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.
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