At the beginning of his career, Eric Ambler knew that his strengths were not in the construction of the ingenious plots required in detective fiction. As he was seeking to establish himself as a writer of popular fiction, his only course was the espionage thriller; its popularity in Great Britain was the result of public interest in the secret events of World War I and apprehension about Bolshevism. These concerns were enhanced by the most popular authors in the field— John Buchan, whose Richard Hannay was definitely an establishment figure, and Sapper (the pen name of H. Cyril McNeile), whose Bulldog Drummond stories were reactionary, if not downright fascist, in tone.
Ambler found neither these writers’ heroes nor their villains believable, and he viewed their plots, based on conspiracies against civilization, as merely absurd. Having seen fascism in his travels in Italy, he was radically if vaguely socialist in his own political attitudes, and his study of psychology had made it impossible for him to believe that realistically portrayed characters could be either purely good or purely evil.
Ambler decided, therefore, to attempt to write novels that would be realistic in their characters and depictions of modern social and political realities; he also would substitute his own socialist bias for the conservatism—or worse—of the genre’s previous practitioners.
The Dark Frontier
His first novel, The Dark Frontier, was intended, at least in part, as a parody of the novels of Sapper and Buchan. As such, it may be considered Ambler’s declaration of literary independence, and its premises are appropriately absurd. A mild-mannered physicist who has been reading a thriller suffers a concussion in an automobile accident and regains consciousness believing that he is the superhero about whom he has been reading. Nevertheless, the novel also reveals startling prescience in its depiction of his hero’s antagonists—a team of scientists in a fictitious Balkan country who develop an atomic bomb with which they intend to blackmail the world. Ambler’s technical training had made him realize that such a weapon was inevitable, and though he made the process simpler than it later proved to be, his subject was clearly more significant than his readers could realize.
Though Ambler sought consciously in his first works to turn the espionage genre upside down, he was quite willing to employ many of the elements used by his popular predecessors. Like Buchan’s Richard Hannay, his early protagonists were often men trapped by circumstances but willing to enter into the “game” of spying with enthusiasm and determination. In his next three novels, Background to Danger (1937), Epitaph for a Spy (1938), and Cause for Alarm (1938), he set his plots in motion by the device Buchan employed in The Thirty-nine Steps (1915). His naïve hero blunders into an international conspiracy, finds himself wanted by the police, and is able to clear himself only by helping to unmask the villains.
What makes these novels different, however, is Ambler’s left-wing bias. The villains are fascist agents, working on behalf of international capitalism, and in Background to Danger and Cause for Alarm the hero is aided by two very attractive Soviet agents. In fact, these two novels must be considered Ambler’s contribution to the cause of the popular front; indeed, one of the Soviet agents defends the purge trials of 1936 and makes a plea for an Anglo-Soviet alliance against fascism.
Journey into Fear
Ambler’s most significant prewar novels, however, are A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939) and Journey into Fear (1940). The latter is very much a product of the “phony war” of the winter of 1939-1940, when a certain measure of civilized behavior still prevailed and the struggle against fascism could still be understood in personal terms. The ship on which the innocent hero sails from Istanbul to Genoa is a microcosm of a Europe whose commitment to total war is as yet only tentative. Ambler perfectly captures this ambiguous moment, and Graham, his English hero, is, in a sense, an almost allegorical representation of Great Britain itself, seeking to discover allies in an increasingly hostile world.
A Coffin for Dimitrios
A Coffin for Dimitrios is Ambler’s most important prewar work, a novel that overturns the conventions of the espionage thriller while simultaneously adopting and satirizing the conventions of the detective story. His protagonist, Charles Latimer, is an English writer of conventional detective stories. In Istanbul, he meets one of his fans, a colonel of the Turkish police, who gives him a foolish plot (“The butler did it”) and tells him about Dimitrios Mackropoulos, whose body has washed ashore on the Bosporus.
A murderer, thief, drug trafficker, and white slaver, Dimitrios fascinates Latimer, who sets out on an “experiment in detection” to discover what forces created him. Latimer discovers, as he follows the track of Dimitrios’s criminal past through Europe, that Dimitrios is still alive, a highly placed international...
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