A Point of View: The enduring relevance of Eric Ambler's spy novels

Dark hand of puppet master controls strings (stock photo)

The characters in Eric Ambler's pre-war spy novels are adrift in a fractured and uncertain Europe, manipulated by forces they neither understand nor control. The books hold an uncomfortable mirror to the modern world, says philosopher John Gray.

A once-famous writer recalls making a curious discovery as a small boy:

Among the most peculiar memories of my childhood is that of discovering what was inside the ottoman. This was a sofa with a hinged seat covering a trunk-like storage space. Inside, I found dozens of very small human hands and feet. They were beautifully shaped and delicately carved and had been made in beech and boxwood... They were the hands and feet for the new marionettes.

The author is Eric Ambler, whose 1930s novels created a new type of thriller. Born in 1909 into a family of music hall entertainers who ran a puppet show, Ambler seems to have become a writer almost by chance. A scholarship boy who trained as an engineer, he toured as a comedian before becoming an advertising copywriter. Along the way he tried his hand at writing avant-garde plays, without much success, then between 1935 and 1940 produced the six novels that changed the thriller forever.

Copy of The Mask of Dimitrios sitting on vintage guide book to Paris and European map

The protagonists of Ambler's novels aren't the hearty public school patriots who stride through the pages of John Buchan. Nor are they the hard-bitten, weary professionals who feature in Somerset Maugham's stories of the agent Ashenden, which were based on Maugham's own experience working for British intelligence in World War One and Russia around the time of the Bolshevik revolution. Ambler's heroes are ordinary people - often unemployed engineers, freelance journalists or jobbing writers - who, while struggling to make a living, stumble into a danger zone whose existence they hardly suspected. The world they discover is one their middle-class morality hasn't prepared them to deal with.

Find out more

John Gray
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST
  • John Gray is a political philosopher and author of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism

Ambler's villains aren't devilish figures. They're doing no more than apply profit-and-loss accounting to the business of overthrowing governments. Bribery, blackmail and murder are simply take-over techniques applied in the context of politics. The heroes try to hang on to some shreds of decency, but soon find that the imperatives of survival take precedence over those of morality. For the hapless engineers and writers as much as for the ruthless con-men and killers, ethics has become redundant.

In Ambler's masterpiece The Mask of Dimitrios, published in 1939, an English writer of detective stories, Charles Latimer, reflects on the career of a master criminal he believed had been murdered. Investigating the criminal's past in order to gather material for a new book, the writer discovers that Dimitrios Makropoulos - "the drug pedlar, the pimp, the thief, the spy, the white slaver, the bully, the financier" is alive and prospering:

Three human beings (Latimer went on) had died horribly and countless others had lived horribly in order that Dimitrios might take his ease. If there were such a thing as Evil, then this man…

But it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good and bad business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo's David, Beethoven's Quartets and Einstein's physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler's Mein Kampf.

Peter Lorre in the 1944 film adaptation of The Mask of Dimitrios Peter Lorre in the 1944 film adaptation of The Mask Of Dimitrios

These thoughts were Ambler's own. Throughout the 30s he was on the left of politics. Though never a member of the Communist party, he was by his own admission a "fellow-traveller". He changed his stance when the Nazi-Soviet pact was announced in August 1939 and sealed his separation from the left with his brilliant novel of communist show-trials in Eastern Europe, Judgement on Deltchev, published in 1951. He was denounced as a reactionary by his former comrades, but it wasn't so much that he moved to the right as that he ceased to expect anything from politics. For the rest of his life he was what he called a "political agnostic". After serving in World War Two, where for a time he worked in an army film unit, he went on to make a career in screenwriting, then went back to producing thrillers, the last of which - The Care of Time, published in 1981 - was a prescient novel about terrorism. He died in 1998.

Ambler's novels are unsettling in a number of ways. His heroes are unheroic and their adventures unromantic. There is nothing of derring-do in the anxious intrigues that he describes. Yet his stories hold the reader in an irresistible grip. What they reveal is a world ruled by financial and geopolitical forces that care nothing for the human individual. Most unsettlingly, this world is unmistakably European.

Ambler's Europe is a continent in a process of disintegration. Economies are stagnant, banks fragile or failing, currencies shaky and markets manipulated. In many countries, large sections of the population languish without hope of employment or opportunity. Mainstream politicians seem unable to do anything to change the situation. Power seems to lie with forces they cannot control, such as the sinister Eurasian Credit Trust that lies behind the events portrayed in The Mask of Dimitrios.

Ambler on film
Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles in Journey Into Fear (1943)
  • Many of Ambler's films were adapted for the screen, most notably Journey Into Fear (1943) starring Orson Welles (above, right) as the mysterious Colonel Haki - a recurring character in Ambler's work
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) was also filmed, with Zachary Scott in the title role and Peter Lorre as the man who tracks him down
  • Ambler wrote several screenplays as well as novels, and was Oscar-nominated for his adaptation of the naval saga, The Cruel Sea (1953)

But if events are shaped by forces that operate behind the scenes, these forces aren't all-powerful or all-knowing. As Ambler describes them, they hardly know what they are doing. Often they're undone by their own stratagems. Not long before he is shot and killed, the arch-villain Dimitrios murmurs thoughtfully: "I was thinking that in the end one is always defeated by stupidity. If not one's own it is the stupidity of others." As Dimitrios sees things, it's stupidity that rules the world. Dimitrios then displays this stupidity himself by offering a large sum of money to Latimer, who has tracked him down. But Latimer doesn't trust Dimitrios, and in any case he doesn't want the money. What he wants is to go back to his former life as a writer of detective fiction.

Latimer's experience of the real world of crime has left him nostalgic for the imaginary world that's conjured up in the classical crime novel. He looks back fondly on the murders that are committed in these old-fashioned thrillers - genteel killings set in English country villages:

Start Quote

The cycles of history have brought us back to something not so very different from Ambler's Europe”

End Quote

...with cricket matches on the village green, garden parties at the vicarage, the chink of teacups and the sweet smell of grass on a July evening. That was the sort of thing people liked to hear about. It was the sort of thing that he himself liked to hear about.

The classical thriller was an exercise in moral fiction. Whatever perils its protagonists encountered, justice usually triumphed in the end. Even if they faced defeat, they knew what they were fighting against. Ambler turns this genre upside down, and gives the reader a disturbing glimpse of reality. Latimer longs to return to a cosy fictional world, but it's not the world created in the classic thriller. It's the world he imagined he lived in until he blundered into the one that actually existed.

Reading Ambler today, you can't help having a sense of deja vu. The cycles of history have brought us back to something not so very different from Ambler's Europe. There are no great tyrants like Hitler. Democracy of one sort or another is professed pretty well everywhere. But in a number of countries politics is being polarised by the rise of the far right and the far left. Gridlocked economies are ideal breeding grounds for extremism. It's not difficult to foresee people turning to demagogues.

Eric Ambler, pictured in 1985 Eric Ambler, pictured in 1985

Our leaders tell us they are shaping the future, and most of us want to believe them. Ambler's stories are disquieting because they suggest that no one is finally in control. They leave us with a lingering suspicion that we're not shaping the future at all. We're more like the tiny puppets he discovered in the ottoman as a child. In a succession of unknowing steps, we've returned to a Europe that uncannily resembles the disordered continent that Eric Ambler evoked over three quarters of a century ago.

More authors considered by John Gray in the Magazine:

A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST - or listen on BBC iPlayer

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites