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.
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