Tag Archives: Eric Ambler

Book Corner – October 2020 (1)

The Night-Comers – Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler is one of my finds over the last year or so but, in truth, by his standards, The Night-Comers, which goes by an alternative title of State of Siege in the United States, is not a patch on the other books of his that I have read. In this book, published in 1956, the year in which the Soviets crushed the Hungarian uprising, a point of no return for many of a left-wing disposition, Ambler chose to move away for the first time from his usual stamping ground of the Balkans to the febrile state of Sundra, a newly independent state in what was the Dutch East Indies.

The story is narrated by Steve Fraser, an engineer, who has just finished a three-year contract to build a dam and is looking forward to returning to Blighty. Unfortunately, his return to the regional capital of Selampang coincides with a military uprising and where Fraser has been offered accommodation turns out to be the rebels’ headquarters. He is drawn into the life and death struggle between the pro- and anti-government forces by a set of coincidences. Will he get out alive? Will his love interest, Rosalie, hamper his escape?

The problem with first-party narratives, as I have commented before, is that you know as soon as the book begins that the narrator, unless he has left papers behind, has extricated himself somehow and in some shape or form from his predicament. The device reduces the dramatic tension, I find, even in the hands of a master storyteller. There are also the tell-tale hallmarks of an Ambler story – an innocent who steps unwittingly into a nightmare world and someone who is an engineer by trade, Ambler started off as an engineer. Rather like Judgment on Deltchev the book starts off with a potted history of the fictional country. It is necessary to give the reader a flavour for the place and an understanding why a coup may have erupted but it slows the pace down.

The love interest created by Rosalie, a good time girl to whom Fraser is introduced by his Aussie pilot friend, Bebb, is a departure for Ambler and in its raciness and explicitness is a sharp reminder of what was permissible in 1956 compared with the more censorious and straight-laced 1930s. Their fling adds some tension to the story but is not strong enough to hold Fraser back.

Perhaps of even more interest to the modern reader is that the insurgents are Moslem. The best parts of the book for me are where Ambler takes time to portray the Islamic culture that was suppressed by the Dutch colonists and the corruption and incompetence of the officials. It is not surprising that there is an uprising. It is also interesting to observe the strains and tensions that emerge when a seemingly well-planned coup starts to unravel. At its heart the book is about deception and treachery and the ability of the human spirit to survive and overcome adversity.

My main problems with the book, though, relate to the plot. Most of the action is confined to the block in which Fraser is holed up. It is a siege, after all, and so the story has to make up in atmosphere and tension what it loses in some of the more obvious tropes in thrillers, chases, breakouts, escape. More troubling though is that the plotline relies on an awful lot of coincidences. Fraser knows one of the principals of the rebellion, Major Suparto. The flat which the pilot, Bebb, offers him on the air flight just happens to be the very building that the rebels are going to use as their base. Major Suparto just happens to be not all he seems and is a double agent and then, extraordinarily, tells Fraser the origins of the coup and what is to happen. It is astonishing when things go wrong, that the rebels open up to Fraser.

This is all necessary to move the story along, but you get the sense that even Ambler starts to realise that he is trying to make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear.

Book Corner – September 2020 (3)

Judgment on Deltchev – Eric Ambler

I am a bit of a late convert to Eric Ambler and all I have read of his were published before the outbreak of the Second World War. Judgment on Deltchev, published in 1951, is set following the ending of the Second World War, with Communist regimes having been established behind the Iron Curtain. What immediately struck me about the tone of this book is just how much Ambler’s enthusiasm for socialism seems to have waned over the intervening decade.

The other thing that struck me is how often the basic premise from which Ambler works is the same, a self-confident but ultimately naïve Englishmen plunged into the shady machinations of a foreign country and finding himself, often unintentionally, in situations where nothing is quite what it seems, where friends are not really so friendly and people who seem initially hostile have his interests at heart. As much as anything Ambler’s books are about the process by which the scales fall from the protagonist’s eyes and he realises the gravity of his predicament. This leads to a gripping final third or so of the book where the pace, even in this rather pedestrian story, livens up as he battles to escape from the country with his life.

That we know that the English playwright, Foster, does escape from this fictional Balkan country is clear from the fact that he narrates the story and from his knowing asides as the narrative progresses. That does not spoil the enjoyment of the story, the reader often pauses to consider how on earth Foster is going to get out of that scrape as escape he must, but the impact of the thriller element is toned down.

Foster has been sent, rather unexpectedly by an American newspaper, to the unnamed Communist state to cover the show trial of the former Prime Minister, Yordan Deltchev. Whilst we have some sympathy for Deltchev’s plight at the outset, it looks as though the trial is a straightforward kangaroo trial and that he is being set up for a fall, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Deltchev’s motivations are more convoluted than appeared at the outset. Those of his family, his wife, daughter and son are also complex and appear to be designed to frustrate the objectives of the politician.

There are two femme fatales in the plotline. Mrs Deltchev remains confined in her house and barely moves from her chair when she appears in the book. But she is an eminence grise, pulling the strings of power. Her daughter is more active in the sense that she sets in train a series of events which imperil Foster further when he discovers a murder victim and she does escape her house arrest, but in reality she is cipher-like, simply a plotting device to move the story along in a different direction.

Foster, too, is a rather odd character. He seems rather too oblivious to the dangers that he is getting into and the conflicting political forces encircling him. It is this which gets him into difficulties as he doggedly pursues the clues that have come his way rather than realising that it would be more prudent to get the hell out of there.     

The book was enjoyable but not a patch on Ambler’s pre-war novels. There was a good atmospheric feel to the book and I could see why the likes of Graham Greene and John Le Carrê had enormous respect for him and that he was a forerunner of the modern thriller. The plot’s twists and turns were not too unbelievable as to cause me to throw it down in disgust, but it was just a tad pedestrian for my taste.

Book Corner – April 2020 (2)

Epitaph for a Spy – Eric Ambler

This is the fifth of the quintet of the pre-Second World War Ambler’s issued by Penguin Modern Classics I have read. Published in 1938, I found it less enjoyable than the others but there was enough in it to keep me interested and wanting to find out how it was all going to end. Perhaps, what troubled me most was that it seemed to be a melange of styles and genres, starting off as a sort of Kafkaesque novel with a man trapped in a nightmare before moving on to a man who is not a spy spying on spies theme and moving on to a classic country house crime story where the baddie was one (or more) of those residing in the premises. It didn’t quite seem to know what it was, and the ending was a little abrupt and disappointing.

The story centres around, and is narrated by, Josef Vadassy, an amateur photographer (the root of his problems) and language teacher, who was on holiday in the French Mediterranean resort of St Gatien in the comfortable Hotel de la Rêserve. Having taken some arty photos of some lizards sunning themselves, he was anxious to get his roll of film developed. When Vadassay picked up his photos, he had his collar felt by the police because the snaps contained details of sensitive military installations. Someone had switched his camera but who and when?

Accused of espionage, Vadassay pleads his innocence and seemingly persuades the lead detective of his innocence. There is a catch, though. He must help the police identify the real spy who must be one of the guests at the hotel. And a motley collection of guests they are too; an English colonel and his Italian wife, an American brother and sister, a mysterious “Swiss” with an assumed name, a French man and his lover, a German couple, a Frenchman who purports to be a wealthy industrialist and a hotelier who doesn’t seem to be all he cracks to be.

In fact, Vadassay doesn’t unmask the spy directly. The police already know their identity, it is just a question of catching them before they can effect their escape. Vadassay is just a pawn in a bigger game.

The plot, thinnish as it is, is not really the point of the book. Ambler is much more interested in examining the stories of the residents of the hotel. Each has a back story which could, at least to the innocent and rather naive Vadassay, point to their guilt. Along the way, we learn a lot about love and lies and the perils that threaten socialists in now-Nazi Germany.

The other major theme of the book is Vadassay’s own plight. He is a Hungarian on a Yugoslav passport and is imminent danger of being deported from France. This is the lever the police pull to make him co-operate with their schemes. The interest for the reader is whether Vadassay can survive the nightmare in which he is enmeshed and whether he can do so without losing his sanity and his underlying sense of morality.

The world of espionage for Ambler is populated with cynics and those with a dubious of morality and propriety rather than beefcakes who can take on Johnny Foreigner single-handedly. Vadassay is totally unsuited to be either sort of spy which is why he makes such a hash of things. If you have any inkling to be a spy, read this book and measure yourself against Vadassay. An office job might just be safer and less injurious to your mental well-being.

Book Corner – February 2020 (2)

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.

Book Corner – October 2019 (2)

Mr Finchley Discovers His England – Victor Canning

I have been musing why the interwar years saw such a prolific outburst of what might be termed escapist literature, particularly detective fiction and comic writing. It may well have been something to do with the absence of alternative popular entertainment, radio was in its infancy and television a distant spot in a cathode ray tube. It might have been a conscious attempt to blot out the horrors of the recent world war, the grim economic realities that were prevailing and the rise of fascism. Who knows? What is for sure is that there is a glut of literature, popular in its time, waiting to be rediscovered.

Victor Canning is best known as a prolific writer of novels and thrillers, he was a wartime friend of Eric Ambler, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. However, his first book, published in 1934 in the UK and two years later as Mr Finchley’s Holiday, was this rather charming and funny journey of self-discovery. The protagonist, Mr Finchley, in early drafts his name was Mr Pitcheley, is an unmarried, chubby, dyspeptic solicitor’s clerk who had never taken a holiday. The death of his boss and Mr Sprake’s assumption of the reins of power changes all that. Finchley’s dutiful service is rewarded with a three-week holiday.

And where better in the 1930s to spend three weeks than in Margate? Having booked his accommodation at the Kent resort, Mr Finchley sets off for his holiday. But he never gets there. Whiling away some time before catching his train, he is prevailed upon to look after a Bentley. Feeling a little tired, Finchley stretches out in the back of the car and, surprise, surprise, finds that it has been stolen and that he has now been kidnapped by a gang of criminals. And so begins a series of improbable escapades.

To modern eyes there may be too much easy stereotyping, people are labelled lunatics and gypsies, and an underlying moralistic tone in the book, but it is an easy and engaging read. Finchley manages to escape from the clutches of the criminal gang, and realising that his plans to enjoy his holiday in Margate, sets out west, reaching Land’s End before returning home. Along the way, he has adventure after adventure. He encounters many people who in one way or another have fallen on hard times and are living an itinerant lifestyle, including gentlemen of the road aka tramps, artists, travellers and gypsies. To make ends meet he takes a job at a fair and then sells petrol. He takes part in the obligatory game of cricket and towards the end of the book, becomes the innocent party to a smuggling expedition.

What is surprising is the dark undercurrent to life on the road. Finchley is forever being threatened with violence, on occasions threats turn to blows, and is nearly strangled to death. There is a dark side to the bucolic idyll that Canning paints. The humour is gentle and the book, effectively a comedic travelogue, reminded me of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat but, in truth, it is not as funny.

Journeys which transform people’s lives are a modern-day trope, I usually blanche when I hear someone say they have been on a journey, but this is a fair summary of Finchley’s experiences. As Canning wrote, “he still suffered from indigestion. He was still bald. He still loved his pipe. Yet he was different…” There are two more books in the Mr Finchley series which I will probably read at some point. Farrago Books are to be commended for bringing this thirties’ gem back into print.