Thursday, 3 September 2009

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.