Eric Ambler wrote espionage novels, as well as crime novels. Journey into Fear qualifies for the former category. It was, typical of Ambler’s writing, which inspired other cynical, leftist espionage authors like Graham Greene and John le Carre, replete with instances of Western-capitalist malevolence and institutional incompetence. Ambler’s stories also inspired the films of Alfred Hitchcock, with whom Ambler would collaborate many times. Hitchcock’s recurring theme of innocent bystander or amateur caught up in the machinations of organizational greed and corruption, colored by the ever-present threat of murder, appeared side-by-side with Ambler’s fiction, especially with his espionage novels, written during the interwar period of the 1930s, when the rise of Hitler and Franco transformed Europe, and not for the better. The growing threat of fascism across Europe provided considerable ammunition for Ambler’s novels, and the realization of fascism in power provided the context for the 1940 novel Journey into Fear.
As Journey into Fear begins, the story is already well-underway. Ambler’s protagonist, a British armaments engineer named Graham, is hunkering down in his cabin aboard an Italian ship, when he reveals a wound to his hand, a wound, it is revealed, caused by a bullet: “If that was what a bullet graze felt like, he thanked his stars the bullet had not really hit him.” So, within the span of the first few pages, we know that the story involves European settings, particularly Turkey, Italy and, it will soon appear, Germany, and that there is an element of danger permeating the proceedings. We know from Ambler’s description of Graham that he an expert in ballistics, which, of course, is integral to the design of projectiles, including rockets, bullets, missiles, etc. And, we know that his is an ambivalent relationship with his wife: “They lived in an atmosphere of good-natured affection and mutual tolerance.” Common to Ambler’s work, refugees are ever-present. Graham, taken to a cabaret by his Turkish associate, is introduced to Maria, “an Arab,” who dances professionally at this establishment, and whose conversation with Graham further cements the notion that this is an espionage story:
“She began to talk. Did he know Istanbul well? Had he been there before? Did he know Paris? And London? . . . Had he many friends in Istanbul? She asked because there was a gentleman who had come in after him and his friend who seemed to know him. This gentleman kept looking at him.”
As Graham’s conversation with the inquisitive Maria continues and finally concludes, he begins to reflect on the nature of that conversation, as does the reader. Ambler’s narrative cleverly retains elements of a crime novel, but his reputation, the setting, the dialogue, the gunshots, all point to something more. In Chapter Two, Graham’s colleague, Kopeikin, attempts to dispel the notion that the shooting that wounded Graham was the mere act of thieves:
“My dear fellow, does it not occur to you that this man was shooting to kill you, and that he came here for no other purpose?”
Graham, it is slowly revealed, is on a very sensitive mission. He has been dispatched by the British government, and by the armaments firm for which he works, to help the Turkish Navy rearms itself with modern weaponry, and that German agents are intent on preventing him from succeeding. The appearance of German agents, particularly Banat, serves to eliminate from further consideration the notion that Journey into Fear is anything other than an espionage thriller, and that the contents of Graham’s head are important for the war effort currently in its infancy. The espionage in Ambler’s novel resides in Graham’s mission and in the efforts of the German agents to hasten his demise.