Eric Ambler Ambler, Eric (Vol. 4) - Essay

Ambler, Eric (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ambler, Eric 1909–

Ambler, according to Graham Greene, is England's best thriller writer. Although best known for his realistic espionage tales, particularly Epitaph for a Spy and The Mask of Dimitrios, Ambler has also written many successful screen plays. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Not until Eric Ambler began writing in the late thirties did any degree of sophistication about the powers of darkness enter the thriller. And even then his perspective is, from our point of view, rhetorical and simplistic…. [It] is in Background to Danger that torture makes its delayed entrance into the spy story. Ambler's books reflect the stages of contemporary conflict, from the early days of Fascism and Nazism to the cold war.

In Background to Danger also Ambler displays for the first time in thriller literature a critical attitude toward capitalism…. [Earlier thriller writers] would have castigated Ambler's insistence that "at some point in the business structure there is always dirty work to be done" [Background to Danger]. "International business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood" [The Mask of Dimitrios]. Ambler himself was a little ashamed of such emotionalism…. Nevertheless, Ambler's antipathy toward Big Business was consistently expressed in novel after novel, and he shared the view of young English intellectuals in the late thirties that "political ideologies had very little to do with the ebb and flow of international relations. It was the power of business" [Background to Danger].

Ralph Harper, in his The World of the Thriller, The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1969, pp. 32-4.

Ambler is a superb technician. Anything but avant-garde, he is descended from Maugham and certain Edwardian stylists…. Slowly, smoothly, he involves the reader with his characters, and in a short time everything becomes real.

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 16, 1972, p. 32.

In the six novels he wrote before the outbreak of World War II, Eric Ambler … infused warmth and political color into the spy story by using it to express a Left Wing point of view…. The central character is an innocent figure mixed up in violent events who slowly comes to realize that the agents and spies working on both sides are for the most part unpleasant but not important men. They murder casually and without passion on behalf of some immense corporation or firm of armaments manufacturers whose interests are threatened. These, rather than any national group, are the enemy. The Dark Frontier (1936) is the least important of his books, but it contains one prophetic note in the detonation of the first atomic bomb….

The political side of the books lies under the surface. Almost all the best thrillers are concerned, in one form or another, with the theme of the hunted man. Ambler was fascinated by European cities, and his hunts take place against a convincing background of places like Istanbul, Sofia, Belgrade, and Milan. He was interested also in the problems of frontiers and passports, so that the difficulty of moving from place to place plays a large part in the stories. And he showed from the beginning a high skill, which became mastery, in the construction of plot. His finest book of this period, a masterpiece of its kind, is The Mask of Dimitrios [in America, A Coffin for Dimitrios], in which flashback follows flashback in the attempt of the crime novelist Latimer to trace the career of the dead Dimitrios, and there is little direct action until three-quarters of the way through the book. To develop interest through a book composed in such a way is a mark of the highest technical skill. The story sparkles with incidents, like the interview with the retired spy, or the account of the white-slave traffic, that could be extracted as separate stories and yet continue to advance the plot….

Ambler's later books are more like plain thrillers than spy stories. The best of them, The Night Comers (1956) [in America, A State of Siege], The Light of Day (1962), and Dirty Story (1967) are less sensational than some of the prewar novels, and they show the same mastery of construction. Something has been lost, however; a certain world-weariness has replaced enthusiasm and hope. They are detached from events rather than involved in them. There is much to admire and enjoy, but nothing to equal The Mask of Dimitrios.

Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 238-39.