The Wandering Minstrel
Eric Ambler and His Land of Shadows
Updated: Jan 9, 2019
'The important thing to know about an assassination ... is not who fired the shot, but who paid for the bullet.' (The Mask of Dimitrios)
There are some authors one discovers very late in life, when there's not much time left to read all the books one has already planned to read, without adding more to the "to-be-read" list. For me, Eric Ambler is one such author. I feel that just as we choose the books we want to read at particular times, there are books and authors that choose us, when we are best prepared to hear what they have to say.
Eric Ambler (1909-1998) was a writer of espionage fiction who wrote with an elegance and economy that is hard to find in writers belonging to his genre. Along with Graham Greene and John Le Carre', Ambler's novels found a way to transcend the traditional boundaries of espionage fiction, which tend to be crammed with car chases and shoot-outs and peopled with beautiful women and elegant men sporting Walther PPKs in shoulder holsters. 'The source we all draw upon', is how John Le Carre' once described him. Paradoxically, Ambler was also rooted in the genre, and I would suggest that his works define it better than those of his more celebrated peers.
The Balkan region was Ambler's happy hunting ground, and his novels set in the years leading up to World War II are masterpieces. He deftly captured hidden conflicts taking place in Greece, Turkey and Roumania against the larger canvas of the fear and unrest felt all over Europe about the dark forces rising in Germany. The grimy backyards of Istanbul, Athens and Bucharest were the perfect stage for his elusive characters to play their parts in the great geopolitical drama. No one, and there have been a few who have tried, has come close to conjuring up quite the same atmosphere. Greece, Turkey and Roumania stand proudly as characters in their own right in his novels, baring their fangs to draw the hapless hero in, then lulling him into complacency through the loving ministrations of sweet-talking bar dancers and shopkeepers. Alan Furst, whose career has been based on carrying on Ambler's legacy, is a mere pretender to the throne, with a style just as bland as Ambler's was penetrative.
Three classic novels by Eric Ambler
What makes Ambler unique are the unlikely heroes in his books, ordinary men who have nothing at all to do with espionage, state secrets or inter-group conflict. He cuts out all the usual trappings of the genre, and focuses only on the questions that matter to thinking individuals. If you are looking for men raring to have a fight and shoot their way to glory, none of Ambler's heroes will fit the bill. They would probably flinch at the sight of a gun pointed at them. As Thomas Jones says in his introduction to Uncommon Danger, Kenton, the mild-mannered journalist is 'no good with his fists, missing his target the one time in the novel he tries to punch someone, and has never fired a gun before in his life'. These men get caught in the vortex of events that toss them from one crisis to the next, till out of desperation they dig deep inside their reserves of courage and resilience to scrape through, by the skin of their teeth.
Graham in Journey Into Fear is an engineer who believed he was making a routine business call on a client in Turkey; Kenton in Uncommon Danger happens to be a stone broke freelance hack trying to make his way to Vienna from Nuremberg so he could borrow money from a Jewish mate; while Charles Latimer in The Mask of Dimitrios is a newbie crime writer who, quite unwittingly, gets entangled in a gruesome game of hide-and-seek.
The other distinctive feature linking his heroes is that they are all in danger because they carry some form of IP in their heads, a knowledge of something that makes them extremely valuable as targets to be pursued, while at the same time making them indispensable. For example, Latimer is the only one who has seen Dimitrios lying dead in a mortuary, and can make a positive ID of him in a group photo of devastating significance; Graham knows what military equipment is needed to get Turkey's navy up to scratch in the eve of WWII; Kenton knows where photos of the anticipated Russian troop formation lines in the Roumanian border are hidden. In combination, these attributes result in his heroes going through a lot of physical torture, but they keep hanging on through a mixture of mulish stubbornness and a surprising belief in themselves.
Ambler's villains fall into two categories- the human and the corporate. In this respect he veers very close to John Le Carre', in whose books we find a similar preoccupation with the insidious influence of big business on world affairs.
His human villains have nothing at all in common with the snarling, larger-than-life maniacs of Ian Fleming; the hero is never held in a velvet prison by a Julius No or strapped to the fins of a ballistic missile by a Hugo Drax. They are elusive players carrying out jobs for their masters, stateless characters who change their nationalities and names at the drop of a hat. They see themselves as essential links in the larger game of global conflict, and though they pretend to be believers of one of the warring ideologies, they are always up for sale to the highest bidder. Dimitrios, born in Greece, emerges as Talat in Yugoslavia, and then under various guises in Bulgaria, Turkey and France, always at the centre of trouble spots but just out of reach of the arms of the law. Moeller (Journey Into Fear) is a German by birth, but passes himself off as an American by the name of Fielding in Bulgaria; we see him first as an erudite archaeologist called Haller, striking up a friendship with Graham. Saridza (Uncommon Danger), aka Colonel Robinson, aka Sarescu, aka Larsen, is used to hotfooting it from Baku to New York to uphold the God-given right of oil companies to do business whenever and wherever they please.
Lurking in the background like invisible puppeteers are the companies who have a respectable front, but harbour ambitions that go way beyond the boundaries of their business: regime change in countries inimical to them is no longer too extreme, and anyone getting in the way of their trade in weapons and drugs will do so at great personal cost to him or herself. The Eurasian Credit Trust (The Mask of Dimitrios), the Pan-Eurasian Petroleum Company (Uncommon Danger)- Ambler felt it necessary to add a 'global' feel to the company names! - embody unfettered corporate greed, ready to plunge regions into war if it is necessary to achieve their business targets. In Journey Into Fear, there are veiled references made to French mining companies in Briey selling iron to the Nazis to make a quick buck, unconcerned about where that iron might end up.
Ambler's prose is biting and angular, and has a controlled dynamism that propels the reader from one paragraph to the next, without ever descending into forced dramatics. In his fifth novel, 'Journey Into Fear', he takes a closer look at the relationship between a weapon and its user:
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. It had no nationality and no loyalties. It was neither awe-inspiring nor symbolic of anything except the owner's ability to pay for it. ... His attitude towards them was as uncomprehending as that of the stoker of a crematorium towards the solemnity of the grave. Journey Into Fear, p.163.
Even when he was describing a scene, he would touch lightly on the details as if dabbing gently on the canvas. There are hardly any forays into lyricism. However, his quick brushstrokes are enough to make us see a city vividly through his eyes:
From the balcony outside the window of his room, he could see over the bay to the hills beyond. A moon had risen and its reflection gleamed through the tangle of crane jibs along the quay where the steamers berthed. The searchlights of a Turkish cruiser anchored in the roadstead outside the inner port swung around like long white fingers, brushed the summits of the hills and were extinguished. Out in the harbour and on the slopes above the town pinpoints of light twinkled. A slight warm breeze off the sea had begun to stir the leaves of a rubber tree in the garden below him. In another room of the hotel a woman laughed. Somewhere in the distance a gramophone was playing a tango. The turntable was revolving too quickly and the sound was shrill and congested. The Mask of Dimitrios, p.49.
Like all great writers, Ambler found a way to breathe life into his characters effortlessly. He would keep descriptions to a minimum, picking only the very essential elements needed for the reader to make an impression about the character. In this respect, I feel he was a lot closer to Russian authors than British ones. He was no less effective for it, although one can argue that with someone like Le Carre', you can almost see the character sitting in front of you. As an example, this is Saridza, aka Colonel Robinson, as he first appears in Uncommon Danger:
He was an impressive-looking man in the late fifties, with a smart grey cavalry moustache and a monocle. At first sight, he looked like a cross between a Punch drawing of a retired general and a French conception of what the continent of Europe so oddly terms 'the English sporting'. ... That below the grey moustache there was a loose and curiously cruel mouth, and that the monocle did nothing to hide a pair of pale, calculating and very dangerous eyes, suggested that he was probably not 'sporting' either. Uncommon Danger, p.80
It's hard not to get the impression that Ambler had leftist leanings during the early stages of his writing career. Throwaway remarks and observations scattered throughout his earlier novels throw some light on his attitude towards the Left. At times it shows itself in the form of biting satire, when he makes the more loutish characters spout negative comments about communists. In Uncommon Danger, the brother-sister duo of Andreas and Tamara Zaleshoff, both working as undercover agents for Russia, rescue Kenton from the clutches of the evil Saridza. In Journey Into Fear, Louis Mathis, a Frenchman with pretty radical views on banks and other instruments of capitalism, becomes Graham's good mate at the end of the book. However, it all started to wear a bit thin as the real face of post-war Russia began to emerge.
By the time he penned Judgment on Deltchev, based on the show trials that Stalin so actively encouraged, his disillusionment with communism was all but complete. Dark and devious, Deltchev is his most ambiguous novel.
Ambler on Film
Ambler had a very rewarding association with the world of movies. Hitchcok was a long-standing admirer, writing an introduction to a collection of his novels and directing a telefilm based on a short story written by Ambler. He wrote screenplays for a number of British films. It is possible that he let the twin crafts of writing screenplays and thrillers feed off each other, like other writers who straddled the line between both worlds. But that is a discussion beyond the scope of this essay.
Quite a few of his novels were filmed. I have watched just two movie adaptations of his works. Journey Into Fear had Orson Welles as the mercurial Colonel Haqi, a performance that put everyone else's in the shade. Here he is, in a scene where he tells Graham (Joseph Cotten) exactly how big a mess Graham has got himself into:
In contrast, I found The Mask of Dimitrios rather a tame affair, with the perpetually nonplussed Peter Lorre' as Latimer (named Cornelius Leyden in the movie) and the debonair Zachary Scott portraying Dimitrios as a cross between Valentino and Clark Gable. The only saving grace was the casting of Sydney Greenstreet as the shifty Mr Peters, a role which fitted him like a glove:
I will wrap this up by touching on Ambler's unique way of ending his novels on a gently mocking note, reminding us how easy it is to be fooled by life. I wonder if this is the hopeless romantic in him speaking to us all. Graham thinks till the end that he had it made with Josette, only to find she has been playing him all along. On the journey home, Kenton gets invited to a game of poker , which had promised so much but brought him nothing but pain and suffering, so he declines the offer with a smile.
Perhaps he never quite stopped dreaming about his ideal world, after all!
Ambler, Eric, The Mask of Dimitrios (London, 1973)
Ambler, Eric, Journey Into Fear (Bath, 1978)
Ambler, Eric, Uncommon Danger [Kindle edn] (London: Penguin, 2009)
Ambler, Eric, Judgment On Deltchev (New York, 2002)
Jones, Thomas, introduction in Uncommon Danger [Kindle edn] (London: Penguin, 2009)