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.
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