The Care of Time by Eric Ambler (1981)

Even the little I knew of his history made him, by any standards that had more to them than simple endurance, a considerable survivor. He had had physical strength and plenty of courage, of course, but it had been his wits that had really counted, his wits and his ability to adapt to cultures utterly foreign to those of his youth and early manhood. It had been a remarkable performance. What I suspected, though, was that he was now a survivor for whom the care of time was becoming hard to ignore. He had started to falter. (p.137)

This was Ambler’s final novel, though he lived for another 17 years (1909-98). A fairly long (299 pages) first-person narrative told by American ghost writer Robert Halliday, who’s got wide experience co-writing books with sports stars, movie stars, politicians and so on. A postcard pops through his letterbox saying a bomb will arrive in a few days. It duly does and Halliday takes it to his local cops who bring in the FBI who confirm its provenance. The postcard was signed Karlis Zander (German for ‘pike’).

Then he gets a call from his agent in New York saying she’s been approached by an Italian publishing house who want him to fly to Italy to co-write (ie pull into shape) a book about terrorism. Meeting a representative of the publisher – McGuire – in NY, Halliday learns that there is a manuscript by noted 19th century theorist of terrorism, Sergey Nechayev. A modern-day expert wants Halliday to a) help edit the manuscript b) help write a long commentary which will link it to contemporary terrorist networks. Name of the expert – Dr Luccio – Italian for ‘pike’. Aha. A joke, of sorts.

Barely has he arrived in his hotel in Milan before he is kidnapped and driven blindfolded to the safe house containing Dr Luccio/Karlis Zander. Zander is all James-Bond-baddy suaveness, offering drinks and apologising for the roughness of his abduction. Yes, he wishes Halliday to help him write a book which will blow open the connections between various states in the Middle East and contemporary terrorism. His sidekicks, led by the lissom Simone Chihanel, escort Halliday back to his hotel.

Here he finds three men waiting, his Italian publisher, an American and a German. It emerges – to the reader’s complete surprise – that Halliday once worked for the CIA and the American was his controller. Something went wrong on a mission in Iraq where he was captured and held prisoner for eight long months. To this day he blames the controller, whom he loathes. Having vouched for his identity, the American and Italian publisher leave him with the German, Dieter Schelm, ‘a senior official in West German intelligence’ – who brings him further up to speed.

Halliday reveals he had another career, a spin-off from the writing, a short-lived career as a TV presenter, paid to use his forthright manner to harass smug politicians, but in fact he was no good at it. Somehow Zander has seen him on the box, and knows of it as well as his book writing skills.

Thus: Zander isn’t interested in having a book published, that is all a front, a fig leaf, a pretext to get Halliday to him. He sent the bomb because he knew Halliday would report it to the authorities and it would reactivate his CIA contacts -which it has certainly done: the book is a cover to get Halliday into contact with him. What he wants to do is transmit a long complex message to the CIA using Halliday as a middleman.

Zander is doing all this in such a roundabout way because a contract has been put out for his assassination, to the tune of 20 million Swiss francs. The contract has been taken up by Mukhabarat Zentrum, an Arab organisation dedicated to murder, extortion, terrorism etc, itself the rejuvenated rump of an originally PLO revenge service called Rasd, reorganised by two mafiosi from Croatia. NATO has a different name for it, Rasmuk. All this is in Schelm’s briefing.

By now we realise the narrator has a habit of keeping secrets from the reader. Only on page 95 are we told that the picture on the postcard Zander sent Halliday, warning of the advent of the bomb, was of the Hotel Mansour in Iraq, which just happens to be where Halliday was arrested by Iraqi police all those years ago.

On page 99 he tells us what Zander has to offer the West and the CIA in exchange for help escaping from the contract and getting to live happily ever after with his wife and children by previous marriages – but Halliday doesn’t tell us. It’s something to do with a ‘defence development programme’ Zander is ‘touting’ on behalf of ‘his patron’, the person they agree to call The Ruler, one of the hereditary sheikhs who rule the United Arab Emirates. Schelm and Halliday speculate that the personage paying Rasmuk to assassinate Zander probably comes from among The Ruler’s fellow sheikhs, who are embarrassed at his defence plan or his approaches to Nato.

By the end of the meeting it is agreed that the German Schelm is going to become Halliday’s new ‘control’, for an operation which will last only as long as it takes for negotiations to take place between Zander and the CIA, via Schelm. Why the proxies? Because the CIA wants to benefit from what Zander has to sell – but be able to reassure all their Gulf Arab allies they haven’t had any contact with him, no of course not, not direct contact.

That’s the first hundred pages. Tortuous enough for you?

Second hundred pages

After the long conference with Schelm, Halliday sleeps, wakes and attends a pre-arranged rendezvous with Zander’s people at Malpensa airport, where he is contacted by a fake air stewardess, taken down to a car park and whisked out to the airport boundary, where they quickly change number plates and drive to a small town on Lake Gardo, down sidestreets to a dilapidated hotel. All these precautions are to escape the pursuing team of Rasmuk assassins.

Halliday realises this is the place he was brought the night before blindfolded. Here, now considerably better informed than previously, he has a long second interview with Zander who is joined by one Jean-Pierre Vielle. A great deal more plot is revealed: one of the seven Rulers of the United Arab Emirates wants to send a message to the American government that he is ready to enter into a defensive pact, specifically to allow the building of a Nato air and military base at Abra Bay in his territory. Only a few years ago the UAE as a whole vetoed such a proposal but since then the USSR, its East German and Cuban allies have secured bases in Yemen and the Russians have invaded Afghanistan. They are feeling less secure.

The Ruler has hired Zander to be his go-between because he wants to sound the waters before making a move. Zander very cleverly selected Halliday, concocting the co-writing of a book cover story – appropiate because Halliday is now an author – but sending the bomb to activate Halliday’s old CIA contacts. Now they move to the next step, which is to arrange a meeting between NATO officials and the Ruler at the latter’s place in south Austria, a new clinic for people with lung conditions, which he is building. Again there will be an elaborate cover story picking up on one of Halliday’s former careers, namely that The Ruler is paying a pre-arranged visit there ie nothing special  and a camera crew led by former TV presenter Bob Halliday just happens to be around to interview him about his charitable work. The TV crew will be NATO and intelligence representatives. Ie the TV interview will be a front for all and anyone observing, purely to smuggle in the Nato representatives and secure a face-to-face meeting between them and the Ruler.

For the rest of the novel there is a vast amount of time and energy put into making the TV interview cover story secure. Halliday borrows some vans from a local TV company and briefs Zander’s team on how to look and behave like TV technicians. But Halliday realises that it will go better if they have a real crew with them and so gets  his German ‘control’ to find one: the only one available at very short notice is a genuine Dutch crew who are on their way back from making a documentary in Yugoslavia, led by a director named Kluvers.

Zander, Halliday, Simone and Jean-Pierre set off in several vehicles, one of them a camera van, for the long drive from Lake Garda to a village in Austria, with minor adventures and inconveniences along the way. Simone and Jean-Pierre bicker while Zander looks on amused. Halliday proves his good intentions by overcoming obstacles and planning ahead, growing in stature as the plan becomes more complicated. For supporting her in an argument with Jean-Pierre, later that night Simone slips into his darkened bedroom and into his bed. Halliday is not complaining.

Only when they arrive at a hotel near The Ruler’s planned health spa do they learn that this Arab’s plan to build a luxury compound in a pretty Alpine village has caused outrage among local press and politicians, exacerbated by his refusal to talk to the Press, thus making everything seem sinister. So when Halliday and his fake TV crew arrive and confidently announce that they’re about to interview the reclusive sheikh, instead of being a perfectly bland cover story, it prompts a news frenzy in its own right. The hotel keeper phones the local press who contact the national press and TV, prompting an influx of radio and journalists eager for the story. Oops.

While Zander and Simone go stay at the Ruler’s place, Halliday is called to a meeting with Schelm at which he is introduced to the NATO negotiator, Lieutenant-General Sir Patrick Newell, Military Deputy to Commander Nato Strike Force South. They have a long conversation over whisky during which they puzzle out the Ruler and Zander’s motives, as in a chess game, working through the various deceits, gambits and strategems each player could be playing. The analysis is provisional because we are told The Ruler is unbalanced, like his father, in fact has been diagnosed by western doctors as a paranoid schizophrenic. Great.

Back at Halliday’s Gasthaus Simone slips into his room and into his bed again. He confronts her with his theory that a) it is The Ruler himself who has put out the contract on Zander – yes, she says, they have reluctantly realised this is true b) the men who followed them on various occasions back in Italy did so half-heartedly because they were under orders to appear threatening but not do any harm, because c) The Ruler will arrange to have Zander killed immediately after the conclusion of business. This is so The Ruler can persuade his brother sheikhs that the approach came from Nato, he is humbly replying to a western initiative, he had nothing to do with arranging it. If Zander lived he would threaten that story.

Simone also admits she is Zander’s daughter and that the two younger assistants (barely named and who don’t get to speak) are Zander’s other children by a more recent marriage. Aha. Halliday’s support of Team Zander just got more personal.

Meanwhile, what is getting almost out of control complicated is this TV cover story. As well as meeting with a genuine film crew, Halliday now finds himself buttonholed by Austrian TV, ORF. Their producer, Rainer corners Halliday at the hotel, asking awkward questions, first about the obvious amateurishness of the interview arrangements, then warning him about The Ruler and his unpopularity in Austria.

With the knowledge that The Ruler intends to murder Zander as soon as the interview has taken place, and that he is now involved with Zander and probably included in the hit, Halliday begins to concoct complicated plans to exploit the presence of the ‘innocent’ TV companies:

He will use the Dutch crew to shoot a genuine interview with The Ruler. He will make two copies of the tapes in case The Ruler’s people demand the rushes. He will make sure the Dutch crew’s two bulky vans accompany him and Zander’s vans to the German border. Where he will hand over the rushes to Rainer. This latter involves assuring Rainer he has a genuine US sponsor for the interview (which requires him to phone his agent in New York and get her to phone a PBS producer friend, and ask him to pretend to be the exec producer of the project, before giving his number to Rainer to phone and check.)

Complicated.

Third hundred pages

Next day everyone drives out to the old silver mine which The Ruler is allegedly converting into a health spa/sanatorium, at present surrounded by wire fences and security guards with barking dogs. They are let in and at the museum created by a dotty antiquarian who bought the place generations ago, Halliday is reunited with Zander who prepares him for the vaunted interview.

Here Zander casually confirms something the Austrian TV producer said was common gossip: that The Ruler doesn’t want the silver mine as an unorthodox cure for his sinusitis or asthma – in fact he is planning to build an airtight bunker to sit out World War Three. Zander even explains how the mine’s natural hydraulics will keep it supplied with fresh air for up to eight months, until it is safe for The Ruler and his loved ones to re-emerge.

The TV interview Slightly dazed by this revelation, Halliday is then introduced to The Ruler’s Secretary and then on into the company of the Great Man himself. They agree to carry out the interview a hundred steps down into the bowels of the silver mine, at ‘the first level’. Why? Why is Halliday going to this much trouble? Why is The Ruler agreeing to it at all, since the whole TV interview is purely a cover for introducing the General and Schelm to The Ruler. This has already been achieved: they arrived from their hotel soon after the film crews and, immediately after Halliday’s brief introduction to the Ruler, went into conclave with him. Why not just drop the whole TV fiction, hang around till the VIPs have had their meeting, and leave?

Ambler’s later fictions often have this odd or freakish aspect, a compelling unnecessariness.

Here a lot of pages are spent describing the second crew arriving dirty from Yugoslavia and the technical difficulties of lighting and prepping a room deep underground and surrounded by water dripping off the walls, for a major interview. To add to the sense of the bizarre, when he arrives The Ruler is obviously high on something, cackling manically. More oddly still, after the scores of pages in which his assistants, Zander and Simone have all emphasised how he must treat the Ruler with vast respect, Halliday’s interview is almost rude, certainly impertinent, implying the Ruler knows nothing about the medical conditions he’s supposedly creating the clinic for.

And then, with wild improbability, Halliday takes the interview into bizarre territory by directly accusing The Ruler of planning to build a nuclear bunker. The Ruler airily dismisses this, but Halliday picks up on some of his denial to lead him into revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of germ warfare! Turns out The Ruler knows the latest research about nerve agents and antidotes, that he has personally attended experiments of nerve agents on apes, that he is more than an expert, he is an obsessive on the subject.

Finally it is over and the Ruler gets rather shakily to his feet and walks out. His Secretary, realising what a PR disaster it could be, reiterates that the whole interview is just a cover, right, and will never be used? The Dutch crew who Halliday has employed are stunned by what they’ve heard but the director, Kluver, agrees to switch the tapes – Halliday gets them to number unused film with the date and titles etc as if they were the rushes, and slips the actual rushes to his team to hide. Sure enough, at the barbed wire fence, the crew are held up by the guards while the Secretary comes running after them demanding the rushes. There is an angry standoff but, after some playacting, Halliday gives them the film – the blank film. Hah, he is smuggling out the incriminating interview which, if broadcast, will ruin The Ruler’s reputation and scupper his building plans.

Final scenes

As arranged Zander and Halliday’s vehicles drive in tight convoy formation surrounded by the Dutch crew’s bigger vehicles. And as expected the Rasmuk assassins make their appearance almost immediately, four of them in an old Citroen.

While they drive north to the German border to meet Rainer, Halliday confronts Simone: ‘How long have you and your father realised the Ruler’s price for allowing Nato to build an air base in the UAE is access to US nerve gas and permission to build facilities where it can be tested on human beings, the inmates of his many prisons?’ Now it makes sense that, before they were called in to start the interview, Halliday and crew had seen the General and the German spy emerge from their face-to-face with the Ruler looking dazed. That is why. Being able to test nerve gas and its antidotes was The Ruler’s quid pro quo for letting Nato build a base in his emirate.

Throughout, the novel has proceeded by Halliday either knowing things about himself (his CIA career) or realising things about the plan (the book is a cover, the contractor for the hit is The Ruler himself, and now, that The Ruler demands nerve gas facilities) which are deliberately concealed from the reader. It gives you a constant sense of playing catch-up with a world, with a reality, that is constantly beyond your grasp.

Just before the border they rendezvous with Rainer from Austrian TV and give him tape one of two, the one with the main body of the interview, including The Ruler’s mad cackle and his crazed fantasies about experimenting on human beings. Halliday will hang on to the second tape which contains a bit more of the same and then the ‘reverse shots’ and other shots of the location. While the cars are parked – in a typical piece of Ambler oddity – one of the Rasmuk assassins strolls over to the parked cars and introduces himself to Zander. He is Bourger, now a paid assassin but they knew him as a boy back in Algeria where they lived for a while and where Simone grew up. Bourger is embarrassed about having to do this job, but he will do no killing. He explains he is merely here to confirm the identification of Zander and Simone which, sadly, he has done.

The tape handed over to Rainer, the Dutch crew now free to go their way north, our guys are alone in their van and Zander reveals he’s made a change to the plans. They drive off south but at a junction don’t take the expected route to Italy, but turn left towards Yugoslavia. Bourger and the hitmen pursue them and, contrary to promises, machine gun the van behind them, badly wounding one of Zanders assistants, Guido.

Seeing this from the van in front, our guys accelerate ahead (Simone is feministically driving) and head off down a side track, past abandoned buildings to where the track ends in footpaths up into the hills. Here they grab the machine guns and ammunition Zander had thoughtfully packed and scramble into hiding positions. When Bourger and his men begin to tentatively fan out across the hillside, our team massacres them, in a few seconds killing all four goons.

Having anticipated this turn of events, Zander had readied Jean-Pierre, who now arrives in a hire car. He’ll drive back to the scene of the Guido shooting with a cock and bull story for the police about Zander, Simone and Halliday having caught a train north. Quickly Zander, Simon, Halliday jump into the station wagon and head off in another direction.

After hard driving they turn in the rental car at Salzberg airport and take a taxi to the German border, walking across it with hand luggage then going into an all-night cafe for food. Here Schelm and his forces meet them and spirit them away. It is goodbye, goodbye to Zander, goodbye to Simone. Schelm tells Halliday he’s arranged a flight for him from Frankfurt to New York. It’s goodbye to Schelm.

But Halliday showers and shaves, catches a cab to the airport and onto an earlier plane than Schelm had arranged. He figures Schelm will have organised a reception committee at New York and intends to evade it. In fact, he still walks into it and is stopped and searched at US Customs. However, he had taken the precaution of posting the can of film separately from Frankfurt direct to his agent, who forwards it to the producer at PBS. So all can still be broadcast, right?

Wrong. In the final reversal of the novel, the PBS producer phones him to explain a) the big publishing company that started the whole thing rolling is a major sponsor of PBS and broadcasting the remaining content would antagonise them. Worse, b) after Austrian TV aired the majority of the interview, The Ruler was checked into a sanatorium for people with mental problems by his caring family. Ie broadcasting the interview now would be victimising a poor, helpless, unwell man.

Oh well. He tried to do the right thing. He feels pretty safe from Rasmuk as Zander and co had speculated that, if Rasmuk didn’t get its targets on the first day, it would probably hush the whole thing up. Plus the person who put out the contract, The Ruler, has become incapable of free action so, presumably, the contract has expired.

A few months later Halliday sees a newspaper reports that rumours of discussions between Nato and the UAE about the setting up of a military base in Abra Bay are all false. Ie they’re all true.

And, finally, he gets a postcard from Simone saying the Zander family is being given a new identity and safe place to live, courtesy of the US authorities. Will Halliday want to be in touch once they’re settled?

Time is taking care of Zander, as it is taking care of me, steadily and, presumably, without much more fuss. His family, however, still has a long way to go. I am really not sure how I will reply. (Last words, p.299)

Thoughts

The Care of Time is a long, convoluted story, at every stage involving lengthy conversations in which the characters tease out all the logical alternative plans of action they and their various opponents may or may not embark on. Reminds me slightly of the kinds of process flow diagrams I see at work. Sometimes hard to follow – or you wonder why you are bothering to follow the intricate possibilities when you could skip ten pages and find out what actually happens. 

It is about nominally serious subjects – Nato involvement with the Arab world, fear of chemical warfare – which somehow, through the lens of Ambler’s peculiarly detached and clinical style and his dry sense of irony, become almost empty tokens in an ornate and baroque perplexity of text. It is like a very very very dry martini.

I wouldn’t recommend it as a traditional thriller because, despite containing many of the classic components, it isn’t one. It is something odder and stranger than that. A genuine puzzle. A puzzle which enjoys puzzling over its own puzzlement.

The TV movie

The book was turned into ‘a major television film’, directed by John Davies, starring Michael Brandon as Robert Halliday and Christopher Lee as Karlis Zander, and broadcast in 1990.

Related links

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 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.
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