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Snakes and Ladders

Eric Ambler's newly reissued spy thrillers confront the political treachery of the twentieth century.

Jennifer Howard

8 Before John Le Carré, there was Eric Ambler. One of the founding fathers of the modern spy thriller, Ambler took a dusty genre—the novel of derring-do intrigue—and reshaped it into a new form of entertainment that doubles as a commentary on the nasty geopolitical realities of the twentieth century. Ambler's thrillers—especially those clustered in the war-shadowed days of the late 1930s and those feeding off the 1950s turmoil of the early Cold War and the dissolving of colonial empires—radicalize the politics while delivering the cloak-and-dagger thrills of prewar spy yarns. They preserve the now-exotic texture and the still-familiar nightmarishness of their own times, but they can also feel alarmingly contemporary, especially when they tackle the dangers of mucking around in other countries' political affairs—cautionary tales for their own age that haven't lost their relevance in ours. They laid the groundwork for the work of later, politically engaged thriller writers, from Le Carré to Frederick Forsyth to Alan Furst.
Books by Eric Ambler discussed in this essay

Background to Danger                  
Vintage, $11 (paper)

Judgement on Deltchev
Vintage, $12 (paper)

A Coffin for Dimitrios                  
Vintage, $11 (paper)

The Schirmer Inheritance
Vintage, $12 (paper)

Cause for Alarm                              
Vintage, $12 (paper)

State of Siege
Vintage, $12 (paper)

Journey Into Fear
Vintage, $12 (paper)                        

Passage of Arms
Vintage, $12 (paper)

Epitaph for a Spy
Vintage, $12 (paper)

The Light of Day
Vintage, $12 (paper)

The surprise is that they've fallen into limited availability and out of popular favor in recent years. Now Vintage has begun reissuing ten Ambler titles in its Black Lizard imprint; new editions of Background to Danger and A Coffin for Dimitrios appeared in the fall of 2001, followed by Epitaph for a Spy and Cause for Alarm in February 2002, with six more titles scheduled for winter 2002 and spring 2003.

In an introduction to a 1990 reissue of his first novel, Ambler confessed that "I intended to make fun of the old secret service adventure thriller as written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan, Dornford Yates and their cruder imitators; and I meant to do it by placing some of their antique fantasies in the context of a contemporary reality." Playing off the tradition of Buchan's The 39 Steps, Ambler's The Dark Frontier (1936) cooked up a plot involving "one of those unexpected threats to world peace, one of those dark conspiracies of evil men, that will succeed unless our hero can brave all dangers and arrive in the nick of time to foil the wicked in their devilish moment of near triumph." The threat involved the invention of a prototypical nuclear bomb—remarkably prescient, given the date—a fascist regime and a small Balkan state. (The latter two would become staples of Ambler thrillers.)

But as sometimes happens with parodists, Ambler discovered a taste for what he was mocking. He also discovered a fresh take on a stale form. In his next books—Background to Danger (1937), A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939, originally published as The Mask of Dimitrios), Cause for Alarm (also 1939), and Journey Into Fear (1940)—Ambler emerged from his initial experiment having figured out how to write "a thriller with a difference": the difference being that while the "dark conspiracies of evil men" persist in recognizable and predictable if ever more sinister and complex forms, the champions of Good are no longer synonymous with the democratic, capitalist forces of the West.

Caught in the middle are well-intentioned, decent people, journalists or engineers or even lawyers, usually British or American, who in Buchan's or Oppenheim's hands would have been the stuff of heroes. Ambler reduces them to something more recognizable if not more reassuring—inadvertent participants rather than men with missions. Buchan's staunch 'everyman' patriots are on their way to becoming the George Smileys of John Le Carré, but without their professional stake in or knowledge of the increasingly twisted "game of snakes and ladders" being played, as one Ambler character puts it. In Ambler's novels, if it hasn't simply degenerated into ineffectual cynicism, Anglo-Saxon idealism begins to look a lot like dangerous, even disastrous, Neville Chamberlain-style naiveté—for which other people pay with their lives.

The London-born Ambler (1909–1998) straddled a century that gave him plenty of reason to place less faith in heroism. By the time he took up novel writing in the 1930s, the European situation was building inevitably toward war—frightening times for the general population but fruitful for a novelist drawn to the compromised intrigues of "contemporary reality." In Buchan's novels, everyman heroes, inspired by patriotism, use their pluck to foil anti-Western bad guys; Ambler asks what chance everymen stand against the new realities of National Fronts and fascist dictators, against arms dealers, mercenary spies, and profit takers.

Following in the footsteps of his parents, Ambler worked as a music-hall comedian and a playwright in the 1920s. It was an unlikely beginning for a politically engaged novelist, but Ambler learned a skill that no thriller writer can do without: how to entertain. He made what seems an unlikely switch to engineering, and did stints in that field and in advertising. (Several of his protagonists are engineers by trade, and he never misses a chance to work in a bit of technical knowledge.) Ambler spent a fair bit of time outside England, especially in Paris, which may help explain why his writing escapes the Anglocentric worldview of his predecessors. When war did come, Ambler—who had also worked as a script consultant to Alexander Korda—was assigned to a combat photography unit. After service in Italy, he became assistant director of army cinematography in the British War Office. Post-war, he made a career as a screenwriter and, beginning in the 1950s, returned to writing novels.

Like many of his peers, Ambler developed left-liberal sympathies during the 1930s, which animated his project of loosing the spy genre from its old nationalist and imperialist moorings. The typical Ambler hero is an Anglo-Saxon who, like his predecessors in the fiction of Buchan and others, still believes in democracy and decency; but in this new world, he doesn't have a real clue about the forces working against them. Being British or American no longer guarantees being on the right side, and if the hero ends up helping the good guys—assuming he can figure out who they are—it's not because he's a yeoman patriot but because he's lucked into good company after first stumbling disastrously (and thrillingly, from the reader's point of view) into bad.

Villains, too, get an updating in Ambler's hands. "It was the villains [of the genre] who bothered me most," Ambler wrote in his autobiography Here Lies. "Power-crazed or coldly sane, master criminals or old-fashioned professional devils, I no longer believed a word of them." In Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, the evildoers have Britain's war machine in their sights; in Ambler's books, they're more likely to try to undermine the balance of power in Central or Eastern Europe, with an eye toward making a profit out of the resulting chaos. Ambler foregrounds evil's mercenary tendencies; the worst blackguards are profiteers, not ideologues. As they often do in life, fascists often fill the villains' roles, joined by the forces of Big Business. Capitalism has been demoted from democracy's ally to its frequent enemy.

* * *

In Background to Danger (1937), for instance, the most dangerous creatures aren't the thugs who pursue the hero, Kenton, but their London-based employers, an oil consortium plotting to destabilize the Romanian government in order to secure more favorable oil concessions. Kenton reflects his creator's passion on the subject of the perfidious power of capitalism. "It was difficult, Kenton had found, to spend any length of time in the arena of foreign politics without perceiving that political ideologies had very little to do with the ebb and flow of international relations….The Foreign Ministers of the great powers might make the actual declarations of their Governments' policies; but it was the Big Business men, the bankers and their dependents, the arms manufacturers, the oil companies, the big industrialists, who determined what those policies should be. Big business asked the questions….Big Business also provided the answers."

Half-Irish and half-Breton, Kenton is a freelance journalist, professionally rootless; he crisscrosses Europe in search of a good story. He possesses "three important assets" that ought to make him savvier than he is: "the ability to learn foreign idiom quickly and to speak it with an un-English accent, a very sound knowledge of European politics, and a quick and shrewd judgment of news values." He also has a weakness for gambling; as the novel opens, he's broke and on a train from Nuremberg to Vienna, where he hopes to borrow money to pay off his debt.

An unsavory man enters Kenton's compartment, introduces himself as Herr Sachs, and feeds him a line about needing to get German securities out of the country before the Nazis confiscate them. If Kenton agrees to carry the documents safely across the frontier, he'll be rewarded for his services. Kenton is a worldly journalist who knows that the securities are now worthless outside Germany. But the promised fee tempts him; and so does a gamble, which Herr Sachs's proposal clearly is. So he pretends to buy the cock-and-bull story and agrees to play courier.

They arrange that, during a stopover in Linz, Kenton will return the papers to Herr Sachs at a hotel. Kenton arrives to discover Sachs dead, a knife between the ribs; the papers turn out to be photographs of military plans stolen from Russia. Before the night is through, Kenton is not only wanted by the Linz police for murder, he's been knocked over the head and kidnapped by the henchmen of a sinister figure named Colonel Robinson, a.k.a. Saridza, and threatened with torture if he doesn't produce the goods. Although he shares the moustache-twirling charisma of earlier villains, the mercenary Saridza is very much of his time, an amoral creature of Big Business, ready to torture and kill if his employers—in this case the London oil consortium, which wants to use the stolen photos to destabilize Romania with the threat of a Russian invasion—require it of him.

Kenton mounts a spirited if irrational resistance, very much in the Buchan "I'll never talk" tradition, but without any clear idea whom he's protecting or why. Enter one of the rare true-blue heroes in Ambler's fiction, the Russian agent Andreas Zaleshoff, who, along with his attractive, gun-toting, fast-driving sister, Tamara, makes a timely and daring intervention on Kenton's behalf. (The spying siblings turn up in similar white-knight roles in Cause for Alarm.) This is telling: Ambler's most heroic character, an honor-driven pragmatist who earns the chance to save the day and perhaps the world, is not an old-style Anglo-Saxon democrat but a servant of the Soviet regime.

Zaleshoff, however, is everything his government will prove not to be. Kenton, too pigheaded to know whom to trust, makes a crack-brained decision to try for home and safety via Czechoslovakia. En route to the frontier, a sour English traveling salesman named Hodgkin recognizes him as a wanted man. Hodgkin's catalogue of Kenton's ineptitude gives Ambler a chance to have some fun with the tradition of the intrepid regular-guy hero:

"You walk into a travel agency two minutes after the police have been in making inquiries about you there, peek right and left like you were a villain on the pictures, and start glaring at a map and mumbling in English….[Y]ou marches up to the counter and say you've only got an hour or two to spare, but you'll take a trip that lasts eight….You see a policeman and look as if you're going to have a heart attack, tell me you're leaving for Vienna by a train that doesn't run…. And, if you'll pardon my mentioning it, there's a stain the size of Lake Geneva on the back of your right sleeve that looks like blood."

Hodgkin, with his seemingly insular mind, despises murderers less than he despises Continentals, and so he won't rat on Kenton, whom he takes for a fellow Brit: "I hate their grub, I hate their drinks, I hate their way of going on, and I hate them….People come over here for a fortnight's holiday and see a lot of pretty châlets and châteaux and Schlösser and say what a fine place it is to live in. They don't know what they're talking about."

Every Ambler novel from the prewar period stands, in some way, as a rebuke to or a comment on the massacres, the popular betrayals, the war-mongering of the time, and so Hodgkin's xenophobic rant quickly transforms into righteous indignation:

"They [the tourists] don't see them when their blood's up. I've seen them all right. I was in sunny Italy when the Fascisti went for the freemasons in twenty-five. Florence it was. Night after night of it with shooting and beating and screams, till you felt like vomiting. I was in Vienna in thirty-four when they turned the guns on the municipal flats with the women and children inside them. A lot of the men they strung up afterwards had to be lifted on to the gallows because of their wounds. I saw the Paris riots with the garde mobile shooting down the crowd like flies and everyone howling 'mort aux vaches' like lunatics. I saw the Nazis in Frankfurt kick a man to death in his front garden. After the first he never made a sound."

This is stomach-churning stuff; Ambler makes his moral sympathies blisteringly clear. His outrage ambushes the reader, particularly in a book that works so well as entertainment. Once Kenton's got his information straight, Background to Danger launches into a series of high-adrenaline action scenes, including a deathtrap the colonel sets for our boys in a factory (fitting, given the perniciousness of capitalists throughout the novel); the infiltration by Zaleshoff and Kenton of the offices of a Prague newspaper in search of the incriminating photographs (in which Kenton the journalist is forced to play spy among his own kind); and a high-speed car chase and shootout in which Tamara and even Kenton get to display their respective skills with cars and guns.

Grounding all the hijinks and gunplay is a sophisticated knowledge of European politics in the 1930s. Ambler hangs his plots on the machinations of smaller players, and he never makes the classic Western European mistake of underestimating the volatile importance of the Balkans or "peripheral" nations such as Turkey. Businessmen in London manipulate officials in Bucharest; a story that begins in Istanbul has its final act in Paris; the fate of a key piece of Russian foreign policy is decided not in Moscow or Berlin but on a Czech country road. The fates of nations are shaped not only in boardrooms but in second-class train compartments.

The political specifics of Ambler's plots can seem bafflingly complex; chalk it up to an engineer's love of mechanical contraptions, applied to the workings of personal and national interaction. This complexity, in addition to their naiveté, makes it vital that Ambler's protagonists find a guide—a Zaleshoff if they're lucky or, if they're not, a shadier sort who possesses the right information but the wrong motives—to lead them through the thickets of intrigue. Information buys trust; in this new, compromised world, criminals are just as likely to be in possession of the truth as anybody else.

A Coffin for Dimitrios, with its willfully obtuse protagonist and almost coy setup, seems at the outset like a retreat from the political engagement of Background to Danger, but in truth it pushes the earlier book's moral viewpoint to a new, almost savage level of intensity. Charles Latimer is an Englishman, a former lecturer in political economy who has discovered a modestly lucrative talent for writing detective novels. Even their titles read like parodies of cozily insular English mysteries: "A Bloody Shovel," "'I,' said the Fly," "Murder's Arms." Having spent a year in Athens finishing his most recent book, Latimer goes to Istanbul for the always-dangerous "change of scene."

At a dinner party, he encounters Colonel Haki, the charismatic head of the Turkish secret police (he reappears in Journey Into Fear). Haki invites him by the office for a chat about an idea for a novel he doesn't have time to write himself. Latimer, "always meeting people who felt that they could write detective stories if they had the time," doesn't expect much out of the interview. Thanks to Haki he gets a look at the body of a real murderer, Dimitrios Makropoulous—found stabbed to death and floating in the Bosphorus "like the scum he was." Colonel Haki runs down the list of Dimitrios's crimes:

"Murder, espionage, drugs—that is the history. There were also two affairs of assassination."

"Assassination! That argues a certain courage, surely."

The Colonel laughed unpleasantly. "My dear friend, Dimitrios would have nothing to do with the actual shooting. No! His kind never risk their skins like thatã.They are the professionals, the entrepreneurs, the links between the businessmen, the politicians who desire the end but are afraid of the means, and the fanatics, the idealists who are prepared to die for their convictions. The important thing to know about an assassination or an attempted assassination is not who fired the shot, but who paid for the bullet."

A more sensible man might pay attention to these last words—they could serve as an epigraph for most of Ambler's novels—but Latimer is not sensible. Intoxicated by what he imagines to be a taste of reality, he decides, as a lark, to look into the affairs of the dead Dimitrios—"an absurd thing to attempt, of course. Unthinkably foolish…an experiment in detection really….it was amusing to play with the idea and if one were a little tired of Istanbul…."

The "experiment" takes Latimer from Istanbul to Smyrna to Athens to Sofia to Geneva; long before he reaches Paris, where the strange and deadly final act of the drama plays out, he's been held up at gunpoint in his hotel room, spent time with a Bulgarian madame, and fallen into company with Mr. Peters, a drug dealer turned blackmailer who holds the key to the truth about Dimitrios. Peters's first appearance gives Ambler occasion for one of his grotesque little descriptions that doubles as a character sketch:

"He was a fat, unhealthy-looking man of about fifty-five. He had turned to tip the porter before he spoke, and the first thing about him that impressed Latimer was that the seat of his trousers sagged absurdly, making his walk reminiscent of that of the hind legs of an elephant. Then Latimer saw his face and forgot about the trousers. There was the sort of sallow shapelessness about it that derives from simultaneous over-eating and under-sleeping. From above two heavy satchels of flesh peered a pair of pale blue, bloodshot eyes that appeared to be permanently weeping. The nose was rubbery and indeterminate….The lips… were set permanently in a saccharine smile. In conjunction with the weeping eyes above it, it created an impression of sweet patience in adversity, quite startling in its adversity. Here, it said, was a man who had suffered…He reminded Latimer of a high church priest he had known in England who had been unfrocked for embezzling the altar fund."

That Latimer shares his name with an English archbishop can't be accidental. Peters, in his disreputable way as indispensable a guide for Latimer as Zaleshoff is for Kenton, turns out to be anything but a martyr—as shrewd and pragmatic as Colonel Saridza, he's a prewar opportunist who shakes his head over others' weaknesses even as he exploits them for profit. Likewise, Dimitrios's career in crime, which Latimer undertakes to "solve" the way others pick up crossword puzzles, grows out of a selfishness so absolute that it doesn't balk even at murder—but it has roots in specific, deadly historical circumstances.

As Latimer travels to Smyrna, the first stop on his journey of investigation, Ambler lets us know viscerally what Latimer won't admit—that this is no lark but bloody and serious business. Ambler delivers a gruesome recap of the Turks' slaughter, sixteen years earlier, of the Greek refugees who sought safe harbor in the city:

Dragged from their houses and hiding places, men, women and children were butchered in the streets….The wooden walls of the churches, packed with refugees, were drenched with benzine and fired. The occupants who were not burnt alive were bayoneted as they tried to escape….By the time that dawn broke on the fifteenth of September, over one hundred and twenty thousand persons had perished; but somewhere amidst that horror had been Dimitrios, alive.

So much for Latimer's quaint and cerebral "experiment in detection." From ethnic massacre the story moves on to coups d'etat, stolen state secrets, the white slave trade and drug trafficking—enough of a crash course in prewar European iniquities, personal and political, to shake even an insular British writer of cozy detective stories out of his complacency, or so you'd think.

At the denouement, Latimer is in so deep that he literally has blood on his hands. His investigations have ended in murder; he should call the authorities; he can't possibly get involved. English rectitude wars with culpability and Latimer's desire to save his own skin. Faced with the bloody "shambles" he helped create, he finds himself reduced to acting like a murderer in one of his own books: "He must get out at once and he must leave no traces of his presence there." He wipes his fingerprints off the murder weapon and everything else he has touched at the scene, gets himself a train ticket home, and flees back to the safety of England, back to the sanitized dangers of his own fiction.

It wasn't until the 1950s that Ambler took up thrillers again. The postwar world, with its betrayed ideologies and its postcolonial swamps, turned out to be very hospitable to an updating of the kind of tale he had been creating before World War II. In these later novels, communists and nationalists continue to intrigue against each other, but the drama has moved to Iron Curtain courtrooms and to the jungles and decaying capitals of Third World ex-colonies. Non-Westerners control more and more of the action. Like the West itself, Ambler's protagonists are learning that, personal responsibility aside, the game's not really theirs to play any more, unless they're simply interested in turning a profit; otherwise they're peripheral to the political struggles they observe, superfluous, lucky to survive events much less influence their outcomes. These books aren't as much fun as those from the 1930s but they're no less interesting.

Ambler told the London Times, "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 sense of belief." The sense of loss weighs most heavily in the later books. Characters like Zaleshoff do not appear; every ideology has been compromised. Judgment on Deltchev (1951) concerns an English playwright sent behind the Iron Curtain to cover the show trial of a deposed leader who may or may not be the noble champion of the people he seemed. The Schirmer Inheritance (1953), a study in what becomes of fascists after their cause fails them, takes a young American lawyer to Greece in search of a German soldier turned guerrilla leader who may have inherited a fortune.

State of Siege (1956) and Passage of Arms (1960) branch out to Indonesia and Malaysia, places in fever-fits of decolonization. In these two novels, native forces and their internecine struggle for power take center stage. Westerners, when they intrude, do so not for political gain but strictly for commercial reasons. But even Western Big Business has been defanged in these Third World settings; its employees (hydroelectric engineers, machine-parts manufacturers) no longer call the shots—they get caught in the crossfire. All of these postwar novels are included among Vintage's planned reissues, along with The Light of Day (1962), the story of a Turkish jewel heist that became the movie Topkapi, and an earlier and less exciting effort, Epitaph for a Spy. In later years Ambler cowrote, with Charles Redda, several novels under the pseudonym Eliot Reed.

The novels of the 1930s, though, remain the most passionate, unsettling, and influential—not to mention the most entertaining—dramatizations of Ambler's take on the sordid realities. In a rare moment of insight, Charles Latimer offers up a quasi-condemnation of his kind in a letter to someone who has given him information about Dimitrios: "For myself, I begin to wonder. It is such a poor story, isn't it? There is no hero, no heroine; there are only knaves and fools. Or do I mean only fools?"

Confronted by bloody reality, Latimer can't bear to look it in the face. That—not interfering in other people's affairs—is his worst crime; he stands in for the apologists and appeasers of the 1930s. At the end, despite all that has happened, he puts his head down and withdraws. Snug in a berth aboard the Orient Express, retreating to England, all he allows himself to think about is his next detective story, full of the cozy, insular, world-denying clichés of home:

The scene? Well, there was always plenty of fun to be got out of an English country village, wasn't there? The time? Summer; with cricket matches on the village green, garden parties at the vicarage, the clink of teacups and the sweet smell of grass on a July evening. That was the sort of thing people like to hear about. It was the sort of thing that he himself would have liked to hear about. He looked out of the window. The sun had gone and the hills were receding slowly into the night sky….Two more days to go! He ought to get some sort of a plot worked out in that time. The train ran into a tunnel.

This is no "North by Northwest" gag but an indictment of willful tunnel vision. Latimer gets away with playing tourist while other people die. Better to be Kenton, who at least learns as he goes and comes to acknowledge a responsibility to do something about the evil afoot, recognizing that what affects one country ultimately affects the rest of Europe, too. Time and again, Ambler points out that dangerous as it is to operate blindly in the ever-more-complicated geopolitical game, denying one's part in that game carries an even graver risk. Down that road lies Munich 1938. <


Jennifer Howard is a contributing editor of the Washington Post Book World. Her fiction has appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review and online in The Blue Moon Review.


Originally published in the February/March 2002 issue of Boston Review



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