Cause for Alarm – Eric Ambler
This is another of Ambler’s early pre-war thrillers, published in 1938, and one in which he makes no bones about his left-wing views. The Russians are the good guys and the Germans the baddies. This world view took a bit of a knock shortly after the book came out when Stalin and Hitler signed a non-aggression pact. As we now know, that soon fell to pieces when the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941 but for the reader with that historic perspective, it is interesting to note how perceptive Ambler was.
Structurally, the book, for a thriller, is a little odd. Its opening lines, in the prologue the protagonist, Nicholas Marlow, sets the scene for the story; “One thing is certain. I would not even have considered the job if I had not been desperate”. The game is given away before we even get going. Marlow clearly has survived what adventures and misfortunes befell him.
Marlow’s desperation is the result of a combination of ill-luck, the economic downturn has hit his line of work, engineering, badly and he is out of work, and personal choice, he has just got himself engaged. Persuaded by his fiancée he answers a small ad in a newspaper and goes up to Wolverhampton for an interview to become the Italian representative in Milan of the Spartacus Machine Tool Company, the previous incumbent having been run down in a motor accident.
The firm’s business is producing machinery which makes the production of military armaments, specifically shells, more efficient. Unwittingly, as most of Ambler’s protagonists do, Marlow steps into the murky world of espionage and counter-espionage. He is befriended by a Yugoslav, General Vagas, who wears make-up and carries a sword stick. Naturally, he is the German spy. He is also befriended by an American from the Ukraine, Zaleshoff. He represents the Russians.
Zaleshoff persuades the reluctant Marlow to go along with Vagas’ request to provide information on who his firm is supplying and other data. However, the Italian Fascist authorities take an unhealthy interest in Marlow’s business, making life difficult for him and confiscating his passport. Moreover, they rumble his deals with an Italian armaments’ manufacturer and with Zaleshoff’s help, he just about escapes arrest. But how is he going to get out of the country? Will he share the same fate as his predecessor whom, he learns, was the victim of an assassination plot rather than the victim of an unfortunate accident?
The first two-thirds of the book is a bit of a slow-burner as Ambler sets the wheels in motion for a page-turning denouement. The last section of the book is thrilling, although the pace is somewhat disrupted by a lengthy and odd meeting up in the mountains with a professor who was hounded out of office by the Fascist authorities. It does allow Ambler to air his politics but, in my view, disrupts the pace of the book.
Communist solidarity helps to get Marlow and Zaleshoff out of a particularly difficult scrape as they are found hiding in a railway carriage, ironically stiffed with the type of armaments Marlow’s firm helped manufacture and, as we know, from the prologue, it all works out well in the end. Ambler’s mastery is in developing and sustaining an atmosphere of suspense and excitement, not knowing quite how it will all end and whether Marlow is really backing the right horse.
I enjoyed the book, although I don’t think it is as good as some of the others I have read. If you want to read an early master of the thriller genre, Ambler is your man.