Last issue I discussed the emptiness of even the best contemporary spy thrillers. What I had in mind was how a world in which interesting moral choices are not only possible but necessary has been replaced by a cult of professionalism, and how current spy novelists have abandoned real political considerations in favor of the aesthetics of chess, or, in some cases, checkers—the result being that it has become almost impossible to trace any given spy thriller to the soul of its writer. I made these complaints not only because, like all right-thinking people, I believe there is a world to win and that spy novelists should do their bit, but because I think a spy story without a moral dimension and an authentic political context suffers as a story. Given all that, I returned to the great alternative, and reread Eric Ambler.The prewar Ambler, that is. Before 1940, when Ambler wrote his first six books, he was in his late 20s or barely 30. Unconnected to the military, professional or intelligence establishments in England, he wrote as an outsider, and as a socialist. Unlike most, he saw the world heading into a great war, and he wrote, among other reasons, in order to say so—in order to make his perceptions real to other people, and to himself. After the war, during which he worked on training films and became a lieutenant colonel, he picked up his writing career, and with the possible exception of Judgement On Deltchev, what he wrote could have been written by almost anybody. He had, as a friend of mine once put it, lost his sense of dread. He had made peace with the world that had once robbed him of peace of mind and given him something to say.
The protagonists of Ambler’s later books, like those of almost every other spy thriller, are often professionals; those of his early books never are. The world view of the later books is socialized, accepting; the events, trivial. In the early books the point of view is confused, angry and bitter; the events are clearly drawn and ominous.Ambler’s theme was that of the ordinary man out of his depth, which was obviously how he saw England itself in the Thirties. In his four first-rate books, all written between 1937 and 1940—Background to Danger, Cause for Alarm (both Bantam, $1.25), A Coffin For Dimitrios, and Journey Into Fear (both out of print for the moment but easily available in English editions or at any decent used-books store)—a young and somewhat smug member of the English middle class blunders into a Continental intrigue the complexity of which he cannot begin to grasp. If he muddles through, it is always because he is able to link up with a European who has been raised to equate naiveté with suicide: the sort of man who thinks, hearing of an assassination, not, “How horrible,” but, “Who paid for it?”
The background of the books is a Europe that never recovered from the first World War and which is being manipulated, by fascists and monopoly capitalists, into a second. Ambler keeps the killing in his plots to a minimum, but there are thousands and thousands of corpses between the lines; the books communicate terror because they are driven by it. Ambler’s characters rise out of the swamp of European barbarism; his heroes confront it, one-on-one. Is a passage such as this, from A Coffin for Dimitrios, about the Turkish raid on the Greeks and Armenians in Smyrna in 1922, even imaginable in a modern spy thriller? The unaffected prose, the insistence on detail, the insistence on horror?
…the Turkish troops descended upon the non-Turkish quarters and began systematically to kill. Dragged from their houses and hiding places, men, women and children were butchered in the streets which soon became littered with mutilated bodies. The wooden halls of the churches, packed with refugees, were drenched with benzine and fired. The occupants who were not burnt alive were bayoneted as they tried to escape.
Ambler’s purpose in describing this scene, at least as far as his plot goes, is to set up an account of how one man, the Pan-European criminal Dimitrios, escaped; but the question of his escape is not merely a question of plot. Like Tadeusz Borowski, who writes in his memoirs of Auschwitz, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, that all who survived the Nazi concentration camps must answer the question, “But how did it happen that you survived?,” Ambler wants to show us, by setting forth the inferno of Smyrna in 1922, what crimes a man who survived it might have committed to do so. That Ambler can then connect a Turkish massacre in 1922 to the criminal affairs of a giant European holding company in the late Thirties does not mean his vision was facile; he was not arguing for simple cause and effect. He was presenting a world of which he believed his readers would have no inkling, and attempting to present it whole.The feeling that comes through his books, with his English heroes scrambling to save their lives and do the right thing (they do) while all around them Europe closes ranks like Poe’s shrinking closet, is that much is at stake; more, finally, than whether or not a writer can wrap up his story in a satisfactory manner, which is all that seems to be at stake in the spy thrillers that are written today. In Ambler’s early books, the debts of past history are called in while the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time protests he never signed anything. It seems to me that the present-day spy novelist could do worse for a perspective. Before he could use it, though, he would have to believe it.
Rolling Stone, March 25, 1976