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 c
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