Crime Fiction

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Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler wrote fast-paced spy stories, which were both exciting and realistic. He was an author that others aspired to be like and he’s still respected today.
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There’s a long waiting list to borrow any of the new(ish) e-audiobooks on our digital library service so I’ve been listening to some classic crime novels – and found Eric Ambler.

Ambler’s first book, The Dark Frontier, was published in 1936 and he quickly became one of the most highly-rated, successful and influential writers of crime fiction of his time. The fact there is an Eric Ambler website and his books are still in print underscores this point. Graham Greene described him as “Unquestionably our best thriller writer ever.”

I do remember once starting to read one of his most famous novels – The Mask of Demetrios – but I never finished it, although I can’t remember why. (Note to self: find a copy and try again!)

In total, Eric Ambler had more than 20 books published, five of which were co-written with Charles Rodda (a.k.a. Gavin Holt) under the pseudonym ‘Eliot Reed’. Ambler was also a screenwriter, working with the major directors of his day and with several major films to his credit, including Journey into Fear and A Night to Remember. And in 1953 he received an Oscar nomination for his work on The Cruel Sea (a book written by Nicholas Monsarrat).

I’ve now listened to three of Ambler’s books.

Charter to Danger by Eliot Reed (Eric Ambler and Charles Rodda).
Published in 1954 I suppose you could describe the book as an adventure story. Ross Barnes is an ex-naval officer who, having restored a cabin cruiser, is trying to set up his own boat charter business. He’s delighted that his first charter is for the millionaire industrialist, Vincent Flavius, and recruits a navy friend and his nephew as crew. Arriving in Cannes, where they are due to pick up Flavius, Barnes is suddenly pitchforked into a criminal enterprise involving murder and kidnap.

Being of its time the story is refreshingly low-tech. Contacting people involves trying to find a telephone or a telephone box; and telegrams are used for urgent, long-distance communications. But despite the lack of gadgets, the plot rattles along at a good pace. The protagonist, Barnes, is a rather more well-written character than the others in the novel and, if I’m being critical, the police and the villains are lightly-drawn. But none of this detracts from the story, which is thoroughly enjoyable.

Cause for Alarm by Eric Ambler
This is one of Ambler’s early books. Set in 1937 (and first published in 1938), the story is about Nicky Marlow, a young engineer who takes a job in Italy because work prospects in Britain are so poor. Running the Milan office of Spartacus Machine Tool should have been easy, but he soon discovers his predecessor was murdered.

Spartacus machine tools are used to make weapons, and soon Marlow is embroiled with Soviet agents, a Nazi agent, and Mussolini’s secret police (the OVRA). Before long he’s running for his life, dodging spies, police and Fascist blackshirts.

This is a more intricate plot than Charter to Danger and, in my opinion, the characters in this book have more depth. There are moments in the story when Marlow seems ridiculously naïve (even thick!) but he’s really a man looking for a quiet life who’s in a time and place that is anything but. The story progresses at a good lick with lots of twists and turns and Ambler paints a good picture of the political situation in Italy and Europe. In fact, I found myself wanting to understand some of these pre-war politics – for example, the Rome-Berlin Axis and the OVRA – and spent some time Googling to find out more.

A Kind of Anger by Eric Ambler
This was Ambler’s 13th novel and although it was first published in 1964 some bits of the plot seem strangely topical.

The story is built around the murder of an Iraqi Colonel who had been living in Switzerland, after claiming political asylum following a regime-change in his country. His murder is a cause célèbre because his French girlfriend was seen fleeing the scene with her life and his papers. Soon it emerges that the colonel had been dabbling in Iraqi politics from his home in Zurich, and was involved with a pro-Kurdish group plotting to overthrow the new government and reclaim their oil revenues. These activities had been noticed by several different governments, secret service agencies and oil companies, and there was a long list of people interested in getting hold of the missing papers.

Enter Piet Maas, a Dutch-born journalist now working for an American news magazine in Paris. Sent to find the girl and discover the cause of the murder (and, his employers hope, land a ‘world exclusive’), Maas becomes entangled with secret agents, the police, confidence tricksters, blackmailers, gangsters and more.

There are moments when Maas (who is recovering from a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt) seems scarily vulnerable. Everyone apart from him seems to understand what’s at stake. But although he appears out of his depth, he manages to navigate a course through the villainy and emerge unscathed.

This was a good story to listen to, engaging and entertaining. But I found the ending sadly flat. It finishes rather abruptly, almost as if Ambler had suddenly run out of steam and lost interest in it.

So, what do I enjoy about Eric Ambler’s books? (Or at least, the ones I’ve read or listened to so far.) Well, the writing style is crisp, with no unnecessary plot-flourishes or descriptions. Nothing is included without a reason. That’s not to say the writing is bland. Far from it. There’s plenty of description and atmosphere. But the journalistic style moves things along briskly, with no time wasted, so the books are exciting. And the lack of technology makes the stories refreshingly down-to-earth. With no computers, mobile phones or gadgets, no time has to be wasted explaining the science or blinding you with technical detail. And yes, all these years after they were first published, these stories can still grab your imagination and keep you engrossed.
Cornish Eskimo

Because of Easter the next meeting of Oundle Library's Crime Fiction Book Group will be held on Friday, 26 April @ 2.30pm. Do join us if you can.