My Senior Thesis

It went on for months, this falling asleep at four in the morning in a fiendish cloud of cigarette smoke, a rubble of beer bottles, light glaring and an Eric Ambler paperback folded across my nose. It wasn't until I'd finished gobbling the 11th or 12th Ambler goodie that I realized what had been going on. Not what was going on with the books--spy novels are easy enough to figure, God knows--but what was going on with me. I finally caught on to the twisted logic grown up between the Ambler fetish and my dropping the Big One. The Big One is the thesis, and it was as if this series of late-night thrillers was slyly supplying the same drama, the gut-unwrenching of four years of tension, that the thesis was supposed to. And though I thought I'd licked the mythology of senior year's great ritual dance, it emerged that my subconscious had been a sucker for it the whole time.

The mythology is a seductive one: generations of clever Harvard seniors have spun it out to justify generations of thesis-writing that often seemed to make little sense. The basic theme is closure--rounding off, swallowing up, drawing a circle, grabbing the pouch of one's college experience and pulling the string. A project, a trip, where for once you had time to lasso a confusion of ideas, grit your teeth and set your heels, tying them up before they escape and presenting the prize in a blue binder and a parade of marching IBM Selectric lines to show you've tamed them. Pretty stupid, thought I... and proceeded to get seized by a brutal addiction to Eric Ambler. I read every damn thing he wrote, practically (even a thesis has its tiny leaks), and I don't even have a magna to show for it.

Thesis anxiety or not, if Eric Ambler's fifteen or so books were not so wildly interesting I could have kicked the habit. Agatha Christie, who has all the psychological insight of second year algebra, couldn't have maintained interest like that, and if you've ever tried Rex Stout you'd know after three of four books that Nero Wolfe is really just a fat old fart. Almost every collection of one-author-one-genre books gets repetitive after a while: critics betray this by calling thrillers a "craft" or a pulp writer a "masterful technician," generally revealing that the formulas don't hold up for long and that while reading them is somewhat understandable in this cruel world, the activity is about as respectable as doing crossword puzzles or eating Darvon. Life's little sordid pleasures.

Defensively, then, I want to make like Roger Angell, who after revealing his obvious mania for baseball, commences a long argument about how there's nothing to really care about in this society anymore, and at least a good World Series brings people together in sharing the rarity of a strong and healthy emotion. With similar protesting-too-much, I want to claim that Eric Ambler is, well, almost literature. Riddled with the truths of human and historical behavior. Not just a decadently engrossing game.

Ambler writes novels of, um, "international intrigue"--geographical thrillers, you might say. He evades repetitiveness because his genre can be made to have limitless possibilities. You can only murder so many duchesses in so many English manor houses, but Ambler has the whole world to spy in. And his leftist view of society (which is not incorruptible--more of that later) spurs him to take great pains letting the social conditions and political situations of his settings inform the way the plot works itself out.


Take Dirty Story, for instance, which Ambler wrote in 1967. Two European mining consortiums have extensive interests in two African countries side by side. A secret expeditionary force from one country discovers valuable ore just beyond its borders. They hire mercenaries to lead African troops in an effort to rearrange the border. A down-and-out fugitive, our hero, is waylaid in French Somaliland (he is forced to leave Greece for getting mixed up in a pornography racket) with passport problems. He meets a "businessman" and when effusively drunk he brags of a non-existent background in soldiering. Before he knows it he is recruited and clawing through the jungle with a bunch of jingoistic thugs. When I read about the British mercenaries commissioned to battle the MPLA in Angola a few months back, I knew the whole scene.

Ambler heroes, who tend to be British engineers or American journalists with names like Carter and Latimer, always blunder into situations beyond their control, just as the reader falls from the world of the rational browser into the depths of frenzied addition. Alfred Hitchcock has written about one famous Ambler beginning, that of Background To Danger (1937). Kenton is a British journalist in Germany who has lost all his money in a poker game. He takes a train to Vienna to borrow some from a man he knows there. But on the train he shares a compartment with a man who eats sausage and claims to be a Jewish metallurgist fleeing the country from the Nazis, while there's still time. He has the correct papers, but the authorities will not let him take his money with him. Kenton is offered three hundred marks to take the "securities" across the border. He accepts, the papers turn out to be something else entirely, and Kenton is caught up in a fight over oil-drilling concessions in Romania between corporate interests and governments.

Kenton is courted by many spies in Background To Danger, but the one whom he trusts is Zaleshoff, a Soviet agent. Zaleshoff is probably the most sympathetic character in all of Ambler's work--a shrewd and courageous servant of his government in the fight against fascism. If it were not for his sister-and-colleague (the beautiful Tamara) deflating his ego and making him look constantly ridiculous (women in Ambler are often girl Fridays who see through the melodramatic illusions of men), Zaleshoff might be a bit much. But he is the wonderful stuff of a racidal's fantasy nonetheless. He reappears in Cause For Alarm (1939). He cons a British engineer Marlow, (our hero) in Milan to do some unwitting work for him, and soon they are fleeing Mussolini's police across the countryside of northern Italy. While hiding is a railroad depot they are captured, and the fascist official leaves the pair in a workshed under the guard of two railroad workers while he fetches more help. To Marlow, the workers look sullen and threatening, but Zaleshoff begins loftily addressing the older one as "comrade" and humming obnoxiously. Suddenly he lashes out to knock down the younger worker, while the older guard just stands there and lets them escape. Marlow is confused until Zaleshoff later explains that he had noticed a tiny scar on the man's arm. Italian workers in 1923 used to tatoo a hammer and sickle on their arms in the early days of fascism to show they didn't give a damn if anybody knew they were communists. This defiance wisely abated, but Zaleshoff had guessed about the scar and had been humming an old Italian worker's song until he could tell that it was safe to make a break for it.

Ambler was the popular novelist of the left during the thirties, although two well-known movies made from this period, Journey Into Fear (with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles) and Mask of Dimitrios (with Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet), weeded subversion out. But then Ambler changed. After 1940 he didn't write a book for eleven years. He was in charge of propaganda films for the British Army until 1946, and spent a few years writing screenplays (e.g., Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea). In 1951 a disillusioned Ambler, returned with Judgement on Deltchev, about a political trial in Eastern Europe under rather totalitarian circumstances. Though careful not to directly criticize the Soviet Union, Ambler portrays political ideologies as a sham--deluded masses being used as a front to cloak the sinister intentions of the rich and powerful.

Although individuals could show human values, anyone in a large group was only a pawn in the game. Even the liberal Dubcek figure in Deltchev turns out to be bogus--a political opportunist. Given the climate of the times, Ambler found himself a pawn as well: I found an old early fifties 25-cent paperback which screams,

Nightmare in Red! Judgment on Deltchev is the story of a nightmare... of one man's terrifying passage into the mad world of Communist violence, intrigue and murder.

Soon after Ambler wrote State of Siege, set in Southeast Asia, where he made it clear that he at least sympathized with indigenous leftist forces in the third world. But before long that hope, too, was gone. Ambler's heroes now tend to look out for number one, and more and more of them are international hybrids lost in a sea of vicious superpowers.

Ambler's old practice of humanizing his heroes by having them blunder into dangerous situations had become a tendency to portray his protaganists as, well, creeps. Like Arthur Abdul Simpson, the hero of Dirty Story, who is first introduced in The Light of Day. There he is blackmailed by a jewel ring into smuggling guns, and in turn blackmailed by the Turkish police into infiltrating the mob (a decent film, Topkapi, was made from this; Peter Ustinov made an excellent creep). Anyway, Simpson is the son of a British army man stationed in Cairo and an Egyptian woman. They are long dead and Simpson, who bears some rather sick grudges from his experiences at English boarding schools, is a bitter and nationless failure. He is married to a young dancer who sleeps around on him. He is old, overweight, and cowardly. He is also a petty crook, who acts as a driver for rich businessmen, meeting them at the Athens airport, showing them the sights (including a brothel with which he has connections), and eventually fleecing them of their traveller's checks while they are enjoying the fleshpots of the city.

Simpson is weak and paranoid because he has a right to be, Ambler seems to be saying--you need animal cunning to get through these days, and this is Simpson's only virtue. There is no need for the facile theme of having Simpson discover his "manhood" through his experiences--only Simpson feeling immensely pleased with himself at the end of Dirty Story for hitting an armed man from behind with a blunt instrument.

In The Levanter (1972), the hero is Michael Howell, a businessman in Syria who has a Cypriot mother and a Lebanese-Armenian grandmother. He calls himself a "Levantine mongrel," and he spend this time working out deals with a corrupt government to make profits for his company. All this until he falls in with a band of Palestine guerillas. This band may have been fighting for the liberation of their people at one time, but in Ambler's world they are now no more than thugs parading under false pretences. And the Israeli secret service is almost as bad.

In The Intercom Conspiracy the hero is an editor with a drinking problem and so much alienation that he edits a right-winganti-communist newsletter run by a crazed American general: he falls into a plot by two bored intelligence officers in western Europe to disrupt NATO. The CIA, the KGB and other intelligence services get involved, and Ambler's knowledge of how these organizations operate--the old-boy networks; using journalists as front men--is so extensive that recent revelations about the CIA are old hat.

Ambler shares some of his hero's flaws, and he is cynical enough to know it. Obviously he is much too cynical. There are some elements of imperial Britain in his attitude--Arabs tend to smell, for example, and Americans are vulgar and prone to cowboy delusions. There is a mystifying section in The Schirmer Inheritance where a woman whose family has been killed by the Gestapo--a rabid German-hater--falls passionately in love with a dominant and brutal ex-Nazi, as though this is the other side of the coin. But in general Ambler has a wide and realistic understanding of how the world works: each book is rich in historical detail, psychological insight, and another added element which might be called technique--How to do things. The "hero" of Passage of Arms is a shipment of guns originating with communist Chinese guerillas and followed through several countries en route to anti-communist terrorists in Indonesia. You learn how to run guns. I also learned (from The Levanter) how to build a bomb.

What's more, Ambler has something that I've never encountered in a one-author marathon. Most prolific scribes have annoying catch-phrases that they use over and over, or favorite weird words. You get to feel you're on to them. But Ambler has the effortless writing skill of a British education. His style is sure and undistracting--it goes down easier than lemonade in August. By the gallon.

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