The Night-Comers by Eric Ambler (1956)

‘They kill very easily. During the war of liberation I saw them. Men like that major. They smile and then they kill. For them it is easier to kill than to have doubts, to be uncertain.’ (p.68)

1956 was the year of the Hungarian Revolution, which was brutally crushed by Soviet tanks, and the Suez Crisis, which is routinely thought of as a key landmark in the decline of the British Empire. All the more striking that this, Ambler’s ninth novel, is the first not to be set in Europe and not among the murky politics of East Europe and the Balkans.

The Night-Comers

This is a first-person narrative told by Steve Fraser, an engineer. (Ambler had a qualification in engineering and many of his protagonists are engineers.) He has just finished a contract helping to build a dam in the fictional country of newly-independent Sunda, formerly part of the Dutch East Indies, and is looking forward to returning to England.

As with Judgment on Deltchev the book opens with a potted history of the (fictional) country and its troubled political background ie as soon as the nation became independent, corruption and official harassment and sometimes even murder became commonplace, especially if you were a member of the former colonial power ie Dutch.

Anecdotes about Fraser’s time at the dam project show how his team had to take on unqualified Sundanese army personnel and pay them off to prevent harassment, how a neighbouring Dutch planter was blackmailed, then murdered, and other stories conveying the sense of fear and malaise in the country. Further up north, large areas are controlled by ex-Army officers who rebeled against the independence government, led by a self-styled ‘General’ Sanusi, a devout muslim who has called on the faithful to carry out jihad against the corrupt Nasjah government.

None of this bothers Fraser much as he flies down to the provincial capital Selampang before catching a flight on to Jakarta. The Australian charter pilot invites him out to a local club to meet Eurasian girls and then asks if he’d mind babysitting his flat while he, the pilot, goes off for a few days on a job. Little do either of them know what is about to happen…

Sex

For the second time, there is sex in an Ambler novel. Sex didn’t exist in the first six or seven books but has suddenly appeared here in these 1950s novels. Clearly the atmosphere of what is and isn’t publishable had changed considerably between 1936 and 1956: now his Eurasian girlfriend, Rosalie, can have a bath, appear with a sarong loosely tied round her breasts, invite him into the bedroom, stand naked stroking her skin – a frankness about sex which would have been inconceivable before the War.

She took my hand and, leaning forward over me, held it against her breast so that my fingers touched one of the nipples. I felt it harden, and she smiled.
‘You see,’ she said. ‘I am not afraid.’ (p.133)

For the first time, the half-naked dolly bird on the cover (see below) is not a product of the illustrator’s imagination but genuinely justified by the text. It’s a striking leap forward in the depiction of human relationships and makes you realise how constricted and (self-)censored the 1930s novels were.

The coup

Out of the blue rebel soldiers force their way into the flat where Steve and Rosalie are sleeping. Because, they realise with dismay, it is above the national radio station and a military coup is taking place. Major Suparto, who Steve knew up at the dam, is managing the conversion of the apartment into the temporary HQ of the leader of the coup, General Sanusi. Somehow they knew Jebb would be away: everyone is inconvenienced to find our hero there. Now Steve and Rosalie’s lives hang by a thread. They are locked in the bedroom under armed guard but, at any moment, the twitchy Sundanese soldiers may simply butcher them.

There are further incidents: the building is bombed by loyal elements of the air force, and Steve helps patch up their sentry, earning kudos; the bombing floods the basement and shorts out the power source which Sunasi needs to make his radio announcements, so Steve is forced at gunpoint to repair it against the deadline of the General’s 6 o’clock broadcast. But behind these tense incidents, Fraser realises something odd is going on and the coup is not all it seems…

Improbability

The Dutch colony-Malay-muslim background is persuasively painted. The everyday corruption and incompetence of a developing country, ditto. The use of native terms – tuan, kampong, attap, boeng, betjak etc – adds flavour. The oppressive heat and humidity during the day and the relaxed, easygoing friendship with the Aussie pilot, the nightclub and hanging out with the compliant Eurasian women, all of these convince.

But the novel suffers a failure of plausibility when the apartment they’re staying in abruptly becomes the headquarters of the rebels. This privileged vantage point means the protagonist is able to guess – and then is explicitly told – that the rebels have been lured into playing their hand too soon, the loyal army units they were told were on manoeuvres, are not; the officers they were told would defect, do not; the air force and navy remain loyal: it is a trap, and Steve and Rosalie are about to be caught in the violent government counter-attack.

It is interesting to read a fictional account of a coup going wrong but it is hard to believe the coup leaders would end up confiding in an insignificant British engineer. It is a crashing coincidence that the one officer Fraser knows well – Major Suparto – a) should lead the requisition of the apartment and be a leading staff officer to the rebel leader Sanusi, b) turns out to be the mole, the traitor in the rebel camp, the man who encouraged the coup but is secretly a government loyalist. And it is too unbelievable that on a series of occasions he should tell Fraser what is going on, how the plot was conceived, what the military situation is, and so on.

Early in the book, when we meet him up at the dam, Major Suparto is an efficient but distant officer. When the violent requisition takes place there is murder in his eyes and he talks quite calmly about having to ‘liquidate’ Steve and girlfriend. It just doesn’t ring true that someone so deep in the midst of a fraught situation – and so separated from Fraser by race, language and culture – should suddenly start confiding in him at every turn, not least explaining in detail his reasons for betraying ‘General’ Sanusi while at the same time despising the existing government. It just seems improbable that a senior Army officer who is disciplined enough to play the role of sophisticated double-agent should suddenly start spilling information to a complete stranger – and a farang to boot – which could get him shot on the spot by either of his sponsors.

A realistic novel, I think, would convey more of the panic and fear and, above all, confusion about what was going on. Fraser’s acquaintance and then grudging friendship with Major Suparto guarantees him – and the reader – privileged insight into every stage of events which comes across as just a bit too convenient, too pat.

It is for this reason, rather than because of the (for Ambler) unusual, non-European setting, that I think The Night-Comers – despite many good things in the opening chapters and the scarily realistic depiction of street fighting once the coup gets underway – is among the weakest of Ambler’s novels.

Related links

1958 Pan paperback edition of The Night-Comers

1958 Pan paperback edition of The Night-Comers

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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1 Comment

  1. Very good review there. I think you took far more from it than I did. Unfortunately, I have only read one of his books. Will hope to remedy that as time goes on!

    Reply

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