Eric Ambler was an advertising copywriter and would-be playwright when he wrote his first novel, The Dark Frontier. It was not meant to be a spy novel so much as a parody of the sort of spy novel that was then popular. He sets the plot in motion with an extract from just such a novel:
Then, that amazing resourcefulness which had made the name of Carruthers feared and hated by the criminals of four continents came to the rescue.
Later works, like the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, fit neatly into exactly this mode of story: the spies are professional, suave, sophisticated, are famous throughout the world (yet are anonymous whenever they need to be), have a smile playing constantly about their handsome features, are superbly fit, quick thinking, and are able to escape the deadliest of situations without breaking into a sweat. They are teflon-coated heroes designed to provide fast-paced adventures without a trace of the real.
The person reading about Conway Carruthers of Dept. Y is about as far as it is possible to get from such a spy. Professor H.J. Barstow is short, middle-aged and sedentary. He is also on the verge of a nervous breakdown, which is why he has stopped into this small hotel on his way to an enforced holiday in the West Country. Here, by chance, he encounters a man called Groom who works for an arms company and is looking for an expert to accompany him to the Balkan state of Ixania to examine a new explosive that has apparently been developed there. Barstow, a physicist who has worked with the British government on ultra-high explosives, would fit the bill, but Barstow turns him down.
That evening, Barstow finds and reads the Carruthers novel. The next day he sets out to drive to his holiday destination, but on a narrow country road he crashes the car. When he comes to, he believes he is Conway Carruthers, and that in the disguise of Professor Barstow his mission is to accompany Groom not to aid the arms company, but to destroy all knowledge of a terrible new weapon.
I’m pretty sure that we’re not meant to take this extended set-up too seriously. And throughout the novel there are explicit reminders that this whole thing is somewhat ridiculous. Late in the novel, for instance, Barstow’s companion, the American journalist Casey, comments:
I was unconvinced by this specious explanation but let it go. Carruthers, I had noticed, always liked to regard his incredible guesswork as masterly foresight.
Yet, although the adventure that follows this set-up conforms to the extravagant conventions of the sort of story being parodied, we can also see the rudiments of what would quickly become the typical Ambler story starting to take shape. Art students learn their craft by copying masterpieces; here, Ambler is learning his craft in the process of copying the cruder examples of the type. There are clumsinesses here that would quickly disappear from later works, the most obvious of which is the uncertainty of the narrative voice. The novel opens in third person, with some unseen, unknown narrator telling us what happens to Barstow, but also what is going on in his fractured mind. But this unidentified “biographer”, as Barstow refers to him in the novel’s opening “Statement”, tells us too much. Once the dramatic action really starts, the novel works largely by withholding information in a way that the omniscient third person could not do. So, at roughly the half-way point, the novel shifts to a first person account by William Casey, an American journalist who happens to be on the spot in Ixania. It’s a rather fumbling transition: Casey begins his narrative at precisely the point that the omniscient third person stops, as though each author is aware of what the other says. Only three years later, Ambler would have the narrative control that produced The Mask of Dimitrios, but here we’re seeing someone still learning how to tell this particular story.
Barstow is an amateur who imagines himself into the role of a super-spy. As such he behaves with more confidence and more physical dexterity than we might expect of a 40-year-old finding himself in such deadly circumstances. But at the same time he becomes the model for Ambler’s later heroes: an amateur unwittingly caught up in a dangerous international game. Ambler’s amateurs tend to be forced by circumstances to reveal far greater competences than they expect. There’s something of that in Barstow, but because of his other personality as a super-spy these abilities emerge not through circumstance but as a result of his delusion. Yet the delusion, despite the occasional aside from Casey, is never questioned, never undermined. His plans, ever more elaborate, daring and reliant on split-second timing, always work. And it is not a matter of chance that they work; from his damaged mind a genuine technical and tactical genius seems to have emerged. From which I get the impression that Ambler has convinced himself of the story he is telling, so that we get in effect the daring spy story that Barstow imagines rather than the parodic version that Ambler started to tell.
As a result, the broken narrative voice and the uncertainty over what story we are actually being told mean that this, overall, a less satisfying book than the novels that would follow it. Yet at the same time it is identifiably a book from which those later novels would be born, even down to the fact that villainy lies in the corporate world, heroism in the left-leaning political will of the people. By the time Casey takes over the narrative duties, Ambler is already a better writer than he was in the opening chapters; it is easy to see how some of his best work appeared so quickly in the wake of this hesitant debut.