Monday, October 06, 2014

15. Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler

After finishing Roseanna, I wanted to seize on to my new found reading momentum but unfortunately did not have any disposable trade paperbacks that I wanted to read.  Desperately, I went to my own bookshelves and re-discovered the Eric Ambler omnibus edition that I had found in an unmanned use bookstore/barn on the side of the road in Ontario's cottage country.  The book is called Intrigue and contains four of the classics of Ambler's early period:  Journey into Fear, A Coffin for Dimitrios, Cause for Alarm and Background to Danger.  It also has an introduction by Alfred Hitchcock which I shall read upon completing this post.

Journey into Fear was excellent.  A naive British engineer traveling to Turkey at the beginning of the Second World War suddenly finds his life threatened by Axis spies.  They want to delay the deal he worked between his armaments firm and the Turkish government.  After a failed assassination attempt in his hotel room in Istanbul, the Turkish secret service have him put on a small freighter to Genoa.  There are a dozen other passengers or so and the bulk of the intrigue takes place on the ship, as his naiveté is slowly stripped from him and he learns the true nature of the world and the war that is building up momentum around him.

Ambler is probably the progenitor of the realist school of espionage fiction.  His heroes are oftne not heroic and the bad guys can be quite banal, even pathetic.  However, he does, at least in the earlier books, have clear good guys and bad guys.  It's interesting reading them today, in the post LeCarré world.  I wasn't sure at which point it would be clear who were the good guys and bad guys.  The twist for me was that there was no twist, if you see what I mean.  Despite the traditional form of protagonist and antagonist, Journey into Fear is at its core a fairly dark and pessimistic book and probably reflects Ambler's own awakening to the horrors of the war as they came to touch upon everyone in England.

What I particularly enjoyed about Journey into Fear is the role that manners play in the intrigue.  Every interaction has layers of breeding, nationality the social expectations of the situation.  Underneath all that are the true motivations of the characters.  Even when it is time to put ones cards on the table, everybody remains unfailingly civilized, politely discussing the various reasons why one would not wish to kill the other person but would do so if it were made absolutely necessary.

[In looking for an existing online image of the cover, I see that The Sun King has a different version of Intrigue with a different cover and only three novels and no intro by Alfred Hitchcock.  Will this start an international game of cat and mouse as he does everything in his power to obtain my copy?  Or should I simply reveal that mine is a Book Club edition, the shabby bourgeois riding the third class car of book collecting to save him the trouble and expense?]

1 comment:

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Haha, noted on the book club edition.

Ambler himself would have pointed to W. Somerset Maugham's 'Ashenden or, The British Agent' as the progenitor of realist espionage fiction; he wrote about 'Ashenden' in an anthology called 'To Catch a Spy', which I wrote about here.

(And since I'm in shameless self-promotion mode, I wrote about 'Ashenden' itself here. Short version: I bloody loved it.)