The 100th anniversary of Eric Ambler’s birth on 28 June has produced a number of tributes. The most pleasing has been Penguin’s reissue of five of his best spy thrillers as Modern Classics, with introductions by fans such as James Fenton and Norman Stone, and black-and-white photographic covers gorgeously evocative of their era and milieu – dingy, war-shadowed industrial Europe in the late 1930s.
Almost as pleasing, and a little more surprising, was a eulogy in the Times by Michael Gove, who called Ambler, quite accurately, “one of the most underrated 20th-century writers”, and praised him for illuminating the politics of the time: “The violent seediness of Italian Fascism, the precarious legitimacy of Balkan thrones, the shabby, compromised but essential decency of democratic Britain and Third Republic France, and the romantic appeal of communism as the most uncompromisingly vigorous element in the popular front against dictatorship; all the confused reactions of that time are rendered with conviction.”
Either Gove hasn’t been reading Ambler closely enough – I can’t think of any Ambler stories involving the legitimacy of thrones – or, more likely, that whole sentence is a carefully calibrated piece of euphemism. When he writes that the “romantic appeal of communism” is “rendered with conviction”, what he means is not that Ambler portrayed that appeal objectively, but that he felt and expressed it. These are left-wing thrillers: the plots emphasise the interweaving of capitalism with violence, the villains are sometimes Nazis but just as often bankers and industrialists, and socialists and communists are invariably portrayed sympathetically – two of the novels even feature idealised KGB agents. You can see why the Conservative member for Surrey Heath might want to fudge the matter.
Where Ambler’s political ideas came from is hard to deduce. He doesn’t give much away in his teasingly titled memoirs, Here Lies (1985); a few years before his death in 1998, he told an interviewer: “I voted Labour in 1945, but that was the extent of my political involvement. What I believe in is political and social justice.” On his account, the politics of the novels grew less from conviction than from dissatisfaction with other thrillers, whose heroes had nothing going for them but “abysmal stupidity combined with superhuman resourcefulness and unbreakable knuckle bones”. Ambler saw a gap in the market for books about ordinary, intelligent middle-class men reluctantly confronting respectable capitalist villains, with the Bolsheviks “on the side of the angels”.
But that doesn’t explain the scarlet thread of socialism that runs through his work, the deeply sympathetic light in which he portrays the left. In Uncommon Danger (1937) and Cause for Alarm (1938), the protagonists, Englishmen abroad, are rescued by the quick thinking and self-sacrifice of Andreas Zaleshoff, a charismatic KGB agent, and his beautiful sister, Tamara. The portrait of the Zaleshoffs is not one-sided: they are not always open about their motives, and they employ some nasty surrogates – in Uncommon Danger, a murderous Spanish thug called Ortega – though Ambler takes pains to have them express their distaste for these unfortunately necessary methods.
Uncommon Danger contains a particularly strange interlude in which Andreas expounds the political situation to the foreign correspondent Kenton: “When I tell you that a certain prominent exile from Russia seeks once again to taste power, much will be clear to you.” Does he mean Trotsky, Kenton wonders. He does: “. . . he has not ceased to plot against the State. Round him he has gathered a brood of fanatics drunk with the desire for power. They are dangerous . . . When a limb is poisoned it must be amputated, lest it infect the health of the whole body.” But this seems to be a bluff or a mind game – Zaleshoff is only posing as a zealot to fool Kenton, though his reasons remain obscure.
In the persons of the Zaleshoffs, the deadly politics of Stalinism have become too bizarre to take seriously, and they contribute to the rompish air of those books.
Elsewhere, however, Ambler’s socialists are more sincere and more plausible. The novel that followed Uncommon Danger, Epitaph for a Spy (1938), also inverts a genre convention – it is a typical English country-house mystery with a closed circle of suspects, which happens to be set in a small hotel on the French Riviera and to feature a cast of foreigners (the only British character is a pathetic and not entirely trustworthy old soldier). The story is narrated by Josef Vadassy, a Hungarian refugee threatened with prison or deportation after his camera has been used to photograph naval installations.
Forced to seek the real spy, Vadassy’s suspicions light on a German fellow guest who is evidently using an assumed name. But Schimler turns out to be a Czech, Czissar, on the run from the Gestapo after working for the resistance in occupied Prague. Czissar has started out a social democrat, but been converted to Marxism by Engels’s Anti-Dühring: “I read passionately, and as I read I knew that I was seeing for the first time the tragedy of man, his folly and his genius, his destiny and the line of march to it.”
His experience is echoed by Mathis, the henpecked Frenchman in Journey into Fear (1940) who assists Graham, an English munitions engineer, to escape his Nazi pursuers. Mathis explains how he began by spouting socialist slogans as a weapon against his snobbish wife:
“For a time I was free. I could command my wife and I became more fond of her. I was a manager in a big factory. And then a terrible thing happened. I found that I had begun to believe these things I said. The books I read showed me that I had found a truth. I, a royalist by instinct, became a socialist by conviction.”
Ambler has often been praised as a precursor of both John le Carré (who called him “the source on which we all draw”) and Len Deighton. They follow him in the moral greyness of the worlds they inhabit and the ordinariness of their heroes and villains – men with no particular charm or physical prowess, little expertise with women or guns to charm the reader. But in one important respect, both departed from Ambler’s model: their heroes are professional spies, men working for the state; and, as a result, their stories have a misleading air of insularity (this is particularly true of le Carré’s early work). They remind me of the fantasy some people entertain about East End gangsters, that they’re not really a problem because “they only hurt their own” (I’ve heard this said in complete sincerity). By contrast, Ambler is always aware that the business of the state and the business of business can never be separated. At the very least, business can never be purely neutral. Marlow, the hero of Cause for Alarm, is an engineer who takes a job with a company that makes arms-manufacturing machinery and sells it to Fascist Italy; he thinks he has just taken a job, that morality doesn’t enter into it, and is forced to realise that neutrality is a dangerous illusion.
Graham, in Journey into Fear, is another engineer, an expert on naval ordnance: “For Graham a gun was a series of mathematical expressions resolved in such a way as to enable one man, by touching a button, to project an armour-piercing shell so that it hit a target several miles away plumb in the middle. It was a piece of machinery no more and no less significant than a vacuum cleaner or a bacon slicer.” He learns different when guns start being pointed at him.
Often, however, business is far from neutral. Uncommon Danger opens at the offices of the Pan-Eurasian Petroleum Company in the City of London – the firm’s name seems to prophesy Orwell. The board of directors, anxious to secure Romanian oil concessions, sanctions the retention of a certain “Colonel Robinson” to take “measures”. These measures later include imprisoning Kenton, the journalist hero, who is at least equipped to analyse the situation to himself:
Someone spoke in an office in Birmingham or Pittsburgh, or maybe on board a yacht off Cannes, and a few weeks later a Mills bomb burst in a printing works in Bucharest. Between those two events, unknown both to the man who had spoken and to the man who had pulled the pin from the bomb, was a misty hinterland in which the “Colonel Robinsons” of the earth moved silently about their business.
Ambler mapped out that hinterland most convincingly in The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), in which Charles Latimer, a successful writer of conventional whodunnits, sets out to discover what a real murderer is like – a safely dead murderer, the Dimitrios of the title, whose body has been fished out from the Bosphorus. With Latimer, we follow Dimitrios’s progress from low-level killer and thief in Smyrna, as he becomes in succession pimp, assassin, spy and drug smuggler across Europe and finally, in Paris, director of a bank – the Eurasian Credit Trust (Orwell again). Business, espionage and crime merge into one another – something le Carré had to relearn for The Constant Gardener.
Postwar, Ambler’s politics cooled off – Judgement on Deltchev (1951), about a show trial in a fictional eastern European country, was an unapologetic attack on Stalinism, and apparently annoyed some of his friends on the left; but while he insisted that he was not a closet communist, he also found the Cold War distasteful. Later books kept up with current affairs – the Malayan “emergency” (Passage of Arms, 1959), Israeli-Arab conflict (The Levanter, 1972), South American revolution (Doctor Frigo, 1974) – but never the Cold War. For a long time Ambler was out of fashion and even out of print. Now, Cold War done with, his early books look contemporary again, the European underworld he drew in the 1930s, riven by petty nationalisms and connected by drugs and the “white slave trade”, far more familiar and real than the Europe of George Smiley and Harry Palmer.
“Cause for Alarm”, “Epitaph for a Spy”, “Journey into Fear”, “The Mask of Dimitrios” and “Uncommon Danger” are published by Penguin (£8.99 each)