His old friend Graham Greene named him “our greatest thriller writer”; a French critic claimed that “because of him, espionage isn’t a dirty profession, but a literary genre.” Even James Bond, in From Russia With Love, carefully unlocked his attaché case “and took out The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler....”
For more than a half-century, Eric Ambler has set the standard for other writers in his field. His eighteen novels are all in print. His concentrated realism, penetrating investigation into character, open-eyed political savvy have shaped the modern thriller. Beneath his persuasive, transparent prose lie an exactitude of language and a seemingly effortless ability to grip the complex truths and deep history of a situation, a character, a country. As with all pioneers, a sense of danger hovers about his work. He established his fictional territory early on, and it remains his.
Though classified as “thrillers,” Ambler’s books lack the standard escapist contraptions of the genre. His settings are never romantic decor, his women are never mannequins, his pawn-takes-pawn plots never become conundrums. There is never any melodramatic hardware or gunplay, no political or personal judgments are passed. Though he is well-known for his power to keep a reader breathless, his books remain in memory as character portraits, and he was the first thriller writer whose entire œuvre (as one critic puts it) can be read as literature. In Ambler there is always a calm underlying the storm of events: the writer relentlessly and purposefully trying to get at the subtler truth.
Born in London in 1909, in his twenties Ambler studied engineering, toured briefly as a vaudeville comedian, then wrote copy at a London ad agency while trying to write plays. Soon he turned to novels, and quickly achieved critical and popular success. According to one critic, Ambler “infused warmth and political color into the spy story by using it to express a Left-Wing point of view....” To his early readers, used to thrillers set in a WWI atmosphere of derring-do, Ambler’s books were of another, subtler, more sober world. He increasingly became fond of the first-person voice, sometimes using multiple, contradictory narrators. To Ambler this technical feat seemed only “the better way to tell the story.”
By the beginning of the war he was recognized in Britain and America as the master of the genre. During the war he was made a lieutenant colonel in the British Army, in charge of all military training, morale, and education films. He worked with Carol Reed, Peter Ustinov, and David Niven in England, and with John Huston in Italy under fire. After the war, while going back to novels, Ambler was under contract as a screenwriter for the Rank Organization, writing films like A Night to Remember and The Cruel Sea.
His work divides easily into three periods. A desert-island collection might include Cause For Alarm and The Mask of Dimitrios (U.S. title: A Coffin for Dimitrios) from the first era, before the war, when he made his reputation; Judgment on Deltchev (’51), Passage of Arms (’59), The Night Comers (in the U.S.A., State of Siege) and A Kind of Anger (’64) from the second era, when he was also working as a screenwriter (he has written almost as many screenplays as novels); The Levanter (’72) and Doctor Frigo (’74) from the last period.
His settings are diverse, from the French Caribbean to East Africa, the Middle East to Malaysia, Italy to Indonesia, Germany to Turkey and the Balkans. He has, like every other writer, perpetual concerns: the uncertain, poor country in crisis; the traveller obsessed with frontiers, passports, permissions; the nervous lives and dangerous movements of refugees; the hunger for reputation.
These days, after many years in Switzerland, Ambler lives with his wife in London. Hard at work on a follow-up to a first volume of autobiography, Here Lies, he suggested we meet for a rare interview at a quiet French restaurant near his flat, not far from Harrod’s. He spoke with great pleasure of his half-century routine of “getting up and going straight to work in the next room—not a bad life.” What most came through was delight in his craft, a radiating intelligence, and the portly good humor of one who enjoys making dangerous remarks over a lunch of Dover sole.
AW You said in Here Lies that after playwriting didn't work out, you were casting around. And the books you disliked most were thrillers. At that time you hadn't read Maugham’s Ashenden stories?
EA Oh, yes, I read Ashenden. I read everything I could lay my hands on. I was really in touch. I knew every new thought that came into anybody's mind. I worked at an advertising agency, so I didn't even have to buy. Every sort of journal or paper came into the office. I just used to raid it.
AW When you were reading these thrillers in the early '30s, did you have a clear idea what you could do with the medium?
EA No, I didn't. The first book I wrote, The Dark Frontier, started out as a parody. A parody of the sort of blood-and-thunder thriller. The “With one gigantic leap” plotting. It was done from several points of view. My attitude was: I despised William Le Queux’s stuff. Therefore I ought to be able, if I'm entitled to despise it, actually to create something better. But let me show you how I despise it first. I'm not going to condemn myself as a thriller writer, so I'll show you how funny I can be at the expense.
AW In fact, it was the very first novel about the atomic bomb, written back in 1935. Did you realize this at the time?
EA It didn't seem especially sensational. I regarded it (the bomb) in the same way as Hitchcock used to regard his Macguffins. He used to call them Macguffins. This secret plan, that imponderable—
AW In the final version, does The Dark Frontier read as parody?
EA It doesn't, because I changed my mind halfway through, and began to think, “Oh, you know this is not bad." (laughs) Those were the days before I could afford to rewrite a book. I was doing it at weekends and in between ads for Kellogg's Corn Flakes.
AW You must've been conscious at some point that you were doing something quite new with this kind of book.
EA That's the thing, you see. Nobody was saying you were doing something new, because nobody else was reading it. I thought I was. This is why I insist strongly on the importance of the word “author.” Because authorship is that sort of confidence—the confidence to waste your time. You may be wasting your time. And it's no good saying, "I've devoted my life!” To hell with that, nobody wants to read it. But if you want to do anything, if this is the way you want to earn a living, you’ve got to do something better. The better mouse trap. Nobody's paying you to do it. And there's nobody to blame if it doesn't work out. You're trying to enter a market. And if you can't, okay. Forget it.
AW Let's talk about one of your most famous books, The Mask of Dimitrios (1939). Did the form, a masterful structure of succeeding flashbacks, come easily?
EA I had great difficulty, I had to go back and do it over several times to get the loose ends to match. I went to America that January really to get away from Dimitrios, because I didn't know how to finish it. I’d never stopped in the middle of a book before, and thought. I'd always written them straight through, seven days a week, for months. I'd been scared of not delivering the next on time. Still a bad way.
AW Your books don't appear once a year, they appear once every three years. You refer to yourself as an obsessional rewriter. When the point came when you could afford to, you wrote and rewrote and rewrote your books. What's this many, many drafts?
EA Five or six. It takes time. This isn’t mot juste stuff. It’s: “Is any of it worthwhile? Are we just getting the book in shape? What’s new?”
AW The really new things you brought to the “thriller”—besides settings like Istanbul, Belgrade, and the use of several narrators—were a whole new tone and world view. Part of this sense of reality in your books, even the early ones, comes because there are characters of every level culpability as in the Shakespeare play, but there's never any moral judgment or blame exerted by the author. Were you very aware that you were doing this or is this simply you by nature?
EA It was me by cultivation. I was very careful not to make judgments, I was careful not to become pretentious. The mess that we have inherited—I'm talking about the Thirties. There was going to be another war. We knew it. Nobody was going to be to blame. Of course you could always blame the old men, but that was easy. We'd destroyed the Germans, so you couldn't reasonably blame them. We'd killed them at the Treaty of Versailles. Who could blame them? Indeed, Italy seemed much more menacing. The war had started for me when the Spanish Civil War started in 1936. I didn't go to Spanish Civil War, but later I always felt guilty about it. I thought I should have gone and died like Cornford or got a lousy disease like Orwell. That I should've suffered in some way.
AW After the war, while writing film scripts, you waited a long time before writing Judgment on Deltchev. I got the impression from your autobiography that the postwar world felt so different, you had to accustom yourself to it before writing another novel.
EA There'd always been a war somewhere, war coming, war already started. I’d had World War One as a boy, and it seemed a more normal state to me than peace. War simplifies the options. And also I'd been a fellow-traveler. But I felt that the god had failed. I came to that conclusion simply because I'd been through war and I'd seen, especially in southern Italy, how little relation far left ideals have for dealing with people at their ultimate stretch. People dying.
Italy at war had moved me very much. I detested fascism, or thought I did. It sounds very simplistic, I'm afraid, or very easy, but when I saw the railroad lines twisted about.... Germans had machines for twisting them up, just as they had machines for pulling down power lines. They had machines for making roads impassable. I'm talking about the Mezzo Giorno, southern Italy. The fascists, you see had done an enormous amount. The railroads and electric power had been taken to places that were still living in the early Middle Ages. All this had been destroyed for a thrupence. And they were being ravaged by French-Canadian troops. Goons. This seemed to me to make nonsense of going around asking people if any of them was a communist. It was likely to make him mad. How stupid can politics get.
AW I heard somewhere that S. J. Perelman spoke of knowing you.
EA He was originally from New York, but I knew him in London. A lot of American writers came here after the war. Really, they came because the atmosphere was more congenial than under McCarthy. My first wife was an American, she had children by her first husband. I think if it hadn't been for McCarthy, we'd have gone to America. I was dead set on becoming an American citizen.
AW You didn't like living in England?
EA The Labour Government after the war was such a disaster, such a grubby thing, it almost made the war worth losing. The party was too much to take. You see, I’d been in the propaganda front line. I’d made movies about America for British troops.
AW It’s quite a stretch, to describe your books as "thrillers" or "spy stories." That doesn't really cover it.
EA This has always been a great difficulty with my publishers. I say publishers—plural—because I've had a lot of English publishers, and different ones in other languages. The German language publisher, who’s in Zürich, is the most sensitive to this lack of category. They're not spy stories. I mean, that's just a load of crap.
AW I don't know if another book exists like Judgment on Deltchev, about a Balkan trial, or like The Intercom Conspiracy, about how one of the principal ways by which covert information is really passed on is a network of small journals that make the daily newspapers seem ludicrous. Or Passage of Arms, about the smuggling of some guns in Malaysia, all the way from ambushed revolutionaries to the final transaction, told via the people who handle them. Did these stories come to you so neatly?
EA No, never. They came to me as ideas, as notions. There are some people in America, and a German director named Schlondorff, who’ve been trying for two years now to get a script of Passage of Arms. They’re eager to update it. Really, you don’t need to update it, because the situation’s exactly the same. You don’t even have to change the names very much. The last word I had from them was would I give them extra option time because of the Writers’ Strike. My reply was that it was a mistake on their part to suggest to a fully paid-up and indeed pensioned member of the Writers' Guild that he should scab. I was on the WG council at the time of the first strike in ’60. My agent in London was written a long lecture from a New York lawyer talking about how unfortunate it was that writers of my stature took adversarial positions. Adversarial! There’s the sweets trolley.
AW How do you steep yourself so deeply in your books’ locations, and in your characters’ backgrounds? For example, with The Levanter, did you travel a lot in the Middle East?
EA A little. Syria, no. Cyprus yes, when it was British, but briefly. Unavoidable transit difficulties. I went to Israel, just after the ’67 war. Under the publisher George Weidenfeld’s auspices, which was not a good thing to do. Because you get the high-level treatment. And the thing not to do is to get the high-level treatment. No one is going to talk to you, except in p.r. platitude terms. The best thing that happened to me in Israel was that Weidenfeld’s representative there, a very striking young man, contested the whole idea that I should be looking at Israel—me, a goy—with the idea of writing about it. He put me on the tours. I went everywhere in Israel by bus with American tourists, all excited Jewish people, all with an absolute belief—except they didn’t want to live there. I was probably the only non-Zionist on the bus. I’m still convinced the Israelis were really sending out the buses in the hope that the PLO would throw grenades at them.
AW You must’ve done an extraordinary amount of research.
EA Oh, yes. But you can read it all, if you know where to look, and what you want to read about. It’s really finding out what the questions are.
AW You’ve been a great user of libraries.
EA You bet. But also a great user of bars. In the Hotel Intercontinental that spring, on the Mount of Olives, I must have been the only non-Jew in the hotel as a guest; the whole staff was Palestinian Arab. They’d come to my room and say, ‘Would you please when it’s dark come to my village?’ I was handed a bundle of letters of introduction to Beirut. I could’ve stayed for months. Beautiful city, before it was messed about.
AW You’re writing a second volume of autobiography?
EA There’s very little about me in it. The main theme is that film—sound film, not television—has had its pretensions exploded. It’s a vehicle only, rather like opera. It’s still not a novel. You can say more on paper, simultaneously, in a shorter space, by flicks of words. Look, the day someone decides to make a movie of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, I’ll believe it then.
AW Actually, someone tried, but it didn’t work very well.
EA Of course it wouldn’t work. Have you seen David Lean’s A Passage to India? David’s been fighting this battle all the time. He really believes that film is better than words. Did you notice the credits on the film? I can tell you what they are. They’re: “A David Lean Production, from the novel by E.M. Forster, produced by David Lean, edited and directed by David Lean, adapted by David Lean, screenplay by David Lean.” I mean, he can’t leave out E.M. Forster. But what he’s done is try and do what he did with the murder of Nancy in his version of Oliver Twist. He’s made images. Like the penis-like object coming up out of the lake. I don’t know what it means. Very confusing. And the scene in the cave when you really don’t know what the hell’s going on.
AW Do you think movies should avoid great books?
EA I’m not saying that, I’m simply saying that if you’re going to do A Passage to India—it was done very well on the stage, where these things are understood. When people said, “She’s imagining things,” they didn’t try to show her imagining things. The relationships were clearer. They’re clearest of all in the book. I think the thing that David’s done best was Lawrence of Arabia. Big screen. Vistas. Akkaba. O’Toole camping about in flowing robes, in blowing sand dunes. Okay. But it adds nothing. It’s like a book with pictures. Illustrated comics.
AW Why are there so few good thriller movies? Why as a genre doesn’t it seem to translate well?
EA Because it starts off as a thriller, doesn’t it, so what’s film got to add? It’s only got to add the cover illustration. You’re providing the lurid jacket for it. The images connected with thrillers are so cliché, they’re all cliché, every one. And many thrillers now are feeding off film. It’s a kind of feedback.
AW The film Topkapi was adapted from your book The Light of Day, and Journey Into Fear was filmed in ’42, starring Orson Welles. And of course The Mask of Dimitrios was filmed about the same time. You’ve never expressed much satisfaction with films made from your books. Are there any books of yours that you felt could’ve been made into good movies?
EA No. My regret is that I sold Dimitrios for so little. $3,000. Now—(laughs) My fault. I was in the army. I thought Warner Brothers were crazy to make it in the beginning. It was made on standing sets for $600,000, which was peanuts. Every one of the actors was under contract at Warner Brothers, and doing nothing else. The script was by a man named Frank Gruber, a writer of second-feature cowboy pictures. I’m surprised anything came out at all. I thought Sidney Greenstreet was very good, but then he was always very good. He was Irish. Real Irish from Ireland.
AW Which of your screenplays were you most happy with?
EA Oh, I suppose, The Purple Plain. The Cruel Sea mainly because I got an Academy Award nomination, which warms the cockles.
AW You lived in California for ten years. Did you like it out there?
EA I didn’t mind. I had a house burn down almost immediately. An interesting experience. My wife Joan was part of the Hitchcock outfit.
AW I’ve heard that most of Hitchcock’s writers were amanuenses. You never worked with him—I take it you wouldn’t have made a good amanuensis.
EA Oh, no. An amanuensis isn’t an arguer. The dreadful thing is you can be quite wrong, and yet be convinced.
AW And you don’t find out until you see it on the screen?
EA Well, you do. You know there’s something wrong in the script, and it’s possible that nobody sees it because you’ve got to start on the picture or forget the whole thing. Or you’ve got to start simply because the actor is there. And you’re contracted. You still know there’s something wrong. You may not know how to fix it. A picture may go ahead. The terrible thing is, the thing that you knew was wrong will only appear in the rough cut. And the first person to say it was wrong will be whoever it was before who denied it existed. Now you see it on the screen and there’s something the matter. It’s not totally unacceptable, but it’s wrong.
AW Do you keep up with what goes on in the thriller field?
EA I read reviews. I read one book about submarine warfare that I was told was very good indeed. But I can’t remember. I find it very difficult to read Jeffrey Archer. There comes to mind a remark of Oscar Levant’s about Doris Day: “Ha! I knew her before she was a virgin.” I feel that I knew Jeffrey Archer’s work was bad before everybody knew it was bad.
AW Word came not too long ago of the passing of Kim Philby. Did you ever know him?
EA I’m surprised the old boy lasted so long. He must have had terrible liver trouble. In his wife’s book, The Spy I Married or whatever it was, she quotes one of his letters, saying he’d read the new Ambler. At the time, that was A Kind of Anger. And he liked it. So I was on his reading list. That was our only acquaintance. I didn’t know any of those people. You see, I didn’t go to their schools or their universities. Wrong class.
AW You once wrote a piece about “spy-spotting.” You mentioned Tangier, Istanbul, etc. Where should one go now to see spies?
EA I suppose Bangkok—you can get into real danger there.
AW After your autobiography, will you write another novel?
EA I doubt it. I think I’m pretty much blown. Once you start to write about what you believe to be reality, you’re really on the skids.