Eric Ambler is often considered the godfather of the modern thriller. Publishing his first novel in 1936, and writing in a time of tremendous political ferment, he challenged the polite conventions of English detective fiction and the public school derring-do of contemporary spy novels.
Ambler introduced a new realism to the genre, based on ordinary people sucked into situations beyond their control. He influenced a host of writers who then followed in his footsteps, with John le Carré famously describing him as ‘the source upon which we all draw.’
Thrillers, as we know, provide the reader with a safe entry into an uncertain and dangerous world where the stakes are high. This makes them perfect vehicles for exploring moral complexities, political corruption, good and evil. And, Lord knows, there was plenty to reflect on in the 1930s. Countries were grappling with the impact of the Great Crash. Fascism was on the rise. And war clouds were gathering in Europe.
Ambler’s most accomplished novel was undoubtedly The Mask of Dimitrios, published in 1939. The story revolves around an old-fashioned crime novelist Charles Latimer (you’ll note the irony), who on a visit to Instanbul, has a chance meeting with the mysterious Colonel Haki of the Turkish police. Haki, a keen follower of Latimer’s detective novels, believes Latimer would be interested in the career of the notorious criminal Dimitrios, whose body lies in an Istanbul morgue after having been recovered from the Bosphorus.
Evidently, Dimitrios has been murdered. Latimer is initially unsure about what to make of things. But finds himself inexorably drawn into the shadowy world inhabited by Dimitrios and those who had the misfortune to play a part in his life of espionage, betrayal and treachery. A life that spanned the Balkans. He decides to embark on an investigation of his criminal career to gather material for a book. Realising he’s become obsessed with his subject, he discovers that Dimitrios Makropoulos, ‘the drug pedlar, the pimp, the thief, the spy, the white slaver, the bully, the financier’, is alive and well, having faked his death. This exposes him to unexpected danger. And he finds himself fighting for his life against a ruthless enemy.
The novel delves into the troubled history of the Balkans, exploring early on the human suffering that resulted from the sacking of Smyrna in 1922 by the Turkish army during the Greco-Turkish War. The destruction of Smyrna, a multicultural community where Greeks, Turks and Jews lived alongside each other in relative harmony functioned in the novel as a harbinger of what was to happen to Europe in the decades that followed.
Dimitrios was a symbol of the cross-border criminality that thrived in the chaos and confusion of post-war Europe. Murder, trafficking in drugs and women, spying for foreign powers, political coups and assassination was his natural environment. His multiple identities and ruthless amorality the key to his success.
Behind it all lay international finance in the shape of the shadowy Eurasian Credit Trust, funding drug smuggling and arranging assassinations.
A low dishonest decade
It’s worth reflecting on what sparked Ambler’s fascination with this seedy, dangerous world. After all, on the face of it, his background was fairly unassuming. As a young man, he studied engineering and then took up a job with an engineering company, before becoming a copywriter at a London advertising agency. But his parents were entertainers who ran a puppet show and worked in music hall. And he moved in artistic circles in London, developing an early interest in writing drama.
In parallel, it was impossible to ignore the highly charged politics of the period. Western powers were reacting to the impact of the October Revolution. Mussolini’s Fascist Party seized power in Italy in 1926, crushing political and intellectual opposition. Years of instability in China had led to full-blown Civil War in 1927, followed by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Hitler took power in Germany in 1933. And the Spanish Civil War, widely regarded as a dress rehearsal for the next international conflict, started in 1936. This alarming slide to war was reinforced by Munich and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Unsurprisingly, many artists and intellectuals were appalled by these developments and took a keen interest in progressive politics. Ambler himself was a staunch antifascist in the 1930s and supported the Popular Front. A position probably influenced by his frequent travels in Europe in this period. As Michel Noble writes in a fascinating essay on the impact these journeys had on his fiction, he had witnessed first-hand the violent undercurrents that characterised life in Fascist Italy when visiting an exhibition in Rome in the 1930s and falling foul of a squad of armed Blackshirts.
And in his revealing autobiography, Here Lies, Ambler made a clear link between his new career as a thriller writer and the fateful events of 1936:
It was the year in which Italy invaded Abyssinia, Civil War broke out in Spain and Hitler ordered the German Army to reoccupy the Rhineland. It was a year of yet more refugees and of marriages arranged to confer passports. It was also the year in which the League of Nations was at last seen plainly to be impotent. Those were the things that I was trying, in my own fictional terms, to write about.
Politics were becoming polarised and liberal democracy was under threat. As Eric Hobsbawm noted in his remarkable history The Age of Extremes:
The rise of the radical Right [in Europe] after the First World War was undoubtedly a response to the danger, indeed the reality, of social revolution and working class power…. What gave them their chance… was the collapse of the old regimes and, with them, of the old ruling classes and their machinery of power, influence and hegemony.
In the Balkans, these factors were amplified by the social crises and economic dislocation that flowed from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and the Depression. These acted as a powerful stimulus to authoritarianism. The traditional right had been discredited by World War I and the massive loss of life, redrawing of state boundaries and significant population movements that resulted. They had no answers to these problems. But reformers lacked the political space, will or resources to overcome entrenched elites. This was fertile soil for fascist or proto-fascist movements.
In Hobsbawm’s immortal words, ‘parliamentary democracy in the successor states to the old empires… was a feeble plant growing in stony soil.’
It was also an inspiration for Ambler as the lessons of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment felt like a distant memory. War loomed on the horizon. And civilisation was under threat:
But it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were 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 Yearbook and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
The Mask of Dimitrios charted a world in rapid disintegration. As Ambler finished the novel the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia. He had a sure grasp of the politics of the age and used his protagonist as a platform for exploring the darkness of the interwar years. Ambler’s scrutiny of the unwholesome links between big business, international crime and reactionary governments has a very modern feel to it. As novelist Graham Greene (a great admirer of his) noted, ‘Thrillers are like life, more like life than you are.’
Have you read this or any other novels by Eric Ambler? Share your thoughts on his writing with fellow members of The Joy Club in the comments below.