The Looking Glass War by John le Carré (1965)

‘All right,’ Haldane conceded. ‘We have our brief. But things have changed. It’s a different game now. In those days we were top of the tree – rubber boats on a moonless night; a captured enemy plane; wireless and all that. You and I know; we did it together. But it’s changed. It’s a different war; a different kind of fighting.’ (p.62)

Failure and misery

This novel has the unrelenting despair and misery of a Graham Greene book. Everyone is unhappy, incompetent, in failed marriages with wives who despise them, children they don’t understand, in unsuccessful careers, too old, living in the past, working for a superannuated organisation, slack, doomed to failure.

He went back to his room. There were times when he confronted his own image as a man confronts an empty valley, and the vision propels him forward again to experience, as despair compels us to extinction. (p.103)

The same wish-to-lecture as Greene. And the same subject: despair, emptiness, the horror of life.

The flat was in darkness. Standing before it, he tried to detect in the house, in himself, some trace of the sentiment, or affection, or love, or whatever it was that explained their marriage, but it was not to be found and he supposed it had never been. He sought desperately, wanting to find the motive of youth; but there was none. He was staring into an empty house. (p.151)

And the same easy equation of complex situations with half a dozen standard bromides about love and guilt.

He was terribly tired; the tiredness was like a physical despair, like the moment of guilt before making love. (p.212)

Like most of Greene’s editorialising, this sounds fine but, on inspection, is meaningless, as if the words ‘despair’, ‘guilt’ and ‘love’, ‘faith’ and betrayal’, are shiny counters which can be placed in any order to deliver a Grand Statement about the Human Condition.

‘Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.’ (p.196)

Greeneitis.

Competence and the thriller

If you can put aside the relentlessly depressed view of human nature, the novel has other themes.

It highlights the importance of ‘competence’ as a key concept in the thriller. From Sherlock Holmes to Jason Bourne the hero has a super-human ability to swiftly size up situations and seize the advantage. Despite le Carre’s reputation for the downbeat and realistic, George Smiley (p.32) does in fact perform the function of the omni-competent hero in the eight novels in which he is mentioned (part of the reason I don’t like the running gag about his glamorous wife, Lady Ann, having left him, is because it is so obviously a ruse designed to conceal the fact that Smiley is, beneath his thick glasses and badly-tailored clothes, as shrewd and all-seeing as Holmes.)

The Looking Glass War

In this novel le Carré goes out of his way to portray incompetence. It is set in a government ‘Department’, which had a clear brief during the War to gather intelligence but has now fallen on hard times, its staff dwindling, its agents taken over by the ‘Circus’, in whose shadow the resentful handful of remaining ageing bureaucrats dream up schemes to reassert their importance, led by a hesitant, small man named Leclerc. The old-timers with too much time on their hands reminisce about the War, and the plot boils down to an effort by these middle-aged dreamers to recapture the intensity, the sense of purpose and the excitement they felt, during the War.

Part one

In the brief first part we are introduced to Taylor, a boastful man sent by Leclerc to a remote airport in Finland. A commercial flight has been instructed to fly over East German airspace with cameras in the belly, presumably to look for military installations. Taylor is to meet the pilot and take receipt of the roll of film. The point of the entire section is to highlight Taylor’s incompetence:

  • he fluffs elementary security by telling his wife about the mission, and she has told their daughter (!)
  • he is tempted at every turn to impress the airport staff with how jolly important he is
  • instead of finding a quiet corner of the bar and waiting for the pilot to arrive, he hogs the bar and makes himself memorable by insulting the barman
  • when the pilot arrives he is himself flustered by having been intercepted by MIG jets, unhappy with the mission
  • and they exchange the roll of film and money in plain sight

By the time Taylor has realised he’s drunk, the last airport taxis have all gone and he sets off to walk through the heavy snow to the hotel. A car seen earlier loitering, accelerates up behind him and deliberately runs him over, killing him. The strong implication is this murder follows logically from the folly of the mission and the failure of Taylor to observe almost every rule of ‘tradecraft’.

Part two

Leclerc hosts a meeting of the ‘Department’. Le Carré forensically highlights the politics, the psychological combat, of the attendees. (Le Carré literally belittles Leclerc: he has small fists, a small head, struggles to assert himself.)

Leclerc tells them a mechanic who fled from the East brought photos of what appear to be the latest type of Russian missile being installed in secret locations in East Germany. The attendees are sceptical. They point out that their man who forwarded this ‘information’ – Gorton – has his contract up for renewal; maybe he invented it. (On page 167 Haldane, head of Research, finds similar photos which are known to be fake, but doesn’t inform anyone.) They are critical that Taylor, an overt courier, had been used for a clandestine mission (which explains why he was so puffed up and incompetent), but generally accept the conclusion that this could be a new Cuban Missile Crisis. –What comes over in spades is their collective sense of inferiority to the ‘Circus’, their resentment of the Foreign Office, their determination to prove themselves. All desperately downbeat and depressing.

This is one of the eight Smiley novels: he is not the main figure, as in Tinker, Tailor or Smiley’s People, but not quite as peripheral as in Spy. Once the Circus learns what the Department is up to, Control asks Smiley to lend a hand and keep watch. Smiley interviews Avery on pages 55 to 58. It is clear that he is appalled at his ignorance of tradecraft. Smiley gives him detailed instructions on how to ‘drop’ the film to an experienced courier. He reports back to Control and is tasked with keeping a watch on the Department’s activities.

Avery comes across as a young romantic fool. His trip to Helsinki to collect Taylor’s body is a disaster. Le Carré shows unrelentingly how your story must be perfect to the utmost bureaucratic detail or else the Consul, the Embassy, the local police, the coroner, the airline – someone, in the normal course of their duties, will stumble across any anomalies, and then start asking difficult questions. Avery is portrayed – like Taylor before him – as completely out of his depth. He cannot even manage burning Taylor’s letters and affects in his hotel room without staining the sink, leaving tell-tale traces, and making the hotel staff suspicious.

Wives

Depression and failure colour the entire book. Le Carré carries it deep into the characters’ private lives. The members of the Department fail to keep basic security by telling their wives what’s happening. Their wives don’t believe them or despise them. We meet:

  • Woodford the technician and his drunk weeping malicious wife, Babs – ‘she was a thin, childless woman’ (p.168)
  • Taylor’s wife, horribly distraught with grief, when told her husband has died ‘for his country’
  • Fred Leiser’s wife, drunk and resentful and suspicious: he’d rather spend the night with a prostitute than return to her
  • Young foolish Avery emerges as probably the lead character in the novel and we learn far too much about the sterile love-hate marriage with Sarah, who bitterly resents his secrecy and his new sense of puffed-up importance, and are mildly nauseated by the way both of them use their young son Anthony as a pawn in the endless arguments – ‘If it weren’t for Anthony I really would leave you’ (p.164)
  • Smiley thinks Control stays in town on Monday nights because he wants to get away from his wife (p.154)
  • and, of course, everyone knows about Smiley’s wife, the glamorous Lady Ann, and her serial infidelities

All relations between the sexes, in this novel, cause pain. Reading the many passages about relationships in this novel are like having toothache.

Part three

Back in Blighty, young Avery discovers there’s been more incompetence: since he had used his own name when visiting Helsinki to reclaim Taylor’s body, the irregularities in Taylor’s identity were noted and pursued by immigration police our end, who called on Avery’s wife in the middle of the night. As if that wasn’t bad enough, because he’d blabbed to her, she proceeded to tell the police all about Taylor and his secret mission. If they were police, that is…

Meanwhile, we are shown Leclerc adroitly handling the Whitehall system and getting permission and money to ‘send a man in’ to check the rocket rumours. We are shown Department buffer Woodford going to a shabby old club, the Alias Club, on Villier Street near Charing Cross, set up by veterans of the War, and asking about old contacts, trainers he could call up, plus does anyone know the whereabouts of the man they’ve chosen for the mission, the only man they have on the books from the old days who can speak German, a Polish emigré who fought with us during the War, Fred Leiser.

The novel describes the way old hands from the War are tracked down and set to work training Leiser for his top secret mission at a rented house in Oxford. But the whole flavour of the thing is bitter farce: they are all dreamers, deluded; they want the old days to return, the War years to restore a sense of purpose to their empty lives. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is downbeat, but the leanness of the narrative and the slowly-revealed depths of intelligence in the plot are invigorating for the reader. This novel is plain depressing. Everyone is deluded.

The training is described in minute detail. Maybe it is an accurate portrayal of espionage tradecraft circa 1960. Certainly the class consciousness is very 1960s. Leiser and the the trainers are sergeants and NCOs, not proper officer material, dontcha know. While Leclerc and Haldane swell into their officer-class sense of self-importance, Avery notices the trainers and the agent himself have ‘something of the backstairs’ (p.166).

In the East

The final forty or so pages, describing Leiser’s pointless ‘mission’ into East Germany, are vividly imagined and written, heart-stopping, terrifying: he sneaks across the night-time terrain, through the wire, suddenly killing the young border guard he encounters, then blundering through snow, through darkened villages, stealing a motorbike, asking questions and causing suspicion wherever he goes, leaving a trail a mile wide. The defining mistake is transmitting a radio signal back to his controllers for a solid six minutes, when the maximum for security purposes is two-and-a-half. After three the East Germans have detected it, and the remaining minutes allow them time for several receivers to pick him up and work out his location. They close in for the kill.

Control

It’s not as if the ‘Circus’ (the name all the characters use for British Intelligence due to its location on Cambridge Circus in central London) is much better. The Circus is well-informed about all these developments but let the Department’s crazy plan go ahead anyway, deliberately lending them antiquated radio equipment, fixing passports and papers. On pages 216 to 218 a conversation takes place between Control and Smiley in which the former seems to be admitting that they’ve set the Department up to fail; in other words, that they’re happy for this agent to be captured or killed if it leads to the disgrace and closure of the Department and the triumph of the Circus. ‘It’s not my fault they’ve taken so long to die.’ (p.218)

This exchange clinches one’s view of Control. He is nasty, amoral and manipulative (as he seems to have been in conceiving the plan which led to Liz and Leamas’s death in the Spy Who Came In From The Cold). But, worse, he comes over as doddery. He is portrayed as a querulous old man who detests the modern world and judges people as much by snobbery as on their merits.

  • I do detest the telephone (p.216)
  • Leclerc’s so vulgar…a silly, vulgar man (p.217)
  • God, how I loathe civil servants. (p.217)

Partly this looks forward to Control’s death just before the start of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and everyone’s comments in that book that he’d lost it, become obsessed, should have been pensioned off etc. But on every page of this novel I thought, if this is a remotely accurate account of Britain’s intelligence services in the early 1960s no wonder the Americans were so supremely reluctant to share anything with such a shower.

Short

The narrator not only belittles the silly ‘Department’, its foolish plan and its ham-fisted incompetence, he literally belittles the characters. They’re always short, under-sized.

  • Leclerc Smaller than the rest, older. (p.29) Leiser laughed in a reserved way. It was if he could have wished Leclerc a taller man. (p.182) His small hands folded tidily on his knee. (p.202)
  • Leiser He was a short man, very straight (p.106) He was very much the small man just then. (p.184) As Leiser put on each unfamiliar thing… he seemed to shrink before their eyes. (p.187) … his small face was turned to her… (p.237)
  • Smiley Little sad bloke.’ (p.112)

Everything about the book is little and sad, including, by extension, England itself, its shabby pubs and seedy clubs, its streets full of prostitutes, its awful food and grim weather. The descriptions are beautifully precise. Le Carré’s prose is crisp and clear. But this is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read.

He handed in his suitcase to the depository at Paddington Station and wandered out into Praed Street because he had nowhere to go. He walked about for half an hour, looking at the shop windows and reading the tarts’ advertisements on the glazed notice boards. It was Saturday afternoon: a handful of old men in trilby hats and raincoats hovered between the pornography shops and the pimps on the corner. There was very little traffic: an atmosphere of hopeless recreation filled the street. (p.149)

The movie

Made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of The Looking Glass War

Pan paperback cover of The Looking Glass War

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with plausibility, precision and thrilling intelligence.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) Depressing tale of a ramshackle wing of British intelligence left over from the War, whose members try to recapture the old glory when they receive a (dodgy) tip about missiles stationed in East Germany, and wangle the funding to give incompetent training, useless equipment and send to his pointless death, a hapless Polish émigré. A detailed and persuasive account of a dispiriting shambles.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist German political movement.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European emigre in Hampstead leads, eventually, the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to allow herself to be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things start to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré (1963)

Who do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs? I’d have killed Mundt if I could, I hate his guts; but not now. It so happens they need him. They need him so that the great moronic mass that you admire can sleep soundly in their beds at night. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.’ (p.231)

This is a really brilliant novel: wonderfully conceived, powerfully imagined, expertly executed, clearly written. It was le Carre’s breakthrough novel, only his third, which established him as a major player and created an entirely new downbeat, realistic feel for spy thrillers.

Plot

Alec Leamas works for British intelligence as station officer in Berlin. When his network is ‘rolled up’ ie arrested by East German security, he returns to England, like all le Carré’s protagonists aware of his advancing age and wondering if he is over the hill. He is given menial duties working in the banking section of the ‘Circus’ (so-called because it is located in London’s Cambridge Circus) and called in for a special meeting with ‘Control’, who has a plan.

Leamas will undertake a daring mission. He will be dismissed from the Circus under a cloud to the accompaniment of orchestrated gossip that he’s been badly treated and tricked out of a pension. He will drink heavily, get himself thrown into prison, in every way appear to be disillusioned, and so make himself available to be approached by ‘the other side’. He will, in short, set himself up to be a defector.

And this is just what happens. He drinks heavily to cultivate the image. Bad mouths the Service which has given him a menial job in banking. Eventually the Service ‘lets him go’. He is unemployed. He drinks heavily. He gets a job at a library and falls in love with a Jewish communist librarian, Liz Gold. He drunkenly assaults a greengrocer, knocking him out, getting arrested and sent to prison.

Sure enough, as soon as he gets out he is approached by one Ashe, who offers to look after him. After some chat he is passed on to a tougher man named Kievers. This man ascertains that Leamas worked for the Service and is prepared to talk about it, and explains he will be taken abroad for a short while to earn money telling what he knows. He flies under a false passport to Holland where he is handed over to a more senior figure, Peters. This Peters offers Leamas £15,000 to tell everything he knows about the Circus. Leamas agrees and answers all questions over several days interviewing.

They are in the middle of the process when news comes that the authorities in Britain have put out an alert for him. At this point Leamas becomes genuinely afraid – this wasn’t in Control’s plan. Peters and his German minders say he must now be moved East for his own safety. They fly to Berlin and drive across the checkpoint into East Berlin. From there Leamas is taken to an isolated safe house amid pine forests and meets Fiedler, number two in the Abteilung, the East German secret police.

In long interrogations – really conversations – with Fiedler, Leamas reveals everything he knows about the Circus’s operations in East Germany: about his network, how it was run, who was paid what etc. In among all the true stuff, though, is the thread of disinformation – a set of misleading facts about secret payments he had to make via Scandinavian banks.

The point of the mission

It is this which is the core of Leamas’s mission: because the dates of the payments have been timed to match the dates of trips to Scandinavian countries by Mundt, the head of the Abteilung. In other words, the entire deception is designed to frame Mundt and give his number two, Fiedler, the evidence he needs to arrest and eliminate Mundt. Cunning.

At every stage Leamas plays it perfectly by being reluctant: pretending not to know that the dates tie up, then refusing to believe Mundt could be a spy since he, Leamas, ran the German network and would have known about him. Leamas’s ignorance and reluctance to go along with the notion of Mundt’s guilt are designed to encourage Fiedler’s belief in it.

Mundt in A Call For The Dead

NB It is useful to have read A Call For The Dead before this novel, as this is the same Mundt who appears as in that novel as the head of the East German Steel Mission to Britain. When the network is ‘blown’ he oversees the assassination of agents who risk further exposure.

a) Although these events are referred to in Spy, it is more powerful to have read and experienced them in the earlier book; it gives a stronger sense of Mundt’s brutality. b) It is part of Fiedler’s case against Mundt that Mundt was able to leave England so easily after his network was exposed because Mundt did a deal with British Intelligence, and ever since then has been a double agent, rising up in the Abteilung, sending information to London.

Reversals

The novel is perfectly paced. All the events unfold with a deep and pleasing inevitability, yet nothing is forced or hurried. There is a sudden reversal – Fiedler is still interrogating Leamas when their house is taken over by security guards working for Mundt, who has intervened to arrest Fielder and Leamas. The latter is badly beaten then begins to be interrogated by Mundt (who we finally meet, cold and calculating). But almost immediately there is a further switch, because Fielder had just sent a dossier of his case against Mundt to the Praesidium, who now release Fiedler and imprison Mundt.

The impasse must be resolved and so the Praesidium organises an investigation to be set in a court room, each side making its case. Fiedler argues compellingly against Mundt, listing the evidence which has led him to believe Mundt is a British double agent. However, Mundt’s lawyer then demolishes it: He all-too-accurately describes the Circus’s plot, the way Leamas was laid off, ran out of money poor, drank too much, assaulted the grocer – Mundt’s lawyer accurately describes this all as a scam, designed to lead to his recruitment by the Abteilung.

Up to this point he is describing events which could be interpreted either way. But then, in a dramatic coup, he introduces Liz, Leamas’s lover, the librarian, into the court. (In a parallel strand of the novel we had seen her be contacted by the British communist party and invited on a ‘goodwill visit’ to East Germany. It was all a ploy to enable her to be produced at the trial.) Here Mundt’s counsel extracts, from an obviously honest and reluctant witness, the fact that Liz knew about the assault before it happened, that Leamas said he had something he had to do, that he made their last night a formal goodbye (the day before he assaulted the grocer and went to prison) that, in other words, the whole thing was planned.

In further, damning, evidence, she reluctantly admits that she was visited by Smiley, who left a card and told her to get in touch if she had any problems or if she heard from Leamas; and that her lease was bought and sent to her, as if in payment for her aid.

Leamas listens in amazement. How incompetent of London! It is almost as if they were trying to undermine his mission, it is almost as if they wanted the mission to indict Mundt to fail, it is almost as if the whole mission was actually designed to incriminate Fiedler… at which point, Leamas realises with a shock… that Fiedler is right. That Mundt is London’s man. That Control and Smiley lied to him, and have used him and Liz as pawns in a deeper plot to discredit Fiedler – a genuine communist – because he was getting too close to Mundt – London’s double-agent.

Liz Gold

The narrative then follows Liz as she is taken from the court through miles of corridors of the vast prison for dissidents and intellectuals, has a dispiriting conversation with the zealous woman guard, and sinks in despair onto her bed… when the door of her cell is opened and it is Mundt, hurrying her along corridors, out of a door onto a gravel drive to the main gate, through it and up to a car and to Leamas. He leaves them.

This is a particularly effective passage because a) it skips quickly over events in the court room, which probably got a bit tedious b) it powerfully conveys Liz’s fear and bewilderment – for once we are not following the actions of a seasoned player of ‘the game’, we are feeling the devastating impact of this terrifying world on someone like us, the disorientation, the terror.

The Wall

Mundt has triumphed. Leamas and Liz are free. They get in the car and, as Leamas drives at speed back towards Berlin, he reveals the moral of the story. Because Liz is such a complete innocent, Leamas is able to explain the rationale of espionage from the ground up, how it is the logical extension of two conflicting ideologies, how it is infinitely superior to actual war, but how it has its own casualties, compromises, amorality. What did she expect? (See the quote at the head of this review.)

They pick up an agent at a pre-arranged place who guides them to the Wall and gives them precise instructions about how to climb over at a place where the wire has been cut. And so they walk to it and climb up and over as instructed except that, as Leamas pulls the girl up after him all the searchlights go on and there are shots. Liz’s body goes limp then falls. She and Leamas had discussed in the car how odd it was that Mundt was letting her go, an idealistic fool who now knows he is a top-ranking double agent ie she holds his life in her hands. Leamas realises Mundt planned to have her killed all along. And, in deeper disillusionment, realises his own side must have known it as well. And we don’t need to be reminded that Mundt is viciously anti-semitic and Liz was a Jew. The full horror of these people, of this world, of total expediency, hits us.

Leamas hears voices from the West telling him to climb over and down to safety. He hears Smiley’s voice ‘from quite close’. And, like the ageing, tired, and completely disillusioned man he is, Leamas deliberately climbs back down into the Eastern side, knowing what will happen, no longer wanting to live. And is shot dead.

The sense of psychological defeat, betrayal, moral squalor, is complete, and leaves an enduring taste in the mouth. The le Carré flavour.

Jewishness

Throughout the text characters show a sensitiveness to Jewishness which is strange to me. Maybe it’s Germany, with its special history, that makes it so prominent. But it is also important to the plot that Liz the librarian is Jewish, and that Fiedler, the number two, is Jewish. In the brief spell when Mundt’s men take over, before the Praesidium intervenes, Mundt is described as torturing Fiedler, and whispering ‘dirty Jew’, ‘filthy Jew’, in his ear. The woman gaoler in charge of Liz is similarly automatically, thoughtlessly anti-semitic. Leamas is not anti-semitic but immediately recognises someone as Jewish.

Maybe this ‘Jew awareness’ is one of the differences between 1963 and 2014 (when I’m writing), 50 years which have seen enormous immigration to all West European nations and the creation of truly multicultural societies. Maybe Jews were more noticeable in 1963, in a society almost 100% white and caucasian – whereas in 2014 any slight physical difference they (may) exhibit has been lost in the vast sea of racial/ethnic differences which now surrounds us.

Memories of the Cold War

This sensitivity to Jewishness is one aspect of the way this novel is now part of a vanished history. When I first read 1984 and Darkness At Noon in the 1970s, they scared me more than any horror story, they described an abyss into which all society, all humanity, could quite possibly fall, they described outcomes which might result from the political struggles of the time, from the power of communist and socialist parties across Europe even, potentially, from the power of the radical wing of the Labour Party.

It is not just that the Cold War ended and the West won. It is the way even the notion that one single ideology could conquer the world has evaporated. When this novel was published the world population was 3 billion. China, the USSR, all East Europe, Korea then Vietnam, Cuba and parts of Latin America, and a lot of Africa could be described as communist or at risk of becoming communist. Now the world population is over 7 billion and it’s not clear that any state is now genuinely communist. Although Islamic fundamentalism gives the West’s security services something to do, that sense that ‘one side’ will triumph has disappeared. There are now lots of anxieties, but they are to do with the economy, the environment, global warming, random acts of terrorism.

That one, bottomless, existential fear about the death of human freedom and the triumph of totalitarian communism which I remember from the 1970s and which was captured in novels like this, has disappeared like morning dew. It is impossible to explain it to my children. They have no idea what I’m talking about.

Dramatis personae

  • Alec Leamas – fifty-year-old spy, pretends to be a defector
  • Control – head of the ‘Circus’ ie British intelligence
  • George Smiley – peripheral to the plot, but appears at various moments, specifically when he visits Leamas’s girlfriend Liz Gold, to find out what if anything he’s told her communist party leaders about Leamas (he also witnesses Leamas beating up the grocer, and pays off Leamas’s landlord)
  • Liz Gold – naive, idealistic librarian and member of the Bayswater communist party
  • Ashe – effeminate, nervous German agent, who makes first contact with Leamas, hands him on to…
  • Kievens – who establishes that Leamas is prepared to defect
  • Peters – in Holland, debriefs Leamas at length
  • Jens Fiedler – number two in Eat German Abteilung, interrogates Leamas in a friendly collaborative way because he suspects his boss, Mundt, is an English double-agent
  • Mundt – head of East German security; cold, cunning, sadistic, he is in fact a British double-agent, and the whole point of Leamas’s mission turns out to be to protect him by discrediting Fiedler

Credit

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré, published 1963 by Victor Gollancz. All quotes from the 1981 Pan paperback edition.

The movie

The novel was made into a fantastically atmospheric black-and-white film, released in 1965, starring Richard Burton and featuring Michael Horden, Sam Wanamaker, Oskar Werner and Robert Hardy. It is as much a classic of the film world as the book is of literature. All the actors are immaculate. The direction, by Martin Ritt, is wonderful. The framing of almost every shot is perfect, many of the frames can be frozen and make classy still photos. Ritt has a fantastically good eye and a choice way of locating the camera, conceiving action, framing the shot. And at the heart of it is a towering performance by Burton, acting much older than his 40 years, looking and sounding a thousand years old.

Interviews

Le Carre has given innumerable interviews to the press and TV over the years.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

A Murder of Quality by John le Carré (1962)

‘This is a critical moment in Carne’s development. Many public schools have conceded to the vulgar clamour for change – change at any price. Carne, I am pleased to say, has not joined these Gadarene swine.’ (p.67)

The snobbery latent in Call of the Dead comes out to dominate this, le Carré’s second novel. Why do so many English writers who went to public school seem unable to escape its influence and so often feel compelled to write about their wretched/happy experiences? Because it isn’t an education – it is an entire world, their world, an insular world of agreed attitudes and behaviours, which teaches them what to wear and how to speak and what to think, a world they can never escape.

Carne

This novel is set in a (fictional) private school, Carne, in Devon, where the ageing teachers drink the finest port, bitch about each other and lament the country going to the dogs, where the pupils are schooled in how to speak snob, how to identify plebs at a hundred paces and how to put servants in their place. Some of the parents and even (gasp!) masters are, to be perfectly frank, old boy, not quite up to snuff, if you know what I’m saying. One of them (it turns out to be the crux of the plot) went to grammar school! How ghastly!! The opening pages set the tone of the school and its pupils:

‘Mrs Rode’s quite decent, though – homely in a plebby sort of way…’ [pupil speaking]

‘He says emotionalism is only for the lower classes…] [pupil speaking]

‘My Pater says he’s queer.’ [pupil speaking]

Mr Terence Fielding, senior housemaster of Carne, gave himself some more port and pushed the decanter wearily to his left. (p.4)

‘What was his regiment, Terence, do you know?’ (p.5)

‘He’d never seen a game of rugger before he came here, you know. They don’t play rugger at grammar schools – it’s all soccer.’ (p.6)

‘I’m told her father lives near Bournemouth. It must be so lonely for him, don’t you think? Such a vulgar place; no one to talk to.’ (p.6)

‘The value of intelligence depends on its breeding.’ That was John Landsbury’s favourite dictum. (p.16)

‘His mother is a most cultured woman, a cousin of the Stamfords, I am told.’ (p.59)

‘I’m never sure about funerals, are you? I have a suspicion that they are largely a lower-class recreation; cherry brandy and seed-cake in the parlour… She would wear black crêpe on Sundays… Forgive me, but do the lower classes always do that?’ (p.99)

This isn’t a subtle code. The air of superiority which everyone in this tiny world gives themselves is rammed into your face from the first page. You – poor plebeian reader – are not of this exclusive world. You are admitted on sufferance.

(Maybe le Carré is satirising this world, but he is satirising it from within and is therefore implicated – in its aloofness, its petty cruelties, its unkindness, its ‘effeminate malice’ (p.55), its air of seedy failure, of moneyed stupidity, of well-dressed philistinism. His character Smiley, we know from the first novel, went to a public school and on to an Oxford college, and fusses about the right wine to drink and people’s accents and their suits.)

The plot

A teacher (sorry, master)’s wife sends a letter to an obscure Christian periodical, saying she fears her husband intends to murder her. The woman who runs the periodical single-handed happens to have worked in Intelligence during the War and ponders which of her colleagues could help out. More or less the only one left standing is George Smiley.

She used to think of him as the most forgettable man she had ever met; short and plump, with heavy spectacles and thinning hair, he was at first sight the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation. His natural diffidence in most practical matters was reflected in his clothes, which were costly and unsuitable, for he was clay in the hands of his tailor, who robbed him. (p.20)

What percentage of the population, I wonder, has a personal tailor? 1%? What percentage was it in 1962? More subtly mannered is the deployment of ‘for’ instead of the common English usage ‘because’. His frequent use of ‘for’ is a symptom of the Victorian prose or Biblical phraseology which le Carré is prone to slip into once he strays from direct factual description (‘For it is written, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”‘). When he wanders from action and factual description into generalising about characters or settings, le Carré is sometimes in danger of sounding portentous (‘done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress’).

Everyone is notable

Inevitably, the letter-writing master’s wife comes from a notable family – the Glastons, don’t you know – ‘Stella’s grandfather was old Rufus Glaston, a Lancashire pottery king; he and John Landsbury’s father built chapels and tabernacles in practically every village in the Midlands.’

Inevitably, Fielding the senior house-master at Carne, is brother of a chap who worked for ‘the Service’. His retirement was mentioned in The Times, dontcha know?

Inevitably, Smiley met him once at Magdalen High Table, nice chap, not quite the same calibre as his brother, dontcha know.

— In this small, privileged world, everyone knows everyone else, a connectedness which is rooted in the public school system and extends beyond it to university, into the professions and the civil service, across the Army and down into the police force (always down into the police force: Smiley et al admire the police but they’re not People Like Us.)

Inspector Rigby looked at Smiley thoughtfully over his desk, and decided that he liked what he saw. He had got around in the war and had heard a little, just a very little, of the work of George Smiley’s Service. If Ben said George Smiley was all right, that was good enough for him. (p.31)

Of course, Rigby the local policeman is himself admirable, competent, efficient, clever. The police always are in le Carré, as they always are in real life.

Strongest and best

Because everyone in these texts just is jolly bright – clever man, good man, solid man, dependable chap, one of the brightest and best. Thus Smiley, who critics sometimes refer to as some kind of everyman, is exactly the opposite: he is routinely described in the novels as ‘the strongest and the best’ (p.23), the cleverest, the cunningest, the subtlest etc. which, if you take it literally, is quite an indictment of our ruling class and its shabby, shambolic intelligence services in the 1960s and 1970s.

Old school tie

This is the same old-school-tie world which Len Deighton sets about satirising in his spy novels, which are exactly comtemporary (Deighton’s début, The Ipcress File, was published the same year as this, 1962). Deighton’s protagonist is an insubordinate, joke-making NCO – fun, creative, witty, sexy – everything Smiley is not.

Le Carré was barely 30 when these first two novels were published and yet the main characters – Smiley and the CID inspector, Mendel – are on the verge of retirement. Le Carré seems happiest writing about late middle-aged men, slow, unfit, much given to drinking whiskey at home and claret at their club, tutting over the younger generation. A world away from the smart, cool world of Deighton’s fictions.

Old man

The air of toff-ish superiority, of snobbish knowingness implicit in a lot of le Carré’s prose is brought out if you add ‘dontcha know?’ or ‘old man’ at the end of sentences describing knowledge or expertise, and imagine the speaker wearing a monocle.

The seven-five from Waterloo to Yeovil is not a popular train, but it provides an excellent breakfast, dontcha know? (p.25)

The Sawley Arms is only full at Commemoration and on St Andrew’s Day, old boy. (p.29)

The dénouement

And the woman who was murdered? Far from being a hapless victim, she turns out to have been a monster who was blackmailing the flamboyant house-master Fielding because of some indiscretion with a boy during the war, mercilessly ribbing him till he could take no more. Le Carré steers suspicion at first towards the local loony lady who hangs out in the abandoned chapel on the moors – then onto the husband (after all the wife had been warning everyone he was about to do her in). But both are red herrings. The Master did it. All is revealed when Smiley invites him to his house in Chelsea, tells him the correct version of events and, as he makes a break for it, is arrested by the solid, honest Devon copper, Rigby.

Not unlike an episode of Morse, with its revelations of malice and blackmail among the oh-so-scenic cloisters.

Related links

TV adaptation

The novel was adapted for TV by Thames Television in 1991. Le Carré adapted the book himself, and it starred Denholm Elliott as George Smiley, with Glenda Jackson, Joss Ackland, Diane Fletcher, David Threlfall and a young Christian Bale.

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Call For The Dead by John le Carré (1961)

[Smiley] hated the Press as he hated advertising and television, he hated mass-media, the relentless persuasion of the twentieth century. Everything he admired or loved has been the product of intense individualism. (p.138)

This, John le Carré’s first novel, introduces British intelligence officer George Smiley, who will go on to appear in seven subsequent le Carré books. The first chapter gives his biography – public school, Oxford, scholarly interest in 17th century German poetry, recruitment into the intelligence service, running agents in 1930s Europe – and contrasts his unromantic, intensely intelligent and scholarly character with that of his flamboyant wife, Lady Ann Sercombe, who he surprises everyone he knows by marrying – and then who surprises no-one at all by leaving him for a glamorous Cuban racing-car driver before the novel begins.

The plot

The British Intelligence Service receives an anonymous letter pointing out that Foreign Office staffer, Samuel Fennan, was a communist party member in the 1930s. Intelligence officer George Smiley is tasked with interviewing him and gives a standard and sympathetic interrogation while they stroll round St James’s Park, and concludes by telling him he has nothing to worry about. The next day Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. Why?

With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind Fennan’s death, namely that he was murdered by an East German spy ring. Unknown to Fennan, his wife was a spy and had been copying the classified documents he brought home, then meeting with her controller to give him copies. Fennan wrote the anonymous letter accusing himself because he knew it would activate an enquiry, and call in Intelligence, at which point he would be able to air his suspicions of his wife. Following his interview with Smiley, Fennan had sent the latter a note inviting him to meet again for lunch. Presumably at this lunch he would have stated his suspicions – but someone saw him in St James’s Park with Smiley, thought (correctly) that he was about to reveal his suspicions – and murdered him.

The same person, later identified as a tall, blonde assassin, Mundt, is intruding in Smiley’s flat in Bywater Street, when Smiley arrives home after meeting Fennan’s wife. Smiley hears noises, rings the bell as if a visitor, notes the man who answers the door, makes his excuses and walks away – noting the numbers of all the cars in the street.

The CID man on loan to Smiley helps track one of these cars to a dodgy south London car salesman who, after a bit of pressure, admits to loaning out the car at regular intervals to a foreign gentleman. Smiley is inspecting the car in question in the dealer’s yard when someone attacks him savagely, beating him about the head. He comes round in hospital. A few weeks later the car salesman’s body is found in the Thames.

Throughout this time Fennan’s widow, Elsa, had claimed to Smiley that Fennan was the spy, and had been murdered by his controllers. She span an elaborate story about how Fennan was recruited on the Continent, and about his controllers, with lots of detail describing how messages were sent between them. But on closer investigation various details just don’t ring true, especially the letter from Fennan inviting Smiley to diner: why send it then kill himself? Smiley begins to suspect the wife. And when his people discover that the East German Steel Delegation was being run by a man named Dieter Frey, the pieces slot into place.

Because Smiley had himself run Frey as an agent against the Nazis during the War. Clearly he had survived the War and gone on to become an important figure in East German intelligence.

At the climax of this short novel Smiley uses his knowledge of Frey’s old procedures to send a (fake) emergency request meeting to Elsa Fenner. When she rendezvous with Frey in a crowded theatre, the latter realises it’s a set-up, that British Intelligence are on to him. He silently and shockingly strangles Elsa in the theatre, then makes his getaway through the exiting crowds and the foggy streets. But the persistent CID man tails him to a houseboat near the Lots Road power station, and it is here that Smiley meets him and, as Frey attacks and beats Mendel, charges into the fight, battering Frey and accidentally pushing him over the embankment wall into the oily, black Thames where he drowns.

Comments

All the components of le Carré’s fiction are here in this first, highly-finished novel. It is deeply imagined and eminently plausible, detailed in description of people and procedure, and agreeably jaded and world-weary in its analysis of human nature. What I didn’t like is the snobbery and the Lady Ann plotline.

Lady Ann Smiley appears in no fewer than eight le Carré novels, and the ongoing saga of his unfaithful wife follows him like a tiresome puppy. This runaway wife schtick always seemed to me too pat, too improbable – as portrayed she genuinely is too glamorous and exciting to have ever married a quiet, thoughtful nobody like Smiley – and it is a sullying of Smiley’s integrity. As if Conan Doyle tried to persuade us that Holmes had a hot little mistress on the side. It is inappropriate and not necessary. Smiley’s character, and the storylines, are better without her.

Snobbery In the early pages of the novel, as he skims through his biography, le Carré emphasises that Smiley went to an ‘unimpressive’ public school and an ‘unimpressive’ Oxford college – but the snobbery and elitism of this tiny world are present in the very need to demarcate him so much from the priviliged few who went to impressive public schools and impressive Oxford colleges. It is all part of their closed code. These people represent less that 1% of the population, and yet, to hear them talk, they are the only people who matter, they are Britain and the Empire etc. Some of the ‘best’ of them, of course, turn out very gratifyingly to have been vile traitors. (And Kim Philby’s treachery is the basis of le Carré best-known novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.) Le Carré may be satirising and condemning aspects of this tiny world – but he still speaks from inside it.

On a more superficial level, Smiley is just as comme il faut as James Bond: fastidious about eating at the ‘correct’ restaurants, and drinking the ‘correct’ wine with the ‘correct’ dish; noting the place in the elaborate class hierarchy of non-public school characters, the precise calibration of their accent, whether their trousers have a neat crease in them or not, and so on.

This book was published in 1961, just before the attack on deference and class consciousness which was, allegedly, a key achievement of that noisy decade ie we should maybe forgive its dated attitudes. Still, the continual drip-drip of the just-so restaurant and the florid chaps calling each other ‘old man’ and ‘old bean’ over the whiskey or the port, grate a little on the nerves of someone who didn’t happen to go to a public school, impressive or otherwise.

Resignation

Only a few chapters into the novel Smiley resigns. He is already portrayed as over the hill, superceded by younger, flashier men in a much-expanded Security Service and he is enraged by his boss’s attempts to smooth over the murder. Thus he conducts the majority of the investigation unofficially, with the key aid of the CID man and Guillam, who remains ‘on the inside’, and can use the Service’s resources. At the end of the novel his smooth boss – Maston – sends him a letter urbanely rejecting the resignation, understanding that he was ‘under a lot of strain’ etc etc, of course consider yourself still employed. Smiley sends back a rejection of the reinstatement and takes a flight to the south of France to be reunited with his wife. But we know he’ll be back.

Credit

Call For The Dead by John le Carré, Gollancz, 1961. Quote from the 1979 Penguin edition.

Related links

The movie

Call for the Dead was made into a movie in 1966 with the title The Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring James Mason as the Smiley figure (renamed Charles Dobbs), with impressive support from Harry Andrews as the solid English copper Mendel, Simone Signoret as the spy Elsa Fennan and Maximilian Schell as the old friend-cum-spymaster Dieter Frey.

It is not a good watch because of the Mason character; instead of Lady Ann, the screenwriters have lumbered the Smiley figure with a wife half his age, and foreign, and instead of Lady Ann’s tactful absence, this woman is there whenever Mason gets home, and they have horribly intense and realistic rows.

As so often in his later films, Mason comes across as a very tortured soul and the intensity of these scenes with his unhappy young wife completely overshadow the espionage plot. The whole thing is shot in a virulent technocolour which makes everyone look as if they’ve died and been badly made up by a cheap undertaker, and, given the gloom of the characters and the constant rain and the locations in the crappy back streets of south London, it seems wildly inappropriate that the film has a bright and breezy bossa nova soundtrack.

Poster for The Deadly Affair

Poster for The Deadly Affair

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Intercom Conspiracy by Eric Ambler (1969)

Although the main character appears to get bumped off at the end and there are some tense moments, this is another comedy-thriller, distinguished by Ambler’s trademark cosmopolitan settings, multilingual characters and complex plot.

NB. The fabula is ‘the raw material of a story, and syuzhet, the way a story is organized.’ (Wikipedia)

Fabula

The ageing heads of the intelligence services of two minor European countries (colonels Jost and Bland) meet and chat about a recent gold bullion robbery. How difficult gold is to sell! Better sell much more insubstantial things, such as intelligence. One of them suggests you could even sell the ‘absence’ of intelligence. You could perhaps sell silence… A few months later they meet again and one shows the other the obituary of the owner of an extremely right-wing American propaganda magazine, Intercom (a certain Luther Novak). It doesn’t have a wide circulation but it is known about in the right circles and now it will be in financial difficulties. Perfect for the scam they have in mind.

The pair create a fictional intermediary (Herr Arnold Bloch of Munich) who offers to buy the magazine for the improbably large sum of $10,000. The lawyers handling Novak’s estate accept. Immediately the editor, Theodore Carter, a Canadian based in Switzerland, receives an ‘article’ to include in the next issue which is a highly detailed account of the trials of a new NATO fighter plane. He telegraphs the new ‘owner’ to query its suitability but is told to obey orders. As it goes to press he receives the next ‘article’, a detailed account of the problems the Soviet army was having storing a new kind of missile fuel.

Two plotlines develop from this point. On the one hand, Carter starts to receive phone calls, then visits from threatening strangers. He deduces that the fairly mild-mannered pair who claim to be reporters from the Paris-based World Reporter, are CIA – but that the team which kidnap him and rough him up a bit at an anonymous flat are probably from ‘the other side’.

But what happens to Carter is ‘collateral damage’ as far as the two colonels are concerned. The other plotline is that a Swiss lawyer (Dr Schwob) contacts Intercom‘s Swiss lawyer and company director (Dr Bruchner) and offers to buy the magazine. When Bruchner contacts the mysterious Bloch, the latter is unsurprised and demands $500,000. In a broadly comic scene a stupefied Bruchner relays this asking price to Dr Schwob who, to his amazement, does not demur.

The sale is arranged to Dr Schwob’s anonymous buyer, the magazine is immediately closed down and all its assets, files and records transported to an unknown destination. In essence, an intelligence service has paid the colonels half a million dollars for their silence.

Syuzhet

The fabula or plot is, then, another comedy-thriller of the kind Ambler had been writing for the previous decade. One guesses that Ambler had enjoyed writing two novels in the voice of the con man Arthur Simpson (narrator of The Light of Day and Dirty Story), with his casual style, swearing and tone of permanent panic. In this novel he decides to use a multiplicity of voices. The traditional way to do this is to pretend you have access to the police files on a case, and then print the letters, diaries, phone calls, telegrams, interview material and so on which the file contains.

Ambler does something similar. He resurrects the successful historian-cum-crime writer, Charles Latimer, who is the central protagonist of his 1939 thriller, The Mask of Dimitrios. It’s thirty years later and an elderly Latimer is enjoying his retirement in a lovely villa on Majorca when, into a neighbouring villa moves a German, Werner Siepen of Hamburg. He and Latimer bump into each other, get chatting over bottles of wine, and discover they both worked for intelligence during the war. But Latimer is clever and imaginative and, from a few incautious remarks, begins to suspect his neighbour of involvement in the notorious ‘Intercom affair’, which had been in the news the previous year.

Latimer gets his publisher to give him an advance for a book on the subject and sets off to interview the major players. By far the main character is the hapless Theodore Carter, the editor of Intercom who suffers from the unwelcome attention of various security services in the few short weeks between the intelligence material being published and the intermediary buying and closing the magazine.

But Latimer disappears before the book is completed, and the text that we have is his notes, his speculations about how the generals conceived the scam, interview material with Carter himself, with his daughter Valerie Carter, with Swiss police and medical officials, all patched together to make an (almost) coherent narrative. Carter tops and tails this assemblage with his own comments, and the entire text is introduced by one ‘Eric Ambler’ who claims – as is traditional for this format – to be presenting the text as an ‘authentic record’ of events surrounding the ‘mysterious disappearance’ of ‘noted historian and crime writer’ Charles Latimer.

Dramatis personae

  • Colonel Jost – ageing intelligence officer from an unnamed European country.
  • Colonel Brand – similarly ageing intelligence officer from another unnamed European country.
  • Brigadier-General Luther B. Novak – publisher and inspiration for the extremely right-wing American magazine, Intercom.
  • Theodore Carter – ageing Canadian editor of Intercom. The majority of the text is his accounts of being on the receiving end of increasingly threatening visits from members of various security services. I see him being played by a harassed George Segal in the 1960s movie which should have been made of the book.
  • Bloch – the fictitious middle-man who buys Intercom and starts sending top secret information to be published in it.
  • Charles Latimer – historian and crime writer who had previously appeared in The Mask of Dimitrios and who pieces together the Intercom conspiracy from interviews with various participants – before going missing.

Cosmopolitan

It cannot be over-emphasised how much Ambler’s novels are not about English people in England, how cosmopolitan they are in location and character. Here the setting is Switzerland, a nation infested with intelligence agents, which means the characters are Swiss, German, French, Spanish. Many of the conversations switch between languages as different people enter and take part (though they’re all translated into English).

Alongside this goes Ambler’s detailed factual knowledge about organisations and procedures, which lends tremendous credibility to his plots. Lots of the text sounds like this:

The BND is the West German CIA and used to be known as the Gehlen Bureau. The BfV (Bundesamt fur Verfassungsschutz, or Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution) is the West German equivalent of the FBI in its spy-catching role, the British MI5 and the French DST. That bulletin about the FG115 plane must have put them in a real tizzy, though the timing rather suggests that they were prodded into doing something about it by the CIA. (p.112, 1971 Fontana papaerback edition)

Here you can rather obviously see where the thriller writer’s stock-in-trade – Wikipedia-type factual information about a country, its secret service or other relevant facets – is bolted onto ‘character’, in this case the slangy, irritable voice of hassled magazine editor, Theodore Carter.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback cover of The Intercom Conspiracy

1970s Fontana paperback cover of The Intercom Conspiracy

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.

Dirty Story by Eric Ambler (1967)

‘You’re a disgusting creature, Mr Simpson. Your life is nothing but a long, dirty story.’ (p.13)

Ambler is fond of featuring characters in more than one novel. The KGB agent Andreas Zaleshof plays a key role in two of the pre-War novels, and the head of Turkish security, Colonel Haki, appears in three. But this is the most comprehensive repeat, for Dirty Story is the second book to be narrated in its entirety by the same person – the shabby conman Arthur Abdel Simpson, who first appeared in The Light of Day.

Plot

In a previous post I mentioned the importance of bureaucratic procedures to Ambler’s plots. This one continues Arthur Simpson’s problems with his out-of-date and non-renewable Egyptian passport, the one which got him into trouble in The Light of Day. Refused a new British passport, Arthur contacts a provider of forged passports in Athens (where he lives) and, optimistically, promises to pay the large fee. When he fails to extract the money out of the rich old lady who rents him the car in which he operates as guide and driver to tourists, the passport-forger offers him a job to pay off the debt. A European film crew is arriving in Athens to shoot porn movies among Greece’s ancient ruins: Arthur can make the money to buy the passport by procuring pretty young men and women to star in the films, as well as managing other practicalities.

With his knowledge of Athens’ lowlife this is no problem for Arthur who makes a deal with a local madam, gets everything up and running for the crew, then slips off to fit in a weekend tourist-guide job. When he returns the sheepdip has hit the fan, because one particular member of the film crew – Goutard – has so outraged the madam that she has called her friends in the police. The (intimidating) passport forger has been tasked with hussling Goutard and Arthur out of the country to pacify everyone. Now Arthur has his passport alright – but he is being kicked out of his country: forced to leave his flat, belongings and (sort of) wife.

Processes and procedures

I thought the plot would kick in at some point, but for fifty more pages the plot largely is a summary of Simpson’s legal and bureaucractic problems. The pair are taken out to a departing tramp steamer but the emphasis is on the legal arrangements by which they sign on to the crew. When the steamer limps into Djibouti for repairs, the text becomes entirely about the various legal options open to them, about the validity of their visas, the length of stay they’re allowed, which countries the police will deport them to, and so on.

They are hoping to be kept on until the boat docks in Lourenço Marques, but Goutard assaults the steamer’s captain who promptly ‘sacks’ them from the ship’s crew. The procedural implications of this are described in much greater detail than the actual incident as Ambler lists the payoff they receive, the severance contract they have to sign and so on. Simpson – and the text – now spend some time considering the options available to him, all of which are hedged round by legal, passport, visa and work permit restrictions, which are explored in some detail.

Eventually, the plot moves forward as Goutard has met in a bar one ‘Major’ Kinck who tells them all about the mining of rare metals in Africa. On the steamer one drunk night, Simpson had let his imagination run wild, making up stories about his daring exploits in the British Army during World War Two. Now, to his horror, he discovers Goutard has suggested to Kinck that he and Arthur sign up as mercenaries to Kinck’s organisation – the Société Minière et Métallurgique de l’Afrique Centrale (SMMAC). Again, the chapter that deals with this goes into minute detail about the contract they sign, the currency and payment options, the visas they are issued with, even the next-of-kin clauses, as well as the uniforms, badges and so on.

From one angle, the ‘plot’ could be said to consist of a sequence of bureaucratic, legal and procedural wrangles to which a ‘character’, an actual human being, is only accidentally attached.

Part two

It is only over half way into the book that the real ‘story’ becomes clear.  Kinck has been hanging round Djibouti recruiting a ragtag collection of half a dozen white men who have all been associated with the armies of their countries. They all sign the contract to work for SMACC and fly with Kinck to an African country. Arthur (and Ambler) give it the fictitious name of Mahindi.

Here they go straight to a mining camp and are briefed. When the neighbouring African nations of Mahindi and Ugazi gained independence there was an anomaly at a river which snakes between the countries, but where Europeans defined the boundary as a straight line. It would make better sense for the bit of territory sticking out beyond the line but this side of the river to be given to Mahindi; and the bit in the bend beneath to be restored to Ugazi.

Peaceful negotiations have been meandering on about this for years. Suddenly the Ugazi delegation have cut off negotations. This is because a European corporation has discovered some very rare precious minerals in just this stretch of land. Arthur has got caught up in a conspiracy for a dozen or so white mercenaries to lead a couple of lorryloads of Mahindi soldiers and seize the piece of land with the precious minerals in, while the Mahindi government magnanimously restores their spur of (worthless) land to Ugazi.

There are a few complications (one of the mercenaries, Willens, turns out to have contacts with the other side and persuades Arthur to betray his colleagues for the promise of cash), but most of the second half of the text describes the training and preparation for this incursion and Arthur’s characteristic attempts to avoid all responsiblity and danger, quite amusingly.

However, the incursion, when it finally comes, is not so amusing with quite a few black soldiers being killed and dismembered by Uzi machine guns or mortar rounds. Nobody was killed in The Light of Day which maintained a light comic tone through even the most nailbiting scenes. This story features quite a few African casualties a) in the story, for the greed of Europeans b) in the metatext, for the entertainment of us European readers. On both levels, it made me uneasy.

The SMACC mercenaries successfully invade and secure the Ugazi enclave. Arthur’s treachery to his colleagues is revealed and he and Willens make a tense getaway by boat. In the final few pages Arthur ponders the cynicism of the big corporations and nations: the two countries have agreed to do a deal, to get their corporations to co-operate and share the mining profits. Those who died did so foolishly in what amounted to a cynical business deal.

In the confusion of battle, Arthur just happens to have stolen a bunch of passports he found in the police headquarters of the captured town. In the final pages he heads off to Tangier to make a living selling them and, yes, maybe he will set up in his own right as a forger of fake passports.

Thus, both the Arthur Simpson novels are linked by this golden thread of passports and their problems.

Dramatis personae

  • Arthur Abdel Simpson, rogue and anti-hero
  • Nicki – his wife, a belly-dancer
  • H. Carter Gavin – the British Vice-Consul who refuses him a passport
  • Mrs Karadontis – the old lady who loans Arthur the car he drives tourists round in
  • Madame Irma – brothel-keeper
  • Gennadiou – fixer of forged passports
  • Hayek – leader of the polyglot porn movie company
  • Yves Goutard – short-tempered member of the porn movie crew who gets himself and Arthur into trouble
  • Captain Van Bunnen – captain of the tramp steamer which takes them down the African coast
  • Jean-Baptiste Kinck – recruits them as mercenaries acting for the Société Minière et Métallurgique de l’Afrique Centrale (SMMAC), mining company working inside Mahindi
  • Adrian Willens – one of the mercenaries who turns out to be working for the UMAD, the mining company working with the Ugazi government
  • Barbara Willens – his good-looking wife who first talks Arthur into working with them ie to betray his mercenary colleagues to the enemy
  • Troppmann – leader of the SMMAC mercenaries
  • Velay – French leader of the UMAD opposition, who tries to do a deal with his opposite numbers

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback cover of Dirty Story

1970s Fontana paperback cover of Dirty Story

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.

To Catch A Spy edited by Eric Ambler (1964)

Seven short stories about spies, selected and with a genial introduction by Eric Ambler, who gives a useful summary of the spy genre from the turn of the century up to the early 1960s:

  • the late-19th century background of Sherlock Holmes/Rider Haggard popular adventure yarns
  • then suddenly the first classic spy novel, The Riddle of The Sands (1903)
  • the unexpected and not at all thriller-ish The Secret Agent (1907) by literary novelist Joseph Conrad
  • a flood of popular spy novels by the prolific William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • then the sequence of five Richard Hanny novels by John Buchan (1915-1936) raising the tone
  • overlapping with the proto-fascist Bulldog Drummond stories by ‘Sapper’
  • the standout early spy novel of them all, Ashenden (1928) by Somerset Maugham
  • the comic spy novel The Three Couriers by Compton Mackenzie
  • then Graham Greene’s secret agent novels of the 1930s – A Gun For Sale, The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear
  • overlapping with Ambler’s own six great thrillers set in the murky eastern Europe of the late 1930s
  • the hiatus of the war
  • then the explosive rise of Ian Fleming (first Bond novel 1953)

Writing in the early 1960s Ambler is unaware that the release of the early Bond movies (Dr No, From Russia With Love) would spark a spy boom, including Len Deighton’s fabulous Ipcress File novels (1962-67), the comic strip adventures of freelance agent Modesty Blaise (1965), the Quiller spy novels of Adam Hall (debut 1965), the ‘agent’ novels of Alistair MacLean, the arrival on the scene of Desmond Bagley who wrote spy novels in the early 1970s, and the most enduringly successful of English spy novelists, John le Carré (first novel 1961). Many of these novels were filmed very soon after publication to create a tidal wave of spy books and movies throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Spies went from being a minority pulp interest to becoming big money literary and Hollywood genres.

Ambler is no scholar but you can’t fault his opinions:

  • The Riddle of the Sands ‘one of the finest books about small sailing-craft ever written.’
  • ‘Although, on the whole, Buchan’s spy stories achieved a higher level of reality than those of Oppenheim, and were certainly better written, they had peculiar defects. His spy-heroes were mostly hunting-shooting-fishing men who went about their work with a solemn, manly innocence which could lapse into stupidity.’
  • Ashenden ‘is the first fictional work on the subject by a writer of some stature with first-hand knowledge of what he is writing about.’

The short stories

The Loathly Opposite by John Buchan (21 pages) Buchan’s pukka heroes – Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and others – are sitting round jawing when one of them, Pugh, remembers his World War I work supervising codebreakers who struggled to crack the work of one particularly fiendish German coder and how, years later, recovering from war nerves, it turns out the mild-mannered German doctor treating him at a sanatorium is one and the same coder. Well, well.

Giulia Lazzari by Somerset Maugham (56 pages) One of the short stories which make up Maugham’s masterpiece, Ashenden (1928). In his frigid, well-mannered prose the narrator describes being given a mission by his controller, R. A dangerous Indian nationalist and terrorist, Chandra Lal, has fallen (improbably) in love with a travelling Italian entertainer-cum-prostitute who performs as an ‘exotic’ Spanish dancer, known as Giulia Lazzari. She’s been arrested in England and is being sent under guard to the French border with Switzerland because Chandra is in Switzerland.

Ashenden’s mission is to keep her under arrest and coerce her into persuading her lover, Chandra, to cross the border into France where he can be quickly arrested by the authorities, who can’t touch him in neutral Switzerland. Ashenden politely but implacably wears Guilia down until she consents to write the fateful letters asking her lover to join her. The whole affair ends squalidly when, cornered in a waiting room of the ferry by which he’s crossed the lake into France, Chandra swallows poison and dies immediately. As promised, Ashenden gives the broken Giulia the papers she requires to travel to Spain, and feels degraded.

The First Courier by Sir Compton Mackenzie (79 pages) Broad good-natured comedy. Year two of the Great War and Roger Waterlow is a naval officer, fed up with acting as intelligence officer in an unnamed boiling hot city (unnamed but obviously in Greece). He has a fat incompetent number two, a dodgy Cockney driver, a boss (Captain X) back in London who ignores his pleas to be transferred, and a clutch of comedy French diplomats to deal with.

Just as remarkable as the many genuinely amusing comic scenes, is Mackenzie’s often weirdly  convoluted prose, which maybe explains why he’s so little read today.

His own reward would be the Légion d’Honneur, the scarlet ribbon of which would seem to a little man so fond of dark habiliments and obscure subterranean trafficking a whole world of vivid colour. (1984 Bodley Head large print edition p.124)

The French Naval Attaché waved cordially to Waterlow as he mounted his car where, so full of nervous energy was he in repose, he seemed to flutter in the hot breeze like the spruce little tricolour on the bonnet, himself in that huge Packard like the flag a miniature emblem of his country. (p.130)

I Spy by Graham Greene (5 pages) A young boy sneaks down into his father’s tobacconist’s shop after dark to nick a packet of cigarettes and smoke a crafty fag. Approaching footsteps make him hide under the till from where he hears the conversation between his father and two official-seeming men, as his father scoops ups some packets and grabs his coat before going away with them. He appears to have overheard his father being arrested by police… Only a spy story in the broadest sense of the word ‘spy’, in which almost anyone overhearing anyone else hidden in a closet could be said to be ‘spying’.

Although famous for the variety of exotic locations for his fiction, I’m not the first to point out that Greene’s mind and imagination were often very mundane and humdrum.

Belgrade 1926 by Eric Ambler (31 pages) A chapter from The Mask of Dimitrios, which many consider Ambler’s best novel from the six he wrote before World War II, considered by most critics to be his finest period. It is an episodic novel about a writer’s quest to track down a legendary criminal, Dimitrios, which takes him across Europe to meet various people who knew Dimitrios and who describe key episodes from his life – hence the text is so easy to divide into sections.

In this excerpt the writer, Charles Latimer, writes to his Greek informant describing a long encounter with ‘G’, a spymaster in Eastern Europe, now based in Geneva. Working for Italy, G organises a scam to blackmail an official in the Defence Ministry in Belgrade to bring him charts of the marine minefields Yugoslavia is laying down in the Adriatic. G hires Dimitrios to act the part of playboy, and between them they flatter the clerk and his wife with high living and promises of big jobs until they lure them into a casino, where they arrange for them to lose a fortune. Thus, in fear of being exposed, of losing his job and going to prison for debt, the clerk is persuaded to steal the charts for a night and bring them to Dimitrios who will photograph them.

The clerk brings the charts, alright but unfortunately Dimitrios double crosses G, demands the photos of the charts at gunpoint, before going off to sell them to the French embassy. G has no choice but to inform the Yugoslav authorities, who promptly change their minefield arrangements, arrest the clerk and sentence him to life imprisonment. Dimitrios disappears. G concludes his business and leaves town.

You can see how, in Ambler’s hands, the spy story is more about betrayal and double crossing than glamorous adventures. That is how he made his name, moving the genre decisively away from the schoolboy heroics and naive patriotism of Buchan and Sapper into the amoral modern world – where it has firmly stayed ever since.

From A View To A Kill by Ian Fleming (40 pages) A motorcycle courier riding from NATO to SHAPE headquarters is assassinated by an identically-dressed motorbike courier, who takes the wallet full of battle plans and disappears. James Bond is staying overnight in Paris en route back to London from a bodged job in Hungary. He is ordered into going along to SHAPE HQ to help out the investigation and is not welcomed because SHAPE has its own security service and can do without the British Secret Service’s interference, thank you very much.

Bond pricks up his ears when casually told about the gypsies who camped in the forest during the winter. He goes and stakes out the gypsies’ old camp, which is when he sees the high-tech doors to the secret Russkie base open up and three men bring out the motorbike the assassin must have used. Next day Bond impersonates the daily courier and entraps the baddie into following him, but shoots first and kills him, then takes his team of four agents to capture the remaining men in their underground base. This leads to a shootout and Bond is rescued by the rather sexy woman agent who collected him from his hotel at the start of the story. Mmm. ‘Will you have dinner with me tonight?’ ‘Of course, commander.’ Perfectly, effortlessly entertaining.

On Slay Down by Michael Gilbert (24 pages) Never heard of Gilbert but this is arguably the best short story in the book. Two elderly middle-aged men, friends from the first war and both in ‘the Service’, discuss the need to assassinate a woman secretary who – investigations show – has been passing information to the enemy.

One of them, Calder, drives out to the fake rendezvous they’ve arranged between her and her contact, arrives way before her and sets up shop with a rifle. She arrives, gets out her car and he is about to shoot her when an Army lorry appears and the driver starts taking pot shots at rabbits. Smiling, Calder waits for the soldier to shoot and instantly fires, as if an echo, killing the woman. He packs up and leaves.

However, the two men running this grim project are puzzled that, by a few days later, the body has still not been found or reported. They track down the identity of the soldier, an officer, who was driving the lorry and nearly interrupted Calder’s assassination. Turns out he is now leading a small exercise in the same area.

Calder, obviously with the blessing of higher authority, dresses up as a senior officer in the man’s regiment and confronts the soldier in his tent. There can be only one explanation – the soldier must have found the body and, thinking he’d killed a harmless civilian, buried her. So, asks Calder: ‘Where did you bury her?’ The soldier’s first reaction is to reach for his pistol, but he thinks better of it and admits everything. In fact, he buried her on the very spot where their tent is pitched; he was horrified to find an exercise was planned for the same area and made sure he got there first and pitched tent above the grave. At which point Calder reveals his identity and… offers him a job in the Service. As he later recounts to his partner, over their evening game of backgammon.

‘He realised that he wouldn’t be able to get his gun out in time, and decided to come clean. I think that showed decision, and balance, don’t you?’
‘Decision and balance are most important,’ agreed Mr Behrens. ‘Your throw.’

Like the Bond, despite a spot of killing, this is essentially a comic story, slick and clever. Ambler, in his introduction, says it could have been retitled ‘On Slay Down, or the Recruitment of 008‘.

First sentences

Burminster had been to a Guildhall dinner the night before, which had been attended by many – to him – unfamiliar celebrities. (Buchan)

Accurately conveys Buchan’s milieu of upper-class, professional men who, however, are Country not Town; hunting, shooting, fishing types who mix with the rich but don’t know much about corrupt city ways, about this art or literature malarkey, dontcha know. Hence the importance of the ‘- to him -‘ clause. The hero is high-born – but pure.

Ashenden was in the habit of asserting that he was never bored. (Somerset Maugham)

Not only portraying the lofty detachment of Ashenden, the fictional writer-spy, but Maugham’s own enjoyably seigneurial tone.

It was hotter than ever in the city of South-East Europe some time round about the second anniversary of the war. (Mackenzie)

Sets the tone of complaint, one aspect of the Mackenzie’s comedy about the unhappy Naval officer forced to become a spy in this feverishly hot Mediterranean location and constantly moaning about mosquitoes, the awful food and the absurd machinations of the local French officials.

Charlie Stowe waited until he heard his mother snore before he got out of bed. (Greene)

Indicates the mundane banality of Greene’s settings and the flat, colourless tone of his prose. Why is he so famous, then? Due to his gimlet-eyed focus on seediness and loss, deception and guilt.

My dear Marukakis, I remember that I promised to write to you to let you know if I discovered anything more about Dimitrios. (Ambler)

Obviously the Ambler story’s format of a letter dictates the tone a bit, but this opening is nonetheless strongly indicative of Ambler’s good humour and amiability. His novels are excellent company.

The eyes behind the wide black rubber goggles were cold as flint. (Fleming)

You can immediately see the change in tone: Most of the preceding stories (with the exception of Greene’s cold-eyed heartlessness) have exuded chaps-in-the-club-with-a-cigar bonhomie. Fleming introduces pure physical excitement, a foretaste of the sadism, sex and shiny gadgets his novels delight in and which made him the most successful spy writer of all time.

‘The young man of to-day,’ said Mr Behrens, ‘is physically stronger and fitter than his father.’ (Gilbert)

Rather suave, man-of-the-world savoir faire of two older male friends discussing their professional interests ie security, spying and agents.

Conclusion

Of these seven texts the Maugham, Mackenzie and Ambler are in fact chapters from longer works. Maybe there aren’t (or there weren’t in 1964) that many good spy short stories.

Related links

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

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 their 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.

A Kind of Anger by Eric Ambler (1964)

Mid-winter. A car comes hurtling down the drive of a remote villa near Zurich, crashes into a passing lorry, and screeches away. When police investigate they discover the place has been ransacked and the body of an exiled Iraqi soldier, Colonel Arbil – shot three times. New York-based magazine, World Reporter, tells its Paris office to get someone to investigate and the only man available is Piet Maas, a freelance Dutch journalist. He is not popular. A few years previously, a highbrow magazine he’d set up went bankrupt with big debts and he tried to kill himself. (Nobody knows that on the same day he found his girlfriend in bed with another man.) The driver of the hit & run car is identified as Lucia Bernardi, the colonel’s mistress. Now she’s missing and Interpol issue an alert for her whereabouts.

The New York office of World Reporter is contacting its Paris branch because it has a new tip about the name of a man Lucia used to hang round with – one Patrick Chase, also known as Philip Sanger. Acting on this, Piet travels to the south of France where he discovers that Sanger used to operate cons on rich older men with Lucia as the dollybird/bait, but she left him after she fell in love with the Colonel. Sanger, along with his wife Adèle, had been wisely investing the proceeds from his cons in a property portfolio around the south of France. When Lucia fled the scene of the murder in Zurich she turned to them for help and they’ve been hiding her in their empty properties.

It takes about half the novel for Piet to find the Sangers, arrange a meeting and then slowly gain their confidence. Eventually, they arrange for him to meet Lucia and her story is: Colonel Arbil was at the centre of a web of Kurdish exiles working for a Kurdish independent nation. One night she was in the bedroom at the villa when she heard male voices and sounds of violence. She hid. More noises, as of the place being turned upside down. Then screams. Then shots. She carried on hiding till she was sure the intruders had left, then ran down to the garage, jumped in the car, and fled.

Who was it? Might be assassins working for the Iraqis, or the result of some inter-Kurdish rivalry, or maybe even the Western oil companies who don’t want to see the oil fields around Kirkuk and Mosul nationalised by a Kurdish state.

When Piet reports back to the Paris office they say they want the full story, including details of Sanger and his history of scams and property dealing. Piet had expressly promised to leave him out. Therefore, confirming his boss’s opinions of him as a rubbish reporter, he gives them the Lucia material then quits. His boss says he’s coming south and calling up freelancers to track him down and find out what he’s hiding.

Maas checks into a new hotel under a false name. He is now, in effect, on the run from his former employer. In the meantime, his path had crossed a certain Monsieur Skurleti at the Cannes mairie, who was also looking for properties registered to Sanger: is he the financial investigator he claims to be, or working for more sinister forces? Piet promises to sell him the list of properties he had made when initially tracking Sanger, for a stiff fee – but also in order to keep in touch with Skurleti and find out who he’s working for.

Part two

The second half of the novel, therefore, feels like a game of three-dimensional chess, as Piet arranges secret meetings, holds late-night phone calls, moves between safe houses and uses false names as he juggles his relations with the Sangers (who he promised to keep safe), Lucia (who he quickly realises isn’t telling him the whole truth), his editor and freelancers (who threaten to blow the whole thing wide open), and Skurleti (whatever his agenda is).

These complications are doubled when he has a further interview with Lucia at which he realises what is really going on. She’d mentioned that she escaped from the villa with her clothes and a suitcase full of papers. Now he learns this is the main reason she gave him the interview – she wanted the key fact about having the suitcase to appear in the magazine as an advert to people who want to buy the papers.

And to explain why, she reveals more: The colonel belonged to a committee of Kurds pledged to fighting for a free and independent Kurdistan. Slowly, he realised a faction of the committee was planning uprisings with Russian support in Kurdish cities across the region, against the express wishes of the majority of its members. The colonel had inveigled himself into this plot and taken detailed notes. These notes are in the suitcase Lucia escaped with. It is potentially wanted by:

  • the dissident Kurds on ‘the Committee’
  • the mainstream Kurdish independents
  • the Iraqi security services
  • representatives of the ‘Italians’, an Italian oil consortium which has expressed an interest in stepping into the Iraqi oil business dominated by British and American companies, and giving the Kurds a better cut of the profits, if their uprising succeeds

Skurlati turns out to be an agent working on behalf of ‘the Committee’. Meanwhile, Lucia tells Piet that the colonel had been expecting the arrival of an emissary of the Iraqi government who also wanted the papers, a certain Brigadier Farisi. Possibly the burglars arrived, ransacked and tortured Arbil to find the notes precisely because they knew Farisis was about to arrive.

Final third

Piet and Lucia are now on the run from quite a few people and spend a good deal of time devising complex plans to sell some or all of the secrets to multiple buyers. She hands over the planning and running of the scams to Piet who comes up with some byzantine schemes. The fundamental decision they take is to sell copies of the notes to two different and opposed buyers: to Skurleti, representing ‘the Committee’, but also to Brigadier Farisi, representing the Iraqi government.

Piet has to make plans to see each of them, show them a taster of the notes at a safe place, make follow-up calls to negotiate a fee, then arrange a second meeting at another safe place to hand over the papers – without being observed by the police, by his newspaper manager and colleagues, but most crucially, by representatives of the other sides, especially the killers of Colonel Arbil who are still at large.

They have some fierce arguments but, at one particular moment of triumph & relief, find themselves kissing and going to bed together. However, having seen how clever and manipulative Lucia has been with other men, the reader is constantly wondering how much she is using Maas. Will she dump him? Or worse?

There is a law or rule at work that, the more tense the events become, the more carefully and precisely Ambler describes them. There is a hair-raising scene towards the end where Lucia and Piet creep up to the house she’s been using earlier in the summer and where she had carefully hidden the suitcase of notes behind lots of clutter, in the garage. They are actually in the garage, rummaging about when they hear male voices from the terrace above them and Lucia realises it is the men who tortured and murdered Colonel Arbil. Suddenly, the precise layout of the garage, the steps down to it from the terrace, the distance to the nearest outcrop of shrubs where they can hide, become terribly important.

Enjoying Eric

Eric’s novels definitely split into two groups, pre-War and post-War. Contrary to received opinion, I prefer the post-War ones. The pre-War ones definitely convey a sense of intrigue and menace in murky East European countries as the Continent hurtles towards War. They have a very 1930s vibe, like an old black and white movie filmed at night, the characters wearing thick overcoats with the lapels turned up, hats pulled down, revolvers appearing in the hands of sinister foreigners. But they are generally advertised as great spy novels and are often a bit disappointing in this respect, more often being about innocent Brits abroad who go on the run from political intrigues they’ve blundered into. Not spies, in our modern sense, at all. Just a strong political angle or edge to the plots.

Urbane The post-War ones are much more relaxed and cosmopolitan. Eric is charming company. There is a tremendous urbanity of tone and worldly wisdom. He knows his way around the world. Here is a man at home in Paris, Athens, Istanbul and Geneva, in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, familiar with the language, the customs, the food, the police, the local politics.

Bureaucratic procedure And also familiar with how the world works: the dominant feature of most of the post-War novels is a strong interest in bureaucratic procedures.

  • Most of The Schirmer Inheritance is about the arcane complexities of American inheritance law, before it becomes a detailed investigation of German genealogical archives.
  • Much of Passage of Arms is concerned with the legal niceties of freight forwarding between Far Eastern ports, and it’s fufilling what appears to be a minor technical requirement that unfortunately leads the protagonist into sudden outburst of guerrilla violence.
  • The Light of Day is ostensibly about a jewel robbery in Istanbul, but the plot actually turns on highly technical points surrounding Arthur Simpson’s nationality which lead to his Egyptian passport being out of date which leads to him being searched by Turkish authorities which leads to him being blackmailed into becoming a whistle blower inside the jewel thieves’ gang.

Ambler’s way with technical, administrative and bureaucratic niceties is central to the novels’ workings. And you have to pay attention to the details because at any point one of them may turn out to be the hinge of the plot.

This may sound dry but it isn’t. Most novels (for example, Graham Greene’s) are about the characters’ feelings. Events are selected, confrontations engineered, dramatic scenes manufactured, in order for characters to ‘grow’ and ‘mature’ and, along the way, the reader is also meant to grow in wisdom and understanding of human nature. That is the traditional defence of the novel as an art form.

Eric Ambler’s novels are much closer to real life as most of us experience it, ie there is not so much spiritual growth and gaining of wisdom. Instead, most of us do work which involves handling webs of information which need to be processed and managed. Most adults have to spend a fair amount of time filling in forms, answering letters, paying bills, arranging car hire or hotel rooms or train tickets or deliveries or receipts, worrying about expenses, handling paperwork, making innumerable plans and arrangements. That’s exactly what the characters in Ambler’s post-War novels do – only with the added pressure of doing so while evading the authorities of several countries, being on the run from killers or handling illegal arms or state secrets.

Title

When he quits the magazine, his editor at World Report asks him if the decision is motivated by the same self-destructiveness which led to his suicide bid or ‘a new kind of anger’? Later, in conversation with Sanger, Piet claims he’s angry, not at himself or his boss, but at the people who are terrifying the beautiful Lucia with whom, without quite realising it, he is falling in love.

However, it is only at the end of the novel that Sanger redefines the title. He says his and Piet’s earlier theory that Piet was motivated by a new kind of anger, was all wrong. It isn’t really anger at all, and certainly not new. It is simply that Piet has discovered his métier as a crook.

‘I thought I knew what made you tick. “A new kind of anger,” I said. How wrong I was! Your kind of anger is as old as the hills. You’ve just bottled it up all these years – just like the man who becomes a policeman instead of a crook. Or is that sublimation? It doesn’t matter. The point is that you have a taste for larceny. It agrees with you. Therapy!’ He started to giggle. ‘Instead of giving you all those shock treatments, you know what they should have done? They should have sent you out to rob a bank!’ (Fontana 1976 paperback edition, p.206)

Ambler had been writing novels for 30 years by this stage. But these two novels from the 1960s seem to breathe a new atmosphere. The last one from the 1950s, Passage of Arms (1959), had (for the most part) a light, quirky Ealing comedy feel (although populated by Indians, Chinese and Americans rather than bumbling Brits). But Light of Day and Anger are suddenly sassy. They are good-humoured heist stories in which the amoral protagonists triumph. They have a similar cheeky-chappy vibe as the movie The Italian Job (1969). They feel like they’re in colour. Piet and Lucia take on the police, his employers, hired hitmen and foreign agents, and end up driving into the sunset with a small fortune, leaving the reader with a big smile on their face.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback edition of A Kind of Anger

1970s Fontana paperback edition of A Kind of Anger

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.

The Light of Day by Eric Ambler (1962)

This novel starts in Athens but soon moves to Turkey, the scene of Ambler’s pre-war thrillers, Mask of Dimitrios and Journey into Fear. There’s even mention of Colonel Haki, who features in both those novels and is memorably played by Orson Welles in the short film version of Journey.

The narrator

The story is told in the first person by unreliable narrator, small-time crook and con artist, Arthur Simpson who, we learn, is fat, sweaty and has bad breath. He lives and works in Athens where he claims to be a journalist. His father was in the British army, married an Egyptian woman and sent young Arthur back to a minor private school where he was caned and bullied and learned how to lie and cheat and hate. There followed a life of petty crime, flogging off his mother’s restaurant when he didn’t actually own it, numerous dodgy deals, a spell in English prison for getting caught smuggling pornography from Egypt to London, and so on.

Tone of voice

Arthur’s pragmatic criminality explains the tone of the book which is calm and calculating, humorously accepting of crime and scams, mixed with a strong dose of self-pity, which is often very funny.

Slowly drawn into more and more nefarious situations, Arthur is very much not the normal Ambler protagonist, the honest white-collar professional plunged into a crisis situation. Instead, a lot of the reader’s pleasure comes from being inside the mind of someone who is constantly calculating the odds, figuring what he can get out of every situation, or feeling comically hard done-by.

The setup

I kept expecting the book to explode into action but not very much happens in the first 220 pages or so of this 280-page book. It is relaxed and urbane. Simpson uses small-time tricks to collect an American tourist at Athens airport and persuade him to be chauffeured around town. He drops him at a seafront restaurant and then goes back to his hotel bedroom to steal some of his travellers cheques.

Unfortunately, the tourist – Harper – catches him red-handed. But instead of turning him over to the police, Harper reveals that he’s realised since he met him that Arthur has been scamming him and is a small-time crook. Would he like to earn a little money by driving a brand-new American car (a Lincoln) from Athens to Istanbul? The owner will meet him there. As an added incentive, Harper makes Arthur write a confession to stealing the travellers’ cheques and says he’ll give it to the police if he refuses. Er, OK then.

Arthur tells his mistress he’ll be away for a bit and sets off the next day. Once he’s sure he’s not being tailed, he pulls over and searches the car – surely there must be something hidden in it – but can’t see anything suspicious. But at the Turkish border, officials notice his Egyptian passport is out of date. There are all kind of amusing low-level crook reasons for this but the result is the police really thoroughly search the car and – find the door panels are full of grenades, pistols and amunition!

Arthur’s thrown into a cell where he waits until a senior security officer – Captain Tufan – arrives. As usual with Ambler, nothing melodramatic happens, there are no shootouts or gadgets. He sits in a cell, is offered horrible food, isn’t allowed to smoke. The interview with the security man is handled with the same detail and total plausibility. Does he want to go to prison for smuggling guns? Or will he co-operate with them? Er, he decides to co-operate.

So Arthur finds himself being suborned into spying for Turkish security. In practice this means he delivers the car to the hotel as arranged and then offers to be chauffeur and tourist guide for Harper and for the car’s supposed owner, the beautiful Miss Lipp, when she arrives. What he discovers is these two have rented a big property just outside Istanbul, along with an aggressive man named Fischer. Later an older man, apparently the boss, named Miller, arrives. Arthur drives Harper and Miller to a ferry across the sea to a small quay where they go out to a boat to meet a man named Giulio – and back again. So he’s got names, and knows about comings and goings – but has no idea what it’s all about.

He quizzes the household servants – the morose drunk cook and the quiet old Turkish married couple who housekeep. But he doesn’t discover much to report back to Captain Tufan, whether by dropping empty cigarette packs with messages inside for his tails to pick up, or on the tiny two-way radio he’s been given, or by making phone calls from a garage or cafe, when he can, to a special phone number.

Things proceed in this leisurely way, with occasional heart-stopping moments – he takes Miss Lipp to the Seraglio Museum in Istanbul and thinks he has plenty of time to unscrew the door panels to see if the guns are still there – but is half way through when he looks up and sees her just a few hundred yards away and walking towards the car! That kind of thing. A bit sweaty but not exactly high-octane adventure.

In his hurried phone conversations with Tufan, the latter becomes obsessed with the idea the gang are ‘politicals’. There had a been a military coup in Turkey and various members of the old regime are in prisons in and around Istanbul, including one on an island near where the gang took the ferry. Arthur himself considers all the angles and comes to the conclusion they are going to set up a heroin refinery and smuggling operation…

The climax

But they’re both wrong. In the final stretches of the novel Harper reveals to Arthur that they are jewel thieves. They are going to break into the Seraglio Museum after it has closed and steal jewels. When one of the gang, Fischer, is wounded in a fight with the surly drunken cook, Arthur finds himself press-ganged into helping out with the actual heist.

The heist is described in Ambler’s characteristic flat factual style. Half a dozen times in the whole novel he uses anticipation – ‘if I’d realised then what was going to happen…’, ‘it was only later I learnd that…’ – to build up tension and to hint at catastrophes to come. But the overwhelming majority of the story is told in straightforward linear narrative with almost no flashbacks or flash forwards. One thing follows another and is described by Ambler coolly and factually.

And so it is with the heist. His style is completely lucid. You feel like you are there, climbing over the rooftops of the Seraglio with the skyline of Istanbul spread out below you, sick with nerves and scared of heights as Arthur is, while the others fix up the pulley by which the thin cat burglar is to descend to the metal shutters on the Museum windows, work them open, slip inside (no alarm system), steal the highest-value jewels, and then be winched up again. It is over in minutes. They descend back into the public section of the museum, then walk silently through the ground avoiding the lazy guards.

The only real excitement in the whole sequence is at the one point where a guard post controls the end of a railway embankment which passes through the Palace grounds. They follow a slow-moving train along the rails and, as they approach the guardroom, their accomplices throw concussion grenades and tear gas. Arthur is stumbling through the fumes when hands reach out to grasp him and he is manhandled into a VW van and they are off. Away. Scot free. They have pulled off the heist. They drive to a quayside, take a dinghy out to the yacht (the one he had previously driven Harper and Miller to meet) and the yacht weighs anchor and putters peacefully down the coast.

Ending

The heist is quite tense, but the really nailbiting bit comes the next day when they rendezvous with the Lincoln. They conceal the jewels in the same doorframes they used for smuggling in the weapons. The whole gang embarks and there follows a sweaty twenty pages as Arthur racks his brains and tries every trick in the book to delay and hamper their escape. He wants the Turkish police to catch them. He wants Captain Tufan to pat him on the back and hand him a new, updated passport. He fears the gang will get to the airport and then dispose of him somehow. And then the gang spot that they’re being tailed by two cars. Initially they think it’s another criminal they’d been working with and wouldn’t put it past him now trying to ambush them. They get the guns ready. Arthur is so scared he thinks he’s going to throw up.

But they manage to throw their tails and arrive at the airport. Here most of the gang go to check in their bags and only Harper remains, squatting beside the open door and unscrewing the door panel to remove the loot. And it is now that the fat, smelly coward Arthur Simpson decides to make a stand and be a man. He hadn’t turned the engine off and he suddenly puts the big American car into gear, steps on the accelerator, leaving Harper behind, slows for a moment so that the doors slam shut, and then hares off down the freeway at top speed!

All the way through this urbane, detailed and persuasive book I was rather worried there might be a bloody shootout which would spoil the mood. But it concludes as amusingly as it began. A very entertaining comedy-thriller.

The movie

Within two years it was made into a movie, with the crisper title Topkapi, and with an international cast featuring Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Peter Ustinov and Robert Morley, directed by American film director, Jules Dassin.

It is, alas, dire. The emphasis is on comedy and the scenes with Peter Ustinov as Simpson are generally funny (though it is astonishing that he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for it); but the plot is completely reshaped so it starts with Melina Mercouri’s crook having the idea for the robbery, then recruiting her handsome lover Max, the gadget man Morley, hard man Jess Hahn, and human fly Gilles Ségal – only at the end of this process do they pick up the bumbling Simpson.

And whereas in the book the tension is all generated by Simpson’s fear that the gang will find out about him, a tension which generates real fear right up to the final pages – in the movie they find out that he knows about the weapons and is working for Turkish police well before the heist – and, in line with cinematic cliché – it is the theft itself (a mere page in the book) which becomes the centre of the experience – 10 minutes or so of tense scenes as the acrobat is lowered into the jewel room which has a touch-sensitive floor (not in the novel), depicted with no music nor dialogue.

The jewels are to be smuggled out by a travelling circus (not in the book) which is caught, and the gang are all thrown into Turkish prison where they are shown in the final scene, comically traipsing round the exercise yard to a quack quack quack in the orchestra, which has all the subtlety of a Carry On film.

Also, the film is dominated by Melina Mercouri who appears in almost every scene from the opening to the close and who, I’m afraid, we thought was staggeringly ugly. She certainly looked old enough to be Max Schell’s mother wearing a series of terrible wigs. That she seems to have been some kind of ‘sex symbol’ and was considered charismatic enough to carry the entire movie now seems beyond belief.

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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.

Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene (1958)

A fine comic novel which, like Loser Takes All, keeps a good-humoured smile on your face as it leads you through a succession of humorous or farcical episodes. Because of the dated way people speak it’s difficult not to see it as a black-and-white Ealing comedy and the book was in fact made into a movie in 1959, starring Alec Guinness as the hapless hero.

Plot summary

Jim Wormold (worm + old, geddit?) is rather a failure in life. He lives in Havana where he works as a vacuum cleaner salesman. His wife has left, leaving him in charge of their flighty and spoilt, St Trinians-y teenage daughter. She is hanging round with unsuitable company who encourage her to borrow a lot of money to buy a horse along with all the extras and to join the expensive, high society Country Club.

Out of the blue, a shifty Brit named Hawthorne comes sidling round the vacuum cleaner shop, takes Wormold for a few drinks, manhandles him into the loos (‘for security, old man’) and bamboozles him into becoming an agent for British Intelligence. Wormold is in the middle of spluttering his opposition when Hawthorne mentions the £150 per month pay, plus expenses, plus extra money if he runs sub-agents. Wormold thinks of his daughter’s Country Club fees – and accepts. Thus, our man in Havana is recruited.

Back in Blighty, Hawthorne visits the Chief in his underground bunker in Maida Vale and very amusingly manoeuvres him into embroidering Wormold’s character, helping build a fantasy of a well-connected old planter type with contacts in high society. ‘Useful chap, eh?’

After a month or so Wormold receives a (coded) message, via the embassy, asking where’s the information they’re paying him for. That night he has a brainwave. At a stroke he invents five sub-agents – a pilot, an engineer, a professor, a Mata Hari glamour girl etc – and cooks up completely fake intelligence about big clearings being made in the jungle, concrete platforms being built, scary new weapons being constructed.

When London ask for more details Wormold, now working with a fluency and confidence that surprises even himself, sits down and draws technical diagrams of enormous and ominous-looking weapons based on… the vacuum cleaner parts lying around in his shop! In London HQ the Chief calls Hawthorne over and there is a very funny scene where, the more the Chief evinces horror at this ghastly new secret weapon, the more Hawthorne realises what they’re actually sketches of, realises Wormold is pulling a fast one, and hears the crashing noise of his own career hitting the buffers.

The Chief (or C) says Wormold (or agent 59200/1) is now generating such important information he’s going to need a properly-trained secretary and a radio operator, which are duly despatched. They arrive in Havana to Wormold’s horror – and it’s then that the fun really begins.

For it turns out that there actually exists a pilot with the name Wormold thought he’d invented for him – and he is assassinated by ‘the Other Side’! Soon after an attempt is made on the life of the (actually existing) engineer he’d frivolously named in his reports to London. The police are called in. Wormold is questioned. The sinister head of police, Captain Segura, tells him someone has cracked his code and is taking his wild fictions for fact, taking them so seriously they are prepared to threaten and kill to get their hands on the photos of the new secret weapon!

How can Wormold get out of this fix? How long can he conceal his massive deception from Beatrice, the female assistant sent out from London? What is the role of Wormold’s secretive friend, the German Dr Hasselbacher? Will Wormold get his fingers burned playing a dangerous game of deception with the head of Havana’s intelligence, Captain Segura, who is rumoured to be an expert torturer? And what grim fate awaits Wormold at the European Traders’ Association annual jamboree?

The plot darkens

Arguably the plot darkens a bit from here onwards. The eccentric German emigre doctor, Dr Hasselbacher, who, over drinks at the bar, first suggested the idea of inventing agents and reports, has himself been approached by ‘the other side’. It is he who reports that the pilot Wormold thought he’d invented has in fact been assassinated. And then he himself is murdered. The novel moves towards a climax of sorts when Wormold confronts the fellow Englishman who tried to poison him at the annual lunch.

These actual deaths ought to spoil the book, but Greene maintains a light-hearted tone, combined with crisp writing which continues to produce comic effects, banter, repartee, comic asides, and leads up to the high comic ending, so that you close the book with a broad smile on your face.

Sententious

The sheer volume of Greene’s wise sayings in his early novels prompted me to devote a blog post to Greene the preacher. The dictionary defines ‘sententious’ as ‘abounding in pithy aphorisms or maxims’ or ‘given to excessive moralizing; self-righteous’. This essentially light, witty novel would be lighter if Greene didn’t feel compelled to sprinkle it with pithy apothegms:

A picture-postcard is a symptom of loneliness. (p.64)

Somebody always leaves a banana-skin on the scene of a tragedy. (p.70)

There was always another side to a joke, the side of the victim. (p.72)

The irritating thing about them, is they’re nearly all not true. When my mother died there were no banana skins around. When I’ve watched friends or family write piles of postcards on holiday, it wasn’t anything to do with loneliness, generally the opposite. I can think of many jokes with no victim. What’s yellow, lumpy and extremely dangerous? Shark-infested custard. Can’t see the victim there. Greene’s pithy maxims are invariably slick and false.

But these, and the occasional potholes in the road caused by references to his daughter’s Catholic convent education, and even the sudden deaths on the last part, can be easily overlooked in the sheer enjoyment of this confident and extravagantly funny novel.

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The movie

Apparently, Greene based the story on a well-known agent he came across while running British Intelligence’s Portuguese network of agents during the War. The agent, codenamed ‘Garbo’, earned a fortune sending the Germans entirely spurious information about British troop movements and so on without ever leaving the comfort of his apartment. Greene wrote a movie treatment in 1946, which wasn’t commissioned and which he dusted off after making trips to Cuba in the late 1950s and realising the farcical plot could be relocated there.

Our Man In Havana was immediately optioned and gave Greene the opportunity to collaborate once again with director Carol Reed (of The Third Man fame). The resulting movie stars Alec Guinness, Noel Coward, Burl Ives and Ralph Richardson and was released in 1960. It is beautifully shot in and around Havana, uses lots of Cuban music and extras, and has brilliant comic actors. Why, then, does it fall flat? There isn’t a real laugh in its nearly 2 hours duration whereas I laughed out loud at numerous places in the novel.

It might be something to do with the way a book cocoons you in its own little world, carefully selecting the details it provides you and where you’ll end up believing anything (eg Harry Potter), including this farcical intrigue involving half a dozen characters. Whereas this film all-too-beautifully shows you the ‘real’ world of Havana with its millions of people going about their lives in the hard tropical sunlight, and this somehow destroys the delicate bloom of the novel’s comedy. The reality of the bustling streets and busy highways makes the fragile farcical fiction harder to sustain.

Plus, it could be that Reed, the master of sinister effects and noir camera angles in The Third Man, was just not so good at filming comedy. Comedy is always about timing – there are plenty of funny moments in the screenplay: the moment when Hawthorne realises that the diagrams his boss is holding in his hands and raving about are in fact just enlarged drawings of vacuum cleaner parts, that Wormold is a fraud, that his boss will sooner or later realise this and then Hawthorne’s goose will be cooked – is a great moment in the book and it occurs here in the film but, as with almost all the other would-be comic moments – just doesn’t quite click.

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.
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