Friday, September 21, 2018

Eric Ambler

Today CrimeReads posts an appreciation of Eric Ambler, the "Father of the Modern Thriller."
.... Ambler’s heroes, especially in his brilliant run of between-wars novels published between 1936 and 1940, are very unexceptional sorts, the quintessence of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. They are often engineers or journalists or writers who stumble unexpectedly into danger through a combination of bad judgment and bad luck, and then have no choice but to try to dig themselves out of it on their own, because no one is likely to help them. They are often solidly middle class, raised in a world of black-and-white certainties that they discover has been completely obliterated by an infinite variety of grays.

Ambler’s villains live in that gray. They are criminals, con men, governments, corporations, spies, revolutionaries, and corrupt officials of every kind. They don’t come around rubbing their hands in glee at their dastardly master plans. They are realists. They have made their own calculations about what it takes to succeed and are willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal. If those acts are considered reprehensible by others, well, that’s not their problem. ....
For instance,
Journey into Fear (1940)
“He looked round the cabin, accepting his presence in it as he had accepted so many other absurdities since he had returned to his hotel in Pera the night before. The acceptance was unquestioning. He felt only as if he had lost something valuable. In fact, he had lost nothing of any value but a sliver of skin and cartilage from the back of his right hand. All that had happened to him was that he had discovered the fear of death.”
An engineer we know only as Graham has just been nearly killed in his hotel room in Istanbul. He works for a large British munitions company and is in Turkey to help with the rapid rearming of the Turkish fleet. He thinks he must have interrupted a thief, but a Turkish official (Colonel Haki, making a cameo return!) bluntly disabuses him of that notion. The naval authorities of Germany, Italy, and Russia know perfectly well why Graham is there, and will do anything to keep that rearmament from happening. When Graham demurs that this all seems too melodramatic—“This is real life, not the cinema”—Haki explodes (“Melodrama! Proof! Real life! The cinema!”), informs Graham that they’ve already intercepted one other plot against him, and that a third is likely to succeed: “Do you understand now, Mr. Graham? Has your excellent brain grasped what I have been trying to say?”

Haki won’t let him return to London by train (“You would be dead before you reached Belgrade”), and puts him secretly on a small cargo boat to Genoa, from where he can easily get to the French frontier and then on home.

Things aren’t that simple, of course. Also on board that boat are a pair of Nazi assassins, a Turkish secret agent, and a Spanish courtesan and her pimp, among others. Some of them are there to kill him, some to keep him from getting killed, and some…are surprises. Much to his own astonishment, Graham turns out to be a bit of a surprise, too.
The film of "Journey Into Fear in 1942 starred Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton" and can be viewed online here.

There is much more at CrimeReads.

Eric Ambler: A Crime Reader's Guide to the Classics | CrimeReads