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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- A Kind of Anger on Amazon
- A Kind of Anger Wikipedia article
- Eric Ambler Wikipedia article
- Ambler’s obituary in the Independent
- New Statesman article about Ambler’s politics
- Dangerous Games: Thomas Jones Guardian overview of Ambler’s career
- Uncommonly Dangerous: Eric Ambler adaptations on TV
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.