Eric Ambler

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Ambler, Eric (Vol. 9)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4198

Ambler, Eric 1909–

Ambler is an English novelist and screenwriter noted for his iconoclastic novels of suspense. "The modern spy story," write Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler, "is largely a product of Ambler's groundbreaking series of pre-World War II novels." Critics credit Ambler with the ability to vary his style with the times without losing his distinctive stamp; Melvin Maddocks calls him "one of those writers so good at his specialty that he has only his younger self … to compete against." (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The Intercom Conspiracy … condenses and concentrates many of the thematic obsessions characteristic of [Ambler's] earlier books and, at the same time, adds another portrait to the gallery he has been painting for more than thirty years. It is a gallery that, viewed all of a piece, in turn epitomizes a world; and Ambler's world—far from being the projection of an adolescent's fantasies of spies who foil master-plots while they wallow in booze and broads—is very much the world we live in. (p. 3)

It is Eric Ambler's distinctive contribution to 20th-century fiction that he was able both to discard such preposterous conventions, which were strangling the literature of espionage, and to establish a believable world, shabby, gritty, devious, threatening but compellingly interesting, to replace them. His achievement, accomplished first through a series of five novels that reflect the period of "jitters" that preceded Hitler's invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II, later—after a silence of eleven years—in a group of tales drawn from the atmosphere of the Cold War, parallels what Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were doing, at roughly the same time with the detective story. In his famous essay "The Simple Art of Murder" Chandler said of Hammett (what he might as easily have said of himself) that he "gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse." By returning espionage to the kind of men and women who spy or conspire because the world they live in works that way (the key line in Epitaph for a Spy is the observation that the agent "needed the money") Ambler not only overthrew a cliché but created a new kind of fictional milieu. The glamorless landscapes of John le Carré would be inconceivable had not Ambler discovered and put to use the sensibility that perceives them.

Though the ablest, he was not quite the first to do so, however…. Ambler, it appears, took something from both [John Buchan and Somerset Maugham]. All of his early and several of his later novels use Buchan's innocent as perceiving figure and organizing consciousness, and throughout his work, like a dark undercurrent, there runs an obsession with the evils of cartels, trusts and consortia that echoes and amplifies Buchan's repeated suggestion that the plot at hand is no more than the visible part of a conspiratorial cobweb of immense scope and power. From Maugham, perhaps, Ambler derived some of his special feeling for the seedy hotels and dingy cafes and the dreary, colorless agents who appear in them, as well as his knack for setting them down in the neat, lucid but tellingly flat and dispassionate prose appropriate to their portrayal.

Ambler went so far beyond either, however, that their influence on his fiction must be considered, at best, as no more than shadowy. For instead of using a fresh perception once and then abandoning it, he broadened and deepened his vision book by book, expanding and developing it this way and that, adding to and enlarging it as its associations and extensions became clearer and richer, until in the end he had not only reinvigorated a tired subject (and by so doing returned it to the mainstream of contemporary literature) but in the process created that special world—with its distinctive themes, characters, stylistic features and recurrent preoccupations—that is the inevitable mark of the considerable novelist.

Ambler has said that "in most human beings ideas of spying and being spied upon touch fantasy systems at deep and sensitive levels of the mind." One need not be especially psychoanalytical to see that over the course of his novels a series of fantasy systems of his own recur regularly and that they in turn provide the thematic touchstones and establish the operational structures of his most characteristic work.

He discovered the first of them with his earliest books—the famous pre-World War II five upon which his reputation as a "master of suspense" rests—and was to use it as either an organizing principle or an important subsidiary idea in most of his later novels as well. Simply put, it might be described as "the loss of innocence." It is, of course, one of the commonest of literary themes, employed, among others, by Dickens, Henry James and Conrad in some of their most important novels. Ambler uses it, however, not only as a controlling idea—the thing, or one of them, that his books are about—but as the vehicle by which his plots are developed, his actions, unfolded and his suspense created.

In Background to Danger (1937), for example, Kenton, a British journalist down on his luck in Central Europe, agrees, in the course of a depressing train ride, to carry a stranger's packet of papers across a border—for a small sum of money. Almost immediately he finds himself the object of a search by the agents of several countries and the target of their guns. Before he reaches safety at last … he has shucked his (symbolically British?) complacency about the course of European politics and faced up to the pervasive evil of totalitarianism. (pp. 4-5)

Three other of the early and one of Ambler's later novels [Epitaph for a Spy (1938), Cause for Alarm (1939), Journey into Fear (1940), and State of Siege (1956)] are based on a similar theme…. In each case Ambler's important point is that political innocence only blinds one to the omnipresence of social decay and its manipulation for aggressive state purposes, and his suspense comes from the uncertainty of his central characters about themselves and the world they live in rather than from simplistic literary trickery.

With A Coffin for Dimitrios (1940) Ambler added to his fantasy of lost or violated innocence a second major theme that was to serve as the basis for his greatest post-war novel as well. Charles Latimer, the British historian and best-selling writer of detective stories who is the central consciousness of the novel, is one of Ambler's innocents too, but he is also an active seeker after the truth of his times…. The densest and most complex of Ambler's early novels (for some readers the masterpiece of his entire career), Dimitrios uses the search for truth as a way of depicting the world of the 1920s and '30s, and it is in its richness and breadth of portraiture and suggestion, rather than in its cliff-hanging plot, that its stature resides.

Pursuit of the truth serves also as the mainspring of Judgment on Deltchev (1951) and The Schirmer Inheritance (1953)…. In Deltchev, built around a show trial in an imaginary but presumably representative satellite state, a British journalist's determination to discover the real character of the defendant becomes Ambler's means of anatomizing the contradictions and cross-purposes of Balkan political life under Soviet rule. Schirmer (with Dimitrios one of the twin peaks of Ambler's accomplishment) uses a lawyer's search for the lost heir to an American fortune as the avenue to a panorama of post-war Europe, with its hordes of displaced persons, its unstable polity and its resulting assortment of competing interests, factions and parties. As tightly packed as Dimitrios, it mixes history, contemporaneity, scene and character to form a blend that provides one of the broadest and most vivid views of the aftermath of World War II in European or American fiction.

Two additional concerns, evident in Ambler's early novels but subsidiary in them to his preoccupation with the larger ideas of lost innocence and the search for reality, appear fully developed in his later books.

Trained as an engineer and blessed with an extraordinarily clear and orderly mind, Ambler from the beginning exhibited an interest in the lacy details of technology and business—his pre-war novels abound in them, a substantial part of Dimitrios is devoted to Latimer's unraveling of the operations of the Eurasian Credit Trust, and the early pages of Schirmer meticulously describe an involved legal situation—but it is not until Passage of Arms (1960) that he first places a business transaction at the center of a novel. A tale of elaborate intricacy, it builds a Bengali clerk's discovery of an arms stockpile abandoned by Malayan terrorists into what Dorothy Hughes has called a "mosaic" of conflicting interests—black-marketeers, opium smugglers, gun runners and an innocent American couple are among them—but its ultimate effect is to create a symbolic model (echoing Buchan's vast conspiracies) of intrigue on a far larger scale. It thus stands, with The Intercom Conspiracy (1969), which depicts a swindle of similar complexity, as one of Ambler's more sophisticated paradigms of contemporary life.

A final group of Ambler's novels grows out of his interest in bizarre and raffish behavior, evident in the portraiture of all of his books but at last made an end in itself in the two picaresque novels about Arthur Abdel Simpson, The Light of Day (1963) and Dirty Story (1968), and in Ambler's slightest and least important book, A Kind of Anger (1964)…. The Light of Day tells Ambler's customary tale of intrigue, but its central interest lies not in the action but in the character of Simpson, pimp, pornographer, thief and scoundrel…. With its sequel …, The Light of Day differs from the rest of Ambler's novels in tone and treatment, for Simpson recounts his adventures in a colorful (and frequently obscene) personal style quite unlike the dry, detached way in which most Ambler adventures are narrated, and its importance lies in its searching yet curiously sympathetic revelation of Simpson's elaborately self-serving personality—a substantial and for many readers unforgettable addition to the literature of roguery.

Lost innocence, the truth behind "the truth," the mosaic of conspiracy, picaresque—these, in patterns of increasing complexity and enormously varied shifts of emphasis, are the matter from which Ambler has built his world. They are scarcely the concerns of the conventional "thriller."

The Intercom Conspiracy is Ambler's Tempest—an autumnal work of extra-ordinary virtuosity that recapitulates, recombines, varies and inverts the principal themes of more than thirty years and adds to them a bleak yet human spirit of disenchantment and renunciation that reflects, like its predecessors, the spirit of its time.

Its twin Prosperos, Colonels Jost and Brand (both rogues in Ambler's most picaresque vein), prepare and execute a conspiracy of, even for Ambler, Byzantine intricacy. (pp. 5-10)

Ambler's wittiest and most sophisticated novel, Intercom is distinguished also by its antipathy to all power, left and right. In the 1930s a staunch anti-Fascist, in the 1950s suspicious in turn of Soviet policy, Ambler reveals himself in 1969 as purged of faith in the wisdom, good intentions or competence of either of the great post-war powers, and the conspiracy of Jost and Brand is his way, Prospero-like, of renouncing both. The hell with you all, he seems to say—surely echoing the antipathy to political action that has become so common, East and West, in these post-Hungary, post-Vietnam years.

Yet this is not to suggest that Intercom is in any way a swan song. Though the capstone of Ambler's career, the novel that—if he never wrote another—would add the ultimate touch to the continuous fable of international politics he has been writing since 1937, a fable that, as one critic has written, presents in microcosm "the century of uncertainty and fear, blundering and irresponsibility, through which all of us are groping our way," it also, by its technical daring and its high, dispassionate wit, hints at new and brighter things to come. (p. 10)

Paxton Davis, "The World We Live In: The Novels of Eric Ambler," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1975 by Hollins College), February, 1971, pp. 3-11.

Eric Ambler's novels began to appear in the late 1930's, representing the transition from the detective tale to the tale of espionage and international intrigue. Ambler's novels may be the loci classici of the traits which are considered traditionalist in the spy genre; yet his novels are not spy novels. The chief reasons for this important distinction are that, first of all, Ambler approaches the theme and matter of espionage through the form of the detective novel; and secondly, his formula has undoubtedly influenced the genre for thirty-five years, but the formula had to await the social context of the Cold War before it achieved a widespread acceptance (both in terms of reading audience and socioeconomic relevance). (p. 102)

Ambler's significant accomplishment in the spy genre revolves about his transitional sub-genre. Ambler's literary predecessors belong more properly to the mode of detective fiction than the burgeoning tales of espionage as prefigured in Buchan and Maugham. To be sure, the exotic geography of Buchan and the variegated characterizations of Maugham are to be found in the early Ambler novels, but Ambler's peculiar type of novel is still a hybrid born of the cross-species blending. Ambler's spy/detective story is actually a permutation of the detective story which happens to have a spy as the central character and/or foreign intelligence agents as the antagonists. The quintessence of the Ambler spy/detective tale is the ingenu's inadvertent involvement in a plot of international intrigue, and his subsequent loss of innocence as he seeks the answers to the "accidental" clues provided. The method of detection is logical and deductive; thus Ambler's typical novel bears imprinting of the older tale of ratiocination.

The fact that Ambler's central character is almost always the innocent amateur is his main connection to the detective story and also severs his future connection to the spy story where professional Cold War secret agents must always know what they are doing. In contrast to the latter-day professionals, part of Ambler's formula demands a dilettante who fumbles his way through the novel to an uneasy survival. The Ambler protagonist does not understand what is happening; he cannot go to the police; he probably will not survive the embroilment; and he must comply with the game-plan of the foe. Somehow he survives (usually, by chance) and emerges a chastened but wiser man. Ambler's formula bears a certain resemblance to the undercurrent ethos of Greek tragedy: the gods will not tolerate a man who is too happy or inordinately comfortable in his position in life. Ambler's protagonists are such men, and they are grimly reminded through tragic circumstances that human happiness is too easily subject to chance and fate. In this sense, the Ambler ingenu is chastened and recovers from the harrowing experience as a wiser man.

As a device of realism, the amateur as protagonist succeeds for Ambler by reducing all of the angst of international intrigue to a very personal level. The reader's distance is maintained when the dangerous situation is ably managed by the ultra-professional James Bond. But Ambler gets the edge on suspense by making his spy/detective an average person—the reader identifies easily. In this sense, the Ambler novel is more of a "thriller" than the later professional-spy novels. (p. 103)

A philosophy of history is always as important in an Ambler novel as the social context in which the novel is written—one complements the other. A Coffin For Dimitrios was written in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War. Ambler's particular philosophy of history reflects his reading of Spengler and concurrent opinion that Europe (and Western civilization) had reached a stage of decadence which was bent on self-destruction. One of the minor ironies of the novel consists in the fact that Latimer, aside from writing detective fiction, is a lecturer in political economy in a minor English university; yet when he moves from his secure sphere of observation out to the role of participant in actual melodrama, he learns a lesson in both politics and economics. Or, more precisely, he learns that it is in the realms of politics and economics where Good and Evil really meet:

Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michael Angelo's David, Beethoven's quartets and Einstein's physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler's Mein Kampf.      (p. 104)

Just as the Odyssey of Dimitrios comes full circle in its pursuit of violence, Latimer's own quest was to bear a lesson in the philosophy of history with a renewed knowledge of good and evil. And Latimer also returns to his original point of departure: the art of detective fiction. The conclusion of the novel neatly implies that the antinomy between art and reality might never be resolved. In the outside world of experience, Latimer had seen brutality and selfishness produce assassination, poison gas, and bombardment—all done under the sacrosanct aegis of nationalism and patriotism. Politics and economics—the new theologies—reign supreme; and Dimitrios the Greek had in his own logical way been the incarnate paradigm of the age. Latimer therefore returns to the inner world of art—in particular the detective fiction. The detective story is but an extension of Michael Angelo's David and Beethoven's quartets—it is the construct emanating from a new harmony of the sphere. It is a world of limited systems, made up of deductively ordered arrays of facts. The novel of detection is an enclosed world which is cogenial to the refugee from the outer environment of armed hostility and imminent cosmic chaos. (pp. 105-06)

As in the previous Ambler novel, the thematic core of [Journey Into Fear] resides in the philosophy of history. In [the work], the philosophy of history is a hybrid form of combined Frazer and Spengler doctrines, ironically expounded by the chief German agent who is disguised as a German archaeologist. Ambler, writing in 1940, seems to indicate that it is the German nation which has learned the principal lesson of history: might makes right. The background for Ambler's novel is a Europe which is headed for self-destruction, and history is the cosmic working out of the death and resurrection ritual. (p. 107)

But the arrayed forces of darkness are held back and, temporarily at least, defeated in the novels of Eric Ambler. His fumbling, non-professional "heroes" survive through some chance occurrence or providential event. Latimer lives because of "a criminal's odd taste in interior decoration" …, and Graham [of Journey Into Fear] survives because of his final reliance on instinct and violence. The quiet cognitive processes of deduction and reason singularly fail.

All of this adds up to the raison d'etre of the spy novel—the literature of espionage. The major premise of Ambler's argument resides in the dangerously thin veneer of protection that civilization offers to modern man. The ages of Medieval faith and Renaissance decorum are past: Darwin, Freud, Frazer, and Spengler have triumphed. The world of the detective—the interlocking, visible puzzle pieces of Newton, Dupin, and Holmes—is totally inadequate in the face of technological warfare. The day of the spy had dawned. The detective writer and the ballistics engineer had to doff the velvet of the man, and temporarily assume the characteristics of Dimitrios … in order to survive. There is a little bit of Dimitrios in everyman—every modern man, that is. Violence and betrayal in the global village—this is the legacy of Dimitrios and the beginning for the spy to pick up the pieces of the shattered Victorian closed-world of rationalism. (pp. 107-08)

The Intercom Conspiracy attains style of suspense, characterization, and penchant for plot; and even exceeds the former novels in his experimentation with a Conradian point of view. But gone is the undercurrent philosophy of history. In lieu of a search for a logic in history, Ambler renders history at its face value…. The novel is typical Cold War, but Ambler's sui generis formula persists along with his basic detective-novel approach.

But The Intercom Conspiracy depicts the final, utter failure of the detective hero in the modern era of Cold War espionage. Latimer is no match for … two traitorous NATO confederates; he is liquidated and silenced forever. The modern, corporate "organization" is both hero and villain in the Cold War setting of "bloc" versus "bloc." (pp. 108-09)

In final analysis, Eric Ambler seems out of his medium with the Cold War/organization spy novel. Ambler gave more to the genre in his early efforts than what he has extracted in his later work. He apparently picked up some of Ian Fleming's flare for technical accuracy—the result of the genre going to the professional spy; and his Russian "villain" in The Intercom Conspiracy bears a Flemingesque touch in his physical grotesquery. But Eric Ambler should be primarily remembered for what he contributed to the literature's overall generic formula. Ambler's contribution specifically lies in his initial linking of the spy genre to the legacy of popular literature—the tale of detection. The precise elements which were carried over to the spy tale from the larger genus of popular formulaic fiction include the invocation of salvific violence which preserves the equilibrium of society (and the global village), the extra-legal necessity to enforce that preservation, and finally the ethical dilemma of the observer of history—what option of active participation may be chosen. For Ambler, the choice is quite basic, yet is as old as the Platonic dialogues and as awe-inspiring as Hamlet's soliloquy: is history the product of an ineluctable process of events, or is there a morality of action which demands a participation of the individual in the flux of society? Perhaps the solution lies in the very birth of the spy novel: it shows a complex world where the putative logician can no longer solve the riddle of the Sphinx. But there is the eternal rub—was Oedipus the logical detective of the man of action? Either way, the result was self-destruction. This is the crucial dilemma of Eric Ambler's novels. (p. 109)

Ronald Ambrosetti, "The World of Eric Ambler: From Detective to Spy," in Dimensions of Detective Fiction (copyright © 1976 by Popular Press), Popular Press, 1976, pp. 102-09.

Some thriller addicts might find Send No More Roses [published in the United States as The Siege of the Villa Lipp] short on action, but this would be a crude verdict, which ignored the novel's wit and elegance, and above all the subtlety with which Firman [the hero and narrator] is allowed to reveal his own character. He resembles slightly—especially in his professions of injured innocence—one of the author's earlier heroes, Arthur Simpson, though he is infinitely more successful…. There is even a touch or two about him, as far as early education is concerned, of that most genial of all swindlers, Felix Krull. Like all good con men, Firman, alias Oberholzer, alias Perrivale (Perry) Smythson, covers his tracks with a cloud of dust. Is his account, written in order to correct the distortions and omissions of Professor Krom's treatise, Der kompetente Kriminelle, the truth? Or does it—as Krom suggests—contain as many half-truths, misrepresentations and red herrings as the dossiers prepared for the sociologists and served up to them with a "very light-bodied dry white wine" on the terrace of the Villa Esmeralda? (p. 911)

T. J. Binyon, The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 29, 1977.

The unwary reader may never notice; he'll probably think—with justification—that, with the compliments of Eric Ambler, [The Siege of the Villa Lipp] is a rather dull and somewhat technical adventure story.

I confess to having been one of those unwary readers…. It was only on later reflection that Chinese boxes occurred to me—a novel within a novel, a story within a story. No one ever tells us to read between the lines, but, between the lines, there often lies a competent, even a brilliant book. This is one such book. The entirety must be reconsidered in view of the last page: the discussion with Melanie.

Having thus alerted the unwary, I may permit myself to say that however masterful the tongue-in-cheek, there can only be at first an endured acceptance of an adventure novel (assuming that that is what it was) that deals with high finance, wheeling and dealing, schemes of tax avoidance (not "evasion"), and warped sociology. Nevertheless, it is my advice to endure.

It's the warped sociology that sets the pace. Ambler creates, almost too perfectly, the Dutch-German version of Talcott Parsons. We are lashed with sociologuesque jargon, for the book chronicles the pursuit of the "Able Criminal," "der kompetente Kriminelle." (pp. 162-63)

The Siege of the Villa Lipp concerns the confrontation of our warped sociologist with the falsely accused kompetente Kriminelle in a villa outside of Monte Carlo. That's when the fireworks begin. (p. 163)

Robert Rafalko, in Best Sellers (copyright 1977, by the University of Scranton), September, 1977.

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Ambler, Eric (Vol. 6)