Monday, May 30, 2011

Book review: The Novels of Eric Ambler

Posting has been a little light here recently, I know, since I've spent most of my life over the last few weeks engaged in marking essays. But I thought I'd do a little post on a series of books I've read over the past few months.

Near Central Station, on my way to work, is a bargain bookshop - full of remainders and other unloved but new books. They offer a completely unpredictable range of books, mostly pretty cheap, so I stop by there on a regular basis and see what's in stock. Sometimes I go weeks without buying anything, other times I'll pick up a handful of books on a single morning. The cheap prices can be good at inspiring me to check out things I probably wouldn't have otherwise, and Eric Ambler's books are a case in point. They had a few of his five books as recently republished by Penguin, in their Modern Classics line. The striking black & white photos caught my eye, and then the blurbs and quotes convinced me to pick up a couple of books by an author whom I hadn't even of until then. Over the next month or two they got in a copy or two each of his other books from this series, so I now have read all five that Penguin reprinted (he wrote more than that).

After the cover art, the thing that attracted me the most was some touchstones mentioned in the blurbs - Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock. Both of those are good comparions, so far as I'm concerned, so I paid my couple of dollars per book and started reading one (Epitaph for a Spy) that night.

The Greene & Hitchcock comparions were accurate. The latter's regular theme of Innocent Man Caught In Conspiracy runs through Epitaph, as well as most of the others (Cause For Alarm most particularly). Written during the late 1930s and early '40s, WWII is looming for everyone. Ambler effectively captures the tone of innocent - sometimes naive - men who get embroiled in international intrigue. The conventions of the IMCIM genre are pretty well established by now, of course, but some of that groundwork was laid by Ambler in these books.

Each of these books has its own charms. I found Uncommon Danger (the earliest of these five) to be a little weaker than the rest, but all of them pack compelling plots, well-drawn characters and tight prose into relatively short books. Ambler also sought to reflect a left-wing political perspective into his stories, arguing that the spy genre should not be the exclusive bounds of the political right (particularly during the WWII era). Thus both the villians and the plots are built on a more left-wing political perspective than most modern spy/thriller novels. The politics is certainly never preachy, however - Amber's aim, generally realised, was to incoporate his political leanings into the fabric of his novels without making them overtly political (& therefore tedious) novels.

I considered including some brief plot synopses here, but decided against it because they seem sort of silly when reduced to a sentence or two. And of course, to some extent, they are silly - spy or crime novels from earlier ages usually do sound as such, revolving as they tend to do around singular master criminals whose defeat signals the collapse of their whole network and organisations with names like The Red Hand Brigade and reliant on the non-existence of technologies (how many Agatha Christie novels, for instance, make sense in a world in which almost everyone has a mobile phone?). Thankfully none of Ambler's books are based on the Master Criminal Whose Death Or Capture Solves All The Problems, one of my least-favourite tropes in fiction. Nonetheless, Innocent Man Caught In Conspiracy stories perhaps fare worst of all when summarised. They rely for their entertainment value on the reader/viewer being pulled into the world, wondering how they would cope themselves, and knowing that the hero will 'win', but not knowing how that's possible. Yes, they can be silly, but they can also be a heck of a lot of fun.

Eric Ambler has been largely forgotten compared to some of his contemporaries, but unjustly so. Kudos to Penguin for reprinting his novels, and I'm glad to see that some of his others are also available from other publishers via Amazon. If you feel like a quick, entertaining but thoughtful read, I can happily recommend Eric Ambler to you.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book review: Hangover Square

Most of us who read regularly have books that are on our radar for a while before we get to them. A casual reference somewhere, a review that sounded promising, having a look in a bookshop (tactile or electronic). As someone who not only reads a lot, but is always on the look-out for reading suggestions, I constantly have a bunch of books on a mental list that I mean to read sometime soon. (This is in addition to the bunch of books I have sitting on the bookshelf next to my bed that I mean to read sometime...)

Patrick Hamilton's 1941 novel Hangover Square: A story of darkest Earl's Court was one such book. As often happens with these things, I can't put my finger on where or from whom I got the idea that I should read it, but over the last couple of days, I finally have. Sometimes these long-intended books are ultimately disappointments, or simply underwhelming. Hangover Square was neither: it is a compelling, involving, even moving book.

George Harvey Bone lives in London, in 1939. He scrapes by with bits of money from here & there, rarely working, but often drinking. He has fallen in with a small group of similar people - all in their late-20s-early-30s, and all of whom enjoy drinking their nights away. Central to this group, and George's reason for sticking with them, is the beautiful Netta. George is somewhat slow, friendlier than most of his group; Netta is contemptuous, an aspiring film star. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. But George is also prone to what he calls 'dead moments', where his genial, somewhat passive, personality is replaced by one in which he realises that it is his duty to kill Netta. When his head clickes back to normal after one of these periods, he has no memory of any of these thoughts. (None of this, I should point out, is spoiler: Penguin included it in their blurb, and indeed we learn all this in the first chapter regardless.)

Hangover Square is thus a portrait of two different sides of George, neither of which is fully aware of the other. It succeeds because both work: the straightforward George chapters are a moving story about a hapless fool infatuated with an awful woman (& make no mistake: Netta is one of the least-likeable characters I have ever encountered in fiction - she treats George appallingly, taking advantage of his doglike devotion to get him to pay for her to do things intended to attract other men, and not even stooping to basic civility in her relationship with him while doing so), and also trying to break out of wasting his life away via his drinking habit. The 'dead moment' chapters give a compelling feel to a clear case of mental illness, a man who is driven to kill someone, without really knowing why. That both sections are about the same man only heightens the tension.

In many ways, Hamilton has written a thoroughly modern novel - one that, with a few alterations of period detail, could have been published in the last few years. (Early on, characters treat ten pounds as a significant chunk of money, and are able to go out several nights in a row, including once to a high-class restaurant, off the haul. The imminent WWII looms over the book & characters, particularly in the last few chapters.) George, when not in his dead moments, is sympathetic despite his frustrating incapacity to ditch Netta. Hangover Square is often grim, and it will be the rare reader who finds Netta anything other than utterly despicable, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am glad I finally got around to reading it.