The Dark Frontier by Eric Ambler (1936)

This is the first novel by Eric Ambler, who quickly established himself in the late 1930s as the author of thrilling spy stories. As with a number of other first novels, it is in fact a parody of currently fashionable taste, in this case for the kind of gung-ho cheap spy novel which was popular at the time. (Other first novel parodies include Henry Fielding’s Shamela, a shameless parody of Richardson’s Pamela, and Hemingway’s The Torrents of Spring, a parody of Sherwood Anderson.)

The style is laden with irony and parody and the central element of the plot is bizarre, but in many places it rises above its parodic intention to become a genuinely quick, exciting read.

Quick plot synopsis

English physicist Henry Barstow gets caught up in the politics of East European nation Ixania, where a foreign scientist, Kassen, has developed the first atom bomb and where the Aristocratic Party, led by the cunning, cruel and beautiful Madame Schverzinski, plan to sell it to the highest bidder among European nations.

Barstow allies himself with American journalist Casey with a view to seizing and destroying the formulae for the bomb, but both get caught up with the Peasants’ Party which happens to be planning a revolution against the ruling clique. Moreover, the representative of a British arms firm has also travelled to Ixania and has his own plans and his own set of armed goons who aim to get the formulae for the bomb.

Having all these different groups in conflict leads to a stream of fights, confrontations, shoot-outs, hiding in dark alleys, eavesdropping, chases on trains and through city streets, interrogations, torture, romance and chilling sadism: a boiling pot of exciting scenes!

Dual identity

But the novel risks being overshadowed by its very odd premise, which is that the protagonist has a dual identity: well-known physicist Henry Barstow is driving down to Cornwall for a much-needed break when he stops for a meal at an inn in Launceston. Here he is buttonholed by white-haired Simon Groom, executive with Cator & Bliss, the arms company, who tells him the fantastical news that the leading physicist in the field, Kassen, has succeeded in creating an atom bomb for the small European nation state of Ixania. Groom invites Barstow to accompany him to Ixania to discover the secret of the new bomb. Hesitantly, Barstow refuses but then – and this is the odd bit – when Groom has left, he picks up a pulp thriller someone has left on the pub sofa and starts reading about the omni-competent hero Conway Carruthers, a sort of Bond figure with his gadgets, girls and contacts across Europe.

Barstow reads and becomes totally absorbed until the owner of the book pops up to reclaim it. Barstow gets back into his car and resumes his drive west with the story of the bomb and the heroic lines from the thriller going round and round in his head when, whoops, from sleepiness he crashes his car. Upon regaining consciousness he thinks he is Conway Carruthers! He thinks he is a special agent who can co-operate with Groom, who can steal the secret of the atom bomb, who can preserve the peace of Europe. And for the rest of the book he operates under that assumption.

Parody

This peculiar set-up allows Ambler to parody spy fiction clichés, even as he deploys them. After his encounter with Madame Schverzinski, the real power behind the throne in Ixania, Carruthers, man of steel, berates himself.

Conway Carruthers, the man of steel, seemed to be losing his grip. He had made the mistake of underrating an opponent. More, he had failed even to perceive an opponent. Could it be because she was beautiful and a woman? Impossible! Had he not resisted the wiles, the womanly guile of countless beautiful spies? Had they not possessed tawny hair and sinuous bodies? Had they not reclined provocatively on gilt divans? Had not their green eyes held promise of untold delights in return for the secrets he alone could reveal?And had he not gone his way smiling with grim amusement at their baffled fury, their childish simplicity? … Perhaps… he was mooning… like one of those love-sick young Englishmen who always ruined his plans in chapter twelve by dashing frantically but indiscreetly to the rescue of their terrified fiancées. No more of it! From now on, he, Carruthers, would be the master mind. (Chapter 5)

This light and knowing tone, at the same time mysterious and thrilling and humorously self-deprecating, makes for a read which is both packed with tense situations but also light and tongue-in-cheek.

Add to this the way that, like all thrillers, it refers disparagingly to other thrillers – something I noticed in Chandler and MacLean and Bagley: it’s a very self-conscious genre. Is it saying, those cheap movies and pulp novels don’t know what they’re talking about; this is the real Mccoy; or is it saying, we all know this is twaddle but, hey, nevertheless…?

‘Only a flesh wound’, the novelists say. Let them try it for themselves! (Ch 10)

Carruthers had a way of making you behave and think like a dime novel. (Ch 11)

‘I don’t know who the hell you are, lady,’ I said in the lingua franca of film gangsters… (Ch 12)

If the man hadn’t been sitting beside me I would have sworn that I was listening to the ham lead of a third-rate stock company playing the Englishman in a bum crook melodrama. (Ch 13)

Plot highlights

After Barstow’s magical change of personality, he leaves the car and staggers on to a hotel in Plymouth and when he signs in does so as Conway Carruthers. For the next four weeks which the plot covers, Barstow is the pulp hero CC, who travels to Paris where Groom told him he’d be, who tries to contact Carruthers’ (fictional) friend in the Sûreté, who buys himself a gun, and who thinks he has adopted the cover of Professor Barstow which his passport calls him and everyone refers to him as a cover. But inside – he is an omni-competent hero. There follows:

  • Carruthers signing up to help Groom and joining him on the romantic eastbound train to Romania and the fictional country of Ixania
  • chatting to the lady on the train who turns out to be the power behind the throne, Madame Schverzinski
  • Carruthers trailing Groom to a warehouse where he is secretly meeting with an Ixanian operative
  • this same operative is assassinated on the train by two members of Ixania’s aristocractic secret society, the Red Gauntlet
  • once in Zovgorod, capital of Ixania, Groom and Carruthers go to the opera where a) they see Madame S, her sinister brother, the president etc and b) there is a mysterious power cut
  • this suggests to Carruthers the electricity is being used for atomic experiments; he follows the power lines out of the capital up a valley towards the eletro plant at a dam, and finds the secret laboratory and happens to be there at exactly the moment Madame S arrives for a secret meeting with Kassen, so Carruthers overhears everything
  • on the way back he is tailed by an American journalist Casey, who he punches at first imagining him to be a foe, but once they establish they’re on the same side they join forces and work together cf Bond and Felix Leiter
  • later that morning Casey’s contact, Andressin, a leader of the Peasant Party who are opposed to the aristocratic government, is murdered
  • Casey and Carruthers eavesdrop Groom hiring a gang of Greeks to break into Madame S’s villa and steal the plans; C&C themselves break in to observe the action, and are involved in fights and shooting but get away
  • Madame S has them gassed unconscious in a closed taxi and brought to her room where she warns them at gunpoint to leave Ixania
  • they return to Carruthers’ hotel room to find it a shambles after being searched by someone and are standing there when Groom enters with one of the Greek thugs and a gun

And so on. In other words, although the set-up and recurring references to to Barstow/Carruther’s split personality are odd, the plot itself is byzantine and atmospheric with a steady stream of twists, confrontations and revelations, so much so that it’s almost an encyclopedia of thriller topoi.

Style

Apparently Ambler pioneered in English the use of modern thriller prose: short declarative sentences, no unnecessary description, sequences which get to the point and stick to the point and are designed to generate the maximum tension and excitement.

I let the rope down again and was just buttoning up my coat for the descent when I heard a faint ‘click’ from the door. I flung my leg over the sill. I got no further. The door flew open and a stab of light from the corridor illuminated the room.
‘If you move an inch you’ll be shot,’ said a familiar voice.
I remained motionless. I was still half-blinded by the unexpected light and all I could see was two figures silhouetted in the doorway. Then the door shut and the room lights were switched on. It was Groom and Nikolai and in the right hand of the latter was a heavy automatic fitted with a Maxim Silencer. (Ch 13)

It’s extremely practical, no nonsense prose. The nonsense might be in some of the Prisoner of Zenda-type details, but not in the short, brisk sentences describing them.

The door opened behind me. I turned round. A man stood in the doorway. He was tall and thin. His small eyes were pale blue and dull like pebbles; not even the heavy moustache he wore could conceal the thin cruelty of his mouth. Above his right eye were two deep duelling scars. ‘This gentleman,’ said the Countess, ‘is Colonel Marassin – my aide-de-camp.’ (Ch 12)

Competence

In a post about Raymond Chandler I pointed out that what Philip Marlowe has is superhuman competence, typified by his ability to grasp the space and detail of every room he walks into, to size up a situation and be master of it immediately – and that one of the pleasures of this kind of adventure novel is vicariously partaking of the hero’s breath-taking omni-competence. As it happens, early on in this novel Ambler has a useful paragraph about just this characteristic.

Your true adventure and mystery story lover demands but one thing from heroes – competence. Be he detective or be he master criminal he must be a paragon. If he is at a loss it must be only momentarily; his vast armoury of experience must be ready at a moment’s notice to supply a weapon equal to any desperate occasion or a train of thought leading ultimately, if circuitously, to the correct goal. (Ch 2)

Related links

Paperback edition of Hodder & Stoughton 1959 edition of The Dark Frontier, illustration by Oliver Brabbins

1959 paperback edition of The Dark Frontier, illustration by Oliver Brabbins

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.
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