Here Lies: An Autobiography by Eric Ambler (1985)

Only an idiot believes that he can write the truth about himself. (p.18)

This autobiography was written when Ambler was in his mid-seventies, living in tax exile in Switzerland. It has the same relaxed, urbane, ironic and amused tone of voice as his later novels. The anecdotes about family, friends, lovers, publishers and fans are rounded and pat. Emotion or confusion or uncertainty are eschewed in favour of crisp declarative sentences and sly humour.

For me, money troubles and puberty arrived together. At about the same time that I became a lecher I also became a thief. (p.58)

It must have been at about that time, I think, that he began his remarkably long career as an embezzler. (p.81)

It contains a lot of information, yet you have the sense that nothing is really revealed, nothing of emotional or personal value, anyway.

Twelve chapters:

1: An odd mixture of an account of a car crash he had in his 70s which appears to have crystallised his decision to write an autobiography, with satirical memories of book tours of America.

2: His grandfather came from Preston. His father was born in Salford. In 1903 the Amblers moved to Charlton in south-east London. His mum and dad tried for many years to make a go of a marionette stage act, The Whatnots, in addition to his dad’s day job in a factory in Silvertown. Born in 1909, Eric went to school during the Great War and remembers zeppelin raids. Uncle Frank was captured by the Germans. He passes the exam to go to Colfe’s Grammar School.

3: School and its strange teachers, piano lessons, a pushbike and a passion for chemistry shared with his friend, Sims. Schoolboy discussions about sex. Eric wins a scholarship to an engineering college, unfortunately, just as he decides to become a playwright.

4: Attends trials to observe characters and performances, with playwriting in mind. Attends engineering courses. Joins the Territorial army and helps employers during the General Strike. Dad gets him a job as trainee at the Edison Swan Electric Company in Ponders End. Learns about the manufacture of light bulbs, drilling copper plates, storage batteries, dynamos, radio components.

5: Still a trainee, he is sent to Lydbrook colliery in south Wales, learns about vulcanising rubber, insulated wires etc. Moved into the Publicity department where he concocts copy to promote a batch of duff bulbs. They sell out. He has a gift! Reading Jung, Nietzsche, Spengler. His father collapses and dies. Funeral. Very throwaway reference to an affair with a married woman. He has to pay for her to have an abortion. Good old Uncle Frank lends him the 16 guineas required. His boss secures him a job at the advertising agency which has the Edison Swan Electric Company contact.

6: Thrives in advertising. Meets colourful characters. Begins to meet theatrical people and has his plays read and even performed. Visits a colleague who’s moved to an Italian village and realises many things are done better abroad. Encounters Italian blackshirts. Back in England, taken to court by the Inland Revenue. His plays are read & performed by the Guildhall Arts School: for example, one about a young man who tries to gas himself, is confronted by a supernatural Prosecutor who calls witnesses to his life, and then condemns him – to live! In Marseilles Eric is conned out of all his money by a gambler. He fantasises about assassinating him with a rifle from his hotel window. A few weeks later a Croat assassin kills King Alexander of Yugoslavia at the same road junction. ‘In the Mediterranean sunshine there were strange and violent men with whom I could identify, and with whom, in a way, I was now in touch.’ (p.115)

7: Relationship with Betty Dyson. First novel, The Dark Frontier, published. Thinks the contemporary thriller was very poor: ‘As I saw it, the thriller had nowhere to go but up.’ (p.121) Frontier starts as a parody, with peculiar elements, such as the dual identity of the protagonist, but develops into something genuinely gripping. Eric becomes director of the advertising agency and writes his second novel, Uncommon Danger. He casually refers to going to lectures by communists. ‘If the term fellow-travellers had been used in its present pejorative sense at the time I think that many of us could well have been described in that way.’ (p.124) The precise nature of his political allegiances is debated to this day, but it’s clear he was never politically active. After delivering his third novel, Epitaph For A Spy, to his publisher Eric quits his job at the advertising agency to become a full-time writer. Epitaph is serialised in the Daily Express in March 1938, for which he is paid the princely sum of £135.

8: Eric uses the money to go and live on the Continent, in an out-of-season skiing resort where he completes his fourth novel, Cause For Alarm. He has barely submitted that to his publisher before he is planning the fifth, Mask of Dimitrios from an apartment in Paris. More film offers come in. Eric takes a cargo liner with 30 passengers across the Atlantic to be wined and dined by his publisher in New York, go to literary parties and jazz clubs. Steamer back to London then back to his apartment in Paris where he falls in love with Louise Crombie, an American divorcee with three children working in Paris fashion (p.150). The Nazi-Soviet Pact is announced and they squeeze onto a ferry back to London and are married in Croydon. The Mask of Dimitrios has the distinction of being the Daily Mail book-of-the-month in the same week Britain and France go to war with Germany (p.154). He tries to enrol in various bits of the Armed Forces and starts writing Journey Into Fear, partly based on his recent transAtlantic voyage. Eric makes another brief transAtlantic foray, is briefly reunited with his American wife, before returning to Britain. Journey Into Fear is the Evening Standard‘s book-of-the-month in July 1940, the month the third Republic ceases to exist and the Battle of Britain begins (p.158).

9: Army. Royal Artillery Driver Training. Then motor bike training. RKO pay Ambler $20,000 for the movie rights to Journey Into Fear (Here Lies, p.170). Applies to become a gunnery officer. Commands the artillery unit protecting Winston Churchill at Chequers, near Wendover. An evening with Winston Churchill watching a movie featuring his favourite Hollywood film star, Deanna Durbin. A few more artillery posts, then he is ordered to join ADAK.

10: Assistant Director of Army Kinematography, a unit consisting of Thorold Dickinson, Carol Reed, 21-year-old Peter Ustinov and now Eric, set up to make training films. They collaborate with Army psychiatrists to make The New Lot, designed to bolster confidence among new recruits, but it is suppressed by higher-ups who think it is not sufficiently patriotic. After typical movie production negotiations, The New Lot is converted into a full-scale commercial movie, The Way Ahead, starring David Niven and shot at Denham Studios. Eric is seconded to the American Office of War Information to go to Italy with a film unit led by John Huston. Prolonged negotiations with generals and so on about what is suitable or possible to film. Story of the GI propositioning the wrong Italian lady in daylight. Story of the priest and the dog poo.

11: Detailed account of the unit’s progress along the bombed road into the devastated village of San Pietro. The plan had been to make a film showing the benefits of being ‘liberated’ by the Allies. However, what they find is fields full of dead soldiers and the village an abandoned, booby-trapped pile of rubble. They come under artillery attack, where (according to John Huston’s later reminiscences, Ambler displays characteristic insouciance). The documentary Huston cobbles together is later banned by the US Army. Back in Naples Eric meets and drinks with Humphrey Bogart and his wife. Then flies back to England.

12: Ordered to make a film for British troops profiling the American war contribution, United States, voiced by Niven. Travels to New York to get archive footage. It’s well-received, Eric is promoted and put in charge of a series of educational films. He recounts making 95 of these in 1945, and lists the range of subjects. The issue of informing released POWs and demobbed soldiers. Rents a house in St Margaret’s Bay, near Noël Coward. Rediscovers the wellsprings of his novelist’s imagination. Eric describes the real-life sources for The Schirmer Inheritance and Judgement on Deltchev. His acquaintance with Somerset Maugham, who comes over as very difficult. The reminiscences end with a lecture Eric gave several times about the different frustrations and rewards of writing novels and writing screenplays.


The text is a smooth, untroubled flow of events and anecdotes. Who knows what real emotional crises, passions and affairs it artfully conceals. The anecdotes are amusing but rarely funny. There is very little about the actual process of writing. He refers once to ‘obsessive rewriting’ which certainly explains the pared-down and controlled tone of his novels. Only at the very end does he shed a little light on his collaborations with another novelist, Charles Rodda.

I am touchy, pernickety and possessive about work in progress… when writing for myself I never follow a set story line. I try things out, I rewrite and I change my mind about the characters as I go along. At the end, I make further changes. (p.227)

This certainly accounts for the sense of many of the characters winging it in the plots, and of the plots themselves hingeing on arbitrary and random cruces. Overall, Ambler’s novels lack a kind of depth of conception and inevitability of plot, a lack which prevents them becoming real ‘classics’, which explains why they almost all went out of print in the 70s and 80s, and why they will probably remain the preserve of a small but dedicated fan-base for the foreseeable future.


This autobiography has no index, which makes it difficult to look up references to the novels or films etc and makes the text appear more like a novel than a factual reference book. As, possibly, it is intended to be…

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 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.

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.

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.

Dr Frigo by Eric Ambler (1974)

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’.

Abroad

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 Frigo

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.

Related links

Fontana paperback cover of Dr Frigo

Fontana paperback cover of Dr Frigo

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.

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.

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.

Dirty Story by Eric Ambler (1967)

‘You’re a disgusting creature, Mr Simpson. Your life is nothing but a long, dirty story.’ (p.13)

Ambler is fond of featuring characters in more than one novel. The KGB agent Andreas Zaleshof plays a key role in two of the pre-War novels, and the head of Turkish security, Colonel Haki, appears in three. But this is the most comprehensive repeat, for Dirty Story is the second book to be narrated in its entirety by the same person – the shabby conman Arthur Abdel Simpson, who first appeared in The Light of Day.

Plot

In a previous post I mentioned the importance of bureaucratic procedures to Ambler’s plots. This one continues Arthur Simpson’s problems with his out-of-date and non-renewable Egyptian passport, the one which got him into trouble in The Light of Day. Refused a new British passport, Arthur contacts a provider of forged passports in Athens (where he lives) and, optimistically, promises to pay the large fee. When he fails to extract the money out of the rich old lady who rents him the car in which he operates as guide and driver to tourists, the passport-forger offers him a job to pay off the debt. A European film crew is arriving in Athens to shoot porn movies among Greece’s ancient ruins: Arthur can make the money to buy the passport by procuring pretty young men and women to star in the films, as well as managing other practicalities.

With his knowledge of Athens’ lowlife this is no problem for Arthur who makes a deal with a local madam, gets everything up and running for the crew, then slips off to fit in a weekend tourist-guide job. When he returns the sheepdip has hit the fan, because one particular member of the film crew – Goutard – has so outraged the madam that she has called her friends in the police. The (intimidating) passport forger has been tasked with hussling Goutard and Arthur out of the country to pacify everyone. Now Arthur has his passport alright – but he is being kicked out of his country: forced to leave his flat, belongings and (sort of) wife.

Processes and procedures

I thought the plot would kick in at some point, but for fifty more pages the plot largely is a summary of Simpson’s legal and bureaucractic problems. The pair are taken out to a departing tramp steamer but the emphasis is on the legal arrangements by which they sign on to the crew. When the steamer limps into Djibouti for repairs, the text becomes entirely about the various legal options open to them, about the validity of their visas, the length of stay they’re allowed, which countries the police will deport them to, and so on.

They are hoping to be kept on until the boat docks in Lourenço Marques, but Goutard assaults the steamer’s captain who promptly ‘sacks’ them from the ship’s crew. The procedural implications of this are described in much greater detail than the actual incident as Ambler lists the payoff they receive, the severance contract they have to sign and so on. Simpson – and the text – now spend some time considering the options available to him, all of which are hedged round by legal, passport, visa and work permit restrictions, which are explored in some detail.

Eventually, the plot moves forward as Goutard has met in a bar one ‘Major’ Kinck who tells them all about the mining of rare metals in Africa. On the steamer one drunk night, Simpson had let his imagination run wild, making up stories about his daring exploits in the British Army during World War Two. Now, to his horror, he discovers Goutard has suggested to Kinck that he and Arthur sign up as mercenaries to Kinck’s organisation – the Société Minière et Métallurgique de l’Afrique Centrale (SMMAC). Again, the chapter that deals with this goes into minute detail about the contract they sign, the currency and payment options, the visas they are issued with, even the next-of-kin clauses, as well as the uniforms, badges and so on.

From one angle, the ‘plot’ could be said to consist of a sequence of bureaucratic, legal and procedural wrangles to which a ‘character’, an actual human being, is only accidentally attached.

Part two

It is only over half way into the book that the real ‘story’ becomes clear.  Kinck has been hanging round Djibouti recruiting a ragtag collection of half a dozen white men who have all been associated with the armies of their countries. They all sign the contract to work for SMACC and fly with Kinck to an African country. Arthur (and Ambler) give it the fictitious name of Mahindi.

Here they go straight to a mining camp and are briefed. When the neighbouring African nations of Mahindi and Ugazi gained independence there was an anomaly at a river which snakes between the countries, but where Europeans defined the boundary as a straight line. It would make better sense for the bit of territory sticking out beyond the line but this side of the river to be given to Mahindi; and the bit in the bend beneath to be restored to Ugazi.

Peaceful negotiations have been meandering on about this for years. Suddenly the Ugazi delegation have cut off negotations. This is because a European corporation has discovered some very rare precious minerals in just this stretch of land. Arthur has got caught up in a conspiracy for a dozen or so white mercenaries to lead a couple of lorryloads of Mahindi soldiers and seize the piece of land with the precious minerals in, while the Mahindi government magnanimously restores their spur of (worthless) land to Ugazi.

There are a few complications (one of the mercenaries, Willens, turns out to have contacts with the other side and persuades Arthur to betray his colleagues for the promise of cash), but most of the second half of the text describes the training and preparation for this incursion and Arthur’s characteristic attempts to avoid all responsiblity and danger, quite amusingly.

However, the incursion, when it finally comes, is not so amusing with quite a few black soldiers being killed and dismembered by Uzi machine guns or mortar rounds. Nobody was killed in The Light of Day which maintained a light comic tone through even the most nailbiting scenes. This story features quite a few African casualties a) in the story, for the greed of Europeans b) in the metatext, for the entertainment of us European readers. On both levels, it made me uneasy.

The SMACC mercenaries successfully invade and secure the Ugazi enclave. Arthur’s treachery to his colleagues is revealed and he and Willens make a tense getaway by boat. In the final few pages Arthur ponders the cynicism of the big corporations and nations: the two countries have agreed to do a deal, to get their corporations to co-operate and share the mining profits. Those who died did so foolishly in what amounted to a cynical business deal.

In the confusion of battle, Arthur just happens to have stolen a bunch of passports he found in the police headquarters of the captured town. In the final pages he heads off to Tangier to make a living selling them and, yes, maybe he will set up in his own right as a forger of fake passports.

Thus, both the Arthur Simpson novels are linked by this golden thread of passports and their problems.

Dramatis personae

  • Arthur Abdel Simpson, rogue and anti-hero
  • Nicki – his wife, a belly-dancer
  • H. Carter Gavin – the British Vice-Consul who refuses him a passport
  • Mrs Karadontis – the old lady who loans Arthur the car he drives tourists round in
  • Madame Irma – brothel-keeper
  • Gennadiou – fixer of forged passports
  • Hayek – leader of the polyglot porn movie company
  • Yves Goutard – short-tempered member of the porn movie crew who gets himself and Arthur into trouble
  • Captain Van Bunnen – captain of the tramp steamer which takes them down the African coast
  • Jean-Baptiste Kinck – recruits them as mercenaries acting for the Société Minière et Métallurgique de l’Afrique Centrale (SMMAC), mining company working inside Mahindi
  • Adrian Willens – one of the mercenaries who turns out to be working for the UMAD, the mining company working with the Ugazi government
  • Barbara Willens – his good-looking wife who first talks Arthur into working with them ie to betray his mercenary colleagues to the enemy
  • Troppmann – leader of the SMMAC mercenaries
  • Velay – French leader of the UMAD opposition, who tries to do a deal with his opposite numbers

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback cover of Dirty Story

1970s Fontana paperback cover of Dirty Story

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.

To Catch A Spy edited by Eric Ambler (1964)

Seven short stories about spies, selected and with a genial introduction by Eric Ambler, who gives a useful summary of the spy genre from the turn of the century up to the early 1960s:

  • the late-19th century background of Sherlock Holmes/Rider Haggard popular adventure yarns
  • then suddenly the first classic spy novel, The Riddle of The Sands (1903)
  • the unexpected and not at all thriller-ish The Secret Agent (1907) by literary novelist Joseph Conrad
  • a flood of popular spy novels by the prolific William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • then the sequence of five Richard Hanny novels by John Buchan (1915-1936) raising the tone
  • overlapping with the proto-fascist Bulldog Drummond stories by ‘Sapper’
  • the standout early spy novel of them all, Ashenden (1928) by Somerset Maugham
  • the comic spy novel The Three Couriers by Compton Mackenzie
  • then Graham Greene’s secret agent novels of the 1930s – A Gun For Sale, The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear
  • overlapping with Ambler’s own six great thrillers set in the murky eastern Europe of the late 1930s
  • the hiatus of the war
  • then the explosive rise of Ian Fleming (first Bond novel 1953)

Writing in the early 1960s Ambler is unaware that the release of the early Bond movies (Dr No, From Russia With Love) would spark a spy boom, including Len Deighton’s fabulous Ipcress File novels (1962-67), the comic strip adventures of freelance agent Modesty Blaise (1965), the Quiller spy novels of Adam Hall (debut 1965), the ‘agent’ novels of Alistair MacLean, the arrival on the scene of Desmond Bagley who wrote spy novels in the early 1970s, and the most enduringly successful of English spy novelists, John le Carré (first novel 1961). Many of these novels were filmed very soon after publication to create a tidal wave of spy books and movies throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Spies went from being a minority pulp interest to becoming big money literary and Hollywood genres.

Ambler is no scholar but you can’t fault his opinions:

  • The Riddle of the Sands ‘one of the finest books about small sailing-craft ever written.’
  • ‘Although, on the whole, Buchan’s spy stories achieved a higher level of reality than those of Oppenheim, and were certainly better written, they had peculiar defects. His spy-heroes were mostly hunting-shooting-fishing men who went about their work with a solemn, manly innocence which could lapse into stupidity.’
  • Ashenden ‘is the first fictional work on the subject by a writer of some stature with first-hand knowledge of what he is writing about.’

The short stories

The Loathly Opposite by John Buchan (21 pages) Buchan’s pukka heroes – Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and others – are sitting round jawing when one of them, Pugh, remembers his World War I work supervising codebreakers who struggled to crack the work of one particularly fiendish German coder and how, years later, recovering from war nerves, it turns out the mild-mannered German doctor treating him at a sanatorium is one and the same coder. Well, well.

Giulia Lazzari by Somerset Maugham (56 pages) One of the short stories which make up Maugham’s masterpiece, Ashenden (1928). In his frigid, well-mannered prose the narrator describes being given a mission by his controller, R. A dangerous Indian nationalist and terrorist, Chandra Lal, has fallen (improbably) in love with a travelling Italian entertainer-cum-prostitute who performs as an ‘exotic’ Spanish dancer, known as Giulia Lazzari. She’s been arrested in England and is being sent under guard to the French border with Switzerland because Chandra is in Switzerland.

Ashenden’s mission is to keep her under arrest and coerce her into persuading her lover, Chandra, to cross the border into France where he can be quickly arrested by the authorities, who can’t touch him in neutral Switzerland. Ashenden politely but implacably wears Guilia down until she consents to write the fateful letters asking her lover to join her. The whole affair ends squalidly when, cornered in a waiting room of the ferry by which he’s crossed the lake into France, Chandra swallows poison and dies immediately. As promised, Ashenden gives the broken Giulia the papers she requires to travel to Spain, and feels degraded.

The First Courier by Sir Compton Mackenzie (79 pages) Broad good-natured comedy. Year two of the Great War and Roger Waterlow is a naval officer, fed up with acting as intelligence officer in an unnamed boiling hot city (unnamed but obviously in Greece). He has a fat incompetent number two, a dodgy Cockney driver, a boss (Captain X) back in London who ignores his pleas to be transferred, and a clutch of comedy French diplomats to deal with.

Just as remarkable as the many genuinely amusing comic scenes, is Mackenzie’s often weirdly  convoluted prose, which maybe explains why he’s so little read today.

His own reward would be the Légion d’Honneur, the scarlet ribbon of which would seem to a little man so fond of dark habiliments and obscure subterranean trafficking a whole world of vivid colour. (1984 Bodley Head large print edition p.124)

The French Naval Attaché waved cordially to Waterlow as he mounted his car where, so full of nervous energy was he in repose, he seemed to flutter in the hot breeze like the spruce little tricolour on the bonnet, himself in that huge Packard like the flag a miniature emblem of his country. (p.130)

I Spy by Graham Greene (5 pages) A young boy sneaks down into his father’s tobacconist’s shop after dark to nick a packet of cigarettes and smoke a crafty fag. Approaching footsteps make him hide under the till from where he hears the conversation between his father and two official-seeming men, as his father scoops ups some packets and grabs his coat before going away with them. He appears to have overheard his father being arrested by police… Only a spy story in the broadest sense of the word ‘spy’, in which almost anyone overhearing anyone else hidden in a closet could be said to be ‘spying’.

Although famous for the variety of exotic locations for his fiction, I’m not the first to point out that Greene’s mind and imagination were often very mundane and humdrum.

Belgrade 1926 by Eric Ambler (31 pages) A chapter from The Mask of Dimitrios, which many consider Ambler’s best novel from the six he wrote before World War II, considered by most critics to be his finest period. It is an episodic novel about a writer’s quest to track down a legendary criminal, Dimitrios, which takes him across Europe to meet various people who knew Dimitrios and who describe key episodes from his life – hence the text is so easy to divide into sections.

In this excerpt the writer, Charles Latimer, writes to his Greek informant describing a long encounter with ‘G’, a spymaster in Eastern Europe, now based in Geneva. Working for Italy, G organises a scam to blackmail an official in the Defence Ministry in Belgrade to bring him charts of the marine minefields Yugoslavia is laying down in the Adriatic. G hires Dimitrios to act the part of playboy, and between them they flatter the clerk and his wife with high living and promises of big jobs until they lure them into a casino, where they arrange for them to lose a fortune. Thus, in fear of being exposed, of losing his job and going to prison for debt, the clerk is persuaded to steal the charts for a night and bring them to Dimitrios who will photograph them.

The clerk brings the charts, alright but unfortunately Dimitrios double crosses G, demands the photos of the charts at gunpoint, before going off to sell them to the French embassy. G has no choice but to inform the Yugoslav authorities, who promptly change their minefield arrangements, arrest the clerk and sentence him to life imprisonment. Dimitrios disappears. G concludes his business and leaves town.

You can see how, in Ambler’s hands, the spy story is more about betrayal and double crossing than glamorous adventures. That is how he made his name, moving the genre decisively away from the schoolboy heroics and naive patriotism of Buchan and Sapper into the amoral modern world – where it has firmly stayed ever since.

From A View To A Kill by Ian Fleming (40 pages) A motorcycle courier riding from NATO to SHAPE headquarters is assassinated by an identically-dressed motorbike courier, who takes the wallet full of battle plans and disappears. James Bond is staying overnight in Paris en route back to London from a bodged job in Hungary. He is ordered into going along to SHAPE HQ to help out the investigation and is not welcomed because SHAPE has its own security service and can do without the British Secret Service’s interference, thank you very much.

Bond pricks up his ears when casually told about the gypsies who camped in the forest during the winter. He goes and stakes out the gypsies’ old camp, which is when he sees the high-tech doors to the secret Russkie base open up and three men bring out the motorbike the assassin must have used. Next day Bond impersonates the daily courier and entraps the baddie into following him, but shoots first and kills him, then takes his team of four agents to capture the remaining men in their underground base. This leads to a shootout and Bond is rescued by the rather sexy woman agent who collected him from his hotel at the start of the story. Mmm. ‘Will you have dinner with me tonight?’ ‘Of course, commander.’ Perfectly, effortlessly entertaining.

On Slay Down by Michael Gilbert (24 pages) Never heard of Gilbert but this is arguably the best short story in the book. Two elderly middle-aged men, friends from the first war and both in ‘the Service’, discuss the need to assassinate a woman secretary who – investigations show – has been passing information to the enemy.

One of them, Calder, drives out to the fake rendezvous they’ve arranged between her and her contact, arrives way before her and sets up shop with a rifle. She arrives, gets out her car and he is about to shoot her when an Army lorry appears and the driver starts taking pot shots at rabbits. Smiling, Calder waits for the soldier to shoot and instantly fires, as if an echo, killing the woman. He packs up and leaves.

However, the two men running this grim project are puzzled that, by a few days later, the body has still not been found or reported. They track down the identity of the soldier, an officer, who was driving the lorry and nearly interrupted Calder’s assassination. Turns out he is now leading a small exercise in the same area.

Calder, obviously with the blessing of higher authority, dresses up as a senior officer in the man’s regiment and confronts the soldier in his tent. There can be only one explanation – the soldier must have found the body and, thinking he’d killed a harmless civilian, buried her. So, asks Calder: ‘Where did you bury her?’ The soldier’s first reaction is to reach for his pistol, but he thinks better of it and admits everything. In fact, he buried her on the very spot where their tent is pitched; he was horrified to find an exercise was planned for the same area and made sure he got there first and pitched tent above the grave. At which point Calder reveals his identity and… offers him a job in the Service. As he later recounts to his partner, over their evening game of backgammon.

‘He realised that he wouldn’t be able to get his gun out in time, and decided to come clean. I think that showed decision, and balance, don’t you?’
‘Decision and balance are most important,’ agreed Mr Behrens. ‘Your throw.’

Like the Bond, despite a spot of killing, this is essentially a comic story, slick and clever. Ambler, in his introduction, says it could have been retitled ‘On Slay Down, or the Recruitment of 008‘.

First sentences

Burminster had been to a Guildhall dinner the night before, which had been attended by many – to him – unfamiliar celebrities. (Buchan)

Accurately conveys Buchan’s milieu of upper-class, professional men who, however, are Country not Town; hunting, shooting, fishing types who mix with the rich but don’t know much about corrupt city ways, about this art or literature malarkey, dontcha know. Hence the importance of the ‘- to him -‘ clause. The hero is high-born – but pure.

Ashenden was in the habit of asserting that he was never bored. (Somerset Maugham)

Not only portraying the lofty detachment of Ashenden, the fictional writer-spy, but Maugham’s own enjoyably seigneurial tone.

It was hotter than ever in the city of South-East Europe some time round about the second anniversary of the war. (Mackenzie)

Sets the tone of complaint, one aspect of the Mackenzie’s comedy about the unhappy Naval officer forced to become a spy in this feverishly hot Mediterranean location and constantly moaning about mosquitoes, the awful food and the absurd machinations of the local French officials.

Charlie Stowe waited until he heard his mother snore before he got out of bed. (Greene)

Indicates the mundane banality of Greene’s settings and the flat, colourless tone of his prose. Why is he so famous, then? Due to his gimlet-eyed focus on seediness and loss, deception and guilt.

My dear Marukakis, I remember that I promised to write to you to let you know if I discovered anything more about Dimitrios. (Ambler)

Obviously the Ambler story’s format of a letter dictates the tone a bit, but this opening is nonetheless strongly indicative of Ambler’s good humour and amiability. His novels are excellent company.

The eyes behind the wide black rubber goggles were cold as flint. (Fleming)

You can immediately see the change in tone: Most of the preceding stories (with the exception of Greene’s cold-eyed heartlessness) have exuded chaps-in-the-club-with-a-cigar bonhomie. Fleming introduces pure physical excitement, a foretaste of the sadism, sex and shiny gadgets his novels delight in and which made him the most successful spy writer of all time.

‘The young man of to-day,’ said Mr Behrens, ‘is physically stronger and fitter than his father.’ (Gilbert)

Rather suave, man-of-the-world savoir faire of two older male friends discussing their professional interests ie security, spying and agents.

Conclusion

Of these seven texts the Maugham, Mackenzie and Ambler are in fact chapters from longer works. Maybe there aren’t (or there weren’t in 1964) that many good spy short stories.

Related links

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

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.

A Kind of Anger by Eric Ambler (1964)

Mid-winter. A car comes hurtling down the drive of a remote villa near Zurich, crashes into a passing lorry, and screeches away. When police investigate they discover the place has been ransacked and the body of an exiled Iraqi soldier, Colonel Arbil – shot three times. New York-based magazine, World Reporter, tells its Paris office to get someone to investigate and the only man available is Piet Maas, a freelance Dutch journalist. He is not popular. A few years previously, a highbrow magazine he’d set up went bankrupt with big debts and he tried to kill himself. (Nobody knows that on the same day he found his girlfriend in bed with another man.) The driver of the hit & run car is identified as Lucia Bernardi, the colonel’s mistress. Now she’s missing and Interpol issue an alert for her whereabouts.

The New York office of World Reporter is contacting its Paris branch because it has a new tip about the name of a man Lucia used to hang round with – one Patrick Chase, also known as Philip Sanger. Acting on this, Piet travels to the south of France where he discovers that Sanger used to operate cons on rich older men with Lucia as the dollybird/bait, but she left him after she fell in love with the Colonel. Sanger, along with his wife Adèle, had been wisely investing the proceeds from his cons in a property portfolio around the south of France. When Lucia fled the scene of the murder in Zurich she turned to them for help and they’ve been hiding her in their empty properties.

It takes about half the novel for Piet to find the Sangers, arrange a meeting and then slowly gain their confidence. Eventually, they arrange for him to meet Lucia and her story is: Colonel Arbil was at the centre of a web of Kurdish exiles working for a Kurdish independent nation. One night she was in the bedroom at the villa when she heard male voices and sounds of violence. She hid. More noises, as of the place being turned upside down. Then screams. Then shots. She carried on hiding till she was sure the intruders had left, then ran down to the garage, jumped in the car, and fled.

Who was it? Might be assassins working for the Iraqis, or the result of some inter-Kurdish rivalry, or maybe even the Western oil companies who don’t want to see the oil fields around Kirkuk and Mosul nationalised by a Kurdish state.

When Piet reports back to the Paris office they say they want the full story, including details of Sanger and his history of scams and property dealing. Piet had expressly promised to leave him out. Therefore, confirming his boss’s opinions of him as a rubbish reporter, he gives them the Lucia material then quits. His boss says he’s coming south and calling up freelancers to track him down and find out what he’s hiding.

Maas checks into a new hotel under a false name. He is now, in effect, on the run from his former employer. In the meantime, his path had crossed a certain Monsieur Skurleti at the Cannes mairie, who was also looking for properties registered to Sanger: is he the financial investigator he claims to be, or working for more sinister forces? Piet promises to sell him the list of properties he had made when initially tracking Sanger, for a stiff fee – but also in order to keep in touch with Skurleti and find out who he’s working for.

Part two

The second half of the novel, therefore, feels like a game of three-dimensional chess, as Piet arranges secret meetings, holds late-night phone calls, moves between safe houses and uses false names as he juggles his relations with the Sangers (who he promised to keep safe), Lucia (who he quickly realises isn’t telling him the whole truth), his editor and freelancers (who threaten to blow the whole thing wide open), and Skurleti (whatever his agenda is).

These complications are doubled when he has a further interview with Lucia at which he realises what is really going on. She’d mentioned that she escaped from the villa with her clothes and a suitcase full of papers. Now he learns this is the main reason she gave him the interview – she wanted the key fact about having the suitcase to appear in the magazine as an advert to people who want to buy the papers.

And to explain why, she reveals more: The colonel belonged to a committee of Kurds pledged to fighting for a free and independent Kurdistan. Slowly, he realised a faction of the committee was planning uprisings with Russian support in Kurdish cities across the region, against the express wishes of the majority of its members. The colonel had inveigled himself into this plot and taken detailed notes. These notes are in the suitcase Lucia escaped with. It is potentially wanted by:

  • the dissident Kurds on ‘the Committee’
  • the mainstream Kurdish independents
  • the Iraqi security services
  • representatives of the ‘Italians’, an Italian oil consortium which has expressed an interest in stepping into the Iraqi oil business dominated by British and American companies, and giving the Kurds a better cut of the profits, if their uprising succeeds

Skurlati turns out to be an agent working on behalf of ‘the Committee’. Meanwhile, Lucia tells Piet that the colonel had been expecting the arrival of an emissary of the Iraqi government who also wanted the papers, a certain Brigadier Farisi. Possibly the burglars arrived, ransacked and tortured Arbil to find the notes precisely because they knew Farisis was about to arrive.

Final third

Piet and Lucia are now on the run from quite a few people and spend a good deal of time devising complex plans to sell some or all of the secrets to multiple buyers. She hands over the planning and running of the scams to Piet who comes up with some byzantine schemes. The fundamental decision they take is to sell copies of the notes to two different and opposed buyers: to Skurleti, representing ‘the Committee’, but also to Brigadier Farisi, representing the Iraqi government.

Piet has to make plans to see each of them, show them a taster of the notes at a safe place, make follow-up calls to negotiate a fee, then arrange a second meeting at another safe place to hand over the papers – without being observed by the police, by his newspaper manager and colleagues, but most crucially, by representatives of the other sides, especially the killers of Colonel Arbil who are still at large.

They have some fierce arguments but, at one particular moment of triumph & relief, find themselves kissing and going to bed together. However, having seen how clever and manipulative Lucia has been with other men, the reader is constantly wondering how much she is using Maas. Will she dump him? Or worse?

There is a law or rule at work that, the more tense the events become, the more carefully and precisely Ambler describes them. There is a hair-raising scene towards the end where Lucia and Piet creep up to the house she’s been using earlier in the summer and where she had carefully hidden the suitcase of notes behind lots of clutter, in the garage. They are actually in the garage, rummaging about when they hear male voices from the terrace above them and Lucia realises it is the men who tortured and murdered Colonel Arbil. Suddenly, the precise layout of the garage, the steps down to it from the terrace, the distance to the nearest outcrop of shrubs where they can hide, become terribly important.

Enjoying Eric

Eric’s novels definitely split into two groups, pre-War and post-War. Contrary to received opinion, I prefer the post-War ones. The pre-War ones definitely convey a sense of intrigue and menace in murky East European countries as the Continent hurtles towards War. They have a very 1930s vibe, like an old black and white movie filmed at night, the characters wearing thick overcoats with the lapels turned up, hats pulled down, revolvers appearing in the hands of sinister foreigners. But they are generally advertised as great spy novels and are often a bit disappointing in this respect, more often being about innocent Brits abroad who go on the run from political intrigues they’ve blundered into. Not spies, in our modern sense, at all. Just a strong political angle or edge to the plots.

Urbane The post-War ones are much more relaxed and cosmopolitan. Eric is charming company. There is a tremendous urbanity of tone and worldly wisdom. He knows his way around the world. Here is a man at home in Paris, Athens, Istanbul and Geneva, in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, familiar with the language, the customs, the food, the police, the local politics.

Bureaucratic procedure And also familiar with how the world works: the dominant feature of most of the post-War novels is a strong interest in bureaucratic procedures.

  • Most of The Schirmer Inheritance is about the arcane complexities of American inheritance law, before it becomes a detailed investigation of German genealogical archives.
  • Much of Passage of Arms is concerned with the legal niceties of freight forwarding between Far Eastern ports, and it’s fufilling what appears to be a minor technical requirement that unfortunately leads the protagonist into sudden outburst of guerrilla violence.
  • The Light of Day is ostensibly about a jewel robbery in Istanbul, but the plot actually turns on highly technical points surrounding Arthur Simpson’s nationality which lead to his Egyptian passport being out of date which leads to him being searched by Turkish authorities which leads to him being blackmailed into becoming a whistle blower inside the jewel thieves’ gang.

Ambler’s way with technical, administrative and bureaucratic niceties is central to the novels’ workings. And you have to pay attention to the details because at any point one of them may turn out to be the hinge of the plot.

This may sound dry but it isn’t. Most novels (for example, Graham Greene’s) are about the characters’ feelings. Events are selected, confrontations engineered, dramatic scenes manufactured, in order for characters to ‘grow’ and ‘mature’ and, along the way, the reader is also meant to grow in wisdom and understanding of human nature. That is the traditional defence of the novel as an art form.

Eric Ambler’s novels are much closer to real life as most of us experience it, ie there is not so much spiritual growth and gaining of wisdom. Instead, most of us do work which involves handling webs of information which need to be processed and managed. Most adults have to spend a fair amount of time filling in forms, answering letters, paying bills, arranging car hire or hotel rooms or train tickets or deliveries or receipts, worrying about expenses, handling paperwork, making innumerable plans and arrangements. That’s exactly what the characters in Ambler’s post-War novels do – only with the added pressure of doing so while evading the authorities of several countries, being on the run from killers or handling illegal arms or state secrets.

Title

When he quits the magazine, his editor at World Report asks him if the decision is motivated by the same self-destructiveness which led to his suicide bid or ‘a new kind of anger’? Later, in conversation with Sanger, Piet claims he’s angry, not at himself or his boss, but at the people who are terrifying the beautiful Lucia with whom, without quite realising it, he is falling in love.

However, it is only at the end of the novel that Sanger redefines the title. He says his and Piet’s earlier theory that Piet was motivated by a new kind of anger, was all wrong. It isn’t really anger at all, and certainly not new. It is simply that Piet has discovered his métier as a crook.

‘I thought I knew what made you tick. “A new kind of anger,” I said. How wrong I was! Your kind of anger is as old as the hills. You’ve just bottled it up all these years – just like the man who becomes a policeman instead of a crook. Or is that sublimation? It doesn’t matter. The point is that you have a taste for larceny. It agrees with you. Therapy!’ He started to giggle. ‘Instead of giving you all those shock treatments, you know what they should have done? They should have sent you out to rob a bank!’ (Fontana 1976 paperback edition, p.206)

Ambler had been writing novels for 30 years by this stage. But these two novels from the 1960s seem to breathe a new atmosphere. The last one from the 1950s, Passage of Arms (1959), had (for the most part) a light, quirky Ealing comedy feel (although populated by Indians, Chinese and Americans rather than bumbling Brits). But Light of Day and Anger are suddenly sassy. They are good-humoured heist stories in which the amoral protagonists triumph. They have a similar cheeky-chappy vibe as the movie The Italian Job (1969). They feel like they’re in colour. Piet and Lucia take on the police, his employers, hired hitmen and foreign agents, and end up driving into the sunset with a small fortune, leaving the reader with a big smile on their face.

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback edition of A Kind of Anger

1970s Fontana paperback edition of A Kind of Anger

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.

The Light of Day by Eric Ambler (1962)

This novel starts in Athens but soon moves to Turkey, the scene of Ambler’s pre-war thrillers, Mask of Dimitrios and Journey into Fear. There’s even mention of Colonel Haki, who features in both those novels and is memorably played by Orson Welles in the short film version of Journey.

The narrator

The story is told in the first person by unreliable narrator, small-time crook and con artist, Arthur Simpson who, we learn, is fat, sweaty and has bad breath. He lives and works in Athens where he claims to be a journalist. His father was in the British army, married an Egyptian woman and sent young Arthur back to a minor private school where he was caned and bullied and learned how to lie and cheat and hate. There followed a life of petty crime, flogging off his mother’s restaurant when he didn’t actually own it, numerous dodgy deals, a spell in English prison for getting caught smuggling pornography from Egypt to London, and so on.

Tone of voice

Arthur’s pragmatic criminality explains the tone of the book which is calm and calculating, humorously accepting of crime and scams, mixed with a strong dose of self-pity, which is often very funny.

Slowly drawn into more and more nefarious situations, Arthur is very much not the normal Ambler protagonist, the honest white-collar professional plunged into a crisis situation. Instead, a lot of the reader’s pleasure comes from being inside the mind of someone who is constantly calculating the odds, figuring what he can get out of every situation, or feeling comically hard done-by.

The setup

I kept expecting the book to explode into action but not very much happens in the first 220 pages or so of this 280-page book. It is relaxed and urbane. Simpson uses small-time tricks to collect an American tourist at Athens airport and persuade him to be chauffeured around town. He drops him at a seafront restaurant and then goes back to his hotel bedroom to steal some of his travellers cheques.

Unfortunately, the tourist – Harper – catches him red-handed. But instead of turning him over to the police, Harper reveals that he’s realised since he met him that Arthur has been scamming him and is a small-time crook. Would he like to earn a little money by driving a brand-new American car (a Lincoln) from Athens to Istanbul? The owner will meet him there. As an added incentive, Harper makes Arthur write a confession to stealing the travellers’ cheques and says he’ll give it to the police if he refuses. Er, OK then.

Arthur tells his mistress he’ll be away for a bit and sets off the next day. Once he’s sure he’s not being tailed, he pulls over and searches the car – surely there must be something hidden in it – but can’t see anything suspicious. But at the Turkish border, officials notice his Egyptian passport is out of date. There are all kind of amusing low-level crook reasons for this but the result is the police really thoroughly search the car and – find the door panels are full of grenades, pistols and amunition!

Arthur’s thrown into a cell where he waits until a senior security officer – Captain Tufan – arrives. As usual with Ambler, nothing melodramatic happens, there are no shootouts or gadgets. He sits in a cell, is offered horrible food, isn’t allowed to smoke. The interview with the security man is handled with the same detail and total plausibility. Does he want to go to prison for smuggling guns? Or will he co-operate with them? Er, he decides to co-operate.

So Arthur finds himself being suborned into spying for Turkish security. In practice this means he delivers the car to the hotel as arranged and then offers to be chauffeur and tourist guide for Harper and for the car’s supposed owner, the beautiful Miss Lipp, when she arrives. What he discovers is these two have rented a big property just outside Istanbul, along with an aggressive man named Fischer. Later an older man, apparently the boss, named Miller, arrives. Arthur drives Harper and Miller to a ferry across the sea to a small quay where they go out to a boat to meet a man named Giulio – and back again. So he’s got names, and knows about comings and goings – but has no idea what it’s all about.

He quizzes the household servants – the morose drunk cook and the quiet old Turkish married couple who housekeep. But he doesn’t discover much to report back to Captain Tufan, whether by dropping empty cigarette packs with messages inside for his tails to pick up, or on the tiny two-way radio he’s been given, or by making phone calls from a garage or cafe, when he can, to a special phone number.

Things proceed in this leisurely way, with occasional heart-stopping moments – he takes Miss Lipp to the Seraglio Museum in Istanbul and thinks he has plenty of time to unscrew the door panels to see if the guns are still there – but is half way through when he looks up and sees her just a few hundred yards away and walking towards the car! That kind of thing. A bit sweaty but not exactly high-octane adventure.

In his hurried phone conversations with Tufan, the latter becomes obsessed with the idea the gang are ‘politicals’. There had a been a military coup in Turkey and various members of the old regime are in prisons in and around Istanbul, including one on an island near where the gang took the ferry. Arthur himself considers all the angles and comes to the conclusion they are going to set up a heroin refinery and smuggling operation…

The climax

But they’re both wrong. In the final stretches of the novel Harper reveals to Arthur that they are jewel thieves. They are going to break into the Seraglio Museum after it has closed and steal jewels. When one of the gang, Fischer, is wounded in a fight with the surly drunken cook, Arthur finds himself press-ganged into helping out with the actual heist.

The heist is described in Ambler’s characteristic flat factual style. Half a dozen times in the whole novel he uses anticipation – ‘if I’d realised then what was going to happen…’, ‘it was only later I learnd that…’ – to build up tension and to hint at catastrophes to come. But the overwhelming majority of the story is told in straightforward linear narrative with almost no flashbacks or flash forwards. One thing follows another and is described by Ambler coolly and factually.

And so it is with the heist. His style is completely lucid. You feel like you are there, climbing over the rooftops of the Seraglio with the skyline of Istanbul spread out below you, sick with nerves and scared of heights as Arthur is, while the others fix up the pulley by which the thin cat burglar is to descend to the metal shutters on the Museum windows, work them open, slip inside (no alarm system), steal the highest-value jewels, and then be winched up again. It is over in minutes. They descend back into the public section of the museum, then walk silently through the ground avoiding the lazy guards.

The only real excitement in the whole sequence is at the one point where a guard post controls the end of a railway embankment which passes through the Palace grounds. They follow a slow-moving train along the rails and, as they approach the guardroom, their accomplices throw concussion grenades and tear gas. Arthur is stumbling through the fumes when hands reach out to grasp him and he is manhandled into a VW van and they are off. Away. Scot free. They have pulled off the heist. They drive to a quayside, take a dinghy out to the yacht (the one he had previously driven Harper and Miller to meet) and the yacht weighs anchor and putters peacefully down the coast.

Ending

The heist is quite tense, but the really nailbiting bit comes the next day when they rendezvous with the Lincoln. They conceal the jewels in the same doorframes they used for smuggling in the weapons. The whole gang embarks and there follows a sweaty twenty pages as Arthur racks his brains and tries every trick in the book to delay and hamper their escape. He wants the Turkish police to catch them. He wants Captain Tufan to pat him on the back and hand him a new, updated passport. He fears the gang will get to the airport and then dispose of him somehow. And then the gang spot that they’re being tailed by two cars. Initially they think it’s another criminal they’d been working with and wouldn’t put it past him now trying to ambush them. They get the guns ready. Arthur is so scared he thinks he’s going to throw up.

But they manage to throw their tails and arrive at the airport. Here most of the gang go to check in their bags and only Harper remains, squatting beside the open door and unscrewing the door panel to remove the loot. And it is now that the fat, smelly coward Arthur Simpson decides to make a stand and be a man. He hadn’t turned the engine off and he suddenly puts the big American car into gear, steps on the accelerator, leaving Harper behind, slows for a moment so that the doors slam shut, and then hares off down the freeway at top speed!

All the way through this urbane, detailed and persuasive book I was rather worried there might be a bloody shootout which would spoil the mood. But it concludes as amusingly as it began. A very entertaining comedy-thriller.

The movie

Within two years it was made into a movie, with the crisper title Topkapi, and with an international cast featuring Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Peter Ustinov and Robert Morley, directed by American film director, Jules Dassin.

It is, alas, dire. The emphasis is on comedy and the scenes with Peter Ustinov as Simpson are generally funny (though it is astonishing that he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for it); but the plot is completely reshaped so it starts with Melina Mercouri’s crook having the idea for the robbery, then recruiting her handsome lover Max, the gadget man Morley, hard man Jess Hahn, and human fly Gilles Ségal – only at the end of this process do they pick up the bumbling Simpson.

And whereas in the book the tension is all generated by Simpson’s fear that the gang will find out about him, a tension which generates real fear right up to the final pages – in the movie they find out that he knows about the weapons and is working for Turkish police well before the heist – and, in line with cinematic cliché – it is the theft itself (a mere page in the book) which becomes the centre of the experience – 10 minutes or so of tense scenes as the acrobat is lowered into the jewel room which has a touch-sensitive floor (not in the novel), depicted with no music nor dialogue.

The jewels are to be smuggled out by a travelling circus (not in the book) which is caught, and the gang are all thrown into Turkish prison where they are shown in the final scene, comically traipsing round the exercise yard to a quack quack quack in the orchestra, which has all the subtlety of a Carry On film.

Also, the film is dominated by Melina Mercouri who appears in almost every scene from the opening to the close and who, I’m afraid, we thought was staggeringly ugly. She certainly looked old enough to be Max Schell’s mother wearing a series of terrible wigs. That she seems to have been some kind of ‘sex symbol’ and was considered charismatic enough to carry the entire movie now seems beyond belief.

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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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