By Shmuel Ben-Gad
Spy stories are, at least sometimes, a secular equivalent of ghost stories, tales of mysterious menace. (Note that spies are sometimes referred to as spooks.) Eric Ambler (1909-1998) is unquestionably one of the best writers of spy stories in English. His stories are filled with mystery and menace and are distinguished by an air of realism, sophisticated plots, and polished prose.
Ambler’s first tales appeared in the 1930s, and they reflect the tensions of European politics of the time. Ambler was then sympathetic to socialism, which is reflected in his stories of this period. The hero in two of his books, Background to Danger (1937, also published as Uncommon Danger) and Cause for Alarm (1938), is Zaleshoff, a Soviet agent. In an interview in the Times of London, Amber said, “Before the war I was very much an anti-Fascist writer, and after August 1939 and the Nazi-Soviet pact I`d really lost my subject matter. I was of the Thirties, and long after the tears had been wiped away there was still a sense of loss, a loss of belief.”
Nonetheless, one of his major themes at this point was non-ideological and even anti-ideological: an ordinary Englishman visiting Europe who unwittingly gets caught up in dangerous European intrigues. The ideal presented is not so much socialism but an ordinary, fairly decent, non-politicized life, to which Ambler’s baffled Englishmen yearn to return.
His best novel of this period, and arguably his best novel overall, is A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939, also published as A Mask for Dimitrios). In this tale, an English economics professor turned detective story writer has his curiosity piqued by an enigmatic deceased individual known as Dimitrios. The novel follows his attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding this person. Ambler wrote one more novel, Journey Into Fear (1940), before serving in the British army during the war.
The first novel he wrote after the war, Judgment on Deltchev (1951) was anti-Stalinist. In his autobiography, Ambler reports that many of the letters he received from readers of the book were hostile: “I was a traitor in the class war struggle, a Titoist lackey and an American imperialist cat’s-paw.” In truth, although the quality of his books remained high, they no longer conveyed the haunted feeling of many of his prewar books. In fact, at least a couple were thrillers of a nonpolitical sort: Passage of Arms (1959) and The Light of Day (1962, also published as Topkapi.) His tales were no longer confined to Europe; he also dealt with East Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Political or not, Ambler’s thrillers are wonderfully entertaining. Perhaps only Graham Greene, John Le Carre, and Charles McCarry rival him, and I would put Ambler ahead of all of them. Even at his most political, Ambler is not heavy-handed the way Le Carre and Greene can be. In some ways, Ambler is closer to the American McCarry, although the latter focuses much more on character and his tales are thus much closer to straight novels than are Ambler’s.
Ambler’s example should provide comfort to anyone concerned about the future of the spy novel with the end of the Cold War . The Cold War did not give birth to espionage and its hidden menace, as is evident by the spy novels of the interwar years when Ambler came of age as a writer. Just as Ambler continued to mine espionage successfully as a source of entertainment, there is no evident reason why this cannot continue to be done in our age, given talented and willing writers.
Goodness knows, the world remains a place of intrigue, plotting, and danger. Eric Ambler provided all this to us convincingly but safely between the covers of his books. I doubt that his works will lose their appeal, even if he thought he lost his real subject matter relatively early on.