Certain writers can be considered to be the originators of the genre they practice. Their work defines its nature, how one recognizes that a work is in a genre, the rules of this genre, and the conventions that can be assumed when reading work in this genre. Such writers rarely spring from nowhere, but their precursors will not be recognized as working in the genre until the originators have enabled it to be perceived.
The detective stories of Dashiell Hammett have often been seen to have this quality, originating the notion that the detective, or investigator, will also have feelings that will affect the development of the plot, and how he will come to acknowledge the truth of the circumstances that are brought to him. Ambler was the originator of an adjacent genre, the thriller in which, similarly, the protagonist feels. Indeed, often, he grows until he is capable of understanding and dealing with what the villains put upon him.
Before Ambler—who also wrote as Eliot Reed—thrillers were mostly about hero-adventurers; for example, Baroness ORCZY’s Scarlet Pimpernel or Arthur Conan DOYLE’s Brigadier Gerard; otherwise, they were about military men or explorers whose dispatches from the front or from the desert were addressed to the public rather than to the War Office or the Royal Geographical Society: Erskine CHILDERS’s Riddle of the Sands is a fine example. Essential to either tradition was that the heroes have no interior experience for the reader to identify with, although there were two works, which can be seen as precursors of Ambler’s tales: Rudyard KIPLING’s Kim and W. Somerset MAUGHAM’s Ashenden sequence; in both, one’s knowledge of the interior life of the protagonists complements and strengthens the way one shares their adventures.
Ambler shared with Hammett a working background outside the literary world: Hammett a strike-breaking detective, Ambler an engineer, advertising agent, and dissatisfied (and unsuccessful) playwright. Both were, as a consequence, politically on the left. Both eschewed syntactic complexity and poetic imagery, yet succeeded in engaging the reader in the inner experiences of their protagonists. Ambler himself took his heroes from the socialist left, and, before 1939 was the only popular writer who required his readers to identify with socialists and communists. Usually thriller writers, if political, have been on the right, if not the fascist right. When asked, Ambler claimed that he chose the thriller as the least interesting genre in which a little originality would be most rewarding, financially. This illustrates his own attitude to himself, both ironic and fiercely private.
His first work was The Dark Frontier (1936), but it was in his second, Uncommon Danger (1937; repub. as Background to Danger, 1937), that his particular take on the thriller manifests itself. Desmond Kenton, a perfectly ordinary suburban man, finds himself in accidental possession of details of a complex pro-Nazi conspiracy threatening European stability. Two charming Russian spies, Andreas and Tamara Valeshov, try to get him to give these details to them, fascist agents of international capitalism, gloriously and viciously satirized, seek to force him to give the plot up to them. Initially, he does not know what to do; delighted by the Valeshovs’ charm, he senses that it serves the same purpose as the bullying and threats of the fascists. He surprisedly finds in himself the strength to deny both sides his knowledge and finally realizes that it is for him alone to make the choice of what to do with the secrets he holds. He finds he can identify with the Valeshovs and together they defeat the conspiracy; he returns to suburban England, but not the same man. In a way, this can be seen as an anti-Romantic Bildungsroman.
Epitaph for a Spy (1938) was a more lightweight work in which a Hungarian refugee living in the south of France without proper papers is manipulated by a sûreté heavy, as he thinks, to discover which of his fellow guests is passing information to the Axis powers, but in reality to cause a distraction so that the sûreté can round up the whole gang. The refugee’s self-awareness and insecurity are prescient. Also, there is a sympathetic picture of the situation of a German communist hunted by the Gestapo. Cause for Alarm (1938) recapitulated Background to Danger—indeed, the delightful Valeshovs reappear in the same role. It is interesting to compare the two; Cause for Alarm uses the thriller pursuits and escapes more extravagantly and more confidently.
His fifth prewar novel, The Mask of Dimitrios (1939; repub. as A Coffin for Dimitrios, 1939), is the most interesting and the richest of Ambler’s prewar books. Its structure is not linear but uses a character, Charles Latimer, a detective novelist, to discover, from unreliable papers and more unreliable interviewees, Demitrios’s activities at various points in his career, so that episodes in his life come at one without the usual structure of temporal continuity, and so that one’s attitude to Dimitrios, drug-runner, murderer, blackmailer, successful businessman, see-saws in uncertainty. Also, the author-narrator, Latimer, is unreliable and, reflexively, one begins to wonder whether the author, Ambler, is not, himself, unreliable. This was the novel in which Ambler first, and most strikingly, showed that a thriller could be as deep as any other kind of novel and could receive and stand up to the same level of philosophical analysis and discussion.
In 1939, war broke out, and Ambler joined the army filmmaking unit, but his sixth prewar novel, Journey into Fear (1940), was published. An English armaments engineer is himself the target of a conspiracy; Turkish intelligence puts him, and one of their agents, on a ship to cross the Mediterranean, but the conspirators outflank them and put their agents on the ship. The other passengers are a hilarious collection of pathetic figures. Ambler here deeply portrays his antihero’s almost justifiable paranoia. It is interesting that, perhaps because of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact, the English armaments industry is no longer shown as allied with European fascism.
Ambler did not publish for another eleven years, during which he wrote screenplays in London and Hollywood including some strong and well-remembered films—The Cruel Sea (1953), A Night to Remember (1958); however, he felt he could only express himself successfully in novels. Incidentally, although several successful films were made from his novels, he seems never to have had a hand in their screenplays.
When he resumed, Judgment on Deltchev (1951) examined the people involved in Stalinist show trials, lamenting the disappearance of democracy in Eastern Europe and the chasm between private thinking and public utterance that these engendered. This novel is the only one of Ambler’s that expressed with approval the values of the cold war that were then at their peak. There were eleven more postwar novels to come, exploring very diverse situations and characters. A new tool to explore the interior was the creation in The Light of Day (1962; repub. as Topkapi, 1964) of comic characters, notably Arthur Abdul Simpson, the frightened little petty crook who always gets in too deep and not deep enough for his own good. He was memorably portrayed by Peter Ustinov, frantically hanging upside down in the film version, Topkapi (1964), but what those who know him only from the film do not realize is that in the sequel, Dirty Story (1967), he, as, perforce, a mercenary in decolonized states in Africa is used to exhibit the terrible way in which the arms trade and the mining industry connived with, corrupted, and were corrupted by the new leaders of the new states.
Each postwar novel explored a different environment, but the theme of the ordinary person faced with state-inspired violence almost always persisted. Ambler’s skill as a tale-teller increased, and increasingly he used HUMOR and SATIRE as vehicles for the portrayal of his characters, without compromising his more serious concerns. But the later novels are those of a practitioner at the top of his form exploring new fields, while his prewar novels built original ways of telling. What shines through, though, is his remarkable prescience in tackling situations less noticed then, but the source of many of today’s international problems. Dirty Story did this for African decolonization; The Night-Comers (1956) portrays an engineer building a dam in a newly independent Asian country where the pragmatic armyled government is faced with a rebellion by a faction who wish Muslim values to inform their society. There is a fascinating study of a good-time girl caught up in the conflict, who knows she will have to continue to live in that society. Similarly, the protagonist of Doctor Frigo (1974), the son of an assassinated president who, in exile, does good as a doctor, is persuaded by French intelligence and a clutch of political conspirators to lend his name to a coup attempt that succeeds, but leaves him without any sense of helping to build better institutions for his country, it seeming dubious that the new government will be better than the old.
The Levanter (1972) deals with the Middle East as seen by a British businessman unavoidably caught up in Israel-Arab Middle Eastern conspiracies, while The Care of Time (1981) moved to the Gulf, where a mad ruler seeks to acquire biological weapons. This is foiled by an American ghostwriter traveling with a terrorist leader who is seeking to retire to safety with all his family. To portray, entirely credibly, such a man is a feat of imagination that is rare, especially relevant today. The terrorist’s organization, traveling with him, includes another delightful and demanding girl—rare in Ambler’s works, these strong young women are always interesting. As well as a number of other rewarding and entertaining novels, he produced in his later years the first part of an autobiography, Here Lies (1985), and an autobiographically connected collection of short stories, The Story So Far (1993).
Bibliography DelFattore, E., “E. A.,” in Benstock, B., and T. F. Staley, eds., British Mystery Writers, 1920–1939, DLB 77 (1989): 13–24; Hopkins, J., “An Interview with E. A.,” JPC 9 (Fall 1975): 285–93; Lewis, P., E. A. (1990)
Related Credo Articles
He began writing suspense novels in the 1930s, skilfully creating an atmosphere of fear and tension appropriate to the times....
1909-98 English novelist and playwright Born in London, he was educated at Colfe's Grammar School and London University, then served an apprenticeshi