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.


  1. Just a quick line to say I really enjoyed your review Joel. Also, I find it oddly exhilirating whenever anyone openly admits that they judge books by their covers.

  2. Thanks (as always) for your comment, Char.

    And you should know by now that a book's cover is terribly important to me. Because I'm superficial and easily swayed by shiny, pretty things...