Many years ago I asked Eric Ambler whether he deliberately travelled in search of material. The answer was an emphatic No: ‘If you go looking, you don’t really see. That’s why I never carry a camera – you can’t see things properly through a lens.’ For Ambler, the most lasting impressions were those recorded obliquely. He quoted approvingly Max Beerbohm on Beau Brummell: ‘He looked life squarely in the face out of the corners of both eyes.’
I was reminded of this when reading the historian Norman Stone’s introduction to a new edition of Ambler’s sixth novel, Journey into Fear, first published in 1940, the early chapters of which are set in Istanbul. Stone, who lives in Istanbul, compares Ambler’s version of the city favourably with that of Graham Greene in Stamboul Train. Greene, he says, relied on guide books, whereas Ambler’s feel for the city and its geography is ‘very good’. What Stone doesn’t say is that Ambler never went to Istanbul either. His impressions of the city – and of other Balkan locales – were acquired from interrogating ‘in bad French’ a colony of émigré Turks and White Russians who had fetched up in the back streets of Nice where Ambler was staying.
Back streets, dingy
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Many years ago I asked Eric Ambler whether he deliberately travelled in search of material. The answer was an emphatic No: ‘If you go looking, you don’t really see. That’s why I never carry a camera – you can’t see things properly through a lens.’ For Ambler, the most lasting impressions were those recorded obliquely. He quoted approvingly Max Beerbohm on Beau Brummell: ‘He looked life squarely in the face out of the corners of both eyes.’I was reminded of this when reading the historian Norman Stone’s introduction to a new edition of Ambler’s sixth novel, Journey into Fear, first published in 1940, the early chapters of which are set in Istanbul. Stone, who lives in Istanbul, compares Ambler’s version of the city favourably with that of Graham Greene in Stamboul Train. Greene, he says, relied on guide books, whereas Ambler’s feel for the city and its geography is ‘very good’. What Stone doesn’t say is that Ambler never went to Istanbul either. His impressions of the city – and of other Balkan locales – were acquired from interrogating ‘in bad French’ a colony of émigré Turks and White Russians who had fetched up in the back streets of Nice where Ambler was staying. Back streets, dingy bars and low nightclubs were a feature of Ambler’s early novels. Like the writer himself, a clever young man in a hurry from south-east London, his protagonists were neither well-heeled nor well-connected. They criss-crossed Europe on the hard seats of third-class railway compartments, put up at cheap hotels and were nervous crossing frontiers. Meanwhile,
all over the world, men were spying, while in Government offices other men were tabulating the results of their spies’ labours: thicknesses of armour plating, elevation angles of guns, muzzle velocities, details of fire control mechanisms and rangefinders, fuse efficiencies, details of fortifications, positions of ammunition stores, disposition of key factories, landmarks for bombers. The world was getting ready to go to war. For the spies, business was good.No wonder Raymond Postgate could write, in August 1939, ‘Ambler is always real: there is no Ruritania in his stories and that is why he knocks the others silly.’ Remarkably, Ambler was barely 30 when those words were written. In four years he had done for the British thriller what Auden did for modern poetry – made it relevant. When he started writing, the thriller was as unreal as a P. G. Wodehouse story; indeed Bertie Wooster and Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond probably shared the same tailor. Ambler rejected both the ‘snobbery with violence’ of Sapper and Dornford Yates and the clean-limbed yarns of John Buchan, who as Simon Raven noted, wrote ‘the sort of books where women don’t go to the lavatory’. He was equally unimpressed by the bogeymen their rock-fisted heroes biffed. An ardent young lefty, he set his sights on capitalism, in particular the global conglomerates that were subsidizing Europe’s Fascist regimes:
It was the power of Business [Kenton had found], not the deliberations of statesmen, that shaped the destinies of nations. The Foreign Ministers of the great powers might make the actual declarations of their Governments’ policies; but it was the Big Businessmen, the bankers and their dependants, 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 . . . The Big Businessman was only one player in the game of international politics, but he was the player who made all the rules.Of course the bosses made sure that their hands stayed clean: ‘Your businessman desires the ends, but dislikes the means . . .’ In Uncommon Danger (1937) from which I’ve just quoted, the ‘means’ is left to Saridza, alias ‘Colonel Robinson’, the suave Bulgarian enforcer employed by Joseph Balterghen, a ruthless City magnate whose designs on the Romanian oilfields are threatened by left-wing whistle-blowers. Although undoubtedly evil, Saridza is not without a certain creepy charm. The same cannot be said of Captain Mailler, the rubber truncheon-wielding psychopath Saridza uses to soften up the hero. With his public-school slang and toothbrush moustache Mailler may well be, as Thomas Jones suggests in his introduction to the Penguin edition, an attempt by Ambler to expose the crypto-Fascist tendencies of Drummond and his chums. Despite two improbably benevolent Soviet spies, one of whom delivers a brief homily on the iniquities of Trotskyism, Uncommon Danger has worn pretty well, not least because you cannot quarrel with what its reluctant hero, Kenton, says here: ‘I used to wonder how men could suffer so much for the sake of such transitory things as political principles. I realise now that there’s more in it than that. It’s not just a struggle between Fascism and Communism, or between any other “isms”. It’s between the free human spirit and the stupid, bumbling, brutish forces of the primeval swamp . . .’ But within a few years those brutish forces had overrun most of Europe, so it is perhaps appropriate that the foreword to the new edition of The Mask of Dimitrios, regarded as Ambler’s masterpiece, should be by Max Mazower, author of the definitive Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe (2008). The hero is Latimer, who writes whodunits. On a visit to Istanbul he meets a Turkish fan of his, a secret policeman, who insists on presenting him with the embarrassingly inept plot of an English murder story. While a copy of this is being typed up, the policeman asks Latimer whether he is interested in ‘real murderers’. Latimer is interested. How unlike an English criminal’s dossier is the one he is shown. Dimitrios was a murderer, a drug-runner and a pimp – but also a spy and a political assassin. They had fished his corpse out of the Bosporus, but it could just as easily have been the Seine or the Danube: Dimitrios had moved around. To the policeman, Dimitrios is a villain he is glad to see the back of. But to Latimer he is a mystery man whose lurid past offers the same challenge as a jigsaw. But as he tries to fit the pieces together he finds that some of them are missing. It’s not surprising. The body in the Bosporus was not that of Dimitrios, but one of his many victims, and before long Latimer himself looks like becoming one too. By the end he has learnt that the reality of Evil is infinitely more squalid, complex and dangerous than anyone can imagine. Despite being published ‘inauspiciously’ in August 1939, Dimitrios went into several editions. Ambler himself spent most of the war in the Army Film Unit. Film-making fascinated him – he later became one of Britain’s highest-paid screenwriters – and it was not until 1951 that he published his next novel, Judgement on Deltchev. Inspired by a notorious Stalinist show trial in Bulgaria, at which one of the defendants, a diabetic, was denied insulin to make him confess, it demonstrated that Ambler had lost his ‘simple socialist faith’. For this he was reviled as a turncoat. But unlike other apostates he did not labour the point. His later novels are as devoid of moral judgements as they are of gratuitous sex and violence. Instead, they celebrate the victory of the individual against the System, especially individuals who because of their polyglot ancestry don’t really belong anywhere and are thus at the mercy of officialdom. With one or two exceptions Ambler’s early heroes were conventional Englishmen, complete with pipe. But in the later novels, most of which are told in the first person, we meet a succession of cosmopolitan chancers, some successful, others not. Taxed on his fondness for such characters Ambler admitted that ‘the sleazy – perhaps “baroque” would be a better word’ held a great fascination for him: ‘Like most writers all I’m doing is reproducing aspects of myself, and I find myself equivocal.’ The most egregious of these reprobates is Arthur Abdel Simpson in The Light of Day (1962), later filmed as Topkapi starring Peter Ustinov. Simpson is a Levantine hustler-cum-tourist guide whose life has been ‘one long dirty story’, Dirty Story (1967) being the title of the second novel in which he appears. The son of an Army quartermaster and an Egyptian tart, Simpson feels ‘British to the core’ but doesn’t have a passport to prove it – hence his running battles with Authority. A more upmarket version of Simpson is Cypriot-born Michael Howell, the self-proclaimed ‘Levantine mongrel’ who argues his case in The Levanter (1972): ‘Mongrels’, explains Howell, ‘are sometimes more intelligent than their more respectable cousins; they also tend to adapt more readily to strange environments; and in conditions of extreme adversity, they are among those most likely to survive.’ The owner of a prosperous Eastern Mediterranean trading company, Howell needs all his survival skills when a Syrian factory he owns is infiltrated by Palestinian terrorists planning a rocket attack on Tel Aviv. This he eventually manages to foil, but in the process he is branded a terrorist himself, thus unintentionally confirming the terrorist leader’s claim that ‘in the fight for justice, no bystander is innocent’. Another character who feels hard done by, but with less justification, is Paul Firman, the urbane extortionist whose apologia we read in Send No More Roses (1977). Born in Argentina, educated in England, Firman lives on the Riviera where he runs an extortion racket masquerading as a tax-haven consultancy service. Believing his murky past to be as well laundered as his bespoke shirts, Firman is outraged when two criminologists finger him as the ‘Able Criminal’, so called because he can touch pitch yet remain undefiled. ‘I am not the defendant,’ he insists. ‘I am the plaintiff.’ Ambler said more than once that in all of us you will find a criminal and a policeman battling it out. He later amended this to include an anarchist – ‘And I think that in my books the anarchist is having a field day.’ Coming from someone as spruce as Ambler – it was hard to imagine him without a tie – this was intriguing, to say the least. But remember, when he came to write his autobiography, the title he chose was Here Lies Eric Ambler (1985) – because ‘only an idiot believes that he can write the truth about himself ’. Well, authors may sell their books, but as the old saying goes, they give themselves away. And I think what gives Ambler away is the distinctive tone of voice of his heroes. They start out on the defensive and gradually become more and more plausible. In the end you almost believe them. ‘What, Sir? Me, Sir? Write those words on the blackboard? Why, I don’t even know what they mean.’ That’s how I choose to remember Eric Ambler, who was born one hundred years ago this June.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 24 © Michael Barber 2009
About the contributor
Michael Barber has written biographies of Anthony Powell and Simon Raven. He had hoped to write a life of Eric Ambler, but failed to find a publisher.