The Levanter by Eric Ambler (1972)

After talking so much rubbish and telling so many lies I was exhausted. (p.185)

Just finished reading The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth and was a bit hard on it for reading like a 400-page project plan, a ‘handbook for mercenaries’, rather than a novel, with a rather small (10-page) firefight at the end – ie a huge amount of mind-numbingly practical detail topped off with a tiny dollop of excitement.

I’d forgotten that Eric Ambler can be the same – a novel like Passage of Arms (1959) dominated by the practical details of shipping a consignment of arms around the Far East, or A Kind of Anger (1964) concerned with the convoluted arrangements for selling details of a conspiracy to the highest bidder.

This novel is similarly long on practical detail and historical context and quite short on action or excitement, until the last twenty pages or so.

The plot

It is set against the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the growth in the late 1960s and early 1970s of Palestinian terrorism. There are three narrators who narrate alternating chapters. The first, Lewis Prescott, an American journalist in Lebanon, is approached by an attractive young woman who tells him she is press officer for the (fictional) Palestinian Action Force (PAF). She arranges an interview with its unpleasant leader, Salah Ghaled at a safe house in the mountains.

In his strand Prescott gives us a lot of factual background to the Arab-Israeli conflict, from the Balfour Declaration (1917) on through the second world war, the formation of the state of Israel, the various exoduses of Palestinian refugees to Jordan and Syria, the repeated attempts by the Arabs to defeat Israel, in 1956, 1967 and 1973, and the growth of Palestinian terror groups. This leads up to Prescott’s long, tedious interview with this Ghaled character who trots out the standard denuniations of ‘the Zionist state’ and his readiness to use all means available (ie killing innocent bystanders) to overthrow it.

In the other strand, the main narrative, the central figure, Michael Howell, tells his story. Despite his English name he’s descended from an East Mediterranean (Levantine) family who, for several generations, have run factories and businesses in and around Syria. After the Ba’ath Party comes to power in 1968, Howell is forced to bend with the prevailing wind and try to work with the authorities, all the time knowing they could confiscate or ‘nationalise’ his businesses whenever they want. It is against this uneasy background that he discovers his latest reluctant co-venture with state officials, to manufacture batteries, has been hijacked by Ghaled and his terrorist gang.

When his secretary/mistress Teresa tells him invoices show the factory is receiving consignments of odd raw material, Howell insists on driving to the factory immediately, that night. On arriving, they catch the terrorists red-handed using his equipment to make bomb detonators. You’d have thought, somehow, they were in the right, but in fact Howell and Teresa are surrounded by goons with guns and, in a weird scene, are forced to swear allegiance to Ghaled and the PAF. Moreover, they are compelled at knifepoint to sign incriminating documents confessing their full involvement with the terrorists which, if released to the authorities, would lead to their immediate arrest. Arrest and then torture and then life imprisonment. In a Syrian prison. Thus they are conscripted, very much against their will, into the ‘movement’, and are immediately plunged into the technical problems Ghaled is facing creating detonators and small missiles.

After a harrowing evening, Howell and Teresa are then allowed to leave and return to their villa, the terrorists confident they won’t go to the authorities, as their sworn confessions would lead to their immediate arrest etc. Logically this works – but psychologically it doesn’t feel quite right, which is problematic because the whole of the rest of the novel depends on it…

So, Howell and Teresa find themselves drawn into the preparations over the coming weeks for a large-scale terrorist attack on Israel. Howell has to tread a dangerous course, pretending to help the terrorists with a host of engineering, chemical and logistical problems – not least hiring one of his own ships to cruise along the coast of Israel on the night of the attack – while also trying to tip off the authorities. Not the Syrian authorities, obviously – the Israelis. Ghaled has ordered Howell to order one of his ships to cruise 6 miles off the Israeli coast where it will be used a) to launch missile attacks on Tel Aviv b) to send radio signals to detonate bombs which will have been planted on commercial airplanes.

In 1972 maybe this scenario was meant to evoke horror and fear in the reader and create a sense of nailbiting suspense. For me it failed – maybe because, since 9/11, the chaos of the Iraq and Afghan wars, and the almost daily bombardment of horrors associated with ISIS in Iraq, the setting, the plot, although dismayingly topical in some respects, also seems terribly dated.

Eventually Howell manages to make contact with Israel’s security man in Cyprus (a sort of comic scene in which the Israeli agent is surprisingly ungrateful and even rude about the risks Howell is running, of being detected and then ‘punished’ by the cell) and get at least some of this information across, but not enough because he himself is still in the dark about the details of the plot. And later, Howell manages to despatch Teresa back to her native Italy with a brief to stay in touch with the authorities. So she’s safe.

But then Howell himself is forced to go aboard the ship, along with the terrorists and their devices, on the night set for the attack. The novel reaches its climax as Howell takes what steps he can to sabotage the terrorists’ plan, including ordering his captain to steer out of range of Israeli soil, while trying to conceal this from the terrorists. All the time he is desperately hoping Israeli security will have picked up and understood the cryptic radio messages he’s managed to make on the boat’s radio warning of the threat, and are on their way to intercept the boat.

Thriller?

There is never any real suspense because we are told on page one that Howell is telling ‘his side’ of the ‘Green Circle affair’ (named after the logo on the batteries manufactured in his factory which are then smuggled into Israel to act as detonators for numerous bombs). So we know he survived. Not just survives completely unscathed but is revealed, in the final pages, to be still living in his large mansion and pool, attended by servants providing cocktails, which is where he invites the journalist Prescott to come and hear his side of the story.

Only here, in these last few pages, does Ambler’s characteristic suavity emerge. Ambler’s ironic good humour is the best, the most winning feature of his novels, especially the post-war ones (for example, Passage of Arms, despite its serious subject matter and gaudily violent climax, is essentially a light comic novel; the two novels featuring the fat anti-hero Arthur Simpson are broad comedies). But his polish and aplomb are lamentably absent for most of this book, emerging only in these last few pages when Howell is portrayed as an essentially comic figure, full of preposterous indignation at the way he’s been vilified in the Press.

Teresa

One of the chapters is narrated by Howell’s mistress, Teresa Malandra, who sheds a bit of light on Howell’s character, and has a healthy contempt for all the men involved. First time there’s been a female narrator in Ambler. Bully for her.

Vibe

Maybe someone who knew nothing about the Arab-Israeli context would find the lengthy background information contained here interesting (if very out of date).

Maybe some readers would find the premise stated on the first page – that the entire text is by way of being an explanation of the well-known ‘Green Circle Incident’, which has been widely reported in the media – creates tension and expectation. It did the opposite for me. The self-evident survival of the main protagonists confirmed that everything ended ‘happily ever after’ and this undermined any element of mystery or suspense.

After The Dogs of War I was looking for visceral excitement or sophisticated entertainment – but this text was heavy-going and involved wading through lots of mundane and boring practicalities:

  • the long background to the Middle East conflict
  • long sections explaining the business activities of Howells’ grandfather, father and himself
  • lots of detail about successive government changes in Syria and the resulting changes of direction in its industrial policy
  • a lot of technical detail about how to manufacture dry batteries, how to manufacture wet batteries, how to establish new factories, with pilot projects test running new products, and various foreign markets for various manufactured goods
  • a lot of detail about a certain Dr Hawa, the publicity-seeking Minister of Industry in the Syrian Ba’ath government who threatens Howell with confiscating all his businesses unless he co-operates with government plans
  • lots of discussion of how to make the best bomb detonators, with analysis of the different types of nickel wiring required

Conclusion

The lasting memories of the book are:

  • Ambler’s claustrophobic portrait of the oppressive corruption, venality, bribery-soddenness and inefficiency of the Arab countries he’s describing. Every single individual he employs or does business with requires some kind of backhander or baksheesh, unless they are actively threatening to confiscate his businesses and bankrupt him (the government officials) or to torture and kill him (the terrorist group).
  • A horrible sense of being trapped: once they are in the grip of the terrorist cell Howell and Teresa are helpless, powerless. If a key element of the thriller genre is the sometimes superhuman competence of the hero, the figure of Howell is the opposite – a helpless pawn, powerless to escape: and even at the end, when he does escape with his life, the baddies defeated, he is still vilified in the Press the world over and is being forced out of his homeland. He is a powerless loser, and reading about his plight is a strongly negative experience.

The Levanter is, in other words, an uncharacteristically grim text, by turns grindingly technical or uncomfortably threatening, and it is no coincidence it is largely devoid of the urbane humour which made so many of Ambler’s earlier books so attractive.

The title

A levanter is defined in an epigraph to the novel as: a native or inhabitant of the Levant; a ship trading in the Levant; a strong easterly wind in the Mediterranean; one who absconds, especially after losing bets.

Thus, it is implied, the Levanter of the title is the main character and narrator, Michael Howell.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback cover of The Levanter

1970s Fontana paperback cover of The Levanter – note the batteries with the ‘green circle’ logo

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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