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.