The opening is strikingly similar to the opening of The Levanter, with a professional man saying he is going to set down the true account of what really lay behind the so-and-so affair.
This is Michael Howell’s story… He may not be the most persuasive of advocates in his own cause, and, as the central figure in The Green Circle Incident, he is very much the defendant… (The Levanter, p.7)
I shall make what use I can of these two nights to do something I should have done before: that is, put my side of this Villegas business down on paper so that in case of need I can later produce it, signed and dated, as evidence of my good intentions. (Dr Frigo, p.7)
A trope dating back at least to the 1880s, found in the Sherlock Holmes tales or HG Wells’s short stories, of calling a tale ‘The strange case of the ….’, or early on announcing it will reveal the truth behind ‘the well-known … Affair’ or ‘the so-and-so Incident’.
In this case, it is ‘the peculiar incident of the doctor who gets caught up in a coup d’état in a Latin American country’.
Ambler plunges the reader straight into a dense and thoroughly imagined situation involving – as always – non-British characters in a foreign setting. Having done Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Turkey before the War, and then the Far East, Turkey, Greece, Africa, Switzerland and Syria in his post-war novels – this one is set, for the first time, in the Americas – in the fictional French Caribbean island of St Paul-Les-Alizés, where the protagonist, in fact all the characters, are non-British, too.
Dr Ernesto Reye Castillo is a medical doctor in the hospital in Fort Louis, the ramshackle, overcrowded, squalid main town of the island. He is a calm, rational, calculating man and is therefore known to the hospital staff as ‘Dr Frigo’, where frigo means not only refrigerator but cold or frozen meat.
Ernesto’s father, Clemente Castillo Borja, was assassinated 12 years earlier in the (unnamed) Latin American country where he had risen to become leader of the Democratic Socialist party, and where young Ernesto was born and raised. Ernesto was a 19-year-old student at the time, at medical school in Paris, and not particularly upset (Dr Frigo in the making). He respected his father but also knew him to be an opportunist and a demogogue. After the assassination, Ernesto’s mother sought refuge in Miami along with other political exiles fleeing the ‘Oligarchy’, backed by the military, that took over the country. She tried to encourage Ernesto to follow in his father’s footsteps ie to become a national politician, but he refused, instead concentrating on his medical studies, then on getting the job in St Paul-Les-Alizés – a Spanish-speaking doctor in a French colony.
One day he is called in by French Security and informed that some leaders of his father’s old party, previously in exile in Mexico, have taken residence in a mansion on the island and are in need of a physician and the Security have arranged for the job to be given to Ernesto, because of his special if rather tenuous links with the exiles. They will pay him 500 francs a month and in exchange expect him to spy on his father’s old colleagues and send daily reports.
It soon becomes clear that the leader of the exiled politicos – Manuel Villegas – is being lined up to lead a coup back in his country. Slowly and thoroughly Ambler assembles a supporting cast of colourful characters around him: Doña Julia, his protective wife; Uncle Paco, the would-be foreign minister; El Lobo, the fat psychopath terrorist leader; Father Bartolomé, the drunk priest who controls the slums, and so on.
All this takes place under the complaisant gaze of the local Commissaire of Police on the island, Grillon, and the head of security or SDECE, Delvert, who has flown in from Paris specially to monitor the situation. Ernesto quickly uncovers this European interest is because the whole thing seems to be supported by a shadowy consortium of Western oil companies, since oil has been discovered off the coast, and the new regime will, of course, look favourably on their prospecting and extraction contracts.
Ernesto is approached and propositioned by an Anglo, Rosier, who claims to be Canadian but is a spy, it’s just not clear for who – America? China? Russia? And – in a surprise development – it turns out that the husband of his mistress, Elizabeth (they are separated, he lives back in France) was himself a member of the French security services.
In other words Ernesto find himself completely surrounded by either members of the coup plot or spies. So, like The Levanter, this novel is about an ‘innocent man’ caught up in a potentially dangerous geopolitical situation. The crucial difference is that Ernesto remains free and independent throughout; he retains his agency; he refuses to be suborned by the Canadian spy; he agrees to co-operate with French security, but on his own terms; his first duty remains to his patient. He is a clever, strong-willed professional man.
This means that his daily entries in his diary (which is what constitutes the text) are often humorous, detached and ironic. He – and the reader – can see the funny side of the various situations he finds himself. The story, and the diary format, allow Ambler to show his trademark irony and humour. It is, in other words, an extremely enjoyable book to read.
The narrative takes a turn when Ernesto realises that the man at the focal point of all these political machinations – Don Manuel – is in fact seriously ill, with a fast-acting degenerative disease. It is only at this point that we grasp the reason for the novel being divided into three parts: 1. The Patient 2. Symptoms, Signs and Diagnosis. 3. The Treatment.
The second half of the novel records in great detail Ernesto’s tragi-comic attempts to keep his dignity and his professional pride in place while being swept up in the whirlwind of events that lead to a successful coup, the installation of Villegas as President, and an immediate outbreak of byzantine political manoeuvring among his followers. Ernesto’s diary entries become more telegraphic, more clipped and abbreviated, and more angry and cynical, as the plot hurtles towards its conveniently violent dénouement – the assassination of the new president.
Back soon after nine. Security men in foyer watching television. Crowd not moving from Palace. Still much excitement. Expected that El Presidente will make another balcony appearance. Rumour, originating in Bogota, that the United States has already pledged recognition of new régime. Most unlikely. (p.250)
The shooting of the ruler on the steps of the Palace, is strongly reminiscent of the climax of Ambler’s 1952 novel, Judgement on Deltchev, where one of the sinister ministers of an oppressive East European state is assassinated at the height of the Independence Day parade (and rather like the Jackal’s plans to assassinate President de Gaulle on Independence Day in The Day of The Jackal).
I’m afraid all stories about coups and assassinations in Latin America remind me of Woody Allen’s farce, Bananas (1971).
Elizabeth and the Hapsburgs
There is a very funny recurring trope that enlivens the first half of the novel: Elizabeth, Ernesto’s mistress, owns a boutique which promotes local (rubbish) artists; but more importantly, she is the great-great-great-granddaughter of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and is besotted with the family history of the Hapsburg dynasty. The comedy comes in the fact that, at any given moment – generally the most irrelevant or tense or inconvenient – she is liable to make far-fetched comparisons with obscure details of the political machinations of her beloved Imperial family which bewilder her listeners, and made this reader laugh out loud a couple of times and smile whenever she comes on the scene.
Once, when she had drunk rather too much rum, she startled an inoffensive Boston art dealer and his wife with a sudden passionate appeal for their understanding of the pitiable plight of Charles the Sixth – gout, stomach trouble and disastrous pregnancies. It transpired, but only after some moments of utter confusion, that the pregnancies were those of his Empress and that what Elizabetrh was justifying was the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713. (p.38)
It is a loss to the novel when Ernesto is obliged to fly off with the coup plotters to the unnamed destination, and leave her behind. As in The Levanter, the female voice brings a welcome break and variety to the otherwise intensively male obsession with power and political calculation.
- Dr Frigo on Amazon
- 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 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.