The question is: how did Eric Ambler do it? In a telegram, Graham Greene once addressed Ambler as “the master” while describing himself as a “pupil.” And John Le Carré once designated Ambler as “the source upon which we all draw.” How did Ambler become one of the most influential thriller writers of the last century while avoiding sex and violence, generally considered the necessary staples not only of thrillers, but also of good storytelling?
The answer is: there’s a third element of good storytelling—suspense. As Dickens memorably remarked, “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” And where creating suspense was concerned, Ambler was almost without peer. But before an author can create suspense, he or she must be able to make the reader care about the character, and the character’s fate. What makes Ambler’s books so special is the fact that the reader cares about his heroes even though they aren’t very special people.
In the elusive character of Harry Lime and the menacing atmosphere of post-war Vienna, Greene’s The Third Man owes a good deal to Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios (U.K. title: The Mask of Dimitrios). And in writing the suspenseful final chapters of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Le Carré almost certainly had learned a great deal from the final chapters of Ambler’s Background to Danger (U.K. title: Uncommon Danger), in which the hero, Desmond Kenton, is chased around Austria and Switzerland by the Austrian police and a gang of thugs in the employ of a large oil company.
There’s a third element of good storytelling—suspense.
Between 1936 and 1939, Ambler published five novels, all of which reflect the uneasiness of the decade in which they were written. His second novel, Background to Danger (1937), begins in Germany and exhibits rumblings of the Holocaust. Desmond Kenton is a freelance journalist with money problems. While on a train trip to Vienna to meet a Jewish acquaintance he helped escape from Munich two years before, Kenton accepts an offer of three hundred Reichmarks to smuggle an envelope of securities into Austria. When the delivery doesn’t work out as planned, Kenton becomes a murder suspect. Because of what he knows, he is also being sought by an agent of Pan-Eurasian, an oil corporation which is scheming to install a fascist government in Romania in order to gain access to the Bessarabian oil fields. In order to escape, Kenton falls back on aid provided by Andreas Zaleshoff, a Communist agent stationed in Switzerland.
In Cause for Alarm (1938), the hero, Nicholas Marlow, is an English engineer who, shortly after becoming engaged, is laid off by his firm. Because of his fluency in Italian, another firm offers him a job in Milan. Like Kenton, Marlow is in desperate financial straits, but after he takes the job, he discovers he is providing technical assistance in the production of more efficient munitions to the Italian fascist government. He later learns that the man he is replacing has been murdered. After becoming entangled with German and Russian agents, he falls under suspicion of being a British spy. Zaleshoff also plays a role in this book, helping Marlow escape central Europe and return to England.
Marlow and Kenton are good examples of Ambler’s early heroes, English working people who find themselves, through no fault of their own, thrust into circumstances in which human life is valued cheaply when it is valued at all. Their vulnerability is heightened by the fact that neither can use his fists very effectively or handle a weapon. Although espionage agents are all over Ambler’s books and he is often remembered as a writer of spy stories, he contrasts with Le Carré and Ian Fleming in that he never wrote a book with a spy as the main character.
The stories contain a minimum of violence and very few seductive women. But there is plenty of atmosphere as the English heroes navigate the unfamiliar terrain of central Europe. Although the plot formula is a simple one and Marlow and Kenton are believable, they are far from memorable and are beset by nagging personal problems. But they are perceptive observers of the shadowy streets, seedy cafes, and furtive people of the central European scene in which they find themselves. And with Europe on the eve of war, they are insightful commentators on the European political situation. In his early books, Ambler captured the atmosphere of the Balkans, Germany, Italy, Greece, and France during the Thirties as effectively as LeCarré later captured the countries of central Europe during the years of the Cold War.
Altogether, Ambler wrote twenty novels (four with Charles Rodda under the pseudonym Eliot Reed), but it was in A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939) that Ambler combined all the elements most memorably. Charles Latimer, a professor turned mystery writer, is plunged into an underworld populated by cutthroats, spies, and thieves, people for whom committing murder is just another day at the office. In the first page of A Coffin for Dimitrios, the narrator observes, “The fact that a man like Latimer should so much as learn of the existence of a man like Dimitrios is alone grotesque.” The sense of impending disaster builds throughout the story as the nearly clueless hero makes his way from Istanbul to Athens to Sofia and finally to Paris. Like Kenton and Marlow, Latimer finds that being English is a kind of baggage, more of a hindrance than a help. He has been educated as a gentleman, accepts people at face value, and even exhibits at times a mildly superior attitude. And he has a much higher opinion of his own survival skills than would seem to be justified by his actions and character.
Latimer’s curiosity about Dimitrios is piqued when, during a trip to Istanbul, Colonel Haki, the chief of the Turkish secret police, asks condescendingly, “I wonder if you are interested in real murderers, Mr. Latimer.” At the mortuary, Colonel Haki shows Latimer the body of Dimitrios Makropoulos, a criminal whom Haki describes as “a dirty type, cowardly, scum.”
As a writer of mysteries, Latimer realizes he should have an interest even if it’s only an academic one, and with nothing more pressing to do, he decides it might be interesting to compile Dimitrios’s case history. He quickly learns that the dead man was much more than just a murderer. He was a political assassin, the leader of a drug ring, a blackmailer, a trafficker of women, a manipulator out only for himself—but, most importantly, a survivor. Born in 1889 and abandoned by his parents, he learned early in life how to survive. Later, he finds himself in Smyrna in 1922 during the Turkish massacre: “By the time that dawn broke on the 15th of September, over 120,000 persons had perished; but somewhere amidst that horror had been Dimitrios, alive.” Although Latimer’s interest in Dimitrios is largely idle curiosity, he encounters a mysterious “Mr. Peters” on the train from Athens to Sofia. Ambler ratchets up the suspense as it becomes apparent to the reader, but not to Latimer, that he is not the only person with an interest in Dimitrios.
Ambler subtly connects the story of Dimitrios to the horrifying events taking place in Europe during the 1930s. By 1939, Italy had occupied Abyssinia, and civil war was raging in Spain. With concentration camps now in existence in Germany, the Holocaust was gathering momentum and would soon blanket all of Europe. In Berlin, the Nazi high command was planning to attack Poland. Like Shakespeare, who often pictured the most dangerous and corrupt individuals (Polonius and Falstaff are good examples) as charming, civilized, and good-humored, Ambler does not fall back on central casting for his portrait of Dimitrios. Dimitrios may be monstrous, but he is, at the same time, engaging, intelligent, and plausible. According to Latimer, Dimitrios could not be explained “in terms of Good and Evil. . . . Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town.”
With World War II imminent, this description of modern civilization seems to have resonated with readers. It was not just shockingly accurate, but also very unsettling. Whatever the activity, from genocide to human exploitation, it could be justified by the profit motive. Ironically, most readers can also understand these motivations because we too are motivated by financial success, even if it is to a lesser degree than that of Ambler’s villains.
It was not just shockingly accurate, but also very unsettling.
Ambler was different from most thriller writers, I find, in that he was less interested in his heroes than in his villains. Except for Joseph Conrad in such books as The Secret Agent and Under Western Skies, terrorists and conspirators were seldom described in human terms. You won’t find villains like Dr. No and Goldfinger in Ambler’s novels. Ambler might have been thinking of such writers as E. Philips Oppenheim and John Buchan when, in his autobiography Here Lies, he said that of the thrillers he had read “it was the villains who bothered me most. Power-crazed or coldly sane, master criminals or old-fashioned professional devils, I no longer believed a word of them.” By seriously examining his characters’ motives, Ambler’s early books connect people with events, and in this way make an intelligent attempt to understand why Europe was balanced precipitously on the brink of war. Within the framework of human nature, as people rationalize their actions, all kinds of atrocities can be justified. Although some of the movers and shakers in Ambler’s early stories are power-mad leaders, it’s the rapacious, greedy businessmen who carry most of the responsibility for the European chaos. I’m not giving away any of the book’s surprise when I say this point is driven home at the conclusion of A Coffin for Dimitrios.
England in the 1930s seems like a remote backwater, hardly up to defending itself against the heavily armed behemoths of the European continent. That at least is the mood created by A Coffin for Dimitrios. Latimer, the naive and intellectual English writer, hardly seems prepared for the people he encounters while researching Dimitrios’s sordid life—Muishkin, Siantos, Petersen, Colonel Haki, Grodek. A Dutchman named Visser is described as having “sold German machine guns to the Chinese, spied for the Japanese, and served a term of imprisonment for killing a coolie in Batavia. He was not an easy man to handle.” These denizens of central Europe seem unstoppable because they have no notions of fair play and do not believe in the essential goodness of human nature or in any of the values of European civilization. They know that Europe’s institutions are crumbling, and they make the most of the situation. The world to them is a jungle, without rules or laws, and everyone in it is out for himself, and if you are not, you are a fool. After a certain point in the book, there is no turning back, and as Latimer travels from Istanbul, to Smyrna, to Athens, to Sofia, and then to Paris, he seems hopelessly out of his depth.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to write stories of intrigue without reflecting at least a mildly political point of view, and in his early books Ambler writes with a pronounced left-wing bias. The villains in Cause for Alarm (1938) and Background to Danger are the corporations led by greedy business people. Joseph Balterghen, the director of the Pan-Eurasian oil company in Background to Danger is perhaps the best example. The important thing to know, someone remarks, is not “who fired the bullet but who paid for it.” Follow the money and you’ll find the villains.
In addition to his wariness of laissez-faire capitalism, Ambler had a wholehearted dislike for fascism, which may have led him to feel that Communism offered some hope for the future. Andreas Zaleshoff, the Communist agent, is drawn sympathetically and is the source of insightful social critiques in the two books in which he appears. The character in these three books who most closely reflects Ambler’s own beliefs, however, is Marukakis, the left-wing correspondent for a French news agency whom Latimer befriends in Bulgaria. Like everyone else, Marukakis has no illusions about the future of Europe or the integrity of its leaders. At one point he remarks, “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.”
It is almost needless to say that whatever allegiance Ambler felt for Russian Communism was shattered by the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of August 1939.
In 1942, Ambler enlisted in the British Army, served for a time in the Royal Artillery, then was assigned to a film unit where he wrote training and combat films. He saw action in Italy, was awarded the Bronze Star, and, after being mustered out as a lieutenant colonel, went to work for the Rank organization as a script consultant. He received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay of The Cruel Sea (1953). In the early 1960s, he moved to Hollywood, where, working in movies and television, he met Joan Harrison, who became his second wife. Beginning in 1969 he lived in Switzerland for sixteen years, and in 1985 he returned to England.
Ambler had a knack for making readers care about the fate of just one very ordinary individual.
In the world of politics, whatever people perceive to be true becomes the truth. If a government can manipulate how people perceive things (for example, by censorship), it can make its own truth. The elusiveness of reality is the subject of Judgment on Deltchev (1951), the first book Ambler wrote after returning to civilian life. In some respects, it anticipates Le Carré’s The Looking Glass War. An English playwright named Foster, whose first name we never learn, is sent to an unnamed Balkan nation to cover the trial of Yordan Deltchev, a politician who has fallen out of favor with the nation’s ruling party. Deltchev is accused of being a member of a secret organization called the Brotherhood and of conspiring to assassinate the country’s prime minister.
It’s a show trial. Or is it? As the trial unfolds, Foster finds himself surrounded by people with their own agendas and he can’t be sure what he should believe. Although the Cold War was only getting started, Ambler had already captured the mood that would dominate international politics for the next forty years. Judgment on Deltchev is notable for the fact that it reflects a much more complex view of life than do his earlier books and for the fact that Ambler had become skeptical of the easy solutions to the world’s problems promised by Communism. A by-product of the publication of this book was that the London Daily Worker removed Ambler from its subscription list. He never re-subscribed.
Perhaps the Ambler book with the most fascinating hero is the caper novel The Light of Day (1962). Arthur Abdel Simpson, the first-person narrator, is the son of a British father and Egyptian mother. He is also a liar, swindler, and petty thief and thinks of himself as nobody’s fool, but he is easily manipulated by a band of thieves who force him to become their accomplice in stealing a jewel from Istanbul’s Museum of Treasures. Subsequently, Simpson is outfoxed by the Turkish police as well (Colonel Haki is still active) and forced to become an informer. The Light of Day is enhanced by Simpson’s lively voice and his near inability ever to tell the truth. But the fundamental premise of The Light of Day is interesting for the fact that Simpson engages the reader’s sympathy while sharing elements of Latimer’s naiveté and Dimitrios’s amorality. Peter Ustinov, who was a friend of Ambler’s, received an Oscar nomination for the role of Simpson, which he played in Topkapi, the film based on Ambler’s novel.
When Ambler died in 1998, none of his books were in print. Except for a few exceptions (Charles McCarry is one), most American thriller writers—in contrast to Greene and Le Carré—trace their influence to Ian Fleming rather than to Eric Ambler. There is usually plenty of action, an abundance of seductive women, and the fate of civilization often hangs in the balance. The main character is often just short of being a superhero. The difference is that Ambler had a knack for making readers care about the fate of just one very ordinary individual.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 7, on page 77
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