Because Eric Ambler’s earliest novels were the first realistic portrayals of international intrigue that adhered to high literary standards, he must be considered the virtual creator of the modern genre of espionage fiction. He was born in London on June 28, 1909, the son of Alfred Percy Ambler and his wife, Amy Madeline Andrews. His parents were music hall artists, and though his father later worked in advertising, his parents’ enthusiasm for music and the theater profoundly affected Ambler’s early development.
In 1917, he entered Colfe’s Grammar School with a scholarship and later studied piano at Blackheath Conservatory. In 1926, he was awarded an engineering scholarship to Northhampton Polytechnic, which later became part of the University of London. He spent most of his two years there reading in the British Museum and attending films, plays, and law court sessions because by this time, influenced by the plays of Henrik Ibsen, he was determined to be a playwright. Ambler’s recognition of the Machiavellian aspects of politics and the realities of class struggle were enhanced during the General Strike of 1926, when the London Rifle Brigade, in which he had enlisted as a Territorial, was deputized as “special constables.”
In 1928, Ambler left school to take a position as a technical trainee at the Edison Swan Electric Company, but his artistic ambition was still strong. He attempted to write a novel about his father’s theatrical life, and when he abandoned this project he and a partner formed Barclay and Ambrose, a music hall comedy team for which Ambler wrote and composed songs. In 1931, he entered the publicity department of the Edison Swan company as an advertisement copywriter; a year later, he set himself up as a theatrical press agent; and in 1933 he joined a large London advertising firm. Yet his primary concern throughout this period was still the theater, and he was writing unsuccessful one-act plays.
Ambler’s decision to write espionage fiction was made gradually. It developed in part from his profound awareness of the irrational aspects of modern international affairs, which was deepened by his reading of Carl Jung, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Oswald Spengler and by his first encounter with fascism during a vacation in Benito Mussolini’s Italy. It also was the result of his contempt for the work of his predecessors, and his first effort, The Dark Frontier, was partially intended as a parody. Set in a fictitious Balkan country and concerned with the development of an atomic bomb with which the villains intended to blackmail the world, it was both prescient about the world’s future and implicitly critical of the espionage stories of John Buchan, who was definitely an establishment writer, and of the Bulldog Drummond stories of “Sapper,” which were virtually fascist in their implications. Ambler, though he never participated in left-wing politics, was vaguely socialist in sentiment, and having written his parody, he saw an opportunity to turn the espionage genre upside-down, in effect, by producing espionage stories that would present their protagonists’ predicaments in the light of left-wing assumptions.
With the commercial success of his next novel, Background to Danger, Ambler left advertising and went to live in Paris, where he wrote his other prewar novels: Epitaph for a Spy, Cause for Alarm, A Coffin for Dimitrios, and Journey into Fear. In his autobiography Here Lies, Ambler is refreshingly modest about the four-year golden period, from 1937 to 1940, which saw these five novels into print and ensured him a lasting place in the modern espionage subgenre. He takes a self-joshing pleasure in noting that they had a “knack of appearing before the public at the most inauspicious moments. Journey into Fear was the [London] Evening Standard Book-of-the-Month for July, 1940, the month in which the Third French Republic ceased to exist and the Battle of Britain began.” His method was to present an innocent...
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