Killer Heels @The Brooklyn Museum

On an autumn trip to New York, my son wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, after which we found ourselves exploring Brooklyn Heights (quaint, polluted), and then realised it was only a short metro ride to the Brooklyn Museum.

Here there was a lot of interesting stuff in the permanent collection, early colonial art, as well as a show of contemporary work by Brooklyn-based artists. But it was all put in the shade by the surprisingly informative and fabulously entertaining exhibition about the ‘art of the high-heeled shoe’.

Prada. Wedge Sandal in Rosso, Bianco, and Nero Leather, Spring/Summer 2012. Courtesy of Prada USA Corp. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Prada. Wedge Sandal in Rosso, Bianco, and Nero Leather, Spring/Summer 2012. Courtesy of Prada USA Corp. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

The full title is Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe and it showcases a surprising amount you can do with such a humble implement as the shoe, an amazing amount. It showcases over 160 examples, from around the world, including some rare and precious historical artifacts.

Italian. Chopine, 1550–1650. Silk, metal. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Herman Delman, 1955. 2009.300.1494a, b. Brooklyn Museum photograph, Mellon Costume Documentation Project, Lea Ingold and Lolly Koon, photographers

Italian. Chopine, 1550–-1650. Silk, metal. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Herman Delman, 1955. Brooklyn Museum photograph, Mellon Costume Documentation Project, Lea Ingold and Lolly Koon, photographers

But the majority of exhibits are marvels of inventiveness contrived by a checklist of leading contemporary designers.

Zaha Hadid X United Nude. “NOVA,” 2013. Chromed vinyl rubber, kid napa leather, fiberglass. Courtesy of United Nude. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn. Chromed vinyl rubber, kid napa leather, fiberglass. Courtesy of United Nude. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Zaha Hadid X United Nude. “NOVA,” 2013. Chromed vinyl rubber, kid napa leather, fiberglass. Courtesy of United Nude. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn.

Apparently there is evidence of high heels from as long ago as ancient Greece and as far away as China and Japan.

Chinese. Manchu Woman's Shoe, 19th century. Cotton, embroidered satin-weave silk. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum Collection, 34.1060a, b. Brooklyn Museum photograph, Sarah DeSantis, photographer

Chinese. Manchu Woman’s Shoe, 19th century. Cotton, embroidered satin-weave silk. Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn Museum photograph, Sarah DeSantis, photographer

In fact, wherever there have been shoes, people have experimented with the effect you get by raising the soles and heels. Why?

What high heels do

According to the exhibition, high heels affect the wearer’s body thus – they:

  • push the chest out
  • lift the bottom
  • make the legs appear longer and therefore thinner
  • make the calves more taut and rounded
  • make the feet appear smaller

All in all, high heels make the wearer’s body seem less stumpy and clumpy (less like the body most of us actually possess) and taller, leaner, more agile and athletic, while emphasising bust and buttocks. In biological terms, they highlight a woman’s fertility, youth and fitness as a mate. On a cultural plane, they dramatise a woman’s sexuality.

In western culture, heels have come to be associated with empowering female sexuality, creating the classic stockings and suspenders ‘sexy’ look, so familiar from movies and posters. It is a short physical step – though quite a large psychological one – beyond this into the stilettoes-and-studs world of BDSM and fetish – once a kind of underground cult, but now popularised by the bestselling Shades of Grey novels – a world in which threatening heels are a key element of the dominating mistress.

Christian Louboutin. “Printz,” Spring/Summer 2013–14. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Christian Louboutin. “Printz,” Spring/Summer 2013–14. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Are all these levels of meaning invoked when a woman slips on her heels? Is the root of the pleasure which so many women take in wearing high heels because putting them on amounts to adopting a role, beginning a performance, outside of real life? With this one move, by slipping on one relatively simple item of wear, you can assume a dramatically different body shape and feel, as a result, a different person, a more gorgeous, glamorous, powerful person.

Short films

As well as spectacular shoes, the show includes six short films commissioned to take heels as a theme. The one I liked most was Smash by Marilyn Minter.

I quite liked Spike by Zach Gold, a little pop video-ey.

But I really enjoyed Scary Beautiful by Leanie van der Vyver. She made it as a satire on what happens when fashion gets out of control (there’s a five-minute film explaining her motivation, also on YouTube) but it is, without any commentary, a strange and haunting viewing experience, especially with the numb, bland, empty airport music accompaniment.

There’s also a great movietone newsreel with designers from the 1930s predicting what the woman of 2000 AD will wear. Watch out for the very last line of commentary, where the man of the future is predicted to be wearing a telephone and ‘containers for coins, keys and candies for cuties’.

Where can I buy one?

Fabulous shoes

Some of the designs were stunning. I especially liked the pagan, norse Stairway to heaven by Masyn Kushino, 2013. Also:

Vivienne Westwood. “Super Elevated Gillie,” 1993. Courtesy of Vivienne Westwood. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Vivienne Westwood. “Super Elevated Gillie,” 1993. Courtesy of Vivienne Westwood. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Having gone round this show slowly once, my son and I went off to explore the rest of the Brooklyn Museum, packed with interesting historical and colonial art as it is – but nothing could compare with the killer heels for vibrancy and humour, and so I found myself coming back for a second go-round.

Salvatore Ferragamo (Italian, 1898–1960). Platform Sandal, 1938. Leather, cork. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Salvatore Ferragamo, 1973 (1973.282.2). Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

Salvatore Ferragamo (Italian, 1898–1960). Platform Sandal, 1938. Leather, cork. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Salvatore Ferragamo, 1973. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

The shoes are funny, clever, colourful, creative, flaming with imagination. Inspiring that something which has, at bottom, such a crude physiological function, so trivial as a shoe, can be transformed by the almost infinite power of the creative mind into an alternative universe of fantasy and fulfilment.

Related links

Dead and Alive by Hammond Innes (1947)

My sense of loneliness made the throng of life in the drab back-streets more vivid. The film of dirt on the hairy legs of the girl who shuffled ahead of me in wooden soled sandals, the urgent shrill cries of the ageless women behind the street stands, the beggars, the boys who wandered barefooted through the streets pimping for their sisters who were still in their teens, the tawdry make-up of a woman standing hopefully beneath the tinsel-decorated lamp-lit shrine of the Madonna at the street corner, the poverty and the dirt, and the sour smell of streets that had no proper sanitation… (p.127)

This is a very short thriller (158 pages in the Fontana paperback) in two starkly contrasting parts: first, the mood and feel of recently demobbed English sailors at a loose end and kicking around the Cornish coast; then a travelogue across recently liberated Italy in all its poverty and corruption. It packs a lot of description, history and feeling into a small space.

The plot

A man adrift

David Cunningham captained Royal Navy landing craft during the war. In the first few pages he is holed up in the Cornish boarding house where he and his true love holidayed before the war. While he was away serving, she married a RAF pilot who was subsequently killed and then she was killed in a German air raid. Her mother sent on a box of jewellery and trinkets. Just to complicate matters, he fell for another woman on a short home leave but now the war is over, and he’s reunited with her and her mother and family, he realises he’s not ready for marriage, he doesn’t know what he’s ready for, he’s confused and disorientated, so he’s run away to this remote Cornish house.

He stares moodily into the fire. The landlady says, ‘Why don’t you go find out about the wreck along the coast?’

Turns out a big landing craft got washed ashore onto rocks in a narrow cove the year before. Another disgruntled vet, Stuart McCrae, bought it off the Admiralty and is living in it. (In a typical Innes coincidence, their paths actually crossed during the war, when Cunningham piloted his landing craft carrying tanks onto the beach at Anzio where, amid the chaos and corpses, the very brave McCrae stood amid the shells and bullets and guided him in.)

Floating the boat

Over a scotch and war reminiscences, David says he thinks he can float the landing craft. And so the first 50 pages are a long and detailed description of how he wangles equipment off Navy mates, then rigs up scaffolding, gantries, hawsers and cables and dragoons passing tourists into helping build a rock and sand slope, with which they manage – despite various setbacks (some fierce storms destroy all their work and they have to start again) – to get the LC back into the water. Along the way they pick up another stray ex-Navy man, Dugan, an engineer who fixes the motors, and who knows another bloke, Boyd, from Plymouth who signs on as crew.

They name the ship Trevedra after the nearby village.

The Monique storyline

Turns out one of the local holiday-makers who they persuaded to help building the ramp and gantries, is a newspaperman. He publishes a piece about their epic labour in a national newspaper, along with photos which prompts a surprising amount of ‘fan mail’, which he passes on to our chaps. Among the 124 letters is a moving one from an Emily Dupont. She married a Frenchman in the 1920s and lived in Paris. In the war her husband and son were killed. At an early stage of the German invasion, she packed off her daughter to stay with Italian cousins for safety. She writes that, if the guys are travelling to Italy, as the newspaper reports, could they please please please look for her daughter, Monique. The letter encloses a photo of a pretty 15-year-old and the address of the people she was sent to stay with.

The business deal

Meanwhile McCrae proposes a simple business set-up. He and Cunningham go 50-50 in a new company. The two crew get a percentage of profits. Cunningham will be captain and have absolute authority on the ship. McCrae will negotiate cargo and business deals. They shake on it. While Cunningham finalises the ship’s refurbishment, McCrae goes off to London to do business. He comes back with the news that Italy – which they both know – is poverty stricken, and desperate in particular for all forms of transport. McCrae has fixed up with an old Army pal to buy some knackered Bedford lorries and spares. They’ll load these with fags and booze and sail to Italy, selling at a good price and use the money to buy a return cargo – probably all the rare wines and liqueurs Italy is famous for, and British soldiers came home with a taste for, but which are difficult to obtain here. A mate of his in London has agreed to distribute any fine booze they bring back and is already making enquiries about potential business customers.

Very thorough of Innes to put in these details. Very plausible account. And very typically ordinary, low level, not international corporations. Very much the man on the street, the demobbed soldier or sailor trying to start again from scratch, as in Killer Mine.

Sailing to Italy

Fairly uneventful, full of accurate and evocative descriptions of the sea which are Innes’ trademark.

Post-war Italy

The novel’s deep value may come less from its plot than from its searing and moving descriptions of post-war Italy, a corrupt and devastated shambles. Innes gives powerful descriptions of war-torn Naples, the damaged people and buildings. They dock, meet their business contact and dispose of the lorries and cigarettes on the spot for a big profit, then bank the proceeds and have a night on the town. Next day they are invited to a swanky party of a local bigwig up on the hill at Posillipo. In this swish villa, among the sleek men and scantily dressed women, Cunningham and McCrae are revolted at the contrast between the chattering rich and the absolute poverty in the city below, where people are literally starving to death.

When the bigwig, Del Ricci, takes them for a business chat and proposes buying the landing craft for double its market value, McCrae loses his temper: He knows Del Ricci is an ex-fascist, he knows he wants to use the landing craft to run guns to support his extortionate business practices, and he gives a big speech about how many British boys died horribly to liberate this country, not to give it back into the hands of fascists and crooks like him. When Del Ricci goes for his pocket pistol, McCrae lays him out with a big British punch. In the taxi back to the port Cunningham warns him, you shouldn’t have done that…

Looking for Monique

While McCrae pursues business contacts, Cunningham asks their local fixer to track down the address Emily Dupont gave him for Monique. Slowly the trail unfolds. Seems the address he was given was for a dodgy apartment block, a ristorante on the ground floor and brothel above it, with one respectable apartment where the Galliani family lived along with Monique. But the present owners say family and girl are long gone. They moved to a farm in the country.

Cunningham sets off to find her, taking Boyd, the cockney sailor, with him, telling McCrae they’ll be back in a day or two. He is so upset by the waste and horror of war, by the poverty and misery of Naples that – suddenly – finding her for her mother feels like a mission, a purpose, to try and put something right in this screwed-up world.

In fact it takes many days to follow the trail: first to a dusty farm, where Cunningham finds two old ladies. They confirm that the family from Naples came to stay here along with the girl. But at the end of the war, they describe a sickening incident when the Germans parked an 88mm flak gun by the farmhouse and used it for a while to defend a nearby bridge. When the Germans left, they set fire to the farmhouse. When the menfolk tried to intervene, the father was covered in petrol and set on fire, the others shot in the face. It is a revolting story, and typical of the violence and brutality Innes’ war-haunted protagonist sees all around him. Every road and hill and village brings back terrible memories of the war and its atrocities…

The women think Monique is in the village of Pericele. Boyd and Cunningham drive on through the killing grounds of the war, towns and cities flattened or pock-marked with artillery and bullet marks. Pericele turns out to be an impoverished dump and the parish priest a shifty creep who lies to them. After much prevarication it they discover that Monique has been sold into semi-serfdom to the village bully, Mancini. They track her down to a stream on his farm where she is dressed in rags and tells them how Mancini routinely whips her and beats her: he wants her to come begging to him for sex. She bursts into tears. Boyd and Cunningham are appalled at the humiliation and degradation of this still very young woman, but they see Mancini coming towards them in the distance, along with farmhands carrying shotguns. Boyd and Cunningham beat a hasty retreat but promise to return for her that evening.

That night Cunningham and Boyd, true to their promise, return to Mancini’s farm, parking the car some distance away and sneaking up quietly on the silent buildings. They discover Monique has been locked in the outdoor privy. But they make too much noise getting her out and Mancini comes roaring out of his house with his bullwhip. Cunningham tackles him and there is a bitter, unglamorous fight there in the farmyard muck. By wriggling free of his jacket Cunningham manages to get to his feet and run to the car Boyd has ready. They escape at top speed but, by the time they arrive back in Naples, Cunningham realises all his money, his wallet and his passport were in the damn jacket.

Stuck in Naples

Boyd and Cunningham make straight for the docks only to be stunned to learn that the Trevedra has sailed without them! What! Surely McCrae would never leave them. When they go to the bank where they happily deposited their profits a few days before, they discover McCrae emptied the account before leaving! What! I immediately suspected that McCrae has been killed by the mafioso he insulted and hit up at the hilltop villa.

Meanwhile, Cunningham and Boyd and Monique, united by their midnight exploits and their plight, pawn Cunningham’s watch and reluctantly move into the very sleazy apartment block-cum-bordello where Monique lived when she first came to stay in the city. It’s dirt cheap and has the advantage that the madam is tolerant of them. Also that it brings them into contact with the raddled old deserter who lives in one of the rooms and forges documents. The British Consul had agreed, reluctantly, to grant Cunningham a temporary passport to replace the one he left behind at Mancini’s farm, but refused point blank  to give one to Monique. Now, when Cunningham returns despondent from a day going to various offices (consulate, bank, harbour office), Boyd and Monique proudly show Cunningham her forged passport and travel documents. Job done.

The man who was paralysed

That night the forger asks them round for drinks. In a melodramatic scene worthy of Robert Louis Stevenson or Conan Doyle, he is given a long monologue in which reveals himself to be an embittered and crippled Scotsman, who got into various types of trouble in the Army, before deserting at Monte Cassino and making his way to Naples. He had always fancied himself an artist but here in a city racked by crime, discovered his true métier was forging papers, at which he has now become a master. The melodrama of his early escapades with the Army and then setting-up as a master forger, switches to lachrymose sentimentality as he starts talking about his dear old mum back in the wee Scots village of Ballachulish. He makes Cunningham swear to tell her – using his authority and swank as a former officer – that her son was a success, a prosperous businessman with a beautiful wife and bonny baby boy. But that, tragically, he was cut down in a street accident and has passed away. He’s forged the papers and even a will. He is, he points out bitterly, dying of syphilis anyway. He just wants his dear old mother to maintain her illusions.

— This extraordinary chapter is built from paper-thin clichés – how the idealistic young man slowly realises he is a rotten artist and becomes disillusioned; how he hates and loathes the Army and all its brutality; how he hates the pukka, public-school-educated officer class who had effortless confidence in everything they do; how the one and only ‘true’ work of art he ever made was the portrait of fair Monique, back when she was living with the Gallianis, and inspired by her beauty and innocence etc. Switching back to bitterness, he vents his scorn on the raddled Neapolitan prostitute he now lives with and her bastard son. The whole thing reeks of Victorian melodrama and is enjoyable as a remarkable reversion to the sensationalist fiction of the 1880s and 90s.

But it isn’t a completely random insertion: it also serves to move the plot along, because the paralysed man says that, if Cunningham swears on the Bible to take the message to his wee old mother, he’ll tell them what happened to their ship. Cunningham swears on the Bible. The paralysed man reveals that he forged papers for the Trevedra. He forged papers giving it a new name and naming its legal owner as Del Ricci. Aha. It all falls into place. Rather than buy the ship off the offensive McCrae, Del Ricci has just stolen it.

The paralysed man says it’s currently moored at Porto Giglio, on an island near Elba. He gives our chaps the name of a local ex-partisan and communist who very much wants to prevent the neo-fascist Del Ricci becoming the dominant power on this western coast. He says he’s arranged a rendezvous with this man, nicknamed the ‘Little Octopus’, at the trattoria in the Vicoletto Berio the next morning.

The Little Octopus

Our chaps meet the Octopus. When they tell him where the boat is moored, he makes arrangements and tells them to wait that night at a point on the road out of town. That night they have all their bags with them, and jump aboard the lorry carrying sacks of flour which arrives to collect them. They drive for hours north towards Rome and then west to the coast. Here they park at a harbour and load into a waiting island schooner, a filthy vessel run by an even filthier old captain, all spit and vino. The schooner sails out to Porto Giglio. Cunningham notices feet sticking out from under one of the collapsed sails. The Octopus notices and smiles cruelly. ‘If you live like a rat you die like a rat,’ he says. He shows Cunningham the cigarette tin and lighter with Del Ricci’s initials. They’ve murdered him. A little later his body is dropped overboard. Boyd comments that there is no law in this god-forsaken country and, on the evidence of this novel, there really doesn’t seem to be.

The schooner sails into Porto Giglio, where they execute their simple plan. They deliberately bump the schooner against the landing craft, which is moored in the centre of the harbour. The LC’s crew come out and start arguing and shouting, as Italians do, whereupon our lot of Italians hold them up at gunpoint. It could have been left at that, but again there is an excess of violence as, once they have tied and gagged the sailors, the Octopus proceeds to torture one of them with the tip of his lighted cigarette, stuffing a rag in his mouth to stifle the man’s screams. He is in the middle of doing this when Boyd on the bridge is overpowered by a baddy who’d been hiding below-decks. The Octopus shoots him without hesitation. Brains splatter onto Monique’s dress. She had wanted to see ‘fighting’. Now she realises she doesn’t like it.

The tortured baddy reveals that McCrae and the other crewman, Dugan, are in the lockers in the stern. Cunningham releases them, very much the worse for wear for having no food or water for two days. With that the Octopus says farewell. He has murdered his rival and deprived his organisation of a useful vessel. ‘How can we repay you?’ asks Cunningham. ‘Oh, you will return to Italy one day and maybe I will need help. That is all I ask.’ And he and his men climb back aboard the schooner and are gone.

Cunningham sets a course away from Italy out into the clean bracing air of the Mediterranean. McCrae and Dugan are recovering in the cabin. Boyd is running the engines. In an image which recurs in several later books, Cunningham guides Monique’s hands onto the spokes of the wheel and feels her warm body press back against his. They are in love. The future is going to be good.

Thoughts

As you can see the plot is pretty over-ripe, tipping into Victorian melodrama at points, but nonetheless it is gripping and well-told. It could have made a taut b&w 1950s movie starring one of the square-jawed English heroes from the time.

But the book is really worth reading for the tremendous flavour it gives you of a devastated Italy immediately after the war, the poverty and squalor and hopelessness, among which sit islands of opulence and plenty, all overlaid by the menacing presence of fascist bullies and mafia criminals. The drive through former battlefields as Cunningham relives the heat and sweat and blood and spilling guts of dying men in every village and field is very powerful. There is nothing, absolutely nothing glamorous or redeeming in the war that Innes describes. And the Italy he portrays couldn’t be further from the tourist fantasia of our times.

It’s powerful testimony to a now-distant and terrible era.


Credit

Dead and Alive by Hammond Innes was published by William Collins in 1941. All references are to the 1980 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Attack Alarm by Hammond Innes (1941)

‘I have to get to a certain farm tonight,’ I said. ‘I’m playing a lone hand against a gang of fifth columnists. They’ve got a plan that will enable the Germans to capture our fighter aerodromes. I aim to stop them.’…
A sudden gleam came into his small, close-set eyes. ‘Cor lumme!’ he said. ‘Wot a break! Like a book I bin reading all about gangsters in America. Will they have guns?’ (p.158)

This is a cracking good adventure yarn in the spirit of John Buchan or, at moments, Biggles. It’s a first-person narrative by Barry Hanson, formerly a journalist on the Globe newspaper, who is now, in the Battle of Britain summer of 1940, one of a platoon or squad manning a 3-inch anti-aircraft gun at ‘Thorby’, a fighter airfield near the North Downs, south of London.

Set-up

We meet the dozen or so men of Hanson’s detachment, their officers, some of the WAAFs, watch them man the gun, rest and sleep and feed at the NAAFI, thus establishing the workaday background.

Rumour has been going round that a Nazi agent was found with detailed plans of Thorby airfield. The crew watch one night as the nearby airfield of Mitchet is heavily bombed by German planes. A few nights later our chaps hit a German bomber and watch it fall to earth and explode. The crew parachute down to land near the field and Hanson is among those who are close enough to talk to the captain. He is a surly Nazi who insists on seeing an officer. When Hanson (who picked up German while working in his paper’s Berlin office before the war) questions him a bit more, the German arrogantly says, ‘The Invasion is coming, the Luftwaffe will defeat the RAF, this airfield at Thorby will be flattened on Friday.’ He is in mid-flow when he suddenly shuts up. Looking behind him Hanson sees the camp librarian, a Mr Vayle, has appeared. Was it his presence which made the pilot go quiet?

Later Hanson hears the pilot was much more circumspect when hauled before the airfield CO and Intelligence officer, downplaying the Friday bombing claim – and  Hanson learns that Vayle was in attendance, chatting to the pilot in German while he was being attended to the Medical Officer and before that interrogation. Can Vayle possibly be a German spy?

Hanson asks a WAAF he’s got friendly with, Marion, to send a telegram to the Globe’s crime correspondent, but the message is suspicious enough for the village Post Office to report it to the camp commandant, and Hanson finds himself hauled over the coals: he is in the Army now, it is forbidden to go off freelancing like this, if he has suspicions he reports them to his CO and goes through proper channels. It is ludicrous to think Vayle is a Nazi spy, the man is Jewish and fled the Nazis in 1934. — Hanson is confined to camp for 28 days.

One man who knows the truth

The result is a classic early thriller situation: one man who is convinced he knows a secret the authorities won’t admit; who is convinced he knows about a spy; is convinced there will be a devastating raid on his airfield; but the Authorities won’t believe him. And even his colleagues turn suspicious of him, since they all saw him having a chatty conversation in German with the downed pilot. They think he‘s the fishy one. Like the protagonist of a Hitchcock film, he is surrounded by suspicion and fear.

I sat there in a numbed state of fear at the thought of what it meant. For it meant, of course, that I was a marked man. (p.78)

In quick succession Hanson finds a folded-up map of the base hidden in his pass, then finds one of the camp workman has reported him to the authorities for asking lots of suspicious questions about the new rewiring of the airfield. The workman suggests the authorities search Hanson, which they do, not finding the map which Hanson burned immediately after finding it – but now he realises that Vayle has this man as an accomplice; there’s at least two of them.

And then he discovers there’s a woman, too: Elaine, a pretty, flirtatious WAAF. Hanson breaks into Vayle’s office and finds a photo of Vayle and Elaine together, with ‘Berlin 1934’ written on it. Are they a husband-and-wife spy team? Will the big attack the German pilot promised for Friday actually materialise? Hanson’s girlfriend, Marion, overhears Elaine talking in her sleep about Cold Harbour Farm: does that place have some significance in Nazi invasion plans?

The pace doesn’t let up, and the setting, in an airfield where everyone is tense with anticipation of the next air raid and overwrought through lack of sleep, adds to the increasingly feverish atmosphere, until Hanson realises he is going to have to go AWOL and nip out of the camp to go in person to this Cold Harbour Farm to find out if it really is the base for some kind of invasion plan. It’s lucky for him that the squadron’s pint-sized cockney, Mickey, picks the same time and place to do a runner, so that they end up forming an unlikely alliance to combat the fiendish Nazi conspiracy.

Historical accuracy

Innes served as a Royal Artillery anti-aircraft gunner at RAF Kenley during the Battle of Britain. We can assume that the description of the geography and layout of RAF ‘Thorby’, along with the officers and men, and the tense and draining life of constant worry, are accurate. And, as with most of Innes’ other novels, you experience the strange sensation of buying into a totally mundane, ordinary, workaday setting, and then slowly getting sucked into the mounting hysteria of an ever-more unlikely plot.

How to create tension

Part of the technique is to put the ordinary bloke protagonist through a succession of scary or tense situations; then to have him mull over at frequent intervals, the nature of fear, of feeling your guts turn to water or becoming aware of your heart beating fast on your chest etc. It helps that the hero only has one other person he can rely on, ideally a dishy, plucky, loyal woman – at least she believes me – in this case the WAAF Marion, who runs up to hug Hansom at the very satisfying happy end of this gripping entertainment.

Innes’ delaying tactics

This early novel also hints at a technique he will really on more and more as the years pass, the tendency for all Innes characters to never quite express their thoughts, never tell each other what’s happening, to bottle up, or not express, or not spit it out. So many Innes conversations feature pregnant pauses, shrugging of shoulders, hesitations or plain silence… Used in moderation, this is a way of increasing tension, but even in this early novel the plot only really exists because Hanson refuses to go to his CO and lay all the evidence before him – at which point things would be taken completely out of his hands and we’d have no solo heroics. Similarly, if protagonists of later novels just said ‘We scuttled the ship’ (The Wreck of The Mary Deare) or ‘We’re looking for diamonds’ (Target Antarctica) the narratives would stop dead in their tracks. Instead Innes concocts two hundred pages from his tactics of delay and non-communication.

Sensations not thoughts

It also reveals the rather low intellectual content of his books. The narrator has a few sentences feeling sorry for the poor buggers in the planes they’re trying to shoot down and which are blown up in the book’s spectacular conclusion, a few trite reflections on the beastliness of war – but these are shallow gestures, clichés, the kind of nostrums you’re expected to utter as ‘a Writer’.

In fact, the text shows no reflectiveness or thought. Its focus is on convincingly describing the boredom and irritations of Army living, interspersed with vivid descriptions of terrifying air attacks, before settling down to shock, thrill and excite the reader with its breathlessly melodramatic plot.


Credit

Attack Alarm by Hammond Innes was published by William Collins in 1941. All references are to the 1980 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler (1940)

He tried to think of his wife and found that he could not. The things of which she was a part, his house, his friends, had ceased to exist. He was a man alone, transported into a strange land with death for its frontiers: alone… (p.201)

The sixth and final novel of Eric Ambler’s First Phase (1936-40), before he stopped writing to do war work and then spend the rest of the 1940s involved in film screenplays and movie production. This is possibly the best of the six.

Journey Into Fear was Evening Standard book of the month in July 1940, the month the Third Republic ceased to exist and the Battle of Britain began (Here Lies, p.158).

Set-up

Graham (his first name is not given) is an engineer (as was Ambler himself before he moved into advertising). It is 1940, World War II is under way. Graham’s engineering firm have sent him to Turkey to work on torpedo and other additions to the Turkish navy. He returns to Istanbul from a few hard weeks at provincial factories and is taken by the firm’s Stamboul minder, Kopeikin, to some bars and nightclubs, where a girl he’s dancing with points out that someone shifty is watching him. As he walks into his hotel room that night an intruder fires three shots at him, two missing, one grazing his hand. Kopeikin takes him to Colonel Haki of the Turkish secret police who tells him he will be murdered if he takes the scheduled train back to London; the assassin Banat has been hired by a German agent Moeller to kill Graham to prevent any further improvement to Turkey’s fleet. Therefore, Graham must travel to Italy secretly aboard the tramp steamer Haki has booked him on.

But – you might not be altogether amazed to learn – it turns out that danger and death have pursued our hero even onto this supposedly safe ship!

Rogues gallery

If Epitaph for a Spy echoed the format of the classic English country house murder mystery (which of the hotel guests is the spy?!), Journey echoes Agatha Christie’s translation of that format into moving but enclosed spaces eg Murder On the Orient Express (1934), Death On the Nile (1937). One of the other nine or so guests on the steamer to Italy is trying to kill Graham – but which one?

  • Josette the cabaret dancer
  • José, her angry partner and  husband
  • Mr Kuvetli, the Turkish tobacco dealer
  • Dr Fritz Haller, the old German archaeologist
  • Frau Haller, his gruff wife
  • the French business man fond of delivering communist rants, Monsieur Mathis
  • his nagging wife, madame Mathis
  • the Italian mother and son, Signor and Signora Batonelli

And then, a third of the way in, the plot takes a twist when the man Graham saw in the nightclub in Stamboul, the man Colonel Haki told him is an assassin hired to kill him, joins the ship at Athens!

From this point onwards the novel becomes thick with Graham’s fears and paranoia as Graham tries not to panic, to keep calm in his mundane encounters with the man who he must pretend not to know about, while inside his guts are churning and his mind is working overtime. The focus on the inner feelings and thoughts of the protagonist make this the most Graham Greene-ish of Ambler’s phase one novels. It is a simple situation but even the smallest development gives rise to pages of feverish anxiety and it is this – not much action, lots of realistic worry – which make it the most plausible of Ambler’s early novels.

The Tintin affect

The first Tintin cartoon strip by Hergé appeared in 1929. Through the 1930s Hergé created a series of adventures for his boy reporter (often in fictional and murky east European countries). If you’re familiar with Tintin you’ll know that not only is there a repertoire of first-rank friends who appear in most of the adventures (Captain Haddock, the Thompson twins, Professor Calculus) but a number of secondary characters who also crop up in more than one story, for example the comic figures Madame Castafiore and Jolyon Wagg, and the baddy Rastapopoulos, helping to reinforce the sense of a ‘Tintin world’.

In his first six novels Ambler does something similar.

  • Two of the novels (Danger and Alarm) feature the KGB agent Andreas Zaleshoff as a key figure.
  • This is the second consecutive novel to feature the Turkish head of secret police, Colonel Haki.
  • The fictional arms manufacturing company Cator and Bliss appears in almost all the novels: the sinister Simon Groom who tries to recruit Barstow in The Dark Frontier works for C&B; ironically, at the end of Cause For Alarm Marlow quits the dangerous Spartacus Machine Company with relief to go and work for C&B, knowing nothing about its dodgy dealings; and here, in Journey, the protagonist Graham starts the story as a senior engineer working for C&B, before events make him reflect a little on the full implications of his armaments work…

These repetitions may be intended to reinforce Ambler’s sense that the world is linked by the (generally malevolent) machinations of behind-the-scenes banks and corporations; to demonstrate that even the most honest, straightforward Englishmen, simply by working for companies involved in morally questionable activity, find themselves thrown into murky situations.

But these ‘small-world’ repetitions also foster the impression that the books are slightly cartoon-ish, dealing with, no doubt serious, social and political issues in a rather light, rather Tintinesque way.

Anti-Big Business

As usual there is a character whose job is to rant against Big Business and banks. In previous  novels the KGB agent Zaleshoff, here it is the Frenchman Mathis who is given a number of speeches on the subject, beginning with the story of being a soldier during the Great War and knowing the Allies had orders not to bomb the iron mines at Briey just behind the German lines which had been co-opted to supply the German army, because these works were owned by senior figures in the French government. Ie plant, machinery, factories are more important to the people who run governments than the lives of their own citizens.

‘And so,’ [Mathis] was saying vehemently, ‘it goes on. The big newspapers of the Right are owned by those whose interest it is to see that France spends her wealth on arms and that the ordinary people do not understand too much of what goes on behind the scenes. I am glad to be going back to France because it is my country. But do not ask me to love those who have my country in the palms of their hands. Ah, no!’ (p.168)

Or the banks.

‘Banking!’ Mathis was saying. ‘What is it but usury? Bankers are money-lenders, usurers. But because they lend other people’s money or money that does not exist, they have a pretty name. They are still usurers. Once, usury was a mortal sin and an abomination, and to be a usurer was to be a criminal for whom there was a prison cell. To-day the usurers are the gods of the earth and the only mortal sin is to be poor.’ (p.215)

‘Ha! Banking is a mystery! It is too difficult for mortal men to understand.’ He laughed derisively. ‘If you make two and two equal five you must have a lot of mystery.’ He turned aggressively to Graham. ‘The international bankers are the real war criminals. Others do the killing, but they sit, calm and collected, in their offices and make money.’ (p.216)

Thriller clichés

It feels like certain sentiments just have to appear in every thriller in order to qualify the book for inclusion in the genre:

The world is a battlefield/jungle

Once on board ship, Graham reads an antiquated lifeboat notice:

He had read the same sort of thing dozens of times before, but now he read it carefully. The paper it was printed on was yellow with age. The lifebelt on top of the washing cabinet looked as if it had not been moved for years. It was all ludicrously reassuring. ‘In case of danger…‘ In case! But you couldn’t get away from danger!It was all about you, all the time. You could live in ignorance of it for years: you might go to the end of your days believing that some things couldn’t possibly happen to you, that death could only come to you with the sweet reason of disease or an ‘act of God’: but it was there just the same, waiting to make nonsense of all your comfortable ideas about your relations with time and chance, ready to remind you – in case you had forgotten – that civilisation was a word and that you still lived in the jungle. (p.87)

A credo echoed in Greene’s novel It’s A Battlefield and throughout Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled crime novels.

Why, this is like something out of a Hollywood movie / dime novel / shilling shocker!

 Graham felt something tightening in  his chest. He had to force himself to smile. ‘A little melodramatic, aren’t you? We have no proof that what you say is true. And, after all, this is real life, not…’ He hesitated.
‘Not what, Mr Graham?’ the Colonel was watching him like a cat about to streak after a mouse.
‘… the cinema, I was going to say, only it sounded a little impolite.’
Colonel Haki stood up quickly. ‘Melodrama! Proof! Real life! the cinema! Impolite!’ His lip curled around the words as if they were obscene. ‘Do you think I care what you say, Mr Graham?’ (p.62)

Satisfying

This seemed to me the best of Ambler’s six pre-War novels. The protagonist’s plight is simple but gives rise to pages of detailed description of his fear and anxiety which really bring it home: this is how you would feel. There is also a parallel thread in the book which is Graham’s flirtation with the showgirl, Josette. She is portrayed as a very attractive, knowing, hard, cynical but warm presence, and again we see close-up how Graham’s feelings for her develop under the stress of the situation, how she becomes an invaluable ally in his attempts to avoid being killed.

But by the same token, once the pressure is off, once Graham has escaped his killers, right at the end of the novel, we share his sudden revelation of how squalid she is – all along her husband had been waiting to extract money from Graham for enjoying her ‘favours’ when they get to Paris. In the cold light of day, sober and free of his nightmare plight, Graham suddenly realises how seedy the whole arrangement is, that his ‘love’ or whatever he calls it was purely the product of his journey into fear; so he gives them some money but walks away. The end.

Both these themes – the prolonged threat of death and the rise and fall of his passion for Josette – are handled at length and very persuasively, and are both brought to satisfying and persuasive ends. Which is why, despite the absence of much ‘action’, I think this is the best, the deepest and most emotionally satisfying, of Ambler’s six pre-War novels.

Related links

1943 movie version

As so often with these thriller/gangster/noir novels it took only a few years to be turned / translated / processed into a (strangely short) Hollywood movie, produced and directed by Orson Welles and starring himself and Joseph Cotten. RKO paid Ambler $20,000 for the rights (Here Lies, p.170). Ambler lists some of the problems the film encountered: Welles was quarreling with the RKO front office. Shooting began without a completed script. On the first day a technician had an accident and died. Eventually RKO took over control of the film and edited it themselves. ‘The result was scrappy.’ (Here Lies, p.223).

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

Wreckers Must Breathe by Hammond Innes (1940)

Hammond Innes

(Ralph) Hammond Innes OBE wrote some 34 novels, as well as children’s and non-fiction books, in a career spanning nearly 60 years from his first book, The Doppelganger (1937) to the last one, Delta Connection (1996). After private school he drifted through a number of jobs including journalist for the Financial News, all the time working on his early novels.

He was chuffed to get his first novel accepted by a publisher but not so pleased to find himself tied into a four-book deal at a low fee. He rattled these first four books out pdq before switching to new publishers with a better deal. Later in life he conceded that this first burst of piece-work taught him the craft.

Wreckers Must Breathe

Wreckers Must Breathe (1940) is Innes’ 6th book ie still very early. It’s a ripping yarn about a journalist/drama critic, Walter Craig, on holiday in Cornwall. His fishing boat is nearly rammed by a U-boat which he and the local fisherman mistake for a shark. Returning from the beach he falls in with a man wading ashore, leading him to suspect something odd is going on. That night he goes down to the shore with a local fisherman, Big Logan, only for both of them to be caught at gunpoint and taken aboard the aforementioned U-boat.

There is a thrilling sequence where the U-baot is forced to dive and our heroes wait as suspensefully as the german crew while a British cruiser tries to depth charge them. The U-boat survives and Craig and Logan are taken prisoner to a secret underground U-boat base worked into the remains of a ruined Cornish tin mine. (The book includes a clear diagram of the layout of the base which becomes very useful as the novel progresses.) Here they are forced to work helping maintain the small fleet of U-boats and all the time wondering how to either escape or blow the place up.

Maureen Weston’s story

Craig’s first-person narrative is interrupted half way through by a collection of documents which tell the story from the point of view of a lady journalist, Maureen Weston. She is contacted by Craig’s London paper to investigate his disappearance and her investigations are chronicled in telegrams, letters and transcripts of phone calls which the narrator claims to have later assembled. This harks back to the Victorian use of letters and other media in popular stories (think of Dracula) and is a reminder of the eternal problem of point-of-view in a novel.

These pages, Maureen Weston section of the novel, have their own distinct tone and style, different from Craig’s first person narrative, that of a tough, sardonic woman journalist. She’s a very modern and enjoyable character.

Weston pieces the bits of the jigsaw together and begins to realise:

  • the U-boat base is a disused tin mine right on the coast
  • it was abandoned after a disastrous flood
  • it was subsequently bought by an out-of-town businessmen who got local miners to dig a set of new exploratory shafts fanning out from a central cavern
  • he then supposedly abandoned his efforts
  • but they were in fact finished off by Germans brought over by U-boat.

She only completely confirms this on a trip down the mine with three local miners when they stumble into the base and are themselvescaptured and locked up in the cell next to Logan and Craig. The prisoners in the two cells realise they can communicate by morse code.

Tension

The situation might have drifted but great urgency is lent the story because early on Craig had discovered that the secret coastal meeting which they blundered into right at the start of the book was between a German spy handing over a naval document stolen from London to the U-boat captain. This document gives the co-ordinates for a rendezvous of Royal Navy ships in the North Sea. Thus tipped off the U-boats are planning to attack and sink the lot, with not only loss of British lives but giving the Germans important propaganda early in the war.

Showdown

In a sustained and bloody climax to the novel Logan, Craig and the three miners take out their guards on a submarine they’re loading, then seize large amounts of weapons and start a small war. They blow up the tunnels leading to their dock and use the U-boat’s main gun to destroy the entrance to the cavern, then fight off all-comers with small arms and hand grenades.

In a strange and haunting finale Craig sets fire to oil and petrol above a seam of limestone, knowing it will reduce the stone to quicklime and release large amounts of carbon dioxide. Our heroes lock themselves in the U-boat with its handy air supply and oxygen apparatus. The Germans try to break in using oxy-acetylene cutting equipment and are half way through cutting the U-boat hatch open when all sounds of activity cease.

When our heroes emerge, weating the oxygen masks, they find hundreds of Germans collapsed all over the docks due to asphyxiation. They escape into the older mine workings which they are cutting their way through when they are discovered and rescued by a Royal Navy party.

We, the readers, have known that all along the Craig’s newspaper had been informing the police about what Maureen Weston was discovering, and that the police had contacted MI5 who had pieced the whole story together and alerted the nearest naval force. Who come triumphantly to the rescue and take the Germans prisoner.

Thriller tropes

The opening passages of Wreckers Must Breathe are very interesting purely as social history. They capture the mood of England on the days leading up to the outbreak of World War II, giving a vivid sense of the fears and anxieties of ordinary people – and then the horrible sinking feeling as war is declared.

But once into the main body of the story, it is fascinating to see just how many tropes it contains which are staples of later thrillers, scenes I’ve read about or seen in movies countless times:

  • Crew trapped in a submarine while an enemy ship depth charges it, everyone silent, holding their breath, looking up.
  • The enormous elaborate underground U-boat pen built in an abandoned Cornish tin mine is described in great detail and sounds very like the secret baddy bases of the James Bond movies.
  • An impression reinforced when it is the setting for the final bombing and shooting spree which our heroes unleash as they try to escape, five of them taking on over 500 Germans.
  • The lady journalist is presented as genuinely strong, feisty, intelligent. But she also happens to be good looking and ‘startlingly provocative’. And, given the presence of a lady, certain tropes are inevitable:
    • inevitably she falls behind and the big strong fisherman has to go back to ‘rescue’ her
    • inevitably both he and the pretty lady are then captured and used by the Germans as human shields
    • inevitably, as the Germans open fire, big strong fisherman is able to nudge the machine gun their guard is using to open fire on Craig, thus saving his life – obviously he is then gun-butted in the face, a moment I’m sure I’ve seen in scores of movies
  • In a scene I’ve read and watched scores of times (Where Eagles Dare, The Great Escape) there is bitter enmity between Gestapo and ‘ordinary’ naval officer: for example the scene where the Gestapo man orders Big Logan to be tied up and whipped – and watches the scene with a sadistic glint in his eye – but on the second lash the commandant storms in demanding to know who gave the order for this, has a flaming row with Mr Gestapo which escalates until he punches Gestapo man and orders his guards to arrest and drag him off.
  • And the cavalry – well, Navy – arriving just in time to save our gallant heroes, as they’ve done the bulk of the work but when their strength is flagging and just as they think they’ll never be able to dig their way through the final rockslide.

I’d love to know whether these tropes were already established when Innes wrote (by whom?) Were they part of the pulp thriller underworld by then? Are any his creation?

The ghost of Conan Doyle

If thriller writers’ disclaimers actually reveal their influences, whose shadow they’re trying to escape from – if Desmond Bagley’s characters’ frequent claims that they aren’t James Bond tell you not so subtly what influence Bagley is seeking to evade – then the one literary reference in this book is to a much older but acknowledged master of popular tales and yarns who was publishing eerie stories right up until 1930. As Maureen Weston writes of her descent into the abandoned mine workings:

The whole thing is so fantastic. Do you remember Conan Doyle’s Tales of Horror and Mystery? Well, I feel as if I’m writing the diary of one of his tales of horror that will be found after I am dead and from which others will draw the wildest conjectures. Suppose there is an underground race and they are coming to the surface to conquer us? Stupid! But when you are deep in the bowels of the earth anything seems possible… (page 128)

And the final scene where the five breathing English survivors pick their way through the landscape of Germans asphyxiated by carbon dioxide is also from a different type of text than a straightforward War novel.

The sight was amazing. The whole dock seemed to be strewn with the bodies of German sailors. It was like rowing in some fantastic crypt filled with the dead. I looked at Davies, pulling steadily on the oars, his face obscured by the awful futurist mask. So one might depict a modern Charon rowing a new-comer to Hades across the river Styx… There were men everywhere, but not a soul stirred. It was like a place of the dead. And we five masked figures looked like five horrible ghouls picking our way amongs the dead. (p. 185)

This reads like Conan Doyle in fantasy mode. Or the sci-fi of HG Wells. One of the pleasures of Innes’ novels is that they are a little unstable; they admit other influences and styles which later, more professional thriller writers, more completely exclude. But here, early in his career and in the history of the genre, there is room for experimentation. Witness the strong Edgar Allen Poe Gothic feel of one of his first post-War novels, The Killer Mine.

Related links

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of Wreckers Must Breathe

Cover of the early 1970s Fontana paperback edition of Wreckers Must Breathe

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A long, bewildering, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939)

It is a poor story, isn’t it? There is no hero, no heroine; there are only knaves and fools.
Or do I mean only fools? (p.236)

Eric Ambler’s fifth spy thriller is told in the third person. The lead figure is Charles Latimer, a lecturer in political economy who takes to writing detective stories which are so successful that he is able to resign and go live in Athens as a professional writer. For the winter he moves on to Istanbul with letters of introduction which lead him to a high-class party where one of the most dashing guests is a Colonel Haki of the secret police who invites him to his office, ostensibly for an anodyne discussion about a roman policier which he, Haki, has been working on.

The conversation moves on to the difference between the neat crimes of fiction and the messy records of real crime and, in order to demonstrate the latter, Haki reads out the dossier of one Dimitrios Makropoulos, a notorious criminal whose stabbed body has just been fished out of the sea.

Bitten by curiosity, Latimer decides on a whim to see if he can fill in the gaps in the dossier, whether he can, in effect, research and write the adult biography of this international criminal. He copies down the details of Dimitrios’s career of crime and sets off to visit Smyrna, Athens, Sofia, Belgrade, Geneva and Paris in pursuit of this will o’ the wisp.

It would be an experiment in detection… (1978 Hodder & Stoughton Large Print Edition, page 36)

The novel will turn out to be a series of interviews with people connected with Dimitrios’s criminal career, each of whom has memories which they retell in flashback.

According to his autobiography, The Mask of Dimitrios had the distinction of being the Daily Mail book-of-the-month in the same week Britain and France went to war with Germany, September 1939. (p) Throughout the writing Ambler’s working title was A Coffin For Dimitrios, but the publisher and then Hollywood studio preferred the word ‘mask’. (p.149)

Flight or pursuit

In two of Ambler’s previous novels, Uncommon Danger and Cause For Alarm, the protagonist is framed for a murder he didn’t commit and forced to go on the run, a price on his head as he scrambles across inhospitable terrain. They are examples of one of the basic thriller typologies, the flight of the wanted man, as exemplified by Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886) or Buchan’s 39 Steps (1915) or Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).

Mask is the opposite: the pursuit of an elusive mystery figure, whose life and existence have to be pieced together via scattered evidence and testimony. The Third Man (1949) springs to mind and the protagonist of that movie and novella, too, is a writer in search of a missing person. The plot of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934) revolves at great length around a missing person everyone is seeking.

Dark Europe

Ambler’s novels are distinctive for all being set abroad in the troubled Europe of the late 1930s, mostly the dark and turbulent east of Europe. The quest for Dimitrios takes us east to what is new territory for him – Istanbul, Athens, Sofia – but is also new in the way it incorporates real historical events into the story.

This character Dimitrios is involved in some of the nastiest episodes of post-Great War history: the Turkish army’s sacking of the city of Smyrna and the flight of over 800,000 Greek refugees across the sea to mainland Greece. Later Latimer discovers his connection with the assassination of the Romanian Prime Minister in 1923. Then, in Paris, Dimitrios’s involvement with the rise of the white slave trade and the explosion of illegal drug trafficking.

In fact, Dimitrios becomes a gauge for political turmoil and social chaos in the post-war period, allowing Ambler to show just how chaotic and bloodthirsty, how corrupt and vicious, 20th century European history has been.

But it was useless to try to explain [Dimetrios] in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. (p.337)

Characters

It is noticeable that Ambler’s way of describing a character has changed since his first novels: it is now much shorter, more focused, zeroing in on the salient or distinguishing features. It reminds me of the ability to focus on one or two tell-tale aspects of a character which Graham Greene had from the start.

The Greek was a dark, lean man of middle age with intelligent, rather bulbous eyes and a way of bringing his lips together at the end of a sentence as though amazed at his own lack of discretion. He greeted Latimer with the watchful courtesy of a negotiator in an armed truce. He spoke in French. (p.91)

Ambler’s style has become tauter and crisper in the course of writing these novels. Now it really is lean and to the point, clear like water, with almost no dated locutions or verbal oddities to remind you that it is 75 years old.

Strewn about the floor in utter confusion were the content of his suitcases. Draped carelessly over a chair were the bedclothes. On the mattress, stripped of their bindings, were the few English books he had brought with him from Athens. The room looked as if a cageful of chimpanzees had been turned loose in it. (p.150)

The Absurd

But if Ambler has one message it is that the world is always more complex than we think; or, we fool ourselves if we think we understand what is going on. The disjunction between our own (simple, optimistic) interpretation of the world around us, and the actual (random, often nasty ) reality of that world, produces Absurdity. Is the Absurd.

Ambler’s notion of the Absurd is not developed with anything like the thoroughness of the French writers who were thinking along the same lines, at exactly the same time (Camus: Betwixt and Between (1937), Nuptials (1938), The Stranger (1942); Sartre: Nausea (1938)). He is a novelist not a philosopher, and so the opening pages of the book which dwell a little on simple ideas about chance, coincidence and absurdity are merely a rhetorical prologue to the drama, a form of throat-clearing.

Still. The mood of his novels and their message that the political structures of the Western world between the wars have failed, that the system is collapsing, that humanity seems hell-bent on its own destruction, that nothing makes sense, these are part of the same Zeitgeist and have much in common with the continental writers.

I wanted to explain Dimitrios, to account for him, to understand his mind. Merely to label him with disapproval was not enough. I saw him not as a corpse in a mortuary but as a man, not as an isolate, a phenomenon, but as a unit in a disintegrating social system. (p.103)

The Absurd in practice

Like all Ambler’s other protagonists, Latimer soon realises that he is caught up in something much deeper than he originally thought, for in the lens of his investigations Dimitrios grows steadily into a kind of legendary figure of the underworld, involved in a cruel cross-section of post-War criminality.

Fine. But the book itself is not thrilling. The Dark Frontier, Uncommon Danger, Cause For Alarm, they all plunge the hero into serious peril and include chases, shoot-outs, kidnappings, imprisonments and daring escapes. Unlike them, Dimitrios is an essentially calm, civilised travelogue, as Latimer criss-crosses Europe meeting people who help fill in the details of Dimitrios’s career. Thus:

  • the Polish spy Grodek tells – at length – the story of the job he carried out to blackmail a petty official in the Italian Marine Ministry into handing over charts of the deployment of mines in the Adriatic, and Dimitrios’s key role – and betrayal of – the scam
  • the affable drug gangster Mr Peters (aka Pedersen) describes at length his career in Paris, firstly running a night club, then accepting white slave women from Dimitrios, then moving into wholesale drug trafficking – heroine and cocaine – for Dimitrios
  • in part two of his long account Peters goes into detail about how one member of the drugs gang Dimitrios betrayed – a violent man named Visser – emerges for prison determined to track Dimitrios down and take his revenge, a quest which brings us right up to the present moment!

It’s a collection of fairly interesting stories and full of social history interest – but thrilling, it ain’t! And it’s not a spy story. Some of the people Latimer meets have been spies, but it is essentially a piece of detective work about a criminal who happens to have done some occasional espionage work on the side.

The protagonist’s slow and methodical approach makes for a slow and steady read, right up to the last twenty or so pages when the book does – finally – arrive at a tense but rather predictable climax, a standoff between the bitterly vengeful Petersen and the sleekly terrifying man himself.

Two lives hung by the thin, steel threads of self-preservation and greed. (Penguin 2009 paperback edn, p.206)

Anti-capitalist

The book contains Ambler’s by-now-familiar rhodomontades against Big Business and the jackals it hires to do its dirty work (cf the mercenary Colonel Robinson in Uncommon Danger). In two of the other books these ‘analyses’ of the sins of Western society come from the mouth of Zaleshoff the KGB agent; here they’re expressed by the cynical Greek (presumably communist) journalist Marukakis. For him, the Big Business man keeps his hands clean; he believes in Law and Order; he is very respectable; he knows the best people and has a beautiful wife; he attends the opera and gives to charities; and when someone or some group are an inconvenience to his business, then word is passed from the Board Room down through layers of underlings until it reaches the criminal underworld, the social scum, ‘that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of an old society’. Men like Dimitrios.

He himself has no political convictions. For him there is no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest. He believes in the survival of the fittest and the gospel of tooth and claw because he makes money by seeing that the weak die before they can become strong and that the law of the jungle remains the governing force in the affairs of the world. And he is all about us. Every city in the world knows him. He exists because big business, his master, needs him. International big business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood!’ (p.118)

Finally, in a satirical stroke it turns out that Dimitrios had become so successful as a criminal that he had achieved the acme of respectability: he had got himself appointed to the Board of the Eurasian Credit Bank which the hero knows was earlier involved in commissioning the assassination of the Bulgarian Prime Minister. It is a Brechtian fable. The criminal so successful that he is allowed to join the ranks of the real criminals – the international bankers.

Conclusion

The Mask of Dimitrios fails to live up to its promise. Ambler tells us this man is a symptom of the times; the variety of his crimes, across so much of Europe, are presumably intended to make him appear a kind of Everycriminal figure; at some moments of the pursuit, when Latimer is talking to various interlocutors, this legendary almost-mythical figure acquires real imaginative power.

But the pace of the novel never really picks up and the climax of the book – a shootout in a squalid attic – is anti-climactic, an unimaginative conclusion to a spirited pursuit which really demanded something much bigger and more emblematic to match the scale of the story’s mythical ambition.

Related links

Movie

The novel was turned into a classic Hollywood noir movie in 1944, starring Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, familiar from The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). It’s not a classic like them, but still well worth a watch.

Latimer is played by the diminutive Lorre and so is renamed Leyden and made Dutch to explain the foreign accent. Fat Sidney Greenstreet plays Peters, the avenging member of Dimitrios’s gang in Paris. Dimitrios is played by the gorgeous, moustachioed Zachary Scott.

The noir style of director Jean Negulesco is all shadows and menacing foreign actors. The movie is very faithful to the book, which means it is relatively static, a series of half a dozen sets in which Leyden interviews people and they tell him their relationship to the Master Criminal. It has that odd noir thing where half the time characters are pointing guns at each other and half the time wisecracking friends. It’s impossible to watch Greenstreet and Lorre without warm memories of their performances in their two more famous films.

There are two significant changes: the book has a long chapter about the activities of the Paris gang Dimitrios leads, namely their forays into trafficking women for prostitution and their drug smuggling. This is cut. And at the end of the book Peters and Dimitrios both die in the shootout. In the movie Peters (Greenstreet) survives and, as he is hussled off by the police, remains remarkably cheery, giving the movie an ironically uplifting moral when he says, ‘You see, there’s not enough kindness in the world.’

Ambler tended not to like the movie adaptations of his novels. In his autobiography he says watching this movie gave him severe stomach cramps (Here Lies, p.225).

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

Cause For Alarm by Eric Ambler (1938)

It seemed to me that the train had started to make a curious thumping noise. I tried to separate the noise, identify it, and realised that it was the sound of the blood pumping in my head. I knew suddenly that I was scared, scared stiff. (p.208)

I like this best of the four Ambler thrillers I’ve read so far. It’s longer and takes longer to get going but the time is well spent slowly establishing the character of the first-person narrator, Nick Marlow (no relation to Philip – popular surname!). He is engaged to career-woman girlfriend, Claire, has difficulties finding a job after he’s made redundant, and it is with relief that he accepts a job with a Wolverhampton engineering company – the Spartacus Machine Tool Company – to run their Milan office, simply on the basis that he happens to speak Italian.

According to his autobiography, Here Lies, Ambler completed Cause For Alarm in an out-of-season hotel in the French Alps which was so cold that the owners heated up bricks on the hotel stove, wrapped them in newspaper and distributed them to guests. Ambler wrote the final parts of the novel with a hot brick in his lap and another on his feet. (Here Lies, p.133)

Everyman

It isn’t that this slow run-up establishes a character of any interest or depth – he comes over as similar to the hot-headed, impetuous and rather dim narrator of Epitaph for a Spy – he isn’t as interesting as the narrator of Ashenden nor painted as well as the lead characters in that finely observant book – no, it’s more that his boring conversations with people in the Birmingham office and the banal letters to and from his girlfriend, Claire, establish him as normal, his values as normal, our values, humdrum English values: completely honest, respecting the authorities, hassled by anxieties about a job and career, worried about his relationship – the everyday stuff of the man on the Clapham omnibus.

Trouble in Italy

As soon as he arrives in Milan he finds himself surrounded by mysteries: why has business correspondence been ignored and stuffed in a drawer? why is the office manager Bellinetti so scornful of him and tailing him at night? why is the pretty secretary in the office an idiot who can’t even type? how could his predecessor, Ferning, afford to live in a vast luxurious apartment? was Ferning’s death really a road accident? when he visits a client in Genoa it is made clear that he will have to bribe him to keep the contract – is that acceptable? what are the motives of the American-speaking Russian, Zaleshoff, whose office is on the floor below? what are the motives for the creepy Colonel Vagas who wears make-up and claims to be working for the Yugoslav government and who offers him a bribe to let him know what machines are being supplied to the Italian government? why do the police confiscate then ‘lose’ his passport?

An innocent man

Abroad turns out to be full of dodgy foreigners. Marlow tries to navigate these murky waters by the light of his plain, common-sense values, values he shares with plucky Claire, as revealed in their letters to each other. But the skill of this novel more than its predecessors is the in-depth way it shows you how these lights and values are not enough. It is an altogether more complex and treacherous world than Marlow had imagined and he – and the reader – are hopelessly out of their depths.

Some plot

For example,

  • Colonel Vagas offers him a bribe to send him copies of Spartacus’s monthly orders – the same bribe he was paying his murdered predecessor, Ferning.
  • But Zaleshoff accurately predicts this is only bait for, once Marlow has sent a report or two, Vagas will have enough evidence to blackmail him into doing significantly more work, namely writing additional reports about everything he sees and overhears as he goes about his legitimate visits to Italian munitions factories.Turning him into a spy.
  • And Vagas is able to ‘persuade’ Marlow to do this because he has influence over Italian businessmen including one Commendatore Bernabò who can sign contracts with Spartacus – for a fee ie bribe.
  • But this level of corruption isn’t all, as Zaleshoff explains that Vagas isn’t Yugoslav at all, but a German spy, one of many making sure Mussolini’s Italy is keeping up its part of the Rome-Berlin Axis.
  • And so Zaleshoff makes Marlow a counter-offer ie Marlow should take Vagas’s bribe, accept the money (and thus find the way made easy to lucrative contracts for his firm) but also accept payment from Zaleshoof for passing on to Vagas carefully faked reports from Italian munitions factories, reports Zaleshoff has carefully tailored to ring alarm bells among Vagas’s bosses in Berlin that the Italians have secret plans they’re concealing from the Nazis.
  • And this level isn’t everything, or hasn’t captured the full picture, since even Zaleshoff is taken by surprise when Vagas’s own wife ends up betraying Vagas to the OVRA, the Italian version of the Gestapo who are, of course, on the lookout for any anti-Italian activity.

And thus, barely has Marlow begun his life as a double-agent, reluctantly browbeaten into agreeing to all these deals and counter-deals, all the time planning to send his letter of resignation and simply return home, before OVRA raid Vagas’s home, the Spartacus offices and Marlow’s hotel room, and he finds himself a wanted man, on the run, a price on his head!

Zaleshoff

The most sympathetic characters Marlow encounters are Andreas Zaleshoff and his sister, Tamara, the KGB agents. They are more or less the only sane, honest, reliable people in the book. This is an extraordinary imaginative position to take at the end of the 1930s which had seen Stalin’s consolidation of power and the gruesome Moscow Show Trials. Then again, he’s meant to be a Russian brought up in America thus giving him better cover but making him an odd character to listen to, a KGB agent overflowing with 1930s slang; he took it on the lam, he’s darned luck, you’re the mug, don’t be a sap, nice work pal.

The last third of the book is an extended flight across north Italy to the border with Yugoslavia , the story of Marlow on the run and led every step of the way by a superhumanly strong, cunning and, above all, decent, honest and kind, Zaleshoff. It climaxes in the strange encounter with the deranged mathematician Beronelli in a mountain cottage blocked in with snow. Turns out Marlow studied engineering using the textbook written by this famous mathematician but when Beronelli denounced Fascist intimidation and bullying he was thrown out of the university, banned from teaching anywhere, and ended up having a nervous breakdown. He is taken to a mountain retreat by his loving daughter to get away from the craziness of the world and this is where Zaleshoff and Marlow stumble across them, exhausted and freezing high in the mountains, only a few kilometers from the border and freedom.

Zaleshoff says Beronelli’s retreat into madness is the only escape for a hyper-rational man faced with a world which has itself gone mad. In fact…

Politics

Confirming that Ambler’s deployment of a sympathetic KGB agent as the saviour in not one but two novels is no accident, Alarm contains several passages of ripe anti-capitalist editorialising.

I said, ‘someone’s got to do the job.’
[Zaleshoff] laughed, but without good humour. ‘The stock reply according to the gospel of King Profit. Industry has no other end or purpose than the satisfaction of the business man engaged in it. Demand is sacred. It may be a demand for high explosives to slaughter civilians with or one for chemical fertilisers, it may be for shells or it may be for saucepans, it may be for jute machinery for an Indian sweat-shop or it may be for prams, it’s all one. There’s no difference. Your business man has no other responsibility but to make profits for himself and his shareholders.’
‘And that’s nothing to do with me.’
‘Of course it isn’t,’ he rejoined sarcastically, ‘you’re only the guy that makes it possible. But you also may be the guy that gets squashed to a paste when those shells and high explosives start going off – you and your wife and kids.’  (1984 Hodder & Stoughton hardback, page 183)

There are three page-long screeds against Big Business and in favour of changing human nature by changing the system people are raised in from one of exploitation to one of justice (pp.  183, 215, 304). All put into the communist Zaleshoff’s mouth, of course. I wonder if the über-Imperialist John Buchan read any of Ambler’s books before his death in 1940 and whether his comments are recorded.

Movie

MGM paid Ambler $3,000 for the movie rights but the book was never filmed (Here Lies, p.137). There is a 1951 noir film titled Cause For Alarm, but it is nothing to do with the Ambler novel.

Related lnks

Cover of the first US edition of Cause For Alarm

Cover of the first US edition of Cause For Alarm

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

The Trojan Horse by Hammond Innes (1940)

As I saw it, this wasn’t just a single spy or a single criminal I was up against. It was organised espionage. The organised espionage of a power notorious for its efficiency and ruthlessness. (p.52)

Hammond Innes wrote over 30 novels from the mid 1930s through to the 1970s, becoming a byword for fast, thrilling adventure stories, and forming a link and father figure to the following generations of thriller writers (Alistair MacLean first pubd 1955, Desmond Bagley first pubd 1963).

This is his fifth novel, begun as Russia invaded Finland and published right at the start of the World War II. It is unusual in not being set abroad but almost all taking place in London.

The plot

Told in the first person by sensible barrister Andrew Kilmartin who is visited by ‘a tubby little Jew’ whose photo, he realises, he has seen in the newspapers because he is wanted for the murder of an engineer in Wales a few weeks previously. The visitor quickly reveals that he is Schmidt, a brilliant Austrian engineer who was forced to flee after the Anschluss (1938) and was taken in by his Welsh in-laws. Turns out he has invented a new lightweight alloy which will handle the strains of the new generation of diesel naval or airplane engines. Lighter alloy, lighter engines, faster ships and planes. The balance of the war could hang on this discovery. Schmidt claims he had nothing to do with the Llewellin murder and departs with cryptic clues about who is really responsible.

Kilmartin starts out sceptical and after Schmidt leaves is inclined to phone his friend at Scotland Yard. But he visits Schmidt’s old flat only to find it has been ransacked. One of the books on the floor has the same title as Schmidt’s clue and, when he takes it to his friend David Schiel the photogrpaher over on Shaftesbury Avenue, they discover a coded message written in ultra violet characters at the back of the book. Then David’s flat is ransacked.

Slowly a vast conspiracy is uncovered which includes the big and reputable industrial concern, Calboyd, along with its famously patriotic chairman, as well as one of the shrewdest financial journalists in the City, Max Sedel. He and David pick up on a clue in Schmidt’s coded message and drive down to Cornwall to discover it the hiding place of Schmidt’s daughter who has smuggled out the only existing prototype of the new engine on a motorboat. But as they arrive the motorboat is being impounded by the Royal Navy coastguard and they realise the impounding is only the first step in the boat being mysteriously stolen from naval dockyards, and then cunningly smuggled out of the country aboard a ship publicly proclaiming to be taking arms and munitions to our gallant allies in Finland.

1. Down in the sewer

But Kilmartin leaves it just a bit too late, he wants to sow up all the loose ends just a bit too perfectly and is just on the verge of contacting the police with all he knows when he finds himself suddenly captured and locked in a deep vault under a City of London bank. Only after some time has passed in despair of ever getting released or rescuing the boat does he see a rat disappear into a hole in the vault and set about a desperate attempt, first to dig out the mortar between some of the oldest stone and then, once he’s knocked a hole through, Kilmartin discovers he is in the maze of ancient sewers beneath the City of London. And he hasn’t gone far when he hears voices and sees torchlight and realises the baddies are after him… And so into a genuinely thrilling and very vividly described chase.

2. The Battle of Thirlmere

Once free Kilmartin discovers the police are now after him having been fed incriminating evidence by the network of enemy spies, and that Schmidt’s pretty daughter, Freya, has been kidnapped by them. He goes down to the Pool of London to see the very public sending-off the Thirlmere a boat ponsored by Calboyds and carrying arms and ammunition to Finland. Only Kilmartin knows that everyone involved is a German agent and that, once it leaves British territorial waters and its Royal Navy escort behind, it will alter course and steam to Germany not only with the supplies, but with the crucial prototype engine aboard.

Suffice to say Kilmartin smuggles himself aboard, along with his aide David, they rescue Freya from her cell then, along with Schmidt who had stowed away in disguise, they smuggle themselves into one of the half dozen or so tanks on the decks. Once the RN has departed, the ship hoists Nazi flags, the ‘aid volunteers’ arrest the loyal crew and the ship turns towards germany. But Schmidt, Kilmartin et al use the tank’s gun to blow up half the bride and machine gun half the enemy agents, release the loyal crew who set a new course back to England before the situation escalates even more with squadrons of British and German airplanes fighting it out in the skies above them.

Once back on English soil the authorities reveal that they managed to piece together all the evidence and clues AK had left them. Our man has saved the day! and won himself a pretty, brave fiancée!!

Disclaimer

There is the usual disclaimer that, although it reads like a melodrama/adventure/spy story, it isn’t really.

‘There’s no such thing as adventure, except in retrospect. You read stories or hear people talk of adventures. They sound exciting. But the reality is not exciting. There’s pain to the body and torture to mind and nerves, and a wretched death for most adventurers.’ (Fontana 1973 paperback edition, p.52)

Dramatis personae

  • Andrew Kilmartin: sober, sensible King’s Counsel: the lead protagonist in exposing a network of German agents in England, drawing on his experience of Intelligence work during World War I
  • Franz Schmidt: Austrian Jewish refugee from the Nazis, world-leading engine designer
  • Olwen Llewllin: married Schmidt; beaten in the street for being married to a Jew and dies in prison
  • Evan Llewellin: brother of Schmidt’s wife, who takes him in in Cardiff; murdered by Nazi agents
  • David Shiel: bohemian photographer with studios on Shaftesbury Avenue, becomes intimately involved as Kilmartin’s assistant in the adventure
  • Calboyd’s Diesel Company: leading British firm in this sector chaired by well-known captain of industry and philanthropist Sir James Calboyd, key members of the Board are exposed as Nazi agents
  • Desmond Crisham: Kilmartin’s contact at Scotland Yard who he drip-feeds his revelations for fear they are so scandalous Crisham will reject them out of hand – ‘one of the bulldog breed’
  • Cones of Runnel: buoys/landmarks off the Cornwall coast which are a key to Schmidt’s code, and help Kilmartin and Shiel track down Schmidt’s daughter
  • Freya: Schmidt’s daughter: an experienced sailor and engineer
  • Max Sedel: top City journalist, expert on aircraft industry and others; refugee from Germany: the fact that he has an uncontrollable hatred of Jews kind of suggests what is then revealed, ie he is the king pin of the Nazi organisation – a gangster, ‘a fanatic with boundless ambition’
  • John Burston: on the Board of Calboyds he discovers what is going on and is murdered
  • Baron Ferdinand Marburg – financier, Society figure, philanthropist – German agent
  • Sefton Raikes – works manager of Calboyd’s who disagrees with the direction of travel and is murdered
  • The Thirlmere – the steamer supposedly to take arms and munitions to plucky Finland; in fact loaded with tanks and weapons and Schmidt’s lightweight diesl engine

Related links

Pan paperback edition of The Trojan Horse

Pan paperback edition of The Trojan Horse

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A long, bewildering, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (1938)

Looking back now, I marvel at my stupidity; I was pathetically ineffectual. (p.152)

Maybe the distinguishing feature of the six thriller novels Eric Ambler published in the late 1930s is that they are all set in Europe under the shadow of war: the fictional Balkan country Ixania in The Dark Frontier, Austria and Czechoslovakia in Uncommon Danger, and the south of France here in Epitaph. This non-English setting gives them a particularly brooding, stifling, paranoid atmosphere; everyone is scheming against everyone else, the police are menacing, strangers whisper in foreign languages, and over everything a vast catastrophe is looming.

Epitaph for a Spy was serialised in the Daily Express in March 1938, just as Hitler annexed Austria. According to his autobiography, Ambler was paid £135 for it. (Here Lies, p.131)

Innocent abroad

The precarious foreign-ness of the story is emphasised by making the protagonist not only another ‘innocent’ man plunged into intrigue – like the physicist Barstow in Dark Frontier, like the journalist Kenton in Danger – but a foreigner, Josef Vadassy, a language teacher, and not only that, but a stateless foreigner, a refugee from Hungary who doesn’t have the correct papers and is – quite literally – at home nowhere in the world. The story is told by Vadassy in the first person which gives greater access to his engulfing sensations of amazement, fear and panic as the situation unfolds, and also to his serio-comic attempts to play-act the tough guy and fathom his fellow guests.

Plot

The narrative is kicked off quite simply: Vadassy is on a three-week holiday in the south of France from his language school in Paris. Stopping at a pretty resort on the Riviera he drops off some photos to be developed at a chemist’s and is amazed, when he returns, to be arrested and taken by the police for questioning! Turns out the roll of film on his camera contains incriminating photos of the naval defences at Toulon!! Somehow, at the hotel, his camera has been swapped for that of a spy. Or so he says!!! Grudgingly, the police release him on orders from a Naval Intelligence man, on condition that Vadassy return to the hotel and find out who the real spy is…

Agatha Christie

Almost all the novel is set in this sleepy French hotel in which there are ten or so guests, from different nationalities, different ages etc, all with different quirks and oddities, and any one of them could be the suspect!! This one-of-you-is-the-murderer set-up has a strong Agatha Christie feeling (Christie’s first detective novel was published in 1920), pretty much the traditional English country-house murder mystery, except in France. It’s strikingly unlike the previous two novels which involved lots of travelling, by train or plane, car chases, abandoned factories and so on. This is more like a chamber piece.

Fear…

Ambler was consciously revolting against the hard-eyed he-men which featured in the now-forgotten spy fiction of the 1930s, the epigones of John Buchan and Bulldog Drummond and E. Oppenheimer. His protagonists are very ordinary men and they react with very ordinary fear to the situations they find themselves in. Kenton isn’t really beaten up very much in Uncommon Danger, but is held prisoner for a day so that when he is released Ambler gives a very realistic description of how exhausted he is after even a small time of fleeing through the woods. There’s similar verisimilitude in the description of his escape in the snow across the barbed wire border between Austria and Czechoslovakia.

This novel starts slowly and painfully conveys the sense of injustice and craziness Vadassy feels as his world is turned upside-down and he realises he may, though he’s done absolutely nothing wrong, be facing life imprisonment in a French gaol, or even execution for spying.

I think that if anyone had suggested to me at that moment that I should not be able to leave on the Sunday, I should have laughed disbelievingly. But there would have been hysteria in that laugh for, as I sat on the floor beside my open suitcase, fear was clutching at the mechanism inside my chest, making my heart thud and my breathing short and sharp as though I had been running. I kept swallowing saliva, feeling for some curious reason that by doing so I would stop my heart beating so. It made me terribly thirsty and after a while I got up, went to the wash-basin and drank some water out of the tooth glass. (2009 Penguin Classics edition, page 31)

This novel could by sub-titled ‘The Wrong Man’ and, as such, resembles all those Hitchcock movies where an innocent man finds himself thrown into jeopardy.

… and comedy

All this said, however, the novel doesn’t have the intensity or genuine grip of the first two, for several reasons:

  • It’s very slow. The cops give Vadassy three days to find the real spy and although, in his mind, he is full of worry, in the external world not much actually happens: he gets to know the other guests, hears their stories, plays some billiards, has breakfast, lunch and dinner, swims in the sea. At one stage  his room is burgled; on the second night someone hits him over the head and rifles his pockets. That’s it. No corpses. No real violence. No car chases. No change of scene at all.
  • It’s funny. Vadassy, though given a foreign name, nationality and facility with languages, is in fact a very English nitwit. The French Naval Intelligence man says they’re only setting him free to try & catch the real spy because in his interview he came over as such an imbecile. And the first-person narrative is as much concerned with Vadassey’s ridiculous posturing, his belated retorts when he makes a fool of himself, his hysterical fears and melodramatic over-reactions. He is particularly humiliated when he bungles pretending to have had his room burgled so badly that the hotel owner, Herr Köche, calls him an amateur confidence trickster to his face, and boots him out.

In this scene Vadassy has broken into one of the guest’s rooms and is rifling his things.

I was so engrossed with these significant discoveries that I did not hear the footsteps until they were practically outside the door. Even if I had have heard them I doubt whether I should have been able to do anything more. As it was, I just had time to cram the passports back into the pocket and bundle the suit into the cupboard behind me before the handle of the door turned. In the few split seconds that followed, my brain and body seemed to go numb. I stood and gazed stupidly at the handle. I wanted to shout, hide in the cupboard, jump out of the window, scramble under the bed. But I did none of those things. I just gaped. (p.133)

More Johnny English than John Buchan.

I went downstairs feeling several kinds of fool. Instead of doing the pumping I had been pumped. Far from extracting valuable information I had been forced into a defensive position and answered questions as meekly as if I had been in the witness box… As usual, I began to think of the crushing things I ought to have said. The trouble was that my brain moved far too slowly. I was a dullard, a half-wit. (p.167)

Worldview

Ambler repeats his war-of-all-against-all worldview, the epidemic of spying and industrial espionage in the feverish atmosphere of the late 1930s.

All over Europe, all over the world, men were spying. While in government offices other men were tabulating the results of the spies’ labours; thicknesses of armour plating, elevation angles of guns, muzzle velocities, details of fire control mechanisms and range-finders, fuse efficiencies, details of fortifications, positions of ammunition stores, disposition of key factories, landmarks for bombers. The world was getting ready to go to war. For the cannon-makers and for the spies, business was good. (p.49)

There are a few other similar outbreaks of earnestness: for example,

  • each of the guests, in turn, are questioned and reveal more or less intriguing or bizarre back stories, but one of the guests, Herr Schimler, has quite a harrowing tale to tell: he once edited a Social Democrat newspaper in Germany until the Nazis came to power and threw him in a concentration camp for two years, before he managed to escape, being handed from safe house to safe house until he arrived to be protected by a fellow communist at this hotel; but his wife and child are still in Germany and he lives in constant fear of being discovered by Gestapo agents, his true identity revealed and his family suffering…
  • the final chase of the spy, once his identity is revealed, is intense and serious and leads up to a violent rooftop pursuit which ends tragically.

Yes, the text is laced with genuinely tense and tragic themes, but… overall the country house murder ambience of the main set-up, and the light-hearted feel of Vadassy’s numerous humiliating cock-ups and his red-faced mortification at them, tend to be the enduring memory.

Epitaph for a Spy is a strong title, but this book doesn’t really live up to it. Miss Marple Mislays A Camera might be closer in tone.

Centenary

In 2009, the centenary of Ambler’s birth, Penguin reissued half a dozen of his thrillers in large paperback format with stylish black and white covers, and introductions from contemporary writers. Epitaph is introduced by the poet James Fenton who had the privilege of interviewing Ambler in old age, and he repeats some of the author’s anecdotes here.

Movie

The novel was made into a 1944 movie titled Hotel Reserve, starring James Mason. Ambler was paid $3,000 for the rights (Here Lies, p.137). It was in production at Denham Studios at the same time as the wartime morale-booster which Ambler scripted, The Way Ahead. Ambler has some harsh words for it.

Though I later became a friend and neighbour of James Mason, he could never speak of Hotel Reserve without a shudder. In his autobiography and in a book about all his films he tried, almost successfully, not to speak about it at all. I shared his aversion to it. The film had a rubbishy script, bad sets and an unsuitable director. (Here Lies, p.189)

Related links

Pulp cover of Epitaph for A Spy

Pulp cover of Epitaph for A Spy

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

Uncommon Danger by Eric Ambler (1937)

Ambler had a prolific and varied career, the novel-writing part of which breaks into two distinct periods. Part one: he wrote half a dozen thrillers before the war which established his name (1936-40) – then stopped to enlist in the Army. He gravitated into the an Army film unit which led to work writing screenplays for British and American studios after the War and through the 1950s. (He was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay for The Cruel Sea, 1953.) In the early 1950s he resumed (part two) his interrupted novel-writing career (alongside ongoing movie and TV work), averaging four novels per decade in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Uncommon Danger

Uncommon Danger is his second novel from the first phase of his career ie the later years of the fraught 1930s. His first novel, The Dark Frontier, was about an atom bomb, a rather melodramatic subject which suited the parody style of his début. This one is about the more concrete issue of who controls the oil wells in Romania. (Control of just these wells was a strand in the conflict on the Eastern Front between Russia and Germany when war broke out.)

Though some of the trappings seem dated, though the Board of Pan-Eurasian Petroleum and the baddy Mr Balterghen come across like the stagey baddies in a 1930s or early 1940s Hollywood movie, in other places a much more ‘contemporary’ attitude and style bursts through. Ambler’s style is almost always brisk, lean and effective.

With a woollen scarf wound twice round his neck, his shoulders hunched and his hands thrust deep in his overcoat pockets, Kenton waited at Nurenberg for the Frankfurt-Linz train. (Hodder & Stoughton Large Print edition, p.13)

The set-up

The plot has several strands:

1. At its widest there is the geopolitical situation. Bessarabia is a contested area between Russia and Romania since the Great War. It contains important oil fields (p.78). A Russian double-agent (Borovansky) has stolen Russian plans for a possible attack on Bessarabia. If these are made public it will whip up anti-Russian feeling in Romania and help the Fascist Iron Guard to power, and help them make an alliance with Nazi Germany (p.184). The spy is taking them south into Austria.

2. Russian spies Zaleshoff and his sister Tamara are tipped off and commission a Spaniard, Ortega, to pursue Borovansky on the train, follow him to his hotel in Austria, and get the plans back.

3. Mr Balterghen of the British-based Pan-Eurasian Petroleum Company wants the question of the Romanian Concessions ie which external oil companies can exploit Romania’s oil, to be re-opened so that PEPC can bribe itself way to new concessions. He commissions one ‘Colonel Robinson’ to do this. Zaleshoff realises that ‘Robinson’ is none other than the assassin and propagandist-for-hire Stefan Saridza, accompanied by his bully boy Captain Mailler.

So two separate sets of men are on the track of Borovansky and his photos, as the story begins…

The plot

The protagonist of the novel is Kenton, a down-at-heel freelance journalist who loses money gambling and takes the train to Vienna to borrow money from a man he knows, Rosen, a Jew he helped escape Germany after the Nazis came to power. He is befriended by a shifty foreigner, Sachs, who asks him to carry a package through the customs on the Austrian border and who seems to be being followed on the train. When they arrive at Linz Sachs ups the stakes by asking him to carry the envelope all the way to a certain hotel, to come & meet him there tonight. Completely skint, Kenton agrees for a price of 600 Marks.

When he arrives at the very run-down hotel to hand over the envelope he finds Sachs murdered. He goes through his pockets and takes his wallet, just as someone comes up the stairs. Kenton escapes out the back, bumping into one of the gang searching for him, but gets away.

Sachs is, of course, Borovansky and Kenton has found himself in possession of military plans which could alter the course of Europe’s history. Worse, a warrant, a reward and newspaper stories are circulated naming him as the murderer. Thus he finds himself on the run from the police while being chased, shot at, kidnapped and beaten up etc by hard men from both sides…

The world is run by Big Business

is Ambler’s credo. We civilians are the pawns in their game and even politicians just dance to the tune of bankers, financiers, big businessmen. It is a surprisingly left-wing view, unusual in a thriller writer, most of whom are conservative types.

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. It was the power of Business, not the deliberations of statesmen, that shaped the destinies of nations. 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 that it wanted to ask when and how it suited it. Big Business also provided the answers. Rome might declare herself sympathetic to a Hapsburg restoration; France might oppose it. A few months later the situation might be completely reversed. For those few members of the public who had long memories and were not sick to death of the whole incomprehensible farce there would always be many ingenious explanations of the volte face – many explanations, but not the correct one. For that one might have to inquire into banking transactions in London, Paris and New York with the eye of a chartered accountant, the brain of an economist, the tongue of a prosecuting attorney and the patience of Job. One would have, perhaps, to note an increase in the Hungarian bank rate, an ‘ear-marking’ of gold in Amsterdam, and a restriction of credit facilities in the Middle-West of America. One would have to grope through the fog of technical mumbo-jumbo with which international business surrounds its operations and examine them in all their ghastly simplicity. Then one would perhaps die of old age. The Big Business man was only one player in the game of international politics, but he was the player who made all the rules. (p.126-7)

Of a piece with this is the surprising way that Kenton is rescued and helped all along the line by the sympathetic brother and sister team of Andreas and Tamara Zaleshoff, who are Russian or KGB agents! It is less than ten years before the Cold War starts and Russians, and especially their spy agency, become seen as sons of Satan. But this is the Thirties and Ambler takes quite a left-wing anti-capitalist line, reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht in the way he equates capitalism with the violence of Chicago gangsters.

‘They say that persons like Al Capone and John Dillinger are products of America’s corrupt administration and clumsy law-making. Saridza and his kind must be the products of the world business system. The principal difference between Al Capone and Stefan Saridza is that while Capone worked for himself, Saridza works for other people. When Capone ordered his hoodlums to machine-gun a couple of men on a side-walk from an armour-plated coupé, it was to maintain or increase his own income. When Saridza ordered that Captain to beat you with a Totshläger until you gave him some photographs, it was to increase the income of what he called his principals in London – gentleman who would, in all probability, hesitate before they swatted a fly. You see, your business man desires the end, but dislike the means. He is a kind-hearted man. He likes an easy conscience. He likes to think that the people he exploits are please and happy to be exploited. He likes to sit in his offce and deal honestly with other business men. That is why Saridza is necessary. For at some point or other in the amazingly complicated business structure of the world, there is always dirty work to be done. It may be simple bribery, it may be the manipulation of public opinion by means of incidents, rumours or scandals, it may even be an affair of assassination – but whatever it is, Saridza and his kind are there to do it, with large fees in their pockets and the most evasive instructions imaginable…’ (p.180)

Admittedly, this is a speech given by the Russian agent Zaleshoff so could be dismissed as dramatically appropriate – except that the entire plot bears it out, as the principals of a big oil company go to any length, even provoking a war in Europe, to get their hands on richer oil fields and so increase their profits.

Luckily all this of purely historic interest and wars about oil couldn’t possibly happen in our enlightened times.

Title

In his autobiography Ambler says his working title was Background to Danger but his publisher disliked the word ‘background’, so that in all English-speaking countries except the US, it was published as Uncommon Danger. (p.127)

Movie

The novel was made into a film using the US title, Background to Danger, released in 1943. It was directed by Raoul Walsh and starred George Raft as the protagonist (renamed Joe Barton), Sydney Greenstreet as the antagonist, Colonel Robinson, and Peter Lorre as Zaleshoff. Ambler wasn’t happy with many of the movie adaptations of his novels. In his autobiography he records that watching this one made him feel ‘very queasy’ (Here Lies, p.224).

Related links

Cover of Uncommon Danger

Cover of Uncommon Danger

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000 in order to promptly shyut it down. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.
%d bloggers like this: