Thursday, 3 September 2009

Eric Ambler: the Granddaddy of Espionage Writers

When I was growing up, I used to raid my father’s library—if it is not a hyperbole to describe two cupboards chocked up with books—every now and then. The ‘library’ comprised a hodgepodge of fiction and non-fiction books. There were many crime novels and espionage thrillers cramming the shelves in the cupboard. My father considered John le Care, all of whose novels he proudly owned, to be the greatest writer writing in English. He was also a fan of Len Deighton, many of whose novels were in his collection. He was very interested in the cold war espionage. When he was in the mood, in the evenings after supper, my father would talk about spies, intelligence and counterintelligence, MI5, KGB etcetera very animatedly, frequently referring to what le carre and Deighton had written in their novels (as if they were gospels). My father infused in me the love for reading and books. Unsurprisingly, when I began reading novels for grown-ups, le Carre, that stanchion of espionage and thriller writers, was the first one I tried. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was the first (and to date only) le Carre novel I read. I found it pretty hard going not least because—I dared not say this to my father—try as I did I just could not get interested in the story, and le Carre’s siccative prose style did little to alleviate my ennui. When the coda with its big revelation was reached, my reaction was ‘Is that it?’ Next, I tried Deighton. I started with The Ipcress File and gave up after a few pages. The Game-Set-Match trilogy was more accessible. Then my elder brother gave me a slim (in volume) novel titled The Catcher in the Rye. I read it and decided that that was the sort of novel I wanted to read. I have not got round to read a single le Carre or Deighton novel since—without suspecting at any time that the rich tapestry of my life is missing threads—, although I have read the novels that Graham Greene wrote in that genre (The Human Factor remains one of my most favourite novels).

One writer I never read, even though he came highly recommended by my father, was Eric Ambler. Ambler was outstanding too [my father declared] and was more versatile than le Carre in that his novels, while they were of suspense, action, adventure and intrigues (generally in foreign lands) did not adhere only to the theme of espionage , le Carre’s metier at the time (the Cold War was still on and le Carre and Deighton had no need to look anywhere else for ideas for their novels). I remember a few Eric Ambler novels in his ‘library', such as Passage of Arms, Journey into Fear and Intercom Conspiracy.

Years went by and, immersed as I became in the world of what I liked to pompously think in those days as serious twentieth century fiction, Ambler went totally off my radar. I think that happened partly because he went out of fashion. In the High Street book shops, while le Carre continued to be allotted a prominent space amongst main-stream, contemporary fiction writers and some of Deighton’s cult novels could still be glimpsed in the ‘Crime’ section, Ambler disappeared completely. I do not remember reading the news of his death eleven years ago, at the age of 89. Then, while browsing through a second hand bookshop (owned by an old, well oldish, man who wore a toupee (which was always, ever so slightly, misaligned), and a musty cardigan with a subjacent yellow (probably not the original colour) shirt, which, like the pair of black trousers, was probably not washed since the WW2) I came across three novels of Eric Ambler: Passage of Arms, The Schirmer Inheritance, and Light of Day. Passage of Arms was a hardbound edition while the other two were dog-eared paperbacks. Feeling nostalgic for the memory of my father’s dilatations of long ago, I bought all the three books (also, they cost only a fiver). The old man seemed to approve. ‘Good choice young man,’ he said, putting the books in a brown-paper bag. I left the book shop wondering whether the epithet ‘Young Man’ was in appreciation of my youthful looks (despite a balding pate and crow’s feet) or in reference to his excessively advanced years (which, if true, meant that his looks were youthful). That was a few months ago. I added the novels to the to-read-one-of-these-days-perhaps-when-I-am-on-vacation list and forgot about them.

A few weeks ago, something happened that prompted me to order all of Ambler's first six novels except The Dark frontier. I was driving to work in the morning, listening to John Humphrys carping about I forget what subject. Suddenly Humphrys started talking about Eric Ambler and I began to pay attention. I heard that this was the year of Ambler’s birth centenary. Humphrys said that he had never heard of Ambler, nor had he read any of his novels (a piece of otiose information; if Humphrys had never heard of Ambler, it was unlikely that he had read any of his novels). ‘But,’ Humphrys continued, ‘Ambler was very popular decades ago.’ He was also held in very high esteem by Graham Greene and John le Carre. For Greene [Humphrys informed] he was unquestionably ‘our best thriller writer.’ John le Carre described him as a ‘source on which we all draw.’ Ian Falming, too, was a fan of Ambler: in his 1957 novel From Russia with Love, Bond, who couldn’t be more different from Ambler’s almost-anti-heroes, whiles away his time, while flying to Istanbul, by reading The Mask of Dimitrios, although I wouldn't have thought he continued beyond a few pages (I have not read Ian Flemming either) concentrating, instead, on his next seduction. Why then, Humphrys wanted to know, Ambler went completely out of fashion, ‘suddenly disappeared’, after the Second World War. He then briefly spoke to Ambler’s sister and an ‘Ambler expert’. Neither could throw much light on the mystery. Ambler’s sister, who, I suspected from the way she spoke of her author brother, had not remained close to him with the passage of time—either that or she belonged to that generation which thought heaping praise on someone, even if he was your brother and dead for over a decade, was vulgar. She had no idea, she said, why Eric Ambler stopped writing. She remembered how Ambler, when he received the advance for his first published novel, took her and their mother to a sea-side resort in England for a holiday. The expert informed that Ambler remained prolific until the end. He quoted from an interview Ambler gave in 1990 when he was in his eighties. In the interview Ambler claimed [the expert said] that he was still writing. (If that was the case, the publishers must have jettisoned him; Ambler’s last novel, The Care of Time, I discovered after a brief Internet search, was published in 1981. He published an autobiography, cheekily titled, Here Lies Eric Ambler, in 1985.) Ambler published six novels in the 1930s, beginning with The Dark Frontier. These six novels (one of which was Journey Into Fear which was in my father’s ‘library’, while another was The Mask of Dimitrios which, according to Ambler fans and many experts, is his best spy novel, as much for its cracking plot as for its interesting take on the history of the crucial years between the two World Wars), I learnt, were Ambler’s best. With the advent of the Second World War, Ambler stopped writing for almost a decade. During the war he joined the British army and spent much of the time training and making educational films. Noel Coward exhorted Ambler to return to novel writing, which he duly did, in 1951, with Judgment on Deltchev, borne out of his increasing disillusionment with Communism, and which, apparently, attracted much opprobrium from his former comrades who accused him of going over to the dark side. Over the next thirty odd years, Ambler published ten more novels, which, however, did not enjoy the same level of success and popularity as his pre-war novels. This happened [the expert on the BBC Radio 4 pontificated] because Ambler found the Cold War uncongenial (an interesting choice of word); he did not have a dog in the Cold War (what could he have meant by this phrase?); he could not take the Cold War seriously; and he had a low opinion of intelligence services. What the expert was circumlocuting, I concluded, was that the Cold War and its intrigues did not motivate Ambler the same way the fight against Fascism, in the 1930s, did. There may be something in this hypothesis. When Ambler returned to writing novels in the 1950s, after a long hiatus, he eschewed the subject on which John le Carre and Len Deighton built up their reputations, and, instead, concentrated on the turmoil in the Developing World: thus Passage of Arms was set in South East Asia; Levanter had the Israel-Palestinian conflict as its backdrop; and Dr Frigo, which came out towards the end, was about a group scheming to grab power in a Caribbean island. Perhaps, these subjects did not catch the fancy of the European or American readership the same way the machinations, plotting and underhand scheming of the Cold War did. This is a pity, as Ambler had (probably) lost none of the verve, intricate plotting, and easily flowing prose style that made his early novels a success. His last published novel, Care of Time begins thus (I read on the Internet): ‘The warning message arrived on Monday, the bomb itself on Wednesday. It became a busy week.

I found an interview of Ambler on the Internet, an extract of which, reproduced below, throws light on his political views and views on the Cold War:

Early in my life and books, I was a little to the left. I voted Labour in 1945, but that was the extent of my political involvement. What I believe in is political and social justice. I’m of the same generation as [Graham] Greene. While he was hostile to America, he was never rude about it. I never put the Cold War in any of my books. Never took sides during the Cold War, not that I was a closet Communist. I always found the Cold War distasteful. For my wartime generation, it meant taking the best years of your life and turning them around. After the war, nobody wanted to return to prewar conditions. They had dreams of an improved way of life. Unfortunately, the Cold War did not help those dreams.

I found out a few more interesting titbits about Ambler. In the 1950s, Ambler collaborated with an Australian writer called Charles Coda, and the results, a total of five thrillers, were published under the nom de guerre Eliot Reed. Ambler later claimed that he had contributed substantially to only the first two thrillers. He also recounted an incident that stimulated him into becoming a thriller writer (this anecdote may also have been mentioned in his autobiography which is sadly out of print, like most of his novels): when Ambler was working in advertisement, in the early 1930s, he was once vacationing in Marseilles, and was cheated out of money while playing poker by an unscrupulous bartender. Ambler fantasized about killing the bartender with a rifle at a street crossing the city. At exactly the same spot, a few months later, a Croatian assassin shot dead King Alexander of Yugoslavia. Ambler claimed, almost half a century later, that this incident spurred his imagination; he became aware for the first time of a fresh bit of his personality, which was an assassin; he felt that there were people like him all over Europe, ‘ready to kill’. There were ‘strange and violent men’ with whom he felt he was in touch.

Ambler was, like James Hilton (another British novelist, hugely popular in his days but almost totally forgotten these days, who gifted the term Shangri La to the English language), also a successful screenwriter in Hollywood and, in 1953, was nominated for an Oscar for the best screenplay for a film called The Cruel Sea. Many of his own novels were also made into successful films, the most famous of which was of course Orson Wells’s Journey Into Fear; however, he did not write the screenplay of any of these films. Another successful film of the 1960s, Topkapi, was based on an Ambler novel, Light of the Day(Jack Murphy, who stole ‘Star of India’, world’s largest sapphire, from New York Natural History Museum, did so after watching Topkapi).

In an interview given towards the end of his life, Ambler remarked that thrillers said more about the way people think and governments behave than conventional novels. ‘A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer clues to what was going on in our world,’ he said.

It seems a pity that Ambler remains largely disregarded these days. He is, as Humphrys declared, the granddaddy of all the thriller writers.

Book of the Month: Uncommon Danger (Eric Ambler)

Eric Ambler, born a century ago, was one of the paramount designer of the espionage fiction. He lifted the genre from the turpitude of hackneyed plots, trite dialogues and unsubtle characterization into a hypersophistique cloak-and-dagger world of intrigue and moral ambiguity. He made thrillers respectable. In the 1930s, beginning with The Dark Frontier, Ambler published six espionage novels, which are generally considered to be his best. One of them was Uncommon Danger, published in America as Background to Danger.

The hero of Uncommon Danger, Desmond d’Esterre Kenton (his full name appears only once; throughout the novel he is referred to by his surname), like many of Ambler’s heroes, is not a professional spy. He is an ordinary, unexceptional man who finds himself unwittingly embroiled in a conspiracy with high stakes, double dealing, and fraudulence—of which he is unaware to begin with but, being a quick-witted person, he cottons on to what is going on—by being the wrong man at the wrong time in the wrong place. He is an impoverished freelance British journalist with a penchant for losing money in ill-advised games of poker. He is travelling from Nuremberg (where he was reporting a meeting of the higher echelons of the Nazi party) to Vienna to cadge money from a Jewish acquaintance whom he helped two years before to escape from Munich. On the train he meets an exotic character named Herr Sachs, who claims to be a German Jew trying to escape Nazi Germany and offers him a substantial sum of money to smuggle an envelope (containing, he says, ten thousand marks in German securities) over the frontier, because, he, Sachs, is convinced that he is being watched by a Nazi spy, ‘a small eyed man with an unwholesome face’. Kenton susses out that the man is not being truthful and that he is also not who he says he is; however, the lure of money is too strong to resist—this is another characteristic of many of Ambler’s heroes; they are ever so slightly louche—and Kenton accepts the assignment. When he reaches the hotel, after passing through the customs at the Linz station, where Herr Sachs has told him he would be waiting, he discovers that the slippery Jew, who in fact is not a Jew, has been murdered. It gets fantastically convoluted and messy after that, with several parties, political and industrial, involved, pursuing their separate agendas. At the heart of the conspiracy is a plot to install a Fascist government in Romania by whipping up hysteria and mobilising public opinion against the Soviet Union. Kenton forms an uneasy alliance with a pair of Russian brother and sister, Andreas and Tamara Zaleshoff, and, after a series cliff-hanger situations that leave you gasping for breath and action that moves continuously across the borders of more than one country, foils the evil designs of the malefactors.

All of this is great fun, and, if the ambiance is not excessively tense, the cracking pace of the narration and witty, sardonic dialogues more than adequately compensate it. Ambler does not waste time in long passages describing scenery and architecture, and gets going from the first chapter. The story, notwithstanding some fantastical situations, has an air of authenticity, which is at least partly to do with the main protagonist, who is not the ultra-suave proto-Bond, oozing charisma and charming glamorous women into bed; he is an ordinary man who has trouble keeping stiff upper lip and who, in the face of temptation is prepared to bend principles; he has never fired a gun; and when he tries to hit someone he is as much likely to miss as connect. Kenton is someone the reader has no problem identifying with. Similarly, the villains, while loathsome, are plausible. Joseph Balterghen, the unpleasant chairman of the Pan-Eurasian Petroleum Company, is keen to have exclusive access to the oil fields in Bessarabia, Romania, and concludes that a regime change is Romania is the logical step to achieve his goal. The story also rings true because it reliably reflects what at that time was the real life political situation involving countries with different political systems: democracy, Marxism, and Totalitarianism. For example, the alleged soviet military secrets, the le point essentiel around which the plot revolves, relate to the actual source of tension between the soviet Union and Romania over the region of Bessarabia, which was controlled by Romania since the end of the First World War but over which the Soviets had staked a claim.

It is worth while noting the gentle treatment meted out to the Communists in the novel. The Zaleshoffs are depicted as essentially decent folk of integrity, and Communism is not viewed as the evil nemesis of the free world, as it came to be viewed in the post-WW2 fiction. Ambler was never officially a Communist; however, between the two World Wars, he leaned, ideologically so to speak, to the Left. As reflected in Uncommon Danger and his other masterpieces in the 1930s, he viewed Fascism as the main enemy. (Ambler would jettison his allegiance later, in his 1951 novel Judgement on Deltchev, which marked Ambler’s return to the world of crime fiction after a hiatus of more than a decade).

Beautifully written, superbly paced, and minaciously real, Uncommon Danger manages the rare feat of providig escapist entertainment and appearing bona fide at the same time, by a clever mix of grand political themes and topical action. It is unputdownable.