The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939)

It is a poor story, isn’t it? There is no hero, no heroine; there are only knaves and fools.
Or do I mean only fools? (p.236)

Eric Ambler’s fifth spy thriller is told in the third person. The lead figure is Charles Latimer, a lecturer in political economy who takes to writing detective stories which are so successful that he is able to resign and go live in Athens as a professional writer. For the winter he moves on to Istanbul with letters of introduction which lead him to a high-class party where one of the most dashing guests is a Colonel Haki of the secret police who invites him to his office, ostensibly for an anodyne discussion about a roman policier which he, Haki, has been working on.

The conversation moves on to the difference between the neat crimes of fiction and the messy records of real crime and, in order to demonstrate the latter, Haki reads out the dossier of one Dimitrios Makropoulos, a notorious criminal whose stabbed body has just been fished out of the sea.

Bitten by curiosity, Latimer decides on a whim to see if he can fill in the gaps in the dossier, whether he can, in effect, research and write the adult biography of this international criminal. He copies down the details of Dimitrios’s career of crime and sets off to visit Smyrna, Athens, Sofia, Belgrade, Geneva and Paris in pursuit of this will o’ the wisp.

It would be an experiment in detection… (1978 Hodder & Stoughton Large Print Edition, page 36)

The novel will turn out to be a series of interviews with people connected with Dimitrios’s criminal career, each of whom has memories which they retell in flashback.

According to his autobiography, The Mask of Dimitrios had the distinction of being the Daily Mail book-of-the-month in the same week Britain and France went to war with Germany, September 1939. (p) Throughout the writing Ambler’s working title was A Coffin For Dimitrios, but the publisher and then Hollywood studio preferred the word ‘mask’. (p.149)

Flight or pursuit

In two of Ambler’s previous novels, Uncommon Danger and Cause For Alarm, the protagonist is framed for a murder he didn’t commit and forced to go on the run, a price on his head as he scrambles across inhospitable terrain. They are examples of one of the basic thriller typologies, the flight of the wanted man, as exemplified by Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886) or Buchan’s 39 Steps (1915) or Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).

Mask is the opposite: the pursuit of an elusive mystery figure, whose life and existence have to be pieced together via scattered evidence and testimony. The Third Man (1949) springs to mind and the protagonist of that movie and novella, too, is a writer in search of a missing person. The plot of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934) revolves at great length around a missing person everyone is seeking.

Dark Europe

Ambler’s novels are distinctive for all being set abroad in the troubled Europe of the late 1930s, mostly the dark and turbulent east of Europe. The quest for Dimitrios takes us east to what is new territory for him – Istanbul, Athens, Sofia – but is also new in the way it incorporates real historical events into the story.

This character Dimitrios is involved in some of the nastiest episodes of post-Great War history: the Turkish army’s sacking of the city of Smyrna and the flight of over 800,000 Greek refugees across the sea to mainland Greece. Later Latimer discovers his connection with the assassination of the Romanian Prime Minister in 1923. Then, in Paris, Dimitrios’s involvement with the rise of the white slave trade and the explosion of illegal drug trafficking.

In fact, Dimitrios becomes a gauge for political turmoil and social chaos in the post-war period, allowing Ambler to show just how chaotic and bloodthirsty, how corrupt and vicious, 20th century European history has been.

But it was useless to try to explain [Dimetrios] in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. (p.337)

Characters

It is noticeable that Ambler’s way of describing a character has changed since his first novels: it is now much shorter, more focused, zeroing in on the salient or distinguishing features. It reminds me of the ability to focus on one or two tell-tale aspects of a character which Graham Greene had from the start.

The Greek was a dark, lean man of middle age with intelligent, rather bulbous eyes and a way of bringing his lips together at the end of a sentence as though amazed at his own lack of discretion. He greeted Latimer with the watchful courtesy of a negotiator in an armed truce. He spoke in French. (p.91)

Ambler’s style has become tauter and crisper in the course of writing these novels. Now it really is lean and to the point, clear like water, with almost no dated locutions or verbal oddities to remind you that it is 75 years old.

Strewn about the floor in utter confusion were the content of his suitcases. Draped carelessly over a chair were the bedclothes. On the mattress, stripped of their bindings, were the few English books he had brought with him from Athens. The room looked as if a cageful of chimpanzees had been turned loose in it. (p.150)

The Absurd

But if Ambler has one message it is that the world is always more complex than we think; or, we fool ourselves if we think we understand what is going on. The disjunction between our own (simple, optimistic) interpretation of the world around us, and the actual (random, often nasty ) reality of that world, produces Absurdity. Is the Absurd.

Ambler’s notion of the Absurd is not developed with anything like the thoroughness of the French writers who were thinking along the same lines, at exactly the same time (Camus: Betwixt and Between (1937), Nuptials (1938), The Stranger (1942); Sartre: Nausea (1938)). He is a novelist not a philosopher, and so the opening pages of the book which dwell a little on simple ideas about chance, coincidence and absurdity are merely a rhetorical prologue to the drama, a form of throat-clearing.

Still. The mood of his novels and their message that the political structures of the Western world between the wars have failed, that the system is collapsing, that humanity seems hell-bent on its own destruction, that nothing makes sense, these are part of the same Zeitgeist and have much in common with the continental writers.

I wanted to explain Dimitrios, to account for him, to understand his mind. Merely to label him with disapproval was not enough. I saw him not as a corpse in a mortuary but as a man, not as an isolate, a phenomenon, but as a unit in a disintegrating social system. (p.103)

The Absurd in practice

Like all Ambler’s other protagonists, Latimer soon realises that he is caught up in something much deeper than he originally thought, for in the lens of his investigations Dimitrios grows steadily into a kind of legendary figure of the underworld, involved in a cruel cross-section of post-War criminality.

Fine. But the book itself is not thrilling. The Dark Frontier, Uncommon Danger, Cause For Alarm, they all plunge the hero into serious peril and include chases, shoot-outs, kidnappings, imprisonments and daring escapes. Unlike them, Dimitrios is an essentially calm, civilised travelogue, as Latimer criss-crosses Europe meeting people who help fill in the details of Dimitrios’s career. Thus:

  • the Polish spy Grodek tells – at length – the story of the job he carried out to blackmail a petty official in the Italian Marine Ministry into handing over charts of the deployment of mines in the Adriatic, and Dimitrios’s key role – and betrayal of – the scam
  • the affable drug gangster Mr Peters (aka Pedersen) describes at length his career in Paris, firstly running a night club, then accepting white slave women from Dimitrios, then moving into wholesale drug trafficking – heroine and cocaine – for Dimitrios
  • in part two of his long account Peters goes into detail about how one member of the drugs gang Dimitrios betrayed – a violent man named Visser – emerges for prison determined to track Dimitrios down and take his revenge, a quest which brings us right up to the present moment!

It’s a collection of fairly interesting stories and full of social history interest – but thrilling, it ain’t! And it’s not a spy story. Some of the people Latimer meets have been spies, but it is essentially a piece of detective work about a criminal who happens to have done some occasional espionage work on the side.

The protagonist’s slow and methodical approach makes for a slow and steady read, right up to the last twenty or so pages when the book does – finally – arrive at a tense but rather predictable climax, a standoff between the bitterly vengeful Petersen and the sleekly terrifying man himself.

Two lives hung by the thin, steel threads of self-preservation and greed. (Penguin 2009 paperback edn, p.206)

Anti-capitalist

The book contains Ambler’s by-now-familiar rhodomontades against Big Business and the jackals it hires to do its dirty work (cf the mercenary Colonel Robinson in Uncommon Danger). In two of the other books these ‘analyses’ of the sins of Western society come from the mouth of Zaleshoff the KGB agent; here they’re expressed by the cynical Greek (presumably communist) journalist Marukakis. For him, the Big Business man keeps his hands clean; he believes in Law and Order; he is very respectable; he knows the best people and has a beautiful wife; he attends the opera and gives to charities; and when someone or some group are an inconvenience to his business, then word is passed from the Board Room down through layers of underlings until it reaches the criminal underworld, the social scum, ‘that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of an old society’. Men like Dimitrios.

He himself has no political convictions. For him there is no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest. He believes in the survival of the fittest and the gospel of tooth and claw because he makes money by seeing that the weak die before they can become strong and that the law of the jungle remains the governing force in the affairs of the world. And he is all about us. Every city in the world knows him. He exists because big business, his master, needs him. International big business may conduct its operations with scraps of paper, but the ink it uses is human blood!’ (p.118)

Finally, in a satirical stroke it turns out that Dimitrios had become so successful as a criminal that he had achieved the acme of respectability: he had got himself appointed to the Board of the Eurasian Credit Bank which the hero knows was earlier involved in commissioning the assassination of the Bulgarian Prime Minister. It is a Brechtian fable. The criminal so successful that he is allowed to join the ranks of the real criminals – the international bankers.

Conclusion

The Mask of Dimitrios fails to live up to its promise. Ambler tells us this man is a symptom of the times; the variety of his crimes, across so much of Europe, are presumably intended to make him appear a kind of Everycriminal figure; at some moments of the pursuit, when Latimer is talking to various interlocutors, this legendary almost-mythical figure acquires real imaginative power.

But the pace of the novel never really picks up and the climax of the book – a shootout in a squalid attic – is anti-climactic, an unimaginative conclusion to a spirited pursuit which really demanded something much bigger and more emblematic to match the scale of the story’s mythical ambition.

Related links

Movie

The novel was turned into a classic Hollywood noir movie in 1944, starring Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, familiar from The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). It’s not a classic like them, but still well worth a watch.

Latimer is played by the diminutive Lorre and so is renamed Leyden and made Dutch to explain the foreign accent. Fat Sidney Greenstreet plays Peters, the avenging member of Dimitrios’s gang in Paris. Dimitrios is played by the gorgeous, moustachioed Zachary Scott.

The noir style of director Jean Negulesco is all shadows and menacing foreign actors. The movie is very faithful to the book, which means it is relatively static, a series of half a dozen sets in which Leyden interviews people and they tell him their relationship to the Master Criminal. It has that odd noir thing where half the time characters are pointing guns at each other and half the time wisecracking friends. It’s impossible to watch Greenstreet and Lorre without warm memories of their performances in their two more famous films.

There are two significant changes: the book has a long chapter about the activities of the Paris gang Dimitrios leads, namely their forays into trafficking women for prostitution and their drug smuggling. This is cut. And at the end of the book Peters and Dimitrios both die in the shootout. In the movie Peters (Greenstreet) survives and, as he is hussled off by the police, remains remarkably cheery, giving the movie an ironically uplifting moral when he says, ‘You see, there’s not enough kindness in the world.’

Ambler tended not to like the movie adaptations of his novels. In his autobiography he says watching this movie gave him severe stomach cramps (Here Lies, p.225).

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.

Cause For Alarm by Eric Ambler (1938)

It seemed to me that the train had started to make a curious thumping noise. I tried to separate the noise, identify it, and realised that it was the sound of the blood pumping in my head. I knew suddenly that I was scared, scared stiff. (p.208)

I like this best of the four Ambler thrillers I’ve read so far. It’s longer and takes longer to get going but the time is well spent slowly establishing the character of the first-person narrator, Nick Marlow (no relation to Philip – popular surname!). He is engaged to career-woman girlfriend, Claire, has difficulties finding a job after he’s made redundant, and it is with relief that he accepts a job with a Wolverhampton engineering company – the Spartacus Machine Tool Company – to run their Milan office, simply on the basis that he happens to speak Italian.

According to his autobiography, Here Lies, Ambler completed Cause For Alarm in an out-of-season hotel in the French Alps which was so cold that the owners heated up bricks on the hotel stove, wrapped them in newspaper and distributed them to guests. Ambler wrote the final parts of the novel with a hot brick in his lap and another on his feet. (Here Lies, p.133)

Everyman

It isn’t that this slow run-up establishes a character of any interest or depth – he comes over as similar to the hot-headed, impetuous and rather dim narrator of Epitaph for a Spy – he isn’t as interesting as the narrator of Ashenden nor painted as well as the lead characters in that finely observant book – no, it’s more that his boring conversations with people in the Birmingham office and the banal letters to and from his girlfriend, Claire, establish him as normal, his values as normal, our values, humdrum English values: completely honest, respecting the authorities, hassled by anxieties about a job and career, worried about his relationship – the everyday stuff of the man on the Clapham omnibus.

Trouble in Italy

As soon as he arrives in Milan he finds himself surrounded by mysteries: why has business correspondence been ignored and stuffed in a drawer? why is the office manager Bellinetti so scornful of him and tailing him at night? why is the pretty secretary in the office an idiot who can’t even type? how could his predecessor, Ferning, afford to live in a vast luxurious apartment? was Ferning’s death really a road accident? when he visits a client in Genoa it is made clear that he will have to bribe him to keep the contract – is that acceptable? what are the motives of the American-speaking Russian, Zaleshoff, whose office is on the floor below? what are the motives for the creepy Colonel Vagas who wears make-up and claims to be working for the Yugoslav government and who offers him a bribe to let him know what machines are being supplied to the Italian government? why do the police confiscate then ‘lose’ his passport?

An innocent man

Abroad turns out to be full of dodgy foreigners. Marlow tries to navigate these murky waters by the light of his plain, common-sense values, values he shares with plucky Claire, as revealed in their letters to each other. But the skill of this novel more than its predecessors is the in-depth way it shows you how these lights and values are not enough. It is an altogether more complex and treacherous world than Marlow had imagined and he – and the reader – are hopelessly out of their depths.

Some plot

For example,

  • Colonel Vagas offers him a bribe to send him copies of Spartacus’s monthly orders – the same bribe he was paying his murdered predecessor, Ferning.
  • But Zaleshoff accurately predicts this is only bait for, once Marlow has sent a report or two, Vagas will have enough evidence to blackmail him into doing significantly more work, namely writing additional reports about everything he sees and overhears as he goes about his legitimate visits to Italian munitions factories.Turning him into a spy.
  • And Vagas is able to ‘persuade’ Marlow to do this because he has influence over Italian businessmen including one Commendatore Bernabò who can sign contracts with Spartacus – for a fee ie bribe.
  • But this level of corruption isn’t all, as Zaleshoff explains that Vagas isn’t Yugoslav at all, but a German spy, one of many making sure Mussolini’s Italy is keeping up its part of the Rome-Berlin Axis.
  • And so Zaleshoff makes Marlow a counter-offer ie Marlow should take Vagas’s bribe, accept the money (and thus find the way made easy to lucrative contracts for his firm) but also accept payment from Zaleshoof for passing on to Vagas carefully faked reports from Italian munitions factories, reports Zaleshoff has carefully tailored to ring alarm bells among Vagas’s bosses in Berlin that the Italians have secret plans they’re concealing from the Nazis.
  • And this level isn’t everything, or hasn’t captured the full picture, since even Zaleshoff is taken by surprise when Vagas’s own wife ends up betraying Vagas to the OVRA, the Italian version of the Gestapo who are, of course, on the lookout for any anti-Italian activity.

And thus, barely has Marlow begun his life as a double-agent, reluctantly browbeaten into agreeing to all these deals and counter-deals, all the time planning to send his letter of resignation and simply return home, before OVRA raid Vagas’s home, the Spartacus offices and Marlow’s hotel room, and he finds himself a wanted man, on the run, a price on his head!

Zaleshoff

The most sympathetic characters Marlow encounters are Andreas Zaleshoff and his sister, Tamara, the KGB agents. They are more or less the only sane, honest, reliable people in the book. This is an extraordinary imaginative position to take at the end of the 1930s which had seen Stalin’s consolidation of power and the gruesome Moscow Show Trials. Then again, he’s meant to be a Russian brought up in America thus giving him better cover but making him an odd character to listen to, a KGB agent overflowing with 1930s slang; he took it on the lam, he’s darned luck, you’re the mug, don’t be a sap, nice work pal.

The last third of the book is an extended flight across north Italy to the border with Yugoslavia , the story of Marlow on the run and led every step of the way by a superhumanly strong, cunning and, above all, decent, honest and kind, Zaleshoff. It climaxes in the strange encounter with the deranged mathematician Beronelli in a mountain cottage blocked in with snow. Turns out Marlow studied engineering using the textbook written by this famous mathematician but when Beronelli denounced Fascist intimidation and bullying he was thrown out of the university, banned from teaching anywhere, and ended up having a nervous breakdown. He is taken to a mountain retreat by his loving daughter to get away from the craziness of the world and this is where Zaleshoff and Marlow stumble across them, exhausted and freezing high in the mountains, only a few kilometers from the border and freedom.

Zaleshoff says Beronelli’s retreat into madness is the only escape for a hyper-rational man faced with a world which has itself gone mad. In fact…

Politics

Confirming that Ambler’s deployment of a sympathetic KGB agent as the saviour in not one but two novels is no accident, Alarm contains several passages of ripe anti-capitalist editorialising.

I said, ‘someone’s got to do the job.’
[Zaleshoff] laughed, but without good humour. ‘The stock reply according to the gospel of King Profit. Industry has no other end or purpose than the satisfaction of the business man engaged in it. Demand is sacred. It may be a demand for high explosives to slaughter civilians with or one for chemical fertilisers, it may be for shells or it may be for saucepans, it may be for jute machinery for an Indian sweat-shop or it may be for prams, it’s all one. There’s no difference. Your business man has no other responsibility but to make profits for himself and his shareholders.’
‘And that’s nothing to do with me.’
‘Of course it isn’t,’ he rejoined sarcastically, ‘you’re only the guy that makes it possible. But you also may be the guy that gets squashed to a paste when those shells and high explosives start going off – you and your wife and kids.’  (1984 Hodder & Stoughton hardback, page 183)

There are three page-long screeds against Big Business and in favour of changing human nature by changing the system people are raised in from one of exploitation to one of justice (pp.  183, 215, 304). All put into the communist Zaleshoff’s mouth, of course. I wonder if the über-Imperialist John Buchan read any of Ambler’s books before his death in 1940 and whether his comments are recorded.

Movie

MGM paid Ambler $3,000 for the movie rights but the book was never filmed (Here Lies, p.137). There is a 1951 noir film titled Cause For Alarm, but it is nothing to do with the Ambler novel.

Related lnks

Cover of the first US edition of Cause For Alarm

Cover of the first US edition of Cause For Alarm

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.

Uncommon Danger by Eric Ambler (1937)

Ambler had a prolific and varied career, the novel-writing part of which breaks into two distinct periods. Part one: he wrote half a dozen thrillers before the war which established his name (1936-40) – then stopped to enlist in the Army. He gravitated into the an Army film unit which led to work writing screenplays for British and American studios after the War and through the 1950s. (He was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay for The Cruel Sea, 1953.) In the early 1950s he resumed (part two) his interrupted novel-writing career (alongside ongoing movie and TV work), averaging four novels per decade in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Uncommon Danger

Uncommon Danger is his second novel from the first phase of his career ie the later years of the fraught 1930s. His first novel, The Dark Frontier, was about an atom bomb, a rather melodramatic subject which suited the parody style of his début. This one is about the more concrete issue of who controls the oil wells in Romania. (Control of just these wells was a strand in the conflict on the Eastern Front between Russia and Germany when war broke out.)

Though some of the trappings seem dated, though the Board of Pan-Eurasian Petroleum and the baddy Mr Balterghen come across like the stagey baddies in a 1930s or early 1940s Hollywood movie, in other places a much more ‘contemporary’ attitude and style bursts through. Ambler’s style is almost always brisk, lean and effective.

With a woollen scarf wound twice round his neck, his shoulders hunched and his hands thrust deep in his overcoat pockets, Kenton waited at Nurenberg for the Frankfurt-Linz train. (Hodder & Stoughton Large Print edition, p.13)

The set-up

The plot has several strands:

1. At its widest there is the geopolitical situation. Bessarabia is a contested area between Russia and Romania since the Great War. It contains important oil fields (p.78). A Russian double-agent (Borovansky) has stolen Russian plans for a possible attack on Bessarabia. If these are made public it will whip up anti-Russian feeling in Romania and help the Fascist Iron Guard to power, and help them make an alliance with Nazi Germany (p.184). The spy is taking them south into Austria.

2. Russian spies Zaleshoff and his sister Tamara are tipped off and commission a Spaniard, Ortega, to pursue Borovansky on the train, follow him to his hotel in Austria, and get the plans back.

3. Mr Balterghen of the British-based Pan-Eurasian Petroleum Company wants the question of the Romanian Concessions ie which external oil companies can exploit Romania’s oil, to be re-opened so that PEPC can bribe itself way to new concessions. He commissions one ‘Colonel Robinson’ to do this. Zaleshoff realises that ‘Robinson’ is none other than the assassin and propagandist-for-hire Stefan Saridza, accompanied by his bully boy Captain Mailler.

So two separate sets of men are on the track of Borovansky and his photos, as the story begins…

The plot

The protagonist of the novel is Kenton, a down-at-heel freelance journalist who loses money gambling and takes the train to Vienna to borrow money from a man he knows, Rosen, a Jew he helped escape Germany after the Nazis came to power. He is befriended by a shifty foreigner, Sachs, who asks him to carry a package through the customs on the Austrian border and who seems to be being followed on the train. When they arrive at Linz Sachs ups the stakes by asking him to carry the envelope all the way to a certain hotel, to come & meet him there tonight. Completely skint, Kenton agrees for a price of 600 Marks.

When he arrives at the very run-down hotel to hand over the envelope he finds Sachs murdered. He goes through his pockets and takes his wallet, just as someone comes up the stairs. Kenton escapes out the back, bumping into one of the gang searching for him, but gets away.

Sachs is, of course, Borovansky and Kenton has found himself in possession of military plans which could alter the course of Europe’s history. Worse, a warrant, a reward and newspaper stories are circulated naming him as the murderer. Thus he finds himself on the run from the police while being chased, shot at, kidnapped and beaten up etc by hard men from both sides…

The world is run by Big Business

is Ambler’s credo. We civilians are the pawns in their game and even politicians just dance to the tune of bankers, financiers, big businessmen. It is a surprisingly left-wing view, unusual in a thriller writer, most of whom are conservative types.

It was difficult, Kenton had found, to spend any length of time in the arena of foreign politics without perceiving that political ideologies had very little to do with the ebb and flow of international relations. It was the power of Business, not the deliberations of statesmen, that shaped the destinies of nations. The Foreign Ministers of the great powers might make the actual declarations of their Governments’ policies; but it was the Big Business men, the bankers and their dependents, the arms manufacturers, the oil companies, the big industrialists, who determined what those policies should be. Big Business asked the questions that it wanted to ask when and how it suited it. Big Business also provided the answers. Rome might declare herself sympathetic to a Hapsburg restoration; France might oppose it. A few months later the situation might be completely reversed. For those few members of the public who had long memories and were not sick to death of the whole incomprehensible farce there would always be many ingenious explanations of the volte face – many explanations, but not the correct one. For that one might have to inquire into banking transactions in London, Paris and New York with the eye of a chartered accountant, the brain of an economist, the tongue of a prosecuting attorney and the patience of Job. One would have, perhaps, to note an increase in the Hungarian bank rate, an ‘ear-marking’ of gold in Amsterdam, and a restriction of credit facilities in the Middle-West of America. One would have to grope through the fog of technical mumbo-jumbo with which international business surrounds its operations and examine them in all their ghastly simplicity. Then one would perhaps die of old age. The Big Business man was only one player in the game of international politics, but he was the player who made all the rules. (p.126-7)

Of a piece with this is the surprising way that Kenton is rescued and helped all along the line by the sympathetic brother and sister team of Andreas and Tamara Zaleshoff, who are Russian or KGB agents! It is less than ten years before the Cold War starts and Russians, and especially their spy agency, become seen as sons of Satan. But this is the Thirties and Ambler takes quite a left-wing anti-capitalist line, reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht in the way he equates capitalism with the violence of Chicago gangsters.

‘They say that persons like Al Capone and John Dillinger are products of America’s corrupt administration and clumsy law-making. Saridza and his kind must be the products of the world business system. The principal difference between Al Capone and Stefan Saridza is that while Capone worked for himself, Saridza works for other people. When Capone ordered his hoodlums to machine-gun a couple of men on a side-walk from an armour-plated coupé, it was to maintain or increase his own income. When Saridza ordered that Captain to beat you with a Totshläger until you gave him some photographs, it was to increase the income of what he called his principals in London – gentleman who would, in all probability, hesitate before they swatted a fly. You see, your business man desires the end, but dislike the means. He is a kind-hearted man. He likes an easy conscience. He likes to think that the people he exploits are please and happy to be exploited. He likes to sit in his offce and deal honestly with other business men. That is why Saridza is necessary. For at some point or other in the amazingly complicated business structure of the world, there is always dirty work to be done. It may be simple bribery, it may be the manipulation of public opinion by means of incidents, rumours or scandals, it may even be an affair of assassination – but whatever it is, Saridza and his kind are there to do it, with large fees in their pockets and the most evasive instructions imaginable…’ (p.180)

Admittedly, this is a speech given by the Russian agent Zaleshoff so could be dismissed as dramatically appropriate – except that the entire plot bears it out, as the principals of a big oil company go to any length, even provoking a war in Europe, to get their hands on richer oil fields and so increase their profits.

Luckily all this of purely historic interest and wars about oil couldn’t possibly happen in our enlightened times.

Title

In his autobiography Ambler says his working title was Background to Danger but his publisher disliked the word ‘background’, so that in all English-speaking countries except the US, it was published as Uncommon Danger. (p.127)

Movie

The novel was made into a film using the US title, Background to Danger, released in 1943. It was directed by Raoul Walsh and starred George Raft as the protagonist (renamed Joe Barton), Sydney Greenstreet as the antagonist, Colonel Robinson, and Peter Lorre as Zaleshoff. Ambler wasn’t happy with many of the movie adaptations of his novels. In his autobiography he records that watching this one made him feel ‘very queasy’ (Here Lies, p.224).

Related links

Cover of Uncommon Danger

Cover of Uncommon Danger

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 in order to promptly shyut it down. 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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