Friday, February 26, 2010

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Light of Day,” by Eric Ambler

(Editor’s note: This is the 83rd installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from the well-traveled and multilingual Leighton Gage, who has so far written three novels featuring Chief Inspector Mario Silva of Brazil’s federal police. The most recent of those is this year’s Dying Gasp.)

* * *
It came down to this: if I had not been arrested by the Turkish police, I would have been arrested by the Greek police. I had no choice but to do as this man Harper told me. He was entirely responsible for what happened to me.
Thus begins Eric Ambler’s 1962 novel, The Light of Day. The narrator, we immediately suspect, is a man loath to shoulder responsibility for his actions. The bad things that happen to Arthur Abdel Simpson are always
someone else’s fault.

Abdel? Yes, Abdel. Ambler’s protagonist, it turns out, was born in Cairo. He explains that his middle name, Abdel, is a concession to his Egyptian mother.
But my father was a British officer, a regular, and I myself am British to the core. Even my background is typically British.

My father rose from the ranks. He was a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Buffs when I was born; but in 1916 he was commissioned as a Lieutenant Quartermaster in the Army Service Corps. We were living in officers’ married quarters in Ismailia when he was killed a year later. I was too young at the time to be told the details. I thought, naturally, that he must have been killed by the Turks; but Mum told me later that he had been run over by an army lorry as he was walking home one night from the officers’ mess.
You notice how much I’m quoting from the book? I didn’t intend to when I began writing this piece. But then I reached the conclusion that the best way to convey Ambler’s genius is to let Arthur speak for himself. I deleted everything I’d written and started anew.
I was too young when my father was killed to have known him well; but one or two of his pet sayings have always remained in my memory; perhaps because I heard him repeat them so often to Mum or to his army friends. One, I remember, was “Never volunteer for anything,” and another was “Bullshit baffles brains.”
Arthur calls himself a journalist, but in reality he’s a thief, a pornographer, and a pimp, all of which he reveals in the course of self-serving explanations such as this:
Is it a crime to earn money? The way some people go on you would think it was. The law is the law and I am certainly not complaining, but what I can’t stand is all the humbug and hypocrisy. If a man goes to the red-light district on his own, nobody says anything. But if he wants to do another chap, a friend or an acquaintance, a good turn by showing him the way to the best house, everyone starts screaming blue murder.
With lines like these, we know from the get-go exactly what kind of a fellow we’re dealing with. And yet, such is Ambler’s skill that we find ourselves warming to Arthur Simpson--and, by the end of the book, we’re downright fond of him. Ambler helps us along in this regard by making the other baddies in his novel much worse than Arthur. In Light of Day’s early chapters, it isn’t so much a case of liking Arthur as a case of disliking the people plaguing him. It soon becomes evident that all of them are capable of violence. Simpson, on the other hand, is a criminal of another ilk, a coward viscerally incapable of harming his victims. Yes, he’s a crook, but one, he tells us, who’s “only been arrested 10 or 12 times” in his whole life.

As this story begins, our (anti-)hero, down on his luck, as usual, is scrambling for cash. The rent is due, and his demanding girlfriend, Nicki, has been dunning him for more new clothes. We find him at the Athens airport trolling for tourists. His scam of the moment is to offer foreigners his services (as the driver of his own car) and subsequently burgle their rooms. He makes the mistake of approaching a mysterious man named Harper:
He looked like an American ... Of course, I now know that he is not an American, but he certainly gave that impression. His luggage, for instance, was definitely American; plastic leather and imitation gold locks. I know American luggage when I see it ... He arrived ... on a plane from Vienna. He could have come from New York or London or Frankfurt or Moscow and arrived by that plane--or just from Vienna. It was impossible to tell. There were no hotel labels on the luggage. I just assumed that he came from New York. It was a mistake anyone might have made.
Arthur first takes Harper to his hotel, then on to an appointment at a house of assignation called Madame Irma’s. Thinking his pigeon occupied, Arthur then hastens back to Harper’s room to rifle the luggage.

But Harper turns the tables. He’s been hunting for a man like Simpson and has laid a snare to entrap him. Catching Arthur in the act, Harper forces him to sign a confession, then threatens to denounce him to the Greek police unless Arthur ferries a car from Athens to Istanbul.

Simpson, whatever else he is, is no fool. No one goes to the trouble Harper has gone to unless there is something in the assignment that doesn’t meet the eye. Arthur suspects that it’s a scheme involving drug or arms smuggling, and as soon as he’s safely out of Athens, he pulls to the side of the road and gives the automobile a thorough going-over.

He’s surprised to find that the car contains no contraband, at least he thinks it doesn’t. Confidently, he continues on his journey. But, unfortunately for him, there are incriminating items in that vehicle, concealed in a place he has completely overlooked. And though Arthur couldn’t locate them, the Turkish border authorities do.

It’s a time of political instability in Turkey. The Turks suspect Arthur’s involvement in a coup d’état. But they want to round up the whole gang, and so they force Arthur to continue to play along. That way, they’ll be able to get the goods on his employers.

It turns out they’re wrong about the coup, but it isn’t until we’re much further along in the book that we finally discover what Harper and his cohorts are really up to. Meanwhile, we are not quite sure what kind of a book we’re reading. Is it a spy story? A political thriller? In the event, it turns out to be neither one.

Now, if you’ve never read this novel, but you’ve seen Topkapi (a 1964 film based upon the book, in which Peter Ustinov plays the role of Simpson), then you already know what’s afoot. But I rather hope you haven’t seen the film, or if you have, that you can’t remember it.

One thing I can assure you: if you read The Light of Day, you won’t ever forget Arthur Abdel Simpson. And, if you like him as well as I do, you can find him again in another book that Ambler wrote five years later, Dirty Story.

In that one, Simpson is still in Athens and still up to his old tricks. Very early on in the first chapter you’ll find a great line. Ambler put it in Italics: “H. Carter Gavin, Her Britannic Majesty’s Vice-Consul in Athens, is a shit.”

God, I wish I’d written that.


Frank Loose said...

I read Light of Day last year, and i agree with you that it is terrific. I think it is Ambler's best book. The Simpson character is simply a wonderful creation and the mess he gets into makes for a really fun, engaging read.

Anonymous said...

Light of Day sounds like a fun book, I'm adding it to my TBR list.
Thank you,

Craig said...

I enjoyed both reading "The Light of Day" and seeing "Topkapi" -- but I still contend Ambler's best book is "A Coffin for Dimitrios."

Leighton Gage said...

I wouldn't disagree with you, Craig.
But, as you'll see, if you look back, that book has already been reviewed here.
And I thought Ambler deserved more attention.
He is, as John Le Carré once put it, the spring from which all of us have drawn. (Or drunk, or something like that. Anyway, he influenced a generation - and I'm one of that generation.

VivienneC said...

My favourite so far is The Levanter, not sure if that's been reviewed - first visit to this site.