, doomed he is, either to suffer the hatred of the people or to die a martyr.
Thus it was with Monsieur Stambulisky, leader of the Bulgarian Peasant Agrarian Party, Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs. The Agrarian Party, faced by organized reaction, was immobilized, rendered powerless by its own internal conflicts. It died without firing a shot in its own defense.
The end began soon after Stambulisky returned to Sofia early in January nineteen twenty-three, from the Lausanne Conference.
On January the twenty-third, the Yugoslav (then Serbian) Government lodged an official protest in Sofia against a series of armed raids carried out by Bulgarian comitadji over the Yugoslav frontier. A few days later, on February the fifth, during a performance celebrating the foundation of the National Theatre in Sofia at which the King and Princesses were present, a bomb was thrown into a box in which sat several government ministers. The bomb exploded. Several persons were injured.
Both the authors and objects of these outrages were readily apparent.
From the start, Stambulisky’s policy towards the Yugoslav Government had been one of appeasement and conciliation. Relations between the two countries had been improving rapidly. But an objection to this improvement came from the Macedonian Autonomists, represented by the notorious Macedonian Revolutionary Committee, which operated in both Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Fearing that friendly relations between the two countries might lead to joint action against them, the Macedonians set to work systematically to poison those relations and to destroy their enemy Stambulisky. The attacks of the comitadji and the theatre incident inaugurated a period of organized terrorism.
On March the eighth, Stambulisky played his trump card by announcing that the Narodno Sobranie would be dissolved on the thirteenth and that new elections would be held in April.
This was a disaster for the reactionary parties. Bulgaria was prospering under the Agrarian Government. The peasants were solidly behind Stambulisky. An election would have established him even more securely. The funds of the Macedonian Revolutionary Committee increased suddenly.
Almost immediately an attempt was made to assassinate Stambulisky and his Minister of Railways, Atanassoff, at Haskovo on the Thracian frontier. It was frustrated only at the last moment. Several police officials responsible for suppressing the activities of the comitadji were threatened with death. In the face of these menaces, the elections were postponed.
Then, on June the fourth, the Sofia police discovered a plot to assassinate not only Stambulisky but also Muravieff, the War Minister, and Stoyanoff, the Minister of the Interior. A young army officer, believed to have have been given the job of killing Stoyanoff, was shot dead by the police in a gun fight. Other young officers, also under the orders of a the terrorist Committee, were known to have arrived in Sofia, and a search for them was made. The police were beginning to lose control of the situation.
Now was the time for the Agrarian Party to have acted, to have armed their peasant supporters. But they did not do so. Instead, they played politics among themselves. For them, the enemy was the Macedonian Revolutionary Committee, a terrorist gang, a small organization quite incapable of ousting a government entrenched behind hundreds of thousands of peasant votes. They failed to perceive that the activities of the Committee had been merely the smoke-screen behind which the reactionary party had been making their preparations for an offensive. They very soon paid for this lack of perception.
At midnight on June the eighth all was calm. By four o’clock on the morning of the ninth, all the members of the Stambulisky Government, with the exception of Stambulisky himself, were in prison and martial law had been declared. The leaders of this coup d’état were the reactionaries Zankoff and Rouseff, neither of whom had ever been connected with the Macedonian Committee.
Too late, Stambulisky tried to rally his peasants to their own defense. Several weeks later he was surrounded with a few followers in a country house some hundreds of miles away from Sofia and captured. Shortly after and in circumstances that are still obscure, he was shot.
The book’s longer narrative arc tightens with the entrance of Mr. Peters, a charming, conscienceless rogue who escorts our hero, Charles Latimer, down a barbed wire path leading to the inevitable violent denouement. Latimer is a true dimwit: an English mystery novelist, rendered an even greater fool for having written books on political economy. Mr. Peters’s explanations of white slavery and drug-trafficking are worthy excerpts in themselves, and Eurasian Credit Trust (a relative of Pan-European Petroleum) lurks in the background as the most deadly adversary of all. Displacing Stambulisky was just one of their many profit-minded machinations.
Sarah Weinman has called Dimitrios “meta.” It’s easy to read Latimer as Ambler, an author bewildered by a catalogue of crimes ranging from overpriced champagne to toppled governments. At the end of Dimitrios, Latimer is immensely relieved to leave this quixotic quest and return to making up the harmless plots of murder mysteries.
Ambler himself didn’t quit quite yet. Despite the oppressive pre-war European condition, he turned in one more classic before putting down his pen and joining the army.
Journey Into Fear (1940) Colonel Haki, the head of the Turkish secret police, first appears briefly in Dimitrios as an amateur fan of Latimer’s books. Haki is a patriot and government loyalist; a sexy man of the world; a bungling mystery-writer; a pretentious student of the criminal mind; and a professional torturer, killer, and enforcer.
Haki energizes both Dimitrios and Journey but does not reappear at the end of either, exemplifying Ambler’s restraint.
Journey Into Fear shares an Agatha Christie-style enclosed milieu with Epitaph for a Spy: this time it’s a low-rent Italian steamer. Monsieur Mathis’s abrupt speech is quintessential Ambler:
“Have you heard of Briey, Monsieur? From the mines of the Briey district comes ninety per cent of France’s iron ore. In nineteen fourteen those mines were captured by the Germans, who worked them for the iron they needed. They have admitted since that without the iron they mined at Briey they would have been finished in nineteen seventeen. Yes, they worked Briey hard. I, who was at Verdun can tell you that. Night after night we watched the glare in the sky from the blast furnaces of Briey a few kilometres away: the blast furnaces that were feeding the German guns. Our artillery and our bombing aeroplanes could have blown those furnaces to pieces in a week. But our artillery remained silent; an airman who dropped one bomb on the Briey area was court-martialled. Why?”
His voice rose. “I will tell you why, Monsieur. Because there were orders that Briey was not to be touched. Whose orders? Nobody knew. The orders came from someone at the top. The Ministry of War said that it was the generals. The generals said that it was the Ministry of War. We did not find out the facts until after the war. The orders had been issued by Monsieur de Wendel of the Comite des Forges who owned the Briey mines and blast furnaces. We were fighting for our lives, but our lives were less important than that the property of Monsieur de Wendel should be preserved to make fat profits.”
Some basic online research indicates that this story has many believers and a few dissenters. At any rate, thanks to Eric Ambler, there’s been much more debate about de Wendel, Briey, and the mines than there would have been otherwise.
Here, for the first time, an Ambler hero has a love interest. The interactions between Graham and dancer/tart Josette are delicious. During one telling passage Graham curses himself for toying with her affections.
He was, he told himself, treating her shabbily. She had been kind to him in her way. Indeed, she could not have been kinder…It was no good protesting that she was out for what she could get. She had made no secret of the fact and he had tacitly accepted it.
Amblerian irony! A hero always has a girl, right? In this case the hero doesn’t want to be a hero, doesn’t want a girl either (he’s happily married)—and the girl, even though absolutely darling, is really only available for purchase anyway.
Journey into Fear is Ambler’s tightest book so far. Not a page flags. The plot zooms smoothly from the first page until the last.
Discounting The Dark Frontier, the five other pre-war novels remain the base upon which Ambler’s reputation rests. However, while it takes Ambler a few books to find his most natural style, the best of the post-war work is even better.
Judgement on Deltchev (1952) Some commentators wrongly seize on Deltchev as Ambler’s repudiation of socialism. As usual, it’s not political theory but personal gain (and Pan-Eurasian Petroleum) that dictates the actions of several key characters. It’s true, however, that this time Ambler takes his scalpel to the Soviet side, and certainly this was in response to the horrors of Stalinism.
Deltchev is a powerful book, though sometimes heavy and didactic. Its hero Foster, a deeply serious playwright/journalist, doesn’t afford the ironic distance we get with Kenton, Vadassy, Marlow, Latimer, and Graham.
JFK conspiracy alert: the final assassination set piece is relevant to 1963.
The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Ambler returns to form with a book lighter in tone than Deltchev. Because the hero is American, he’s distanced naturally from European activity. This time, his distance doesn’t have to be the product of his own incompetence. Indeed, all the Amblerian heroes of the Fifties are more conventionally sensible than the heroes of the pre-war books were.
Schirmer is an unconventional book, a fascinating page turner despite having very little dramatic action. The scenes in the law office may owe something to Michael Gilbert’s 1950 classic Smallbone Deceased; perhaps Len Deighton would show that he learned something from The Schirmer Inheritance in certain passages from Funeral in Berlin (1964).
My only qualm about Schirmer centers on the politically incorrect ending. I found it shockingly sexist, especially coming from an author whose politics I usually value so highly. Admittedly, it does deliver a concentrated dose of Amblerian irony. But the reversal is too quick, and the woman should have gotten a chance to tell her side of the story.
State of Siege (or The Night-Comers) (1956) Steve Fraser is the most conventional Ambler lead yet. He does begin in standard Amblerian fashion as a passive onlooker. But soon he’s searching cleverly for ways to survive, sleeping with a beautiful girl, and acting generally and genuinely heroic. One could imagine Fraser stepping into the pages of an Alistair MacLean book without too much trouble.
While the first chapter is rather heavy going (honestly, Ambler should have started on page 19) Siege settles into a very realistic-seeming history of a failed coup d’ état. Ambler must have drawn on his own war experiences to paint domestic military engagement so vividly.
…When street-fighting began and men began to kill at close range, it became difficult to surrender.
I was remembering a Fusilier sergeant I had met in Burma. It was some weeks before we went into Mandalay. My company had been clearing a forward air-strip and were waiting to be flown out to another job. This sergeant had come out from the Eighth Army in Italy, and because we had both been in the desert with Auchinleck we had started talking. He had had experience of street fighting against the Germans, and had later become an instructor on the subject. He had developed a passion for it that even he, I think, suspected to be a trifle unhealthy. All the same, he could not wait to get into Meiktila and try his skill on the Japanese.
“It’s an art, sir, rushing a building,” he had told me eagerly, “a bleeding art. They can’t stop you if you know how. You just have to get near enough first. That’s the dodgy bit. There’s usually plenty of cover, though, shell holes, ruins and that, but you’ve got to have patience. Crawl, dig your way there if you have to, but don’t start until you’re within thirty yards of a window. Then go mad. Put a four-second grenade in first and follow it. By the time you’re there they’ll be wetting themselves, if they’ve got anything left to wet with. Then you go through the whole house. Quick as lightning. Every room. First a grenade and then yourself. Doesn’t matter what’s there. Doesn’t matter who’s there. Then comb it out with your machine pistol. If it’s a soft house, put a burst up through the ceiling and catch them bending. But don’t stop for a second. Be as quick as lightning. First a grenade and then yourself with the old machine pistol, trigger-happy. Don’t be afraid of anything. They’re more frightened of you than you are of them because you’re attacking. Blind ’em and then hit ’em with everything. And when you run out of ammo, still keep going while they’re dazed. Knife, shovel, the lot! Keep going and there’s nothing that can stop you, sir. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it. I know.”
I felt sure that he did know.
Passage of Arms (1959) The last of the four Fifties books is the best. Although it’s not the majority consensus, I’d argue that Ambler’s most complex and assured work begins with the masterpiece Passage of Arms.
Humor and violence sit together comfortably in this unclassifiable tale. Disparate plots interlink: terrorism, bus service, Far East tourism, domestic squabbles, jails of the Third World. Because it’s all presented in such an understated way, the reader doesn’t mind being shunted abruptly from one vignette to the next.
The book’s focal point and main character is a mid-sized cache of weapons. The action directly concerning this arsenal takes up only a few pages, and we never see them used. The human characters include a charming Indian clerk with inside information, an honorable American businessman who’s in over his head, and the businessman’s well-meaning but blundering wife.
Passage of Arms is a deeply political book, but the author himself doesn’t offer opinions about imperialism, communism, or capitalism. There’s much less judgment over the selling of arms than in the early books.
Near the end, Colonel Soames offers an epitaph:
“…One thing I’ve noticed. When all the hand-washing, clean-slate stuff begins, it usually has the effect of landing someone else in the soup. Funny thing, moral indignation.”
This lack of blame — perhaps it’s really a kind of resignation — may be why Passage of Arms is less well-known than the passionate anti-weapons classics Cause for Alarm and Journey into Fear. Readers like to have their sentimental side engaged; Passage is just about the least sentimental thriller I’ve ever read.
When James M. Cain reviewed Passage of Arms, the great American noir writer got it wrong: “Mr. Ambler apparently set out to master his background and wound up with its mastering him.”
Ambler’s choice to give his readers nothing emotional to hold on to (except more and more details about how and where the dirty work gets done) shows his complete control of his genre. Those who find later Ambler too dry should remember that these books are supposed to feel real. They are also supposed to teach. A good teacher doesn’t add James Cain-style melodrama just to keep the student’s interest.
The Light of Day (1962) In the Thirties, Ambler’s leads were incompetents. In the Fifties, they were still amateurs but comparatively upright and authoritative. In the Sixties they are a rogue’s gallery of minor criminals.
A fire in Ambler’s California home prompted this change. The first manuscript called The Light of Day perished there, in a safe that was supposed to be fireproof. Ambler recounts the incident in The Story So Far:
In London I began to think about The Light of Day again, but not with the idea of recalling and reproducing what I had written before.
I have never really planned a book, certainly not on paper; I have usually seen it first, as a journey to be made by characters who are all regurgitated and reassembled bits of me. Sometimes, as the journey progresses, I get tired of it. If the characters fail to live up to their promise, even after much rewritings, and the telling of the story becomes laboured, I discard the whole project. The decision to do so is not taken lightly and, lest I should at some later date weaken and try to revive a duck already pronounced dead, I have usually destroyed the manuscript.
Now, the decision to destroy had been made for me and although the duck was undoubtedly dead, I did not like the way it had died. Naturally I looked for someone to blame, someone to publish. I found only myself, the crass believer in fairy tales, the clown who bought fireproof safes. Very well! The Light of Day would rise again but it would become an autobiographical novel and, worse, a comedy.
Arthur Abdel Simpson, pimp, pander, guide, pornographer and sneak thief was my stand-in for the part of the clown hero and he served me very well. Of course, I am not the first writer to work his way out of depression by turning to comedy, but I have been one of the lucky ones. Readers of genre fiction do not like a writer with whom they have come to feel safe suddenly changing his tone of voice. Normally friendly reviewers were inclined to dismiss The Light of Day as an aberration. In Europe, however, I gained readers. The book was made into a successful film called Topkapi with Peter Ustinov playing my egregious Arthur Abdel Simpson and winning an Oscar for his performance. It was the film that sold the book in France and Italy.
The best-known Ambler adaptation today remains Topkapi, thanks not just to Peter Ustinov but also to the stylish direction by Jules Dassin, who naturally (he also directed Rififi) makes the most of a complex museum heist. Apparently this sequence also influenced the TV show Mission: Impossible.
Dassin does, however, water down Ambler’s story in ways that undercut the novel’s power.The name change from The Light of Day to Topkapi tells it all, really. Ambler’s title is part of a self-incriminating letter Simpson is forced to write under threat:
By taking this decision [by confessing and returning stolen property], I feel that I have come out of the darkness into the light of day.
This sentence would be particularly galling to a man who would never confess anything to anybody except under extreme duress.
The Light of Day is subtle, with a long finish. Topkapi is just a cheerful bit of of exotica.
The book won an Edgar and was beloved among professional crime authors, including Donald E. Westlake and Marcia Muller. Westlake seemed to put a little Arthur Abdel Simpson in Dortmunder; certainly he (and Richard Stark’s Parker) would have also admired the detailed recounting of the final heist. Indeed, I have heard that the officials of the Topkapi Palace Museum decided to make new security arrangements after looking over The Light Of Day.
A Kind of Anger (1964) The title reflects the odd (for Ambler) attempted emotional engagement. For once, the hero, this time an investigative reporter, is damaged goods, yet transcends his problems to make money and get the girl.
This book was not the best direction for Ambler. Across the Atlantic, another author would take up the general idea of a go-between selling contraband to multiple interested parties to more memorable effect. But A Kind of Anger does seem to have been an important influence for Ross Thomas, especially in the stories written as Oliver Bleeck.
Dirty Story (1967) Arthur Abdel Simpson returns as an uncomfortable witness to two African countries fighting over oil fields. When you read this book within the context of the Ambler canon, you feel that the author is dropping a favorite character into his own conventions, rather than making something from whole cloth.
Dirty Story is still enjoyable, though. Here’s Arthur Abdel broke and at home, drinking wine and considering his options:
Nicki, my wife, was off in Roumania somewhere on a three-week tour with the rest of the troupe. She is an exotic dancer, and if anyone wants to know how it was that a man my age, still vigorous but admittedly a bit the worse for wear, came to have a Greek woman twenty years his junior for a wife, they must ask her…
…A man is entitled to seek consolation, and an attractive woman is entitled to look for protection. I always handled her business affairs for her and when she was in a good mood she called me “papa.” I may add that Nicki worked because she liked to work, not because I made her do so. I took no commission. She was completely free to come and go as she pleased, and with whom she pleased. I asked no questions. I have regretted our enforced separation very deeply.
I looked through her things to see if there was anything I could sell.
The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Exactly 30 years after The Mask of Dimitrios, Charles Latimer returns in another meta and almost epistolary tale.
Was Ambler frustrated at how his books were frequently misunderstood as conventional thrillers? Perhaps Latimer was described as a hero too often. (The end of the movie version of Dimitrios makes Latimer a hero.) For whatever reason, Ambler doesn’t even give Latimer a death scene. In The Intercom Conspiracy, Latimer is just suddenly absent, probably buried under a construction site somewhere.
I can’t think of another example, anywhere, in which a renowned author disposes of a famous character with so little ceremony. It’s particularly telling that Latimer is so generally unimportant a figure in the book: Ambler always made up new characters, and he could have called Latimer by any other name and written exactly the same novel. Ambler must be sending a message here.
Notably, The Intercom Conspiracy is also the first Ambler book with proper mentions of the KGB and the CIA. A subtle dig at the proliferation of Cold War spy novels? “Hey, fellow writers, kill your famous hero offscreen. That’s the way to make a spy novel especially popular.” Even the clichéd title The Intercom Conspiracy seems to be a contrived comment on genre.
The book overall is not satire, but rather vintage downbeat Ambler, maybe even a hard reset after the last three humorous and emotional books. A few incompetent and inconsequential characters get chewed up by the machine, and there’s no justice in the end.
They are the last of the losers. In the final novels, Ambler’s leads are comparatively successful and powerful. That slight change of tone has led to misreadings. In the Guardian, Thomas Jones suggests there is a “drift to the right.” The charge is ludicrous. Ambler’s political message is always exactly the same: don’t rely on your government, and actively worry about big business. If the heroes of the final novels are more powerful, that doesn’t mean that they are to be trusted!
The Levanter (1972) As in The Intercom Conspiracy, the story is presented from multiple viewpoints. The main narrator is a rather oblique yet very successful manufacturer, and commentary from others enables the reader to be unusually skeptical of his motives.
John LeCarré always claimed Ambler as an influence, and it is interesting to compare LeCarré and Ambler when writing about Palestinian terrorists. The Levanter is stark, fast-moving, ironic, and removed. LeCarré’s The Little Drummer Girl is rich, twice as long, introspective, emotional, and far nicer about Israeli intelligence. I like Drummer Girl, but in the end I think Levanter beats it in all ways but one. While LeCarré’s title is instantly unforgettable, you have to look up the definition of “levanter” in the frontispiece of Ambler’s book. Perhaps with a better name, The Levanter would be recognized for the masterpiece it is.
Lee Child (author of the current bestselling Jack Reacher thrillers) included The Little Drummer Girl, and no Ambler on a list of 40 greatest books. But I guess it’s no surprise that the creator of an indomitable ex-MP would not be interested in Amblerian shades of gray.
When The Levanter was published, the thriller was changing fast. Even Ian Fleming would seem subtle and nuanced compared to Seventies bestsellers from Ken Follett and Frederick Forsyth. These days, we’ve ended up a long way from The Levanter’s lightness of touch and that’s too bad. Although his own books are more in the emotional LeCarré mold, at least Alan Furst has recently claimed The Levanter as one of the top five espionage novels of all time.
Doctor Frigo (1974) Ambler may have been losing his hold on the general public, but professionals were still quick to defend him. Rex Stout, in what must have been one of his last blurbs, declares on the back cover, “There is no better storyteller alive than Ambler. And there is no better Ambler story than Doctor Frigo.”
Stout is right: Doctor Frigo is another triumph. One can’t turn the pages fast enough to discover what happens to the well-to-do doctor put in charge of a politico who just might have murdered the doctor’s father.
The book begins by explaining that the doctor’s colleagues at the hospital made up his nickname. They think he’s too stiff.
In supermarket French the word frigo is used to mean not only refrigerator or freezer but also, a shade contemptuously, frozen meat.
The doctor has an unusually amusing and fabulous love interest. Maria Valeria Modena Elizabeth von Hapsburg-Lorraine Martens Duplessis (aka Elizabeth Martens) paints good pictures and obsesses over her family tree. Not all of Ambler’s women characters are truly satisfactory, but Elizabeth Martens is a good one.
To the extent that there is a villain in the Amblerian world of Doctor Frigo, El Lobo is the villain. El Lobo excels at tripping up the doctor.
“Escalón was luckier. Promoted to general and given a coffee finca in the north. Not a big one, mind, but big enough. Earnings substantially more than a senior man’s normal pension. Would you like him?”
“I asked you if you would like him. You can have him if you want. Ask him a few questions. Kill him if you felt like it when you felt you had the answers.” The eyes were watching with something almost like amusement my attempts to hide my confusion or find a convenient rock to hide behind.
“It’s all right, Doctor,” he went on kindly. “No need to decide now. Anyway I think I know what you’d do with him, in fact.”
“Take his temperature and give him a couple of aspirins probably. Yes? Well, as I say, no need to decide now.”
Doctor Frigo is the only Ambler book to place any action in South America. Unsurprisingly, the political analysis is identical to that of the Balkans 40 years earlier:
“I am not offering the Church as an escape hatch, Don Ernesto, any more than you, I would think, would offer Democratic Socialism, whatever that is. No government, however well-intentioned, can do things for people without also doing things to them.”
“Forgive me, Monsignor, but that is part of a psychological platitude. The rest of it is that you can only do things with them. Comforting but meaningless.”
“Not entirely I think. It was Father Bartolome’s view for a while. He did much good among his people then.”
“You surprise me, Monsignor.”
“Oh, of course, he became corrupt and disgraced us all. It’s so easy. Easy for priests, but even easier for governments.”
The frozen aspect of the Doctor’s character is reminiscent of Charles Willeford’s recurring theme, the “immobilized man.” At the book’s emotional climax, the Doctor loses his cool, just like Hoke Moseley at the end of The Way We Die Now.
Send No More Roses (or The Siege of the Villa Lipp) (1977) Here Ambler offers up a group of psychologists investigating the criminal mind. The conceit seems awfully dated, and frankly I found Send No More Roses the least compelling Ambler novel overall. The hero is enjoyable enough, a sophisticated blackguard, but I never really bought the set-up or the unspooling of the plot.
The good bits are still good. Probably everything Ambler wrote about World War II was vintage material. Here the lead remembers when he was an acting-sergeant for the Field Security Police in Italy:
While the ordinary military police were concerned briefly with military matters such as convoy traffic control, drunks, deserters, POW cases, stockades, and so on, we dealt with the problems arising from the presence all around our forces – and, in the towns and villages, among them – of large numbers of civilians who, until recently, had been actively or passively on the side of our enemies. Some of them, a few but some, still were. Our main task was to see that, in the forward areas where such things mattered, those who were against us and in a position to do something about it were either removed or neutralized.
Of course, things were rarely as simple as that.
If a farmer stole a pair of army boots because his own had gone to hell and he had to start plowing his land again, was that petty theft or sabotage? Was an old whore wounding a soldier by hitting him in the eye with the heel of a shoe merely defending her democratic right to the rate for the job, or was she giving aid and comfort to the Waffen SS division dug in across the river north of us?
The Care of Time (1981) Ambler ends on an up note. The metatextual element returns: not only is the lead a successful author, but a book proposal concerning a politically sensitive memoir is crucial to the plot. One can imagine the author smiling to himself when writing about agents, publishers, and contracts.
The story is told in two sections. After the engaging set-up, the book changes gear, going deep into geopolitical politics. In Send No More Roses, Ambler experimented with a team of antagonists to mixed results. Here Ambler has more control, and the eventual plot twists unfold naturally.
The Care of Time spends two hundred pages building up to our first meeting with a major character in his rarefied domain. It’s a wonderful scene that ties all the themes of the book together. I don’t want to give away too much, but here are two important sentences:
From the other end of the room, the Ruler looked most impressive. It was only when you drew closer, when you saw the handsome face with its petulant upper lip and its eyes pleading that no one had ever really quite understood him that you had the first series of second thoughts.
Later on, after a short blaze of guns, our narrator observes a mercenary soldier who began his career in the worst theaters of Russia vs. Germany:
The eyes were weary. He looked strangely old, I thought, and wondered how long it had been since winning battles by force of arms had lost its appeal for him.
My paperback copy of The Care of Time claims it was a bestseller. If that’s true, terrific, but the novel seems terribly involved and internal for a general audience. I don’t recall seeing a glowing mention of The Care of Time anywhere; there doesn’t seem to be a single blog rave before now.
At least there was a nice interview in the New York Times with some good quotes from Ambler:
“It’s quite dismaying to learn of the number of academic theses now being written on the subject of thrillers. The reason the thesis-mongers are so interested in these stories is that they really say more about the way people think and governments behave than many of the conventional novels. A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer some clues to what was going on in our world.”
“…most of my themes come out of thin air. But chemical warfare has troubled me for a long time…In a way, that’s what this novel is, a warning.”
“I’m not without social conscience about those things. I do have something to say. Early in my life and books, I was a little to the left, and I haven’t changed that much; I’m still a bit of a lefty. What I believe in is political and social justice. There is too little of that around, in one’s own country or internationally.”
The last chapter of The Care of Time is appropriately cynical, and the final sentence suggests unresolved emotion. Ambler may have known that this was the right place to stop. During his remaining 17 years he didn’t write another novel.
My favorite Eric Ambler novels in chronological order:
The Mask of Dimitrios (1939)
Passage of Arms (1959)
The Light of Day (1962)
The Intercom Conspiracy (1969)
The Levanter (1972)
Doctor Frigo (1974)
The Care of Time (1981)
Perhaps the pre-WW II books will always be Ambler’s greatest contribution. Fresh and exciting, they echoed throughout the rest of the 20th century and remain influential today. The hapless innocents of later books who evade the government on one side and smart villains on the other are likely all children of Ambler.
Readers with sophisticated palates who want to go a bit deeper should engage with some of the lesser-known later works as well. As he says in his NY Times interview, Eric Ambler believed in political and social justice, but that never stopped him from conjuring just the right amount of moral ambiguity.
Eliot Reed was the pseudonym for books commonly credited to both Ambler and Charles Rodda. From what I have seen of them, they are not as interesting as Ambler’s own novels. In Here Lies, Ambler says that the agreement was supposed to be that Ambler would make up a plot and Rodda would write the books. However, Ambler goes on to claim that much of the writing in the first two, Skytip and Tender to Moonlight, is his own. After that he had very little to do with the final three Reeds.
On the same page of Here Lies, Ambler says he wasn’t a good collaborator, although the extensive IMDB entry on Ambler argues otherwise. His most famous scriptwriting credit is probably the Titanic disaster film A Night to Remember. Vince Keenan offers further comment:
Ambler is one of the few novelists with a screenwriting career worth considering. I’m fond of the 1947 film The October Man, which online is frequently credited as “based on his novel” although as far as I can tell it’s an original screenplay. The Magic Box is another movie that’s still well-regarded. The TV series he created, Checkmate, has a cult following; read The Thrilling Detective piece.
Ambler’s marriage to Joan Harrison has always fascinated me. A union of two accomplished storytellers, and Harrison was a huge contributor to Alfred Hitchcock’s success. It always amazes me that while Hitchcock did adapt Ashenden (somewhat unsuccessfully) as Secret Agent he never turned one of Ambler’s novels into a film, particularly given their shared interest in putting amateurs at the center of intrigue. A lost opportunity. I think the closest they came to working together was when Ambler took over adaptation duties on The Wreck of the Mary Deare which had been purchased for Hitchcock only to have Hitch wander away and make North by Northwest, maybe the ultimate treatment of the amateur-in-intrigue story.
Eric Ambler published only a few other major items under his name.
Here Lies (1985) A great title for an autobiography. Sadly, the book is a bore. Ambler rambles inconsequentially, says almost nothing about writing, and concludes abruptly with the early Fifties.
In the introduction to The Story So Far, Ambler says Here Lies was a mistake. He describes in detail why novelists shouldn’t write autobiography, and admits that he was weak at the luncheon with his publisher when the book was proposed. He even firmly declares, “Had it been a novel I would have discarded it as unworkable.” He ended it so early, he says, because “I had had enough of myself.”
The Story So Far (1993) These autobiographical fragments are a marked improvement on Here Lies, especially the parts concerning Joan Harrison, his second wife and a major Hollywood writer. A party sequence that takes place right after the fire that claimed Ambler’s home and the first manuscript of The Light of Day is probably the most revealing thing Ambler ever wrote:
He [the host of the party] was a screenwriter from way back and he had successful plays on English-speaking stages all over the world; he wasn’t a very good writer, to my way of thinking, but he was a pro. He looked past Joan at me. “It’s bad luck about the Thomas Hope sideboard Joan bought last year at Sotheby’s,” he said; “but what about the books you lost? You can’t deduct their cost, you can buy others, but you can’t replace them. You’ll have to make a fresh start. Here” – he grabbed a book from the shelf nearest to him – “You can make a start with this. It’s a spare copy. With our love.”
The book was a Roget’s Thesaurus, not a reference book I used or liked. I had long ago found that looking in Roget for synonyms or alternative ways of expressing myself was always a strong indication that I did not know what I really wanted to say. A good dictionary was more conducive to clarity. Roget was for crossword-puzzle compilers and business conference speech-writers.
He meant well, I’m sure, and a polite smile with my thanks would have been a reasonable response. Instead, I burst into tears. They did not last long but it was all most embarrassing. Years later the man with the spare Roget told me at that moment he had written me off as a writer, that I had become a casualty in the good old Hollywood crack-up tradition.
The autobiographical sections in The Story So Far are mixed together with his complete short stories. The stories range from ho-hum to very good, but none of them are nearly as distinctive as any Ambler novel.
The presentation by Weidenfeld and Nicolson does the author no favors, as it is almost impossible to figure out what the contents are without reading the book first. Marking the relevant sections “memoir” and “fiction” would be a good place to start.
Waiting for Orders (1991) Contains the pre-war stories also collected in The Story So Far.
The Ability to Kill (1963) Non-fiction pieces written for the big Fifties true crime market. This isn’t a genre I follow, but those interested in, say, the Finch/Tregoff case will want have it on their shelves.
To Catch a Spy (1964) Ambler took his editorial job seriously, and the long introduction is strongly recommended to espionage fiction fans. The little intros to each story are interesting as well.
I was unaware of this important anthology until reading a post by Nick Jones on Existential Ennui. Nick also unearthed another valuable Ambler introduction:
Intrigue (1965) Anthologizes The Mask of Dimitrios, Journey Into Fear, and Judgment on Deltchev. Nick covers the best bits in his post.
The Professionals Recall Ambler
(Len Deighton and Mike Ripley)
Through Nick Jones I sent this piece around to a few important British thriller writers for feedback. The network eventually included Jeremy Duns, Mike Ripley, and through Ripley, Len Deighton.
Jeremy offered helpful advice; Ripley and Deighton offered anecdotal commentary.
From Len Deighton:
Eric Ambler was a reserved personality as his autobiography demonstrated. He showed no left wing sympathies in his times with me but then I didn’t meet him until the early 1960s.
I lunched with him from time to time and also organized a Savoy tribute lunch for him at which a dozen of his fellow writers (including Julian Symons, Harry Keating, David Cornwall [John Le Carré], Frederick Forsyth, Lionel Davidson, Gavin Lyall, Miles Tripp, Ted Allbeury and even Kingsley Amis) ate, drank and told him how much they admired him. I even phoned Graham Greene [then living in the south of France] and squeezed a verbal from him to read along with the digestifs.
Eric wrote to me about an AA [Anti-Aircraft] predictor device that I had mentioned in my book Fighter and we corresponded and then got together regularly. I remember him telling me that during the war he was o/c [officer commanding] of an AA battery sited in the grounds of Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence. On really cold nights without bombers WSC [Winston Churchill] would invite Eric into the house for a drink. The PM was a nocturnal animal and enjoyed company.
I have always thought that Eric’s script for The Cruel Sea was a masterpiece of condensation and screenplay skill. Of course he worked in Hollywood for a long spell.
Although I admired him and his writing, I thought his persistent depiction of ugly and awful heroes were a barrier to wider sales of his books but I never told him that.
From Mike Ripley:
In his excellent essay on Ambler in British Crime Writing – An Encyclopedia (2009), Russell James rightly claims: “Ambler was original. He was laying out the ground for writers such as Le Carré and Deighton who would come later.”
One of the clearest examples of Ambler’s influence, so much so it is almost a homage, is A Forest of Eyes, the 1950 novel by Victor Canning – much more of a journeyman thriller writer than Ambler, but immensely popular in his day–which to my mind is clearly inspired by Ambler’s often underrated Cause for Alarm from 1938. Both books have British engineers working abroad (Ambler’s hero in Fascist Italy, Canning’s in Communist Yugoslavia) and both are clearly out-of-their depth when secret policemen and professional spies enter their quiet, orderly worlds and both end up on the run across ‘enemy’ country. Canning’s book even has a charismatic, though untrustworthy, police chief called Zarko who is reminiscent of Ambler’s Colonel Haki… I suspect Canning’s A Forest of Eyes (which is unlike all his other thrillers) was a deliberate, friendly nod towards Ambler. They were contemporaries in age, both had enjoyed early writing success in the 1930s and both had served in the Royal Artillery during WWII – in fact they did officer training courses together and by all accounts became good friends.
My favourite Ambler story was told to me by thriller writer Alan Williams, whose family knew him well. As WWII had interrupted his writing career, as soon as it ended Ambler was sent on a publicity tour to re-boot interest in his books. The tour involved a cruise to Greece and Turkey, which were perceived by the media of the day as at the heart of Ambler’s thriller world. As the cruise ship approached the spectacular sight of Constantinople harbour at dawn, Ambler was brought on deck for a photo-call by the journalists on the tour. Although he had never been further east than France when he wrote his early novels, he surveyed the scene and told the press corps with a completely straight face: “I see the old place hasn’t changed a bit!” I have no idea if the story is true but Alan Williams tells it well and claims it inspired him to write Snake Water, his 1965 thriller set in the jungles of a South America he had never visited.
In a contributory essay in Harry Keating’s wonderful Whodunit guide to suspense and thriller fiction, Ambler described his own writing process as “a voyage of discovery,” taking an essentially un-planned approach to each novel. Whilst he admits that this multiple-draft approach would not suit all writers, Ambler does have one piece of advice for would-be thriller writers. “Story ideas are fragile things. Never talk about them. Not, I hasten to add, because they may be stolen. Ideas that can be stolen and used by thieves are rarely worth having. No, it is simply that, in my experience, a story idea discussed, or even vaguely described, is an idea lost. Ideas should be written down but not spoken about. To explain or begin to describe a story aloud is to be trapped into developing it aloud.” Ambler admits this is probably a personal idiosyncrasy and as a coda to his essay recounts the story of the one occasion when he tried – and failed – to write a screenplay from one of his own books. The film’s producer complained that he had “ruined a good book” and Ambler agreed with him!
British espionage has been the subject of informed criticism for many years, and reading Mike’s comment reminds me of how many secondary sources I haven’t looked at for this page. However, I did read the book-length study Alarms and Epitaphs: The Art of Eric Ambler by Peter Wolfe.
Unfortunately, I disagree with Wolfe more often than not. Wolfe doesn’t seem to notice Ambler’s humor in general, and specifically doesn’t like The Light of Day. An armchair psychologist, Wolfe manages to drag in Ambler’s relationship to his father when considering every book. Maybe Wolfe’s not wrong, but I find this sort of thing more convincing when done with a lighter hand.
While I’m critical of Wolfe’s viewpoint, his book has significant original research and collects a lot of contemporary criticism. Commentary about postwar Ambler is comparatively hard to find, so this text is automatically valuable. The quote by James M. Cain about Passage of Arms above comes from Alarms and Epitaphs.
Wolfe published before the release of The Story So Far, which would have certainly made an impact on his negative appraisal of The Light of Day and possibly on his book overall.
For those reading Ambler for entertainment and suspense — which was surely Ambler’s primary intent — be careful with Alarms and Epitaphs, as Wolfe gives away all plot points for every book.
In addition to Nick Jones, Mike Ripley, Jeremy Duns, Len Deighton, and Vince Keenan, thanks also to Sarah Weinman, Woody Haut and Sarah Deming for help with this essay.