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Beyond good and evil

Features | June 2016

Almost forgotten today, Eric Ambler was the thriller writer who made the genre grow up. Even 007 was a fan, says Michael Barber

Eric Ambler (1909–1998) is ‘the well from which we have all drunk’. So said John le Carré, and his words have been echoed by just about every modern thriller writer worth the name. A cocky young man from south-east London, Ambler made the thriller ‘grow up’. Before he put pen to paper in 1935 the genre had been dominated by prim Establishment figures such as John Buchan (who as Simon Raven noted, ‘wrote the sort of books where women didn’t go to the lavatory’), and xenophobes like Sapper and Dornford Yates, whose stories have been characterised as ‘snobbery with violence’.

What Ambler set out to do was depict the reality of Europe in the 1930s, a continent of disputed frontiers and conflicting ‘isms’ living under the shadow of war. Whereas Sapper and Co targeted ‘Bolshies’, Ambler, who as he put it, ‘couldn’t have been further to the Left’, trained his sights on international capitalism, and arms cartels in particular. And instead of thuggish ‘clubland heroes’ he offered innocents abroad: professional men who through misadventure become involved in international intrigue. The hero of his masterpiece The Mask of Dimitrios (written before he was thirty), is a writer of cosy whodunnits who discovers that the reality of Evil is infinitely more squalid, complex and dangerous than he could imagine. Despite being published ‘inauspiciously’ in August 1939, it has never been out of print.

The first time I met Eric Ambler I found it hard to reconcile this spruce, silver-haired old gent with the subversive young bounder who had debagged Bulldog Drummond. But his urbanity, I discovered, was mitigated by a taste for mild hamming. He would pull funny faces and talk in a stage whisper. Something about the way his sentences tailed off reminded me of Sir Ralph Richardson. But then theatre, or rather vaudeville, was in his blood. His parents were concert party artistes and he claimed to have learned far more from the stage than from books, sayaing that ‘I was a failed playwright before I became a novelist’

Ambler spent most of the war in the Army Film Unit, where his fellow recruits included Carol Reed and Peter Ustinov (later to star in Topkapi, based on Ambler’s The Light of Day). As well as countless training films, they made a dramatised documentary called The New Lot designed to counter the ‘fatalistic bloody-mindedness’ of conscripts in 1942. But it was too realistic for the brass hats. ‘You can’t call these men soldiers,’ spluttered a general. ‘They do nothing but grumble. Real soldiers never grumble.’ Later, on location in Italy, Ambler’s unit was shelled and mortared so fiercely that his unconscious ‘played a nasty trick on him’. A confirmed atheist, he heard himself saying, ‘Into thy hands I commend my spirit.’

For twenty years after the war Ambler concentrated on film, working first in Britain, later in Hollywood as a writer/producer. He married Joan Harrison, an associate of Hitchcock, and became rich. But after a wasted year trying to make Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando) a more important figure than Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard) in Mutiny on the Bounty, he concluded that ‘no amount of money is worth the boredom of producing rubbish’ and jumped ship. ‘Marlon had ideas above his station,’ he recalled. ‘He fancied himself as a thinker. He’d say, “No man is an island”, and expect everyone to applaud.’

Ian Fleming paid Ambler the compliment of revealing, in one of the Bond books, that 007 was a fan. They used to lunch together and discuss royalties, ‘which is all authors ever talk about when they meet’. Was Ambler aware that Fleming saw Bond as a ‘blunt instrument’ like Bulldog Drummond? Pass. But he had no hesitation in describing Fleming’s wife, Ann, the society hostess, as a ‘disloyal bitch’ because she encouraged her intellectual chums like Cyril Connolly to make fun of her husband’s books.

Ambler’s ‘simple socialist faith’ did not survive the unmasking of Stalinism. But he never became a cold war warrior. His later novels are almost as devoid of moral judgements as they are of gratuitous sex and violence. In them we meet a succession of cosmopolitan chancers who are at war with the System. Some are apparently respectable, like Paul Firman, the urbane extortionist in Send No More Roses, whose murky past is as well-laundered as his bespoke shirts. Others are unmistakably louche, notably Arthur Abdel Simpson, the lewd hustler whose life has been ‘one long dirty story’, Dirty Story being the title of the second novel in which he appears. Taxed on his fondness for such characters, Ambler admitted that ‘The sleazy – perhaps “baroque” would be a better word – holds a great fascination for me. Like most writers all I’m doing is reproducing aspects of myself, and I find myself equivocal.’ Hence, presumably, Here Lies Eric Ambler, the mischievous title he gave his memoirs.

Ambler ended his days in London, returning there after Joan, his wife, developed dementia. On the last occasion we met I recalled his theory that in all of us you’ll find a criminal and a policeman battling it out. Did this explain the appeal of thrillers? ‘Yes. But I think there’s an anarchist there too, and in my books he’s having a field day!’


This story was from June 2016 issue. Subscribe Now