Eric Ambler’s critical reputation seems secure – several of his novels are published as Penguin Modern Classics, and both Graham Greene and John le Carré paid tribute to his influence – but his popular reputation seems to have faded, at least to judge from bookshop shelves. I was reminded of Ambler by an endnote in Andy Croft’s rollicking verse novella 1948, where he acknowledges that he borrowed one of his characters, Tamara Zaleshoff, from the thriller writer, and since then I have read a couple of his pre-war novels, Epitaph for a Spy and Uncommon Danger (US: Background to Danger).
Ambler set out to subvert the thriller genre when he started writing:
I intended to make fun of the old secret service adventure thriller as written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan, Dornford Yates and their cruder imitators; and I meant to do it by placing some of their antique fantasies in the context of a contemporary reality.
Indeed, in his introduction to Uncommon Danger, Thomas Jones of the LRB observes of the thuggish Mailler in Uncommon Danger, the nastiest character in the book by a good margin, that “it’s tempting to see him as a satirical portrait of the archetypal hero of the moribund thrillers that Ambler was so determined to supersede, unmasked and revealed for the cryptofascist brute he really is”.
In the place of the firm-jawed heroes of Buchan and Yates, Ambler’s stories instead feature ordinary men (mostly men) who find themselves caught up in events outside of their control which they don’t fully understand. As Tom Watson puts it an engaging blog post,
There is always a moment in the Ambler novels when the dupe – a novelist, a salesman, a teacher and the like – realizes with sinking fear that they’re not in a movie or an Agatha Christie tale; that the danger is real and outlook fairly grim.
In Ambler’s world, both crime and politics (and there is always politics) is a dirty business. And as his central characters try to work out what to do, they are often wrong. As they stumble through, they find themselves used, but try to do the right thing nonetheless.
All of this may make them sound a little earnest, but Ambler’s plotting is precise, if sometimes as complex as Chandler’s, his judgment of pace exact, his cliff-hangers frequent, his writing a pleasure. (Mailler, for example, is introduced as being “at one time the only professional strike-breaker in America with an English public school education”.) Several of his books were made into films, and Ambler worked in Hollywood after the war.
And his surprises are many, for Ambler is usually one step ahead of both his readers and his central characters. In Uncommon Danger Kenton, wanted by the Austrian police, spends much of a coach journey as he runs for the Czech border by turns patronising and being dismissive of the English salesman Hodgkin, who is also on the bus. At the last moment (small spoiler alert) Hodgkin points Kenton at the path for the border, before listing all the mistakes he’s made during the day that could have been his undoing.
Eric Ambler was a leftist, and his pre-war books are overlaid by the rise of fascism across Europe. In his world, unlike Buchan’s, capitalism, or at least capitalists, were likely to be at odds with democracy. As Jennifer Howard writes of his novels in a good introduction in Boston Review,
They can also feel alarmingly contemporary, especially when they tackle the dangers of mucking around in other countries’ political affairs—cautionary tales for their own age that haven’t lost their relevance in ours.
Unlike the black and white world of the earlier secret service thrillers (or of some of the Cold War thriller writers who followed him), Ambler’s novels are permeated by shades of grey tinged with darkness. As Kenton reflects in Uncommon Danger, as he ponders going to the police,
It was all very fine to say that Right triumphed in the end, that Justice sought out the guilty and punished them. In actual practice, Right and Justice were far from infallible. Stupid, honest and blind, they blundered in pursuit of their quarry. The innocent sometime crossed their paths.
The Foreign Ministers of the great powers might make the actual declarations of their Governments’ policies; but it was the Big Business men, the bankers and their dependents, the arms manufacturers, the oil companies, the big industrialists, who determined what those policies should be. Big business asked the questions that it wanted to ask when and how it suited it. Big Business also provided the answers.
Thomas Jones writes of Ambler that he “was simply several years ahead of his time”. As we lurch into another era where business interests decide on politics while politicians play populist games, he seems further ahead than ever.
I borrowed the picture from an excellent post on the subject of Ambler’s writing at Tom Watson’s blog, and it is used with thanks.