Friday, November 26, 2010

The Book You Have to Read: “Doctor Frigo,”
by Eric Ambler

(Editor’s note: This is the 108th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from James Thompson, a Kentucky-born author now living in Finland. Thompson’s 2010 novel, Snow Angels, the first in the Inspector Vaara series, marked his entrance into the international crime-fiction scene and was critically well-received. [Booklist cited it as one of the 10 best debut crime novels of the year.] He has already contracted with publisher G.P. Putnam’s Sons for four Inspector Vaara novels. The second, Lucifer’s Tears, will appear in March 2011.)

One of my first profound reading experiences as a child was an early Eric Ambler novel, A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939). I was about 10 at the time, and I haven’t read the book since, but I remember that it revolved around tracing the history of a drug dealer and murderer whose body had been pulled out of the Bosporus. I can still picture hundreds of slaughtered corpses from Ambler’s graphic description of the early 20th-century pogrom against the Greeks. This led me to read the actual history of the pogrom. I also fell in love with the thriller, crime, and adventure genres, a road I’m still on.

In large part because of Coffin, my early teen years were populated by the works of Graham Greene, John le Carré, and more thriller authors of the period, and they carried me in other directions, toward writers such as W. Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh and Ernest Hemingway. Given that I’ve read thousands of thrillers and crime novels by this point, and I now write them for a living, it can be rightly said that with Coffin, Ambler played a significant part in defining what would become my life. The last Ambler novel I read was Send No More Roses (1977), something like a decade ago. But then recently, in a used bookstore, I found a beat-up copy of Doctor Frigo, a 1974 Ambler work I wasn’t familiar with. So when editor J. Kingston Pierce asked me to review a novel for The Rap Sheet’s “forgotten book series,” I knew this one had to be my subject.

* * *

Ernesto Castillo lives in exile on the island of St. Paul-les-Alizés, in the French Antilles. Twelve years before, his father, the leader of a country in Central America, a former Spanish colony that is never referred to by name, was assassinated.

Castillo, our narrator, is a man who views himself as reserved and discreet, civilized and cynical, but above all, detached. Ever since the night two gunmen shot down his father on the steps of a hotel, then were themselves dispatched in what seemed like part of a coup d’état by the military junta, Castillo’s mother (recently deceased) and many of her government-in-exile cronies dreamed that Castillo would return to his homeland as an avenging angel, right the wrongs done to their family, and assume his due place as his father’s successor.

But Ernesto Castillo, also called Doctor Frigo, is a physician so nicknamed because he has the bedside manner of a refrigerator. Doctor Frigo wants no part in political machinations or revenge. He wants the past buried. Castillo would prefer to forget his homeland, or if he can’t, then at least hold it at a firm arm’s length, along with his family and his countrymen, especially those determined to regain their former political prestige.

Castillo is an employee of the State, subsidized by the French government, and has his medical practice at the local hospital. His mistress, Elizabeth--estranged from her husband--is an artist, a delightful and eccentric woman. She’s also a descendant several times removed from the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and to Elizabeth’s mind, a metaphor for everything in life may be found in the history of the Hapsburg Empire. Castillo wants no more or less from life than his medical practice, a simple existence on the island, and Elizabeth. But of course, such is not to be.

A large oil reserve has been discovered in Castillo’s former Central American homeland, and a new coup is in the offing there, as various interests scramble to acquire the immense wealth that find will offer. Everyone from French Intelligence to the oil cartels to the quondam masters of the Central American nation of Castillo’s birth believe they need the support of Castillo, the son of the former president, to take the country and its oil. And if he refuses to lend his backing, then each in turn threatens to take or ruin his life.

I was on page 87 of Ambler’s novel when I stopped and thought to myself, “I’ve read this story before.” Indeed, Doctor Frigo is Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1958), only darker and more sophisticated, without the melancholy humor so characteristic of Greene. Even the Central American and Caribbean settings feel like the countries of Greeneland. If, in my elder years, I have a couple of weeks to spare during retirement, I’ll back-plot both stories, tear the houses down to the studs, so to speak, and examine how close in structure they truly are. Greene called Ambler “our greatest thriller writer.” After reading Doctor Frigo, I believe the admiration must have been mutual.

I’m far from the first person to note the influence Ambler had upon Greene, and later upon John le Carré. The impact Doctor Frigo exercised on Le Carré seems apparent even in a cursory examination of The Tailor of Panama (1996). Or perhaps Tailor is a retelling of Our Man in Havana. Or maybe both are true. All three books feature inept protagonists swimming beyond their depths in the seas of espionage and intrigue, only to find that by daring--and some dumb luck--they manage to defeat their opponents, professionals at political corruption.

With its themes of oil-driven geopolitics and men who callously subvert history for personal enrichment, Doctor Frigo remains as relevant for the reader today as when it was published nearly 40 years ago. And like the majority of Ambler’s works, this one is worthy of remembrance and reflection. Find out for yourself by giving it a read.


Evan Lewis said...

Great review. Why aren't I reading Ambler? Hardboiled brain damage, I guess.

George said...

I've enjoyed all the Ambler novels including this one. Sadly, most contemporary readers have never heard of Eric Ambler.

Winifred said...

Thanks for this. Sounds great. Interesting to read what got you hooked on this crime malarky.

Just checked out availability at the library. It's available only as a talking book, 10 cassettes. Now I just have to check the old cassette player is still working. Never had a talking book before; it's a first!

I also noticed they had a copy of Here Lies - An Autobiography by Eric Ambler. Might be worth ordering that too.

Anonymous said...

DOCTOR FRIGO is not as action-packed and elaborately-plotted as some of his other books, but the characters are so vivid, and the atmosphere so intriguing, that it's almost equally fun.