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).
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!
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.
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)
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)
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.
- Journey into Fear Wikipedia article
- Journey into Fear on Amazon
- Ambler’s obituary in the Independent
- Eric Ambler Wikipedia article
- New Statesman article about Ambler’s politics
- Dangerous Games: Thomas Jones Guardian review of Ambler’s career
- Uncommonly Dangerous: Eric Ambler adaptations on TV
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.