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Back in my teens and early twenties, spy stories probably constituted the bulk of my reading, both fiction (Helen MacInnes, John Le Carre, Len Deighton) and non-fiction (The Penkovsky Papers, Kim Philby’s My Secret War, a rather dense tome on General Gehlen). Through it all, one name kept repeating: Eric Ambler. The recent reprints of Helen MacInnes novels all come emblazoned with exactly the same quote from Newsweek that the editions I read in the early 70s carried: “Helen MacInnes can hang her cloak and dagger right up there with Eric Ambler and Graham Greene.” Ambler was inescapable: if you liked this stuff, you had to read him. And yet I never did.

I am not exactly sure why. I think, for whatever reason, I had pegged him as the spy fiction equivalent of Edgar Wallace: populist, slick, rather trashy, and above all a representative of an earlier generation. It is an unfair characterisation, of course. Ambler’s career as a novelist stretched from 1936 to 1981, which isn’t all that different from Helen MacInnes’s career, 1941 to 1984. To say that, as spy writers, they belong to different generations is probably stretching it a bit. As for the identification with Edgar Wallace, I have no idea where that came from, but if I’d thought about that Newsweek quotation I’d have realised how far off the mark it is. After all, Ambler is being compared with MacInnes and Greene, neither of whom is exactly in the Edgar Wallace camp.

Journey into FearBe that as it may, it all means that Journey into Fear, a very gratefully received Christmas present from Maureen which I have just finished, is the first thing by Eric Ambler I have read. I should have been reading him 40 or 50 years ago.

Apart from the early chapters being told largely in flashback, it is a very straightforward story, straightforwardly told. Graham (no forename is ever given) is a British armaments engineer in Turkey to wrap up a deal essential for Turkey’s defence in the war that is just starting (it is the early months of 1940). On his last night in Istanbul Graham is shot at as he returns to his hotel room. Graham is inclined to dismiss it as a robbery gone wrong, but Colonel Haki, the head of Turkish intelligence, knows better. Any delay to the deal could be fatal to Turkey’s interests, and if Graham were killed it would put things back by at least six months. Haki therefore persuades Graham to change his plans; instead of travelling back to England by train, where he would be a sitting duck, he joins an old tramp steamer heading for Genoa, from where he can more safely return home.

The bulk of the novel is set aboard this boat as Graham slowly comes to recognise the parlous position he is in. The whole is a brilliant exercise in creating an atmosphere of fear which Ambler orchestrates by repeatedly offering hope and then dashing it. Graham realises that one of his fellow passengers is the Bulgarian assassin that Haki identified, but he can’t convince the ship’s crew that he is not delusional. He has been given a gun for his protection, but the gun is stolen from his cabin. A fellow passenger, an erotic dancer who is clearly trying to seduce Graham (for money, as we later discover), offers to steal her husband’s gun and pass it to Graham, but she isn’t able to deliver the goods. Another passenger proves to be a Turkish agent sent by Haki to protect Graham, but the agent is killed. The German mastermind of the assassination plot offers Graham what seems like a way out, but it turns out to be a deception to make it easier to kill Graham once they get to Genoa.

There are moments of dramatic action, the climax of the novel is quite spectacular, but in the main the novel works as a slow, quiet, accumulation of tension. There’s a way out, no it’s closed off; there’s another way out, no it’s closed off again. And Graham is an ordinary, middle class, middle aged man who has never before found his life in danger, and has never before had to act the way he must act now if he is to stay alive. And all of this is played out in the narrow confines of a rusty old boat, where the handful of fellow passengers may be allies who cannot be relied upon, or enemies who cannot be identified.

What struck me about the novel was how appropriate the comparison with Helen MacInnes is, although Journey into Fear is about half the length of an average MacInnes novel. There is, for a start, the sense of place; though MacInnes would play her story out against familiar landmarks and public spaces, where Ambler’s novel takes us to seedy nightclubs and smoky offices. There is the centrality of a journey, where deadly enemies are right behind or possibly one step ahead; though for MacInnes the journey would be through the sharply described mountains of Above Suspicion or the coastal landscape of Assignment in Brittany, while for Ambler it all takes place in the equally sharply described decks and salon and cabins of the tramp steamer. Above all there is the fact that the story concerns an innocent, an amateur, caught in a violent world that they do not understand and for which they are ill prepared, but who finds within themselves resources of wit and nerve that prove equal to the task. Though MacInnes will introduce romantic interest who proves equally resourceful, whereas Ambler’s romantic interest is, in the end, unreliable. And though both MacInnes and Ambler equip their novels with enough cliffhangers and bursts of action to keep any reader gripped, the real focus is psychological, how nerves and fear and resolve shape and twist and move things along.

It has taken me a long time to discover Eric Ambler, I suspect that now I shall be making up for those long years of neglect.