Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The British thriller

I'm always pleased when CrimeReads posts an essay about a genre I have particularly enjoyed. Today they did: "Thrilled and Intrigued: An Appreciation on Classic British Thrillers." Two of the authors discussed are favorites of mine, authors I've read and re-read, Eric Ambler and Geoffrey Household.
The British thriller is a big tent, covering everything from the old-school imperial adventures of John Buchan to the cinematic derring-do of Alistair MacLean, and I’ve devoured them all. ....

There’s no better example than Eric Ambler, who in a series of books he wrote in the 1930s revolutionized the spy novel, rejecting cloak-and-dagger melodrama for the nuts-and-bolts realism of how espionage was actually practiced. His account in A Coffin for Dimitrios of the patient cultivation, by a spy working for the Italians, of a Yugoslav government clerk in order to obtain a copy of a map of naval minefields is a textbook example of spycraft. But it’s only an anecdote in the story of a British novelist gathering material on a notorious Greek criminal, purely for research. What drives the novel is the writer’s quest for the truth about Dimitrios, which takes him from Istanbul to Sofia, Geneva and finally Paris, where he gets more than he bargained for. There are spies at every turn, but the protagonist is a mild-mannered and ultimately overmatched writer of frivolous mystery stories.

And espionage was not always the premise: Ambler’s The Light of Day, which was filmed as Topkapi, was basically a caper novel, featuring the roguish Arthur Abdel Simpson, a half-British, half-Egyptian con man. Other Ambler protagonists include a Philadelphia lawyer sent to Europe to untangle a complicated inheritance case that has unexpected ramifications in Balkan politics, a professional ghostwriter blackmailed into editing a terrorist’s memoirs and a doctor on a Caribbean island roped into a revolutionary plot. What all Ambler novels have in common is a nicely evoked foreign setting, a protagonist who would just as soon not be involved, and Ambler’s witty, knowing take on the way the world works.

Writing at roughly the same time as Ambler was Geoffrey Household. His breakout novel was Rogue Male, published in 1939, on the eve of war. It has a remarkable premise: an English gentleman hunter, tramping through the Bavarian Alps in search of “boar and bear,” finds himself unexpectedly within rifle range of Hitler’s mountain retreat, and just out of curiosity, settles in to watch the terrace, rifle with telescopic scope in hand. He is, of course, discovered. Interrogated, severely beaten, he is tossed over a cliff. (The opening line of the book is his laconic observation “I cannot blame them.”) Miraculously he survives and manages to crawl away and make his way back to England, where he goes to earth, hunted across the landscape by pursuing Nazis. It is basically an extended hunting yarn, with the first-person narrator the prey, and it is relentlessly compelling.

The hunting theme was a favorite of Household’s, fugitives fleeing pursuit across the charming English countryside made sinister by unseen stalkers. .... His heroes are urbane, unflappable, cool in a crisis, comfortable with horses, dogs and guns, equally at home indoors and out. His narrative voice was witty, understated, ironic. His best novels are the simplest in form: X is on the run, pursued by Y, and he has to use everything in his bag of tricks to stay alive. Besides Rogue Male I’d recommend Fellow Passenger, Watcher in the Shadows and A Time to Kill. .... (more)
Dominic Martell, "Thrilled and Intrigued: An Appreciation on Classic British Thrillers," CrimeReads, Dec. 7, 2022.

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