The faces behind the mask

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A last interview with Eric Ambler, The Guardian, January 1997


In the summer of 1924 a young Irish-American writer staying on the Riviera flung open the windows and stood motionless on his balcony. ‘Conrad is dead,’ he repeated over and over to the glittering Mediterranean. ‘Conrad is dead. Conrad is dead.’ The histrionics were for an audience – this was the future author of The Great Gatsby speaking: but with the passing of the writer he had elected his artistic conscience, Scott Fitzgerald knew that a moral authority had been lost to the novel. In one of his essays Graham Greene dates this loss of the novel’s ‘religious sense’ to the death of Henry James, and with it ‘the sense of the importance of the human act’. One could argue about dates, but I take Greene’s point that previously, even the most unimportant character – Mr Verloc, say, the agent provocateur in Conrad’s The Secret Agent – had existed in God’s eye. Verloc’s unimportance was matched by his enormous importance in another world.

So at about this time the literary novel ceased to be about telling a story and started to be about the difficulty of telling a story. Resourceful novelists saw ways round the difficulty, into subjective fiction, existential fiction, genre fiction. Above all, the genres – mystery, suspense, crime. A few years later, Greene was to gesture at literature’s fresh wound by identifying his popular intrigues as ‘entertainments’.

After him, the Thirties produced many thriller writers. The novel might have lost its moral domain; but within the shape of a suspense novel, a storyteller who fancied telling a moral tale could still invoke a conflict that attempted to separate good from evil. The period produced only one other master. His books are out of print and his name we can hardly turn our memory to. More interested in the fragility of history than Greene was, less burlesque – his tone more authentic than the sometimes camp seediness of Greeneland – he was the begetter of the modern thriller. His name was Eric Ambler.

Not was, but is. Eric Ambler, unexpectedly, survives. Coincidentally, Ambler described this very perplexity in a once-famous novel, The Mask of Dimitrios. In this novel a terrorist and criminal first identified on a mortuary slab in Istanbul turns out, four-fifths of the way through the book, not to be dead at all. In like manner, literary history carelessly believed it had identified Mr Ambler’s corpse. Then two months ago, a little frail perhaps but acute and alert,  he turned up at an interview at the National Film Theatre. Seeing him, I experienced something of the shock felt by Latimer – the narrator of Dimitrios – who has set himself the task of reconstructing the criminal’s life.


‘If Dimitrios is still alive, where is he?’

‘Here in Paris.’ Mr Peters leaned forward and patted Latimer’s knee. ‘You have been very reasonable, Mr Latimer,’ he said kindly. ‘I shall tell you everything.’

‘It’s very good of you,’ said Latimer bitterly.

‘No! no! You have a right to know,’ said Mr Peters.


‘If only the other residents were as little trouble as Mr Ambler,’ said the porter at the door to the lift in a block of apartments north of Marble Arch. He stepped into the lift behind me. There were five floors numbered on the control panel, but access to the third was by porter’s key only. He inserted and turned it importantly.

Nothing has been heard of Ambler for ten years. His last book, Here Lies – a good pun on posthumousness and truth – was an autobiography published in 1985. As the lift rose, I remembered that these memoirs had had a reluctant tone. Ambler seemed to like being elusive. He gave the game away a bit by the conspicuous relish of his description of how he had first learned to lie. It was a habit he had picked up from dealing with the masters at his grammar school. ‘Doesn’t everybody want to be able to lie successfully?’ he asked.

Maybe. But I feel you have a right to know about that key. It wasn’t there because of a passion for secrecy but because Ambler, at eighty-seven, has trouble getting in and out of the lift. (I feel happier for passing this on. Circumstantial evidence wrongly interpreted has a habit of getting Ambler’s heroes into trouble.)

His secretary led me over a tract of thudding pale carpet. Ambler was waiting in a Regency-striped armchair across the hall. The apartment was unexpected, a world of winter-bright pastel colours and the sort of grand simplicity which is always a statement. I felt it was a front: it would have done justice (ironically, in view of some of the villains that people his books) to the taste of a middle-aged bachelor banker. Sitting room and occupant – portly, handsome grey suit and Garrick tie, with walking stick by his side and a glass of champagne to hand, were a far cry from the rented room in Marseille that was determinative for his writing, more than sixty years ago.

In 1934 Ambler was working in advertising. He took a fortnight’s summer break on a P & O steamer to the Mediterranean. In Marseille he visited a bar where the barman offered to teach him to play poker-dice. He was cheated and lost all his money. He had two days to wait until the steamer returned, so he went back to his hotel on the Canebière and tried to take his mind off things by reading his Tauchnitz edition of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Outside his window was a balcony with a wrought-iron grille. When Joyce could divert him no longer, he imagined himself as a rifle sighted on the intersection where the barman would cross from his bar to catch his tram. He waited and watched with the tramlines in his sights, ready to kill.

A few weeks later, back in England, he saw a newsreel showing Marseille and the same piece of the Canebière. It was the spot for his sniper shot. It was also the place chosen by the Croatian assassin of King Alexander of Yugoslavia. The man ran out from the crowd lining the route of the state procession and emptied his pistol into the back of the open car before he was cut down by a sabre of the cavalry escort.

As Ambler says in his autobiography, it was a messy death. ‘If he had taken my room, I thought, and used a rifle, he might have had a chance of getting away…. I felt oddly guilty, but also pleased. In the Mediterranean sunshine there were strange and violent men with whom I could identify and with whom, in a way, I was now in touch.’

It was odd to associate this story with champagne at eleven a.m. and dragged eau-de-nil walls. Its author looked spruce and well (though he has a skin complaint and the circulatory by-products of old age). It was as though he had forsworn darkness and gone legit. He delivered his remarks with a twist of the head, which decelerated a little at the point of delivery – but for that hesitancy, with his slightly bulbous eyes and cheeks that pulled down the sides of his mouth, with his stick and tailoring and his immobile posture, he would have made a convincing godfather. A don without a clan.

He told his assassination story to the poet James Fenton a decade ago, and added then, ‘I felt I had a fresh bit of my character which was an assassin. And I felt there were people all over Europe just like me, just ready for the word to kill.’

Between 1935 and 1940 Ambler wrote the six novels that made him famous on both sides of the Atlantic. It was not the path he had originally embarked upon. Engineering at university had bored him – the scholarship boy from Lewisham outstripped his teachers – and he turned truant, carrying an attaché case as an alibi while he spent his mornings in the public galleries of the Law Courts and his afternoons at West End matinées. The case contained student papers for show, and a book called The Martyrdom of Man, which Sherlock Holmes had once recommended to Watson. It was a revelation to Ambler. ‘Supernatural Christianity is false. Prayer is useless. There are no rewards or punishments in a future state.’

In the Law Courts he made the important discovery that everyone was a performer. Physiognomy, a smirk or a modest tear, he discovered, was often the difference between guilt and innocence. It demonstrated to him yet again the importance of keeping a straight face.

When he began copywriting in a London advertising agency, he took to writing expressionist plays in his spare time. For a literary pretender, the results were too meagre. He was promoted in the copy department from patent medicine to baby food, and he learned that there was lying, and lying. ‘I had the natural dishonesty the trade requires, but I thought it was a deeply dishonest business, learning how to arrange half-truths so they didn’t look like half-truths.’ He found himself inventing diseases for which his products were cures – like the ailment he called ‘penumbra’, invented for a client who had a quantity of unwanted low-wattage light bulbs to dispose of. He also worked on the Ex-Lax account.

Ex-Lax was owned by an American who suffered dreadfully fromconstipation. ‘We ran a campaign based on night starvation’ – the current Horlicks catchphrase – ‘we called our disease “incomplete elimination”.’

A crooked finger shoots out, eyes bulge in parody.

‘Take Ex-Lax for complete relief!’

Ambler was sent out to see if the public understood the message. ‘A cab driver thought I was soliciting and told me to fuck off or he’d call the police.’ The reluctant adman went to a café. ‘The proprietor said, “Oh yes, it’s like night starvation, mate,” and then he became rather conspiratorial. “You know and I know what it means, don’t we? But there’s a lot of narrow-minded people about.” He thought “night starvation” and “incomplete elimination” were sexual complaints, you see, and Horlicks and Ex-Lax were both aphrodisiacs….’

Failing success as a playwright, the only kind of novel Ambler had strong feelings about was the thriller. He liked some he read, but disliked most for the imperial stolidity of their heroes, who were implausibly manly, universally right-wing, and stupid. They were also anti-Bolshie, anti-Semitic. ‘A lot of flogging went on in those books.’

Most importantly, the writers were out of touch with Europe and with the war everyone was waiting for. Historically, Ambler’s own novels reflect the queasy atmosphere and conspiratorial politics of their time. True, Thirties Europe was fertile ground for the thriller. But Ambler’s books are undervalued as merely the antecedents of Le Carré and the Cold War generation. For one thing, his convincingly ordinary heroes – stringers, writers on holiday, language teachers, stateless persons, failed suicides, ensnared resentfully and accidentally in a world of menace – offered an originality of psychology and voice. For another, Ambler was the first thriller writer to notice that other villains existed besides sneaking, glacé-haired foreign spies. His Russians were often sympathetic; it was the agents of capitalism who had to be watched. Ambler’s novels have a whiff of prophecy about them. In his second book, Uncommon Danger, a freelance journalist named Kenton finds himself up against agents of the Pan-Eurasian Petroleum Company, men who will not stop at murder in order to destabilise the Romanian government and gain control of the Bessarabian oilfields.


The difference between Al Capone and Stefan Saridza is that while Capone worked for himself, Saridza works for other people….When Saridza ordered that Captain to beat you with a Totschläger until you gave him some photographs, it was to increase the income of what he called his principals in London – gentlemen who would, in all probability, hesitate before they swatted a fly. You see, your businessman desires the end, but dislikes the means. He is a kind-hearted man.


On the subject of his quest for Dimitrios, Latimer reflects that it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil.


They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.


This is the  originality of Ambler’s early fiction. The message of the contemporary thriller, as we’re familiar with it from its Cold War conception, isn’t much more than a rewrapping of E.M. Forster’s dictum about honour – his hope that, if forced to choose between betraying his country or his friend, he would have the guts to betray his country. It’s a message that has made for many bestselling packages, but essentially a repetitive one, for the simple reason that we can never doubt the identity of the enemy. Ambler, however, did not believe in the Cold War. As early as the 1930s he was prophesying a different field of conflict. Not personal-patriotic, but personal-economic: for Ambler’s heroes, questions of loyalty and honour lie in the process by which they come to understand that the world is dominated even more by financial interests than political, that behind every fortune there is always some kind of meanness, and that accepting even the most modest amount of cash for the wrong motive can relieve you of your honour. Add to this the fact that 60 years later most of us lead lives of quiet domination by the global markets, and one sees that his view was remarkably modern.

Ambler does not see the world as having greatly bettered itself. ‘In most countries governments can be disposed of. I know there’s not much difference in the end. If New Labour gets in now, the City will wake up in the morning and shiver, and then it will be business as usual.’ By the Fifties he had disowned the politics of the Left as much as the Right. The failure of the Popular Front and the Communist show trials turned him into an uncomplicated English anarchist.

‘I don’t really think I believe in democracy.’ He pauses, sorry to have said it. ‘Except in wartime, when it’s in short supply.’

In the beginning, all Ambler wanted to do was write a thriller that was in closer touch with reality. This was the period of the squadristi and Europe going fascist. ‘I wanted a left-wing hero, an anti-Fascist hero. I was strongly influenced by the Spanish Civil War, much more than by the rise of the Nazis. Then I realised that my heroes were men without political convictions. That’s me! They’re all equivocal, the way you found me in the autobiography.’

These are the difficult characters to make interesting. Ordinary, unfreakish, holders of petty vices, happy to be dull – heroes who need a steady hand. This one is typical (and gets Ambler himself to a t):


In the years that followed, occasional trips abroad had become part of his working life. He enjoyed them. He liked the actual business of getting to a strange city almost as much as he liked discovering its strangeness. He liked meeting men of other nationalities, learning smatterings of their languages, and being appalled at his lack of understanding of both. He had acquired a wholesome dislike of the word ‘typical’.


An overlooked fact about Ambler’s writing is that his books were not spy thrillers. The closest he came were novels that contained a good deal of accidental counter-espionage. He wrote humorous, chilling stories about an average bloke whom he made English, British, European, stateless. Such characters need a lot of scenery, and a lot to do: Ambler’s geography, from Turkey to the Balkan states and the capitals of western Europe, connected by international timetables and the physical décor of fear – hotel corridors, gloomy train compartments, empty quarters of foreign cities and many frontiers – provides an arena in which treacherous calm and sudden violence swiftly succeed one another. The books have speed and depth. The historical underpinning is substantial. Details like the chilling description of German concentration camps in his 1938 novel Epitaph For a Spy – ‘38 not ‘48 – were culled from conversations with refugees and reading of left-wing newssheets. His plots have an organic realism; he never followed a set story line, and several times had to abandon a book because he had got his hero into a position no amount of ingenuity could get him out of alive. The virtue of his vision is that it trains the focus of history onto the poor bloody infantryman without making his psychology or sense of honour subsidiary to great events.

His concentration on other ranks got him into trouble with the outbreak of war. He had been rapidly transferred from the Royal Artillery to the Army Film Unit, where he was told to make something with Peter Ustinov on ‘how not to ill-treat recruits’. The result was a training film called The New Lot, to be directed by Carol Reed. When it was finished, the training generals’ reaction was that it verged on the Bolshie.

‘Oh yes. We were all for subversion!’ Ambler says.

The New Lot was shelved by the Army, and only resurfaced when a print was found in India three years ago. But the training curriculum had to come up with something, and eventually The Way Ahead was made, a full-length feature with David Niven that should be watched by all students of British television comedy. Aside from its propaganda qualities, inspiration is too weak a term for its relation to Perry and Croft’s Dad’s Army. It is a classic.

After the war it is less easy to trace Ambler the novelist. He wrote another dozen books over the next thirty years. Impassive in his armchair, he admits to being present in all his villains and heroes: ‘Dimitrios, Peters, Kenton, Latimer, Deltchev – I own up to all of them!’

But at some point it seems that the many different Amblers that had accumulated behind his mask fell out with each other. He found it hard to decide which was the real one. There was the famous novelist; there was also the Hollywood scriptwriter, the ambitious genius from the suburbs, the decent Englishman, the political subversive, the bon viveur. What he says about his fictional characters possibly provides a key to his own temperament.

‘I tried to have people who were convincing. I didn’t find myself convincing.’

A danger with this habit was that, privately, he found it difficult to say who he was. Professionally he had an outstanding application to his career – if only, at times, he could decide what that career was. His postwar story is a long battle with this problem. He spent two decades in the film business, writing for Rank and then for MGM in Hollywood. With his knack of being able to talk a story from almost nothing into a coherent whole, he was convincing. There was an Oscar nomination for his screenplay of The Cruel Sea. He had more than a dozen other  script credits. But after fertilizing the sacred cow, each time he found the return to writing novels appallingly difficult.

In 1951 he produced his first book for eleven years. In psychoanalysis and, as he thought, temporarily written out, ‘I was very scared of producing a dud with Judgment on Deltchev.’ But the difficulty was elsewhere. He was a perfectionist and, every time he sat down, he turned away from what had been done before. In fact Deltchev is a great book: a courtroom drama based on the show trial of the Bulgarian politician Petkov, and a vivid, meticulously athentic study in duplicity and the collapse of idealism. It’s no wonder that it was misread by Cold Warriors, who embraced it, and disgusted Communist fellow-travellers alike. When I mention that he was not interested in standard conflicts, and that this is perhaps an expression of a personal evasiveness, he stares fixedly.

‘Does anybody like to be pinned down?’ he asks. ‘I don’t really believe in protestations of honesty and trust.’

After his house burnt down in Hollywood, he lost everything, all his manuscripts and possessions. Full of hate, he still found characters to operate for him – anti-heroes like the petty thief and pimp Arthur Abdel Simpson (The Light of Day, filmed as Topkapi) and the failed suicide Piet Maas (A Kind of Anger) – and new varieties of plot to develop his emotions into enjoyable entertainments. If the thriller is an allegory that finds the elbow room to tell a moral tale in code, Ambler is entitled to more of our attention now than he got in the Sixties and Seventies.

Those decades, his quitting Hollywood in 1970 and moving to a flat in Switzerland on that lakeside of celebrity hideaways between Vevey and Montreux, produced another half-dozen novels (Dirty Story, The Intercom Conspiracy, The Levanter, Doctor Frigo, Send No More Roses). All of them bore the imprint of his gift for the psychology of fear, doubt and vanity. But there was a literary parallel with the Twenties and Thirties. This time it was the humble thriller rather than the Conradian novel that had lost its authority. Between the growing solipsism of literary novels and the sensation-filled, highly intelligent, spritually dead Cold War-period thriller, in which – to borrow Garham Greene’s joyous phrase in res Virginia Woolf – ‘cardboard symbols wandered through a world that was paper-thin’, there was little room for the thriller about an ordinary bloke any more, or his creator. These days, to this reader, sated on modern fiction that doesn’t know or care for any rules, the books read as astonishingly fresh and original.

Ambler was occasionally tempted, but never wrote a êseriousë novel. Serious means to him solemn. The distinction, he says, is made by people who prefer to consider the novel as art and novelists as artists. ‘I’ve just realised that everything I’m saying is in terms of storytelling, not the business of real novels. Thatës what Iëm about – I think.’

He does tire easily, and towards the end of the conversation his sentences slow. But he is still interested. In a sudden moment of ironic bleakness, he stops, then bounces back.

‘Literary? Oh no! I regard that as a pejorative term. Literary for me is writer’s courses, niceties of literary criticism. I read David Lodge’s book on criticism, I found it slightly infuriating, also mystifying – I don’t understand what they’re on about. They’re not on about enjoyment.’

In Judgment on Deltchev I remember the narrator, Foster, interviewing the saintly unapproachable Madame Deltchev behind her high walls – walls built traditionally to offer small worlds of illusion that did not allow the Ottoman Empire to enter in. He asks her: ‘Isn’t it dangerous to deny the street?’

‘For my children, yes. For me, no,’ she answers.

It seemed a prescient reply from Ambler’s hand. He works every day behind the walls of Bryanston Square. He is impatient at his frailty and age, but he recently started work on a novel. This is important news. It will be his first novel for fiteen years: he expects to finish it this year. He is satisfied to be writing a new book.

I was worried that I had disturbed his peace for too long.

‘No, no. But now I am pledged to silence for a week.’

On leaving him, the streets of the capital seemed sharper; even the word ‘capital’ had an Ambleresque connotation, of economics, of banks, embassies, corporate headquarters. In fact the sensation was prolonged: I was due at the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington, where a special general meeting had been called to discuss whether Shell should be discarded as one of the Society’s sponsors after allegations of environmental damage and involvement in the events in Nigeria leading to the death of Ogoni activists, including Ken Saro-Wiwa.

The vote went the expected way, in Shell’s favour. But a variation of Ambler’s remark about good and bad business stuck with me. Whatever the kindness of its heart, a company in Shell’s position in Nigeria, I felt certain, had desired the end by the most cost-efficient means.

A week after our meeting The Times ran a piece headed ‘Shell shines’, citing the company’s achievement in coming top of a survey of shareholder value of British companies. As I read it, I thought I could hear Ambler speaking again about economics, in his best sceptical-ironic tone.

‘Oh yes,’ he had said. ‘You can change the government by voting them out. But you never change the mind-set of the institutions.’

Conrad is dead. But Ambler lives.


© Julian Evans 1997

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