Send No More Roses by Eric Ambler (1977)

May guests be permitted to know what fresh disaster now postpones our detailed examination of your criminal past?’
‘Certainly. The house is on fire.’ (p.222)

This is not an accessible, easy-to-read, poolside thriller; it is something much more peculiar and oblique.

Set-up

The narrator, Paul Firman, is currently working for a complex nest of companies, all under the ‘Symposia’ brand, which offer tax avoidance advice to large, and not always law-abiding, clients. He has adopted various identities over the years, as required. His boss is Mat Williamson, a native of a Pacific island, a colourful character, much taken with Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout teachings and whose education by missionaries helped him reach high position in a newly-independent Indonesia crying out for educated non-Westerners. (This section is reminiscent of the Far Eastern settings of Ambler’s 1950s novels The Night-Comers and Passage of Arms).

Having made a healthy profit from bribes and kickbacks Williamson pays his way through an Ivy League law school and is currently involved in a campaign to win the south sea island of his birth – Placid Island – independence, in order to turn it into a lucrative tax shelter and become its de facto ruler.

Into this intricate set-up comes major disruption in the form of one Professor Krom, a sociologist with a new ‘theory’ about the Able Criminal. The idea is that criminologists and sociologists have previously studied criminals, people who broke defined laws. Prof Krom is proposing a new definition, clever people who break no laws but whose work is definitely against the interests of society: the Able Criminal. (This is one of the factors making the novel challenging to read, as this ‘theory’ is itself rather hard to grasp; or, more accurately, it’s hard to believe that one academic pursuing a rather thin theory is the ultimate motor for the series of complicated incidents which the novel records.)

At an otherwise innocuous conference on tax legislation, Krom confronts Firman (who is using another name, Oberholzer), revealing that he knows all about him, and announces he is going to write a book-length study of his not-quite-criminal career, with or without his co-operation. Firman flies to London to consult with his boss, Mat the South Sea islander, and they agree to invite Prof Krom and colleagues, the thirty-something Drs Connell and Henson, to the Villa Lipp to hear the proposal out. Firman hosts the event, along with helpers Melanie and Yves.

This trio subject the guests to quite intensive security, searching them, confiscating a camera and fingerprint kit Dr Henson was carrying, and only allowing Dr Connell to keep his tape recorder because they have bugged all the rooms and so can keep tabs on what he’s recording.

Challenges

Send No More Roses is slow and thickly-textured and requires time and effort to read, for at least four reasons:

1. The voice of the first person narrator is dense and elaborate. He is thorough and pedantic and precise. Is this the late style of Ambler himself, a man born in 1909 ie aged 68 when this novel was published? Or is the fussiness exaggerated for fictional purposes, to exemplify the slow, painstaking thought-processes of the narrator-protagonist, Paul Firman?

I knew at once exactly who he was. In the tax-avoidance game our coverage of legal and financial publications of all sorts and nationalities is as comprehensive as we can make it. The Institute and Symposia between them employ a multilingual, and very expensive, full-time research staff of eight as well as numerous part-timers. With us, good intelligence is as essential for survival as discipline and foresight. Our coverage of specialised technical journals dealing with law enforcement at policy-making levels is extremely thorough. Krom’s allusions to tax avoidance and evasion in the published version of his Berne lecture had been sufficient to ensure its being brought to my attention flagged with a red sticker. Even if he had not initiated our acquaintance by playing games with dead men’s names, I would have known enough about Krom to be wary of him. (p.22)

Treacly.

2. It is highly tactical. The text is almost all made of dialogue and conversation – and the narrator lingers over every implication of every conversational thrust and exchange on every page – mulling the consequences, considering the legal and financial and strategic repercussions for himself and his organisation, analysing what his opponents are saying, leaving unsaid, guessing at – continually weighing ever word, every part of every dialogue, as a competition, stopping to assess the opponent’s tactic, considering whether to continue with his current strategy or move to another one. Because, for quite a long time, we don’t even know what his ‘game’ is, this makes it a tiring and often very puzzling read.

In a typical few pages the lengthy speeches by all the characters are bracketed by their sizing-up of each other, and the narrator’s sizing-up of them while they size him up. It’s like this throughout.

I paused as if to dismiss his unspoken protest… His martyred God-give-me-patience look brought in Henson for the defence…I gave her my best smile…Connell rallied to the cause…I was finding it difficult to remain cool and had to make a conscious effort…Connell went into a world-weary, cut-the-cackle routine… With almost no effort I was able to laugh…Despite her confident tone she was by then having several second thoughts…He tried to sound as if her were at ease, but… now he was afraid of me again; not afraid this time, though, of what I might be going to do, but of what he had sensed that I might be going to say…I found it meanly satisfying now to ignore him and give his witnesses the answers he so anxiously awaited…By the time we moved out to lunch by the swimming pool, a lot more had been said and the guests were thoughtful. Connell hadn’t pressed me for an answer to his questions. He had probably decided that I had no answers. (pp.182-186)

3. It is a very static story; there is little ‘action’. Compared to the Alistair Maclean page-turner I just read (Seawitch), which is all hold-ups and knockings-out and tyings-up and raids and burglaries and shoot-outs and kidnappings, this novel is like an exceptionally refined game of chess, except played with odd, almost incomprehensible rules (nobody seems in any rush to achieve check, let alone checkmate). In fact, it is more like a play than a novel, a play with big flashback scenes.

4. Flashbacks

The narrative has quite a complex structure, featuring multiple flashbacks, and including flashbacks within flashbacks. Some of these are very enjoyable – the long account of the narrator’s upbringing and adventures in Europe during the war is very readable and comprehensible. It leads up to his involvement with an Italian lawyer and crooked financier, but then stops. Stops and reverts to the scene on the veranda at the Villa Lipp, where most of the narrative is set. What happened next? How did that upbringing lead to the villa? What happened in the interim time? This is only slowly filled in later and, even after I’d finished the book, I wasn’t sure how important the whole autobiography section had been, if at all.

Around page 100 comes the longest flashback in which the narrator gives his autobiography. He is a characteristically Amblerian cosmopolitan figure (are any of Ambler’s post-war protagonists straightforward Brits born in Britain?). Firman was born in Argentina to emigrant British parents, sent to public school in England, then takes a gap year to tour around the Mediterranean where he manages to become the lover of a rich yacht owner’s wife. When the husband finds out about the affair he flees to Italy just as war clouds are gathering, returning to Blighty to enlist, undergoing various training ordeals before – because he can speak some Italian – he ends up as a military security operative with the British Army as it inches its way up the Italian peninsula.

It is here that he meets the Italian lawyer who opens his eyes about business opportunities and becomes his business partner for a decade or more… And it is here that the text reverts to the scene on the balcony at the Villa Lipp exactly where we left it 40 pages earlier, virtually in mid-sentence, return us to the probing, minutely-observed cut and thrust between the narrator who is trying to give nothing away, and professor Krom who is trying to provoke him to confirm that he is head of this international tax avoidance and blackmail corporation.

It’s not the structure itself, the jumping around in time – it’s the inconsequentiality of many of the flashbacks – very entertaining in themselves but which don’t really move the plot forward – which made the book a rather confusing read.

Finale

In the last 100 pages it becomes clear that his boss, Mat, suggested and authorised the use of the safe house at the Villa Lipp, because he in fact intended to dispose both of the troublesome Professor and, rather harshly, with the narrator himself, who has become a liability.

This might be quite exciting if it wasn’t dealt with in such a dreamy, unreal way: the warning phone call from Mat’s deputy is oddly opaque, full of hints which evaporate. Similarly, the characters all observe a yacht mooring in the bay below them and, since it is August 14 in France, starting to let off fireworks. The narrator correctly expects some of the fireworks to land on the terrace itself and is not surprised when they turn out to be small mortar bombs. But although the characters duck a bit, they’re not really panicked. Professor Krom hides behind the little parapet but continues obstinately believing Paul is the boss of the syndicate and only putting this show on as a cover. Between mortar bursts they continue interrogating each other. Dream-like.

It is revealed that Yves, the bodyguard from the narrator’s organisation, is in fact Williamson’s man on the inside, and has a gun on him. But there is no urgency about the fact. The narrator walks off into the garage where he detonates a petrol bomb, enough to set the villa on fire and get the fire brigade called out. And Yves lets him do it. Why? And after the fire brigade has arrived, Yves lets the narrator call taxis for the trio of academic investigators and lets them leave. Why? And why did the yacht lob over a few small mortars and then stop, why not finish the job? In fact, why didn’t Yves just shoot them all in cold blood? Or why didn’t the menacing figures who’ve been staking out the villa simply close in and shoot them all?

The story is puzzlingly frustrated, circling around its own inconclusiveness. Firman and the middle-aged woman who had set up the meeting at the villa – some kind of security operative for his organisation – drop Yves off at a payphone (if he’s Mat’s man on the inside why hasn’t he killed the others, as he appeared to be threatening to do?). They go on to an anonymous hotel in Nice in case the baddies are in pursuit. But they aren’t. Then fly out to the secret Caribbean island Firman part owns as a result of his earlier career with the Italian con-man. And that’s where the novel ends up.

So if the title is The Siege of the Villa Lipp, it’s a fairly ironic one, since the ‘siege’ amounts to Firman becoming aware there are shadowy figures in cars watching them, then the next evening a few mortars land on the terrace harmlessly. Then they leave by taxi. Hardly Leningrad. Hardly anything.

And the novel ends peculiarly, with the Professor publishing his book-length account of Firman’s life, and the narrator revealing that the entire preceding text is the narrator’s own counter-version of events, his attempt to ‘put the record straight’. But it doesn’t put the record straight: I’m confused as to who was telling the truth.

The final pages are an account of Prof Krom flying to Placid Island to interview Mat Williamson, now rebranded as Mat Tuake, first Minister of the island (his Placid Island scam having come to a successful conclusion) and, typically, no real conclusion is reached: does Prof Krom realise that Mat was the man behind everything after all? He certainly realises he’s the Mat Williamson mentioned so often in Firman’s account, but does he finally admit Williamson is the boss and Firman the number two, contrary to his obsessive theory (and book)? Is the Professor’s account the true one or Firman’s? I have no idea and had ceased caring.

Conclusion

It’s all very readable, once you have slowed down to the leisurely pace and discursive style of the narrator and the peculiar obsession with analysing every single verbal exchange. The autobiographical passages about Firman’s young manhood and war experiences, and about Mat’s upbringing as a South Sea islander, are clear and comprehensible – by far the most enjoyable sections. When I was in the last pages I kept hoping the Professor’s idée fixe would be proved right, that the narrator would turn out to be an unreliable liar all along, or that there’d be some other clever twist, throwing new light on what otherwise seemed an amiable, odd and strangely eventless narrative. But if there was, it was too subtle for me…

For this novel, although it does include a few bangs and a little housefire is, more than most of Ambler’s other post-war novels, a strangely elusive experience; an oblique slant on the thriller genre and not at all the pacey actioner the packaging and blurb suggest.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Send No More Roses

Fontana paperback edition of Send No More Roses

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 own boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which 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.
Advertisements
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: