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.

Related links

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.
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