Eric Ambler Ambler, Eric (Vol. 6) - Essay

Ambler, Eric (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ambler, Eric 1909–

Ambler, a British spy novelist and screenwriter, has received both the Edgar and Grand Master Awards. His heroes are not James Bond supermen, but credible—even blemished—protagonists. One critic has noted that "one of Ambler's particular skills is a capacity to create modern rogue literature." Among his successful screenplays are "Yangste Incident," "The Wreck of the Mary Deare," and "Topkapi." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

In Ambler, values and loyalties are determined easily—by brutality and by responses to brutality. The kinds of brutality are varied but eventually lead to a common source, so that when we ask why a man becomes involved in espionage we find that economic pressure is one strong arm of a system whose other strong arm is physical brutality. The reaction away from brutality sets a character on the side of right and good. There is no ideology about it. These are political and economic novels but they are something else first. Before they are socialist realism they are democratic realism and before that they are romances.

In Ambler's second novel for example, Cause For Alarm, the forces of brutality trap the non-brutal and helpless Marlow. Events are beyond his control. Determinism is a staple of the genre, and Ambler's people, the good and the bad both, are at the mercy of forces that push them about the European landscape like pawns in a game. Conflict comes from the protagonist's awareness of the push and his stubborn unwillingness to be pushed. Opposing force and violence is the individual will, strength, and integrity. The nearest tradition is the romance although Ambler's knight is often inept and is not even a professional knight. He becomes knightly through something like battlefield promotion, pushed into it unwillingly by circumstances. He is always the innocent by stander whose innate distaste and dislike for barbarism and bullies, violence, coercion, and inhuman weapons push him to opposition. Even this response is a force beyond his control, for what it turns out to be is the human spirit, desiring to be free and to allow others to be free, working through the good man and showing through as the element that makes him good. Put another way, man is free. And while he can not always control destiny the view is that each man plays his part in shaping the historical context. Reduced to its elements, the espionage and intrigue story is a contest of Good and Evil, with the Good winning out in its curious way: the more brutal the Evil, the more danger of provoking a crushing response from the Good. It is the pre-War II morality play, and the protagonist is liberty against the antagonist fascism and tyranny. (pp. 46-7)

Because force in Ambler's world is ultimately purely human, the real villains are not the strongarm operators like Mailler and Saridza in Background To Danger or the Italian Ovra hoods in Cause For Alarm but the avarice and social irresponsibility of the great banking houses and corporations seeking foreign trade concessions. Marlow, and Kenton, the protagonist of Background To Danger, harried by the greed of others which has completely wiped them clean financially, do what they do to stay alive. There again is the spirit that works in them, that life force carrying with it a few simple (Conradian) notions of loyalty and fidelity, virtue, right. (pp. 47-8)

After force has been applied, the free spirit reacts, recoils, and charges itself with reestablishing the fitness of things. It is a private sense or personal code, not so much of ethics as of propriety; of what can and can not be done to an individual rather than a code of what he can or can not do. It is always committed to in physical reaction to provocation, and never in analytic judgement, because it is due to outrages on the body. The heart tells the head. That puts us back in romance with its mistrust of intellect, reason, ideology, rules, all of these evils enlisting in the army of Greed; for, paradoxically, every reasoning moment leads to selfishness and gorging self-gratification. The heart has its reasons and the heart, always in the right place, is the place of liberty.

Ambler's philosophical drift is similar in each book. The criminal spies are all creatures whose code is expedience, and doing one's job because somebody has to do it, without looking into things, is evil…. Ambler reduces the world at war to an elemental, man to man level of battle. The moral clearly is: arise before it is too late to rise at all. (p. 48)

Robert Gillespie, in Salmagundi (copyright © 1970 by Skidmore College), Summer, 1970.

There is nothing quite like observing a master at the top of his form. Eric Ambler provides an exceptional opportunity with The Levanter…. The setting is the Middle East, a perfect background for danger, where intrigue is synonymous with breathing. The central figure is Michael Howell, "fractionally British," a self-styled "Levantine mongrel" descended from a Lebanese-Armenian grandmother and a Syrian-born father….

Howell is the stuff that antiheroes are made of. He is our familiar non-violent middleman caught in a web he never spun. Long before the sparks fly, it is clear that The Levanter is quintessential Ambler. (p. 56)

O. L. Bailey, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 5, 1972.

[Without] contemporary equivalents of Pepys, Lord Chesterfield and Madame de Sevigne, how will future historians measure the salinity of our tears, the dimension of our anxieties, the tittle-tattle in the corridors of our century which give facts the breath and flesh without which they are meaningless?

A partial solution (if historians will buy it) may lie in the event-as-literature which Victor Hugo rediscovered in the 19th century and which has become a high art in the hands of its best 20th-century practitioners.

Of these, Eric Ambler has spent an entire career on the portrayal of political catastrophe as moral and emotional literature. Central Europe was a distant and somewhat abstracted dilemma in 1937 until Ambler's Background to Danger (1937) evoked the intimate stench of the old order's decay and the bilious fumes of the new authoritarianism which replaced it. A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939) translated Balkan geography into a state of mind, a theory of treachery and a sense of unbearable loss as European politics turned into macabre game-playing in the twilight with lebensraum as the grisly prize. Lest we thought that World War II put an end to the grotesque mutant-children of modern power politics, Ambler turned up with Judgment on Deltchev (1951—in my view, his masterpiece). Kafka's trial became something harder and more immediately recognizable; the revolution was devouring its own children with the instruction that fidelity demanded that they enjoy it.

The wonder of it all was the sense of novelistic craft with which Eric Ambler replayed history upon human sensibilities. But somewhere along the line the craft began to slip while the eye for significant event remained true. The Levanter, a novel about Palestinian terrorists, got out of control. Perhaps Ambler's preoccupation with violated innocence smothered that exquisite sense of craft.

Doctor Frigo, the latest chapter in Ambler's retelling of politics as a mortal affair, is almost right. At least its components are right. Ambler's focus has shifted to the upper tier of the Third World—a sun-scorched French island in the Caribbean and a disaster-prone banana republic on the Latin American mainland. There is a despairing authenticity in the inability of most of the characters to see politics as anything but fantasy. The predators have the ground to themselves—multinational consortia hungering for offshore oil on territory belonging to the banana republic, obsessive political exiles with demonic dreams of return, the silky and violent intelligence departments of European and North American powers.

The people are right….

The plot is right….

But the telling of Doctor Frigo is all wrong. The story is spun out through interminable conversations until its climax. In the hours, days and weeks of droning talk …; the reader becomes at first numb and finally indifferent.

Perhaps Ambler is trying to suggest, by torpid conversation, the very banality of modern politics and the shriveled lusts which drive it. He succeeds. Too well. For chapters at a time Doctor Frigo has all the verve and crackle of a White House transcript.

This is too bad because Eric Ambler is one of those master witnesses who has taken great events out of the single dimension of journalism in order to tell us what they really mean in multiple human terms. But, in Doctor Frigo, we cease to care what happens after a while even though we know that the events are crucial. (p. 3)

Roderick MacLeish, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 29, 1974.

When [Ambler's] most recent novel, "The Levanter," appeared, I grumbled that nothing happened until page 80, a poor showing for a suspense story. It seems I missed Ambler's drift: in his new novel ["Dr. Frigo"] nothing happens until page 240. Ambler is going straight now (his publisher suggests that we start taking him seriously as a political novelist), and we all know that straight fiction doesn't require the lashings of fear and muscle that made Ambler's early stories famous. Talk and politics will do instead, with lashings of local color. (p. 125)

Ambler is generous with authentic-sounding medical detail and precise observations of Caribbean islands, and it seems to me that if you can stand the boredom you may find much in this story that is skillfully performed.

The boredom will not inhibit "Doctor Frigo's" reception—most hugely popular novels are hugely boring—but it is fatal to the book's posture as serious political fiction. Political novels are difficult to write because political events, so fascinating in real life, are distracting in fiction except as catalysts of theme or character. (This is why some of the best have the narrowest focus: C. P. Snow's "The Masters," set in a college, is a better political novel than is his "Corridors of Power," which concerns the national government.) Political novels, until further notice, are stories about men who are unequal to occasions. Their true subjects are the effect of ambition on integrity and of power on process, of men subjected to stress that will make them squeal, of men confronted rudely by their own weakness and failure of vision. Ambler is not up to a real political novel; having written for nearly 40 years suspenseful romances about men who prove less frail than first they seem, he lacks a vision of man's essential frailty. (pp. 125, 127)

Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 14, 1974.

Eric Ambler has never Bonded a thriller or Spillaned a spy story. In 15 ingenious novels of suspense and intrigue, his protagonists—in Ambler land, there are few heroes—are almost invariably decent, intelligent, well-bred men more or less unwittingly enmeshed in Gorgonian webs of political and financial conspiracy. Such a man is Ernesto Castillo, a reserved, dedicated physician who works in a hospital on an island in the French Antilles.

Known to his colleagues as "Dr. Frigo" (frigo is French argot for refrigerator or frozen meat), the Paris-trained doctor and narrator of [Doctor Frigo] is a native of a Central American state where his radical, politically potent father has been lately assassinated—some say martyred. By whom?… Son Ernesto does not really care. In the course of the novel, cast in the form of a month-long diary, he confesses that his father was no more than a calculating politician caught in the middle of banana-republic crossfire. What really concerns Dr. Frigo is his profession, as well as making good on a complete renunciation of his father's political movement, which unhappily regards Frigo as its eventual leader.

Ambler unfolds his plot in the painstaking fashion of a chess grand master. In urbane, ironic style, he traces the slow, circumstantial entrapment of Ernesto Castillo in a successful attempt by his father's old party to seize power in the Central American republic.

None of this is as exciting as, say, A Coffin for Dimitrios, The Light of Day (which became the movie Topkapi) or Journey into Fear. Yet [this] fiction is not just Nembutal for insomniacs but a novel densely composed and deftly delivered. (p. 112)

Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), November 11, 1974.

Half a dozen pages of Doctor Frigo is all it takes to confirm that the author of Coffin for Dimitrios and Epitaph for a Spy has lost none of his inventive cunning. Like a juggler, Eric Ambler tosses plots and personalities, complications and villainies in the air, snakes one out of the blue here, keeps that bouncing subplot going over there. And seasons this tale of mystery, adventure, and espionage with one of the zaniest love stories to have come along in an age….

Ambler brings to his story the descriptive eye of a painter, the detachment of a puppet master, the precision of a diamond cutter. The tastes, the smells and colors of the tropics, the dust, mosquitoes, and dirt, the motorbike that skips a beat, the restored colonial façades and the antique plumbing, all play their part in enveloping the reader in an atmosphere that must taste, feel, and smell authentic if the story is to seem credible. British authors—one thinks of Conrad, Maugham, the earlier Graham Greene—excel at this; Ambler also has mastered it.

But atmosphere is never subordinated to plot….

Here, then, a first-class novel of suspense—vintage Ambler—plus a rollicking love story.

Priscilla L. Buckley, "Of Banana Republics and Habsburgs," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1974; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), December 20, 1974, p. 1475.