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.
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