Background to Danger
June 6, 2009 10:07 AM   Subscribe

For Graham Greene he was "unquestionably our best thriller writer". John le Carré once called him "the source on which we all draw". With the six novels he wrote in the years leading up to the second world war - five of which have just been reissued by Penguin Modern Classics - Eric Ambler revitalised the British thriller, rescuing the genre from the jingoistic clutches of third-rate imitators of John Buchan, and recasting it in a more realist, nuanced and leftishly intelligent - not to mention exciting - mould. - The writing of Eric Ambler
posted by Artw (14 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
It all goes back to the Battle of Dorking.. that's where I got this limp.
posted by stbalbach at 10:52 AM on June 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Great article. Reading Ambler is good fun, and if you're a fan of the history itself it becomes a real joy to follow his intrigues across Europe. If I were a movie producer I might not last long as I would continually be commissioning scripts of Ambler novels. His pre-war thrillers especially, having actually been written pre-war, are so expressive of the period in their diction and exposition that it almost feels like reading a (somewhat contrived) primary document. The only other author who accomplishes the same is Alan Furst, whose attention to historical detail is absolutely second to none. Furst sets his novels exclusively within the period of 1933 to 1945, and manages to evoke times and places he has never seen as if from memory. These books make you want to go back in time if you could; to buy a Basque beret, a packet of Gitanes, a sheepskin coat and a flask of cheap gin, get on a train and see what dark absurdity lies ahead. Sentimental, yes. But a pleasant antidote to our own petty realities. Thanks for the post.
posted by kurtroehl at 11:14 AM on June 6, 2009 [5 favorites]

I've been looking for some good reading material for a while now- I think I'm going to check out some Ambler as soon as I get back to the States.
posted by dunkadunc at 11:20 AM on June 6, 2009

I second Ambler, great period reading. About five years back I picked up secondhand copies of Journey into Fear and A Coffin for Dimitrios, both of which really lay on the European noir — exactly what I was looking for.

Wikipedia has a bibliography.
posted by Jubal Kessler at 11:32 AM on June 6, 2009

european noir, my all time favourite has been W Somerset Maugham's Ashenden: Or, the British Agent (1928).
posted by infini at 11:40 AM on June 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

I love both Hitchcock and Greene and am thrilled to find out about an author who influenced them both. Thanks!
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:09 PM on June 6, 2009

The best of the prewar Amblers are very good indeed. The best of them all is probably Cause for Alarm (1938), set in Mussolini's Italy, with a decent and well-meaning protagonist who gradually finds himself dragged into the espionage game. He meets a friendly man in a hotel who offers to help him land a big contract for his firm; in return he passes some information along; and the next thing he knows, he's being blackmailed and he's up to his neck. There's an unforgettable scene when he finally realises the predicament he's in:

'But that', I said, 'would make me a spy.'
His reply was delivered in tones of infinite contempt.
'My dear Marlow', he said deliberately, 'you already are a spy.'

The novel's big weakness is its depiction of Zaleshoff, the Russian secret agent, a glamorous and romantic figure who nobly risks his life to help Marlow escape the clutches of the Italian police. This is a little hard to swallow, particularly knowing what we now know, that any real-life Zaleshoff would probably have been liquidated in Stalin's purges.

Viewed from this distance, Ambler's leftwing idealism seems awfully naive ('It's not just a struggle between Fascism and Communism .. It's between the free human spirit and the stupid, fumbling, brutish forces of the primeval swamp' -- Uncommon Danger (1937)) and it's not surprising he felt embarrassed about it after the war. The big tragedy of Ambler's career is that instead of doing what Graham Greene did, and exploring the big themes of the Cold War, which he could have done so well, he avoided political issues in his later (post-1960) novels for fear of getting his fingers burnt again.
posted by verstegan at 12:23 PM on June 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Who was the tone deaf American publisher that changed "Send No More Roses" into "The Siege of the Villa Lipp"? Good lord.
posted by spicynuts at 1:15 PM on June 6, 2009

In a career spanning over sixty years, Eric Ambler wrote nineteen novels Here is his TV work.
posted by adamvasco at 1:22 PM on June 6, 2009

Re: european noir, Philip Kerr has drawn comparison with Furst and le Carré for his great pre/during/post WWII noir Bernie Gunther series.
posted by juv3nal at 1:32 PM on June 6, 2009

Another Ambler fan here. Haven't gotten to his postwar novels yet, but the early ones are great, especially The Mask of Dimitrios.
posted by languagehat at 1:34 PM on June 6, 2009

A beat up old copy of the Mask of Dimitrios was the first full lengthish adult novel I ever read (I can still recite the bit about how one becomes a drug addict).

Postwar novels - it's not that they're bad, it's more that they feel out of sync. More sunshine than rain. Cf the film version of Mask of Dimitrios with that of The Light of Day (the ever wonderful Topkapi).

(Would not have called Ashendon noir - a bit too early for that moniker. To me, it harkens backward to Erskine Childers, or a lesser Joseph Conrad, rather than forwards.

No doubt it is Pure Coincidence that that Ashendon is a playwright recruited by the government into espionage whereas Lattimer in Dimitrios is a crime writer more or less stumbling into his little adventure. The latter is the formula for Ken Follett, now I think on it.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:02 PM on June 6, 2009

"Also in Uncommon Danger, Ambler begins to refine his sense of sinister realism. And while it can be argued that the plot structure of Uncommon Danger in some respects resembles that of Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, critics immediately saw that Ambler’s approach was refreshingly new and different, with the plot firmly embedded in the real-life European political triad that had emerged as the battleground of the 1930s: socialism against capitalism, Marxism against fascism, and democracy against totalitarianism. Indeed, the Soviet military secrets around which the novel is based relate specifically to an actual source of European tension, the oil-producing region of Bessarabia, controlled by Romania since 1918, but claimed by the Soviet Union. He then gives added credibility to his fictional conspiracy involving governments and big business by including references to contemporary politicians and organizations.9"

-from Beyond the Balkans - Eric Ambler and the British Espionage Novel, 1936-1940
posted by clavdivs at 3:27 PM on June 6, 2009

Lots of Ambler books were in the bookcase at home when I was growing up but I never got around to reading them. I keep meaning to start. However, I've read his autobiography several times.
posted by bentley at 4:03 PM on June 6, 2009

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