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...


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