Friday, October 31, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“Journey into Fear,” by Eric Ambler

(Editor’s note: This is the 30th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from UK novelist Charles Cumming, whose novels A Spy by Nature and The Spanish Game will be published in the United States in November by St. Martin’s Press. His latest novel, Typhoon, will be released in paperback in the UK in February.)

In the winter of 1995, I was approached for a job with the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). I was 24 years old. Up to that point in my life, I had read only one “serious” spy novel--John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)--and had never had much interest in books about the secret world. All that changed after my experiences with MI6. Inspired by what had happened to me, I read mountains of Le Carré, dipped into the best of Len Deighton, and became fascinated by the real-life exploits of Aldrich Ames, Kim Philby, and Anthony Blunt. In 2001, my first novel, A Spy by Nature, was published in the UK. A dramatized version of my encounter with MI6, it tells the story of Alec Milius, an ambitious wannabe spy who becomes embroiled in the world of industrial espionage.

To be honest, during this period Eric Ambler was not on my radar. It wasn’t until 2005 that a friend recommended Ambler’s masterpiece, A Coffin for Dimitrios (sometimes called The Mask of Dimitrios). I was bowled over by it. Much of what I had admired in Le Carré’s fiction--his expert plotting, his characterization and dialogue, his determination to use the spy genre as a platform for examining political and social issues--were all present in Ambler. So, of course, I looked at Ambler’s other novels. My favorite among them is probably Journey into Fear.

First published in 1940, Journey into Fear tells the story of Graham, an unassuming employee of the armament manufacturers “Cator and Bliss” at the dawn of World War II. Graham is a staple Ambler hero, an ordinary man who finds himself embroiled in extraordinary circumstances. “He was a careful driver, an imaginative pedestrian and a strong swimmer; he neither rode horses nor climbed mountains; he was not subject to attacks of dizziness; he did not hunt big game and he had never had even the smallest desire to jump in front of an approaching train,” the author explains.

After visiting a nightclub in Istanbul, Graham returns to his hotel room, where an unidentified man tries to shoot him. Graham sustains a nasty injury to his hand and is taken to Colonel Haki, a mysterious figure in Turkish intelligence, who tells him that he has become the victim of a sinister Nazi plot. According to Haki, Graham’s only hope of making it home alive is to take a passenger ship from Istanbul via Greece to Genoa. Against his better judgment, Graham agrees.

This is where Ambler’s skill as a writer really kicks in. Isolated at sea, Graham is surrounded by a number of brilliantly drawn secondary characters. There is the seductive nightclub dancer, Josette, and her seedy husband, José. There is the charming German scholar, Dr. Fritz Haller, and the mysterious tobacco importer, Mr. Kuvetli. In the manner of an Agatha Christie whodunit, any one of them could be Graham’s nemesis. Ambler derives an extraordinary amount of suspense from this, drawing out the day-to-day tedium and social niceties of the ship to agonizing effect. When, finally, he reveals his hand, the twists and turns of the plot catch the reader off guard.

Not that Ambler is solely interested in plot mechanics. He uses lengthy passages of dialogue, for example, to explore political ideas. A committed Communist, at least until the Nazi-Soviet pact, Ambler had no interest in perpetuating reassuring stereotypes about the glory of the British Empire. Here is Josette railing against double-standards in Downing Street:
“I do not understand it,” she burst out angrily. “In the last war you fought with France against the Turks ... They are heathen animals, these Turks. There were the Armenian atrocities and the Syrian atrocities and the Smyrna atrocities. Turks killed babies with their bayonets. But now it is all different. You like the Turks. They are your allies and you buy tobacco from them. It is the English hypocrisy. I am a Serb. I have a longer memory.”
In exploring those ideas, Ambler elevates the spy novel to a different level, paving the way for the likes of Le Carré, Deighton, Alan Furst, and Dan Fesperman. Not for him the ludicrous jingoism of William le Queux, or the dizzying exploits of John Buchan in The 39 Steps. It is no coincidence that Ian Fleming was a friend and admirer of Ambler’s. Indeed, in the 1963 film version of From Russia with Love, James Bond himself can be observed holding a copy of A Coffin for Dimitrios. The ultimate compliment!

It’s a pity that Ambler has been out of fashion in the land of his birth for so long. In the United States, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard has reissued most of the novels in a range of stylish paperbacks, all of which are easily obtainable via If you’ve read and admired A Coffin for Dimitrios, I cannot recommend Journey into Fear highly enough.


Anonymous said...

Excellent choice Charles, Ambler's work is neglected nowdays.

And now, put the book down and get working on your chess game; as I will whip you Thursday until you cry for mercy.

Dr Lecter

Barrie said...

Great post. Love the details, like James Bond holding a copy of the book in the movie.